“Okay, okay.” I accept the plastic two-liter bottle signifying my turn to tell a story. I need to think about it, size up my audience a bit. I close my eyes and go ‘round the fire:
Beth – who I have always wanted to go to bed with – is to my right. I want to startle her. Give her the chance to reach out to me instead of George, her boyfriend and an acquaintance of mine for nearly twenty years.
Todd was next, a friend of Holly. Yeah, she’ll be the most frightened if I tell the story right. She said that Todd was just along for the ride because he had the pot.
Directly opposite is an empty rock where Noah had been, but he was out gathering wood for the fire. We’ve been friends almost as long as I’ve known George.
Janice, Noah’s wife. A true stick in the mud.
Carla is next to her and always game for a good story. She’ll heighten the mood at the right time.
Mike is off to my left. He’s sullen tonight and drinking too much.
On my left is Willow, my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. This trip had been planned for a while, and I don’t want to break up with her before I’d given our relationship – if you could call it that – one last chance.
“Are you finally ready, o master storyteller?” Todd is trying to be funny and already high as a kite. His pot is pretty good, and everyone except Janice and Willow have taken a toke.
“Yeah,” I say, opening my eyes. “This -” I hold out my hands over the fire and draw them apart, “- state park we’re in has a long history and there are lots of things out in the woods that’ll take you to hell in a heartbeat if you’re unwary. But there’s nothing more terrifying than -” I wait for effect, “The Death Ranger.”
“Good lord,” Willow says and rolls her eyes. The fire crackles and sparks shoot upward. I ignore her. Carla claps her hands.
Todd waggles his fingers. “Sounds cool,” he says. “Hit us with it.”
“The Death Ranger haunts this park,” I say with mock seriousness, “because he died here.”
George leans in and stirs the coals, sending up more orange fireflys. “Of course.”
I continue, “No one can remember his name because it was over a hundred years ago that he died,” I say, “but everyone remembers why he died.
“There were men in the woods just over there,” I say and point behind Holly, “stealing trees when the land deal for the park was being negotiated with the original owners. There was a dispute with a local logger who claimed the land was his by right of being here first. He cut down so many trees so fast that he made his fortune in under a year.”
“Was he clear cutting or something?”Mike takes a swig of his Jack and looks into the fire.
“Something like that. Anyway, the Ranger was working for the state already and came out to try and scare the logging crew off. He knew talking wouldn’t do any good because they were hopelessly uneducated and their logic wouldn’t be swayed, so he played on their superstitions.”
Janice looked around and leaned back, searching the darkness. “Where’s Noah?”
“He’s okay,” I say.
“Yeah,” Carla says. “He just looking for firewood. He’s fine.”
“Or maybe the Death Ranger got him,” Todd says. He snorts a laugh.
Willow says, “Should we go look for him?”
“He’s fine,” I say and pat Willow on the thigh. She has nice legs. “The Ranger did things like make spooky sounds in the night while the sawmen slept in their impromptu camp, left dead animal carcasses in their wagons and scrawled cryptic messages in blood for them to find when they woke.
“It worked, too,” I say. “All but one of the sawmen quit. All but the biggest bastard of all of them, Prescott Sturbridge.”
“He sounds like some high society dink,” Mike says. “Not a rough and tumble logger.”
“I didn’t pick his name,” I say. “Anyway, Sturbridge works through the next day after his crew quit and does all right for one man. He even continues to work after dark sawing and chopping on the biggest tree in the area.”
“Jeez,” Beth says, “no wonder they were trying to conserve the park. How did he see at night?”
I click my tongue and point at her. “He couldn’t. He didn’t care. He wasn’t afraid of blood or dead animals, so he kept cutting on this enormous tree.
“About an hour after sunset, right about this time, in fact,” I lower my voice a little so that everyone has to lean in to hear me, “Sturbridge heard the tree trunk crack and he felt it move. It was ready to fall.”
There is a thunk just beyond the light of the fire and everyone turns to look, but none of us can see anything. I go on.
“What Sturbridge didn’t know was that the Ranger was watching him and getting ready to arrest him for stealing lumber. Suddenly, the tree tips and cracks, and it’s falling. Remember this is the biggest tree in the woods here at that time and they’ve pretty well cleared an area where it can fall right to the ground.”
“Oh no,” Holly says. “Tell me it doesn’t land on him.”
“It does,” I say with emphasis on the last word. “It does and the Ranger is crushed. Now he haunts the woods bringing his vengeance on anyone who’s stealing wood.”
Noah comes into the light carrying an armload of logs but he’s stumbling. There’s a dark line across his forehead and another that’s dribbled down his temple.
“Uh,” he says and falls over his rock, spilling the logs and scattering the fire.
Janice shouts, Holly screams and Beth grabs for me instead of George. Mike watches the whole thing and tips his bottle back. Carla shouts, “Look!” and Willow screams, too.
There’s an axe sticking out of Noah’s back and Janice is reaching for him, but Carla pulls her back. Todd is freaking out and muttering something incomprehensible.
No one else notices the sound of a large tree cracking, the horrible sound of wood separating from wood and the groan that intensifies as the cracking sound gets louder. I look back where Noah came from and there is a figure silhouetted against the night sky, wearing a flat-brimmed ranger’s hat.
Branches are breaking and there’s a shadow over us all.