A Summer Tale

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“No one can find Ranger Jack. He’s disappeared!” The whispered gossip ripped through the park-like a wildfire. The occupants of each campsite bustled to pack and leave this cursed lake before they became victims of the famed folklore, as well.

Searchers arrived at daybreak when Ranger Jack failed to check in at his regular time. The authorities combed every campsite thoroughly before their departure questioning the campers about what they heard or saw.

A Summer Tale - Georgia-State-ParksIdentical answers all around. No one saw or heard anything. Most left in a hurry, leaving things behind in their haste.

The story at every camp was the same. Ranger Jack always checked in every evening making his rounds and enforcing the regulations.

A few told authorities they watched him disappear into the night to check on the others and some said they paid him no attention at all. One couple reported noises around midnight. Most wanted no part of the interrogation.

This curious lake, ringed by the unusual cypress trees, was a source of mystery and folk lore. People flocked to the area testing survival skills and to experience the eerie Spanish moss dripping from the trees, and the mist rising at dusk to obscure the water. It also attracted the more adventurous; those who believed the stories handed down over the years, determined to find its secrets.

Ranger Jack knew the stories but never believed them. A park ranger for over twenty years, he prided himself on his wisdom and knowledge of this area. A stocky man, he projected self-assurance, a certain arrogance, and pranced around his domain like the lord of a fiefdom. Warnings were issued to him to be more cautious and not take the tales too lightly. He chose to ignore them.

The tale of a monster lurking deep in the woods managed to stay alive over the years. Sightings and so-called encounters now became established folk lore legend. Yellow eyes gleaming from deep in the forest, a long, scaly tail, rustling through the underbrush, all reported to Ranger Jack who scoffed at their vivid imaginations.

“It’s the typical night sounds you’ve been hearing. The yellow eyes are nothing but a lonely coyote who’s more scared of you than you are of him. Total hogwash.”

The frightened campers, however, usually left in a hurry never to return.

This summer the attendance dwindled to an all-time low. More campsites stood empty than in previous seasons. Tales of the folk lore monster spread throughout the countryside and many people decided not to take their chances at this beautiful, mystical lake.

Ranger Jack remained stubbornly defiant about the alleged monster. In all his years, he never glimpsed those yellow eyes or heard the slithering tail, even once. Nevertheless, he marched from campsite to campsite each evening to assure the patrons he was on watch and would keep them safe, pistol at the ready.

This was his domain. He ruled it with an iron hand and expected the campers to obey the rules to the letter.

No music after 10:00 o’clock.  Lights must be kept at a minimum when night fell. No campfires left burning after 11:00 o’clock.

Yes, Ranger Jack was vigilant, but he made one fatal mistake.

*

Only a few courageous souls had ever entered the deep forest a couple of miles from the lake. What they saw fueled the imaginations of the tourists who showed up in droves. Postcards depicted the eerie pictures of the so-called monster; plastic toys in the monster’s image dotted the shelves. The legend grew.

Until—a team of four men trying to get pictures of the famed beast vanished, never to be found. The park remained closed for a time. Years passed until Ranger Jack petitioned to have it reopened.

The petition was granted only because of Jack’s military background. His training made him the perfect candidate to oversee the park and make it safe for tourists and campers.

The stories of the four missing men faded and that, too, became local folklore. Once again, tourists returned, the campsites filled, and Jack was at the peak of happiness.

Unfortunately, in recent months, the sightings began again threatening Jack’s livelihood. He would have none of it. At every mention of the creature, he immediately squelched the stories, chalking it up to fantasy and over active imaginations. A cavalier attitude emerged; a jaunty, superior, and most defiant persona transformed the man from the steady, watchful Ranger he once was into a careless egotistical daredevil.

“There’s nothing in those woods. I’ll prove it!” he challenged the campers. He walked off into the night, straight into the dark wooded area where the sightings most often took place.

Frightened, the vacationers watched anxiously until his triumphant return. Despite his valiant efforts, the shaken patrons packed up and left.

More stories circulated through the town and tourism in the community dropped to an all-time low.

*

Days of searching yielded no body, no sign of Ranger Jack. The park looked abandoned, almost ghostly after the search ended. The powers-that-be took no interest in re-opening the park. It looked as though the days of Ranger Jack and the legend of the yellow-eyed monster were over.

Jack’s friends held a makeshift memorial, said their farewells, and left his memory to the wilderness he loved.

*

No one cared to remember, no one roused interest to re-open the park. It looked as though the legend would die. An era was over.

But, legends have a way of living forever. Folklore rejuvenates itself with each generation. Ranger Jack and the slithering beast ignited excitement in one unlikely adventure seeker.

*

Three years after the unfortunate disappearance, a young man of nineteen ventured back into the park, although not through the conventional way. Permission was instantly denied by the authorities.

Silas Grey, a boy of sixteen when the incident happened, remained fascinated by the disappearance of Ranger Jack and the legend of the yellow-eyed beast. After the first year of college, he told his parents he wanted to travel for the summer. The exact destination he kept secret. He told them he and a couple of friends wanted to backpack in the Rockies.

 

The main entrance to the park was inaccessible, so he found another way in half way around the lake. The venture was a huge gamble. The chance the beast could find him, instead of the other way around, played in his mind over and over. The need to find out what happened to Ranger Jack was an obsession, however. Whatever the consequences, he wanted to see it through until he found the answers.

Silas couldn’t risk being seen, so he waited until the sun set, leaving the unkempt park draped in an almost gothic backdrop. Shadows took on frightening shapes and sizes in the dim light of a quarter moon. Nervous, but determined, he fought his way through the thick brush until he found the abandoned campground. Almost unrecognizable, it resembled a war zone. Overturned picnic tables, fallen trees, and overgrown vines showed the sad deterioration, even in the dark. Once a pristine, well-kept park, it now fell to the neglect of fear. The authorities forgot it rather than deal with their own trepidations.

Undaunted, Silas found a familiar patch where his family once enjoyed a weekend getaway. It was dark, overgrown, not at all what he remembered. With only a flashlight to guide him, he cleared a space and set up a small pup tent. Not willing to risk a fire, he settled for a can of cold beans, a couple of crackers, and a bottle of water.

Sleep was elusive for Silas. Admittedly, his nerves kept him awake at every sound, and there were many in the deep woods. Night sounds of nocturnal hunters, frogs croaking, bugs chirping. Every sound a possible threat. Many times through the night, he wondered if he’d made the right decision in not telling anyone where he’d gone. No time to worry about that, however, cell phone service was non-existent in the remote park.

Morning dawned with renewed determination. Once and for all, he was going to find out what happened to Ranger Jack and put to rest the existence of the beast of folk lore legend.

As much as he wanted to enjoy a hot breakfast and a stout cup of coffee, he decided, again, to forgo a fire. Although the daylight would disguise the light of the fire, the smoke might summon the wrong people and thwart his efforts.

After a meal of hardtack and water, Silas took the time to redistribute the debris around the camp before he struck out to find some answers. It wouldn’t do for someone to come across a fresh campsite, especially, the so-called beast. Better to err on the side of caution.

From memory, he knew the direction Ranger Jack took on the last day. He walked straight toward it.

No clear trail remained after three years of undergrowth running rampant; he picked his way through the brush to make a trail, and tried not to disturb the forest any more than necessary.

About a half a mile from the last campsite, Silas noticed markings he found unusual. Limbs had been pruned in an orderly fashion and led him along a sort of trail. The nubs were aged over, but it was clear a person had done the pruning. His first thought was of the searchers; maybe they marked their trail as they went along.

Another half a mile offered even more evidence that this part of the woods was altered by a human source. Sections of wire, half-rotten two-by-fours lay scattered here and there. Something strange had gone on here.

A half a mile more, and the strangest item yet appeared. A broken camera and the remnants of a tripod littered the makeshift trail. Silas found evidence of batteries, shattered light bulbs—yellow glass.

The site was destroyed, but he couldn’t determine if someone or something had done the damage. Maybe just the passing of time and weather caused the destruction.

Why were these things out here? Did Ranger Jack bring them here?

He pushed through, to get as far as he could before fading daylight forced him to stop. This was unchartered territory, now, and he was definitely on his own.

The trail still looked manmade, albeit overgrown. He tried to keep an eye out for any other clues, and his sharp attention was rewarded. A rusted, circular tin can caught his eye just off the trail. Inside was a tape, deteriorated beyond repair, but definitely a recording of something.

The picture became clear. Ranger Jack fabricated this folk lore beast. Yellow eyes, a swishing tail, monster sounds. All concocted. Why? To lure tourists or was it his ego, his need to be ‘the great protector’?

He relaxed a bit. No monster, he was thankful for that, but the question remained. What happened to Ranger Jack?

He needed an answer to complete this journey. No way was he going to return without solving the disappearance of the ranger. So, he pushed on.

By now, he saw the sun lowering in the sky; daylight would fade soon. He didn’t relish spending the night this deep in the woods, but fears were allayed to a degree now Ranger Jack’s tricks were revealed. Still, deep in the woods with wild animals, in the pitch dark made his heart race. No help for it, though. He was too far back to return before dark.

He found a spot, cleared a small area, and hunkered down. The tent gave him a sense of security, so he built a fire. Surely, no one could see the flickering firelight this deep in the woods, nor detect the smoke. He could have a hot meal.

When night fell, the fire was a welcome comfort, although the shadows cast in the trees made his imagination work over time. Tired from the day’s hiking and a hot meal in his stomach, he settled down to catch some much-needed shuteye.

Silas woke from a deep sleep to strange noises. A low growl and a swishing sound. He didn’t see anything through the wall of the tent because the fire had burned down to embers, so he waited and listened. His heart pounded, thinking he had only wakened from a dream. But, the sounds were real and getting closer.

He tensed, waiting, trying to figure out if it were a coyote or a bear.

And then it happened…two yellow orbs glared through the canvas of the tent and Silas stopped breathing.

The eyes looked directly at the tent, they didn’t move, didn’t blink. A swishing sound beat a steady rhythm, back and forth across the forest floor. A low growl put the finishing touches on the terror rising in his throat.

Frozen to the spot, he trembled. Ten minutes passed, and still, whatever was out there continued to stare at his tent.

Finally, the swishing sound stopped and the eyes retreated until they disappeared altogether.

In total darkness, Silas sat with both arms wrapped around his knees and rocked back and forth until morning dawned. He was not visited again, but he wasted no time running as fast as he could toward the park campsite. He left everything, the tent, the pack, all of it.

*

The trees and vines closed slowly around the makeshift camp swallowing all evidence of any human presence.

Silas never spoke of his adventure to anyone.

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