The tents were up, the campfire lit. We drew nearer to the flames to hear Akela, the heat roasting our fronts as our backs froze in the chill mountain air.
He made his voice soft, so we listened all the harder.
“This is the story of Ol’ Ranger Joe” he said. “And the terrible things that happened right here where Joe lived. And where he died. And where, some say, he walks still.”
An excited gasp rippling around the group
“Now Joe looked after the campgrounds hereabouts. Got from place to place on his old rusty bicycle”
On cue, from the darkness, the repetitive creak of a squeaky wheel turning, turning…
“They say it was the loneliness that did it. Up here alone for so long. Why, it would be enough to send anyone crazy. But Ol’ Joe? He really went for it.
“One hot summer night, like tonight, Joe had a group of lads camping on one of his pitches. Maybe not this exact one, but near as like. He sneaked off to his cabin in the woods…”
Crunch, crunch footsteps on gravel
“Sharpened his axe…”
Grind, grind, scrape
“...and crept back to the campsite, opening the tents one by one…
Soft, soft steps
“ ...and CHOP!”
A dull, wet thud
“He murdered every boy, leaving their bloodied corpses strewn around the site. Every boy...except one.
“Jack Brady played dead until Joe’s bloodlust was slaked and he headed back to his cabin on his tired old feet. Jack grabbed Joe’s bike and raced ahead, stringing a guy rope between two trees over the stile he knew Joe would cross to get home.
“Joe, in a madman’s rush, ran into the trap and fell, breaking his neck. Jack was saved!”
SNAP! A branch cracked, echoing in the hush
“But no-one knew that Jack was alone up here with the bodies of his friends. Stranded, poor Jack lost his mind, just like Ol’ Joe.
“When the rescue party finally came they found that nearly all the bodies were savaged and torn and bore small, human toothmarks.
“As for Jack? His body was never found. They say he and Joe walk these campsites together still, looking for fresh flesh to feast upon”
A huge crash and a rabid fearsome roar
Baloo, Akela’s assistant, burst into the clearing brandishing an axe, salivating and howling like a madman at the moon.
After the screams and excitement died down we were ushered to bed, still talking excitedly about Ol’ Joe. Michael Callaghan swore he saw a figure watching from the trees. A delicious thrill coursed down my spine at the thought.
We climbed, chattering, into our sleeping bags until one by one the other boys fell asleep and only I lay awake. I imagined Jack’s last lonely moments as madness descended.
I imagined him cold and alone, his mind eaten away, his body wasted and suddenly the story wasn’t exciting; it was devastating. Had he suffered before his mind was too broken to realise what was happening?
The slow crunch of teeth on metal, the fresh coolness of air in a stifling tent
Slowly, in pitch darkness, the zip of the tent begin to rise...