Home > Stranger Ranger (Park Ranger #2)(9)

Stranger Ranger (Park Ranger #2)(9)
Author: Daisy Prescott

I feel the urge to say amen to this list. Feels appropriate given my current location.

“Amen,” I whisper.

“Amen,” a male voice echoes.

Holding my breath for a beat, I freeze as I strain to hear footsteps or other movement. There’s nothing but the faint chirp of crickets and the wind brushing through the gaps in the clapboards.

Behind me, a floorboard squeaks, or maybe the door creaks on its hinges. I can’t be sure. My head spins around faster than a doll possessed by the devil himself, but there’s nothing in the empty room.

Dust dances in the triangle of sunlight brightening the old floorboards where the door is wedged slightly ajar. I swear I closed it behind me when I entered; it’s habit after the time Oscar the donkey wandered inside and scared the bejeezus out of me.

No sign of man or beast.

It’s possible I imagined the second amen, or it may have been a previously undetected echo. I test this theory.

“Amen,” I say, louder than the first time.

Silence.

Perhaps the wind blew the door open and my brain translated the sound into a word. There are other possible explanations involving the voice of God or angels. Those are silly, particularly given my pseudo-prayer was more a shopping list for a man—hardly the subject matter to warrant an in-person visit from the holy.

Although I might need a miracle to help my romantic life.

“Only the wind,” I declare, standing and brushing the dust from the pew off my pants.

 

 

Beyond the heavy wooden door, the sounds of the world return, loud against the silence within the chapel. Birdsong repeats through trees and a breeze rattles the first fallen leaves of autumn, distance muffling the white noise of a small waterfall. Inhaling, I try to decipher the scents of the upcoming change in seasons. Warm earth. Harvest. Rain. The return of cool, misty mornings.

I’ve only been here a few months, but I feel more at home than I have in a lot of my other jobs. Right out of college, I got a seasonal gig at the Grand Canyon. Not as a ranger. I worked in the gift shop and laughed at the same joke about a big hole in the ground over and over every day for an entire summer.

Turns out, there are a lot of things in the desert that want to kill us. Dying from venomous creatures is one thing, but even the plants are hostile to humans. Openly, aggressive, with sharp spines ready to draw blood at the slightest touch—nope, not interested. Beyond the reptiles and plants, the sun itself is deadly. It is entirely possible to be scorched to death.

Yes, there are dangers in the Smokies, too, yet something in these foggy valleys resonates with me. Standing in the thick, humid air, I lift my gaze to the mountains across the valley

Movement at the tree line catches my attention. In the shadows between the thick trunks, a large, dark shape slips in and out of the dappled light. A bear? Too low to the ground and the gait isn’t right, not even for a cub.

“Boar,” I whisper.

I know there are wild hogs in the park, but I’ve never seen one with my own eyes. They tend to be nocturnal and avoid populated areas. If it’s prowling around in the middle of the afternoon, it might have rabies or swine flu, or some other porcine ailment affecting its behavior. In other words, this is not good.

I press the button on my radio, ready to call in a report.

One of the shadows among the trees takes on the shape of a man … a tall, lean man. Facing the sun, I lift my hand to my forehead to shade my eyes. Where the man shadow stood is empty sunlight.

Obviously, my mind is playing tricks on me. The boar has disappeared too—if it was a boar at all. Probably nothing more than the play of shadow and light.

Static crackles near my ear, indicating my radio is still on and waiting. I release my finger. There’s no imminent threat or emergency. No need to alert anyone about a shadow.

After double-checking that the door to the church is locked, I make the short walk back to my official vehicle. The drive from the chapel to headquarters is less than half an hour and I’ll have plenty of time to report the possible sighting to the team before leading the evening nature talk.

 

 

Chapter Six

 

 

Daphne

 

 

After our quarterly meeting with the federal game warden, Dr. Runous, I find myself in the lounge with his brother-in-law Cletus Winston. I don’t quite know what to make of the guy, but he seems friendly enough. Could be the baked goods. Sometimes he shows up with donuts from Daisy’s Nut House or muffins from his wife’s bakery, along with a thermos of his special coffee.

Curious, I sniff the mug of dark brew, an unexpected sourness prickling my nostrils. “Is it spiked?”

“No,” Cletus declares with a huff. “Why would I put alcohol in your coffee?”

“The question you should be answering is why would anyone put apple cider vinegar and molasses in a cup of perfectly adequate coffee?” Jay removes the beverage from my grasp and sets it on the table.

“You sound backed up.” Cletus apprises him with narrowed eyes, as if Jay were one of those plastic models of a human where you can lift off the skin and then remove muscles and bones to reveal the major organs.

X-ray vision doesn't exist outside of fiction, and even Cletus Winston isn't an exception to this rule.

“Are you going to let someone else decide for you what you like and don't like?” His eyes dance with judgment the way some people have kindness shining in theirs. The man has judgy eyes.

“No, I make up my own mind.” I wrinkle my nose at the thought of vinegar, molasses and coffee. Acidic, metallic, and bitter is not my favorite flavor combination.

“Don't knock something until you try it,” he tells me, continuing with his challenge. It isn’t exactly a dare, but he's definitely not backing down. “Some people hate mushrooms while others are willing to spend exorbitant sums on a sliver of an exotic fungi. One man's fungus is another man's joy, or pizza topping.” He emphasizes his insouciance with a shoulder shrug.

Along with the beard and the baked goods, I suspect the gesture is a practiced part of his persona. There’s more to the man than he lets people see. He’s a closed book, kind of like me. I think Odin Hill might be the same.

“You don't have to drink it.” Jay reminds me.

I eye the steaming liquid that began this discussion on free will and personal preferences. There are a lot of the old-time recipes in Appalachia that are back in vogue. Apple cider vinegar is probably the most popular but molasses does contain a ton of vitamins and iron. He might be onto something.

Griffin strolls into the room, taking one look at Cletus and another at the cup in my hand before he shakes his head. “Don’t drink that.”

“Why is everyone acting like I’m trying to poison them?” Clearly offended, Cletus crosses his thick arms and widens his stance.

“Drinking Cletus's ‘coffee’”—Jay puts air quotes around the word—“is a rite of passage around here.”

“Hazing is more like it.” Griffin gives the mug back to Cletus. “What brings you to the station?”

With a disgruntled sigh, he pours the liquid back into his old-fashioned thermos. “Ranger Baum said she recently had a wild boar sighting near one of the old churches. I was curious if there had been more.”

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