Dale’s axe bit deep into the wood, but it was nothing for him to wrench the blade free and to finish the big rimu off with three more swift, solid strikes. Dale was a big lad, arms like the tree trunks he felled, day after day. There was no-one in Moonlight quicker, surer, or stronger with an axe.
So when he heard the scrape of what he figured were boots on roots, he raised his axe and peered into the darkening forest. It was getting on in the day, the sun now moping in the grey clouds just above the hills. Just the right time for those thieving Campbells to come sniffing around his timber.
This time, if he got his hands on one of the Campbell boys, he’d split the bugger’s head like a round of wood. They’d been bludging off his hard work for too long now. The Campbell account was well due for a reckoning.
Another scrape, this time to his right, accompanied by a rustle of undergrowth disturbed. Then nothing. Nothing at all, for that‘s when Dale realised that the birds had fallen silent. A few moments before, the evening chorus had been loud enough that he’d have had to shout over it to be heard by another man. Someone was out there, and the birds knew it.
He stood as still as his thumping heart would let him, held his breath, and listened.
There it was again, louder, closer, that scraping, and this time a rattle, like a baby’s wooden toy. Dale knew the forest, knew its sounds. Whatever that was, it didn’t belong in the forest, not his forest. But then he'd felt a growing suspicion of that same forest since the Swain twins went missing a few weeks back. Then old Mick Jordan. After Betty McPherson, that’s when the rumours started and people began to hug the town like piglets suckling at a sow.
Not Dale, though. The bush was his home, his livelihood. No ghost story was going to drive him out.
He glanced over his shoulder, at his hut some three hundred yards away, but then quashed the thought of running for it. He was no runner. Too big and slow for that. So stand and fight it would have to be. Who knows, this very night, Dale could uncover himself the mystery of the missing Moonlighters. Might even get himself on the front of the Invergrey Times. The thought made him feel a little better, a little stronger as he adjusted his grip on the axe handle and took a step towards the trees.
The forest responded, parting its arms to embrace Dale and to disgorge the nightmare it had harboured for so long. Not since he was a baby had Dale screamed. Not since he was a child had he felt such utter, unfathomable terror. He strike out with his axe, wildly, blindly. The blade struck something as hard and unyielding as iron, and the handle shattered in his hands, impaling skin and flesh in a hundred places with splinter after jagged splinter.
The horror before him raised itself to its full height, towering over the big man like an adult over a toddler. Dale’s second scream didn’t escape his throat. It drowned in Dale’s own blood.