By Chris Upson

Steve Carter looked over his binoculars at the trees west of Blacktop Mountain Ranger Watchtower Five. As he gazed out from his perch above the forest, his mind wandered.

It's so peaceful today, he thought, no hassle from the other rangers; camping season hasn't begun yet; hunting season just over. I could really enjoy my life if it was like this all the time.

His hands tightened on the binoculars as he thought about the things some of the older rangers had done when he first joined the service out of college.

Memories of the snipe hunt his trainer, Ed Simmons, and a couple of other rangers took him on his first night off, niggled at his mind. That was when Ed first started calling him 'Sparky' despite his request against it. It was one of the most embarrassing moments he could recall.

One of these days, he thought, I'll get even with them. He brushed his hand over his close-cropped red hair and then shrugged. Yeah, right.

Steve's musings were interrupted by a protracted crashing noise northeast of the watchtower. He jerked around and watched a huge yellow-white gash rip through the forest. Branches, dirt and debris flew in a rooster tail behind whatever was crashing there.

He raised his binoculars for a better look and began walking toward the opposite wall of windows. En route, he stumbled into his desk chair and the binoculars jabbed against his eyes. His knee stung where it had rammed the chair. A foul phrase popped into his head as the pain brought tears to his eyes. He managed to contain the curse.

"Oh, wow, that hurts." He rubbed his knee with one hand and his eyes with the other as the binoculars dangled from his neck by their strap. He kicked the rolling chair back toward the desk.

He brought the binoculars back up and winced when he got them up to his eyes. Holding them slightly away, he walked carefully forward.

Whatever it is, guess I'll have to go up there and see. Better see if they had anything on the radar.

He went to the radio and clicked it off 'monitor' to 'send', "Blacktop Station from Watchtower Five, over."

"That you, Sparky?"


"Sure thing, Sparky. How're the snipes?" Ed laughed at his own joke. Steve gritted his teeth.

"Ed, shut up and listen. I need to report an airplane, or something, crashed on the southwest slope of Blacktop Two. Over."

"Or something? What the hell does that mean, Sparky?"

"It means that I can't tell from here what it was. I'm presuming it was an airplane, but technically, I don't know, okay? Did you have anything on radar?"

A pause. "Nope, nothing on radar."

"I'll have to go out and look, then." Steve checked the gash area, again, "No sign of fire. Over."

"Okay, Sparky. Keep in touch. And watch out for snipes." Several voices joined Ed's laughter.

Steve stared at the radio and wished he could think of a snappy rejoinder. Their jokes got on his nerves sometimes and Ed was the worst of the lot. As usual, nothing came to mind.

"Ten-four. Tower Five out."

"Base out." Steve snapped off the receiver.

Will they never give up? Probably not. He grabbed a walkie-talkie from the charging station and his rifle and clattered down the stairs to the waiting jeep.

He roared away and up the service road. It wasn't long before he was surrounded by the giant trees and thick underbrush of the park. The steady roar of the jeep engine echoed back at him.


Twenty minutes later, Steve was near the site. On the way, he'd encountered downed branches and even had to move a small tree from the road. The whatever had made quite a mess coming in. Finally, he noticed crashing and thudding noises over the sound of the jeep.

Sounds like a herd of elephants doing the 'Stomp,' he thought. Might be a transport that crashed, maybe one carrying animals.

He slowed the jeep and looked into the trees. Brilliant green flashed back at him through the deciduous and pine trees. Green that was not leaves. The sharp tang of pine resin and fresh-cut wood came to him.

He parked the jeep and radioed in, "At the site. It's about thirty yards in. On foot from here. Whatever it is, it's brighter green than the trees and moving. Over."


He went twenty yards into the underbrush, moving as quietly as he could. Not that he could be heard over the noise ahead. Still, he thought, best be careful.

A broad wall of green shifted ahead and fine pinpoints of sunlight glittered at Steve. It reminded him of the sun glancing off fish scales when he had a real fighter. Steve stopped. Scales? He called in.

"Hey, you guys ever hear of something big, green, alive, and maybe scaly?"

"Snipe, Sparky, get it into the bag, quick." Laughter rolled over the airwaves.

"C'mon, guys," he fought to keep a whine of frustration out of his voice, "cut the stuff. I'm not kidding."

He could hear them laughing over the walkie-talkie. He felt his face burn with embarrassment. He knew what it sounded like. "Knock it off, you guys, I'm not kidding." They roared louder. He clicked off the walkie-talkie and rebelted it. This was getting nowhere. A musky odor wafted to his nose. Smells like a snake I used to have, he thought. He glanced at the ground. Timber rattlers were not unknown in this forest. Over all that racket, he wouldn't know a rattler was around until he stepped on it.

Before he took ten more steps, a shadow passed over him. He looked up. There was a huge, snakey neck with a head from nightmares above him. Steve gulped and closed his eyes. It can't be real. Not that. He looked again. It was still there, weaving around. Definitely not a timber rattler. Rather, the horned head and neck of an emerald green dragon.

He ducked under the boughs of a nearby pine and turned on the walkie-talkie. Laughter still rolled out of it. He clicked the button and whispered into it, "Look, I know you guys are going to have a real good time with this. That's okay, but would you please send a chopper up here to verify what I'm seeing? Don't ask why, just do it." The laughter stopped short.

"Sparky, you know we can't send those suckers out on a whim. Get back to work."

"Please. Send me a chopper. I've never played games on you before, have I? I don't even know how. Just do it, please?"

After a long pause, they relented. "Ten-four."

Steve edged out to where he could see up. The dragon's mouth hung open, panting from exertion, steam wisping from its nostrils. It hadn't moved as he talked to HQ, but now, began to thrash around again. Steve ducked as branches rained down under the sinewy neck.

The dragon roared.

The sound was horrendous. Steve clapped his hands over his ears and joined his walkie-talkie on the ground. The sound reverberated through his bones. Echoes rolled down the slope. After a while, he eased his hands from his ears. The dragon was grunting and thrashing around.

The whiff-whiff sound of the chopper came to Steve. He picked up his walkie-talkie as a sputtering sound came over it. Then....

"What the hell...?"

"Thought I was crazy or joking, didn't you?" Steve said. "What do you see?"

"I see a gawdamn dragon--I think."

"What a relief. What are we going to do about it?"

"What are we going to do about it? We are going to do nothing about it. What you do about is your problem."

"Me! What the he...heck am I going to do about this?"

"That's your problem. We're gone." And the whiff-whiff of the chopper began to fade.

"WAIT! You can't leave me like this. I don't know anything about dragons. What should I do?"

"Show a little initiative, Sparky. You'll never move up if you don't learn to make decisions. Let us know how it goes."

Before Steve could reply, the dragon pointed its nose into the air and roared again. Steve dropped the walkie-talkie and covered his ears. When he loosened his fingers, another sound reached his ears. The ominous crackle of flames. He scrambled out from under the pine tree and looked around. He grabbed up the walkie-talkie.

"Get the hell out here with fire equipment. This jerk dragon has ignited the forest and we're gonna be up to our asses in flames real quick. The wind's picking up and this forest is gonna be a goner." A foul word was the response.

Steve raced back to the jeep and broke out his fire equipment--a shovel, an axe and burlap bags like Ed had given him on that long-ago snipe hunt. Steve wet the bags from the fifty-gallon water drum kept in the jeep for that purpose. It would be impossible to stop the fire himself, but he could start digging out some of the underbrush and swat out some of the lesser flames with the wet bags.

Forty minutes of frantic digging, chopping, and swatting later, he was exhausted. He stopped to wipe sweat from his forehead and to turn his head from the smoke and flames to get a breath of fresher air. He was grateful as he turned to see other firefighters joining him with firebreak equipment, including a bulldozer that began clearing out some of the trees nearer the access road. They would have to hurry to beat the fire there, so Steve and the others fell back to the broad band of dirt the 'dozer was making and cleared out the underbrush as well as they could. The smoke and flames made a thick wall between the firefighters and the cause of the fire. As he worked, Steve wondered if a dragon could be roasted in its own fire? That'd solve the problem. Nah, never happen.

Two choppers dumped chemicals on the fire, which helped, but that wouldn't do the whole job. They worked on. A news chopper could occasionally be glimpsed through the trees and flames. Film vans began arriving.

Three hours and five drops from the choppers later, the fire was out. Steve turned to thank the others and ask their advice on the original problem. They were all staring, gape-mouthed, at the dragon which could be glimpsed through the smoke wafting about. They glanced at Steve, took firmer grips on their equipment and ran.

Steve looked at the beast, which had not only survived the fire, but wasn't even scorched. Not my problem. He sprinted for the jeep.

When he got there, he turned to see that the dragon had finally thrashed itself into an upright position on its four legs and was lifting its wings. Somehow, the wings didn't seem quite right for the body and head. It crossed Steve's mind that this might be a young dragon, just learning how to fly. God, he thought, if this is a young dragon, where're its parents? He groaned. A reporter stepped up to him with a microphone.

"Can you tell us what happened, Ranger?"

An idea occurred to him, "No, I can't, but you can ask Ranger Ed Simmons at Blacktop Base. He knows all about it." The reporter ran for his van, trailed by his cameraman.

Steve sat in the jeep and watched as the dragon began a majestic rise into the sky. For now, it seemed to have control of the awkward-looking wings.

Soon, Steve could only see a small, dark dot in the sky. Then, even that was gone. He drove back to the tower and go on the radio.

"All jokes aside, how the hell do you guys want to report this?" he asked.

"Report?" Ed came back, "Report what. Not a thing happened all day."

"How you gonna explain the big burned area," Steve asked facetiously, "not to mention men, equipment and chemicals used to put that sucker out?"



Off-mike at HQ, Steve heard the babble of voices calling questions to Ed about the dragon and fire.

Steve flipped the radio off and grinned. He pulled out the forms he needed and began filling out the report. When he got to the line for 'Cause of Fire,' he looked at it for a while, then wrote, "Lightning." From a clear blue sky.

The End

Copyright © 2002 by Chris Upson

Chris Upson was born and educated in Indiana and received her B.A. in Liberal Arts from Indiana University. She now lives in Tennessee. She has published a short story, "Why Monkeys Fly" in Yellow Bricks and Ruby Slippers, a Wizard of Oz Anthology from Daniel and Daniel Publishing and another short story in Wild Child Magazine. She is a member of "Critters Workshop."



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