“Old Man Withers was a nasty piece of work. During the war he shot soldiers from both sides that set foot on his property, and he was famous for feeding ground-up glass to neighborhood dogs. The only thing that rotten Old Man Withers loved was chestnuts, fire-roasted, from his trees out back. They say he fertilized the trees with the bodies of trespassers.”

Howard emphasized each scene with a shadow puppet from the campfire’s light.

“But there was nobody to help him when Old Man Withers choked on a chestnut. Some people said they could hear him bargaining with the Devil with his final gasping breaths. They buried him in his own backyard. But wouldn’t you know it, one day a chestnut tree sprouted from Old Man Withers’ grave. They say that the tree has all the rotten old coot’s meanness pent up in it; more than that, it started gathering up the meanest souls that shuffled off in Royal County, maybe as part of some deal with Old Scratch himself.”

The assembled scouts drew closer.

“And when it was about as tall as a man, that mean old chestnut tree up and vanished. They say it walks these woods still, in the shape of a man, taking the souls of every man, woman, and child it meets. Any of you wonder how I know this?”


Howard had turned away from the scouts to cast more shadows; he slipped on the bark mask that had been hidden in the bedroll.