Chapter 1: Deer Camp
A rifle shot shattered the stillness of the frozen New Hampshire woods. The bullet slamming into an ancient pine tree, sent bark flying in all directions; couching behind the tree Rick O’Neil caught the bark squarely in the face.
The shock of the bark hitting him caused Rick to lose his balance and tumble down the side of the snow covered gully. Sliding and twisting he landed in a cloud of snow at the bottom. Dazed he managed to crawl behind a large rock. Taking several deep breaths, Rick gingerly touched his face and as near as he could tell the bark had not caused any real damage.
Pulling his hands away he looked at his bloody fingers exclaiming, “Feels like I got stung by a thousand angry wasps! But, I guess I’ll live, at least for a few minutes longer.”
Rick knew the shooter was still up there and very quickly would be at the top of the gully taking aim on his defenseless body. As if to hammer home the point, a shout reverberated through the trees.
“You were lucky that time old man, but your luck is about to run out. Either I kill you or you will freeze to death. I promise you a quick death, one shot to the head and its over, that’s a lot better than slowly turning into an ice cube.”
Rick could not argue the point. According to the last weather report, it was supposed to drop to twenty degrees below zero in North Conway and up here in the mountains the temperature would probably hit twenty-five or thirty below. This area of New Hampshire with its granite peaked mountains, countless ravines and deep pinewoods could be as barren as the surface of the Moon to the inexperienced hiker. Even in the summer while tourists were sipping cold beer at one of North Conway’s restaurants, others were hiking through a sudden snowstorm on top of Mount Washington. Signs posted at trailheads carried a warning: “Beyond this point many have lost their lives. If you are not in good physical condition and properly equipped turn back!” Dressed as he was in a light parka, driving gloves and running shoes his chances of surviving a subzero night in the White Mountains of Northern New Hampshire was slim and none, and as his old buddy Ted Troutman would say, “And Slim just rode out of town”. Thinking of Ted brought a slight smile to Rick’s battered face. Not just, because the fun loving Ted was always quick with a joke, but because Rick suddenly realized that the tumble down the hill had put him closer to Ted’s cabin and safety.
Unknown to the shooter Rick had a couple of things going for him that more than gave him a better chance at surviving than your average sixty-two year old. For one thing, Rick was in great shape. Years of competitive running and Iron Man contests had honed his body to a fine edge. Some of his friends felt Rick was obsessed with running and physical fitness. When pressed about his relentless training Rick always replied, “Running keeps me one step ahead of my demons.” These demons had pursued Rick ever since he came back from Viet Nam and although the years had slowed them down some, Rick knew they were still there waiting to pounce on him and tear apart his carefully constructed life.
However, demons were not his biggest concern. It was the need for shelter. Because of his training, Rick knew without a doubt that he could easily run to Ted’s camp with hardly breaking a sweat. Rick also knew these woods like the back of his hand. He and Ted had spent more than forty years hunting and fishing in these mountains. So right now, despite what his pursuer thought, he had a good chance of staying alive.
Realizing that he had to move or die, Rick got up and crouching low ran as fast as the dimming light and rough terrain would allow. Rick knew that following the gulley downhill would take him to an old logging road. The road would lead him to a private road and the shelter of Ted’s old camp. It was four in the afternoon and already it was getting dark. Still, several shots rang out and at least a couple bullets whizzed by his head as Rick moved from the safety of the boulder.
“Okay old man, have it your way,” yelled the shooter. “Personally, I hope you freeze to death.”
Rick’s antagonist was Gino Pizzuto, hired by Anthony (Tony) Marchesi, a wealthy Florida businessman who Rick recently had exposed as a criminal and killer. Marchesi publically proclaimed his innocence, claiming that Rick was someone he barely knew in Vietnam. Marchesi was saying that he did not understand why Rick was making these accusations, his spokesperson strongly speculated that Rick was suffering from PTSD and was trying to blackmail the wealthy Marchesi for money.
Privately Anthony Marchesi wanted Rick and Rick’s best friend Ted Troutman dead and was doing everything possible to eliminate them. Now with Marchesi’s hired killer chasing Rick into the woods in subzero temperatures it would be easy to make it look like Rick got lost and froze to death. If that did not work, a bullet in the head was a good second option.
After ten minutes of pushing his way through the underbrush, Rick found himself on the logging road. The Town of Jackson listed the road as an unimproved town road. This meant that the town kept ownership of the road, but did nothing to improve and /or repair it. Because of this the road was little more than a trail and anyone attempting to drive into the woods on this so called road had better be driving a four wheel drive with a winch in the front and a chain saw in the back.
However, come winter this rough and bumpy road became a super highway for snowmobilers. Running from Laconia on Lake Winnipesaukee, the snowmobile trail was really a network of old roads that went all the way to the Canadian Border. On any winter weekend, this trail was in constant use. As a result, instead of pounding through deep snow Rick was standing on hard packed snow making traveling by foot as easy as walking down a sidewalk. The hardened snow made his footprints impossible to see giving him another edge over his pursuer.
Rick O’Neil figured he was about twenty minutes from Ted’s camp and taking a deep breath began moving quickly but cautiously down the trail. “Old man huh?” O’Neil panted, “I’ll show him what this Old Man can do.”
As his breath and pulse steadied and his training kicked in O’Neil’s anger turned into a grim determination to not only survive, but to extract every bit of revenge he could on Marchesi. As he continued his jog up the road, a plan began to form in his head. “It could work,” Rick thought. “Hell it has to work!” He spat aloud.
Twenty minutes later Rick entered a small clearing and there, outlined in the fading light was Ted’s cabin. Now to anyone else this ramshackled, snow covered camp look as if it had been neglected for years and was about to fall down. However, to Rick O’Neil, Ted’s cabin meant refuge from the cold and a chance at surviving and even going on the offensive against those committed to silencing him and the secret that had haunted Rick all these years.
Brushing the snow off the steps, Rick reached underneath the top step and felt the key hanging from the hook, right where Ted had left it on the last day of deer camp two months ago. Ted had many friends who used the cabin and rather than giving everyone a key, Ted kept one hidden under the steps. All Ted asked of anyone using the camp was to restock the wood supply, leave a good bottle of Kentucky Bourbon, preferably Wild Turkey and to put the key back where you found it. Ted figured the more people using the cabin the better his supply of whiskey.
Although the cabin looked rough on the outside, inside was another matter. The interior of the cabin was cozy and comfortable with a couch, a couple of recliners and two overstuffed chairs, all the furniture coming from friends and families who donated their old furniture whenever they remodeled.
Behind the living room was the sleeping area with two bunk beds. Forming an ‘L’ shape area across the front of the cabin was a well-equipped kitchen. A steel locker stood in the corner filled with enough dried pasta, rice, beans and coffee to keep four people alive for a month.
During deer season, it could get crowded with six to eight guys sharing the small cabin. However, the friends had known each other for years and although they told the same jokes and stories every year they all enjoyed each other’s company. Nobody wanted to miss spending at least the first weekend at camp. That was when Ted put together his famous deer camp feast. Ted never told anyone what was on the menu, but every year he would outdo himself and leave everyone overstuffed and contented. Only a death in the family was considered an acceptable excuse to miss one of Ted’s deer camp suppers. Like season tickets at a football game, the waiting list was a long one. One friend even showed up days after undergoing heart surgery rather than risk losing his place at the table.
O’Neil unlocked the door and stepped inside. Once inside he turned, reached up with his right hand and took down the flashlight hanging beside the door. Turning it on Rick walked into the living area. Grabbing hold of one end of the couch, he swung it out into the room. Lowering the couch, he lifted the small rug that was under it revealing a trapdoor. Lifting the door exposed a metal box with a combination lock. Rick knew the combination by heart and quickly unlocked the padlock and opened the box. Inside was Ted’s old service Colt 1911 with two magazines of nine rounds each.
At Ted’s suggestion, Rick had put the 9mm pistol Ted had issued him as a deputy sheriff in his glove compartment. However, in his haste to get away from Marchesi, Rick had forgotten the pistol. He picked up the Colt and feeling its heft gave Rick a comforting familiar feeling.
Next to the 45 was Rick’s Ka Bar and a set of keys. Rick picked up the Colt, inserted a magazine, pulled the slide back and chambered a round. He slipped the other magazine into his pocket and tucked the big knife under his belt; Rick then closed the box and replaced the rug and couch.
Walking into the bunkroom Rick quickly located his metal locker between the two bunk beds. Rick and Ted had rescued the lockers from the back of the high school two years ago when the school switched from full-length lockers to small lockers about the size of a breadbox. At the time Ted complained to the school board that it was a waste of tax payers money to replace perfectly good lockers with crappy little tin boxes that wouldn’t hold a ball cap and a couple of books, forcing the students to wear their coats and carry all their books . The school board responded that they needed the extra room for a resource center and told Ted to stick to being the Sheriff and let them run the school. Instead, Ted bought the entire lot of lockers, partly to spite the school board and partly to help his favorite organization.
“Well at least we’re giving these old lockers a new life,” said Ted as he, Rick and a few friends loaded all six hundred lockers onto a flatbed truck and hauled them to the back lot next to the police station where the following Saturday, Ted had auctioned them off and donated the proceeds to the town’s youth program. At the time, Rick and several of Ted’s associates had suggested that maybe Ted was planning to run for mayor, to which Ted had replied, “Nah, it’s more fun being a pain in the board’s backside.”
Ted did not worry about re-election; he was very popular with the locals, keeping a lid on the partying that was always going on in a town like North Conway. The Conway region with its many ski areas, mountains, lakes, and rivers attracted thousands of tourists every year. Many of the people who came to the White Mountains were families, but it was also a magnet for singles looking for a good time. Except for a couple of months a year, the bars and clubs in and around Conway were always hopping with fun-loving young people. Ted had a reputation as a good cop and solving a high profile killing a few years ago and recently spearheading a major drug bust only added to his reputation.
Opening one of the lockers Rick reached inside and pulled out his old Savage 12 gauge pump shotgun. From the top shelf, he removed a box of 12 gauge shells, which contain a mix of Double 0 Buckshot and Deer Slugs. The Double 0 Buckshot could blast through the heavy underbrush and the 8 oz. slug would stop a deer in its tracks. The other guys used rifles with scopes and kidded Rick on his choice of a weapon, but Rick didn’t care the shotgun was passed down to him by his Dad, plus it did double duty as a great bird and rabbit gun as well as a deer gun. After a couple of hunting seasons where Rick easily out produced his critics, the jokes ended and a couple of guys even switched over to shotguns.
Rick knew that at close range his shotgun and Colt would give him the firepower he needed. He quickly loaded the shotgun alternating buckshot and then a slug. Next Rick opened the other locker and pulled out his sleeping bag and black wool watch cap. Putting on the hat, he tucked the shotgun under his arm and carried the sleeping bag over to one of the recliners. Dropping the bag in the recliner, he slid the heavy chair across the room putting it at an angle to the door. Next O’Neil opened a large storage chest and took out two pillows and an old olive drab wool army blanket. He placed the pillows in the other recliner and wrapped the blanket around them. Rick hoped it looked like a body was sleeping in the chair. Rick then moved the chair so that it was in a direct line with the door. With any luck, Pizzuto would kick open the door, see the chair and assume it was Rick, giving Rick time to take him out.
Grabbing some empty beer cans from a wastebasket Rick built a small pyramid against the door. When Pizzuto opened the door, he would set off the “beer can alarm” waking Rick and giving him a few precious seconds more to react.
Bone weary from both the physical and mental strain of the last few hours, Rick opened up the sleeping bag, stepped inside and sat down in the recliner. He pulled the bag up to his shoulders and positioned the hat over his ears. Rick thought about starting a fire, but knew the smell of smoke would give him away and Rick saw no sense in giving his would-be killer any advantage.
“Rather a little uncomfortable and alive than a warm corps,” he thought. Slipping the 45 into his waistband, he laid the shotgun across his knees. “Guess that’s all I can do for now,” Rick said aloud. “I hope it’s enough. Now to get some sleep.” Even though the temperature in the cabin continued to drop, the thick down filled sleeping bag kept him warm enough. After a few minutes the events of the day caught up to Rick and he began nodding off to sleep.
As O’Neil drifted off his last thoughts were of long ago and four young men struggling to stay alive in a war none of them understood.