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«Cold Ridge», Carla Neggers

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The first book in the U.S. Marshall series, 2003

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

A very special thank-you to Merline Lovelace, a retired air force colonel, a terrific writer and friend, and to Monty Fleck, an air force pararescueman (PJ), for answering my many questions about the air force and pararescue. I'm also grateful to Monty, R. B. Gustavson, Patty Otto and Dr. Carla Patton for sharing their medical expertise with me, and to Lynn Camp for her insight into nature photography. Thanks also to Lieutenant Kevin Burns, Nancy Geary, Robyn and Jim Carr, my brother Jeffrey Neggers-and to my teenage son, Zack Jewell, for his technical know-how.

Finally, I'd like to thank the incredible team at MIRA Books-Amy Moore-Benson, Dianne Moggy, Tania Charzewski and all the rest of the "gang"- as well as my tireless agent, Meg Ruley, and my talented Webmaster, Sally Shoeneweiss, for all your hard work on my behalf.

Enjoy!

Carla Neggers

P.O. Box 826 Quechee, Vermont 05059

To Fran Garfunkel

 

Prologue

Carine Winter loaded her day pack with hiking essentials and her new digital camera and headed into the woods, a rolling tract of land northeast of town that had once been dairy farms. She didn't go up the ridge. It was a bright, clear November day in the valley with little wind and highs in the fifties, but on Cold Ridge, the temperature had dipped below freezing, wind gusts were up to fifty miles an hour and its exposed, knife-edged granite backbone was already covered in snow and ice.

Her parents had hiked Cold Ridge in November and died up there when she was three. Thirty years ago that week, but Carine still remembered.

Gus, her uncle, had been a member of the search party that found his older brother and sister-in-law. He was just twenty himself, not a year home from Vietnam, but he'd taken on the responsibility of raising Carine and her older brother and sister. Antonia was just five at the time, Nate seven.

Yes, Carine thought as she climbed over a stone wall, she remembered so much of those terrible days, although she had been too young to really understand what had happened. Gus had taken her and her brother and sister up the ridge the spring after the tragedy. Cold Ridge loomed over their northern New Hampshire valley and their small hometown of the same name. Gus said they couldn't be afraid of it. His brother had been a firefighter, his sister-in-law a biology teacher, both avid hikers. They weren't reckless or inexperienced. People in the valley still talked about their deaths. Never mind that weather reports were now more accurate, hiking clothes and equipment more high-tech-if Cold Ridge could kill Harry and Jill Winter, it could kill anyone.

Carine waited until she was deep into the woods before she took out her digital camera. She wasn't yet sure she liked it. But she wouldn't be able to concentrate on any serious photography today. Her mind kept drifting back to fleeting memories, half-formed images of her parents, anything she could grasp.

Gus, who'd become one of the most respected outfitters and guides in the White Mountains, would object to her hiking alone. It was the one risk she allowed herself to take, the one safety rule she allowed herself to break.

She'd climbed all forty-eight peaks in the White Mountains over four thousand feet. Seven were over five thousand feet: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, Madison, Lafayette and Lincoln. At 6288 feet, Mt. Washington was the highest, and the most famous, notorious for its extreme conditions, some of the worst in the world. At any time of the year, hikers could find themselves facing hurricane-force winds on its bald granite summit-Carine had herself. Because of the conditions the treeline was lower in the White Mountains than out west, generally at around 4500 feet.

It was said the Abenakis considered the tall peaks sacred and never climbed them. Carine didn't know if that was true, but she could believe it.

Most of the main Cold Ridge trail was above four thousand feet, exposing hikers to above-treeline conditions for a longer period than if they just went up and down a single peak.

But today, Carine was content with her mixed hardwood forest of former farmland. Gus had warned her to stay away from Bobby Poulet, a survivalist who had a homestead on a few acres on the northeast edge of the woods. He was a legendary crank who'd threatened to shoot anyone who stepped foot on his property.

She took pictures of rocks and burgundy-colored oak leaves, water trickling over rocks in a narrow stream, a hemlock, a fallen, rotting elm and an abandoned hunting shack with a crooked metal chimney. The land was owned by a lumber company that, fortunately, had a laissez-faire attitude toward hikers.

She almost missed the owl.

It was a huge barred owl, as still as a stone sculpture, its neutral coloring blending in with the mostly gray November landscape as it perched on a branch high in a naked beech tree.

Before Carine could raise her camera, the owl swooped off its branch and flapped up over the low ridge above her, out of sight.


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