Vermont, United States.
Saturday 3rd October 1970
6.30 a.m. The traffic westbound on Interstate 89 was dense and slow. Susan Ryder shook her head. “This is a pain, Tommy. Let’s take the back roads and enjoy the colors. Take pictures.”
Her husband smiled. “Sure. We’re in no hurry. But first thing, breakfast. Find a place to eat. I’m hungry.”
“The Stowe turnoff’s coming up; I’ll take it.”
“Yeah, do that. After breakfast, do a little shopping. Take lunch there.”
“Now you’re talking,” he said. “Head home tomorrow. Take a room in the Green Mountain Inn. Tonight we’ll drink a few of those great Long Island Iced Teas they do at the Whip Bar. Could be I’ll tie one on.”
“But first the colors,” she said.
“First breakfast and then the colors.”
She smiled. “Of course.” She steered onto the exit ramp and turned north toward Stowe. Two miles along the route a weather-beaten sign invited:
Mom’s Café and Pancake House
Best Pancakes in Vermont
Straight Ahead One Mile
An old clapboard, New England style building, dark red with a forest-green steel roof, the restaurant sat back from the road in a grove of pine trees.
“Breakfast at Mom’s,” Susan said as she turned in, found space by the door and parked the truck.
They found a vacant table by a corner window. A pony-tailed, teenage girl handed them menus and poured coffee into their cups. “Our special today is pancakes with Canadian blueberries,” she said. “We have a batch just in from New Brunswick; really good.”
“Bring it on,” said Tommy. “With butter and maple syrup and orange juice.”
“I’ll have the same,” Susan said.
The waitress wrote it down and slipped away.
The service was fast. Within eight minutes, their order was at their table. Tommy downed his juice and loaded soft butter and syrup onto the cakes. “Makes my mouth water,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time I ate pancakes.”
“It was last month when my Mom paid a visit,” Susan reminded him. “I bought Aunt Jemima Pancake mix.”
“I remember. We had no maple syrup; we used honey instead, right?”
“Aunt Jemima’s are good. But you can’t beat the real homemade stuff. Like these, they’re really hitting the spot,”
“You take far too much butter, Tommy. It’s bad for the heart.”
“I’ll chance it. We always took Aunt Jemima camping; easy to pack along. The best place for pancakes is by an early morning campfire with the smoke and smell of the woods. I used to think about those camping days in Nam.”
“Why don’t we camp before the cold weather comes? Fall’s a great camping time. Get the kids to join us.”
“Good idea, Sue. We’ll discuss it in Stowe. Make plans.”
Breakfast over, they paid at the cash and went outside. Tommy paused by the long bulk of a mud-stained Pontiac GTO parked close by them. In black, with magnesium wheels, fat section tires and two exhaust pipes the girth of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s neck, it oozed power. He peered through the window, but the deep tint was too dark to allow interior observation. “Bucket seats I’ll bet,” he said. “And no doubt four on the floor with a Hurst shifter; right up my street. Just needs a good wash.”
She climbed behind the wheel of their old GM truck and started the motor. He got in beside her. “I love those muscle cars,” he said. “When the business takes off, I’ll have me one.”
“Maybe. I like the new Dodge Challenger R/T 440 Magnum. But not in black.”
“Oh, midnight blue. Either that or red or even British Racing Green.”
“I want one of those little Toyota hatchbacks.”
He laughed. “A little shopping cart.”
“I suppose. But they’re so cute; easy to drive and park. Economical too.” She reversed out and rolled off the parking lot.
He took out his camera from its bag. “Follow the side roads up to the viewpoints,” he said.
“We’ll also get lovely shots around the Trapp Family Lodge.”
Seeing a viewpoint sign she steered off. The road climbed through dense woods. After fifteen minutes, they crested a rise and drove into the viewpoint and parked. A tour bus had spilled out a crowd of Japanese tourists wielding cameras, filming each other against the landscape.
Watching them, Tommy chuckled. “Those Japanese,” he said. “Every autumn, thousands of them fly over here just to see the fall colors in New England and Quebec.”
He set up a tripod by the protective wall and mounted the camera for his wife. He lit a cigarette and gazed out at the panorama. Below the wall, the land fell away in a steep-sided couloir that flattened out into a valley. In the far distance the rugged peaks of the Green Mountain Range flamed with the dying leaves of autumn; red to ochre, intermingled with the evergreen of pine, spruce, and cedars. A warm wind raced by carrying the rich smells of the forest. Susan took photographs. “It’s so damn beautiful,” she said.
“Isn’t it. Colors to die for.”
“And great with that wind?”
“It’s Indian summer.”
“Be cold soon.”
“As kids we used to come up here, hiking the trails and fishing the small lakes,” he said. “In winter we would snowshoe. I couldn’t do it now.”
“If you got back in shape you could.”
“Lose weight, Tommy. Buy a bike, take exercise.”
“Yeah, I should.”
“And cut that damned smoking out.”
“That’s another legacy of Vietnam. Everybody smoked out there.”
“You’re home now; quitting time.”
“Yeah, I will.” He swept an arm toward the mountains. “Nam was never like this.”
“No fall there?”
“Not like here. The Asian jungle is a different ecosystem. Some loved it, but I never cared for it. I’m a northern forest boy.”
“Sit on the wall, honey.” She lifted the camera off the tripod. He got on the wall and faced her, cigarette hanging from his lips.
She laughed. “You look like Steve McQueen with your hair, smoking that damn cigarette.” With the sun behind them, she took pictures. She went to him, placed her arms around him. They gazed in silence at the beauty of it. “Fall, just has to be my favorite season,” she said.
“I dreamed of all this in Vietnam. I even missed the snow and ice of winter.”
“We’ll have all the snow you can handle, soon.”
“I’ll need some new winter clothes.”
“I’m so glad you’re home again. And not going back.”
He kissed her cheek. “Yeah, it feels good. I’m lucky. Lucky to be home, alive and in one piece.”
She looked at him, expression serious. “I still worry about that money, Tommy. I keep thinking about it.”
“Well don’t. It’s safe in that offshore account. Only you and I know of it. It’ll finance the business and put us on easy street. Stop worrying.” He hugged her.
“I hope your right.”
“I am right.” He turned as the uneven beat of a powerful V8 motor split the silence and the black GTO Pontiac he’d seen in the car park came over the crest. The car paused by the viewpoint then headed away, exhaust booming. Tommy watched it disappear uphill. “Let’s head for Stowe,” he said.
In the truck, he opened a map. “If I recall right, we’ll find some big old maple stands by small lakes close by here.”
He looked up at the road ahead. “Take the next road on the left. It’s an old logging road.”
“It won’t be asphalt then?”
“Not sure. But we have four-wheel drive and good tires.”
She took the turn. With a surface of well-packed gravel, the road was wide and followed the contours of the terrain through the forest. The truck’s tires hummed pleasantly over the grit. They passed a log cabin; old, deserted and decaying, surrounded by unkempt vegetation, its doors and windows missing and roof broken in.
“A family home at one time,” she said.
“A long, long time ago,” he laughed. “Up ahead, there’s a lake on the right,” he said. “We’ll stop there and get good shots. I seem to remember this place. I think I came here when….” With a deep growl, the black GTO Pontiac came alongside.
“Well, well,” Tommy muttered.
“Do you think they’re lost?” Susan lowered her window and offered a smile and a wave of her hand. In response, the car surged forward and arced across the truck’s path, front wheels skidding, tearing up grass along the road shoulder and stopped, its long bulk blocking the truck’s path.
“Wow,” Susan gasped, braking hard. “What the hell is he playing at?”
“He’s not playing,” Tommy said. He opened the utility box and withdrew a gun from its holster; a long-barreled Colt .45 single action revolver. A Wild West Peacemaker, made in 1873 and sixty years old when it came into his grandfather’s possession. It was in perfect working order. He checked the load; five rounds.
“Tommy, please.” She seized his arm. “Tommy, don’t. Please don’t.”
Pushing her arm away he opened the door. “Lock the doors. Take his number.”
“Lock the doors, Sue.” Stepping out he stood sideways, cocked the Colt’s hammer and held the weapon hidden along his right thigh. Sue engaged the door-locks.
His eyes focused on the Pontiac that sat still, engine throbbing. A cat and mouse game. But who’s the cat? And who’s the mouse? Come on, fucker, show your hand.
Then it happened. The front passenger door swung open and a small figure in black rushed out in a crouch. But it was the full-faced balaclava and the semi-automatic pistol that galvanized Ryder. Assuming the Weaver stance, he raised the Colt, sighted and fired, hitting the man square in the chest and knocking him down against the front wheel. Hit him again. Hauling back the hammer, his finger coiled around the trigger, he paused, examining the man. The eyes don’t blink. He’s one dead dude. Ryder moved to the truck’s front, back against the radiator grille; his attention focused on the car’s open door.
Upholstered in black, it was dim inside the car, but he could see the chrome gear shift and he smiled; it was a Hurst.
His eyes moved forward. Alert for movement inside, he failed to see the fallen man’s gun arm rise. The pistol barked. The shot was good, taking Ryder in the left lung and knocking him back against the truck. “Christ,” he said, as the pain burned through him. Taking careful aim with the Colt, he shot the man in the head and watched him die.
The Pontiac’s motor revved up with a boom. The car reversed, wheels spinning, and with the smell of tortured rubber, it roared forward and raced away, throwing up a wake of sand and gravel, its open passenger door swinging. Ryder sighted, fired and had the pleasure of seeing the rear window shatter. He fired once more at the fleeing car and heard the bullet’s slap on metal. Susan got out and came beside him. A trained nurse, she pulled him down in the shoulder grass, tore open his shirt and examined the wound. She wiped and covered it with a hand towel. “It’s bad, Tommy. We need medics. Lie still and don’t move. I’m going for help.”
“OK,” he said. “Hurry.”
About to leave, her ear caught the sound of music; Patsy Cline singing I Fall to Pieces. A truck rolled into view around the turn ahead. Susan waved her arm. The vehicle slowed, stopped and the music died. The driver got out and raced over. “What happened?”
“My husband’s been shot. He's hurt bad. We need a doctor, an ambulance,” she said.
The man jerked a radiotelephone off his belt and jabbed it with a finger. “Jerry, it’s Andy; an emergency call. Need medical help, ambulance, and police; a man has a gunshot wound. I’m on the old Paul Mason Road, a mile east of the covered bridge by Loon Lake, approaching Johann’s Crossing. Yes. As quick as you can, buddy.” He put away the phone. “They’re on their way,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said. She knelt beside her husband and held his hand.
Andy, walked over to the man in the balaclava and crouched over him. “This one is well dead,” he said.
“Good,” she said. She began to cry.