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By Carla Neggers
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved. ISBN: 1551666847
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.
She sighed. She'd won awards for her photography of raptors - she'd have loved to have had a good shot of the owl. On the other hand, she wasn't sure her digital camera was up to the task.
A loud boom shattered the silence of the isolated ravine.
Carine dropped flat to the ground, facedown, before she could absorb what the sound was.
Her camera had flown out of her hand and landed in the dried leaves two feet above her outstretched arm. Her day pack ground into her back. And her heart was pounding, her throat tight.
Damn, she thought. How close was that?
It had to be hunters. Not responsible hunters. Insane hunters - yahoos who didn't know what they were doing. Shooting that close to her. What were they thinking? Didn't they see her? She'd slipped a bright-orange vest over her fleece jacket. She knew it was deer-hunting season, but this was the first time a hunter had fired anywhere near her.
"Hey!" She lifted her head to yell but otherwise remained prone on the damp ground, in the decaying fallen leaves. "Knock it off! There's someone up here!"
As if in answer, three quick, earsplitting shots cracked over her head, whirring, almost whistling. One hit the oak tree a few yards to her right.
Were these guys total idiots?
She should have hiked in the White Mountain National Forest or one of the state parks where hunting was prohibited.
Just two yards to her left was a six-foot freestanding boulder. If these guys weren't going to stop shooting, she needed to take cover. Staying low, she picked up her camera then scrambled behind the boulder, ducking down, her back against the jagged granite. The ground was wetter here, and her knees and seat were already damp. Cold, wet conditions killed. More hikers in the White Mountains died of hypothermia than any other cause. It was what had killed her parents thirty years ago. They were caught in unexpected freezing rain and poor visibility. They fell. Injured, unable to move, unable to stay warm - they didn't stand a chance.
Excerpted from Cold Ridge by Carla Neggers Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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