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Five hours after she'd headed onto Sinclair land to check out sugar maples for tapping, Penelope Chestnut sank onto a granite boulder and admitted she was lost. The sun had sunk low in the sky, the temperature had already started to drop, she was down to the last of her water, and she didn't have the vaguest idea where she was. New Hampshire, in the woods above Lake Winnipesaukee, probably still on Sinclair land. More specifically than that, who knew?
Her parents were expecting her for Sunday dinner at six. If she didn't show up, they'd worry. Given her history, they'd worry all of ten minutes before calling out a search party. Dogs, snowmobiles, helicopters, men on snowshoes with flashlights. They'd all join in the hunt. Not one would be a stranger. And not one wouldn't be just a little pissed at her for taking them out on a chilly March night.
It was galling. She'd rather spend the night in the woods. She could make a little fire, boil snow if she couldn't find a stream, survive quite nicely until daylight. With the clouds pushing out, the temperature would drop overnight. Not that she mindedthe cold nights and above-freezing days of early March made the sap run. Her current predicament notwithstanding, Penelope was an accomplished hiker. She wouldn't freeze.
Maple-sugaring season was what had ostensibly brought her onto Sinclair land in the first place. A tiny corner of their vast tract of central New Hampshire wilderness abutted the ten acres she'd inherited from her grandfather, and she'd wanted a few more maples to tap. So she'd set off for an hour survey, with anorak, gloves, a hip pack of water, a Granny Smith apple and two Nutri-Grain bars. One thing had led to anotherthrough a clearing, up a hill, over a stone wall, across a streamand pretty soon she was sitting on a rock in the middle of nowhere.
All because she didn't pay attention. She'd spotted a woodpecker fluttering among the hemlock, an osprey nest high in a tall half-dead pine, followed the sound of a waterfall newly formed by the melting snow, thought about tea and warm scones with her cousin Harriet tomorrow afternoon, when she would return from ferrying two businessmen to Portland, Maine. Provided her father let her carry passengers. He didn't like the way she'd been flying lately. A wandering mind was a dangerous thing on foot in the wilds of northern New England, but in the air, it could be fatal.
Which, Penelope decided, didn't bear thinking about while she was lost in the woods with dusk encroaching.
She had hoped to find something on top of the hill to orient her. A view of the lake, a stream, a stone wall, smoke curling from the chimney of a nearby house, something. But below her was just another steep, narrow, dry ravine. There were no landmarks. No promise of a way out. She had to go down this hill and up the next and just keep hoping for the best.
"I need another Nutri-Grain bar," she said aloud in the stillness and silence that seemed to envelope her. But she'd consumed her last one an hour and several over-hill-and-over-dales ago.
She blinked back fatigue and the eye strain that came with hours on snow-covered hills without sunglasses. She hadn't brought a compass, either. Or her wilderness medical kit. If she tripped and fell, she'd just have to lie there until someone found her. She'd tried following her trail in the snow, but it wasn't good snow for tracks, and the two times she did pick up her trail, she found herself back where she'd started. So she'd given up, figuring that even if she could follow her tracks, there were five hours worth of them. They wouldn't exactly provide the shortest, most straightforward route home. And she figured she had no more than ninety minutes of daylight left.
She was doomed. A search party was inevitable.
The sun poked through gray clouds that had been hanging over the lakes region for three days and were due to move out tonight. Everyone's mood seemed to have suffered because of them, including her own. Heading into the woods by herself had seemed like a damned good idea five hours ago.
She scooted to the edge of her boulder and looked at the steep, tree-covered, rock-strewn hill. The going certainly wasn't getting any easier. It was a north-facing hill, still encased in snow and ice, with small patches of wet, slippery leaves where the snow and ice had melted in circles around trees and rocks. She was sweating from temperatures in the upper forties, exertion, frustration. She'd worn none of her specially designed hiking clothes, just jeans and an anorak over a red plaid flannel shirt she'd been maple sugaring in since she was seventeen.
"Might as well get on with it," she muttered, the silence and stillness almost eerie.
She lowered herself off her boulder, and her foot slipped on a patch of wet, brown leaves. She caught herself before going down on her butt, her heart rate jumping at the close call. A broken ankle and hypothermia were just what she needed. She scooped up a handful of snow and stuffed it down her back. It melted instantly on her overheated skin, cooling her, soothing her. There were worse things than having her parents call out another search party on her. She just needed to stay focused and make their job as short and simple as possible.
She wished she'd brought her cell phone. Flares. Even a book of matches would be welcome.
The sun glinted off something down the steep hillside, drawing her eye to her right. Her heart skipped. Now what? She edged down a few steps, trying to get a better view through the pine, hemlock and naked birches and oak. She squinted, wondering if the sun had just caught a rock with a lot of mica at the right angle.
No, there was something there.
Penelope took another couple of steps to her right. The snow was wet and slippery on the steep hillside, and getting a good purchase in her day hikers wasn't that easy. She grabbed the thin trunk of a birch for balance and leaned over as far as she could for a better look.
Metal for sure, a lot of it, in a compact heap amidst the tumble of rocks and half a dozen pine trees. In summer, ferns and brush would leaf out and make the pile even harder to spot. If not for the sun striking a bit of metal at just the right moment, Penelope would have gone past it even at the end of winter with the landscape at its starkest.
And for the sun to glint off it, it wasn't completely rusted, and that meant it was aluminum. She held her breath. No.
The frame of Frannie Beaudine and Colt Sinclair's Piper Cub J-3 was aluminum tubing. Its fabric covering would have rotted away by now, forty-five years after it had disappeared in the skies above Cold Spring, New Hampshire, last seen by a half-dozen locals out on the clear, chilly night. Penelope wouldn't expect to find much more than a crumpled heap of struts and trusses, rusted engine, bits of wing and tail assembly, whatever hadn't succumbed to the crash and decades of exposure to the harsh weather of northern New England.
But she hadn't expected to find Colt and Frannie's plane here. According to her own pet theory, they'd faked a crash in New Hampshire and made it to Canada. Whether they'd crashed there or were living happily ever after was open to question.
Except it wasn't anymore. This had to be Colt and Frannie's long-missing Piper Cub. Penelope suddenly shivered as she stared at the wreckage. What else could it be?
A leap of the imagination, brought on by fatigue, low blood sugar, her own fascination with the ill-fated flight of the two lovers. Even as a kid, she would wander the woods with one eye searching for a downed Piper Cub. Later, she'd started collecting informationnewspaper and magazine articles on the weeks-long search, headed by Willard Sinclair himself, then articles on the Sinclair Collection and Frannie's role in pulling it together, turning it into a magnificent, coherent whole instead of a mishmash of stuff generations of Sinclairs had picked up on their various expeditions. In the past year, Penelope had started interviewing local residents who remembered Frannie Beaudine as a little girl and a young woman, who had known the Sinclairs from their years of mountain climbing, fishing, hunting and boating in the lakes region. The men were all Dartmouth alumni. Colt was barely a year out of Dartmouth when he disappeared.
The intensive, exhaustive search for the missing plane had turned up nothing, not one clue beyond the separate, positive sightings of it in the sky over Cold Spring. It was possible it wasn't Colt's Piper Cub J-3but who else's could it have been? When the news came out of New York that he, his plane and Frannie Beaudine were missing, the search was mounted, focusing on the New Hampshire lakes region.
After a while, people stopped looking. If the plane turned up, it turned up. Most believed if it was in New Hampshire at all, it was at the bottom of a deep part of one of its many lakes. Sections of Winnipesaukee, a clear, glacial lake, were ninety feet deepnobody could see that far down. If the plane was ever to be found, whether in water or on land, it would have to be by accident.
In the forty-five years since Colt and Frannie had disappeared, not one Sinclair had set foot in Cold Spring.
Except for Harriet, of course. Penelope grimaced in anticipation of her cousin's reaction to what she'd just found. But Harriet was another matter. Penelope couldn't concentrate on scoping out plane wreckage, finding her way out of the wilderness and the oddities of Harriet Chestnut.
She squinted at the heap of metal. It was unquestionably a plane. Anyone in New Hampshire would be thinking just what she was thinkingthis was the spot where Colt Sinclair and Frannie Beaudine had gone down.
From her position, Penelope couldn't make an educated guess about what had happened to the plane, why or how it had crashed into the steep hillside. She imagined the Piper Cub coming in low on that dark night, in trouble, possibly clipping trees before slamming into the hill. Colt and Frannie saying their goodbyes, guessing their fate. Penelope wasn't a romantic, but the image of the two young lovers plunging to their deaths brought tears to her eyes.
Her pulse pounded in her ears, and she didn't move as she absorbed the impact of what she had stumbled upon. To get to the wreckage, she would have to climb over icy rocks and big boulders, fallen trees and limbs, patches of slippery leaves covered in thin, clear ice and rough, snow-covered, nearly vertical ground. It would take time she didn't have, and it would involve risks she didn't need to take. Given that Frannie and Colt's plane had lain here for forty-five years without being discovered, Penelope didn't like the odds of what would happen to her if she fell and couldn't get up again.
Not that anyone in Cold Spring would appreciate her reining herself in. Being lost in the woods at dusk was enough for them to assume she was back to her old tricks, taking unnecessary risks, not thinking, not considering who might have to strap on snowshoes to come fetch her on a cold, dark night.
She frowned, preferring not to think about past transgressions. She was thirty, after all, not twelve. She hadn't been this lost in years.
Naked deciduous trees stood outlined in sharp relief against the gray sky, every twig sharp and clear and black. Soon pinks and lavenders would streak across the horizon, and they'd seem so bright and vibrant against the grays and whites of the late winter landscape.
Darkness would fall rapidly, and the temperature would plummet.
She had to get back. Tearing her gaze from the wreckage, she crawled over another boulder, then carefully made her way through young trees and stick-like brush, through more wet, dense sugar snownot the light and fluffy snow of Januaryto the bottom of the steep, narrow ravine. There was no stream, there were no trails, no stone walls, no hunter's lookoutsthere was no reason for anyone to have stumbled on the wreckage in the past forty or so years.
Colt and Frannie's bodies.
Penelope came to a sudden halt, imagining the skeletal remains of the two lovers above her on the hill. This wasn't merely the solution to a forty-five-year-old mystery. It was a tragedy. Two people had died up there.
She shook off the morbid thought and started up the opposite hill, her legs aching, her stomach begging for a Nutri-Grain bar. She needed home, food, water and rest. Then she'd figure out what to do about Colt and Frannie and their Piper Cub.
A twigsomethingsnapped, and she stopped. Went still. Listened.
Had she heard anything? A squirrel, birds prancing in the branches of a nearby tree? She couldn't be sure.
Her voice seemed to go nowhere in the quiet, still, late afternoon air. Maybe she'd heard a deer or a moose, even a bear venturing out of hibernation.
Yep. Best to get on home.
Her water-soaked socks squished inside her day hikers. No blisters yet. She was lucky. She hadn't bothered with boots or snowshoes, never imagining she'd end up lost. A little lost was one thing. That she could manage. But she was a lot lost.
Then, there in front of her, at her feet, was a melting trail of footprints. Not moose or deer or even bear, but human prints. And not her own. They were big. Probably male. She pivoted and stared toward the opposite hill, unable to make out the wreckage from her position. The snow, the gray rocks, the gray trees, the gray sky. The heap of plane tubing was gone, as if it had been a mirage.
The footprints ran down the hill to the left of the way she'd come, weaving among maple and oak and hemlock, even, unhurried. They had to be relatively fresh prints. The warm temperatures had barely melted them, and the last snow had been just two days ago, four inches that freshened the landscape and heartened the skiers who loved to see March stay a lion for as long as possible.
But who could have ventured out here, possibly have seen the wreckage and not mentioned it?
Of course. He would have no interest in a lost plane.
Penelope could feel some of the tension ease out of her. She wasn't afraid of Bubba. He was the town hermit, a recluse who had a shanty on the edge of Sinclair landtechnically on Sinclair land, but no one had made an issue of it in the twenty years since he'd set up housekeeping there.
"Bubba!" she called, her voice dying in the ravine. There was no echo. "Bubba, it's me, Penelope Chestnut!"