The Visitors

by J.D. Puett

Time Breaks Sometimes
Chapter 1

Quietly and swiftly the canoe marked its early morning passing with an undulating seamless wake on the surface of the water. With no breeze the small lake was motionless except for the temporary trail left by the canoe. In the distance belted kingfishers and alder flycatchers darted above, and the cry of a bald eagle from a tree at lakeside occasionally pierced the morning stillness. It was late spring, and the bog laurel growing near the lakeshore was in full bloom. Yellow irises and a variety of grasses gave color and texture to the shorefront, and soon the cardinal flowers would add a brilliant red along the shore with the white blooms of the multitudinous water lilies giving the appearance of a woven patchwork floating on the surface of the dark water. The surrounding forest was proudly presenting new spring growth of its conifers and deciduous trees, and the abundant undergrowth appeared as a continuous carpet. Eastern hemlocks nearest the lakefront were dropping their lower branches into the water, giving the impression from a distance of a hula skirt-clad Hawaiian dancer emerging from the lake. Hanging over the water like a transparent veil, the early morning mist hinted of the previous cool evening. Soon after rising, but still hidden by the trees, the rays of the morning sun pierced through openings in the branches and projected onto the still water a faint shadow of the lone figure in the canoe. He was moving in the direction of the creek that, along with many springs, continually fed the lake. Careful of protruding rocks and tree stumps that could damage his old, but prized, canoe, he paddled as if he had a destination, but, as on most other such outings, he was simply enjoying the beauty and solitude with no particular goal in mind.

As usual, the man had awakened early and listened to the cacophony of birdsong and insects before emerging from his cot in the one-room log cabin that had been his home for over five years. Since completing his tours in Iraq and later Afghanistan, his initial years out of service were at times worse than the constant fear of death while in uniform. He often wondered if his many service buddies who did not make it home alive were the fortunate ones, but mornings like the one he was now experiencing always served to remind him that he was the lucky one, chosen solely by chance from a long list of who will live and who will die. Sadly, many of the survivors spent their remaining years in a state of limbo with brains that functioned poorly or with bodies lacking arms or legs, or, for some, in a state of paralysis.

His wartime experiences had shattered what little faith he had ever held in the goodness of man, and he came to his surroundings in the northeast with the realization that for his own preservation he must become as self-sufficient as possible. The lake and forest provided most of his food, this being supplemented with some basics obtained by bartering and a small garden plot he made in a clearing.

He was attracted to the large one-room cabin with a screened front porch that had both a small wood-burning stove in the middle space and a fireplace on one wall, either of which could be used for heating the cabin or for cooking. The wall containing the fireplace also had a sizable built-in closet with shelves and space for hanging clothes and in the corner a chest for storage. A portion of one wall contained counter space that could be used for food preparation, and the remainder of the wall was covered floor-to-ceiling with bookcases. Tucked against another wall was a wooden bed frame with box springs and a thin mattress. A small table with two single-person benches served well for eating and reading, with ample space for writing daily in his combined diary and nature journal. Pleasant surprises in the cabin were the discoveries of a heavy parka, knee-length insulated snow boots, an insulated white parka and pants ideal for winter hunting in the snow, and numerous naturalist books. These volumes were invaluable resources on the flora, fauna, geography, geology, and history of the area, and the man, once a voracious reader, delighted in studying them daily. An old but highly functional canoe came with the cabin, and the screened porch served as ideal storage space during the winter months.

An outdoor stone fireplace with a metal grill was perfect for preparing summer meals when one did not want to heat the cabin with either the stove or fireplace. A surprisingly comfortable outhouse was located about fifteen yards from the cabin, and a sturdy wooden canopy connected the cabin and outhouse, making the short walk bearable in heavy rain and snow. Adjacent to the outhouse was a shed that was filled with tools, nails, screws, planks, two fly rods with an assortment of flies, three bait-casting rods with a good selection of spinners and lures, snowshoes, and cross-country skis. Some minor patching of the roof ensured a dry cabin interior even in heavy rains and melting snows. The previous occupant had built a smokehouse that, with minimal repairs, became quite functional. A spring near the cabin provided ample quantities of good clear water, and a space had been dug out near the spring to store food items at a cool temperature year-round.

The agent who sold the man the cabin and land had assured him that he would not be bothered by neighbors since there were none for miles around and unlikely to be any due to the lack of utilities and an entry road. Also, a provision written into the state bill prohibited additional dwellings on the lake. After touring the cabin and property, the man queried the agent. “Why is the property for sale?”

“A wealthy Manhattan resident, with a keen interest in the outdoors, had amassed a considerable sum of money with clever real estate transactions and investments. He was a noted philanthropist and also a major funder of selected politicians. When a large tract of land, near Canton and adjoining the northwestern portion of the Adirondack Park, was put on the market, he immediately made an offer. The property contained over six thousand acres of beautiful woodland, interspersed with a few small ponds and lakes, bogs, and open meadows. With the support of his political friends, he arranged to purchase the property and deed all but ten acres to the state as a protected area that forbade the construction of any home dwellings or commercial units. The ten acres were set aside for his personal use on this remote lake that appears on some maps as Lost Lake, while on other maps the lake does not show at all. The lake is just under a mile in length and about a half-mile across at its widest site. Having chosen for his cabin a site with a natural sandbar, there were spectacular stands of hardwoods about thirty feet from the lakefront and a mix of birch and aspen trees along the water’s edge. There was an unwritten understanding that in time the large protected area would become incorporated into the Adirondack Park.”

Continuing, the agent said, “The benefactor spent a lot of money building the cabin. First a small road had to be graded so that supplies and workmen from Canton could access the remote site. The cabin walls were made of double-red spruce logs with top-of-the-line insulation between the inner and outer logs. The durable roof was constructed with a steep slope that would minimize the retention of snow, and the attic space was filled with high-grade insulation. Thick double-pane glass windows were installed, along with outside shutters, to aid in maintaining cabin warmth during the long and cold winter months. All of the lumber and logs used in construction were from local sources, most obtained from trees that were felled when the access road was made. Once felled, logs from the choice black cherry, sugar maple, and American beech trees were taken to a lumber mill near Canton to cut and finish the wood used to make all of the furniture and install the flooring inside the cabin. You will see that the furniture is either cherry or maple, and the flooring on the porch and inside the cabin is beech. Also, the large stack of firewood behind the cabin was cut from those trees taken to make the access road and build the cabin. After construction was completed, trees and bushes were planted to restore the roadbed to a more natural state.”

Becoming even more curious, the man asked the agent, “Why is the property for sale so soon after the expense of building the cabin?”

The agent responded in measured tones. “About five years ago the owner was declared dead after having been missing for three years. A friend of mine in the state legislature was working on incorporation of the land into the Adirondack Park and asked me to handle the sale of the cabin. My friend had attempted, futilely as it turned out, to include the private ten acres in the transfer as well, but the gift to the state had been written such that a transfer could not be considered for at least ten years. A search by the state failed to identify an heir. I had many inquiries from interested parties, but when they learned about the location and conditions they quickly lost interest. The price has dropped considerably, and I am willing to entertain an offer.”

Reviewing in his head the amount of money in his small savings account, the man said, “I will give you eight thousand dollars, which is all I can afford.”

Without hesitation the agent accepted, and the man moved in and began the repairs within a month. The remoteness of the site, isolated further by the absence of any form of a road for over two miles, and the provisions in the deed provided the man the solitude he was seeking. Occasional trips to a small general store several miles away for ammunition, fishing gear, and basic food items provided the only contact he had with the outside world.

The storekeeper, also the local postmaster, had the only functioning telephone in the village. He was friendly to the man, but the newcomer made it clear that he was not interested in small talk; thus, their encounters were invariably brief. The few elderly people who lived in the remote small rural village kept their distance from the man, ensuring him the privacy he so demanded. Over the years they and the storeowner had adopted a mutually beneficial bartering system, and the storeowner invited the man to participate as well. After learning the arrangement the man enthusiastically agreed to join. In exchange for eggs, milk, flour, chicken, salt, pepper, sugar, ammunition, and various basics, the man provided fresh and smoked venison, rabbit, wild turkey, and fresh fish, including trout, bass, walleyes, perch, and crappie. The storeowner always acted as middleman and retained about five percent of the actual goods or equivalent money for his role. When the weather permitted, a truck from a supplier in Canton braved the rutted dirt road about every two weeks to bring basic supplies, obviously with a high mark-up.

The storekeeper had once informed the man, “The area north of the protected section of land was logged in the middle of the twentieth century, and the few houses and my store, with living space above, were for the loggers who brought their families with them. The logging company even hired a schoolteacher to teach all grades, but he only lasted two years and the kids had to be home-schooled after that. The parents stayed on after the logging operation ended, but there was nothing here for their children, most of whom left as soon as they could. The majority of the original loggers and their wives have died, and only a few of the remaining houses are occupied. It’s a hard life here, and I would leave if I had any place to go. You are a brave man to face living where you do, which is even more isolated than here, where at least there are a few others to talk to and to help you if needed.

“The big shot who built your cabin only came a few times, and he always parked his car across the road there when he visited. On his last trip to the cabin he never reappeared, and after about a week I notified the sheriff. The sheriff and two deputies searched the cabin and woods for several days but found no trace of him. They questioned me and all the others who live around here, but no one had seen him, or for that matter any strangers in the area. Finally he was declared dead, although there was never a body for evidence. Rumors were that he committed suicide because he lost a lot of money and owed more than he had, while others said someone had killed him, hoping to find money, and then disposed of the body, and some felt it was part of a plan of his to disappear and take on a new identity elsewhere. So, if you find any human bones around, let me know. My theory is that he is at the bottom of the lake, either voluntarily or non-voluntarily.”

Chapter 2

On this particular morning the man paddled his canoe up the single gurgling creek that fed into the lake, going as far as possible before the water became too shallow to navigate. Had he heard something in the woods, or perhaps had he seen something from the corner of his eye? His years in the Special Forces, often posted as a lone sharpshooter or at most with a spotter, had ingrained in him a keen sense of his surroundings; he never doubted his initial reaction to an unusual sound or observation, having lost several Army friends who had not paid sufficient attention to such subtle warnings.

After quietly exiting and pulling his canoe onto the bank of the creek, he began scanning the woods surrounding him on three sides. Standing about six feet tall, his angular face displayed a short well-trimmed beard. His blue eyes were piercing, always forcing strangers to look away rather than engage in a stare-down. He carried his Colt Combat Elite pistol and a well-sharpened knife on his forays into the village and on outings such as this, and, when hunting, was armed with one of several rifles he kept in his cabin. Remaining still for several minutes he detected some small movement behind a clump of bushes about thirty yards away, an animal or something else?

Standing his ground, now with pistol drawn, he was surprised when a small thin boy, some ten or twelve years old, emerged and stood on a mossy bank adjacent to the bushes. They stared at each other for a couple of minutes, and then, lowering his pistol, the man asked the boy, “Son, are you alone?”

He nodded yes. The man walked toward the boy, each still wary of the other, and the man saw that the boy’s clothes were nothing more than rags, a ripped T-shirt and filthy coveralls that were at least two or three sizes too small. The boy`s toes, protruding from his torn sneakers, were bleeding, suggesting that he had been walking through the woods for some time. The boy`s face and arms were badly bruised, and between the shreds of his shirt heavy bruising and a few open wounds were apparent on his chest. In a deep demanding voice, the man asked, “Boy, what is your name?”

“Cody” volunteering nothing more in his quivering voice.

The veteran had encountered many situations like this while in Iraq and Afghanistan and was always on heightened alert when approached by unknown, and even known, children, women, and particularly men. They could be diverting your attention while a gunman was placing you in their sights, or they may be strapped with a bomb ready to waste you and themselves. Seeing no other movement and hearing no unusual sounds, the man continued probing.

“Do you live nearby?”

The boy said nothing but shrugged his shoulders. The man, still wary of the situation, walked around the boy and examined the bushes from which he had emerged. No one else seemed to be near, and the man began thinking of ways in which he should deal with this unexpected encounter. Coming up with no viable option, he reluctantly spoke. “Cody, would you like to come to my cabin for breakfast?”

With his eyes focused on the ground in front of him, the boy nodded yes. After climbing into the canoe with the boy sitting in the prow, the man paddled down the lake and docked the canoe on the bank in front of the cabin.

The man entered his cabin with the boy in tow and pointed to one of the benches at the small cherry table close to the stove. He then stoked the fire and added a couple of logs to the still glowing embers from the previous night. Soon the fire picked up and the heat quickly overcame the morning chill. After a trip to the smokehouse to cut some venison strips, he walked to the storage area near the spring and took six eggs from a dozen he had picked up a few days before. Once inside he proceeded to heat the venison and then cook the eggs in the leftover grease. After filling two plates with the eggs and venison, he added two biscuits to each from a batch he had recently made using a makeshift oven. The steaming plates were placed on the table, and two glasses were filled from a jug of spring water he kept in the cabin. With no words exchanged, the two quickly devoured the food. Once the boy looked up at the man with his face on the verge of a smile, but then he quickly lowered his head looking into his lap. After a long silence, the man pressed the young boy for more information. “Cody, have you been in a fight?”

“No, sir.”

“Your parents must be very worried and are surely searching for you.”

The boy, overcoming some internal conflict, finally began to talk. Struggling with the words he spoke in halting phrases. “I, uh, ran away from home yesterday afternoon.”

“Why did you do that?”

“My daddy beat me hard, much harder than before my sister died, day before yesterday.” In a voice bordering on disbelief, the man inquired: “Why didn’t your mother stop the beating?”

Unable to control the tears that were now streaming down his face, the boy convulsed and blurted out, “She died about a month ago. My sister and I missed her so much. She used to read to us every day and even taught us to read and write when Daddy was not nearby.”

Suddenly annoyed with himself for prying into such a sensitive topic with a young boy, the man then spoke in a most comforting voice. “I’m so sorry to hear about your mother and sister, particularly dying so close to each other. You and your father must miss them very much.”

Cody’s face and body tensed, and then, between convulsions, he spoke out in an anguished voice. “My daddy hit my mama ‘bout every day and continued hitting her even when she was crying and begging him to stop. One afternoon she did not wake up after being knocked down, and Daddy buried her near the big oak trees behind our house. He would not let my sister and me help, but we watched from our bedroom window, holding each other as we cried and cried. We missed Mama so much and cried for a long time after she died, but we had to do it when Daddy was not around, or he would beat us and tell us to shut up.”

The boy paused as tears streamed down his anguished face. As he gained his composure he continued. “My sister knew she was next but could not stop Daddy. He beat her every day. She always cried and then he beat her even harder. I tried to stop him, but he knocked me down and told me to leave the house while he took care of business. I wanted to hurt him, and one time I even picked up a stout tree limb and ran into the house and hit him. He turned on me and beat me so much I hurt for days. My sister comforted me and made me promise never to do that again or he may kill us both.

“Daddy made me leave the house when he came into our bedroom to see my sister, but even when I was outside I could hear my sister crying and begging him to stop. This only made him madder and meaner. She cried and whimpered every night while Daddy was in our room with her. When Daddy left our room, I slipped back into the house and quietly went to hold my sister while she cried herself to sleep. On her last night she screamed loudly when the beating started, and then was silent. Daddy went on the front porch and sat in the swing while he drank some more. I went inside through the back door hoping to help her, but she never woke up. Daddy buried her next to mama. Maybe she is happier now. I knew I was next, so I ran away.”

The man, now tense with anger, asked, “Did the police come to your house after your mother and sister died, and did neighbors come to help bury them?”

Cody shook his head no.

The man remembered that when he and a few members of his platoon forced entry into homes in rural Afghanistan with members of the Afghan army to search for weapons, they would occasionally find women who had been badly beaten by their husbands. When asked by the American soldiers if they should apprehend the husband, the Afghan servicemen just laughed and said no. A husband had total power in his home and no government or local courts, civilian or military, would accept a case of wife beating. Even if they did, the husband would never be found guilty. After seeing the pain and agony of the beleaguered women, the man had more than once raised his rifle at the offending husband only to have it roughly shoved away by one of the Afghan soldiers. The feelings never left him, and he again felt the anger rising, both for the brutality he had witnessed and the memories those beatings evoked. Keeping his anger and feelings to himself, the man simply said, “You did the right thing to run away.”

Noticing the boy’s head beginning to nod, the man continued talking. “Cody, you need to clean up before you fall asleep. I’ll grab some soap and a towel for you while you strip down and follow me to the lake. Wash yourself well, including your hair.”

The late spring lake water was very cool, but the boy did not complain. The man gave him a towel as he emerged from the water and then slipped one of his T-shirts on the boy. It looked like a loose-fitting nightgown on the small frame, but the boy simply smiled. The man led him inside the cabin and unrolled a sleeping bag he had used before buying his cot. After putting some antiseptic on sterile pads he had in a first-aid kit, the man covered a few open wounds on the boy, securing them with tape. The man placed the sleeping bag on his cot and told the boy to rest while he ran an errand. The boy fell asleep immediately, and the man started walking to the village. Upon arriving at the general store he was relieved to see that he, as usual, was the only customer. Looking at the owner he said, “My nephew is visiting, and I need to buy a few clothes for him.”

The storeowner was suspicious since he had seen no strangers arrive on the only road through the community, but he knew better than to question his customer. “I’ve had no call for children’s clothing for many years, but I do have some old but unworn clothes left over from more prosperous times. Follow me to the back room and look over the small rack of boy’s clothing to see if anything looks like it might fit your nephew. The price is right as I would like to get rid of these clothes to make a little extra storage room.”

The man quickly picked out T-shirt, pants, underwear, socks, shoes, and jacket that he thought might fit the boy. “These will do, and I’ll also take two sodas, a chocolate bar, and a toothbrush.”

The storeowner totaled the items, and the man paid and turned to leave. As he was walking out the door, the owner called behind him. “Old man Blanton was in the store early this morning asking if anyone had seen his young son. I told him I would let him know if I heard anything. Blanton is mean as a den of snakes and not one to cross.”

“Where does Blanton live, in case I see the boy?”

“He lives about three or four miles from here down the Old Farm road, which is the dirt road you can see to the left about a hundred yards over there,” pointing out a rutted road. He went on to say: “People have talked about his wife and two children, but no one has seen them in the past couple of years. About a year ago two county officials, a man and a woman, stopped by and asked how to get to the Blanton place. They said their records showed that two children lived there and had never been to school, even though a school bus would drive to my store if necessary. They of course did not know the lane was impassable much of the winter. About an hour after being given directions, the two returned for a soft drink before they headed back to their office. I asked them if they found the place they were looking for, and they said they did but they had to walk the last mile in because the road was badly washed out and had logs placed across it to prevent anyone from driving on it. They found Mr. Blanton sitting on his porch, and he threatened to shoot them if they didn’t leave his property immediately.

“When they told him they were there to enroll the children in school, he cursed them and said he was homeschooling the kids. He said he didn`t trust what the schools were teaching these days. When I told my neighbors here that Blanton was home schooling his children, they laughed and said old man Blanton couldn’t read or write a word himself, must less teach anyone else. Whatever, the two county officials told me they were sending a social worker to the Blanton place to check on his wife and children, since the man would not let any of his family out of the house to see them. No one ever came, probably after hearing of the threats to the two. If you do find the Blanton boy, I`d be very careful approaching his old man as he may take a shot at you before you have a chance to tell him why you were there.”

The man thanked the storeowner and quickly returned to his cabin.

Chapter 3

Finding the boy still sleeping, he picked up his favorite rifle, a .300 Winchester Magnum, like the one he often used on his missions as a sniper. While on active duty, his .300 Win Mag was, to him, his closest friend. He could disassemble, clean, and reassemble the rifle with ease, something he did daily. He knew that in his current civilian life he did not require the long-distance accuracy the rifle provided. Nonetheless, it was always comforting to have it close by, and he often took it on his hunting forays for distance shots. He also owned an old .30-30 Winchester like the one he used for hunting while in his teens. After leaving military service and settling in the northeast, he bought the .300 Win Mag and the .30-30 Winchester for deer hunting and to discourage any bears that wandered too close to his cabin. His pistol and these rifles, along with a .22 caliber rifle for small animals and a 16-gauge shotgun for birds, rounded out his personal arsenal. After his discharge, he had located an estate sale where he was able to purchase these firearms at a modest price. He never questioned the seller about how he had acquired the battery of excellent firearms, nor did the seller question the man about his background or need for the rifles.

The man knew the location of the Blanton place as he had seen it at a distance while on his frequent walking or hunting trips. As he neared the house, really nothing more than a shack in need of much repair work, he remained low to the ground. Peering from behind a clump of red elderberry, he saw Blanton sitting in a swing on his front porch, occasionally spitting tobacco juice. Using the bush as cover, the man slowly assumed a prone position as he had done so many times while on missions, raised his rifle, and positioned the crosshairs of his scope on Blanton`s chest, knowing the .30 caliber bullet would obliterate his heart. In no particular hurry, he then repositioned the rifle zeroing in on the middle of Blanton`s forehead. What an easy shot this would be compared to some he had in Iraq, and particularly on many of his kills in Afghanistan when he was in enemy territory. The man held this position for some time, never taking his eyes from the scope and ever so gently touching his right forefinger to the trigger. He was accustomed to holding a position like this for hours, but on this morning he removed his finger from the trigger, diverted his eye from the scope, and then lowered his rifle. Feeling unsettled, he slowly stood partway up, backed away from his cover, and returned to his cabin.

He found the boy had just awakened and was drinking water that had been left on the table.

“I brought you a soft drink, some candy, and clothes. Why don’t you try them on?”

The boy looked at the gifts and through a few tears and said, “No one ever gave me anything new.”

“Have you ever been fishing Cody?”

“No sir.”

“Well then, I’ll show you how to dig some worms from the moist ground near the spring and how to rig a spinning outfit.”

The man took the boy to a clearing at the edge of the lake and showed him how to cast. After a few futile attempts, the boy succeeded in catching several large yellow perch, each of which brought a big smile to his face. The man showed Cody how to clean the fish and then how to fry them, this becoming their late lunch. After they had cleaned the lunch dishes, he told the boy to strip down and he began teaching him to swim. After several days the boy was capable of swimming an impressive distance. In time the man taught the boy how to canoe and right himself in the water if he capsized. The boy broke into laughter a couple of times, and the man wondered how many times Cody had known or shown happiness in his life.

At one point while they were canoeing around the lake the boy asked the man his name. The man hesitated and then said, “I was called `double S` in the Army.”

When the boy seemed perplexed the man said, “Double S or SS was a short version of the nickname my second lieutenant gave me, `Sure Shot,` but no one ever calls me by that name anymore, or for that matter any other name.”

“Will you teach me to shoot a rifle?”

“Well, OK. We will begin with firearm safety using my .22 caliber rifle.”

Determined to become a good shot, in short order Cody was developing into a steady and confident shooter. Proving adept with the rifle, he was soon bringing rabbits and occasionally grouse and wild turkey to the cabin for cleaning and eating.

One evening over a dinner of venison, saved in the smokehouse from the previous winter, the man asked Cody, “Can you read and write?”

The boy, obviously embarrassed, hung his head and said, “Yes, but only from what he had learned from his mother as he had never been to school.”

“You must begin school and I will see to it that you are enrolled in the fall.”

“I will go, but I want to live here with you. I can help you cut wood for the winter and hunt and fish.”

Saying nothing but knowing that Cody needed a better home, the man began preparing Cody for school. They spent a minimum of two hours each day in reading and writing lessons. The books in the cabin were ideal for Cody as he was particularly interested in the color photographs accompanying the wildlife and botany books. Just before falling asleep one evening, the boy asked, “Tell me about your time in the Army.”

The man hesitated, but then looked him in the eyes and with firmness in his voice simply said, “No.”

The days passed quickly and were spent with fishing and hikes in which the boy learned to identify trees, edible plants, flowers, and birdsong. The man also taught the boy how to plant and care for vegetables, as well as how to cook, but he refused to allow Cody to assist him in sawing and splitting logs from fallen trees, saying it was too dangerous for young boys.

Chapter 4

Several nights when sleep was slow in coming the man thought of his childhood, retrieving memories he had suppressed for many years. He too had an older sister, although they were never close, and he had lost his dear mother to cancer when he was but a young boy about Cody’s age. A schoolteacher, his mother had imbued in him a love of books and learning. She repeatedly told him that he should become a college or university professor where he could inspire others to read and stay well informed of the world. His father had left the family and moved to New York City when the man was but a baby, so he had no memory of him. His mother did the best she could caring for her two children, but she complained frequently about her husband abandoning them and taking what little money they had saved.

Later she married his stepfather who was a gentle and soft-spoken man when not drinking, but after a few drinks became belligerent and totally irrational. His drinking intensified after losing his wife, and he occasionally slapped his son when on a binge. On a couple of occasions when intoxicated, the stepfather had made advances to his stepdaughter, but she screamed, punched him, and fled the house. After one such altercation just before her high school graduation, she left the house and reappeared with two local policemen who told the stepfather that if there were one more episode like that they would arrest and charge him, and he would spend several years in prison. Afterwards, she and the stepfather never spoke to each other. She left home immediately after graduation and was not heard from again.

One year later, the day after his high school graduation, the man went to the local Army recruiting office to enlist. The sergeant looked him over and said, “You should easily pass the physical exam, but how well can you read and write?”

“I was always at the top of my class in reading comprehension, writing, and math.” Although appearing somewhat skeptical, the sergeant asked, “When can you report?”

“Tomorrow morning.”

Upon hearing this, the recruiter appeared pleased and said, “That’s good, so why don’t you sit at the table over there and fill out this paperwork.”

Afterwards the man went home and immediately put the few items he was taking with him in a backpack. That night his stepfather had been drinking heavily after dinner and began cursing his son. “You worthless bastard, now that you have graduated from high school you should get a job to help support yourself and pay some of the rent on the house you have been living in for eighteen years.”

“Not me old man, I have enrolled in the Army and am leaving this hellhole of a town in the morning.”

Furious, the stepfather quickly grabbed his stepson and raised his arm to punch him. The man broke loose from his stepfather’s hold and flattened him with a hard fist to his forehead. Walking into his room, he picked up his belongings and left home, with his stepfather cursing and struggling to get up. After spending the night with a friend, the man went to the recruiting office the next morning, and a midday bus took him from the only town and state he had ever known, promising himself never to return. He could not have been happier.

After basic training he qualified for the Special Forces and, recognized early for his outstanding marksmanship that had been honed by years of target practice and hunting during his youth, received specialized instruction to become a sniper. He had entered military service for many reasons, as an escape from an untenable home situation, a desire to see the world, and even as a protector of freedom for his country. Before arriving first in Iraq and later in Afghanistan, he felt deeply that this was a battle of good vs. evil. After several tours of serving on foreign soil, he came to realize that this was in reality a battle of evil vs. evil.

He witnessed atrocities that initially made him agonizingly sick. He learned that he could not trust the supposed allies with whom they were embedded; they often killed more of his fellow soldiers than did the enemy forces. Even members of the U.S. Army could not be trusted. One day, in heated battle with his platoon under a surprise and highly aggressive attack while on a reconnaissance mission, he saw a particularly nasty and unruly squad member turn his rifle away from enemy fire and point it toward their newly arrived and insecure second lieutenant. With one shot to the side of the head the lieutenant died instantly. Upon returning to base after the skirmish ended, the man remained silent about what he had seen but began preparing a report on the incident. In the end, however, he decided to do nothing.

By now he trusted no one and was left with a particular feeling of loneliness and vulnerability. Fortunately, as a sniper, he was generally removed from the main unit, posted alone or perhaps with a spotter who became his only trusted friend, both dependent on each other to extract themselves from their hidden locations. Assassinations became increasingly difficult for him. Once a source of pride, he now found himself hesitating before taking his target out. Gruesome scenes with family members nearby returned to him in his dreams and waking moments.

One kill in particular haunted him for years. Intelligence sources found that a high-ranking Taliban leader would be returning to his rural home on the outskirts of an Afghanistan village to spend the night with his wife and two children. The night before the home visit a local employed by the Special Forces led him to a clump of bushes and scraggly trees near the remote compound where the Taliban leader would be coming. His guide left before sunrise, and he spent the day camouflaged and moving minimally only to relieve himself and eat and drink.

About an hour before the sun set, a black SUV pulled in front of the home, and the driver leapt out of the car, scanning the surrounding area. Seeing nothing suspicious, he waved to someone inside the house and a fully veiled woman and two children, a boy about twelve and a girl perhaps ten, ran to greet the passenger stepping out of the back seat. Giving the three of them big hugs, the target stepped away to take a small bag the driver was handing him. All of this was carefully observed by the sniper through his high-definition riflescope, and as the target turned to follow the woman into the house, with the two children holding his hands, he fired. It was a perfect headshot. Although he should be in rapid retreat, he could not avoid watching the woman fall to the ground holding her dead husband. He then focused on the faces of the children. At first they looked surprised and bewildered, then shocked, but his last glance showed two horrified and anguished screaming faces. He knew then that he and they would forever be scarred by this killing. For years he had recurring dreams of one of the children walking up to him with a big smile, only to detonate a hidden bomb. The driver of the SUV had accurately guessed the shooter’s location and was driving at a high speed toward him, but a well-placed shot to the driver’s side enabled the sniper to escape.

After this incident, viewed by the military as a major accomplishment in the ongoing war, his heralded accuracy plummeted, putting him, as well as his spotter when present, in grave danger. In time his superiors refused to send him on missions, instead assigning guard duty at their base camps or sending him on patrols, remaining under close supervision.

Thinking initially that he would make the army a career, he realized that he had nothing but bitterness and would probably not survive another tour of duty. After his first two tours he was rapidly advanced to the rank of sergeant first class based on his prowess in battle, the leadership he was beginning to exhibit, and his high intelligence. Now, however, his changing attitude halted further promotions. He refused another reappointment, and his superiors, recognizing his instability and overall mental problems, insisted on psychological testing at a Veterans Administration hospital in the states before his release from service. After being evaluated by a team of psychiatrists, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and advised to attend counseling sessions. The man acted as friendly and cooperative as possible, and finally received his discharge papers. He knew, as did the medical staff, that he was not prepared to enter civilian life, but there were so many others in the queue to receive counseling that he was given an honorable discharge and thanked for his years of service.

He rarely drank or used drugs, even in service, but after his discharge he began drinking heavily, using drugs, and fighting whenever he could. It took him several months to realize that his depression and physical sickness were so severe after such episodes that he was at risk of suicide. So convinced, he immediately gave up both alcohol and drugs. Now sober he decided to search for an isolated track of land in upstate New York. Although having never been there, his closest friend in the army, his last spotter, was from a small farm near Watertown in rural northwestern New York and spoke lovingly of it. He invited the man to join him after they were discharged and buy a place near there to farm together. That possibility ended when his friend was killed from either enemy fire or from a bullet delivered by one of the Afghan troops with whom they were advising.

The man decided to travel to New York to visit his friend’s parents and pay his respects over the loss of their son. They received him with warmth and said their son had often written of him. It was on this visit that he had learned about a cabin for sale. His friend’s parents had seen a real estate ad describing a remote cabin north of them adjacent to the Adirondack Park. Fortunately they had saved the Watertown Daily Times in which the ad appeared, and the man contacted the real estate agent from their home to set up a meeting. The man knew that he would never return to his home state of Ohio, the memories being too painful. Yet, occasionally he had fleeting mental glimpses of the pleasurable times from his early childhood: the picnics with his sister, mother, and stepfather; visits by and to extended family members; and the high school friends he made, particularly on the football and basketball teams.

Chapter 5

His remote cabin in upstate New York was more than he had hoped for. He acknowledged, for the first time in his life, that he had found happiness and contentment. As tempting as it was to get a dog, he resisted only because he was adamant not to have another person or creature dependent on him. That was until Cody entered his life. At first he felt this to be an imposition, but as the summer continued, he realized that he felt a love, compassion, and understanding for this boy, whose early life was much worse than his. He also knew that the arrangement could not become permanent as he was unable to provide the boy what he most needed, an education and the opportunity to be in a caring family and with others in a social setting, the latter of which the man had struggled so hard to relieve himself.

Late one afternoon as Cody was working on his reading comprehension, always followed by a short set of questions, the man glanced at him as the boy concentrated on an assigned chapter dealing with Native Americans in upstate New York. Looking at Cody, he thought of the only other visitor to his humble abode. One spring evening he had seen a campfire burning across the lake. He quickly strapped on his pistol, placed a small flashlight in his pocket, launched his canoe, and quietly paddled to a landing site about a hundred yards from where the fire glowed. After banking the canoe he picked up a deer trail he knew and walked silently through the woods to within about thirty yards of the camp. Peering through some undergrowth he saw a lone woman sitting near the fire playing a ukulele and, in a low voice, singing an old familiar folk song. He waited to see if anyone else was around, but no one appeared. He was startled when the woman looked in his direction and shouted, “You are welcome to join me by the fire, but I don’t like you spying on me.”

Surprised that he had been observed, the man quickly walked the short distance to the campsite where he saw that a small tent had been placed near the first line of trees, about ten feet from the fire. The woman said nothing as he approached her, but he did notice that her right hand was resting on her hip. She appeared to be in her early twenties and was stunning in appearance. Although not beautiful in the classical sense, she had all-American looks and was well tanned with blond hair that was pulled back in a high ponytail. Quickly standing, she revealed a trim athletic body, and the man was not surprised to see a small hosteled pistol on her waist.

Neither had spoken since the man entered her camp area, but she took the initiative and asked in a firm and accusatory voice, “Why were you sneaking up on me?”

Clearly embarrassed, the man stuttered, then gaining control of his feelings and wanting to be the questioner, not the questioned, responded in a confident voice that left no doubt about who he thought was in charge. “I live here and everyone in the area is respectful of my terrain. I serve as a custodian to keep rift-raft away and preserve the forest and water in a natural state.”

The young woman stared at him, their eyes never parting, and she finally said in a sarcastic voice, “So you maintain a natural state by keeping others away while giving yourself full run of many square miles of public land. How nice, that is, nice for you. Let me assure you that I have spent a great deal of time in the outdoors and work fervently to maintain the natural beauty of our few remaining forests and lakes, but I do it for others to enjoy. And you, who do you do it for, other than yourself?”

Realizing he was not going to intimidate this woman, he simply said, “Have a pleasant visit and clean up well when you break camp.”

He then turned and quickly walked away. Knowing the paths as he did, he required no flashlight even in the darkness of the night. He canoed back to his cabin, lighted a kerosene lantern, and read for about an hour. Before retiring for the night he glanced across the lake and saw that the campfire was but a bed of glowing embers. On such a clear night with a half-moon rising and Venus shining brightly in the eastern sky, the dying coals appeared as a small cloud of fireflies that had just touched down. He opened his door and looked into the darkness, hearing the familiar night sounds he always enjoyed.

The next morning, regretting his rudeness to the young woman, he decided to paddle by her campsite on his early morning outing and apologize. As he launched the canoe he saw her standing at water’s edge where she was expertly casting a fly rod. He paddled to some twenty yards from where she stood and called out, “Good casting and good morning. I apologize for my rude behavior last night.”

The young woman gave him a generous smile and said, “Thank you and I should have alerted you to my presence before setting up camp, but in my defense I arrived late in the day and was not sure you were around. I parked my car, or what passes as a car, in the village a few miles from here. When I went into the store to pick up some supplies, the storekeeper warned me that you may not welcome uninvited guests. I decided, however, to take my chances.”

Now feeling more comfortable, the man spoke without thinking beforehand. “Would you like to join me for a meal early this evening. We can finish in time for you get back to your campsite before darkness settles in.”

To his surprise the woman answered, “Yes, I would enjoy that very much.”

“Excellent. There is a well-used deer path about fifty yards into the woods that will take you close to my cabin. See you about five-thirty.”

Waving goodbye, the man began paddling the canoe up the lake for a short excursion before returning to his cabin.

In preparation for his guest, his only one in five years of austere living in his remote cabin, the man realized that his choices for a menu were limited to smoked venison or freshly caught fish, and, having been to the general store a couple of days before, he could offer baked potatoes with a lettuce and tomato salad. Since his stove served his cooking needs as well as providing warmth, he decided to start a fire to take the chill from the cabin and use the top to heat the venison or fish. Undecided about the menu, he decided to fish and in short order proceeded to catch a large bass that he cleaned, preparing two nice fillets. Not familiar with the woman’s tastes, he also retrieved some venison from the smokehouse. He placed two plates, glasses, forks, and knives on the small table and straightened the two log benches, so they could face each other.

She appeared promptly at five-thirty and with a big smile offered the man a handful of early blooming wildflowers.

“How nice of you. Let’s see, some early blossoming bluets, trout lilies, and coltsfoot. Thank you.”

Placing the flowers in a small vase, the man poured a little water in and placed it on the table.

“I am impressed with your knowledge of wildflowers, and I suspect that you have many other hidden secrets and talents that you rarely divulge.”

He invited her to sit as he proceeded to serve the food. She devoured her servings quickly and happily accepted his offer of seconds. They did not speak as they ate, but while waiting for seconds to be served, she said, “Please call me Meghan. I’m originally from Long Island but am now attending the State University of New York at Binghamton and majoring in ecology. I’m here while on spring break to conduct a quick survey of red and painted trillium around the lake and use the data for my senior project. Having only a limited time, my plan is to survey a strip of land from water’s edge to about ten yards into the woods. I’d like to include more spring wildflowers, but I just don’t have time to do that since I need to return to campus to complete the semester. Glancing at your library I’m impressed with your collection of books. By the way, how did you end up here and what should I call you?”

“You may call me anything you wish. How about the Lost Lake hermit?” The man then gave a light chuckle. Originally planning to tell her nothing about himself, he began talking and before he realized it had given her a brief synopsis of his life and how he ended up where he was. At first embarrassed about divulging this information to a stranger, he suddenly felt that telling his story to a sympathetic listener was cathartic.

Finishing, he said, “My days are now filled with securing food and wood for winter, as well as studying the flora and fauna of the region using these books as my guide. I spend much of the summer collecting wood and splitting logs for the stove and fireplace. I also hunt year-round as state game wardens rarely venture in this area. As you know from living in upstate New York, the winters are long and can be extremely cold. I fish year-round with ice fishing always yielding a good string. Often when I have caught up on necessary tasks, I will take long day hikes to different regions of the protected area and into Adirondack Park. That’s about it. Would you like some instant coffee?”

Smiling, Meghan said, “Yes, I would love a cup, and I brought a surprise, some dark chocolate for dessert.”

Now feeling more comfortable with each other, both were relaxed and joking about meeting as they did. Without prompting, Meghan proceeded to tell the man a bit about herself.

“My life has been totally different from yours. I grew up as an only child of affluent parents who provided me everything I could hope for, the best schooling, trips throughout the United States and abroad, and ample spending money. I was a good daughter and caused them no trouble. I never smoked or used drugs and had alcohol only occasionally. While a junior in high school, I joined a medical mission to a rural village in Nicaragua and for the first time in my life was introduced to abject poverty. The corrupt government would do nothing for its citizens, who had no opportunity for education, health care, or decent jobs. I returned home feeling guilty over my family’s wealth and lifestyle, and to assuage my own feelings I began volunteering at a homeless shelter and at a home for abused women. I considered going to college to major in sociology or perhaps even pre-med, but my love of the outdoors won out and I decided to major in ecology.”

As they talked, a strong thunderstorm blew in bringing gusting winds and heavy rain. The man peered through a window and made a suggestion. “This is not a night to be outside. I have a cot I can set up for you here, and with a sleeping bag you will at least be dry and warm.”

He showed her the slicker she could wear to the outhouse and explained the location of the flashlight and lantern once inside, as well as the washbasin and towel that were always there. Upon returning to the cabin she pulled a couple of books on local flora from the shelves and began reading. Seeing this, the man handed her several volumes of bound notebooks explaining, “I have kept a daily record, organized into seasons, of the wildflowers, mammals, and amphibians I have seen while on walks, when canoeing, and when hunting, along with their approximate location, and have sketched to the best of my ability the various flowers. Please take any that interest you as I am continually filling more books and, as you can see, running out of space.”

A cursory glance through the books convinced Meghan that he was a serious and conscientious observer. The man excused himself, made the same trip to the outhouse, and upon returning also began reading. After about an hour they became drowsy and doused their lanterns. At nearly the same time each said, “Good night.”

The man, a light sleeper, heard her arise sometime in the night and quickly walk to his bed. Opening his eyes he had some limited visibility from the open flue and the dying embers in the stove. He watched her slide in beside him and realized that she had taken her clothes off. He quickly followed suit and began caressing her soft skin and kissing her. She was responding with passionate kisses and gentle fondling. Although camping under fairly primitive conditions, she exuded an odor of lavender, and her hair was soft and silky. She seemed to be some ethereal creature who had magically appeared and would soon vanish into the woods, the lake, or perhaps the clouds. The man kept reminding himself to be gentle and take it slow. It had been many years since he had even touched a woman, and then it was just unsatisfactory one-night stands. Both now anxious to make love, he entered her as she threw her head back groaning with pleasure. It was wonderful, but he finished far sooner than he wished. With no words being spoken, they held each other for a long time. She then straddled him, and they made love again, this time with even more passion. Afterwards they lay together, and then she quickly and quietly slipped out of his narrow bed and returned to her cot.

They lay awake not speaking, but the silence was broken by the call of a barred owl in close vicinity. The man whispered, “He is a friend of mine and visits frequently.”

As he was falling asleep the man dwelled on the thought that after years of self-imposed isolation it seemed surreal to have this beautiful young woman, whom he hardly knew, as a lover in his cabin. They slept.

Both awoke about the same time in the early pre-dawn just before sunrise. He beckoned her over, and they made love again, this time with a tenderness that moved them both. Afterwards, they took turns refreshing themselves in the outhouse and kitchen sink; then they sat to enjoy coffee, water, and bread smothered with fruit preserves he had on his shelf. Curious, the man asked, “How can you hike and camp and yet come here smelling so, so clean?”

Laughing, Meagan responded. “Before coming over I took a quick dip in the lake, washing with soap and shampoo.”

He smiled and said in response, “I too had a bath in the lake, as I always do when the water temperature permits. During the summer months, I swim up and back the long length of the lake and feel that I know it well from land and the water, both in it and when floating in my canoe. One of my favorite times is to be in the lake when it is lightly raining and watch the raindrops hit the surface, causing the rise of a column of water with most interesting shapes. It’s as if it’s raining skyward. Would you like to join me on the inventory I am making of the red and painted trillium? Unless there are too many, I would also like to include Jack-in-the-pulpits.”

“I would enjoy that.”

It was a spectacular day with a bright sun and a cool breeze. Many flowers were beginning to blossom, and a multitude of leaves were making their appearance after a harsh winter. Meghan and the man spent the day cataloging the location and identification of the flowers, with her stopping to take photographs of those of interest and some of the rare species of other spring flowers. It was a wonderful day for both of them, with constant joking and laughing. Meghan was astounded by the knowledge of this handsome hermit and was even more impressed to know that it was all self-taught. They rounded the lake and upon reaching her campsite, with no words being spoken, they stopped and packed her few provisions into her backpack and strapped her tent and sleeping bag on the outside. Clearing the ground where she had made her fire they returned to his cabin and after eating had another round of lovemaking, followed by reading. The next morning the man said, “I am canoeing to the other side of the lake, as I often do in the early morning. Like to join me?”

Meghan, looking torn, responded, “Thank you but I have some notes to make from yesterday while everything is fresh in my mind.”

The man left and was gone about two hours, checking to see if there was any damage in the woods beyond the lake from the earlier storm. Everything seemed to be in order, and paddling down the lake he realized that he had never been happier. This gorgeous, committed, and bright woman had entered his life at a time when he thought that he wanted nothing to do with others. She showed him affection and tenderness and was not bothered by his lack of a formal education and his unusual lifestyle. He realized that he was very fond of her and so happy she was with him.

As he neared the cabin, he perceived what he should have known. Meghan had departed. She left no note, but on the table was the vase filled with fresh wildflowers, most being lovely trilliums. On the bed they shared was a strikingly accurate picture of Meghan, drawn on his pillowcase with a magic marker and a fine ballpoint pen. She had a loving and endearing smile in the picture, just as he remembered her. Glancing at the bookshelves he noticed that one of his notebooks was missing and in its place was a small piece of paper with the word “thanks” and under it a smile face. He wanted to take the shortest route he knew to the village, but upon reflection realized that neither would be happy with the outcome if he arrived at the store before she left.

He thought fondly and lovingly of her, realizing that he never learned her last name, not that it mattered. He missed her, but as the days passed he accepted that it was but an ephemeral visit and could never be more than that. His one permanent memento of her visit was the pillowcase she left, which he stored in a special place on one of his shelves, looking at it often. Every wildflower that he saw that spring evoked pleasant memories of her.

Chapter 6

About one year later Cody entered his life. The boy, now overcoming his past worries and fears, became talkative and showed a wonderful sense of humor. He began to laugh and on many occasions gave the man a big hug. The summer weeks went by quickly, with the boy gaining weight, becoming most adept at shooting the small-bore rifle, catching and cleaning fish, and, as a fast learner, progressing well with his reading and writing. Cody would often take the canoe out for long excursions along the shoreline and return able to mimic many of the birdcalls he had heard.

One clear day, as summer was drawing to a close, the man told the boy he had to run an errand but to take the canoe out and catch fish for a late lunch they would have together. As soon as the boy was paddling away from the shore, the man picked up his .300 Win Mag, ensured it was loaded, and jogged to the Blanton place. As expected, he saw the old man sitting in the swing on the porch where he was whittling a piece of wood and occasionally taking long drinks from a Mason quart jar nearby, probably filled with moonshine arranged by the storeowner.

After catching his breath he assumed a prone position between two red elderberry shrubs and then placed his scope`s crosshairs on the chest where he knew Blanton`s heart would be. He had decided against a headshot in case Cody was forced to make a positive identification of his father. The man inhaled, then exhaled, and entered the zone where his concentration was focused one hundred percent on the target. Feeling his heart rate decrease, he momentarily broke his concentration on Blanton and thought of the many hours he had spent in such a focus zone that always preceded a kill. He knew this was a position he could hold for many hours, and he also knew that a zone entry was unnecessary for such a simple shot. His years of training and action, however, dictated that it could be no other way.

He continued to wait and then re-focused on his target and slowly squeezed the trigger. The sound was deafening in the morning stillness. Blanton was blown backwards by the force of the bullet, and the swing was set into motion, slowly rocking back and forth. The old man’s blood began drenching his chest and running onto the porch where it pooled into a crimson oval. The red berries on the bushes in front of the man appeared symbolic of the blood that was gushing from his target’s chest. The man watched Blanton`s lifeless but still swinging body for a few minutes, and then he stood up and walked away. He felt no remorse as he returned to his cabin; indeed, he regretted that he could not have informed Blanton why he was about to die just before firing the fatal bullet.

During his first tours in Iraq and Afghanistan he had convinced himself that his killings were laudable and did not constitute murder. Indeed, he was praised and awarded numerous medals and honors for his bravery and accuracy. Only later did he come to the conclusion that he had murdered in cold blood, yet he knew that he would never face a trial or be subjected to a death penalty or a sentence of life imprisonment. He now felt that his killing of Blanton, while coldblooded murder, was nonetheless laudable. To him it was justice, but he knew that he would have to face the legal and penal system; he also knew that he could not and would not do so. After hearing Cody’s story he knew that, if notified, the judicial system would have found Blanton guilty, but he could not imagine the stress that would be placed on the boy to testify against his father, even in the private quarters of a judge. As with his earlier assassinations, but not his later ones in Afghanistan, he felt no remorse. This time, however, he knew that his act would not be commended as his actions had been so many times on foreign soil.

The man quickly walked to the village, taking care to hide his rifle in a dense overgrowth, and entered the general store. Again he felt fortunate to be alone with the storeowner. “I found the missing boy and went to Blanton’s place to tell the boy’s father, but once there I found him dead from a gunshot wound to the chest. You should call the county or state officials and report the death and send someone to pick the boy up here at noon tomorrow. The officials need to locate a good family to adopt the boy, or at least find a suitable foster home for him.”

Although not saying it, the man knew that even an orphanage would be better for the boy than the life he had led. The owner and the man exchanged knowing glances, but neither acknowledged what they were thinking. The man thanked the owner and immediately departed. The storekeeper realized that he had been engaged in more and longer conversations with this man in the past few months than in the previous five years he was a customer.

The next morning after breakfast the man spoke to the boy in a firm voice. “Cody, today we are going to the village where some nice people are coming to take you to a place that will give you a pleasant and stable home, and importantly an education.”

The boy, stunned, began to cry and screamed out, “No, no, I want to stay here with you.”

“That’s impossible. This way of life has no future for you, and you need to receive a good education. You can live with others and make many friends your age. And I promise that your father will never bother you again.”

Feeling betrayed, Cody could not hold the tears in, but the man was unyielding. It took no more than a few minutes to pack Cody’s meager belongings, including some additional clothing the man had bought him and a beginner`s reading and writing book they had worked on together in the evenings. They made the walk to the store with no words being spoken. Once there the man looked at the boy and said, “I love you and will never forget you.”

The man realized he had not told anyone he loved them since he was a young boy with his mother. The boy again cried and hugged the man a long time. Witnessing this tender scene, the storekeeper saw a side of the man he never expected to see, but he had done as he was told and made the requested contacts. The man took one of Cody’s hands and led him to a corner of the store where he then handed him an envelope, saying, “Promise me that you will not open this until you are twenty-one years old. Also, the contents are private between you and me; no one else must ever read what I have written you.” The man gave Cody a big hug, then turned and quickly departed.

The boy, now sobbing, again started to run after the man, but the storekeeper held him.

“Here, here boy, why don’t you just sit over here and enjoy an ice cream sandwich.”

The owner did not know that this was the first ice cream the boy had ever tasted.

Chapter 7

The man returned to his cabin and resumed his life as best he could, but he suddenly felt very much alone. He thought of his sister and wondered if she was happily married with a family. Memories of his stepfather had been repressed for years, but suddenly he was beset with thoughts of some of the wonderful times they had shared before uncontrolled drinking and his rages had separated them forever. Thinking of his mother he remembered her sadness, when near death, she held her two children close one afternoon and whispered, “I love you very much. I’m so sorry to be leaving you when you are so young, but your stepfather has promised he will take good care of you.”

She passed away that night while the children slept. The absence of Cody and the loss of the few others he had loved brought a loneliness that was not easily shaken. Determinedly, however, the man continued, as best he could, his routine life day after day as fall approached.

One morning in the early fall, just before daybreak, while still in bed the man heard them coming through the woods. Dogs were braying and the movement and chatter of several adults who, not being able to see the subtle paths in the dim light, were fighting their way through the dense undergrowth. He arose and quickly pulled on a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt, and his boots, then attended to himself. Upon leaving the outhouse he noticed the clear but chilly morning air. The pair of northern flickers that called the cabin and surrounding trees theirs were breaking into song and were soon joined by a myriad of other birds in the forest. Flycatchers flew their zig-zag routes above the lake, and occasionally a kingfisher would skim over the water emitting it`s shrill call. The cool morning turned the evaporating water from the lake’s surface into a transparent veil that hung low as if it were balanced in the air with no supports. Occasionally a fish broke the surface, and across the lake two deer, now taking on their winter colors, were feeding on the few remaining blueberries. This was a morning like many others before it, none ever being exactly the same.

The sounds of the men and dogs were much closer now, probably no more than a few hundred yards from the cabin, and the man could hear someone shouting, probably giving orders to the others. Days ago the man had wondered what was taking the authorities so long in coming, but he quickly checked himself after considering the inefficiency and blundering he had witnessed while serving. He took another look at the lake, turned, and entered his cabin.

The dogs, beginning to bray, were the first to smell the faint odor of smoke, and soon the men were shouting that a fire was nearby. The sheriff and his deputies hurried their pace and arrived to see flames leaping from the cabin. Suddenly there was the sound of multiple gunshots, and the men quickly sought safety behind trees. Soon, however, they realized that they were hearing the explosions of ammunition in the burning cabin and were not under fire. The dogs had shied away, drifting back into the woods as the men, their faces lighted by the flames of the burning cabin, watched until the structure was reduced to ashes.

Chapter 8

On a crisp but sunny spring morning some ten years later, an older 4x4 Jeep Wrangler bearing an Adirondack Park emblem on its sides slowly traversed the muddy and deeply rutted road leading into the village. The driver brought the vehicle to a stop in front of the old general store. A young man stepped out of the Jeep and studied his surroundings. He had a short beard and wore a lightweight down vest over a forest ranger’s shirt that was tucked into a faded pair of jeans. He noticed that the door of the store was boarded over, the windows were broken, and most of the roof had fallen into the empty space below. The few homes that had comprised the village were in disrepair, and it appeared that no one had occupied them for many years. A cool breeze blew the young man’s blond hair over his forehead as he gazed at the surroundings.

Reaching into the passenger’s side of the front seat he removed a topological map and a small compass. After orienting himself with respect to the map, he began walking down a badly rutted road. Eventually he located the meadow and the old house he was seeking. The roof had major gaps in it, a front-porch swing had fallen from its chains and was askew on the few remaining boards of the porch, but most of the windows were surprisingly intact. He carefully climbed the rickety steps and entered the long-abandoned house. The little furniture that had been in the house was still in place, although mice and rain had taken their toll on the overstuffed sofa in the front room. Methodically walking through the few rooms he stopped in one with an old tattered mattress on a set of rusty box spring, a room that brought back mixed memories. Walking out the back door, he strode to the edge of the woods and, after searching, located two rocks embedded in the ground near a stand of large oak trees. After gazing at them for a few minutes, the young man walked into the meadow and pulled some wildflowers, then tenderly placed them on the stones. Tears welled in his eyes as he thought of the pain endured by two people he had loved but had been unable to protect.

About twenty minutes later he was retracing his steps on the rutted road as plumes of black smoke rose behind him. Upon reaching the Jeep, he again referred to the map and compass, but before leaving the area he removed a worn khaki backpack from the passenger’s seat. Hesitant at first where he should enter the woods, he eventually settled on a well-used deer path. The bushes and wild grasses were wet from a heavy rain the night before, and in short order his boots and lower pant legs were drenched.

After several miles, some of it backtracking when a wrong turn slowed him down, he came upon the small lake where he remembered spending the happiest weeks of his life. Walking to a section of the lake he recalled, he saw that a number of young bigtooth aspen trees were growing in the open space where a cabin once stood. The other buildings he remembered had also burned. He gazed upon a blackened woodstove, now almost covered with vines, a chimney, and the remains of a fireplace. Upon closer inspection the young man found a cemented stone rectangle embedded in the ground, some of the stones covered with weeds and various low bushes, these having once served as a foundation for the cabin. With the midday sun taking the chill from the air, the young man sat on the wet grassy ground. For about an hour he watched two loons swimming gracefully on the lake, an osprey diving for fish, and a great blue heron hunting for food in a nearby cove.

He then opened his backpack and removed a thermos of coffee and a sandwich he had brought with him. After finishing his light lunch, he removed a large envelope from the backpack and withdrew two items, a yellowed newspaper clipping he had read years ago and a sealed envelope, with tattered edges and the word “Cody” printed on it, both items that he had carefully saved over the years. This being his twenty-first birthday, he opened the small envelope with trembling fingers and removed three sheets of paper filled with a neat script. Alternately, tears and smiles appeared as he read and re-read the letter from his summer guardian those many years ago. The afternoon sun was reflecting off the lake’s surface as he placed the letter into the envelope and then extracted the worn newspaper clipping. As he again read the article that had appeared in the local newspaper of Canton, the St. Lawrence Plaindealer, he occasionally glanced at his surroundings, savoring pleasant memories.

The newspaper article was based on a murder in a nearby rural community. Two photographs accompanied the article, one showing a derelict house in a meadow where a man had been shot and the other showing the site where a former lakeside cabin stood, now with only a foundation, stove, and chimney remaining. The reporter had interviewed four individuals for the story, including the sheriff who never knew the victim or the suspect; a retired real estate agent who sold the suspect the cabin on Lost Lake; a retired storekeeper who lived in this isolated community and had interacted with both the suspect and victim; and an Adirondack Park Ranger, the son of the victim who, in a strange twist, had spent a summer with the suspect.

The newspaper article read:

“In the early morning hours of September 15, 1991, the sheriff of Canton, Douglas Czerwinski, and two of his deputies, along with three dogs, were walking through some dense woods adjoining the northwestern portion of the Adirondack Park with an arrest warrant for the occupant of a cabin located on Lost Lake. The sheriff related the following story to this reporter.

‘Based on information my office received from an unnamed source, there was a strong suspicion that Mr. Blanton’s killer lived in the remote cabin. But when we arrived to make an arrest, the cabin was on fire and burned to the ground with us being helpless to douse the flames. I was perplexed in that after the fire had died down and the site could be carefully inspected, there was no sign of human remains. Beforehand, my two deputies and I, along with our dogs, were spread out in the woods, and I do not see how anyone could have escaped without being detected by us, and especially the dogs.’

‘About five years earlier my office investigated a report of a missing man at the same site on Lost Lake. In each case, we issued an all alert, using a description of the two men provided by the storekeeper, but they never led to any credible sightings. We had reports from all around, but we did not have the resources to follow through on them and the ones in which we did failed to provide useful information. We finally closed both cases as unsolved.’

A retired real estate agent in Canton, Justin Morris, proved to be very knowledgeable about the history of the cabin and the most recent occupant. Our interview is summarized below.

‘The cabin was built by a wealthy investor from Manhattan, Dunham Greeley, who purchased over six thousand acres of land and immediately deeded all of it to the Adirondack Park Agency with the exception of ten acres on Lost Lake that he reserved for his personal use. He built a winterized cabin, but on a weekend trip the man vanished and was never seen again. I was asked to handle the sale of the cabin and ten acres of land. Although I had a number of inquiries, none led to any offers once the remoteness of the site was understood. Finally a handsome bearded young man, Jeremiah Higgins, a vet, agreed to purchase the cabin and ten acres with the intent of living there. I warned him of the long frigid winters and the difficulty of getting necessary food and supplies, but he was determined and not to be deterred. He paid cash and moved in soon afterwards. I had no further contact with him after the sale.’

A former storeowner, William (Willy) Vasiliev, had lived in the remote village several miles from the cabin on Lost Lake and was now retired and living in a nursing home outside of Canton. He had much to tell about the two occupants of the cabin.

‘The original owner was nice enough but let it be known that he did not want to befriend any of us in the village. After putting so much money into his cabin, he spent little time there. One weekend he stopped by my store for some supplies and headed into the woods. He was never seen again. I believe if anyone did a thorough search of the bottom of Lost Lake they would find his remains. Now the second man to own the cabin was a young man who looked a lot like the original builder and owner. Both were slender and about six feet tall, and both had well-trimmed beards with no mustache. I never knew his name, but he was someone you did not want to mess with. As we got to know each other, he turned out to be a nice sincere fellow who was easy to deal with in all our transactions. I feel that I have done a lot of good things and a lot of bad things in my life, but looking back the worse thing I ever did was report the man to the sheriff as a strong suspect in the killing of old Blanton. Now if I could do it over I would thank the vet for ridding the area of a bad-assed man who deserved to die after what he did to his wife and two children. I’ll never forgive myself.’

The son of the deceased Mr. Blanton, Cody, was living in a foster home and was given permission by his foster parents to be interviewed by this reporter in their presence. The boy spoke in glowing terms of the vet, but he refused to speak of his late father.

‘He was the nicest man I ever knew. He supported and loved me when I had no one else. I never wanted to leave him, but he insisted that I receive an education and have a stable family life. I think of him every day and wish I could thank him.’

From all the evidence, even though scant, it seems that Mr. Higgins is a likely suspect in the murder of Mr. Blanton, but the case is effectively closed due to the lack of any credible evidence and the missing Mr. Higgins. It remains a mystery how two men simply vanished from the Lost Lake cabin and region, and at this point it is likely that we will never know the full stories of their disappearances. Recent reports from the state attorneys, finding a loophole in the original agreement, suggest that the ten acres on which the cabin was built will soon become part of the Adirondack Park Agency.”

The Park Ranger returned the newspaper clipping to the large envelope and then removed a well-used book. Entitled “The Wildflowers of Lost Lake and Surrounding Areas,” he had referred often to this book in his rounds of the Park. It had been commissioned by the Adirondack Park Agency as it was in the process of incorporating over six thousand acres of adjoining state land into the Park. The Agency had asked a botany expert on the area, Professor Meghan O’Donnell of Syracuse University and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, to undertake a thorough inventory of the wildflowers, soon to become Park property, and write a report. The voluminous document was so well researched and written that the Board decided to publish it as a book instead of a report that would probably be filed away, becoming inaccessible to the public. One sentence in the Acknowledgements of the book had caught the eye of the young Park Ranger:

“I am particularly indebted to the Hermit of Lost Lake for escorting me on my first excursion of this magnificent region and showing me the wide variety of spring wildflowers in this area.”

The ranger had long considered contacting the professor to learn more about the acknowledgment, but for some inexplicable reason had resisted.

Had he visited her office he would have seen, prominently displayed on a bookshelf, two photographs, one of a familiar lakeside cabin with a handsome bearded man standing in front and the other of a young boy standing at the edge of a small lake. Had he perused the bookshelves in her office he would have seen a worn and obviously well used notebook that contained dates and locations of a wide variety of wildflowers written in a familiar script, and in many cases remarkably accurate sketches.

Chapter 9

Later in the year, the fall foliage was in full color. The abundance of red maple, sugar maple, and striped maple trees gave a distinctively unique blend of red, orange, and yellow that was intermixed with golden, yellow, and reddish brown from a plethora of yellow birch, paper birch, American beech, and bigtooth aspen trees, all giving a vibrant patchwork of color throughout the forest. Sections of some meadows appeared wine red from the widespread hobblebush. Although many weeks before the winter solstice and the official beginning of winter, an early snow fell leading to a dusting of the treetops and open meadows. This was followed in a week by an arctic blast that in just over a day blanketed the area with nearly two feet of snow and resulted in freezing of the lake water near the shore. The following day dawned bright and sunny, and the tops of the taller Eastern hemlocks, red spruce, Eastern pine, and balsam fir broke through the snow covering, giving the appearance from a distance of conical green hats piercing a large white diaphanous cloth. A stillness followed and all life seemed to be on hold. That night, with a full moon hanging low in the sky, the serene landscape at Lost Lake was pierced by the haunting call of a barred owl and the eerie echo across the water. There being no answer, the silence encompassing the white landscape was pervasive.

About the Author

J.D. Puett

Currently writing fiction, J.D. Puett has completed two novellas and is presently composing a third. He co-authored the 2016 book, Renaissance Art & Science @ Florence with Susan B. Puett and has published several juried papers on the Florentine Renaissance and on Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Holding advanced degrees in physics and in biochemistry, he is widely published with books, articles, and reviews in science, covering biochemistry; molecular, cell, and stem cell biology; reproductive endocrinology; cancer biology; and polymer physics/physical chemistry. An academician active in research, teaching, mentoring, and administration, he has held Professorships at three research universities and is currently an Adjunct Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.