Military / Espionage Thriller
Date Published: April 2015
Surrounded by mistyTennessee mountain tops and thundering river gorges, Melody Hill is Duff Coleridge’s home town, one he believes is as close to heaven as one can get on this earth. Yet, he is leaving. He has joined the military and heading to the war in Vietnam. With the instincts of a natural warrior the young paratrooper quickly proves himself a more than capable soldier and is recruited into the shadowy world of black-ops. Despite months of jungle fighting, Duff soon finds counter-espionage is an even more dangerous proposition when he is approached by a female South Vietnamese intelligence operative. Are her advances based on true attraction, or are they merely a means of exploitation? Is this beautiful French-Vietnamese woman, as his CIA boss claims, a Vietcong spy? Duff must depend on his natural intuition and instincts to know who is telling the truth. His CIA boss, who seems more rogue than company man, is dealing arms on the black market when he’s not delivering an arbitrary and ruthless justice to the local populace. Duff realizes he must get out before it’s too late, but only then does he discover he is already trapped in a lethal game of cat and mouse.
The Hills of Tennessee
Duff Coleridge stood over a freshly killed deer, one he hadn’t meant to kill. It was a stupid mistake, one a seasoned hunter shouldn’t have made. He had watched a buck threading its way along a distant wooded ridge that late afternoon. Visible one moment and hidden in the shadows the next, the buck reappeared far back in the trees as Duff steadied his rifle. This was his last opportunity to stock the family freezer with much-needed venison before leaving. Again the buck disappeared, but then it was there in his crosshairs. At nearly four hundred yards, Duff found only the deer’s front shoulder visible. That was all he needed. Holding fifteen inches high, he squeezed off the shot.
There weren’t a lot of deer in the area, and conservation laws forbade the killing of does, but after the long walk to the top of the ridge, Duff found he had done just that. Somehow, the buck had traded places with a doe, one he hadn’t even realized was around. Duff ran his hand gently over the deer’s grayish-brown hide. She wouldn’t go to waste, but neither would she have any more fawns. His foster brother, Brady, who was hunting nearby, would arrive in a while to help carry the deer down the mountain. Duff would have to admit to a careless mistake. It was a hell of a way to end his thirty-day leave.
After making quick work of field-dressing the deer, he pulled it out to a high bluff on the edge of the woods where he awaited his brother. Far below, the waters of the Hiwassee spilled over the rocks in shimmering ripples and swirling eddies, curling their way to the distant horizon. Out beyond where the river disappeared into the hills, the winter sun offered a silent requiem to another day, and it brought back another ache that never quite left his heart.
Duff loved the Tennessee mountains and the town of Melody Hill. Growing up here had been as close to heaven as he could imagine being, but it was a bittersweet love, because despite all their beauty, it was these hills that had taken his father. And if he had learned anything the day they buried William Coleridge in the church cemetery, it was that life could come and go as quickly as summer rain. Perhaps this was what drove him to leave—to before his life, too, passed like the clouds on the horizon.
It wasn’t going to be without risk, but the military was his ticket to life, and he had taken what was offered. Duff had enlisted in the army, and he had no misconceptions about Vietnam. During Basic, and later at Fort Polk, the drill instructors said this new war was a bad one. Not that any war was good, but this one was like none before. There were no front lines. There was no easily recognizable enemy, but they left calling cards everywhere in the form of booby traps. Over the years, many of the men from around Melody Hill had done it— off to war. Most came back— didn’t.
He looked down at the dead deer lying at his feet. There would be little room for mistakes like this in Vietnam. He had to get his head right. Duff’s orders had come after jump school at Benning. He was going to the First Brigade of the 101 st Airborne, Phan Rang, Republic of South Vietnam. In five days his military leave would end. He was a paratrooper going to war.
Duff gazed out at the distant mountains. It seemed a natural progression of events had brought him here, almost as if his entire time growing up he had been guided by some invisible hand. Even as he played with Brady and Lacey in the hills and streams around home, every experience had somehow brought him to this point, experiences like the day down in Etowah when they saw the trick marksman. Only now did he realize it had been a seductive siren’s call.
Duff remembered that magnificent autumn morning with its Indian summer sun shining brightly on colorful handmade quilts. His mother had sewn the quilts to sell at Trade Day, but she had three kids to keep busy that day. She gave each of them, Duff, Brady, and Lacey, a quarter, and turned them loose. Feeling like a twelve-old rich man that morning, Duff struck out across the grounds with his siblings. The Tennessee hills rose all around as the three kids kicked off their shoes and tromped barefoot through the thick, cool winter rye, talking, laughing, and soaking up the autumn sun.
Duff was almost a year older than the others, a little taller and burdened with the responsibilities of a big brother, even to Brady, who was as much a friend as he was a foster brother. With his two siblings in tow, Duff led the way as they wandered through the vendors’ booths searching for the one trinket they had to have— long as it didn’t cost more than twenty-five cents. It was midmorning when the crisp mountain air cracked with the sound of a rifle. It came from the far end of the grounds.
Etowah Trade Day was as much a community fair as it was a market. Guitar, mandolin, and fiddle players sat in a clutch of chairs circled beneath the sweet gums, while people plied wares that ran from home-baked pies to pickled okra and live goats. The kids ran along a row of cars and pickups parked in the grass as they heard more shots and the oohs and aahhs of a crowd gathered in the field beyond. It was a man doing a marksmanship demonstration.
Duff turned. “Come on, guys, hurry up.”
Brady was with him step for step, but Lacey was in no particular hurry as she ran her little fingers over jars of honey on a vendor’s table.
“Come on, Lacey,” Duff pleaded.
She turned and ran his way, and Duff led them toward the sound of the gunshots. The kids squeezed through the crowd of adults to the front row. A man wearing a white shirt with a dark brown vest and khaki trousers held a rifle high in the air. He was smiling, and his vest was filled with colorful championship patches.
“This, my friends, is the Remington Arms, Nylon 66, .22 caliber longrifle, and this particular model is the Apache Black version with a chrome barrel and receiver. It holds fourteen rounds.”
“Whoa, check it out,” Duff said.
The reflection was almost blinding, as the shiny black and chrome rifle glistened in the morning sunlight.
“Yeah,” Brady said, his eyes wide with amazement.
Lacey shaded her eyes with her hand and squinted, but said nothing.
“On the fence rail behind me you see seven cans filled with water,” the man said. With a quick but incredibly smooth motion, he pivoted and fired seven rounds inside of two seconds, sending each can bursting into a shower of water, jerking and tumbling through the air.
“Wow!” Brady said. “He’s good.”
The men in the audience hooted, cheered, and clapped, and the marksman held up a small object. The anticipation built as he waited for total silence. The last of the mumbling in the back tapered off as the crowd grew quiet with expectation.
“This, my friends, is your common, everyday black walnut, the wild variety, hardly fit for consumption, unless you own a sledge hammer to crack it.”
A ripple of laughter filtered through the crowd.
“I have several of these tasty little morsels, but I have no hammer. So, let’s see if we can do it another way.”
After setting them on a small table, the man began rapidly tossing walnuts one at a time into the air with his left hand, firing at them with the .22. As he did, each burst into a black cloud of fragments and dust, until he had shot seven in all. More applause and a loud whistle came from the crowd, and Duff, too, found himself clapping in amazement. The man began reloading his rifle, and Duff looked around at Lacey and Brady. The crowd behind them had grown to at least thirty people.
“For my final demonstration of the morning,” the man said, “I’m going to fire a bullet through the hole in this washer.”
He held a large metal washer on his index finger for the crowd to see. Another round of chuckles circulated through the crowd.
“Oh no, I’m not joking,” the man said.
With that he tossed the washer high into the air. His motions weren’t jerky, but fluid and focused as the rifle came to his shoulder. When the washer reached the apex of its climb, the man fired a single shot. The crack of the Nylon 66 quickly faded in the distance as the crowd remained silent and watched the washer fall to the ground.
“Wow,” Duff exclaimed.
The man beside him patted his head.
“It’s a joke, sonny boy. He didn’t really shoot through the hole.” Overhearing him, the marksman said, “Oh, but I did, sir, and it’s even more difficult to shoot two washers with two shots at the same time.”
With that, he quickly turned and tossed two more washers, and fired two more shots. Both washers fell, seemingly untouched, back to earth.
“Bull feathers,” the man said.
“No, sir,” the marksman replied. “It’s not.”
He tossed yet another washer into the air. The crack of the rifle was followed instantaneously by the zing of the washer as it rocketed away.
“You see, I can hit the side of the washer if I want.”
“So, how are you gonna prove you really shot through the hole in them others?” the man asked.
The marksman smiled.
“If I can prove it, will you take a friendly wager that I can shoot through the holes of three washers on the same toss, say a quarter a shot?”
“I reckon so,” the man said.
“Would anyone else like to make a bet?” the marksman asked. Men began stepping forward and tossing their quarters, dimes, and nickels on the table.
“Heck fire,” another man said. “I don’t doubt you, but reckon I’d pay seventy five cents just to see you do it.”
When they were done, the man quickly counted the money. “There’s eighteen dollars here,” the marksman announced.
“Anyone who placed a bet, regardless of the outcome, is entitled to a free box of Remington .22 longrifle ammunition, courtesy of Remington Arms Company. Just pick it up here at the table.”
He pulled a wrinkled twenty from his pocket and laid it atop the money on the table.
Duff had never seen so much money at one time.
“Now,” the man said as he laid three more washers on the table. “I’m going to place a postage stamp over each of the holes in these washers.” He licked the stamps and stuck them to the washers. When he was done, he held them up for everyone to see, then picked up the Nylon 66. Again, washers sailed upward. Again, the marksman fired shots. Again, the washers fell back to the ground, seemingly untouched. The marksman laid the rifle on the table and turned to
Duff and Brady.
“Would you boys mind going over there and finding the three washers with postage stamps?”
The boys scrambled forward and searched the grass. Brady found the first one. Holding it up to his eye, he peeked through the small hole in the stamp. Duff picked up the second. It too had a .22 caliber hole. When they had found all three, there came applause and the crowd began dispersing, but Duff, Brady, and Lacey lingered as the boys admired the shiny new Nylon 66.
“How did you learn to shoot like that, mister?” Duff asked. The man smiled.
“Practice, practice, and more practice,” he said. “Do you own a rifle?”
Brady and Duff nodded together. “Yes, sir. We both do, but they’re just old JC Higgins single shots. My mama got them for us here at Trade Day last year.”
“Well, those old JC Higgins rifles will shoot just as accurately as this rifle,” the man said.
“Really?” Duff said.
“Really,” the man answered. “You just have to shoot them. Like I said, practice, practice, and practice.”
“We do, when we have bullets,” Brady said.
“Do your rifles shoot .22 longrifle cartridges?” the man asked. “Yes, sir.”
He reached into a box on the table.
“My sponsor, the Remington Arms Company, supplies me with free ammunition. I’m sure they won’t mind my sharing a few boxes. Here.”
With that, he placed two boxes each in front of Duff and Brady.
“Wow! Thanks, mister.”
“Just be safe. Don’t aim at anything you don’t intend to shoot, and remember that ninety-nine percent of making a good shot comes from that little knot-head of yours.”
That had been almost seven years ago, and Duff had since become an exceptional marksman, but the dead deer at his feet presented a new realization. Such talent brought with it a huge responsibility. From the opposite side of the mountain came the distant sound of chimes from the Melody Hill church, signaling another day’s end. With dusk quickly fading into nightfall, he decided to go find Brady. Having his help carrying the deer down the mountain would make the task easier. He turned, and there came a soft whistle from back in the trees. Duff whistled back. A moment later, Brady appeared from the shadows.
“You’re not going to believe what I did,” Duff said. Brady looked down at the deer.
“I was looking at a buck,” Duff said, “and I don’t know how, but—”
“Stop your worrying,” Brady said. “We’ll get her skinned-out and in the freezer. You’ve got more important things to think about.”
“You mean like leaving?” “Exactly,” Brady said.
Duff nodded. “Reckon you’re right.”
There remained only five days before he departed, and though it was late fall, they planned to spend the next afternoon down at the river. A rocky shallows of gravel bars where the kids hung out, the shoals were part of the Hiawassee where they built campfires, floated the rapids with inner tubes, and often had their first taste of liquor. Tomorrow it would be just the three of them, Duff, Brady and Lacey. It would be their last time together down at the river— time for Duff to say his good-byes
About the Author
Writer, photographer, and avid outdoorsman Rick DeStefanis lives in northern Mississippi with his wife of forty years, Janet. While his nonfiction writing, such as The Philosophy of Big Buck Hunting, focuses on his outdoor excursions, it is his military expertise that informs his novels. His works, Raeford’s MVP (coming fall, 2015), Melody Hill, and the award-winning novel The Gomorrah Principle, all draw from his experiences as a paratrooper and infantry light weapons specialist serving from 1970 to 1972 with the 82nd Airborne Division. Learn more about DeStefanis and his books at http://www.rickdestefanis.com/, or you can visit Rick on Facebook at Rick DeStefanis Books and Photography
$5 Amazon Gift Card