Dale Puckett’s funeral was held two days later on the hillside overlooking his farmhouse and the remains of the barn. There wasn’t any church service preceding the burial. Dale wasn’t a religious man and neither was his wife or son.
The only people attending besides Tom and his mother were the two hands who helped work the farm, Mary’s sister and her husband. The local mortician said a few words calling Dale a hard working family man who loved his wife and children. The plural use of “child” underlined the fact that he knew little about the man in the casket.
As Tom watched the casket being lowered into the ground, he looked at the farmland spread out below the knoll. The barn had burned down to the foundation and looked like a dark smudge on a quilt of checkerboard green pastures. Soon it would all be flooded over so that water would rise almost to where he was standing now. His father’s grave would be along the shoreline of a lake he never wanted to exist.
With his death the lake was a certainty. Mother had said she wouldn’t sell the land to Norton Utilities, but in the end she would have to. Who else was going to buy land that stood in the way of Jim Dolan after what had happened to his father. Nobody.
As his father’s hired hands shoveled dirt over his casket, the finality of his death hit Mary. She fell to her hands and knees, pounding her fists on the loose ground. Her brother-in-law reached for her, but she wouldn’t stop. “Why did they have to do this?” she kept asking over and over again until her sobs covered her words and turned into the cry of a woman in mortal pain. Tom bent down and gently whispered in her ear. “It’s all right, Mother,” he said firmly. “We know who did this and I will see that they pay. I promise you. They will pay.”
Then he helped her get back on her feet. Her tears stopped and she kissed him on the cheek.
That night Tom lay awake thinking about how he would satisfy the final request made by his dying father and the promise to his mother. He was only a kid, thirteen years old. He wasn’t in any position to get revenge on the man who headed a giant company like Norton Utilities. There was no way. At least for now.
For the moment he would concentrate on helping his mother as much as he could. Her sister and her husband had offered their home in Massachusetts once she was forced to sell the farm. He would hate leaving this beautiful valley he had grown up in, but wouldn’t give her any trouble going. The move would send his life in an unknown direction, but whatever it was he would dedicate it to avenging his father’s death. Every decision in the future, every opportunity that arose, he would take if it moved him closer to keeping his promise to his father. He would destroy Jim Dolan’s Norton Utilities and the lake they would create.
Piccolo, sitting in the room given to him by Marbury Register editor Dave Halstead, read the next article about Dale Puckett in the July 9, 1967 issue of the newspaper. It followed the headline: FARMER DIES WHEN BARN IS HIT BY LIGHTNING.
The article read:
Mr. Dale Puckett, aged 37 died last evening when his barn was struck by lightning. Brookdale Volunteer Fire Chief Jamie Phelps said Mr. Puckett ran into the burning barn in an attempt to save his horses and was found dead, badly burned, when they arrived. Several severe thunderstorms had hit the area earlier and the barn had been hit by lightning according to Chief Phelps.
Mr. Puckett is survived by his wife Mary and son Thomas. Funeral arrangements will be handled by The Moriarty Funeral Home, Marbury. Visiting hours are from 7-9 PM this evening and burial will take place at 11 AM tomorrow morning at the Puckett property on Nabby Road, Brookdale.
Again Jumper Phelps had been mentioned. And he had told the Register that Puckett had died as a result of his barn having been hit by lightning. But he told his great grandson that lightning hadn’t been the cause. Then what had been?
He scanned through the rest of the month’s issues. There was nothing more about Puckett’s death. Articles talked about the clearing of the land and the building of three dams to contain the new lake. Just as Halstead had said, little mention of Arrowhead followed until a month before its opening on May 25, 1968. It had taken over forty days for water from the Paquatuck River to fill the valley, but on that day James Dolan stood beaming in front of the newly created Arrowhead Lake with then Governor Rowland Towsley.
“Dolan, that bastard had been responsible,” is what young Jamie had quoted Jumper as saying. Was Dolan responsible for Puckett’s death? And if he was, why had Jumper covered it up by saying the cause of the fire was a lightning storm? Was he working for Dolan?
Piccolo put the newspapers down and leaned back in his chair to think the whole thing through.
He jotted down several notes to himself on a pad Halstead had left him. Among them were: try to talk to living members of the volunteer fire department
check police records at the time of Puckett’s death
talk to Dolan. What’s he got to say about the fire?
find out what happened to Mary Puckett and her son Tom.
Those would be a start. Hopefully they would lead to other questions and answers.
He was just about to leave the newspaper when his cell phone rang. It was Tillitson at the Marbury Historical Society.
“Thought there were a couple of things I found over here that I should tell you about,” Tillitson said.
“Okay, go ahead,” Piccolo said opening his pad again.
“The names Dolan and Phelps came up in the Society’s old records.
“Came up over here too. What do you have?”
“Seems like Jumper was the fire chief of the Brookdale Volunteer Fire Department.”
“And Jim Dolan was the biggest contributor to the department. Norton Utilities for some reason made a big donation just when Dolan was buying all of the property needed for the lake. On the same day Jumper was made chief.”
“Sounds like Dolan had his man inside the department.”
“You got it.”
Piccolo thought for a minute and then asked. “Do you know if there are any surviving members of the volunteer fire department?”
“I’m looking at a group picture of them right now,” Tillitson said. According to Margaret here who’s the curator, five are still alive.”
“See if we can talk to them.”
“Will do. Is that all?”
“For now, yeah Roy.” He thought for a moment and then added, “We’ve got some pieces to put together here, but I think we’re working on the right puzzle now.”
Piccolo pulled his marked sheriff’s vehicle up in front of Dave Phillips house in one of Marbury’s more run down neighborhoods. Phillips was one of the surviving members of the 1967 Brookdale Volunteer Fire Department who still lived in the area. For that reason he had been selected by Piccolo to be questioned first.
The other reason was that Phillips had been stopped for speeding three years ago and found to be driving while intoxicated. The judge had been lenient taking away his license for just two months and issuing a stern warning. Piccolo felt this scrape with the law might make Phillips a little intimidated to be questioned about another offense, so he put him on the top of the list.
Phillip’s house was the most run down on the block. Piccolo almost tripped on a loose step as he climbed onto the porch. After seeing the doorbell didn’t work, he rapped loudly on the screen door several times hoping he would be heard over the ballgame on a TV in the living room. Finally Phillips opened the door. He was an overweight guy in a pair of dirty cut off jeans and a tee shirt that stretched out over his large gut. He had a can of beer in his hand.
“Mr. Dave Phillips?” Piccolo asked through the screen door.
“I called this morning asking to speak to you. May I come in?”
Phillips opened the door and Piccolo followed him into a disgusting living room. Newspapers littered the floor, clothes were thrown on the furniture and the room reeked of some unknown musty odor. A disinterested German shepherd with matted fur lie in the corner.
“Would you mind turning off the ballgame while we talked Mr. Phillips,” Piccolo said looking for a place to sit that wasn’t full of junk.
“Yeah I suppose.” Phillips clicked the set off with a remote.
Piccolo moved some old newspapers off a sofa and sat down. He took a folder from his briefcase and scanned it quickly. The report from Phillip’s DWI said he worked on and off as a garage mechanic and had quit the volunteer fire department fifteen years ago.
“As I said this morning on the phone Mr. Phillips we’re investigating the death of Mr. Dale Puckett in 1967 when his barn caught fire. You were at that fire as a member of the Brookdale Vounteer Department? Is that right?”
“Yeah, his barn was struck by lightning. And that was a long time ago. Why you asking about it now?”
“There’s some question as to whether the barn was actually hit by lightning.”
Phillips smiled revealing a missing upper tooth. He turned his swivel recliner to face Piccolo directly.
“Some question? Our fire chief said it was lightning that hit it. That went into the report.”
“Yes it did,” Piccolo said looking up from his folder. “But your chief said before he died that it wasn’t caused by lightning.”
“Jumper said that?”
Phillips laughed. “That old fool. I saw him at the nursing home about a year ago. He wasn’t playing with a full deck then. He can’t remember what happened.”
“He remembers that the trucks were late getting there and..”
“We got there as quick as we could,” Phillips said reaching for a cigarette. “Couldn’t have gotten there any quicker.
“What did you find when you arrived?”
“Barn was almost burned to the ground. We got water on it but it was too late.”
“Where was Mr. Puckett?”
“On the ground dead already. The fool went in that barn trying to save his horses. Got one of them out.”
“Where was Mrs. Puckett and their son?”
“Right next to the body. It was all burned.”
Piccolo put the folder back in his briefcase. He needed to try and get under this guy’s skin and he wasn’t going to do it reading from a folder.
“Did you know Mr. Jim Dolan?” The question was critical and he watched Phillips carefully.
“Well I uh.. I uh didn’t know him that well. He was the head of a big company and didn’t mess around with us guys.”
“But you did know him?”
“Yeah. Gave a lot of money to the department. Came around a few times. Told us what a good job we were doing and that kind of stuff.”
“I’m sure you were.” Piccolo leaned back in the chair crossing his legs and assuming a more relaxed attitude. “Tell me Dave, did you sell farmland to Dolan’s company Norton Utilities?”
“Two hundred acres. Did real well.”
Piccolo looked around him and wondered where the money went.
“How did you feel about Dale Puckett being the only holdout who wouldn’t sell his land to Dolan?”
Phillips took a long drag on his cigarette and coughed a few times. It bought him seconds to think this one out. His honest answer would have been that he hated the bastard. Who the hell did Puckett think he was to ruin all the rest of their chances to sell land at a high price? More than they would have gotten from anybody else. Puckett deserved what he got. He wasn’t supposed to die though, just be scared enough so he would sell his land.
But that’s not what he would tell this snooping sheriff who comes out of the woodwork thirty five years later. He knew where all his questions were coming from. He read the goddamn papers. Dolan and Norton Utilities were thought to be the target of whoever put the shark in Arrowhead Lake. They wanted to know who was after Dolan.
“I thought Puckett had the right to hold onto his land if he wanted to,” he said as calmly as he could. “A man has a right to his opinion."
“Even if it would screw you and all your friends out of a lot of money? The lake wouldn’t have been built if Puckett hadn’t died would it? He would have held out.”
“Maybe..I don’t know.”
“And Dolan wasn’t responsible for any of it was he? He just came down to the firehouse and told you all what a great job you were doing. That’s not what Jumper says. Jumper says he was responsible.”
“Jumper was crazy. He had a screwed up mind that didn’t remember.”
“Here’s what I think happened Phillips,” Piccolo said leaning forward in his chair now. “Jumper said it wasn’t lightning that caused the fire. It was something else. The something else was you and your cronies at the firehouse. Dolan was behind it because he paid you to set the fire. Then you took your sweet ass time getting to Puckett’s until it was too late. Dolan also paid Jumper by getting him elected chief and probably cash along with it. Years later Jumper gets Alzheimers but never forgets what he and Dolan did. He feels guilty and spills the whole story.”
Piccolo picked up the folder next to him and held it out.
“I got the name of five other guys who were there that night with you. John Withers, Hank Zawicki, Tony Tedesco, Aldo Monetti and Bucky Hampton. I’m going to talk to every one of them and someone is going to give it all up to me. And the guy who does isn’t going to be charged with arson. Because you guys set the fire didn’t you.”
“We didn’t set any fire.”
“I say you did,” Piccolo snapped back. “Do you know what you can get for arson Phillips? And this could be arson resulting in a death. I say you’d be looking at ten to fifteen easily.”
“You can’t prove anything,” Phillips said suddenly snuffing out an unwanted cigarette.
“I’ve usually found that statement to be an admission of guilt,” Piccolo said with a smile on his face for the first time. “Is that right?”
“Hell no. We didn’t set any fire.”
“Well then I guess we’re done here aren’t we,” Piccolo said gathering up his briefcase. “Maybe some of your friends will be more cooperative. I’m sure once I offer to waive charges somebody will give me the truth. Once they do I’ll be back here to charge you so don’t make any sudden trips.”
Piccolo started for the door.
“Wait a minute.”
“Excuse me?” Piccolo said as if not to hear him.
“I said wait a minute,” Phillips said louder. Piccolo returned to his chair.
“Dolan paid us a few bucks to set the fire,” Phillips said reluctantly. He struggled to get words out that hopefully would buy immunity. “Bucky, Tony and myself poured gasoline around the barn and set it on fire. Then we went back to the firehouse and took our time answering Mrs. Puckett’s call.”
“There must have been evidence that it was a gasoline fire then,” Piccolo said.
“Sure but nobody looked close. They left the investigation to us and Jumper signed off that lightning caused the fire. There was an electrical storm earlier with lightning. That’s why we picked that night. It was perfect.”
Phillips shook his head as he recalled more of the details.
“We had to kill Puckett’s dog which we knew would be yappin’ away. But that was okay because that’s all we would ever admit to. We had killed his dog because he was holdin’ out selling his property.”
“So did the police follow up with an investigation?”
“Nope. The papers said the barn had been hit by lightning based on what Jumper told them and that was it. To tell you the truth nobody wanted any big investigation. Everybody was just happy that Dolan could buy all the property now for the lake.”
“How long before Mrs. Puckett sold to him?”
“About three weeks. She knew she and her son couldn’t handle the place and who the hell else was going to buy it. And stand in the way of Dolan? No way.”
Piccolo nodded and then tried to quickly piece together in his mind what he had just heard. Phillip’s had tied together all of Jumper’s ramblings and confirmed that Dolan had been responsible for the fire. But he hadn’t told him anything that would lead to who was behind the shark in the lake.
It also seemed apparent that nobody really wanted a detailed investigation. Everyone must have suspected that Dolan was behind Puckett’s barn burning, but nobody wanted to go up against him. Neither did the newspaper nor the police. Dolan and his lake were too powerful a force.
So who was left to hate him thirty years later? The widow and her then young son were real possibilities.
Other ebooks by Bob Neidhardt are
Kill The Author, Mr. Best Selling Author and Tarnished Bronze.
All are available on Amazon.com