Chapter 22: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)

Note: The people in these chapters are all totally fictional, but the town and the valley and the mountain are not. I loved visiting this spot, where my Dad grew up, and would love to go back some day.

I think it takes the group in this chapter longer to hike down that mountain than it should. I needed it to take longer, so let’s say they stopped for a rest and a snack halfway down?

 I also note that as long as I’m stuck with a plot that must include time travel (see the notes on chapter 1 about my dislike of that plot point), I’ll try to stay as consistent as I can and as vague as I can.  More on that in future chapters.

Chapter 22

When Ashley woke the next morning, she felt even more like she was waking up in one of her Historical Miss books.  A cool breeze blew in the open window, which never happened in July in North Carolina. The unaccustomed sound of mooing from the calf outside floated to her ears along with bird songs and dog barks. At home on summer mornings all she ever heard was the quiet whoosh of central air conditioning and Peter and Nathan arguing in the next room.

She opened her eyes to see a bright blue sky outside a window framed by cheery pink gingham curtains.  She smiled thinking of Utah Una starting a new life in this untamed territory.

As a pioneer, Utah Una underwent many hardships, and as Ashley sat up in bed she was thankful not to have to do a round of chores first thing in the morning or deal with hunger or sicknesses without modern medicine. The only chores she had was to brush her teeth, comb her hair and get dressed.

Today was the 4th of July so Ashley quickly chose a blue and white shirt with red shorts to wear and then followed the smell of bacon downstairs to see what was for breakfast.

Mom, Peter, and Charlie were in the kitchen eating eggs and bacon with the Jamesons, and she joined them.  Dad and Peter came in shortly after walking the dogs and finally Nathan wandered in yawning and rubbing his eyes. The Jamesons took turns making more eggs and bacon and toast until everyone was full.

“Harry’s going to drive us up East Mountain this morning,” Dad said. “Mom and I climbed down it once when we were here last, following clues to a mystery, but today maybe Nathan, Peter and I will climb down just for fun.”

“Why can’t I come?” Ashley asked, although she didn’t really want to. She just didn’t want to miss out on anything her brothers were doing.

“You could if you want to, but it is a little dangerous. There are steep areas where it would be better if you were a little older and had longer legs.”

Laurie Jameson said,  “Ashley, I thought while they are climbing I could take you to ride one of our horses. We won’t have time to ride later, what with the rodeo this afternoon and the cookout tonight. But you can do whichever you want.”

Ashley smiled, glad to have an excuse not to climb. “I’d love to ride a horse!”

“Great! We’re all going up to the top for some photos and a look around, and then we’ll come back here for a while.”

They got the Suburban out of the garage so everyone could fit in one car. It was a winding, bumpy ride to the top of the ridge, and Nathan nearly got car sick, but when they got there, the view was worth it.

The entire valley was spread in front of them, green and blue from irrigation with a winding river running parallel to the range. A straight white road led to the cluster of houses that made up the town, which seemed like a speck in the wide valley. The foothills of the Monte Cristo range faced them across the valley to the west. It was a clear day, and to the south Harry said the mountains they could see were part of the Uinta range, at least 80 miles away.

Harry also pointed out the place where people came to launch hang gliders. Peter decided he would come back when he was older to ride a hang glider here, although a look over the edge made him suddenly glad he wasn’t older yet.

Ashley spent time looking carefully at the ground as well as at the scenery. Utah Una used to watch for signs of animal footprints and human footprints, and in one story she saved the family by recognizing mountain lion footprints and later following human footprints to a nearby camp. Ashley was also secretly hoping to find an arrowhead, after seeing a collection mounted on the wall in the Jameson’s house.

“Everything’s so open! It seems like no one could hide out here,” Peter said.

“Don’t be so sure,” Frank countered. “Look down there at the road. What cars to you see?”

“None,” Peter said. “Wait. There’s one. It’s so small!”

“Can you tell what kind it is? Is it a car or a pickup? Or a van?”

“I can’t tell at all.”

“See that dead cedar tree down there?” Frank pointed to a distinctive twisty tree a little ways down the mountain.  “How tall do you think it is? Could someone be hiding in it? Behind it?”

The family hiked down to the tree and Nathan posed in the crook of its branches. “This tree looked like a toy from up there, but it’s really big. Distances and sizes are so deceptive here!” he said. “Not like at home where everything you see is never more than a block away!”

The family took a lot of photos with  the good camera, and then Frank, Nathan and Peter started hiking down a gully not far from the photogenic cedar tree. Ashley loved exploring on the mountain, but after the boys left, she was excited to get back to the valley to ride a horse.

A couple hours later when Nanette, Ashley and Charlie drove back to the foot of the mountain to meet up with the boys, Ashley and Charlie had fallen asleep in their seats.

Ashley had thoroughly enjoyed the chance to ride Zinnia, a gentle older mare. Zinnia even broke into a trot for a bit. Charlie had ridden with Nanette on Marigold, Zinnia’s sister. They also spent some time picking wildflowers for a centerpiece and helping the Jamesons peel potatoes and apples for the potato salad and pie they would have later at the cookout. By the time the three of them headed back to the mountain, Ashley and Charlie were worn out.

Nanette pulled off the road and stopped at the planned rendezvous location.  Between the car and the mountain was a wide green swath of grass leading toward gentle slopes covered with weeds and sagebrush. These slopes eventually narrowed, leading into a steep green gully surrounded by the craggy orange and brown rocky mountainside.

Nanette used the binoculars, hoping to get a glimpse of the boys somewhere near the foot of the gully, but she saw no sign of movement or of Frank’s red shirt. She hoped they had been careful and hadn’t fallen or happened upon a rattlesnake or a moose. Moose looked calm and peaceful, but they were big and strong and dangerous when frightened. Don’t be silly, she thought. Of course they’re fine.

She leaned back in the driver’s seat for a moment and closed her eyes. The calm of the bright July morning and the soft breathing of the sleeping children in the back lulled her into a drowsy, state.  She heard the sound of a car on the road and vaguely wondered if Laurie and Harry had arrived. The Jamesons had planned to drive out after they finished cookout preparations if the Hales weren’t back at the house by then.

Bang!

She startled awake at the sound of a car backfiring – or was it a gunshot? Ashley and Charlie didn’t wake, but  Nanette looked around dazedly, wondering if some ranchers were hunting ground squirrels nearby.  Then she froze when she saw a black Suburban parked only a few yards away on the road. Two men wearing red bandannas over their lower faces were standing next to the Suburban holding a gun pointed toward her!

How did I let myself get caught so off guard?! Out here in the middle of nowhere! Nanette let the anger she felt at being caught unawares drive out the paralyzing feeling of terror. She could think more clearly in anger than in fear.

“Get out of the car!” One of the men yelled.  He took a threatening step forward, and Nanette quickly complied holding her hands up. Keep them away from the car and the sleeping kids, she thought.

“We don’t want to hurt you,” the man said. “Just give us the key.”

Nanette was alarmed. Were they going to steal the car? As she glanced back at her car, she saw the front tire had been shot and was completely flat. What would they want with the car like that? She slowly reached in her pocket and tossed her keys to the men.

After a quick look, the man tossed them back. “Not these keys! You know the one I mean! Where’s the key that girl picked up in Chicago? I know you have it!”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Nanette was stalling for time, trying to figure out what to do.

“We’d be real sorry to have to shoot you so we can search the car ourselves. How about you just get it for us, OK? Real slow like.”

Nanette felt like she had no choice. Slowly, she backed up and opened the driver’s side door. She thought about what she could use as a weapon. There was an umbrella in the car and the tire iron. Neither were any good against a firearm.

“Hurry up!” said the other man.

“No, go slowly!” said the first man. He then addressed his accomplice saying, “Don’t be a fool, Al. We want to make sure she doesn’t try anything funny.”

Nanette slowly reached down and pulled out the floor mat.

“Mom?” said a quiet voice from the back seat.

“Stay down, Ashley,” Nanette said quietly, not even moving her lips. “Just stay still. It’ll be all right.”

Nanette pulled out the fancy key they had hidden under the floor mat, then slowly turned and slammed the door shut. The sound of the slamming door echoed back from the rocky walls.

“Here it is,” she said holding out her palm to show them. “Now put the gun away or I’ll throw it into that thicket over there.”

“All we want is the key. We don’t want any trouble.” The man took a step back and set the gun on the passenger seat of the black Suburban without ever taking his eyes off Nanette’s face. “Now toss it gently to me and we’re gone. Understand? You’ll never see us again.”

Nanette felt like she had only one good choice. She tossed the key to the men and they both let out a sigh of relief. True to his word, the man grabbed the key and jumped in the car. Al ran around to the driver’s side and started the car, spinning it around and taking off toward town.  The first man—presumably Phineas—was fiddling with something in the passenger seat.

Behind her, Nanette heard a car door open and then Ashley was next to her hugging her waist. “What happened?” Ashley asked. “Why did you give them the key?”

Nanette put her arm around Ashley’s shoulders but said, “You should have stayed in the car. We don’t know what they’re going to do next.”

They watched as the black Suburban headed toward town.  Unexpectedly,  it began to shimmer, as if being seen though heat waves on a hot summer day.  Then slowly the Suburban started to fade. After a moment, it completely disappeared. Ashley gasped!

“The key runs the time machine, I guess,” Nanette said slowly.

“Where did they go? You don’t think they fixed it completely do you and went back to hurt Curt’s family, did they?” Ashley said. “You shouldn’t have given them the key!”

“I don’t think they’ve fixed the machine, and I know where they went,” Nanette said, remembering the May morning when she saw the same black Suburban shimmer and disappear in front of their house. “Keep watching.”

For a moment nothing happened.  They could see Harry and Laurie’s truck coming towards them about a quarter mile away kicking up dust. Then the air on the road closer to them started to shimmer again. First small waves, then bigger. The shimmers grew darker and the shape of the Suburban slowly came into view. After a minute, the shimmering stopped and the Suburban was back, but this time its front fender was smashed.

Despite the damage, the Suburban still ran, and it took off again towards town, but not before Nanette got a few photos with Frank’s camera. Just as the Suburban passed Harry and Laurie, it shimmered again and partly disappeared, but then solidified again, as if something wasn’t working properly.  This happened two more times, as the car grew smaller and smaller in the distance. Finally, the car shimmered and disappeared completely.  Ashley stared at the road for a long time, but this time it didn’t return.

End of Chapter 22

 

Chapter 23 can be found here: Chapter 23: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)

 

 

 

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