The Ground Hog Mystery

Chapter One

 

by Ann Carol Ulrich
© 2016 (all rights reserved)

An sample chapter from the 6th Annette Vetter Adventure

          IN THE WOODS, everything was new and green. Annette had been sitting on a patch of grass beside a stream, watching a pair of robins building a nest in a small tree close by. She stretched back and stared up at the blue sky as fluffy white clouds slowly floated by as in a sea. A warm breeze tousled her auburn hair and she could feel the caress of sunshine on her bare feet.
          Glancing to her right, she saw someone walking toward her out of the thick brush. Shielding her eyes, she watched him grin as he leisurely made his way toward her. His hand casually swept the lock of dark hair off his forehead and his green eyes made her heart skip a beat.
           "I thought I'd find you here," said Tim Duncan. He crouched toward her and she sat up, reaching out her hand. He gently pulled Annette to her feet and they faced one another, smiling. She waited breathlessly as he drew even nearer, and then he wrapped her in his arms and held her in a tight embrace.
          Rrr-r-r-r-r-r-r-ringgggg!!
          The sound of the alarm clock beside the bed pulled Annette out of her warm dream and her eyes opened to the dark bedroom upstairs in the Vetter farmhouse. She reached over and immediately shut off the alarm, then sank back against her pillow and pulled the blanket around her for warmth.
          Annette knew she had to get up, get into her milking clothes, and go out to the barn to do her chores before it was time to get ready for school. She usually didn't have any problem getting out of bed, even on the coldest winter mornings, but this morning the dream only made her want to go back to sleep and see what happened next... with Tim.
          She almost did lapse back into slumber, but then her collie, Ginger, nosed her cheek. Annette's blue eyes opened and she patted the dog's white mane and watched his red swishy tail move back and forth as he told her in his own way that the cows were waiting.
          Silently, Annette got out of bed without waking Ruby, and gathered her clothes to take to the bathroom. Everyone else in the house was still asleep -- Mrs. Vetter in the front upstairs bedroom, and Annette's brother Terry, who slept in the room next to the girls.
          After she was through in the bathroom, Annette made her way downstairs with Ginger at her side. The light of day was visible from the kitchen window as she opened the refrigerator and took out the orange juice. After downing a small glass, she pulled on her boots and farm coat, and then went outside to the barn, where her Holsteins, Elizabeth and Alice, were waiting to get milked.
          Ginger shook himself, then lay down in a pile of hay while Annette grabbed her gear from the storage room and pulled the milking stool up beside Alice, who was giving an abundance of milk now that she had given birth to the calf on Christmas Eve. She recalled how Mr. Duncan, Penny's and Tim's father, had taken the little bullock they had named Donovan, to the Duncan farm a week later.
          Elizabeth waited patiently while her sister got milked. Annette could see that Elizabeth was starting to show a little. Her calf would be born in May, according to Mr. Duncan and Doctor Slater, the veterinarian. She always used milking time to go over her thoughts, and today her thoughts were focused on Tim Duncan.
          "I wish it were spring," Annette mumbled. Ginger's collie ears perked up at the sound of her voice and his brown eyes stared at her as her fingers worked at extracting the milk from Alice's udder.
She shivered a bit and tried not to think about the fact that it was only the end of January and there were still two long months of winter ahead in west central Wisconsin.
          After Christmas, Mrs. Vetter had gone to the county courthouse and applied for custody of Terry and his sister, Ruby Foley, who were -- for all intents and purposes -- orphans. Their mother had committed suicide in Colorado Springs just after Thanksgiving, and Ruby's father -- Terry's stepfather -- was "Missing in Action" in Vietnam. They presumed Bob Foley was dead, but this, Annette knew, had not yet been confirmed.
          She recalled how everything had played out last month, when Terry had come to Ravensville because he had discovered, after his mother's death, that Annette's father, Tom Vetter, had been his dad. Annette had found out that her father had been married before he met her mother, and unknown to all of them, Terry's mother had been pregnant with him when she got the annulment. It had been a shock to Mrs. Vetter, Annette realized, but it had been a happy moment for Annette when she learned that she had a half-brother.
          Of course, it was due to all the trouble in Colorado Springs that Terry had escaped with his sister Ruby, who had been molested at her foster home. The two kids had taken the Greyhound bus to Madison, where their Uncle Will Knutson lived and had agreed to help them. Now Uncle Will was becoming a regular visitor, driving up from Madison about every two weeks to spend an overnight visit with his niece and nephew.
          Annette finished up her work, then went with Ginger to the chicken house to collect the eggs and feed the flock. Egg production was just starting to increase a little, she noticed, as the days were now getting longer and the chickens were just as anxious as she was to experience warmer weather.
          Mrs. Vetter and Terry were already up and in the kitchen, getting their coffee, when Annette walked into the house with her basket of eggs. She removed her boots, which had just a trace of snow and ice on them, and hung her farm coat up on one of the hooks behind the door.
          "Well, good morning." Mrs. Vetter smiled at her daughter.
          "Hi, Mom. Hi, Terry." Annette grinned.
          The tall blond boy smiled back and reached for the cream pitcher on the kitchen counter. "Good morning, Annette," he said. "I think I heard Ruby rustling around upstairs."
          "Would you like some bacon and eggs this morning?" asked Mrs. Vetter. She had already gotten dressed and was pulling a frying pan out from one of the lower kitchen cupboards.
          "Sure," said Annette, "that sounds great."
          "Let me help," said Terry. "I think I saw some cheese in the fridge. Do you mind if I make us omelets?"
          Mrs. Vetter laughed and picked up her coffee cup. "I can't get used to this new life. You're spoiling me."
          "No such thing," said Annette. "Mom, both our lives have changed since Terry and Ruby came to live with us. I love having you home more... and especially in the evenings."
          Mrs. Vetter chuckled. "Well, I've got a family to watch over now," she replied.
          Annette thought she had never seen her mother look as happy as she did, now that she had switched to part-time at the hospital and was going in only three full shifts a week. Mrs. Vetter had decided that if she was going to adopt Terry and Ruby, she needed to be home for them all as much as she could while still keeping her nursing job at Ravensville General.
          Annette pulled out Ginger's kibble and was filling his dish when they heard footsteps coming down the stairs. A moment later, Ruby appeared, wearing a blue, long-sleeved dress for school, her blonde hair brushed into two pigtails.
          "Did I hear Terry say we're having omelets?" The 13-year-old petted Ginger, who had come over to greet her before Annette set his dish down on the floor.
          "You look lovely this morning, Ruby," said Mrs. Vetter.
          "Thank you." The girl lowered her blue eyes and humbly walked over to the kitchen table to sit down.
          "How did you sleep?" asked Terry.
          "Fine," said Ruby.
          "No bad dreams?"
          "Well..." The girl looked at her brother and shrugged. "A few, maybe."
          Annette sighed. "No nightmares, at least... right, Ruby?"
          Ruby smiled up at her, then looked away.
          Annette secretly smiled to herself as she poured a cup of coffee and let herself fall back into the memory of Tim's touch in her dream upon waking. Then she remembered something. "Oh, I don't want to forget..."
          "What is it?" asked Ruby.
          Annette rushed to the stairs and ran up to her bedroom that she and Ruby shared, where she had left a large envelope on her desk. She picked it up and placed it next to her purse and her homework, then quickly changed into her school clothes.
          The smell of bacon wafted up from the kitchen when she was in the bathroom, washing up and putting on her makeup. Before going back downstairs, she went to her room and pulled out the card she had made. Her heart began to beat faster as she read through it, then placed it back into its sleeve. She prayed she had chosen her words carefully and would not have any regrets.
          At seven o'clock, after they had eaten, Annette and Terry bundled up in their winter coats just as Annette looked out the window and saw Penny, wearing her winter coat and boots, walking up the driveway. When they stepped out the door onto the porch, Ginger barked his greeting and ran through the snowy path to where the dark-haired girl with green eyes waved at them.
          "Morning!" called Penny.
          "Have a good day," Ruby called out as Annette and Terry left the house. They had plenty of time this morning to make the rural bus that went to Ravensville's high school. Ruby's bus came half an hour later and stopped at the Vetters' driveway to pick her up and take her to the junior high school.
          Since early January, after the Christmas vacation was over, Terry accompanied Annette and Penny to the bus stop every morning, except on those days when Penny's brother Tim gave them a ride. He usually helped Mr. Duncan finish the milking at their dairy farm and sometimes got to school a little later.
          "I'm getting so tired of winter," Annette said as they walked along the side of the icy pavement on Ogden Road. "I had a dream last night that it was spring." She secretly smiled as the vision of Tim bending toward her replayed in her mind.
          "Oh, me too," agreed Penny. "We've had more snow this year than I can remember." She looked over at Annette's brother. "Terry, how do Wisconsin winters compare to what it's like in Colorado Springs?"
          Annette's tall blond brother walked on the inner edge of the highway. "Well, as far as I can see... winter is winter, no matter where you live. We could get some pretty nasty blizzards on the Front Range, you know."
          "That means the Denver and Colorado Springs side of the Rocky Mountains," explained Annette.
          "Just think," said Penny, panting a little as she tried to keep up with the other two. "Mandy Mitchell lives near Gunnison, and I heard that's the coldest town in Colorado. It gets way below zero sometimes."
          Terry laughed and a cloud of air puffed from his mouth. "Some say Alamosa is worse yet."
          "Where's that?" asked Annette.
          "It's in the San Luis Valley," said Terry, and he began telling the girls what he knew about the parts of Colorado he had seen when he lived in that state, which had actually only been three or four years.
          When they finally reached the bus stop, a few other kids had gathered from nearby homes, and within a couple of minutes, the big yellow school bus rolled into view and its wheels squealed as it came to a stop at the corner of Ogden Road and Tower Drive.
          Penny climbed on before Annette and Terry, and walked straight to the back of the bus, where she saw Pete Randt watching them with a grin on his face. He swept a lock of dark hair off his forehead.
          "Hi, Pete," called Annette with a smile. She followed Penny, who swung into the empty seat in front of Pete. Terry brushed past and sat next to Pete as he moved over to make room.
          "How's it goin'?" Terry greeted him.
          "Not so bad." Pete leaned over the girls' seat. "Hey, Annette, did you get that Geometry assignment?"
          She turned her head and made a face at him. "Yeah..."
          "I couldn't figure out that last problem."
          "I hate math," grumbled Penny as the bus started rolling down the road.
          Annette laughed at her friend. "You're an A student!"
          "So? That doesn't mean I have to like it."
          "Want me to look at your homework?" Terry offered.
          Pete made a face. "Well..."
          Penny spun around and grabbed Pete's books. "Here, let me see." She opened his Geometry book and turned to the bookmarked page.
          With a big smile, Pete leaned over the seat and then handed Penny his notebook containing the assignment.
          "What part didn't you understand?"
          "Pete..." said Annette. She stood up in the aisle of the bus. "Sit down. I'll sit next to my brother."
          Pete immediately changed places with her and Annette swung into the back seat of the bus beside Terry.
          "Did Ruby have any more bad dreams?" he asked in a low voice while Penny and Pete were consulting about his math homework.
          Annette glanced up at the concerned look in her brother's blue eyes. "I don't think so. Not last night, at least," she said.
          "I'm glad," he replied.
          "Me too," said Annette. Ruby had started having nightmares about a week after New Year's. Since she and Annette shared the bedroom, Annette had been rudely awakened about six or seven times since then, with Ruby crying out in her sleep, sometimes kicking, sometimes waving her arms, and Annette had tried her best to calm the girl, who would then cry herself to sleep.
          "She's been through a lot in the last coupl'a months," said Terry, still keeping his voice low.
          "Yes, I know," said Annette. "But when she's awake during the day, she seems cheerful and happy."
          "That's her nature." Terry smiled to himself. "My little sister is always looking on the bright side of things. She's the one you want to be with when you're feeling down."
          As they rounded a corner, the books shifted on Annette's lap and she had to grab hold before she lost her grip. As a result, her purse came loose and fell on the floor of the aisle. Terry reached down to retrieve it from her and as he pulled the purse up, the large white envelope fell out.
          Pete noticed it and reached for it. Before he gave it back to Annette, he turned it over and read what she'd written on the front in big letters: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TIM
          "What's this?" he asked.
          Penny immediately snatched the envelope from Pete's hands and laughed out loud. "Annette, did you get that bum brother of mine a birthday card?"
          Annette blushed as other kids on the bus turned and stared at her.
          "Oh, is it Tim's birthday?" asked Terry.
          Annette grew embarrassed and started rearranging the books on her lap. "Uh...well..."
          "Today is January 30th," said Penny. "Yup, it's Tim's birthday."
          "Did you forget?" Pete asked her.
          "No way could I forget," said Penny. "He's eighteen today. Do you think Tim would let anyone forget that he's turning eighteen?"
          "Wow," breathed Pete. "That means..."
          "He's an adult! Or so he thinks." Penny giggled.
          Annette reached for the envelope, but Penny held it away from her and turned it around to examine it.
          "I wonder what's inside this card," she said.
          "Give it back," Annette demanded.
          "Oh, I will," said Penny.
          "It must be very... personal," said Pete, who turned and gave Annette a sympathetic smile.
          "Hey, when's your birthday, Terry?" Penny turned around to face him.
          "March 18th," he disclosed. "When's yours?"
          Penny sighed as she handed the envelope to Pete, who looked at the fancy script on front, then reluctantly gave it back to Annette. "May 6th is my birthday. I could have had my driver's learning permit in November, but I decided to wait until Annette gets hers next month."
          "Are you getting your learner's permit soon?" asked Pete, his brown eyes wide.
          Annette stuffed the birthday card deep into her purse and zipped it shut. "On the 11th of February," she disclosed. "I'll be fifteen and a half. Pen and I are going down to the DMV that day to take our tests."
          "I can't wait!" Penny had finished helping Pete with his math problem and handed his notebook back to him. Turning around to face Annette and her brother, her green eyes widened. "Then you and Tim can teach Annette and me how to drive!"
          Terry laughed softly. "I'm not yet eighteen. I'm not even seventeen...not until March, that is."
          Pete cleared his throat and grumbled. "Heck...I won't get my learner's permit until the end of April."
          "You probably can," said Terry. "Some states let farm kids get their permits when they're younger."
          "Hey, yeah..." Penny grinned at Pete, who smiled sheepishly.
          "I hate being younger than everybody else," he said.
          "Nonsense," said Annette. She pulled the lipstick out of her purse and touched up her mouth. Then she felt relieved that no one said anything more about the birthday card she was going to give to Tim.

To Read the Rest. . .

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