The Mystery at Hickory Hill
by Ann Carol Ulrich
The Light Over the Hills
For several seconds, everyone in the Mitchell car was stunned. The vehicle had bumped hard when it came to a halt. Annette’s heart was pounding. She looked around her, and everyone seemed to be all right. They were all shaken.
Mrs. Mitchell was the first to speak. “I declare, I thought for sure we were going to turn over. Are you girls all right?”
“Yes,” replied Annette, and Mandy echoed the same.
Mr. Mitchell drew in a deep breath, then opened the door and stepped out of the car to inspect the position they were in.
Annette felt a gentle hand on her shoulder, and turned to face Mandy. She smiled, noting the look of concern on the Colorado girl’s face. “I’m fine,” she said. Then they both turned toward Penny, whose eyes were glazed in fright.
“Is she all right?” asked Mandy.
Annette decided to make light of the situation. “You’ll have to excuse Penny,” she explained. “She joined the drama club in her freshman year, and ever since…”
Penny relaxed suddenly and managed a sarcastic smile. “Don’t just sit there. Call the paramedics! And make sure the driver is good-looking.”
Mandy giggled. “Come on, let’s get out and see if we can help Pa.”
Annette followed Penny and Mandy out the backseat door to stand in the semi-darkness. Katydids sang in all directions. Mr. Mitchell stood watching a large, white, shaggy animal as it ran across a field.
“What was it, Pa? A mountain goat?” asked Mandy.
“Nope. A dog.”
“We almost hit a dog?” Mrs. Mitchell called out the passenger window.
“A sheep dog, by the looks of him,” said Mr. Mitchell.
“Oh, my gosh,” muttered Penny.
“He must be a stray,” said Mrs. Mitchell.
“Whose was he, Pa?” asked Mandy.
“Can’t say. Never seen the likes of him before.” He began to examine the wheels of the car. “Well, looks like we should be able to get out of here, if you girls are willin’ to help push.” He glanced over at the west. “Sun’s already down.”
Mr. Mitchell got back into the car and started the engine. He directed the three girls to push as he gunned the accelerator, and in just a couple of attempts the car was back on the road. Then they piled into the back seat and continued on.
“We’re just a few miles from home,” said Mandy. “But there’s not a lot of traffic on this road. I hope Britches isn’t worried about us.”
“Who’s Britches?” asked Penny.
Mandy swept back her hair. “He’s our hired hand. He helps us around the ranch with the cattle and horses.”
“How many horses do you have?” asked Annette. She felt as though the ice had broken and conversation with Mandy was starting to get easier.
“Four,” said Mandy. “Plus Britches has two mules.”
“Wow,” breathed Penny.
“And Britches loves taking care of them. He’s real good at it, too, isn’t he, Pa?”
“You bet,” said Mr. Mitchell.
Annette had been thinking. “That’s a rather odd name for someone. Britches — it sounds like a pair of pants.”
Mandy giggled. “That’s what we call him. Actually, his name is Richard Britchman. We call him Britches for short.”
The rest of the ride to the ranch was more relaxed, and Mandy chatted freely with her two new friends, who told her a little about their lives back in Ravensville, Wisconsin. It was completely dark when they reached the Mitchell ranch, and as they drove into the long drive that took them to the ranch house and buildings, Annette noticed the serenading crickets and looked up at the sky as the first stars popped out at them. Up ahead were house lights, and the car pulled up in front of a large porch.
“Well, here we are, girls,” said Mrs. Mitchell.
Annette stepped out of the car with Mandy and Penny, and experienced a cool breeze. She shivered a bit in the mountain air as Mr. Mitchell opened the trunk to retrieve their suitcases. In the distance they heard a cow bawl.
“Hm, sounds just like home,” murmured Penny.
“Well,” said Annette. “At least I won’t have to get up at the crack of dawn tomorrow to milk Elizabeth and Alice.” She drew in a big breath of air. It was peaceful here, and she liked the welcome feeling of the place. Unable to see much in the darkness, she followed the others, with her suitcase, up to the house.
“I’m surprised Britches isn’t here to meet us,” commented Mrs. Mitchell. “Usually he’s around.”
Inside, Annette and Penny found themselves in a beautifully furnished living room with a stone fireplace and hardwood floors. An antler chandelier was suspended from the ceiling, and antique horse tack decorated the log walls. Mrs. Mitchell dished up bowls of ice cream, and Mandy took Annette and Penny out to the porch, where they sat down to eat it. Annette noticed the moon peeking over the top of the distant barn.
Spooning her ice cream, Annette said to Mandy, “You must love it here.”
“Oh, I do,” said Mandy.
“Don’t you have any mosquitoes?” asked Penny.
“I s’pose we have a few.”
“Not very many,” added Annette.
“Well, we sure do.” Penny nudged Annette. “Hey, let’s not go back home, Annette.”
Mandy sighed. “I wonder where Britches is. He was lookin’ forward to meetin’ you all, and he promised to stay here and watch the house while we were gone.”
“Well, if he’s anything like Tim, he’s bound to show up,” said Penny.
“Who’s Tim?” asked Mandy.
“Her brother,” said Annette.
“Tim’s always disappearing when you want him, and when you don’t want him, he’s always around to bug ya,” said Penny.
“It must be fun to have a little brother,” said Mandy.
Both Annette and Penny laughed.
“Tim’s seventeen,” explained Annette.
“Oh.” Mandy smiled. “That’s the way Britches is, too. When me and Tom Milton wanna go on a moonlight ride, Britches is always worried… ‘bout snakes and every danger you can possibly think of… and always ends up followin’ us.”
Penny yawned. “A moonlight ride… how romantic. But if I get this tired every night, I’d fall off the horse.” Then she asked, “Who’s Tom Milton?”
Mandy scraped the bottom of her ice cream dish with her spoon. “Tom comes over sometimes, and we ride around or help Britches and Pa. You see, there aren’t any girls around for several miles. Tom lives two miles away, so he’s our nearest neighbor.”
“Is he cute?” asked Penny.
Mandy laughed. “Tom?” Then she grew serious. “Oh, I s’pose he’s good-lookin’ enough. He’s awful nice to me, and sometimes brings his truck and takes me into town. We have a good time together. Oh, that reminds me. Tom has a coupla boy cousins visitin’ this week, and they’re comin’ over tomorrow afternoon. We might all go horseback-ridin’.”
“That sounds like fun,” said Annette. She set her empty bowl down on the railing beside Penny’s dish. “Penny, maybe you’ll meet a couple of those cowboys you were telling me you wanted to meet. Here’s your chance.”
Penny picked up the bowls. “I’ll take these inside,” she said.
Annette was explaining to Mandy Penny’s fascination with cowboys when rapid footsteps approached, and then the figure of a man appeared at the porch. Annette guessed he was probably in his late 20s, a strong-looking man with a square chin and chiseled nose. He wore a cowboy hat on his head, a long-sleeved western shirt, and blue jeans and boots. His worried expression suddenly melted into a big grin as he saw the two girls.
“Well, howdy!” He reached an arm out to Annette and, to her horror, he whisked her up into the air with both arms and swung her around.
Mandy stood and laughed, then finally said, “Britches, put her down!”
Gently, the ranch hand placed Annette back on her feet. “So you must be Annette Vetter,” he drawled. “Why, you’re lighter ‘n a starved polecat!”
Annette was glad no one could see her blush in the darkness of night.
Suddenly, Penny appeared on the porch, and everyone turned to her.
“Come on out, Penny,” called Mandy. “Meet Britches.”
“Well, well!” Britches lunged forward and scooped poor Penny right off the floorboards, and swung her around in the air. She shrieked as the others laughed. Then Britches set the startled girl down and removed his hat and bowed. “Pleased to meet ‘choo, Miss Duncan.”
“Put your hat back on,” said Mandy. “Penny’s crazy about cowboys, so you better act the part.”
Attempting to straighten her hair and smooth out her blouse, Penny looked up at him and said, “They’re crazy.”
“Britches, where have you been?” demanded Mandy. “I thought you were goin’ to stick around while we were gone.”
“Well, I did,” he said. “For a while. But you know how it is. I had to make my rounds, to check on the animals… Guess I didn’t hear you all drive up.”
“There were no lights on in the stable,” Mandy said accusingly.
“Now, don’t you go worryin’ yer pretty little head about me, little sister,” he teased. “I’m a big fella. I can take care of myself on this big ol’ ranch.”
“You should have been here anyway,” Mandy chided him.
Annette detected an undercurrent of tension between the two of them, and wondered what it was all about. But Britches smiled and turned to Annette. “See ya later, sweetheart.” Then he winked at Penny, and walked on into the house.
Mrs. Mitchell called out from the kitchen, “Britches, do you want something to eat?”
Penny, fascinated by the wink, gazed dreamily at the moon. “Ooh, what a hunk…”
Annette turned to her friend and smirked. “Penny, you are crazy.”
Mandy snorted. “Britches? A hunk? Come on, Annette, let’s get this girl into the house. I do believe the moon is affectin’ her.”
Penny broke out of her trance and followed her friends back into the house. Britches was in the kitchen, talking to Mandy’s parents, and Annette heard Mr. Mitchell telling the ranch hand about their near accident with the white sheep dog.
“I’ll show you your room upstairs,” said Mandy as she led the way to the stairway. “Unless you’d rather stay down here and watch TV.”
“Not me,” said Annette, stifling a yawn. “I’m beat.”
Penny hesitated at the bottom of the steps, her attention drawn to the kitchen. Annette pulled her away.
“Come on, Pen. We’re gonna be here a whole week. You’ll get to see plenty of him.” They followed Mandy to the guest room, which was decorated with purple bedspreads and drapes. The walls were lavender with white trim and between the two single beds there was a walnut dresser, a table and mirror, and a large window that let in the night breeze. The purple curtains were fluttering from the night air.
Annette claimed which bed was to be hers by collapsing on it. Then she bounced up again. “Oh, Mandy, I love it!”
“Oh, this is beautiful,” Penny agreed. She found her suitcase, where Mr. Mitchell had left it, and began opening dresser drawers to see which ones could be used.
Mandy walked over to the window. “Maybe I ought to close this,” she said. “It might get cold.”
“Oh, don’t.” Annette scrambled to her feet. “The fresh air feels great.”
Mandy smiled. “Well, right now it does. But we’re at a high elevation, remember.”
“How high is it?” Penny asked out of curiosity.
“Above 8,000 feet,” said Mandy.
“We are in the mountains,” murmured Annette.
“I’m glad you like the room,” said Mandy. “You’ll be able to see the barn and stables from here in the morning, and you’ll love the view of the mountains.”
Annette went to the window, and gazed out into the darkness. “I think I see a tree line.”
“Way out there?” Mandy pointed off into the distance. “Across the valley, a coupla miles away, are the hills, where you’ll find some real rough country. A lot of pine forest and even some swamp land.”
Penny had walked over to the window. “I don’t see any lights. Doesn’t anybody live around you?”
“Not in that direction,” said Mandy. “The hills are very mysterious. Do you see those ridges over there?” She pointed with her finger. “There’s a flat area before you cross Cochetopa Creek. Our land boundary runs along the edge of Hickory Hill Road. It’s not too far from the national forest.”
“Wait a second,” cried Annette. She was thinking, remembering something.
“What’s wrong?” asked Penny.“What you said.” Annette looked at Mandy. “What did you say the name of that road was — you know, where your property ends?”
“Hickory Hill Road?”
“Penny!” Annette’s blue eyes were wide as she turned to her friend. “That was the address that was on the yellow envelope!”
“What yellow envelope?” Penny scrunched up her face.
“The one that old man on the jet grabbed from my hand.”
Penny gasped, and her green eyes expanded.
“What’re y’all talkin’ about?” demanded Mandy.
Annette stared out the window. “Mandy, does anyone live there?”
Mandy hesitated. “Why?” she asked carefully.
Annette then began to tell Mandy about the episode on the jet, starting with how Penny had noticed the bearded stranger in the Chicago air terminal, and how they had watched him on the jet to Denver, then how his briefcase had opened and papers had spilled in the aisle. She ended by telling both of them the address she had read on the yellow envelope before the old man with the white beard had rudely snatched it away.
the mention of the name, Mandy’s mouth dropped open and she sank onto Annette’s
“Does the name mean something to you?” asked Annette.
“Jacob Carter Hickory,” Mandy murmured. Then she looked up at her two new friends. “The old mountain man who owns those hills is named Jebb Hickory.”
“Jebb? That sounds a lot like… Jacob,” commented Penny.
“It sure does,” Annette agreed.
“Can we go there sometime?” asked Penny.
“You mean… to the hills?” Mandy grew fearful.
“It sounds like it would be exciting,” said Annette.
Mandy frowned. “Oh no, it’s too dangerous. Pa’s warned me not to go there.”
“Why?” asked Annette.
“Why would it be dangerous?” Penny echoed.
Mandy appeared a little distracted as she rose from the bed and started for the doorway. “You wouldn’t like going there, believe me. Old Man Hickory is a hermit, and he doesn’t take kindly to folks trespassin’ on his land, so they say.”
Annette sighed. “Oh well. We wouldn’t want to get into any trouble.”
Mandy hesitated, touching the door knob as she turned to them. “Folks never see him. Maybe the old man’s even dead by now. Pa said he went crazy, and the neighbors used to talk about him goin’ ‘round, shootin’ his shotgun off at everything. There are some really nice ridin’ paths near the hills, though. They’re not too bad up Cochetopa Creek. Once Tom and I…” She stopped herself suddenly.
Penny interrupted the silence by moaning. “Oh no…”
Annette turned to her. “What now?”
“I forgot to pack my pajamas!”
“What?” Annette looked around at the mess of clothes on the floor after Penny had emptied her suitcase. “Oh Penny, you didn’t!”
“Oh, yes I did,” she grumbled. “Now what am I going to do?”
Annette bent down and rifled through some of Penny’s duds. “Are you sure?”
“Don’t worry.” Mandy chuckled. “Penny, you can use one of my summer nightgowns. I have lots of ‘em. That is… if you want to.”
Annette trudged to her unpacked suitcase. “Never mind, I think I brought an extra pair. I know Penny, and this happens frequently.”
Penny flung a sarcastic smile at Annette. “Thanks.”
From somewhere downstairs, Mrs. Mitchell called up to Mandy. “You let the girls get some sleep. They’ve had a long trip!”
Mandy turned to her new friends. “Just you wait till tomorrow, and your vacation really begins!” She grinned, then called down to her mother, “Okay, Ma!”
“I’ll never get to sleep, I’m so excited,” said Annette. “Good night, Mandy.”
Penny was still setting her hair when Annette tumbled into bed after brushing her teeth. “I’m dead. When will you be done, so I can turn out the light?”
“Don’t rush me,” grumbled Penny. “Mandy said some guys are coming over tomorrow, and I want to make a good impression.”
“What about your cowboy friend?” Annette yawned as she slid back against her pillow.
Penny made a face, then wound the last roller into place. “He isn’t so bad, you know,” she said. “And don’t forget he has a crush on you — sweetheart!”
“Get off it.”
“He does. I can tell certainly, if you can’t.”
“Turn off the light.”
A moment later, the room was dark, and Penny crawled underneath her blankets. “You know what I’d do if I had some cowboy hanging around me?”
“Mmmm,” Annette murmured, suddenly feeling very sleepy.
“I’d tell him off.”
“Really,” insisted Penny, “especially tall ones like him.”
Annette drew the sheet over her head, and waited for Penny’s talking to die down. Silence settled over the house and, even though she was tired, she found herself lying awake as her mind swirled with the day’s events.
She couldn’t help thinking about what Mandy had said about the mysterious hills and the old mountain man named Jebb Hickory. Could he be the same person whose name she had read on the front of the yellow envelope on the jet? She shivered as she recalled the face of the bearded stranger and the stone hard look in his narrow eyes. His voice had been unfriendly as he had told her gracías.
Finally, Annette sat up in bed and fluffed her pillow. She was hot and uncomfortable. Even the sheet was too much. Straining her eyes in the darkness, she made out Penny’s shape stretched on top of the next bed, the pillow wrapped in her arms as she slept. Annette pulled her feet out from under the sheet and got up. The floorboards creaked as she groped over to the window. Mandy had closed it before she left. Annette grabbed hold and pushed it open, to let in the cool night breeze.
The mountain air filtered into the room. Annette let it ruffle through her hair as she drank the coldness into her nostrils. The pungent smell of juniper and sage was new to her. She leaned forward and gazed over the expansion of land and distant hills that were silhouetted in the moonlight. How silent and tranquil everything appeared. Even the bellowing cow had ceased its crying. Annette examined the expansive sky, freckled with billions of tiny luminations. She had never seen the sky so filled with stars.
Then, she saw something that pricked her interest. Was it a light? Annette scanned the distant land, where she thought she had seen a flash. It appeared again. A speck of light vanished into a faint glow in the distant hills. It increased, and a moment later, was gone. She watched, but the light did not return.
Annette turned away from the window. “Penny…” She tried to keep her voice low, so no one else in the house would be disturbed. “Penny!”
A loud sigh came from Penny’s bed. Annette decided not to bother her, since the flicker of light was now gone and was probably nothing to get excited about. She found her way back to her bed, and slipped under the sheet. Suddenly, she was too tired to think much more about the light. The cool, fresh air was soothing. But she would mention it to Mandy in the morning.
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