We continued along the stony, overgrown trail toward the lodge. I hugged myself tightly, only partially trying to keep warm in my soaked clothes. I was also trying to forget the fright that we had just had. Maybe not forget it, because the image of Trixie standing there, white-faced and shocked, was an image I will never, ever forget as long as I live. Trixie always seems so fearless, larger than life. It’s one of the many things I love about her. Seeing her look so…so traumatized really jolted me. No, I would never forget it, but I needed to try to get over it. Histrionics weren’t going to help anyone.
I don’t know why I’d been so squeamish on this trip so far. I almost felt like the old me, the person I secretly referred to as "Boarding School Honey." The person that I never wanted to be again! I had come a long way since those days, and I was proud of the strides I had made. It was so much more fun not being afraid of every little thing. But something was different on this trip. I was feeling much more high strung than I had in a long time, and it made me feel uncomfortable.
Suddenly, I caught the smell of tobacco. Trixie had said that she had smelled tobacco after she had been saved. I looked around, but I couldn’t find an obvious source for the smell. No one else seemed to notice, so I didn’t mention it. I just kept walking, hugging myself even tighter. The faint scent seemed almost…ghostly.
There was something different about these woods. We were used to woods, and even mountains, living so close to the Catskills, but these woods and the Ozark mountains felt…different. They exuded an eeriness that I felt to my very core. Maybe that’s why I was acting so much like Boarding School Honey. Even though we’d been here only a short while, we’d all heard Linnie’s superstitious talk, and I’m a little superstitious, too. Mrs. Moore had spoken of Ozark spirits the night before at dinner. Maybe that was all it was—Mrs. Moore’s talk the night before and Linnie’s superstitions had gotten me spooked, and I was just imagining things.
Just then, a strong wind whipped by us, and an icy chill went up my spine.
Nope, I decided. I wasn’t imagining things. I believed Mrs. Moore. The atmosphere just felt rife with spirits. Like I said before, I could feel it to my very core, and it was so strong and took hold of my gut so completely that I knew it couldn’t just be my imagination.
Just then, thankfully, we entered the yard of Mr. Belden’s lodge. Mrs. Moore was waiting for us at the lodge door as we approached.
"My, but I’m glad to see you!" she greeted us. "It was a bad storm. I worried, even though Linnie said I needn’t. She was sure you’d find shelter. I know, though, how helpless some of the people have been who have visited Mr. Belden. Linnie’s gone off to pick up your uncle. They should be back soon." Just then, she finally seemed to notice how bedraggled we all looked. "Mercy, you’re all soaked through. You’d better get dry clothes." She then peered carefully at Trixie’s face, which had almost returned to its normal color. I didn’t think that anyone who didn’t know Trixie could tell that anything was wrong, which was why I was surprised, and impressed, when Mrs. Moore asked, "What’s the matter, Trixie? You look so white. A snake didn’t bite you, did it?"
I couldn’t take it anymore. The eerie feeling I had had since we arrived, the scare we had had at the cave, the soaking rain, and the chill in the air finally got to me, and I blurted, "A snake didn’t. A wildcat almost did." I was trembling, and I knew that it wasn’t just from the cold. Just mentioning the incident out loud brought all of my fright back.
"A what?" Mrs. Moore screamed. I sympathized with her reaction and was actually glad someone sounded more hysterical than me for a change. Mrs. Moore hurried to take Trixie into her arms and make sure she was all right, much like I had done at the cave.
"A catamount…a bobcat…a wildcat…whatever you’d call it," my brother said. "It was a fierce-looking cat as big as Jacob."
"Oh, my blessed Lord!" Mrs. Moore said and hugged Trixie even tighter. "A wildcat! An angel must have saved you!" I agreed that Trixie’s guardian angel had been working overtime, this time. Which was saying a lot considering some of the scrapes Trixie has gotten herself, and me, into.
"Yeah, a ghost angel," Mart was saying, "who shot him right in midair as he was going for Trixie." Mart’s words brought the image of the wildcat leaping at Trixie to my mind again, and I shivered even harder. The mention of a ghost didn’t help my state of mind any, either.
"A ghost?" Mrs. Moore asked, her voice trembling.
"Whoever shot that wildcat disappeared into thin air," Mart went on. "Trixie said she didn’t see a soul—just smelled tobacco smoke. That was all. The way we figured it, he must have been a strange guy not to show himself. Jacob acted funny, too. After the wildcat was killed, Jacob didn’t growl or bark. He wagged his tail and shot off into the woods."
"A ghost!" Mrs. Moore repeated, and I wished she’d stop. "Jacob came home quite a few minutes before you did. I was uneasy about that. Thank heaven your uncle will soon be here, Trixie. You’re still shivering. No wonder, poor child. Don’t you want me to go upstairs with you and help you get into try clothes?"
I was afraid that she’d continue her talk about ghosts and spirits, so I hastily assured her we’d be all right. I did, however, hold on to Trixie’s arm as we went upstairs. At this point, it was more for my reassurance than to provide Trixie any comfort, but Trixie shook my arm off halfway up the stairs and stopped.
"I’m not so scared now," she said. That makes one of us, I thought as she continued, "It was a narrow escape, wasn’t it?" Gee, ya’ think, Trix? "I was so sure it was Jim who shot that wildcat."
I couldn’t help myself. "It would have been Jim if you hadn’t dashed out of that cave by yourself. You shouldn’t have done that. You should have known it was dangerous." Gleeps, Honey! I scolded myself internally. Could you sound like a bigger shrew? What the heck is wrong with you? And, really, how could Trixie have known it was dangerous? I felt really bad about sounding so reprimanding, so I opened my mouth to apologize, but then Trixie opened her mouth.
"I just wanted to see if the rain had stopped. I wasn’t hurt, was I?"
She sounded so flippant and didn’t seem to be taking the fact that she was almost killed seriously, so I admit, I lost my temper. "You were awfully close to be killed, and you know it, Trixie. I’m not sure I want to be a detective—not the kind that has wildcats jumping after her, anyway. I’d rather be the kind who would sit in an office and try to figure out who the mysterious person was who shot the wildcat."
I didn’t mean any of it. I definitely wanted to be a detective and open the Belden-Wheeler Detective Agency some day (which I secretly hoped would be called the Frayne-Belden Detective Agency, but that’s a story for another time), but I was so mad I had to say something to make Trixie realize the gravity of the situation and how frightened I had felt. Of course, that last part was so silly—how could you possibly solve the mystery of who shot the wildcat while sitting in the office?—that I wasn’t really surprised when Trixie didn’t respond and instead just continued up the stairs. I followed, wishing I hadn’t said something so dumb. It had really weakened my point.
I went about slipping off my wet clothes and finding warm, dry ones to put on in their place while Trixie dipped her face in the basin of water that stood on our dresser. Why she’d want to put her face in water when we had just gotten drenched in a rainstorm was beyond me, but since I wasn’t the one almost killed by a wildcat, I didn’t say a word. She threw her head back and shook water from her short sandy curls, not concerned in the least about the droplets of water that landed on the gorgeous wood furniture and would mar its lovely surface. I sighed and used one of the towels sitting next to the basin to wipe away the water.
"Yes," Trixie said as she began to towel-dry her hair, and I had no idea what she was talking about. "That is a real mystery, isn’t it? Almost like a ghost." I finally realized that Trixie was responding to my earlier comment about who had shot the wildcat. That girl does have a one-track mind! "There! That reminds me of the ghost fish," she continued. Yep, one-track mind, all right. "Linnie said there are lots of caves around here, but if they haven’t any more water in them than the one we were in today, they won’t do us much good. I want to find those fish."
"I do, too, but I wish sometime we could just have fun when we go places. Mart said he wishes the same thing." Geez, I was really on a roll. We always have fun when we travel, and solving the mysteries that Trixie gets us into is exciting, and we either end up helping others, putting away criminals, or both, which is pretty darn rewarding. And mentioning Mart? Why did I feel the need to go there?
"Doesn’t either one of you care anything about getting that station wagon? About helping handicapped children?"
Maybe my comments were uncalled for, but I certainly didn’t appreciate Trixie’s insinuations. "There you go again," I said. "You know we do; we want it just as much as you do. But we don’t want to work every minute and always have awful things happening. We’d like to have a little fun."
"We had fun fishing today, didn’t we?" Trixie asked. Fishing isn’t high on my list of enjoyable activities, but I kept my mouth shut as she continued. "I like to have fun, too, but I want to keep the search for those fish uppermost in my mind. Don’t you think exploring caves is going to be fun?"
In all honesty, I did think it would be, but I was feeling uncharacteristically stubborn and wouldn’t admit it. Instead, I said, "It wasn’t any fun today. I don’t want to find any more wildcats."
"I’m sure that doesn’t happen very often. Uncle Andrew didn’t even warn us about wildcats, and neither did Mrs. Moore or Linnie." She had a point there, I admitted to myself, and that did make me feel better. "Instead," Trixie went on, "Uncle Andrew said that wild animals have pretty well left the Ozark woods—that they’ve been hunted and killed." Well, that little fact didn’t make me feel so good. "He said they hardly ever see even a deer anymore. We see lots of them in your woods back home. Mrs. Moore said that only a few years ago, the deer used to come up in her yard and feed with the chickens."
That mental image cheered me up. "How wonderful!" I said, and now that I was all warm in my dry jeans and shirt, I pushed back the curtains I had just finished hemming and that now hung on our bedroom window. "You can see for miles. I believe that’s the mule wagon coming up from the hollow." I was feeling less afraid and also less irritated with my best friend now that I was warm and dry and safe, so I held out an olive branch to Trixie—who admittedly probably hadn’t even noticed my annoyance with her—by saying "Isn’t that it, Trixie?"
Trixie looked, then called to the boys in the next room, "Uncle Andrew will be here soon. Let’s go downstairs and wait for him; we’ll help him unload the supplies."
We all trooped down the stairs and waited at the lodge’s back door, waving. I marveled at Linnie’s ability to drive the mules into the yard and turn them expertly just at the lodge’s back door. I laughed as Jacob wriggled his body ecstatically and jumped onto the seat with his mistress.
"I see you’re safe after the storm," Uncle Andrew said as he handed the supplies into our waiting arms. His innocent words brought all of the fear I had felt earlier rushing back over me. "Linnie told me you were off in the woods or down at the lake fishing. Did you have any trouble?"
There was my opening. "We sure did—" I started to say, but Trixie put her hand firmly over my mouth and hushed me. She actually hushed me! She’s lucky I didn’t try to bite her fingers. Seriously, I love Trixie to death, but she was being particularly rude on this trip, even for Trixie. I wondered what had gotten into her. Then again, I had wondered the same thing about myself. Maybe there was something about the Ozarks that was making us act like pod people.
Trixie was assuring her uncle that we’d tell him all about our afternoon while we ate the bass she and the boys had caught. When she asked what was in the boxes that Uncle Andrew had bought in town, he instructed her to take them inside and promised that she could take a look before Mrs. Moore put their contents away. Of course, her curiosity propelled her quickly indoors, so she didn’t even hear him ask, "What trouble did you have, Trixie?"
I thought about answering him, but since I’d been so rudely hushed by my best friend, I remained silent. Mr. Belden headed inside, and the boys went to take care of the mules for Linnie. I was about to step into the lodge myself when I saw Shem give Mart a swift kick, while Japheth looked at him with a wild eye. The mules didn’t seem to be big fans of Mart’s, and given the look Mart was giving them, the feeling appeared mutual.
I chuckled and headed indoors, where Mrs. Moore was telling her employer what had happened to his niece that afternoon. His face drained white, and he paced up and down the room, clenching and unclenching his hands. "That’s one I didn’t count on," he kept repeating. "When I invited you here, I thought you’d not be in any more danger than getting your feet wet. You haven’t been here two full days, and already Trixie has been attacked by a wildcat. Oh, Trixie!"
I reflected how the phrase, "Oh, Trixie!" summed up a lot of things in our lives.
"I’m all right. I wish everybody would stop worrying. I’m safe. I’m alive."
I was ashamed, but I couldn’t help thinking, This time. I hated to think about it, but one of these days, Trixie was going to get herself into a situation that even her guardian angel couldn’t get her out of.
Trixie was trying to assure the adults that we could take care of ourselves and mentioned that we’d gotten ourselves into tight places at home. I didn’t think it was prudent to mention that fact, but Trixie pointed out that we had gotten out of them, too. Of course, Mr. Belden pointed out that we were currently his responsibility and reminded Trixie of the danger she’d put us in while chasing after the sheep thieves on his farm in Iowa.
Which meant that Mart, being Mart, had to mention that Trixie was on a new hunt—for ghost fish, so we explained about the reward in the magazine and the station wagon for crippled children that we wanted to raise money for, like Dan was doing back home. Mrs. Moore put a delicious dinner on the table as we were conversing, but no one seemed able to eat much.
The rest of us had lost our appetite as the result of the misadventures of the day, but Trixie just seemed excited about the ghost fish, which she wouldn’t stop talking about. Of course, she was dying to start hunting for them. Trixie’s forever dying, and I have to admit that sometimes this favorite phrase of Trixie’s creeps into my vocabulary, too.
"I’m thinking more about the danger you’d run into if you tried spelunking," Uncle Andrew was saying. "I’m still shaking from your run-in with the wildcat."
"Spelunking?" I asked, which promptly launched Mart into a many-syllabled and pedantic response about cave-exploring, Greek words, medical research, and molds. Fortunately, he was on such a roll that I’m pretty sure he didn’t notice my eyes glazing over, which wasn’t very tactful of me, I know.
"Well, la-de-da," Trixie said when Mart finally ran out of breath. I admit it. I chuckled inside at her response. "Where did you learn so much about caves and spe—spe—"
Darn. So much for a witty retort.
"Spelunkers? By keeping my eyes open, Trixie, and by reading instead of sleuthing."
Come to think of it, not only was I more high strung than normal and Trixie more rude than normal, but Mart was also being more obnoxious than usual. He always loved to tease Trixie, but his teasing during this trip seemed more mean-spirited than it usually was. I waited for Trixie to explode, but fortunately, Mr. Belden stepped in.
"Never mind, Mart. I’ll have a lot to say later about this idea of cave exploration—I assure you. Now that we’ve finished our dinner, let’s go into the other room. Mrs. Moore, too. Leave the dishes where they are. The young people will help after a while."
Uncle Andrew sat in his armchair in front of the fireplace and motioned to Trixie to sit on the ottoman at his feet.
"This is one of the things that bothers me," he said. "Speaking of ghost fish…I’d like to know first what ghost fired the shot that killed that wildcat."
Why did every conversation we had this trip always have to turn to ghosts? I wondered as Brian explained to his uncle that we had looked everywhere for the person who had shot the wildcat. Normally, I like a good ghost story, but I was convinced that all of this talk of spirits and haunting were contributing to my relapse into Boarding School Honey.
Mrs. Moore sat quietly in her chair, twisting her hands in her lap. No one spoke for a while. Then she asked timidly, "Mr. Belden, do you believe in haunts?"
And here we go again. I gave a deep sigh, and then looked around, embarrassed at my tactlessness. I really hoped that Mrs. Moore hadn’t heard me.
Uncle Andrew admitted that he didn’t believe in ghosts, which Mrs. Moore didn’t like. "I think so. Don’t say you don’t believe in them, Mr. Belden. They don’t like that." Mrs. Moore’s voice was very serious.
Uh oh! Please don’t make them angry! I thought.
"No, sir." Linnie spoke up. "There are plenty of ghosts in the Ozarks. We know, don’t we, Mama?"
"Yes," Mrs. Moore answered, then was silent.
Please don’t tell us about the ghosts. Please don’t tell us about the ghosts. Please don’t—
"Ghosts?" Trixie asked with obvious eagerness in her voice. "Tell us about some of them." And there it is! I sighed again, this time not caring how tactless I sounded. Trixie would never notice. Sure enough, she continued, "Maybe that was a ghost today, my guardian ghost."
"I think it could have been," Mrs. Moore said. "Ghosts don’t like being denied. They really haunt our mountains. Anyone will tell you that. Right down the hollow from here, Mrs. Massey lived. Jake Massey’s second wife she was, and she was mean to his children. She beat them. She didn’t feed them right. One day—she told this herself—she was alone in the cabin, and a hard blow knocked her flat on the ground. Then she heard a voice say, ‘Be good to those children!’ She showed the red mark the ghost’s hand made on her face. It changed her into a better mother."
Despite my initial trepidation about all of this ghostly talk, as I listened to Mrs. Moore’s story, I began to feel like my old self, well, my old new self. That is, the self I was after I had met Trixie and Jim and before I had come on this trip.
"Tell us more!" I urged, surprising myself.
"Go on, please!" Trixie begged, surprising no one.
"I know of so many ghosts around here, I wouldn’t know where to stop," Mrs. Moore said. "There’s an old cabin not far from here on the trail to White Hole Springs. Linnie will point it out to you. The people who once lived there murdered a stranger who stopped for a night’s lodging. They stole the few dollars he had and buried his body out in the cow lot. He came back every night to haunt them. His ghost drove them out of these parts. No one will go near the cabin. If they did, they’d still hear him moaning."
"Didn’t anyone ever have nerve enough to stay there?" Mart asked. "I would. I’d like to see a ghost."
"No one I know of ever stayed in that cabin, and you’d not stay long, either, if you heard that man moaning, Mart." Mrs. Moore continued to tell ghost stories as we all listened, absolutely captivated.
"Jeepers, Mrs. Moore, you really do know about ghosts, don’t you?" Trixie said, shivering.
"I do. I know many a story, and they’re all true. The thing that bothers me all my days is that I’ve never had a chance to talk to the spirit of my husband—to find out how he was killed. There! I’d better get the dishes done. Do you want to help me, Linnie?" The rest of us scrambled up to help with the dishes, as Uncle Andrew had promised we would, but Mrs. Moore said, "No, sit still, the rest of you. Mr. Belden wants to talk to you about the dangers of caves. At least, I hope he does."
We all drew our chairs close around Mr. Belden, who said that he was fine with us exploring the area’s many caves, which he imagined were fascinating. Trixie winked happily at me, but I knew there was going to be a "but" coming, and I was right. Mr. Belden made it very clear that we were not to go exploring without a local guide who knew all about Ozark caves. Trixie, of course, exploded, and she and her uncle had a back-and-forth discussion about "sissy" caves that weren’t so sissy when there were wildcats involved.
Mr. Belden mentioned a guy from around here, Slim Sanderson, who was about eighteen and would probably be as adventurous as Trixie would like. He also said we had to obey all the rules of the National Speleological Society, and he actually had a book by this esteemed organization, which he had Trixie get down from the bookshelves. Trixie’s uncle went on to read the four main rules, which were basically not to go in a cave alone but in threes, always tell people where you’re going and when you expect to return, always carry three sources of light, and never take chances. Well, that last one let Trixie out!
There was more stuff about getting the owner’s permission to explore, which wasn’t a problem for us, and a lot about the kind of gear we would need. Mr. Belden offered to take us into town and buy us all of the equipment that we needed, which for five of us would be a hefty purchase. I thought about our club rule about not accepting things that we didn’t earn, but no one else seemed to think it was important, so again, I didn’t say anything. In all honesty, I was grateful for his generosity and was about to say so, but Trixie spoke up, her impatience clouding her ability to recognize how great her uncle was to do this for us. I couldn’t help it. I sighed again.
"Oh, dear! That’ll waste a whole day!" Trixie said sadly. "Can’t we just hunt here close to the lodge first?"
As if just because a cave was "close to the lodge" that it somehow was exempt from the rules. That’s our Trixie!
"I’m sorry. No cave hunting anywhere without Slim, please. Especially after what happened today. Will that be all right with you?"
Wow, he was a saint for even asking.
"I guess so," Trixie said reluctantly. I was about to speak up, but Mart beat me to it and kicked his sister’s foot. "I mean…yes, of course, Uncle Andrew." I was proud of Trixie for being such a good sport, despite her impatience and disappointment, in the face of her uncle’s understanding, lenience, and generosity. Of course, she wouldn’t be Trixie if she didn’t add, "But I just hope someone else doesn’t get in ahead of us and win the reward."
I sighed yet again at my best friend’s behavior. I forgot her manners a moment later when, suddenly, an icy cold feeling swept over me, and the uneasy feeling returned and settled itself deep within my gut.
I just knew we were in for more trouble before this trip was over.
Many, many thanks to Susan for her speedy edits--and her hysterical comments. You and I are definitely sympatico, sweetie! :) Many thanks to Wendy for volunteering to coordinate this year's group project and Mary N. (Dianafan) for creating the gorgeous graphics! And, of course, a big thank you to everyone, past and present, who has made Jix what it is during the past 11 years. You all rock!
Trixie Belden® is a registered trademark of Random House Books. These pages are not affiliated with Random House Books in any way. These pages are not for profit.
Chapter contents, except canon text as noted, and graphics copyright © GSDana