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The Death Valley Mystery: Chapter 12

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TITLE: The Death Valley Mystery

GENRE: Young Adult Mystery Series

DISCLAIMER:  These characters do not belong to me.  They were created by the wonderful and talented Mr. Robert Arthur, may he rest in peace.  I am writing my own story about them because they were such an integral part of my growing-up years and I love them a lot.  This is purely a work of fiction, and any resemblance to any persons living or dead is completely coincidental.  I do not profit from this venture, and no copyright infringement is intended.

RATING: G (anyone can read this)

FEEDBACK: Yes, please!

SUMMARY:  The boys travel to Death Valley and end up solving a nearly twenty-year-old family mystery.

Chapter 12: Mrs. Polly

 

 

Jupiter was standing in the Hartwell backyard, watching for his friends.  The minute he saw them ride down from the mountain trail, he raced over to meet them, eager anticipation written all over his plump face.

 

“Did you find anything, sir?” he asked Lloyd Hartwell with feigned enthusiasm.

 

The police officer smiled at him, then sighed regretfully.  “I’m afraid not, Jupiter.  Apparently no one has ever been back in that particular area.  Bob saw nothing but untouched wilderness.”

 

“Oh.”  Jupiter looked crestfallen, and once again his friends had to admire his acting talent.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Hartwell.  I was hoping we could be of sufficient help to you.”

 

Lloyd Hartwell reached down and gently placed his hand on Jupiter’s shoulder.  “You have, my boy.  All of you have given me very generous assistance, and I’m very grateful.”  He grimaced and added wryly, “It certainly wasn’t your fault I led you on a wild goose chase!  But don’t worry; I’m going to go over those mountains with a fine-toothed comb until we find those masked ruffians.”

 

“That’s great, sir,” Jupe said, sounding genuinely relieved.  “Any time we can be of help, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

 

“Thank you, son.”  Mr. Hartwell smiled, then patted Jupiter’s shoulder briskly and resoundingly.  “I just might do that sometime soon!”  He nodded to Bob and Pete.  “Go ahead and dismount here, boys.  I’ll have one of my ranch hands take your horses.  Good luck in your hunting!”

 

“Thank you, sir,” Pete said as the boys jumped to the ground.  Mr. Hartwell waved, then turned with his men and continued down the long driveway toward Main Street.

 

Jupiter watched until they were out of sight, then asked quietly, “Did you post that note all right, Bob?”

 

“Sure did,” Bob said.  “Everything went perfectly.  Mr. Hartwell believed me when I told him nothing was back there behind those rocks.”

 

Jupiter nodded with satisfaction.  “That’s good.  Now the next thing on our agenda is to go pay a call on Mrs. Polly.”

 

Pete frowned.  “Vanessa’s nanny?  We don’t even know where she lives.”

 

“I do,” Jupiter informed him.  “I found it necessary to take Stacey Robbins into our confidence, and she gave me her address.  That girl knows everyone in this town!”

 

“You told Stacey what we’re doing?” Pete was aghast.  “Jupe, how could you!  Before we know it, it’ll be all over town!  I’m sorry, but the impression I get of Stacey Robbins is that she can be a bit of a blabbermouth.”

 

Jupiter gave him a reproachful look.  “Pete, just because Stacey is the friendly chatty sort does not mean she’s scatterbrained.  She’s very levelheaded, as a matter of fact.  I asked her to keep it a secret, and she will.  I have no reason to doubt her.”

 

“How can you be so sure?” Pete demanded skeptically.  “I mean, maybe she does have good intentions, but she’s so talkative it might accidentally slip out in front of her father or someone else!”

 

Jupiter shook his head.  “Rest assured, Pete, she won’t tell anyone, accidentally or otherwise.  We need her help and I trust her to give it.”

 

“You obviously had a good reason for letting her in on our secret,” Bob broke in.  “What was it, Jupe?”

 

“I’ll explain tonight,” Jupiter promised.  “Right now we’d better get busy and find Mrs. Polly’s place.”  He grinned suddenly at Pete.  “I guess now I know how you felt when I was so mistrusting of Kelly and you had faith in her,” he admitted.  “But from now on, in order to make my plan work, we’re all going to have to trust each other.  Okay?”

 

Pete thought for a moment, then shrugged and grinned back.  “What the heck.  I learned a long time ago I could always trust your judgment, Jupe!  Hasn’t failed me yet, has it?”

 

---

 

“There it is,” Jupiter said.

 

They were standing in front of a tiny white bungalow, surrounded by a well-manicured lawn and brightly-colored flower beds.  Although the house gave quite an attractive appearance, it had a lonely and deserted air.

 

“Are you sure we got the right place?” Bob asked dubiously.  “It looks empty.”

 

“Yes, it does,” Jupiter agreed.  “That’s because Mrs. Polly lives alone.  Stacey told me that she’s been living here ever since Vanessa disappeared, and never goes out except when she has to go to the market or something.  Apparently she doesn’t talk to anyone either, because know one in town knows much about her.  She has become a recluse.”

 

“Well then, what makes you think she’ll want to talk to us?” Pete wanted to know.

 

“We’ll have to convince her to,” Jupiter said determinedly, striding up the walk toward the front door.  “She’s the one who cared for Vanessa Hartwell and therefore would know her better than anyone.  We have to learn everything we can about the Hartwell girl before we can either credit or discredit Kelly’s story.”

 

“Sounds fair enough,” Bob said as Jupiter rang the doorbell.  “Still…I just hope it’s not too painful for Mrs. Polly to talk to us about Vanessa.”

 

Jupe nodded his agreement, then drew a deep breath as the door slowly swung open.  He, too, was secretly afraid that the woman might refuse to talk to them, but he tried to appear calm and confident.  She was their only hope of finding out the valuable information they needed.  He put on a polite smile as a small silver-haired woman peered curiously at them from behind her screen door.

 

“If you young men are selling something, I’m afraid I’m unable to contribute,” she told them hesitantly, in a soft and surprisingly sweet voice.

 

“No, ma’am,” Jupiter hastily assured her.  “My name is Jupiter Jones, and these are my friends Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews.  We’d like to talk to you for a moment, please.”

 

“Talk to me?”  She looked puzzled.  “But I’ve never seen you boys before.  Do you know me from somewhere?”

 

“We know you, Mrs. Polly,” Jupiter told her firmly.  “We have to talk to you about Vanessa Hartwell.”

 

Instantly the woman’s face shadowed, and she stepped back.  “I’m sorry,” she said faintly.  “You’ll have to excuse me.  I have no time to talk to anyone!”  She began to close the door.

 

“Wait!” Jupiter burst out.  He held out a hand as if to stop her.  “Mrs. Polly, please – I know that the memories of Vanessa are very painful for you.  But we must ask you about her.  You see, we met someone who…” he hesitated “…well, who thinks she may be Vanessa.  So as you can see, we have to find out all we can about Vanessa before we can prove whether or not this girl we know truly is the Hartwell heiress.”

 

Mrs. Polly’s face had drained of all its color, and her hand fluttered to her chest as if to still her racing heart.  “My dear!” she gasped.  “You’ve found my Vanessa?”

 

“We’re not sure,” Jupiter repeated.  “She said she doesn’t remember much, and she could be lying too.  So that’s why we simply must talk to you.  Please?”

 

“Oohh…” Mrs. Polly breathed, still dazed.  “Yes…yes, of course!  Please, do come in.  Please!” 

 

She held open the screen door wide, and the three boys filed into the tiny house.

 

“Sit down, please,” she invited them eagerly, indicating the wide sofa in the corner of the cozy living room.  “I’ll get you some refreshments.  What would you like?”

 

“No thank you, ma’am,” Jupiter said quickly.  “We’ll eat when we get back to our hotel.”

 

Mrs. Polly smiled.  “Of course.  You must be quite anxious to find out what you want to know.  As I am!”  She sank down into an armchair across from the boys.  “Well…where do I begin?”

 

“How about at the beginning?” Jupiter asked logically.  “Tell us everything you remember about Vanessa, from her birth on.  Bob, take notes.”

 

The woman’s brown eyes strayed to a spot above the boys’ heads, taking on a dreamy expression.  “It seems like only yesterday that little Vanessa was born.  Everyone was hoping that baby would be a boy, since according to the Hartwell family tradition Trevor needed a son to leave his property to.  But when the doctor announced that she had given birth to a daughter, Trevor’s wife nearly went to pieces.  You see, Mistress Ellie was such a delicate little thing, like a porcelain doll, and her health was so fragile the doctor recommended she not try to have any more children.  So she was mighty upset that the only child she could ever give her husband was a girl.

 

“’I failed,’ she kept weeping.  ‘Trevor will never forgive me.  Now he’ll have no one to carry on his name, or to take care of the house when he’s gone!’

 

“’Don’t fret,’ I told her, trying my best to comfort her.  ‘I’m sure Trevor will love his daughter just as much as he would a son.’  But deep in my heart, I wasn’t so sure.  Their family had owned that house and land for many generations, and the tradition has always been for the eldest son to inherit everything when the father passed on.  So I was just as nervous as Ellie as to what Trevor’s reaction might be.

 

“He came into the hospital room a few hours later with his brother Lloyd right on his heels, looking as excited as a man could look.  ‘Our baby is here!’ he sang out, grabbing my hands and dancing me around the room.  ‘Is it a girl or a boy?’

 

“’It’s a girl,’ I told him hesitantly, hating to disappoint him, but unable to hide the truth forever.

 

“But to mine and Ellie’s amazement, his face lit up like the sunshine.  ‘A girl!’ he exclaimed.  Then he lifted the baby from his wife’s arms as gently as you please.  ‘You’ll see, Ellie, our daughter will be the most beautiful woman who’s ever walked this Valley!’ he told her.

 

“Ellie was staring at him as if stunned.  ‘You’re happy?’ she asked him, as if hardly daring to hope.  ‘You’re not angry because I can’t ever give you a son?’

 

“’Angry?’ Trevor repeated, surprised.  ‘Why on earth should I be?  A daughter is just as good as a son!’

 

“’But Trevor,’ Lloyd spoke up.  ‘The doctor told your wife she can never have another child, remember?  Who will you leave your estate to if you have no son?’

 

“’I’ll leave it to my daughter, of course!’ Trevor told him without a moment’s hesitation.

 

“Now it was Lloyd’s turn to look stunned.  ‘But Trevor,’ he protested.  ‘You can’t defy an age-old family tradition!  A Hartwell woman has never inherited our land before!’

 

“’Tradition be hanged!’ Trevor exploded with such force that we all jumped, including the baby.  ‘This is the twentieth century, or have you forgotten?  Those tired old attitudes about females being mentally inferior to males have long ago been proven to be complete poppycock!  There’s no reason in the world why we have to cling to such a stuffy and senseless tradition.  My daughter will be as good a landowner as any man; you just wait and see!’

 

“Well, personally I was very happy to hear him say that, but Lloyd still looked unconvinced.  However, Ellie was the happiest of us all.

 

“’Oh Trevor,’ she said in her soft voice.  ‘I’m so glad I’ve given you a child you can be proud of.  That’s all I’ve ever wanted!’

 

“Trevor went to sit next to her, placing the baby between them on the bed.  ‘My happiness will be complete,’ he said, gently teasing her, ‘only if she looks just like you someday!’  You should have seen the radiant smile she gave him then.”

 

Mrs. Polly paused in her story, her eyes once again shadowing with long-ago pain.  “Poor little Ellie Hartwell died shortly afterwards from terrible postpartum complications.  Trevor was so distraught, grieving terribly over his lost wife, wondering what to do about his baby daughter.  Since I was alone in the world and already worked for the Hartwells as their live-in housekeeper, I offered to help him raise the child as well.”  Mrs. Polly smiled then.  “You wouldn’t believe that joy that little girl brought into the big house!  It seemed like she was always laughing.  Her father was away from home during the day to help look after the family businesses, but every evening he would spend hours playing with her.  He loved to tease her and play tricks on her, and she loved to try and fool him right back.”

 

Mrs. Polly chuckled.  “That little scamp!  She may have inherited her mother’s delicate looks, but she was as tough as any boy.  She was a lot like her father in many ways, fun-loving, with quite a daredevil nature.  She used to escape out the servants’ entrance of the house whenever my back was turned, and hide out by the trees or in the root cellar.  I never had any trouble finding her, though.  Her little giggle usually gave her away.”

 

“Do you have a picture of her?” Jupiter asked.

 

Mrs. Polly’s face saddened.  “Yes, but I don’t display it.  I’m afraid I don’t quite have the courage to look at her smiling face and wonder what terrible thing has happened to her!”  The woman’s voice broke, and she covered her face with her hands.

 

A silence stretched between the four of them as the boys respectfully gave Mrs. Polly a few moments to herself.  Finally, she seemed to return to the present, swiping at her eyes with her fingertips and smiling shakily.

 

“I’m sorry, boys,” she murmured.  “But I loved Vanessa every bit as much as if she were my own daughter.  Even though it’s been twelve long years since that terrible day, it never gets any easier to think about.”

 

“That’s all right, Mrs. Polly,” Jupiter said gently.  “You’ve told us enough for now.  I would just like to see what Vanessa looked like.”

 

“Oh, yes.”  Mrs. Polly pulled open the bottom drawer of the table beside her chair and selected a large photograph.  “Here is the last professional photo ever taken of her.  I’m afraid it’s all I have.  I swiped it from the Hartwell home before I moved out, but all the others have remained there, either hanging in the family photo gallery or stored away in photo albums.” 

 

“This one will be enough for now,” Jupe assured her.  He took the framed picture in his hands, and Pete and Bob crowded close to peer over his shoulder.  All three of them caught their breath, impressed by the beauty of the child in the photograph.  Long, reddish-blonde ringlets tumbled down over each of her small shoulders, and large blue eyes shone from her smiling, cherubic face.  She was dressed in a lacy sunflower-yellow dress with a matching bow fastened to the back of her head.  A gold ring graced one finger of the tiny hands folded carefully in her lap.

 

“Wow,” Pete managed after a moment.  “She’s gorgeous!”

 

“Beautiful,” Bob agreed.

 

Mrs. Polly smiled proudly, her eyes glistening.  “Thank you.  Now you know why everyone who ever saw her fell in love with her immediately!  She looks just like a little angel, doesn’t she?”

 

“Yes, she does,” Jupiter agreed.  He studied the face in the photograph closely and critically, trying to find an unmistakable resemblance between Kelly Kipley and the frozen image in front of him.  Both girls had blue eyes and blonde hair, but Vanessa Hartwell’s curls had much more of a reddish tint than he remembered Kelly possessing in her long straight locks.  Also, Vanessa’s features were so rounded and childish it was hard for Jupiter to determine exactly what they would look like matured into the thin face of a teenager, complete with a totally different set of teeth.  Finally, he had to admit he could not detect enough of a likeness to be absolutely certain they were one and the same girl.

 

“How old is Vanessa on this picture?” he asked Mrs. Polly.

 

“That was taken on her third birthday,” the woman told him.  “We took her into town every year on her birthdays to get her picture taken at the department store studio.  All throughout the year I would take snapshots of her, but we wanted these professional photos to hang in the family gallery in the Hartwell mansion’s library, together with all her ancestors.  She disappeared a few weeks before her fourth birthday, so we never got the chance to get that year’s photo taken.”  Then Mrs. Polly leaned forward eagerly.  “But you boys said you found someone who thinks she may be Vanessa?  Please, tell me about her!”

 

Jupiter, remembering Pete’s promise not to reveal Kelly’s identity as the youthful bandit wanted by the police, chose his words carefully.  “She lives not too far from here,” he said.  “She told us that she has distant memories of living in a big house with a nanny, but that’s all she knows.  We’re not certain whether or not she’s being held prisoner, but she asked us to secretly help her find out whether or not she is Vanessa, and if she was kidnapped by the man who calls himself her father.”

 

“So does this girl look like Vanessa?’ Mrs. Polly asked anxiously, gesturing toward the photograph Jupiter still held.

 

Jupiter shook his head regretfully.  “Not as far as I can see.  Of course, Vanessa is barely more than a baby here, and this girl we know has to be at least sixteen years old.  It’s impossible for me to tell for certain how much her face may have changed as it matured.  Her hair is blonde, but doesn’t have the red tint that Vanessa’s had.  Vanessa’s eyes are a darker shade of blue, too.”  He shrugged helplessly, for once feeling at a loss.  “Then again, those differences could merely be the result of maturity, and not because it’s a different girl.  Unfortunately I’m not an expert at ascertaining the specifics of people’s appearances as they grow older.  At this point I really can’t see enough of a resemblance to say that this is definitely her.”

 

Mrs. Polly’s shoulders slumped.  “Then it must be true, what I have thought all along!”

 

“What’s that?” Pete asked quickly.

 

“Don’t you see?” Mrs. Polly wailed.  “Vanessa couldn’t be still alive.  After all, four years old is quite old enough to remember things, and I know whoever kidnapped her would not have wanted to take the risk of her knowing the truth and giving them away.  Especially now, when she would be old enough to inherit the Hartwell estate.”  Mrs. Polly began to sob.  “I feel it in my heart, boys.  My little Vanessa was murdered a long time ago!”

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