In Colorado, they’re called the Rockies. In Virginia, the Blue Ridge. In Nebraska, they’re just called the hills. If you’re in the Platte valley, you might hear them called the north hills or the south hills, but they’re pretty much the same: wide open, rolling pasture crisscrossed by more fences than gravel roads. A lot can happen in the hills that nobody would every find out about. A lot has.
Riley had never given them much thought, but as he waited in the old Ford pickup, he found himself staring out across them toward the sunset. This used to be the edge of town, he thought, but four new houses had gone up now, and another one was close to being finished. That was no big deal for most towns, but in Elwood it was like adding another subdivision.
A small town, Elwood sat down right smack dab in the middle of the south hills. Two-lane highways left Elwood in all of the four directions but traffic was light, except for the trucks. Tonight was busier than most. The Elwood Pirates were playing basketball. Maxwell’s Wildcats had arrived with the whole town behind them. Cars streamed in to fill the streets around the small school, and orange mixed with maroon as everyone made their way toward the doors.
This latest influx of spectators was arriving for the boys’ game. The girls were already finished, and Riley hoped the Pirates had won so he wouldn’t have to listen to his sister whine all evening.
Two sharp bangs on the tailgate of the pickup jolted Riley out of his reverie, and he looked in his side mirror to find Jonathan and Will walking up along the driver’s side. The window creaked as he rolled it down.
“Hey, man,” Jonathan said. “Why didn’t you come to the game?”
“I had work.” Riley leaned his elbow out the window and sighed like he was tired. “How’d they do?”
“They won. It was close at the end, but we beat them by two.”
“You’re sister did good,” Will said with a grin. “Is she coming tonight?”
“How would I know? I’m not her keeper,” Riley said, mocking disgust. “You can just stay away from her.”
Will and Jonathan laughed as they began to walk away. Will beat his chest with his fist twice and then pointed at Riley. “Whatever you say.”
They turned and moved on, and Riley chuckled to himself. He glanced at the school doors but didn’t see his sister coming out yet. He rolled his window up to keep the chill out. January, and forty-five degrees. Not typical, but what could you expect. The night chill was already moving in, and the sun slipped below the horizon.
Minutes went by. Many came and went from the school, often in small groups but sometimes individually. Riley didn’t see his sister. After fifteen minutes, he grew impatient, turned the ignition off, and went into the school to look for her.
A small cluster of girls from the Elwood team stood in the lobby watching the boys’ game through the open doors of the gym. They didn’t hear Riley approach over the din of the game.
“Hey,” Riley said, and all four of the girls turned to face him. “Where’s Jennifer?”
The girls, smiling and excited from the games, all spoke in a flurry of answers.
“I thought she left already.”
“No, she was with Will.”
“No she wasn’t. I just saw Will.”
“He did leave.”
“Maybe she’s watching the boys.”
“Or still in the locker room.”
“Okay, okay,” Riley said, holding his hands up for them to stop. “Would you mind checking in the locker room? I’ll check the bleachers.”
“Sure. No problem.”
The girls turned toward the locker room, and Riley stepped toward the doors to the gym.
“I’m just looking for my sister,” he told Mrs. Bruckheimer, who was taking money for the game. She waved him through, and Riley stepped into the gym.
The search wasn’t too difficult since it was only the first period of the game and most of the people in the bleachers were still sitting down, but Riley didn’t see Jennifer anywhere. He did see lots of people he knew, though, and raised his hand to them as he passed, careful not to get stopped and sucked into a conversation that may last for longer than he wanted. He reached the far end of the bleachers without seeing her, and then he circled back, scanning the crowd in case he had just missed her. No luck.
He met the girls again in the lobby. “Any luck?” he asked.
No, they hadn’t seen her, and they had looked everywhere, too.
“Maybe she left with someone else and you just missed her.”
“I doubt it,” Riley said, and turned to leave.
It was getting darker outside. As he walked to the pickup, he wondered. Could he have missed her? He pulled his cell from his pocket. No messages. He dialed her number and put the phone to his ear, but it only rang once and then asked him to leave a message, what usually happened when the person you were calling was out of range. “Call me,” he said and hung up. She must have gotten a ride from someone else.
Irritated, he climbed into his pickup, fired it up, and spun the tires as he pulled out of the gravel lot. He turned toward the sunset and headed for the southwest corner of town. He passed the big, blue water tower and followed the curving gravel road west and south out of town. The few lights of Elwood disappeared in his rearview mirror and the open expanse of hills opened up in front of him, their valleys made darker by the remaining glow of the sunset.
Riley dialed Will and put his phone to his ear.
“Hey, man, are you on your way?”
“I am. Are you there already?”
“We are. The party’s kind of dead still.”
“Of course it is,” Riley said. “The boys are still playing ball. Is Jennifer there, too?”
Riley heard Will’s muffled voice as he asked someone else. Then he came back on the line.
“Yeah, Bree said she’s here somewhere, but I haven’t seen her yet.”
“Really? I thought you said the party was dead.”
“It is, but we just got here and I haven’t made my rounds yet.”
Riley clenched his teeth. “Okay,” he said, “but if you see her before I get there, tell her to turn her phone back on and call me.”
“Will do, buddy!”
Beep. He’d hung up on him.
Riley shook his head and tossed his phone on the dash.
The hills spread out on all sides of him now. There were no yard lights to break up the darkening twilight, and the sharp valleys had a darkness settling in them that was only cut by his headlights as he drove through. At the top of one hill, he could see the headlights of quite a few vehicles parked in a field some miles ahead. The party was already starting, with a row of pickups parked around a line of baled cornstalks.
“Turn your lights off, you idiots,” Riley said out loud. It wouldn’t be good if the sheriff found them, a bunch of high schoolers and recent graduates like himself having a good time, a good underage time.
The gravel road dipped back down into a valley and the distant headlights were blocked from view again. At the bottom of the hill, Riley slowed to go over an old wooden bridge and through an intersection with another road. As he approached the intersection, a coyote bolted across the beam of his headlights and disappeared into the darkness of the valley.
Riley’s heartrate jumped immediately, and he reached across the seat in the dark and felt the rifle there. He turned onto the crossroad determined not to let this opportunity go. Maybe he could catch the coyote in his headlights long enough to get a shot off.
The road he turned onto was a minimum maintenance road, meaning the graders only came through about once a year, and grass, brown and dead with winter, had encroached on the sides and middle, leaving only the dirt tracks bare. Riley could just see the coyote at the far reaches of his headlights’ beams. It was running full speed down the road. Riley gassed it, hoping to catch up before it turned off into the pasture and was lost in the darkness.
The road followed the curving valley floor, and the coyote soon disappeared around a finger sticking out from the hill on the right. When Riley rounded the bend, the coyote was gone. He let his foot off the gas and slowed, his eyes scanning the edges of darkness.
Nothing. The coyote was gone.
Riley continued along slowly, looking for a driveway into a pasture or a wider place where he could turn around on the road. He was disappointed. Coyotes were smart creatures and he rarely saw them.
Finally he gave up on finding a driveway or any good place to turn around, and he stopped along the edge of the road. He put the pickup in reverse, cranked the wheel, and backed around sideways in the road. When he had backed what he thought was as far as he could go, he turned the wheel the other way and pulled forward to the ditch in front of him. Then, he turned the wheel and backed up again. This time, he backed too far and his rear tire dropped off of the road. The back of the pickup settled with a thump, and Riley stomped on the brake to stop it from rolling any further off the road.
It was too late. The pickup rested on the frame with his back tires hanging off in a sharp ditch. When he put the pickup in drive, the rear wheels spun freely, and he didn’t have four-wheel-drive. Finally, he put it in park and stepped out to survey the situation.
Yep, he was stuck. He reached in the bed of the truck for his shovel, but he had taken it out after irrigating season. There was nothing to dig himself out with. He looked back up the road toward the intersection where he’d turned off of the gravel but it was about three-quarters of a mile back and around the bend of the valley. He couldn’t see it and no one would be able to see him, and no one would drive down this road anytime soon.
He leaned into the pickup and grabbed his cell phone from the dash. He cringed at the idea of calling Will or Jonathan to tell them that he’d gotten stuck, but when he turned the screen on, he saw that there was no reception to call anyway. It was blocked by the hills.
That left him with two options: he could either walk back along the minimum maintenance road to the intersection where he’d turned off and wait for someone to come along on their way to the party and pick him up, or he could cross the ditch and the fence into the pasture, and then climb to the top of the hill where he would likely have reception to call someone.
It was dark now. If he chose to climb the hill, he would be climbing in the dark. He could envision himself tripping over the cattle trails, washouts, and yucca plants all the way to the top of the hill. Who knew what he might walk into in the dark, and he didn’t want to lie on the side of the hill with a hurt leg until morning, or however long it took for someone to find him.
The choice was the road, then. He reached back into the pickup and turned the ignition off, and then the lights. The darkness was immediate and made more thorough by the dim glow still left in the sky above him. He hesitated, thinking about the pickup parked across the road in the darkness, but in the end he left it in darkness rather than risk leaving it running to power the headlights and save his battery. No one would be driving down this road tonight.
He started away from the pickup but quickly turned back to take his heavier coat from the seat. He put it on, zipped it up, and started walking back along the right-hand track in the road.
It was quiet, absolutely quiet. The chill of a January night had fully set in and the air was crisp. One of his favorite parts about winter was the complete lack of bugs, and their absence added to the night’s silence. Only the soft crunch of his footfalls seemed to exist. As his eyes adjusted, though, he began to pick out shadows off to his side. A narrow wash ran along the bottom of the valley to his right, cut by the spring and summer rains, and it was spotted with trees and brush. The hill on his left rose toward the night sky and was spotted by a few evergreens and yuccas. He could see stars poking out already.
Off to his right, from the direction of the wash, came a sudden noise. It caused Riley to stop and listen, but the sound was already gone. Was it a branch cracking? There was no wind, yet something had made a noise.
Riley got goosebumps, then, as his imagination spun on uncontrollably. He quickly reined it in, though, and continued along the road. It was just a bird taking flight, an owl, or that coyote had jumped and run from its hiding place. He told himself that, but he scanned the indistinguishable darkness all the while, looking for movement and listening for sounds.
Crunch, crunch. His feet continued their soft, rhythmic crunch, maybe a little faster than they had before. Crunch, crunch. He stopped.
The footsteps were behind him, and he spun around in a crouch. There was nothing there in the darkness, at least nothing within the few feet that he could see. His eyes were wide and strained, staring out at nothing, looking for something. Then he heard a flurry of movement from the side of the road where the hill climbed away from him, and he whipped his head in that direction. Instantly, the sound of cracking branches came from behind him, from the wash. He spun around, and then back around, but he could see nothing. The sound had stopped as quickly as it had begun.
Riley turned back toward the intersection, putting the wash on his right, and started to run. Doing so seemed to cause panic to set in and his speed increased uncontrollably, adrenaline pumping through his veins. He didn’t make it very far in the darkness before he stepped wrong, lost his balance, and careened down onto the dirt track. The ground was dry and hard, and he felt its sting as he reached out to catch himself. He scrambled back to his feet and made fists against the sting in his torn palms.
Now there was sound all around him. Something was moving in the grass on the hill to his left, something else was pushing through the brush on his right, and most disturbing of all were the sounds of running feet and heavy, animal breathing along the tracks behind him.
A fearful cry escaped his lips as he began to sprint along the track again. Now he could hear the sounds all around him, even over his own footsteps and terrified breathing. Heavy footfalls, crackling brush, excited breathing. And it was all getting closer, getting louder. He turned his head in quick peeks to look over his shoulder, and he thought he could catch glimpses of shadows moving alongside of and behind him. Whatever they were, they were running on two legs! That didn’t make any sense! And they were getting closer.
* * * * *
“Are you sure you don’t want one?” Christina asked, lifting a dripping beer from the cooler and offering it to her.
“No, thanks,” Jennifer said. She had signed a paper for her coach about not drinking, and those kinds of things still mattered to her.
Christina shrugged and slipped the beer into a neoprene sleeve, cracked it open, and took a drink.
Jennifer and Christina slowly made their way along the row of round bales. There was quite a crowd now, and the girls stopped often to talk to people sitting on tailgates, to listen to music playing through the sliding rear window of a pickup, or for Christina to get another beer. Many were sitting in their vehicles to warm up, and then they would make their way back out to the party.
There was Will’s pickup, and Will and Jonathan sat on the tailgate drinking beers and listening to Mumford and Sons playing on the radio. Will’s eyes lit up as the girls approached.
“Hey, ladies. Glad you made it.”
“We’ve been here,” Christina said. “Down at the other end.”
“Well we’ve been at this end.” Will slid over and patted the tailgate beside him. Jennifer smiled and sat down.
“Have you talked to your brother?” he asked her.
“No. Should I have?” She pulled her phone from her pocket and realized that she had forgotten to turn it back on after the game.
“He called looking for you a while ago,” Will said. He looked at his watch. “Quite a while ago.”
Jennifer saw that she had a missed call and a voicemail. She pushed the appropriate buttons and put the phone to her ear.
“Call me,” her brother’s voice said. He sounded tired.
“He’s probably around here somewhere,” Will said.
Jennifer dialed her brother’s number and listened. There was one ring, and then her brother’s voice asked her to leave a message. He must be out of range, she thought. “Tag, you’re it,” she said into the phone, and then she put it back into her pocket.
“Strange,” she said, shaking her head. “How long ago did he call?”
Will looked at his watch and then at Jonathan. “Forty-five minutes?”
“Yeah, about forty-five minutes ago.”
Jennifer let out a slow breath, and Will noted the concern on her face.
“He should be here by now,” she said.
“I wouldn’t worry about him,” Christina said. “He’ll be here soon.”
It didn’t make Jennifer feel any better, and Will was still watching her closely. Then he turned to look at the small group around the pickup parked next to them.
“Hey, Billy,” he called. “You just got here. Did you see Riley anywhere on the way out here, or his pickup?”
Billy shook his head. “No. Is everything alright?”
“I don’t know,” Will said.
He looked at Jennifer and noticed her fidgeting concern again. Then he looked at Jonathan.
“Something’s not right,” he said.
Jonathan gave Will a knowing look, sighed, and downed the last of his beer.
“I’m good to drive,” Jonathan said, tossing the empty over his shoulder into the bed of the truck.
Five minutes later, Jonathan was driving Will’s pickup back towards town along the winding gravel road. Will sat in the passenger’s seat and the girls were in the back. The darkness was complete, and Jonathan kept the headlights on high beam and drove slowly, scanning the ditches and hoping not to find anything there.
They came to the edge of a deep valley and followed the gravel road down a long hill leading toward the bottom. There was a minimum maintenance road that crossed at the bottom, and Jonathan slowed as they approached the intersection.
There was a bang on the passenger’s side of the pickup and Jonathan jerked them to a stop. Jennifer looked through the window into the darkness and saw someone leaning against the passenger side of the pickup box. Was that Riley?
She reached for the door handle but Will said, “Stay in the pickup.” He got out quickly, and Jennifer saw him glance at Riley and then take a few steps away from the pickup, looking down the minimum maintenance road. He held his hand up in front of him in what looked like a stopping gesture, and he shouted something that she couldn’t understand.
Goosebumps stood out on the back of her neck and all along her arms.
“What’s happening?” Christina asked.
“Just wait,” Jonathan said. He calmly rested his hand on the steering wheel.
Jennifer saw Will go to Riley, and they spoke quickly and then came to Jennifer’s door. She opened the door for them and slid to the middle of the seat.
“Riley, are you okay?” she asked, and then gasped as his face became visible in the dome light. He was pale and out of breath, as if he’d run a long way.
“I think so,” Riley said. He climbed into the pickup and hurriedly shut the door. He was shaking.
Riley took some deep breaths before he spoke. “I chased a coyote down the minimum maintenance road,” he said. “I lost it about three-quarters of a mile down there, and when I was turning around, I got stuck. I had to walk.”
That didn’t explain his heavy breathing, or the look of fear on his face. Jennifer also started to notice the rips in Riley’s heavy coat.
“What happened?” she asked again.
Riley met her eyes. “Something was chasing me,” he said. “Lots of them.”
“Lots of what?”
Riley shook his head and looked at his feet. “I don’t know.”
Jennifer looked from Riley to Will, who was back in the front seat. Will had a strange look on his face, a knowing look.
“What was it?” Jennifer asked. She remembered him holding his hand up and shouting something into the darkness. “What did you do?”
Will hesitated for a few seconds, about to tell her something, and then looked at Jonathan. It seemed to Jennifer that an entire conversation happened in that look between the two boys in the front seat in those few short seconds, and then Will looked back to her and shook his head.
“Coyotes, probably,” he said. “I just scared them off.”
“Coyotes?” Jennifer was incredulous. “Coyotes don’t act like that, don’t do this.” She motioned to Riley’s torn clothes.
Will shook his head slightly, and a somber smile crossed his lips. “Strange things happen in these hills sometimes,” and that was all he would say.
As Jonathan began to turn around in the intersection, his headlights swept across the minimum maintenance road. At the farthest reaches of the light, Jennifer saw something, though she could never be sure what it was.
“Look!” Jennifer said, pointing her finger between Jonathan and Will.
Jonathan jerked the pickup to a stop, but whatever Jennifer had seen was gone.
After a pause, Jonathan continued to turn around and then headed back to the party.
Jennifer was quieter than usual that night. Her mind kept returning to what she’d seen, but now she didn’t know if she could trust her memory.
As those headlights swept across the minimum maintenance road, it had looked like there was a pack of coyotes out there, but some were on four legs and some were on two.
“Strange things happen in these hills sometimes,” Will had said. Strange things, indeed.