"Nancy!" Bess Marvin exclaimed. "Listen, that's Randy Dean's new song, 'Lonely Wilderness.'" She leaned forward and turned up the volume on the car radio, then rolled down her window.
And the trees sway against the blue, blue sky.
But there's danger lurking nearby.
Yes, danger nearby.
"It's like it was meant for us," Bess said when the song ended. "I mean, here we are, with the trees swaying against the blue sky."
Nancy Drew brushed a lock of shoulder-length, reddish blond hair off her face. "Let's hope there's no danger lurking nearby."
"These mountains and forest are gorgeous, " Bess said. "And Yellowstone is supposed to be even better -- one of the most beautiful places on earth."
It was a cool, crisp Wednesday in early May. That morning Nancy and Bess had flown from their hometown of River Heights to Jackson, Wyoming, where they had rented a car for the drive north to Yellowstone National Park.
"George would love this," Nancy commented as they passed a grove of aspen trees. "Too bad she couldn't come." George Fayne, Bess's cousin, had been forced to pass up the trip because of a long-planned visit to friends in Boston.
"Bet you can't wait to see Ned," Bess said. Nancy smiled broadly. Her boyfriend was one of a small group of Emerson College students who had been camping in Yellowstone for three weeks, studying the habits of the yellow-bellied marmot, a small, furry mammal common in the park. "I do miss him. I just wish it hadn't taken an emergency to get us together."
"Who was it who got hurt again?" Bess asked.
"A graduate student named Brad Keeler," Nancy replied. "He was badly burned when a propane stove exploded the night before last, and Ned doesn't think it was an accident."
"Because all those marmot traps were stolen, right?" Bess said.
"Right. Over the last couple of weeks about four dozen traps have disappeared. It happened gradually, and no one realized they were missing because they were stored in several different places," Nancy explained. "But Brad finally noticed and was starting to look into it before that stove blew up in his face."
"How awful!" Bess exclaimed. "What was the study group doing with the traps, any way?"
"They used them to catch the marmots last fall so they could attach transmitters to the animals," Nancy said. "That's how the Emerson people keep track of the marmots' movements."
"Neat," Bess said. "But why would anyone want the traps?"
"Ned thinks someone is planning to trap marmots with them and smuggle them out of the park, which is totally illegal," Nancy answered.
"But he doesn't have any proof, so he called you, since you happen to be not only the love of his life but also an incredible detective," Bess said, grinning.
"Thanks for the compliment, but I'm really worried about this case. This phase of the Emerson study ends on Saturday. Ned says that if any marmots vanish between now and then, the study could be blamed. The third phase of the project scheduled for this summer would be canceled, and all the college's work would go down the drain." Nancy sighed. "Ned's really upset."
"You don't think that someone from the Emerson group could be involved, do you?"
"I'd hate to think it. But we've got to check," Nancy said solemnly as they passed a sign that said South Entrance, Yellowstone National Park.
Tall, slender lodgepole pines lined the road on either side, their tangy scent filling the car. The trees were so thick in some places that it was like driving through a tunnel.
"I can't wait to see the yellow-bellied marmots," Bess said.
Nancy grinned. "Ned said they look like chubby, overgrown chipmunks, only with yellow undersides, which is how they got their name. But most people call them whistling marmots, because they communicate by making high-pitched sounds."
"They sound cute -- " Bess began but stopped abruptly.
A herd of brown elk appeared from among the trees on the right.
Nancy stepped on the brake.
Paying no attention to the car, the elk began prancing gracefully across the road.
"Oh, Nancy, look at the babies!" Bess cried. Nancy chuckled as a handful of little elk wobbled awkwardly in front of the herd.
The herd stopped in a meadow on the left side of the highway. Near the center of the sparse grass where the creatures were grazing, Nancy noticed a cone of gray rock about a foot high. From its center, wisps of white steam curled into the air.
"It's a geyser!" Nancy exclaimed.
Bess's jaw dropped.
"The whole park is covered with them," Nancy said as she started driving again. "Which is why Yellowstone is so special."
"I read the guidebook, too," Bess said teasingly. "The geysers are remnants of volcanoes that erupted around here millions of years ago. But I still can't believe it."
"Just wait until you see Old Faithful. It erupts about every hour and a half. And it will be right outside our window at the hotel," Nancy said.
"That's why I wanted to stay there," Bess replied.
Nancy shook her head and laughed at her friend. "You just didn't want to camp out, even though it would be better if we were closer to the study group."
"Oh, Nan, I can't!" she moaned. "I hate bugs, but even worse I hate sleeping on the cold, bumpy ground."
"Okay, okay," Nancy said. "You convinced me. But you may be passing up the chance to get close to a cute Emerson guy," she warned her friend.
Nancy stepped on the brake at an intersection. A sign pointed right to the Grand Loop Road and left to the inn and visitors center. Before she could turn, a tour bus passed in front of her. She followed it in the direction of the inn.
"It seems a bit early in the season for tour buses," Nancy said.
"It's probably better to get here before the main tourist season starts," Bess replied. "Is Ned meeting us at the hotel?"
"He said he'd try to. But the Emerson group is incredibly busy right now, gearing up for the end of this phase of the study," Nancy explained. "If he's not there when we arrive, we'll head over to the campsite after we check in."
The road grew steeper, and Nancy kept a safe distance between her white rental car and the bus in front. On the far side of the pass, the highway ran beside a gushing river.
"That must be the hotel," Bess said, pointing to the left. "Have you ever seen anything like it in your life?"
Nancy leaned forward and saw a building that was at least seven stories high with a slanted roof and rows of little dormer windows. Its walls were made of huge rough-cut logs stacked one on top of the other.
"It looks like a giant birdhouse," Nancy said delightedly as she turned onto the road that led to the inn and followed it to the front of the building. Then, remembering that Ned might be waiting for her inside, she hastily stopped the car, turned off the ignition, and jumped out.
"Go on ahead, Nancy," Bess urged with a knowing smile. "I'll find someone to help me with the bags. Then I'll park the car in the lot over there," she said, pointing.
Gratefully, Nancy tossed Bess the car keys, mounted the wooden stairs, and entered the lobby.
The center of the building was an atrium that rose all the way to the roof. Along two sides were level after level of balconies. A huge fireplace of gigantic lava stones dominated the big space. Half a dozen guests sat near the fire in old-fashioned rocking chairs. Another row of rockers faced tall windows overlooking several geysers. A few people were seated there, enjoying the view. But no Ned. Nancy choked back her disappointment.
Just then she saw Bess enter the lobby, followed by a bellhop pulling a trolley with Bess's two suitcases and Nancy's small carry on bag.
"Where's Ned?" she asked when Nancy reached her side.
Nancy shook her head. "At the campsite, I guess. I'd like to drive over and take a look."
"Okay, go ahead," Bess said, handing the car keys back to her friend. "I'll check us in and start unpacking."
Nancy walked to the parking lot briskly. The sun shone brightly, but the air was chilly. She spotted the car, dashed over, and got in. After glancing at the map Ned had faxed her, she started the engine and headed north for about fifteen miles.
At Madison Junction, where there was a ranger station, general store, and campground, she turned right. She watched carefully until she spotted a dirt road leading off to the left, then bumped along it for about a quarter of a mile to the campsite.
The Emerson College research group was camping at the foot of a hill in a clearing partly ringed by lodgepole pines. Nancy parked next to a Jeep and walked quickly up the path toward the little cluster of woodland green tents. When she reached the fire pit at its center, she found the campsite deserted.
Several logs had been pulled around the fire pit to serve as benches. Not far away was the kitchen tent, with sides made of mosquito netting and tables lined with pots, pans, and food.
A narrow trail snaked along the edge of the camp and then continued up the hill. Near the foot of the hill, and about a hundred yards from the campsite, was a very small, wooden cabin. Nancy went over to inspect it.
There was a heavy padlock on the door and only one tiny window, through which she could see a generator and computer. Next to the door, on the outside of the cabin, was a makeshift bulletin board. Nancy studied the work assignment chart posted there. It was divided into categories such as Computer Data Collection, Transmitter Checking, and Observation -- Feeding Stations 1 through 4.
Nancy saw that Ned was assigned to watch feeding station 3 from two-thirty to five that afternoon. Where was he now, though? she wondered. It was just about two.
She strolled back toward the tents. The canvas flap that served as a door on the nearest one was tied back. She glanced inside and saw a camera bag that reminded her of Ned's, then started to raise the mosquito netting and go inside.
"Stop right there!" she heard someone shout behind her.
Nancy spun around and saw two men in dark green coveralls running toward her. The taller one, who had piercing black eyes and black stubble for a beard, reached her first. He grabbed her by the arm and yanked her away from the tent.
"Hey," Nancy protested, struggling to free herself from his grip. "I wasn't doing anything wrong."
Just then the second man reached her. He was built like a short redwood and had the ruddy complexion of someone who spent a lot of time outdoors.
"Yeah, sure," the tall man said, twisting Nancy's arm behind her.
Nancy had to bite her lip to keep from crying out.
"Looks like we caught ourselves a thief," the short, burly guy said, taking a step toward her. An ugly grin contorted his face. "And we know just what to do with her. Right, Richard?"
"Right," his buddy replied.
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