"Good Morning, Justin!" Andi called as she entered the dining room. "Good Morning, Mother! I am glad Mr. Foster is still sick," she said with a mischievous grin.
"Hi, sis! Sleep good?" Justin set down his coffee cup. "Did Chad tell you about last night?"
"No. What happened?"
"Al Jones was killed last night."
“Al Jones? Oh, that man who lived alone in a little cabin a few miles out of town? He was a loner, not usually getting in fights. How—”
"He was shot as he was coming out of the saloon late last night." Justin said, as if reading her thoughts. He shook his head and sighed. "But that's not the worst of it."
"What do you mean?" Justin was acting strange.
"They're blaming Cory."
"What? CORY? You're kidding me. Cory would never—"
"Calm down, sis. I don't think it's him either, but he was seen running away from the saloon only moments after shots were heard. And some people in town are jumping to conclusions."
Andi's blood was boiling. How could anyone blame Cory, of all people? "I can't believe anyone would think such a thing! Everyone likes Cory."
"I guess now you know how people felt when you saw Ben Decker killed. Everyone likes Peter, too."
"But that was different!" Andi was almost yelling. "I actually saw that. This is totally—"
|Cory? A killer? Is it possible?|
"I know, Andrea, but please lower your voice," Mother broke in. "Would you like some breakfast?"
Andi shook her head. That was the last thing she wanted right now. Tears blinded her as she stumbled back up to her room and flung herself on the bed. She gave way to angry sobs. She wanted to . . . Oh, Cory!
She sat up and wiped her eyes. Crying wouldn't do a bit of good. But what would? What could she do? She felt like riding straight into town and clearing Cory of all charges. She sniffed and shook her head. As if she could really do that. But she had to figure something out.
Half an hour later, Andi tiptoed downstairs. She heard Justin talking to their sister. "Cory asked me to help him. He's real upset over this."
"How's Andi taking it?" Melinda asked.
"She took off up to her room half an hour ago. I guess . . . Oh, here she is! Andi, are you okay?" Justin looked concerned.
"I . . . I'm okay, I guess." But she was still mad.
Mitch came over and hugged her. "Everything will turn out alright, Andi. Justin can help Cory. Don't worry."
Andi nodded and returned the hug. "Thanks, Mitch. I think I'll go for a ride."
"Go ahead. It will be good for you," Justin agreed.
Andi managed a small grin before heading to the barn.
As she lay on the ground beside the gurgling creek at her special spot, Andi tried to think. She was too mentally exhausted to feel angry anymore. She didn't have the heart to cry. And she . . . "Who's that?" she asked aloud.
Someone was riding toward her. "It's . . . Chad?" She recognized his horse, Sky. As he neared, Andi wondered why he was coming out here. He pulled up beside Taffy and tied Sky next to her.
"Hi, sis," he greeted her and sat down beside her. "I figured you had come here. I guess you're probably not too happy about the news."
Andi nodded and swallowed.
"Andi, don't worry. Look, there's not nearly enough evidence against him. And soon everyone will realize that. Trust me." He lifted her chin and looked into her eyes. "We all love you. And everyone likes Cory. Please try not to get too riled up."
"You'd be mad too, if one of your best friends was being blamed for something he didn't do!” She blinked back the tears that threatened to come.
"Yes, that's natural. Mitch felt that way when Peter was blamed for killing Ben Decker. But just be patient. The truth will come out. Okay?" He smiled reassuringly.
"Ok. I love you too, Chad."
He pulled her into a hug then stood up. "We had better get back to the ranch. You know how Mother is about meals.” He grinned. “On time, no matter how crazy things are!"
"You know, I am actually sort of hungry. I forgot all about breakfast!" Andi untied Taffy, then mounted. "Race you back, Chad!"
"That was a close race, but I think you won," Andi said as she began brushing Taffy down. Chad was leading Sky into his stall.
"Maybe, but it looked like a tie to me," he called over his shoulder.
Five minutes later, they were both washed up and sitting at the table. Mashed potatoes, chicken, gravy, biscuits, and jam . . . Andi's favorite!
Justin was still in town. Andi felt better after the race. Chad prayed, then they all dug into the food. Halfway through the meal, a knock sounded at the door. It was Sheriff Tate. He stepped inside and nodded to Chad.
"Howdy, Chad. Hi, Mitch. I came to tell you the latest on last night's incident."
"Well, don't keep us waiting! What's up?” Chad wanted to know.
"Cory isn't in jail for now, but I might have to put him there, just to keep things calm. There's a good bit of excitement in town."
"That's not good." Chad frowned. "Poor Andi's been awfully . . . Ow! What did you do that for?"
Andi scowled at him. She reached out her foot to stomp his toes again, but he pulled his feet under his chair. A smile tugged at the corner of Sheriff Tate's mustache, and he said, "It's okay, Andi. Things will calm down once people realize how unreasonable this is." And with that, he tipped his hat and left.
Justin came home later than usual that evening. And he had news. "Well, on the way out of town, a fellow stopped me. He said he was a relative of Mr. Jones, and he knew something really important about this case. But he doesn't want it to be public knowledge. So, he wants me to come alone, unarmed. He's scared, poor fellow. He wants me to meet him in Al Jones' old shack outside town on Wednesday, day after tomorrow. I guess I'll go. He looks trustworthy, and I need to know whatever it is he has to say." Justin sat down and pulled his boots off. "Some folks in town are not very happy about the fact that Cory isn't in jail. Sheriff Tate might need to put him there, 'just for safekeeping', as he said.
Andi turned down Mitch's offer for a game of checkers, even though she knew he was doing it to make her feel better. He didn't really like checkers, and she always beat him anyway. But she was too tired tonight. She undressed slowly and crawled in bed. "Oh, God," she prayed, "Please prove Cory innocent. Make everything turn out alright. Thank You. Amen." And with that, she fell asleep.
The next morning, Justin informed Andi that Mr. Foster was well, and there would be school today. She groaned.
"Andi, could you buy me some thread at the mercantile after school? I need some if I want to finish my dress before this weekend," Melinda asked before Andi left for school. "I have the money here."
"Alright. What color do you want?"
The girls discussed the thread and Melinda's dress while Justin hitched Pal to the buggy. "Andi, let's go!" Justin called.
Andi slipped the coins Melinda handed her in her pocket. "Bye, Mother! See you after school, Melinda!" she called, and stepped into the buggy. Justin slapped the reins, and they were off.
At school, everyone was talking about Cory, who had stayed home. Andi didn't blame him one bit. None of the other kids seemed to suspect him, either. The day dragged on for what seemed like forever to Andi. She wanted to see Cory. Finally, school was out. Andi went straight to the mercantile for the thread. She bought it, and then started on a run for Cory's house.
She was in such a hurry, she didn't even give a second thought to taking a back-alley shortcut. But halfway through, she paused. She heard someone inside a doorway, talking in low tones. The door was cracked open. Andi listened.
"I told him to come alone and unarmed, so he'll be easy. Afore he knows what’s happening, he's gonna be where he'll never be nobody's stinkin lawyer. Ever." He chuckled menacingly. Andi's eyes opened wide. They had to be talking about someone else. Not... "Better shut that door, Jake." A new voice broke in. "If someone hears us, our plans would all fail, and we'd be—" Before he could finish, a curse was followed by a muffled scream.Andi was caught.
Andi was held against the wall by a big, burly man. "What were you doing out there! What did you hear?" he fairly screamed.
"You . . . you . . .” Andi sputtered. "How could you ever do something like that to my brother!"
The man's eyes opened wide. "Get me some rope, Jake," he commanded. The smaller man complied. Before Andi had time to react, she was trussed up tight and being carried down to a damp, dirty cellar. The big man set her down and lit a candle. He held it up to his scowling face.
"You are staying here until we have time to carry out our plans. Then, we'll let you go." And he laughed that deep, raspy growl. The dim candlelight reflected off his yellow teeth.
Andi was shaking with rage and fright. "You can't do this! My brothers will find you out!"
"Oh, can't we? We'll see about that."
"Justin won't come if I’m missing!" she flung back at him.
"Hmmm. That could be a problem." He fell silent.
"Ah, Hal, we need not face that problem!" exclaimed the little man suddenly. His face glowed with a diabolical gleam. "Ha, ha, come, I will tell you upstairs." They both disappeared at the top of the rickety stairs, and Andi was left alone in the dark.
The door reopened after a few horrible, silent minutes for Andi. The big man, Hal, clattered down the steps.
"Well, gal, we're ready to make you an agreement. You can go home. But if you love that dirty brother of yours, you will not say a peep about anything you have heard, or let on that anything is wrong. We might let your brother go, if he agrees not to say anything in the upcoming case. But remember . . ." He reached in his pocket, pulled out a big revolver, and shoved it in her face. Andi shrank back. He chuckled.
"Know what this is? Good. Now, your other choice is to not promise anything, and stay here until we feel it's time to let you go. What's it gonna be?"
Andi's eyes flashed, and she was about to say a flat NO, when she stopped to consider. If she refused, she wouldn't have any chance to save Justin. She had a much better chance by promising. Maybe she could play sick or something, so Justin would stay home! Yes, that would be better. So she straightened up and said, "Yes. I promise."
"I knew you'd give in. But just remember . . .” He patted his pocket.
He chuckled and untied her. Then he led her to the door, shoved her out, and slammed it in her face.
"Andi Carter! Where on earth have you been? I’ve looked all over for you." Justin grabbed her and sat her down in the buggy next to him. "Answer me." He was not playing around.
"I bought Melinda's thread. I guess I got a little distracted." That was true. She had totally forgotten about the thread in her pocket. "Sorry, Justin. I won't dawdle next time." That was certain. She felt weak.
"Andi?" He looked hard at her. "You look pale. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." Andi was trying to reassure herself more than Justin. "I guess I do feel a little weak," she admitted.
"Let's go home." He slapped the reins, and Pal started off at a trot. Andi found it hard to keep from throwing her arms around her brother and sobbing out the whole story. But, she reasoned, this is for his good. She knew it would be better to find some other way. So she just sat, staring out over the fields and trying to think of some way to stop Justin from going to the meeting.
At supper, Andi was miserable. Everyone acted worried over her. "Andi, are you feeling okay?" Melinda asked.
Justin kept glancing her way with a questioning look. Andi hoped, for his sake, that he didn't figure it out this time. "Would you like more beef, Andrea?"
Andi shook her head. "May I go to bed?”
Mother looked at her strangely before giving her permission. "You'll feel better after a good night's sleep. Good night."
Andi tossed and turned once she got in bed. This was Tuesday night. She had to find something to do. At least they were worried over her. Maybe Justin would sense something wrong without her telling and he would cancel . . . But that was doubtful. She prayed, but it didn't seem to help.
After a long time, she fell into a restless sleep.
The next day, Andi asked if she could stay home from school. Mother didn't want to let her, but Andi looked so sick, she finally relented. Andi was relieved. Now I can come up with a plan, she thought. Hmmmm. Lame Justin's horse? No, he'd just leave Thunderbolt and take another horse. Take his riding boots? No, he would wear another pair.
Her head buzzed with ideas, most of them stupid. Play sick? Arrange an important last-minute meeting with the sheriff? Accuse Justin of theft and get him put in jail?
"Lord," she prayed, "Please help me think of something!" She sat on her bed, feeling like she was going loco. I could tell Chad to follow him! But that would be letting on . . .
Andi spent her morning worrying. She was torn. She couldn't think of anything rational by lunchtime. Her mother was on the verge of sending her back to bed, but Andi knew Justin wouldn't cancel such an important meeting unless she was very sick. She wandered out to the barn and started brushing Taffy, but nothing came to her. At first, that is.
"Wait, I know!" she said aloud to Taffy. "I'll follow him myself. I just have to stop him, Taffy. Or those men will . . . no. Not if I can do anything, they won't. Just wait and see, Taffy.
But as suppertime neared, Andi wasn't so sure. She'd have to pretend to be in bed. Oh, but what could she do against all those men? She couldn't just run up and free Justin. She knew he wouldn't agree to keep silent during the court case. And—
"Andi! Suppertime!" she heard Mitch calling. The sun was setting. She hurried to the supper table. Justin was in a hurry to be off. Andi could hardly choke down any supper.
"Are you getting sick, Andrea?" Mother queried.
"No, I'll be fine after I get a good night's sleep." She was trying hard to look tired. Mitch and Chad looked at each other, and then at Andi.
"Yeah, you get some sleep, sis," Mitch said.Andi mumbled a "good night" and went slowly upstairs. But as soon as her bedroom door shut behind her, she changed her tune. She put on her riding gear and looked out over the balcony. Justin was leading Thunderbolt out of the barn. It was dark.
She waited until he was going out the lane, then she crept out on the balcony and slid down a post to the ground. No one saw or heard her. So far, so good. She ran to the barn and saddled Taffy as fast as she could. She swung up on her back and urged her forward.
Justin was almost the whole way down the long lane. She followed at a distance, keeping him in sight. He wasn't poking around. Thunderbolt was going at a fast trot.
Andi was glad, because that meant there was less chance of him hearing her. She glanced back at the house, but saw no one. So she hurried faster. She had to keep Justin in sight.
*******An hour later, a tiny cabin became visible in a clump of trees by the roadside. Andi began to get scared. She felt helpless. Justin was already dismounting Thunderbolt! She stopped a short distance back. The moon was hidden by clouds. Justin knocked on the door, and a man whom Andi recognized as "Jake" let him in and shut the door behind them.
Andi panicked. Should she take their horses so they couldn't escape? She should have told Justin! Maybe they could have caught the men. "Oh, God, help me do something!" she prayed. She slid off Taffy and turned toward the cabin.
Suddenly, a rough hand clapped over her mouth, and she was jerked to the ground. At the same time, a low voice growled, "Don't you make a sound!"
Andi shrieked, but no sound came out.
"Lie still," the voice commanded sharply when she tried to peel the hand from her mouth. Someone was holding her so tight she could hardly breathe. Then the hand slowly came off her mouth. She twisted around, and looked right into the face of . . .
"Chad!" she whispered in disbelief.
He did not smile. "What is going on?" he demanded.
It's time to tell, she decided. But before she could say anything, Mitch appeared from behind the trees, leading Sky and his own horse, Chase. He walked up and grabbed Andi's shoulders.
"What are you doing? Who's plotting against Justin?" His face was drawn and worried.
Andi felt a surge of intense relief as she poured out the entire story.
"Mitch," Chad said as soon as she was done. "Tell them to come.”
"Who?" Andi asked.
In answer, Mitch rode into a clump of brush and returned with Sheriff Tate and a large group of ranch hands. Andi's mouth dropped open, and she was about to ask how they came here, when the low sounds coming from the cabin erupted into the sounds of a scuffle. There was a low moan, then all was silent.
At a signal from the sheriff, they surrounded the cabin. Every man held a loaded weapon. Quiet voices were heard, and then the door was thrown open. Two men emerged, and between them was Justin, tied and blindfolded.
Three other men followed. They banded together and moved forward. Their eyes took a moment to adjust to the blackness outside, but when they did, all five men leaped back, dragging Justin with them. Sheriff Tate stepped forward. Justin made a violent effort and jerked free. The five men, forgetting him, scrambled back inside and barred the door of the cabin.
They were cursing and yelling the entire time. Sheriff Tate bent over and sliced Justin's bonds. He reached up and yanked off the blindfold. Justin’s mouth fell open, and a wide grin spread across his face.
Andi ran forward. "Oh, Justin! You're alright! Thank God!"
"How? Yes, you're right, Andi, Thank God! But how on earth . . .?"
"Andi knew," Chad broke in.
"Yes, but how did you find out?" Andi asked.
"Let me explain that." Mitch stepped forward. "I was in the barn this afternoon and heard Andi come in. I knew something had been very wrong lately, and I decided to find out what. I stepped behind a partition and just listened. Yes, I heard every word," he added at Andi's astonished look. "I heard her talking to Taffy, saying how those men wouldn't hurt Justin if she could help it."
"But how did you figure out their plot?" Justin wondered.
Andi told them.
Justin's face lit up. "So that's what you were doing after school on Tuesday."
"Yes." Andi nodded. She glanced at Chad. His face was livid with rage, and his fists were clenched. He turned toward the cabin."Come out now!" he yelled. " We have you surrounded!"
A white face appeared at the window. Andi instantly recognized Jake.
"Open the door, or we'll break it down!" Sheriff Tate demanded.
The door slowly unbolted and opened, and there stood Jake, shaking visibly. The sheriff simply stepped up to him, slapped on a pair of handcuffs, and handed him over to Mitch. Then he, followed by a few ranch hands, walked inside and did the same to the rest of the would-be kidnappers. But, where was Hal?
A shout went up from behind the cabin. Hal was escaping! He had snuck out the back when the attention was on the others. A short chase commenced, but Hal was captured and brought back bound.
One of the ranch hands gasped. "You! You killed Mr. Jones!"
"So what if I did? I wanted his money," he said sulkily."You know this man?” Sheriff Tate asked the ranch hand.
"I saw him playing cards with Al Jones in the saloon. Al was winning and this fellow here was getting mad. That was when I left. Next morning I heard Al Jones was shot. I didn't say anything, because I had no proof, and because I didn't know who this man was.”"Well, I guess that clears Cory." Sheriff Tate winked at Andi.
She laughed, then hugged Justin again. "Oh, I am so glad you're okay! God sure worked things out, didn't He!"
"Yes, He did. Thank God!"
"And what happened then?" Cory asked Andi excitedly the next day at school.
"Well, Mother was awfully worried. All she knew was that Justin and I were in danger."
"I missed all the excitement." He sighed regretfully.
"Well, I think I have had enough excitement to last me till . . ."
"Your next adventure," Cory finished."Exactly."