The Unknown

by Jesseca Dawn
Part 1 

Sixteen-year-old Andi  mounted Shasta and rode at a gallop away from the ranch. 
Just an hour ago, she had been happily looking forward to a nice sunny Saturday. But now all that had changed. Chad had come home from town no more than 15 minutes ago and told her the news: Cory was going away to college in San Francisco.
Andi had known for a while that he was planning on  going but she had thought he was planning on waiting until after the new school term. He was going to study to be a doctor. He'll be good at it to, if he doesn't scare his patients by bringing them snakes. 
The thought made Andi chuckle. Ever year at the beginning of the school term Cory would bring a snake to welcome her back to school. It was a fun tradition he had started years ago. Suddenly and without warning, tears came to Andi's eyes. School would start in two weeks, and Cory wouldn't be there. He was leaving next Tuesday, only three days away. 
But everyone had to grow up at one time of another. It was her Andi’s last year of school and she wondered what it would be like next year when she wouldn't be going to school. “I should have asked Chad when Cory's coming back for a visit” Andi thought out loud.
Shasta nickered as if in reply to her question. Andi laughed. “I think I’ll go ask him right now.” Nudging Shasta into a canter, she hurried back to the ranch. When she got to the ranch, she saw Chad walking to the barn. “Chad!” she yelled. Chad turned and waited as she rode up to him. 
“Chad, when is Cory coming back for a visit?”
Chad grinned, reached into his pocket, and handed her an envelope. “Cory asked me to give this to you. Perhaps it will answer some of your questions.”
Andi snatched the envelope and tore it open. Chad laughed and headed toward the barn. In neat penmanship, Cory had written, 

Dear Andi, I hope you will understand why I decided to go before the new school term. If I leave now, I will be able to get a head start on my studies and be able to come home for Christmas. If I waited until after the school term, I would have had to stay at college through Christmas to keep up with my studies. How would you like to have one last race together before I go? If you are able to come to town on Monday morning, we could have a race like old times. You can give me your answer on Sunday.
Cory

 Andi, laughed. Leave it to  Cory to think of a race. He still firmly believed that one day he would win. Thankfully, Shasta had inherited his mother's swift gallop, and Cory always came in second. “I bet Cory already knows what my answer will be. He knows I won't miss a chance to race Shasta,” Andi said, patting Shasta's neck. It's unladylike, but I'm sure mother won't mind just this once. 
 
******

Cory at age 17.
After church the next day, Andi saw Cory waiting for her by the church entrance.  Quickly she walked over to him.
“You understand, don't you?” Cory asked anxiously. 
Andi smiled. “Of course. I wouldn't want you to have to stay at college for Christmas. You'd get awful lonely.” 
Cory grinned. “I thought you'd understand. So, how about the race?”
Andi grinned mischievously. “What do you think?”
“Great! See you tomorrow. We'll meet in front of the livery stable, but don't worry, we won't race through town.”  Cory turned and hurried home. 



Part 2
 
The next morning, Andi  met Cory in front of the livery.
“Where are we going to race?” she asked. “ I thought we could go around the outskirts of the town and meet back here.” 
“Whoever gets here first wins,” Cory replied.
“I thought you said we weren't racing in town.” Andi frowned.
“Well, we're not. At least not much. Just a small stretch from the edge of town to the livery.”
“And just perhaps I will run down the new schoolmaster on that 'small stretch?'
Cory grinned. “Well, then you can deal with him on your own, ’cause I'll be off to college.”
“Great help you are,” Andi teased back. “So, who judges?”
“Jack is judging, as usual.”
“Well, where is he?”
Cory looked around. “Here he is. He was just a little late that's all.”
Andi mounted Shasta while Cory mounted Breeze, Flash's gelding.
As always, Jack started the race with an impressive speech.
“Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, this race is the best one yet. This, the last race before Cory leaves for college, will determine whose horse is faster once and for all. On your mark, get set, GO!”
Breeze and Shasta galloped away and left Jack standing in the dust.
“Come on, boy. You can do it.” Andi breathed in Shasta's ear. As though on cue, Shasta bounded ahead. But not for long. Glancing behind her, Andi saw Breeze closing the gap fast. Quickly they circled the town nearly neck to neck then, as they turned into town, Breeze pulled ahead.
”Come on boy, you can do it!” And yelled. There was no way she could let Cory win this last race. Not when he had lost all the others. But Breeze seemed to be running exceptionally well today.  Neck to neck they ran and swept past the finish line.  Reining in Shasta, Andi wheeled around to Jack.
“So, who won?”
Jack grinned. “It was a perfect tie. That's the closest Cory has ever come to winning.”
Cory rode up to them and grinned. “See? I told you I would get lucky one day!”
“Since we ended in a tie,  should we do a re-match?” Jack asked.
Andi looked at the horses. Both were breathing hard. “I don't think we should race again. The horses are tired.”
Cory agreed. “Besides, I need to finish packing and getting ready. I leave on the 11:30 am train tomorrow.” Turning to Andi he said, “You'll be here, won't you?”
Andi smiled. “If I rode one hour into town to race, you can be certain I 'll be here to tell you goodbye!”
Cory laughed. “That's what I thought. See you tomorrow!”
Andi nudged Shasta into a trot then turned around and waved before she disappeared down the road.
“I sure will miss teasing her when I leave,” Cory said to Jack. “Well I gotta get home and finish packing. See you tomorrow?”
“Of course,” Jack replied as Cory dismounted and led the horse into the stable.                                               

***********************

The next day the entire Carter family showed up at the station to send Cory off. Jack and some of Cory's other friends from school also came to see him off. After Mother, Melinda, Mitch, Justin, Chad and Cory's other friends had told him goodbye. Cory came to Andi .
“Well Andi, I'm going off into the unknown. How about you?”
“M-me?” Andi stuttered. “What do you mean?”
“Well, this is your last year at school. What do you plan to do after that?”
Andi looked thoughtful. “I'm not sure. I never have been the kind who just wants to get married. I've always enjoyed working with horses so I'll probably help out at the ranch for a while.”
“After that?”
Andi grinned. “How about I think about it and tell you when you get back?”
Cory grinned. “Sure thing. I'll miss you Andi.  Oh, just one more thing.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small brown box and handed it to Andi . Taking it, she took off the lid then laughed and pulled out a small brown snake.
“It's because I won't be here at the start of school,” Cory said.  “Have fun!” He reached out and yanked her braid, then he was gone.
Andi stared after the rain as it pulled out of the station. “Good-bye, Cory,” she whispered. Then she looked down at the snake in her hand. “What am I going to do with you?” The snake hissed back at her.
Andi sighed. Christmas couldn't come soon enough!
 
Part 3
 
Six weeks later, Andi walked down the school steps with a sigh. School was SO much different without Cory. But, at least the first half of the term was over and it was only two months before Cory would be home for Christmas.
Justin wasn't finished at the office yet, so Andi walked around town. She was passing the post office when she heard Jack yelling at her to stop. 
Turning, she saw Jack running toward her, waving a piece of paper. “Here's a letter for you, Andi . It's from Cory.”
Grabbing the letter out of his hand she tore open the envelope.
Jack looked at her. “What's he say?”
“He says he's doing well at college, he misses everyone here but has already made a good friend. His name is Micah Wilson and he might come to Fresno with Cory for Christmas,” Andi replied as she quickly scanned the pages.
“That's great news! Hey, what’s that?” Jack said, cocking his head to the side and listening carefully.
“What's what?”
“Just listen, you'll hear.”
Andi listened. “It sounds as though someone's yelling but I don't recognize the voice.”
“That's what I mean. It's no one from around here. The accent is different. More southern. Want to go see what it is?”
Andi stuffed the letter in her pocket. “Sure. But let's hurry, Justin's bound to be done soon.”
Quickly but quietly they headed toward the sounds that grew louder as the approached.
“It seems to be coming from the behind the livery,” Andi whispered.
“You’re right.” Jack pushed Andi up against the side of the stables. “You wait here. I'll be back.”
What?” Andi protested.
“I don't have time to argue.” Jack disappeared round the corner.
Slowly, Andi crept along the wall and peered around the corner. There stood two men who had suddenly quieted at the sight of Jack. Jack was talking to them in a low voice Andi couldn't hear.
Soon, Jack waved goodbye and started back toward Andi .
“They're looking for work. They just moved here from Kentucky. They're used to ranch work so I suggested your ranch to them.”
Andi looked startled. “Our ranch? What were they arguing about?”
Jack frowned. “I forgot to ask. I just asked who they were, where they came from and what they needed. And after I told them about the Carter ranch they got this glint in their eyes.”
“What do you mean?”
“I'm not sure. Almost as though I had just given them information they needed.”
“Needed for what?” Andi 's eyes were wide.
“I'm not sure. I wish I hadn't given them the directions to your ranch.”
“You gave them directions? Are they going there now?”
Jack nodded. “They mounted their horses and left. They were horses from the livery.”
Andi groaned “Oh, no!  Mother is at home alone right now. Chad, Mitch and most of the ranch hands are trying to round up Whirlwind who escaped again and Melinda's suitor was going to take her out for a long buggy ride today.”
“We need to get Justin,”  Jack said, hurrying down the street.
Andi hurried after him though he was far ahead of her. As she rounded the corner of the livery her foot caught on the trim of her dress and she tumbled to the ground, knocking down the person in front of her.
“Oh I'm so sorry!” she apologized. “Are you alright? I was hurrying because I need to get to my brother.
Just then the young man turned toward her.
“Riley!” she gasped.
 
Part 4

Riley stood up. “Andi? Boy it's been a while since I saw you!” He reached out a hand to help her stand.
“It's good to see you, Riley, but I really have to find Justin. You can come with me if you want.”
“I think I will. What's the hurry?”
Andi explained as they walked. “So you see, I have to hurry. Jack will probably have already told Justin the problem so he'll be waiting for me. Say, are you here alone? What are you in town for?”
“I'm here alone. I am just passing through on my way to back to Idaho. I had to go down to San Francisco on business with my father. He went home alone but I told him I wanted to stop and see y’all first.”
Just then Justin pulled up in the buggy.  “Come on, Andi , we've got to go. Riley! Good to see you! You come along too. We must hurry.”
Justin started off at a quick trot and they hurried home. Andi and Riley talked some on the ride home, but Andi was too worried about her mother to talk much. Soon they turned down the lane to the ranch.
“We didn't see anyone on the road so they must be at the house. We'll walk slowly and quietly and leave the horses here,” Justin said.
As they came in sight of the house, Justin motioned them to stay back. He walked up to the house. “Hello? Anyone home?” Silence greeted him. Slowly he walked in the house.
“Let's follow him,” Andi said. Riley hesitated, but followed her. As they glanced around the door of the house, they saw Mother tied and gagged as well as Luisa and the other house servants. Justin was standing with his hands in the air and one of the two men Andi saw in town was pointing a cocked gun straight at Justin.
“Quick! We must get Chad and Mitch!” She ran to the barn and saddled Shasta while Riley mounted Patches. “Let's split up since we don't know which way they went.” Riley suggested.
Andi nodded. “Let's hurry.”
Right away Andi spotted two riders coming toward her. Urging her horse into a gallop, Andi rode hard toward the riders. It was Chad and one of the ranch hands. Quickly she explained everything to him. Chad pulled the pistol from his holster ready for use and galloped on ahead with the ranch hand.
Andi went and looked for Riley, then they both started back to the house.
By the time they got there, Chad and the ranch hand had tied and gagged the two men, untied Mother and the servants, and was working on untying Justin.
“What did they want?” asked Andi .
“They were looking to kidnap Mother and get a ransom when Justin walked in,” Chad said grimly. “Thankfully, we were able to get here before they left. Mitch and I'll take them into town tonight.”
Just then Mitch walked in. “What am I going to do?” he asked.
Andi explained everything to him.                                            

*********************************************

After Melinda came home and everything was explained,  Mitch and Chad took the rowdies into town.
Andi and Riley caught up on old times. “How long are you staying?” Andi asked.
“Just until day after tomorrow.”
Andi sighed. “I was hoping you could stay longer. But it's good it’s Friday, I'll be here all day tomorrow.”
Just then a tired Chad and Mitch walked in. “They were wanted men. They have robbed banks across the State and have outwitted all the attempts to capture them.  There is a reward also. $750 for whoever captured them.” Mitch handed her an envelope. “You are the owner of a third of $750, Andi .”
Mitch handed an envelope to Riley. “So are you. Jack is also and we gave him the money when we were in town.”
Andi grinned. “Think of what we can buy with this!”                                    

*********************************************

Andi and Riley had a fun visit and when Riley left he promised to come again soon and bring his family with him.
The next month and a half passed quickly with the preparations for the coming holiday. One Friday, two weeks before Christmas, Andi burst into Justin's office. “Cory's coming Cory's coming!” she sang.
Justin laughed. “Slow down. When's he coming?”
“He'll be here on tomorrow. The whole town is having a welcome for him. We'll come, won't we Justin?”
“We will. Now, we better get home and tell the rest of the family.”
Everyone was exited and Chad made preparations with the ranch hands so he could be gone.
Andi finally went to bed but she knew she wouldn't be able to sleep she was so excited. “I can't wait till tomorrow!” Andi whispered as she climbed into bed.
 
Part 5
 
The next day, Andi excitedly jumped out of bed, ran to the closet, hurriedly grabbed her school dress and slipped it over her head. Brushing her hair she quickly braided it and tied it with ribbons then rushed out of her room.
Standing at the top of the stairs she debated sliding down the banister. I know I shouldn't but I'm so excited I can't help it! Andi thought and after a quick glance showed no one in sight, she quickly slid down. As she landed with a thump on the floor she heard a chuckle behind her. Turning quickly she saw Chad standing there.
“You are sixteen, but I don't think you'll ever entirely grow up. But that's the way I like it. I'll always need my little sister around to tease.”
Andi laughed. “Are you sure you wouldn't have me grow up and be a perfect lady like Melinda?”
Chad walked over and gave Andi a hug. “I'm sure. And no matter how much I may boss you, I'd miss you if you left.”
Andi laughed. “If I ever have any suitors, I'll send them to you to get rid of!”
Chad chuckled and they both walked into the dining room.
Breakfast was quickly over and they were all in the buggy headed for town. 
As they got closer to town, Andi grew quiet.
“Something wrong, little sister?” Justin asked.
“No, not  really. I was just wondering if Cory will have changed. He's been to college now and seen things I haven't.”
Justin stroked her hair. “Don't worry, little sister. I'm sure Cory will be the same Cory you remember.”
Soon they were in town and Chad dropped Andi of at the station. “Now remember, not a word of the surprise to Cory. Just act normal.”
“I'll remember, Chad. See y'all at the hotel.”
Andi walked into the station.
Cory's parents were there as well, waiting outside the station for the train to come in.
Before long, Andi heard the faraway whistle of the train. “It's here!” she said excitedly.
The train pulled up to the station and the passengers began disembarking.  Andi walked to the window and watched for Cory.  Presently, she saw Cory leave the train.
Andi gasped. He looked so different from the boy she remembered. His hair was slicked back and combed neatly in place, and he was wearing a suit much like the kind Justin wore. He spotted Andi right away and winked at her. 
Andi grinned. Even college couldn't take away the teasing, mischievous look in Cory's eye's.
After he had greeted his parents, Andi wasted no time in going outside. “Where's Micah?” she asked breathlessly.
Cory grinned. “I'm gone for 3 ½ months and the first thing you say to me is 'Where's Micah?' You don't even know Micah!”
Andi laughed. “You know I'm glad to see you. I was just curious since you said he was coming home with you. And I didn’t see anyone leave the train with you.”
“He’ll be along later.”
Just then Cory's father said, “Why don't we all go down to the hotel to get warmed up? It's cold out here!”
Cory grinned.. “Sure. That would be great. Want to come, Andi?” he said ,yanking her braids. “By the way, are you in town alone?”
“Oh, my brothers are around here somewhere.” Andi shrugged.
As they entered the hotel dining room, suddenly the whole room erupted with shouts of 'welcome home' and 'We're glad your back Cory!'
Cory looked around, speechless. Andi led him and his parents to a seat in the middle of the room. “What's this?” he whispered to Andi .
“Everyone wanted to welcome you back. So they came up with this surprise.”
Cory grinned. “I'm practically a hero! Just for going to college.”
Andi smiled “Don't get to stuck up. You’re still just plain old Cory in my book.”
“Cory sighed. ”I'll never get anywhere with you, Andi .”
After the party, while everyone was talking to Cory Andi slipped outside. It was hot in the hotel and she was still wondering where Micah was.
Soon, she headed back to the hotel. As she was walking she heard someone.
“Excuse me, can you tell me where Cory Blake lives?”
Andi studied the man. He was tall and muscular, clean-shaven, with curly red hair, and about Cory's age.
“Why would you like to know?”
The man turned questioning eyes on her. “Does it matter?”
“Why can't you tell me?'
The man laughed. “I have no secrets. I can tell anyone I like, but since you seem to have a dislike toward me which I can't understand, I will simply ask someone else.” He tipped his hat toward her. “Good day.”
As the man walked on,  Andi sighed. I should have told him. He looked honest enough, she thought. But ever since what happened with Mother and those two men I don't really trust any strangers. As she entered the hotel she saw the man sitting next to Cory. I guess he found someone else to tell him where Cory is.
Just then Cory called. “Andi, come here. I've got someone for you to meet.”
Andi walked over.
“Andi , this is Micah, whom you were so anxious to meet earlier today. Micah, this is my friend, Andi, who I've told you about.”
Micah's eyes twinkled. “I believe we've already met.”
 
Part 6, Conclusion:
 
Andi gasped. “You're Micah?”
Micah laughed. “Yes, you see? I had a reasonable explanation to want to see Cory.”
Cory looked puzzled. “What's going on that I don't know about?”
Micah explained. When he was finished, Cory laughed. “You'll get yourself into trouble yet, Andi! Well, now that you know who each other are, will you declare a truce and be friends?”
Micah smiled, “Of course. That is, if Andi wants to be friends.”
Andi laughed. “I must apologize for how I was earlier. Any friend of Cory's is a friend of mine. How long are you both planning on staying?”
“We leave  a week after New Year's”
“Oh good! You get a nice long vacation then!”
After talking for a while, Chad came and told Andi it was time to leave.
“See you tomorrow at church. You'll be there to, won't you, Micah?
“I'm planning on it.”
“Andi , since school is out for the holidays, could Micah and I come to your ranch on Monday? I wanted to show him around. He rides well and we race and see who wins!
Andi turned to Chad. “Would that be alright?”
“Well you'd have to ask Mother but I'm sure it would be fine.”
Andi turned to Cory, “I'll let you know tomorrow.”
Cory nodded. “Alright. See you tomorrow!”
As  Andi and Chad walked out of the hotel, Micah turned to Cory and grinned. “I can't wait till Monday!”
Cory smiled. “Neither can I!”                                                    

********************************************* 

Cory and Micah rode up on Monday morning. Mother had given permission and   Andi was looking forward to a day of fun. Quickly, she saddled Shasta, and she and Cory showed Micah all around the ranch. When they were finished with the tour, Cory turned  to Andi and grinned “Ready for a race?”
Andi grinned. “You know I never miss a chance to beat you!”
“Do you always win,  Andi?”Micah asked.
“All the time. Just watch.”
“You forget, Andi. We tied last time,” Cory said.
“But that was only once. And Micah is racing with us this time. He could win.”
“So, we race from the barn to the creek and whoever gets to the creek first wins?” Cory said.
“Right,” said Andi . “On your mark, get set, GO!”
Cory took the lead but quickly it was clear that the race was between Micah and Andi .
They reached the creek at the same time.
“So, who won?” asked Micah.
“I'd say it's a tie. You’re a really good rider!”
Micah grinned. “So are you.”
Cory rode up. “What's with you two leaving me behind?” he complained.
“You were too slow!” laughed Andi .                                                      

**************************************************

The rest of the holidays were full of fun. Micah seemed to pay more attention to Andi then anyone else, but Andi traced it to the fact that he was being kind to her because she was Cory's friend.
After the holidays when Andi was at the station seeing Cory's and Micah off, Cory pulled her aside and said, “Just between friends, Andi, I think Micah may be your first suitor.”
Andi gasped. “But I’m only 16.”
“Ahh, but you forget. When he comes back with me for the summer holiday's you will be 17.“
“He's coming back?”
“Yes, his family is back east and he doesn't have the money to visit them often. I promised him he could spend his holiday's with me. I'll miss you, Andi .”
“I don't want any suitors! If he is the first one, I'll never forgive you, Cory!” Andi said.
Cory grinned. “We both know you will. You could never be angry with me more than 5 minutes.”
Andi laughed “You’re right. I'll just send Micah to Chad. That'll keep him away.”
“You wouldn't be so mean to my friend, Andi!”
Andi laughed. “I might. I'll miss you Cory, see you in June!”                                     

 ********************************  

The next summer Micah did come back with Cory.  And, sure enough, Micah was Andi 's first-and-only suitor.
Micah had such a way with words that when he did come to see Chad to ask permission to court Andi, Chad said, “Yes.”
At first Andi was furious but, it being Micah ,she went along with it. Presently she realized she was in love with Micah as he was with her. Soon after that they were engaged, and the wedding was set for the next summer after Micah graduated from college. It was decided  they would to live at the ranch and Micah would join Justin as a lawyer in town.
Chad smiled. “I'll still have my little sister around to tease!”
“And I'll have my big brother around to boss me!” Andi teased back.
Cory was the best man and Melinda was the maid of honor. Justin walked Andi down the aisle. After the wedding, Cory said. “I guess we know what you're 'Unknown' is.”
“Yes,” replied Andi “ So, what will yours be after you finish college?”
Cory smiled. “That's for me to know and you to find out!”
 
THE END
  

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