Andi Carter reined Taffy to a stop in front of the Goodwins’ mercantile. Skirts flying, she jumped down and ran inside, waving a paper and shouting.
“Jack! I won the bet! I won the bet!” She slammed the report card down on the counter and beamed. The taste of peppermint filled her mouth as she anticipated her reward.
Jack appeared from behind several large boxes. He was covered head to toe in dust and wood shavings. With a responding smirk, he slapped his report card down next to hers. “Prove it.”
Andi cleared her throat. “I have an A in English,” she announced proudly.
“So do I,” Jack returned, turning on the heat. Andi gulped. Jack had never achieved more than a B in English before.
“I got a 90% grade on my final test,” she stammered, suddenly doubting herself for the first time.
A smile spread across Jack’s face. “Sorry, Andi, but today’s not your lucky day. I scored 93% on the final. Looks like you owe me something.”
Andi groaned. Why did she wager so much on the silly bet? “Fine. You can come on the ride tomorrow.”
Inside, she felt a bit annoyed. This was going to be the first all-day ride of the summer, a tradition with Cory, Rosa and herself. Now Jack had to come along and change it.
“Aww, Andi, you asked for it,” Jack reminded her. “And you must admit, it was a great idea. Both our grades went up.”
She smiled and picked up her report card. “We leave at eight o’clock sharp. Don’t be late. And don’t forget your lunch.”
Clomping out of the store, she mounted Taffy and turned her towards home.
A thick tree branch sliced the air above Taffy’s saddle where Andi’s head had been moments before. Pulling up her horse, she whistled at the near-disaster.
“That was a close call,” she mused. “Thanks, Cory.”
“I didn’t say it. It was Jack,” Cory said, stopping beside her.
“Oh. Well then, thank you Jack.”
“You’re very welcome, Your Ladyship,” Jack replied with mock formality. Removing an invisible hat, he made a sweeping bow from atop his horse. Rosa giggled and halted her mount.
Grinning, Andi glanced at Cory and jumped. He was staring at Jack with a look that quite baffled her. It sent shivers down her spine. The stare was icy and cold, not like Cory at all. She could not label the emotion it portrayed. Anger, perhaps? Jealousy? And then it was gone, as quickly as it had come.
She blinked, then dismissed it. “How about lunch?”
“Qué buena idea. I’m starting to get sore,” Rosa lamented.
“Me too,” Jack commented, forgetting his new dignity. “Food can fix any problem.”
Cory remained unusually silent. Sliding off Flash, he tossed the reins over a limb and perched himself on a rock opposite Jack.
Concerned, Andi extracted her lunch bundle from her saddlebags and walked over to Cory. He looked up and smiled.
Holding up her sack, she tempted, “Rosa’s mother packed me some handmade tamales. Wanna trade anything?” She knew on any regular day Cory would give his entire lunch for one. This will prove if he’s well or not.
“Would you take a chicken sandwich and an apple?” Cory held the large, red fruit inches from her face. He paused, then added soberly, “Or I could always give it to Flash…”
“Alright! Alright! You can have my tamales,” Andi laughed. He seems fine now, she noted. Rejoining Taffy, she shrugged. “He’s normal,” she remarked to the horse.
As they finished lunch, Jack pointed to a large hill on their right. “Did you know there’s a neat cave on the other side, just beyond that tree?”
Andi shaded her eyes against the bright sun. “A cave on the Circle C? I didn’t know that. Have you been in it?”
“Yep. It can fit all four of us, easy. I left some candles last summer; they might still be there.” Jack stood and brushed the crumbs off his lap. “Shall we make a detour of it?”
She wrapped up the remains of her lunch. “Sounds like fun. Let’s go!” she replied without hesitation. “But Jack, how did you know about a cave on our property?”
Whistling, Jack continued stuffing the remains of his lunch into his saddlebags.
After securely tying Taffy in the shade beside the other horses, Andi followed the others towards the hill. The California sun, now directly above, bore down with such heat Andi thought her hat might melt. Every stick of grass in the valley was brown, and they snapped like twigs underfoot. What a killer summer this will be, she thought. I sure hope that cave is cooler.
The mouth of the cave sat ten feet up in the hillside. Climbing on several large rocks, Jack alighted at the entrance with remarkable speed.
“Show off,” Cory muttered under his breath.
Andi stared at him a moment, taken aback by the comment. Jack and Cory had always gotten along famously, save the infamous incident with Johnny Wilson and the trial. She could see no reason for Cory’s apparent grudge.
As Andi nimbly made her way up the rocks, she heard Jack call from inside the cave.
“I’ve found the candles! Does anyone have a match?”
Entering the cave, Andi shook her head. Realizing Jack could not see her in the dark, she quickly replied, “No.”
Cory pulled himself up over the ledge and reached into his pocket. He handed Jack some matches without a word.
Jack lit the first candle as Rosa appeared, wide-eyed at the grandeur. The cave indeed proved to be much bigger than expected, and was refreshingly cool. Andi relaxed immediately. In the distance, a horse whinnied.
“That sounds like Taffy,” Andi commented. “Can we see the horses from here?” She leaned out as far as she dared from the opening.
Jack joined her at the front. “They’re around the corner. You would have to lean out further to see them.” As he talked, Jack inched out past Andi. Candle still in hand, he added, “I can almost see them now…”
Suddenly, he tipped and grabbed for the ledge. Andi seized his arm, yanking him back, and they met the dusty floor of the cave with a resounding thud. Eyes wide, Jack stared down over the edge mutely.
“You’re welcome,” she suggested. Jack didn’t move. “What’s wrong?”
The smell of smoke hit her as she realized what happened. “Jack… You didn’t drop it…”
“Quick, get out of the cave!” Andi yelped. “It’s wildfire, and it’s spreading fast!”