Andi was surprised and displeased to find her mother waiting for her after school the next day. She had entered Justin’s office for a ride home, only to find her mother in earnest conversation with her brother. They became quiet at her appearance, and she knew right away they’d been discussing her.
“Hello, Andrea.” Elizabeth smiled pleasantly. “How was your day at school?”
“Same as always,” came her cautious reply. “What are you doing in town?”
“Oh, a number of things.” She caught Andi’s gaze and held it. “I happened to run into Mrs. Evans during the course of my errands. She had a number of disturbing things to relate to me about—”
“Mrs. Evan is an old busybody,” Andi interrupted with a scowl. “She’s always getting after me and my friends, and whatever she said to you is—”
“Andrea Rose.” Elizabeth stopped Andi’s outpouring with a word.
Even Justin looked surprised at his sister’s outburst.
“How dare you criticize Mrs. Evans,” Elizabeth scolded. “I’m surprised at you.”
“I’m sorry, Mother,” Andi replied, ashamed at her thoughtless remarks. She glanced over to Justin, who was regarding her curiously.
“Mrs. Evans told me she saw you speaking with a scruffy-looking cowhand last Tuesday,” Elizabeth continued. “Remember Tuesday? The day you were late for school?”
“Is that so?” Andi crossed the room and hiked herself up onto Justin’s desk. She sat still, waiting to hear more.
“Yes, it is. She saw you go into an alley with this man. A few minutes later you returned, looking upset.”
“Maybe she mistook me for somebody else,” Andi suggested.
“Not very likely.” Elizabeth sighed. “She says she spoke with you right afterwards, and it appears you lied to her about the incident.”
“It’s none of her business!” Andi burst out, furious at the old, gossipy woman. Why couldn’t Mrs. Evans mind her own business?
“So you did speak to her?”
“Yes. I m-mean no. I mean . . .” Andi’s words trailed off. Her mind was a jumble. If she said anything more, the whole terrible week would come spouting forth. She couldn’t take the chance.
She jumped down from the desk and headed for the door. “I don’t know what I mean. I’m going to Rachel’s for a while.”
“Andrea,” Elizabeth turned around. “What’s going on?”
Andi looked at her mother. “I can’t tell you.” She took a deep breath. “And nobody can make me.”
She sprang for the door, only to be stopped by an unexpected source.
“Nobody can make you do what, little sister?” Chad asked softly. He barred the door, crossed his arms over his chest, and grinned. “Would you like to put a little wager on whether I can make you or not?”
Andi scowled up at her brother, then ducked around him without even responding.
Chad swiped at her and caught her arm, but Elizabeth shook her head. “Oh, Chad, let her go,” she said.
Andi ripped her arm from her brother’s grip and fled out the door.
Chad tossed a thumb over his shoulder. “What’s that all about?”
“Who knows?” Elizabeth answered with a sigh.
“I’ve never seen Andi so closed-mouth about anything,” Justin commented thoughtfully. “Nothing has ever before bothered her for this long, and I have no idea what we can do to get her to open up..”
“Give me a chance with her, Justin,” Chad offered.
“No,” Elizabeth warned. “You’ll just make her angrier, and the two of you will end up in a terrible argument. Then we’ll feel more miserable than we do now.”
“Hmmm,” Justin said softly. “Maybe I should go ahead and take her to San Francisco.”
“San Francisco?” Elizabeth said. “Whatever for?”
Justin leaned back in his chair. “She asked me to do her a favor and take her to Aunt Rebecca’s for a month.”
“Oh, yeah,” Chad said. “Something must be really bothering Andi if she wants to Aunt Rebecca’s.”
“Why?” their mother asked.
Justin shrugged. “I couldn’t get an answer out of her. I told her it wasn’t possible, but now I’m not so sure. She insisted I accompany her.”
“Very strange,” Elizabeth commented. She frowned in thought. “When was this?”
“Tuesday morning. The same day she was late for school. I wonder . . .” Justin fell silent. Worry for his sister covered his face. “There’s something strange going on. Something serious.” He shook his head. “And we have no idea how to help her.”
The gentle pressure between Andi’s shoulder blades made her stop and turn around. When she saw who it was, she froze.
“You again,” she mumbled. “What do you want now?”
“Listen, girlie.” Gordon’s voice was barely a whisper. “Mr. Henderson wants to see you. Come with me.”
“I haven’t told anybody anything!” Andi insisted. “Why does he want to see me?”
“You’ll find out right quick.” Gordon scanned the quiet street. “Now, move along and walk natural-like—all the way to Mr. Henderson’s office.”
Taking a deep breath, and hoping her face didn’t give her away, Andi put a forced smile on her face and started down the boardwalk.
“This is it!” Cory whispered to his friends when they saw Andi and the stranger head down the street.
“I think we should mind our own business,” Rachel suggested. Her voice shook. “This sneaking around can only get us into trouble with Andi’s family.”
“I don’t care,” Cory replied. He moved into the street a safe distance away from the stranger and Andi. He motioned the others to follow. Sighing, Rachel joined Jack and Cory along the boardwalk.
“Where are we going?” Jack wanted to know.
“Wherever that mean-looking fellow’s taking Andi,” Cory answered. He broke into a dogtrot. “I don’t want to lose sight of them. They turned a corner.”
“I don’t like this,” Rachel said, falling behind.
“Come on,” Cory insisted. “I want to see where they’re headed.” Together, the three skirted quietly around the corner, just in time to see Gordon and Andi stop briefly in front of an important-looking office building.
Taking a deep breath, Cory pushed himself ahead and yelled, “Hey, Andi!”
The stranger and Andi turned around together. Surprise and anger reflected on the man’s face. Andi’s held nothing but relief. And silent pleading.
Without thinking of the consequences, Cory plunged on. “You’re gonna be late, Andi. Remember? We promised my pa we’d help out at the livery this afternoon. He’s waiting on us.”
Andi shot a quick glance at the tall stranger then swallowed. “Aw, Cory, I forgot to tell you. I can’t help today. Something’s come up. Sorry.” She turned to enter the building.
“Get on out of here, kids,” the man snapped. “Miss Carter has business with my boss. It’s a surprise.”
“That true, Andi?” Cory asked, watching his friend’s face. It was deathly pale.
“‘Course it is. It’s a surprise for Justin.” She grinned, but her eyes looked scared.
Cory came a few steps closer. “Well, Pa is sure gonna be disappointed. You promised.” Then, quick as a flash, he grabbed Andi’s hand and gave her a yank. “You ain’t gonna back out on this, Andi.” He grinned up at the man. “Sorry, Mister, but she’ll have to do business with your boss another day.” He whirled, his hand gripping Andi’s sweaty one. “Come on.”
A moment later they rejoined the others, and they all took off running down the length of J Street until they came to Goodwin’s mercantile. They rushed inside, and Jack slammed the door behind them.
Jack burst out laughing. “What a liar you are, Cory. ‘My pa needs your help, Andi,’” he mimicked.
“You were mighty bold,” Rachel agreed. “Andi’s probably gonna kill you for it, right?” She turned to her friend, who was staring at them with wide eyes.
Andi found a barrel and sat down. “You three have really fixed it for me now.”
“Don’t try to tell me you were going with that man willingly.” Cory stood in front of her with his arms crossed, accusing. “I saw your face. You had the same look you’ve been wearing all week.”
Andi stared at the floor and said nothing. Then she stood up. “I’ve gotta go. Mother’s over at Justin’s office. They’re probably wondering where I’m at.”
“Oh, no, you don’t,” Jack said, catching her arm. “You’re not going anywhere until you tell us what’s gotten into you.”
“Nothing.” Andi tried to push her way past her friends, but they blocked her way. “Listen,” she said softly, “I really thank you for caring, but I can’t tell you anything.”
“Who was the scruffy-looking man you were with?” Rachel asked.
“That’s a lie,” Cory accused. He spread his arms. “We’re your friends. You can tell us. We promise not to tell anybody. But something’s been bothering you. You’re not yourself, and”—Cory took a deep breath—“if you don’t tell us right now, I’m marching over to the office building that man was taking you to, and I’m going to ask whoever’s in there what they want with you.”
“You can’t!” Andi wailed.
Cory looked grim. “All right then.” He took a step toward the door. “I’m going straight over to your brother’s office and tell him what I saw a few minutes ago.”
“This is blackmail,” Andi whispered.
“Yes,” Cory agreed seriously. His eyes bored into Andi’s. “But I don’t know any other way. Andrea Carter, you are the stubbornest person I know, and this is the only way we can get you to let us in on your terrible secret.”
Andi looked from Cory to Jack to Rachel. All three of them looked determined. She sighed. “All right. But you’ve got to promise this is our secret. And when I’m finished, you’re going to regret you ever promised anything.”
It didn’t take long for Andi to tell her friends what was on her mind. They all sat there with open mouths, struck dumb with horror. I’m already regretting my hasty promise, Cory thought, heart pounding.
Rachel’s eyes were full of tears. “Oh, Andi. What are you going to do?”
“Just what I’m doing. Nothing.”
“You’re going to let Zeke Blazer take the blame for Mr. Barne’s murder?” Jack sounded incredulous.
“I haven’t any choice,” Andi replied. “And now, look at us. Telling you hasn’t lifted my heavy heart. It’s only managed to make all of you feel miserable too.”
“No wonder you’re scared,” Cory whispered. He swallowed and searched Andi’s pale, frightened face.
Andi was involved in something beyond Cory’s ability to help, and it made him feel lousy. He liked Andi. In fact, the older he got, the more feelings he was beginning to have for his childhood playmate. And right now he was afraid for her. “I’ve heard of this Marvin Henderson fellow—and nothing good.”
“Thanks for that, Cory.” Andi glared at him.
Cory snapped his mouth shut. Marvin Henderson was a ruthless man. If he had threatened to find a hole in which to drop Andi, he’d see that it was done.
“Boy, oh boy, Andi,” Jack said. “If I was you, I’d stay out at your ranch and never leave sight of your folks!”
“Sure, Jack. For the rest of my life?”
“Listen, Andi.” Cory rubbed his forehead, deep in thought. There was only one thing she must do. “You’ve got to tell your folks. This is too serious. You know you can’t let Zeke Blazer hang for something he didn’t do. Your brothers will take care of you. Chad’s mighty handy with that gun of his. So’s Mitch. They won’t let Mr. Henderson come near you, not once you tell them what he said. And what you saw.”
“He promised to kill Justin if I told anyone,” Andi reminded him.
“He can’t kill anybody if he’s behind bars or hanging from a rope,” Jack said.
“I can’t take that chance,” Andi replied. “He’s got plenty of hired help to do his dirty work for him.”
“Andi,” Rachel put in. “I’m with Cory and Jack. You’ve got to tell your mother. Think about this. If you don’t tell now, before the trial, and . . . and . . . Zeke Blazer gets convicted and hanged, where will you be then? The rest of your life you’ll be eaten up with guilt that you let an innocent man hang, when you could have stopped it.”
Andi whirled on her friend. “Don’t you think I don’t know that?”she yelled in a harsh whisper. “What do you think I lie awake and think about all night long? At least when I’m not thinking about one of those hired thugs coming after me.”
She shook her head. “Between worrying about being the cause of Zeke’s hanging or Justin’s being killed, I’ve had me a bellyful. It hurts all the time.”
She pushed past Cory, and slapped his hand away. “Now, I’ve got to go. And if you’re really my friends, you’ll stick to your promise, or you’ll be the cause of somebody’s death.”
With that, Andi left the store and slammed the door behind her.
Cory bowed his head. “She’s in big trouble.”
READ CHAPTER 12
READ CHAPTER 12