Wyatt watched Mrs. Forbes drop apples and oranges into brown paper lunch bags. Then came two bananas.
He frowned. “Won’t the sandwiches get crushed, Mrs. Forbes?”
Her hand stopped in mid-air. She reached into the bags to adjust the distribution of food. “Satisfied?” She smiled.
“Yea.” Wyatt swiped the cowlick bangs away from his forehead.
“I’m not happy, Mom,” eleven year old Hannah piped up. “How about peanut butter cups and Kit-Kats?”
“You two are breaking me down.” Cleo Forbes shook her head. “I’ll put in candy if you promise to eat the fruit. Just don’t toss it.”
“We’ll eat everything.” Wyatt smacked his lips.
The phone rang and Wyatt watched Mrs. Forbes turn her back to answer it. He heard the loud, whining voice of old Miss Filmore. He inched over to the peninsula and reached into the candy bag, tossing more chocolate into the lunch bags.
Hannah covered her face to smother giggles.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Cleo said as she returned to the peninsula and greased a cake tin. “But a hike and fresh air will do you both good. Wish I could join you.” She sighed. “At least I’ll get the wool sweaters and blankets aired on the line. It’s a perfect day for doing that.” She started taking stuff out of the cupboards. “And, don’t be late like last time. You scared me half out of my mind! When it got dark, I really worried.”
“I’ll make sure we’re back on time, Mrs. Forbes,” Wyatt zipped his lunch into his black knapsack. Hannah’s mom was really nice and made terrific brownies, but she was an awful worrier. It wasn’t dark yet when they got back. Not really. “Come on Hannah. Hurry up.”
She was shoving stuff into her backpack. Just like a girl to bring all that. Hannah went out the door ahead of him and Wyatt hesitated. “Mrs. Forbes? When did you say my mom and dad are coming home?”
“Wyatt, this is the fifth time I’ve explained the situation to you.” Cleo counted on her fingers. “They left Redcliffe on Saturday. Today is Monday. Your mom and dad will be home on Friday.” She walked over to a small rolled top desk and raised the lid. “Tell you what I’ll do.” She removed a pad of paper and drew a chart, listing the days of the week. “I’ll hang this sheet on the door to your room and you can mark X’s ’til Friday.” She clipped a red marker on the graph.
“Is Florida a nice place to visit?” Wyatt stared at the chart.
“It’s very beautiful there. I particularly like going to St. Augustine.” Cleo set the chart aside and poured flour into a bowl. “There’s a National Geographic magazine in the den featuring an article on the Everglades. When you come back from your hike, check it out.”
Wyatt grinned, turned swiftly, and skipped down the driveway.
“What were you talking to my mom about?” Hannah squinted at Wyatt when he fell in step with her. She was standing at the end of the driveway twirling the drawstring on her aqua sweatshirt.
“None of yer business.” He looked up at her. She had him by an inch and it bugged him.
“What do you mean, it’s none of my business? Were you talking about me? And, here, carry your own net.” She shoved a butterfly net at him.
Wyatt took it and stuffed it in his backpack pocket. His gaze wandered across Ozark Street to a field filled with blue and yellow flowers.
“Wyatt, you didn’t answer my question. Hannah cocked her head in his direction.
“Nah, it wasn’t about you. It was about nothin’, okay?”
Hannah shrugged her skinny shoulders as they strolled two blocks along a sidewalk with grass growing through the cracks. They followed a path at Hobbs Corners and trudged along to the steep banks where town trucks had formerly hauled gravel for road maintenance.
They raced up and down the slopes with nets, chasing butterflies and stood still to watch hummingbirds draw nectar from flowers. Eventually, they collapsed on the clean-scented grass to devour picnic lunches.
Wyatt gulped his food and still restless, his gaze settled on a low, wide field where a path snaked through the high, thin grass to an island of pine. As he swallowed the last of his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, he stood up, brushed dust off the seat of his pants, and pointed to the island. “Hey, let’s go over to that spot where all the trees are. A path leads through it. Where does it go?”
Hannah, nibbling at her second triangle of chicken salad sandwich, nodded. “To another field, silly! There are farmlands all over. You know that, Wyatt. Corn’ll be growin’ soon...and green beans and pumpkins.” She swatted tiny black bugs.
“I don’t mean the fields on the far side. I want to know what’s in the woods.” Wyatt clapped his hand over his mouth to war-whoop, and danced Indian style in a circle.
“Crusader Creek runs through the Inglis orchard. It’s got snakes and frogs and creepy things. Ugh,” Hannah eyed him suspiciously. “Forget it, Wyatt, it’s off limits!”
“I’m tired of this place. Crusader Creek sounds good, ’specially the frogs and snakes. It’s probably cooler, too.” He wiped sweat off his face with his sleeve. The afternoon sun felt more like hot summer than early spring.
“I’m not interested in frogs, Wyatt. They give you warts.” Hannah chomped into an apple.
“You don’t have to go near the creek. Just show me where...please? Please?”
“Oh, all right.” Hannah looked at her watch. “There’s plenty of time yet.” She wadded her soiled napkin and collected her food wrappings, stuffing them in her backpack. “Pick up your garbage. I’m not doing it for you.”
While Wyatt chased Kit-Kat wrappers scattered by the wind and shoved them into a plastic bag, Hannah dashed ahead of him down the sandpits, onto the twisting loose-dirt path. “Don’t forget your net!” she yelled.
“Not fair,” he shouted, and stooped to pick up the empty net. “Wait!” He pounded after her.
Hannah and Wyatt skipped through tickling high grass as they entered the pine-treed woodland and emerged at the far side onto the banks of Crusader Creek. Wyatt shivered at the sudden drop in temperature and hurled two large stones into the water. Hannah pulled on her sweatshirt and wobbled across a fallen log to the opposite bank. She picked a bouquet of forget-me-nots growing along the edges, and wrapped a damp napkin around the flowers. “Mom can put them in that old blue vase she likes.”
Wyatt raced along the edge of the creek, his eyes darting all over. “Darn. I’ll never catch frogs. The stream’s movin’ too fast.” He licked his lips. “It’s way too high. Well...maybe it isn’t.” He lay down on his belly and braced his feet against a tree stump.
A short while later, frog-less and disappointed, Wyatt pointed at the red tip of a silo visible through sparse tree branches. “Hey, what’s that over there?”
“The Inglis farm. C’mon, you promised to play ‘Scat’ for pennies before we head home. It’s almost three.” Hannah sat cross-legged on a bed of dry leaves. She removed a deck of cards from her backpack and shuffled them.
“Any kids to play with over there?” Wyatt asked.
Hannah flung back her ponytail. “Once in a while, Stevie Inglis visits his Uncle Will. He’s a special child. I help him with Sunday school lessons. But that’s a weird place. Ever since old Farmer Clumly died, a lot of owners have come and gone. My Dad told me to stay away from there. He doesn’t know what’s going on, but he’s got an inkling the Inglis’ are up to no good.”
Wyatt bit his lower lip, “Let’s go look anyhow. We’ll be careful and won’t get caught.”
“But only from the top of the hill.” Hannah returned the cards to her backpack.
“Cool!” Wyatt skipped ahead of her. They came into the bright sunlight and gazed down at a farmhouse, a silo, several barns and outbuildings. Chickens scratched for feed in the gravel driveway and a chained Mastiff paced near the front porch.
“Stay low after we pass that big tree.” Hannah pointed to a misshapen beech looming before them. “It’s all open land and we don’t want to get caught snooping.”
They tramped hunchback fashion across the rocky path. Mid-way, Hannah and Wyatt dropped down on their hands and knees and crawled to a cluster of evergreen shrubs at the edge of the hill.
“Zowee, will ya look at the Mercedes, BMW, Porsche and Caddy parked in the driveway.” Wyatt sat back on his haunches. “Somethin’s cookin’ with all those posh cars.” He fell quiet, and reckoned. “Maybe crooks or drug dealers from New York hang out here.”
“The Inglis brothers own the place,” Hannah murmured. “They call themselves horse breeders. Look at those horses,” she pointed to six mangy animals huddled together near a half-filled hay bin and nearly empty water trough, in a corral enclosed by a split-rail fence. “The poor things are starving. I hate people who abuse animals.” She frowned.
Wyatt pointed to the windows in back of the white farmhouse in need of paint. “Why are the shades pulled down?”
“I guess the owners don’t want the sun to fade the curtains or furniture,” Hannah suggested. “My Grandma pulls the blinds closed in her house in the spring and summer. So does Mom.”
“Seems fishy to me.” Wyatt crept forward.
“Where are you going?” Hannah was all big eyes.
“Closer. I want to find out what’s going on - like Harry Potter. You can be Nancy Drew.” Wyatt inched forward.
“Come back,” Hannah cried out in a hoarse whisper. “If my dad finds out, he’ll give us a punishment we’ll never forget. That means you too.”
“C’mon Nancy Drew.” Wyatt was only a few yards from the lawn near the back of the house.
“I won’t be your best friend.” Hannah’s face reddened. “And what are you? Stupid? Going near the house? For sure, someone’ll see you.”
Wyatt jabbed his finger at the barn and slithered through an opening in the bushes, heading straight toward it. Hannah glared venomously at the back of his bobbing head and snaked after him.
Suddenly, loud barking erupted from inside.
Piled on one side of the barn was a jumble of railroad ties. Wyatt and Hannah hopped onto the top of the stack and wiped grime off the window. They peered at two young, collared Pit Bulls, barking and straining at the end of 18-inch chains. In another corner of the barn, two Shelties, a Beagle and a German Shepard were growling and whimpering and crawling over each other in a small cage.
“Wow! The Shelties and German Shepard are missing from the village,” Hannah whispered. “Their pictures are hanging on telephone poles near my house.”
“What are they doing locked-up in this cruddy barn?” Wyatt scratched the back of his hand.
Suddenly, the barn door rattled open and Wyatt and Hannah flew out of view of the window. They slowly worked their way back up and stared at a large, unshaven man in a tattered tee shirt and loose-fitting jogging pants. He raised a hand in the air. “What are you barking at, you lousy mutts. Settle down.”
The barking intensified.
“Shut up, I said.” The man yanked a belt off the wall and stomped over to the Pit Bulls. He let the belt fly over their backs until they yelped in pain. Then he spun around and snapped the belt at the dogs cowering and whimpering in the cage in the corner.
“Be still!” the man commanded. He dragged crates and cartons forwards and backwards and climbed a ladder to the top of the hayloft. He looked around and was satisfied no one was hiding. He backed down the ladder and fixed a menacing gaze on the dogs alternately licking bruises and baring their teeth.
He jerked his head backwards in the murky, gray interior and griped to himself. “I’d better take a look outside just to play it safe.” A cell phone rang.
“Hallo!” The man put the phone to his ear.
“I’m searching the barn. Something’s got the dogs riled up. They’re barking hell-bent. Must you have an answer now?”
“I’ll have to go in the house and get the calendar. I don’t keep those dates in my head. Call back in five minutes.” The man strode out of the barn.
“Omigosh,” Hannah clapped her hands over her mouth. “That’s Will Inglis.”
“He whupped those dogs real bad.” Wyatt’s heart was beating fast. “C’mon, let’s vamoose. We’ve got to figure a way to get these animals outta here before he beats ’em again. And what’s he doing with missing dogs?” Wyatt gave Hannah a shove toward the hill.
As they were rounding the corner of the barn, Hannah tripped and fell to the ground. Wyatt caught his foot on her outstretched leg and rolled on top of her.
“Get off me.” Hannah squirmed beneath his weight.
“You’re the one who fell,” Wyatt snapped.
“Shhh, what’s that noise?” Hannah sat up and cocked her head to listen. “A bird? Omigosh, look!
“Kittens.” Wyatt gave a low whistle. “Newborns.”
Hannah pointed to a spot in the high grass where two small furry kittens were twittering and several others lay still.
“Dead kittens. Only two alive.” Wyatt shuddered and strained to look over a low picket fence at a bed of wildflowers and tall weeds. “Where’s the mother cat?”
“I don’t see her anywhere.” Hannah looked from side to side.
Frantic barking broke out inside the barn.
“Let’s git.” Wyatt whisked up a mewing kitten. Hannah grabbed the other one.
As they rocketed up the slope to the secluded pines, Wyatt stopped suddenly. “Where’d that dog come from?”
A flash of red sprinted past them, bent on chasing a rabbit.
“That’s Lester Cranshaw’s hunting dog. She’s a good girl.” Hannah panted.
At the top of the hill, they followed a path and dropped down on a bed of pine needles beneath a large, piney branch. They rolled over on their backs and filled their exhausted lungs. Hannah placed the mewing kitten on her stomach and petted it. Then she tilted her head back and stared up into a pair of black, piercing eyes.