Sarah Spellings & The Cariboo Posse

Attack, Snack, & Going Back

Sarah leaned forward, clutched the saddle horn, and held on for her life! The black horse was right on Merrylegs’ tail; she could hear the rider’s heavy breathing. Desperate to stay on her horse, she dug her heels into his flanks, accidentally spurring him to run faster. Merrylegs passed Puff and Bang, galloped past Jubilee, and overtook Geronimo and Splotch. Whinnying their alarm, the horses joined the stampede. Charlie shouted as Sarah tore past him, but she couldn’t hear over the thunder of hooves. Merrylegs veered off the road into a field, and charged directly toward a low stile fence. A blur of green and brown—Sarah squeezed her eyes shut—

Merrylegs jumped!

Sarah felt a thrill as she sailed over the fence, and a jolt of pain when she landed, her rear end smacking down painfully. On they galloped, an arrow of horses with Merrylegs at the tip. Praying Rumpus was huddled in his pannier, Sarah peeked through her eyelashes at poplars and cottonwoods: they had reached the banks of the Fraser River! Merrylegs ran down to the water. At the last moment the distraught horse pulled up short, and reared onto his hind legs. Sarah fell to the ground, and Rumpus tumbled out beside her, unharmed. Breathless and in pain, Sarah instinctively rolled away from the heavy animal’s front hooves. The other horses arrived, wide-eyed and frothy-mouthed, and Sarah cringed, and covered her head. A long minute passed before she dared to open her eyes.

Fern’s leather-booted feet stood beside her on the lake shore.

“The black rider,” Sarah asked, catching her breath. “Where did he—”

“I put an arrow in his leg,” Fern said grimly, “but he’ll probably live.”

“We should keep moving,” said Quinn, astride Geronimo. “There could be more of them.”

“The horses need to drink first,” Charlie said sternly.

Everyone dismounted. Sarah sat up slowly, scanning her body for injuries. She wasn’t the only saddle-sore rider; Levvy was rubbing her backside and wincing. Charlie and Fern watered and tethered the horses. Sarah staggered to the river. She slurped water from cupped hands, and Rumpus lapped frantically beside her. A dark bluish line of clouds was somersaulting toward them from the west, and the air was hazy and charged. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

“Storm’s coming,” said Murdock.

“Are we alone?” Sarah asked Fern.

Fern’s eyes flickered, green and gold. She pivoted, inspecting their surroundings. The scene was peaceful, river rolling by and horses grazing under poplars, but Sarah felt uneasy. Another long, slow roll of thunder boomed from the west. Rumpus whimpered.

“Four riders,” Fern said briskly. “Heading this way.”

“We have to cross the river now,” said Sarah.

Charlie shook his head. “It’s too deep here—the horses might not make it. We’ll have to head east, and find somewhere to hide.”

Sarah popped Rumpus into a pannier. She ached everywhere. Biting her lip, determined, she put a foot in a stirrup, lifted her body—and sat astride Merrylegs! She looked around, hoping to share her success, but five swishing tails were already trotting along the riverside trail, leaving her behind.

Fern twisted in her saddle and shouted hurry up! But his spurt of manic energy had depleted Merrylegs’ reserves, and he plodded along slowly. A space widened between Merrylegs and Bang, the next-slowest horse. A flash lit the sky, and another thunderclap sounded. Inky clouds darkened the day. Hairs on Sarah’s neck rose, alive with electricity, and her pulse raced. Suddenly Quinn and Geronimo came galloping toward her, and Sarah emitted a little shriek. Quinn pointed to a thicket of leafy shrubs.

“Laxgi found us a hiding spot,” Quinn said proudly. “She’s circling above it—can you see her? It’s not perfect, but you could use your powers to make it better! I’ll corral everyone else.”

Merrylegs tromped obediently through a shallow ditch into the green leafy tangle of a thicket, and Sarah ducked under low-hanging branches. She dismounted at a grassy space inside the bushes, and took Rumpus out of the pannier. Levvy arrived on Puff, twigs and leaves stuck in her orange bandana, and Fern cantered in smoothly to join them, followed by Murdock. Quinn was last, checking nervously over his shoulder.

“Hurry,” he urged Sarah. “The riders are close.”

The shrubs formed a barrier, but the road wasn’t far away; they needed dense vegetation to avoid detection. Hexagon glowing, Sarah swept her hands in a circle, picturing lush growth. Branches stretched high overhead, tendril reached for tendril, and vines interlaced. The first fat drops of rain splatted on the crown of Sarah’s head. She wove her fingers together, and plants merged until horses and humans were enclosed under a botanical tent. Rain fell harder. Laxgi, trapped outside the branches, keened mournfully.

“Is this okay?” Sarah asked Quinn, coming out of her trance.

“Better than okay,” he said tenderly, patting her back. “It’s perfect.”

Rain poured down, sounding like thousands of fingers on drums. Huddled together in their living shelter, they waited out the storm. Flashes of lightning illuminated shocked faces. KA-BOOM! A thunderclap resounded directly overhead. Rumpus whimpered, and Sarah picked up her trembling little dog. Fern, an arrow nocked in her bow, vigilantly paced the perimeter of the glade. Levvy collected crumbs from pockets, and added an apple core from her knapsack. Charlie had a crust of bread, and Murdock contributed a nubbin of cheese. Fern found three lint-covered walnuts.

Levvy wrapped this meagre harvest in a burlap sack, and handed it to Sarah. “You can make food into more food, right?” she asked.

“I think so,” said Sarah. “Is everyone hungry?”

Heads nodded in the damp gloom. Sarah’s hexagon lit up again. Energy coursed down her arms, and she passed her hands over the sack. When she was done, she unfolded the sack eagerly—and found small piles of bread crusts, cheese nubbins, linty walnuts, and apple cores.

Levvy sniffed sadly over the edible odds and ends. “I don’t mean to be ungrateful,” she said. “But somehow I thought you would make, like, a loaf of bread. And maybe a round of cheese, and some whole apples.”

“I’m not a bakery, dairy, and fruit tree,” said Sarah.

Hiding her disappointment, Sarah scooped up a handful of the walnuts, which looked very unappetizing. She ate them one by one, picking the lint off before popping them in her mouth. Charlie fed apple cores to the horses, and Sarah gave Rumpus rubbery bits of cheese. Raindrops trickled through the canopy for an hour. When it subsided to a light patter, Fern scanned the road with her reptilian eyes. “Those four riders are a long way back—they must have stopped for the storm.”

“Good,” said Sarah. “Let’s cross the river, and find Spex.”

“Oh, no,” said Charlie, with a small shrug. “We’re too far east to double back now. From here we head northeast, and cross the Hope bridge to the southern end of the Gold Rush Trail.”

“Our supplies are in the wagon,” said Levvy. “We have to go back.”

“We can eat fruit and berries, snare rabbits, and catch salmon,” said Charlie.

“I don’t think so,” Quinn said scornfully. “We can’t spend all day snaring rabbits.”

“Sarah can increase whatever I harvest,” Charlie bragged, with a casual wave of his hand.

Charlie was too sure of himself, Sarah realized, with a rush of anxiety. Had they agreed to a fool’s mission, led by a cocky, overconfident cowboy?

“I can’t increase meat,” said Sarah.

“How do you know?” Levvy asked.

“Thinking about it makes me sick,” Sarah replied, again wishing her mother were still alive. Victoria Abbott would have taught her daughter how to use her powers. Her father was no help at all; he hated talking about the supernatural things she could do.

“We need the food we packed,” Levvy insisted. “And what about Hanx and Trig? They’re supposed to protect us in the Cariboo!”

“We’d be safer without them,” Murdock said drily.

“Good point. Someone needs to go back,” Fern said suddenly. “Five of us can go on the mission. One of us needs to return to Spex, and let him know we’ve gone ahead. Charlie’s right—with Sarah, we can manage with the food we hunt and gather.”

“I guess I could go back,” Levvy said in a small voice.

“No, not you,” Fern said. “You’re not an accomplished rider.”

Quinn patted a pouch hanging from his leather belt. “I’m safeguarding hunaja bees, so it can’t be me who returns. I brought a queen and some comb, in case we got separated from the wagon.”

“It has to be Murdock,” Fern said bluntly. “Sarah’s the most important, Charlie’s our guide, and the group needs my eyes. Murdock’s the only one of us who doesn’t really need to be here.”

Murdock blinked, and looked hurt. “I could catch up,” he suggested.

“No,” said Fern. “You wouldn’t be able to find us. Don’t make this harder than it already is, Murdock. Go back, find Spex and those goons, and tell them we’re gone. We’ll see you in about a month, when we’re home from the Cariboo.”

Murdock pivoted, strode over to Bang, and saddled the horse. Cringing, Sarah wondered if Parleyment had stripped Fern of emotion when they altered her eyes—the former spy could be so cold and callous! But all romance seemed risky, Sarah mused; if you weren’t careful with your heart, it could get trampled. She glanced at Quinn, who was showing Levvy his hunaja pouch. Spex had said life without risk and adventure wasn’t really living. But the sight of Murdock, his cheeks flaming red, made Sarah want to be cautious with her feelings.

“The rain has stopped,” said Charlie. “We have to go.”

An uncomfortable silence filled the green sanctuary. Murdock waited, his head lowered. Sarah summoned her powers and opened a portal in the living tent. Branches, leaves, and vines spiralled away from each other, and formed an archway. Rumpus ran out the opening first, and the horses followed in a line, with Merrylegs in last place as usual. Hooves squelched in mud, and rich biological smells wafted in the humid air. The horses circled up on the road beside the river.

“I guess this is goodbye,” Murdock mumbled.

“Thanks for being the person to go back,” Sarah said. “I really wish you could come with us.”

Fern released an exasperated huff. “There’s no need to get sentimental,” she said. “Flexibility is key to the success of any endeavour. We’ll be reunited with you soon, Murdock. You’re doing your part for this mission, so don’t feel left out. Taking Hanx and Trig back to Sassamatta is a big help.”

With expert ease, Fern turned Jubilee, and rode east. Charlie saluted Murdock smartly, and followed Fern. Quinn and Levvy murmured goodbye, and rode away. Murdock sat astride Bang, looking dejected. Sarah opened her mouth. With a pang of regret, she realized she couldn’t think of anything comforting to say. Resigned to his fate, Merrylegs set off behind the other horses. Rounding the first bend in the road, Sarah glanced back at the overgrown thicket.

Murdock was still there, watching her leave.

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