Enjoying warm blankets and a cosy bed, Sarah slept in. She woke to the sumptuous aromas of toast and eggs, dressed quickly, and hurried down to the saloon. Quinn, Levvy and Fern were chewing crusts of bread and drinking the dregs of their tea. Gus banged through the swinging saloon doors, his eyes wide and his mouth distorted in a grimace.
“Katy’s gone,” said Gus, choking up. “She took Pippi, one of my horses!”
“I knew it,” said Fern.
“How do you know she’s gone for good?” Levvy asked. “Maybe she just—”
“One of the gold bars you gave me is missing,” said Gus, wiping a tear from his eye. “She took her backpack, with all her things.” His back heaved as he sobbed. “I love Pippi—she’s a chestnut mare—my favourite…”
Sarah reddened. “Gustavus, I’m so sorry. I thought I saw someone in the horse paddock last night, and I could have sworn I heard hoofbeats. I was exhausted, but I should have come and told you. I hope you can forgive me.”
Gus sat down heavily on a bar stool, and put his head in his hands. His ears curled over his fingers, and his shoulders shook. Sarah couldn’t bear to look at him.
“We’ll replace the gold bar,” said Quinn.
Fern nodded. “Of course we will. We’ll hunt down Katy Allaborgia, take back the ingot she stole, and get your horse returned to you if we can manage it. From here, there’s only one place to go with a gold bar and an empty stomach.”
“Wenderways,” they said in unison.
Half an hour later their panniers were packed. Sarah hugged Gustavus Sneep. Cheered by Fern’s promise to reclaim his stolen gold and horse, Gus had perked up, and unfolded his ears. He handed Sarah a sack stuffed with hearty leftovers and bread ends.
“Happy trails,” Gus hollered, waving hands and ears.
But the Gold Rush Trail wasn’t happy or pleasant; they were chased by chilly rain and gusty wind. Sarah popped Rumpus in a pannier to keep him out of the weather. No one spoke; it was hard to hear over the howling wind. Fern had a look of grim determination. Sarah was more disappointed in herself than Katy Allaborgia: how naïve she had been, trusting the woman who had betrayed them! Riding through the tunnels they passed workers in orange-and-yellow safety vests, clearing away rocks and debris. A pump trolley squeaked along freshly repaired railroad tracks. Quinn talked to one of the workers, and when they circled the horses for lunch, he told Sarah and the others what he’d learned.
“A wealthy man called Mackelman is paying for Gold Rush Trail repairs,” said Quinn. “This Mackelman guy is thrilled that the Posse have lost their grip on the Cariboo. He plans to control trade between Wenderways and the northern raft communities. Those workers say by the time the snow flies, road and the railway will be open for travel and trade, and Mackelman will reap huge profits.”
“Sounds as if there’s been a power shift in Wenderways,” said Fern. “We should camp outside the village tonight, and go to town in the morning, when we’re fresh.”
“No way! I don’t want to spend another night shivering in the rain. I’ve been dreaming about soaking in the hot pools,” said Levvy.
“We should stay in Wenderways tonight, but not because of the hot pools,” Quinn said, straightening in the saddle. “We’ve defeated Harpminster Abbott twice! Why should we cower in the bushes? Our reputation precedes us.”
Fern was defeated in a show of hands, and she glowered as they crossed the bridge into Wenderways, and dismounted outside the hot pools building. Clouds of steam rose invitingly from behind the stone facade. Sarah detected a faint sulphurous scent in the misty air. There were no guards posted on the stone stairs leading to the grand entrance.
“Please say we can have a hot bath,” Levvy breathed.
Fern clucked disapprovingly. “First we have to visit Briggar Dunk, and find out what’s been happening in Wenderways.”
Quinn and Sarah nodded in agreement, and Levvy gazed longingly at the wisps of steam as they rode away. The main street was deserted and slick with mud; the few pedestrians that rushed along the boardwalk, shoulders lifted against wind and rain, ignored the four sodden, road-weary riders. Outside
Briggar Dunk’s store the mud was trampled, and a dozen horses were hitched to the rail. Sarah put her head inside the door. A line of bedraggled people, some wearing jackets emblazoned with the rig eye, zig-zagged from entrance to desk. The air was humid, and smelled of apples and wet paper. Briggar was presiding over his thick, leather bound ledger. Someone sneezed, and bodies shuffled as people distanced themselves from a potential source of disease. Sarah retreated to the porch.
“There must be fifty people in there,” she hissed. “We might be recognized.”
“Go around back with Quinn and Levvy,” said Fern. “I’ll meet you at the apple tree with Briggar in five minutes.”
Hiding their faces in their rain poncho hoods, Sarah, Quinn and Levvy slipped around the building. Briggar’s dogs barked furiously inside their chain-link fenced enclosure. Baskets and bins were piled on the ramshackle back porch; Quinn lifted burlap sacking, and revealed thousands of ripe apples. “Looks like the tree you healed bore fruit,” he said, smiling at Sarah.
The back door creaked open, and Briggar Dunk wheeled across the porch planking. “Rip and Tear—that’s enough!” he shouted, and the German Shepherds reduced their wild barks to low growls. “Ahem. Welcome, and pardon the hounds. Please help yourself to apples. The tree produced thousands of them, thanks to you.”
Sarah lunged for the bin, and crunched into a sweet, juicy apple.
Briggar removed his foggy glasses, and rubbed the lenses with his shirt. “Wenderways is in chaos after what happened in the Cariboo,” he said. “Slicker benefits were cancelled; Parleyment is no longer paying for oil and gas tip-offs. A mercenary named Mackelman controls all the northern trade. I’m not complaining! My business is booming, now that food is once again more precious than oil. I’m happy, and Mackelman’s happy, but you guys won’t win any popularity contests around here now that the nuclear power project is kaput. Parleyment has abandoned its supporters. Those people in my store are hungry, and they have nothing of value to trade.”
“Should we get out of Wenderways?” Fern asked abruptly.
Briggar narrowed his eyes, and scratched his chin. “I don’t honestly know,” he said. “Do you need to stay in town?”
“I’m desperate for a bath,” said Levvy. She yanked off her orange toque. Matted, stringy clumps of hair tumbled to her shoulders. Sarah felt itchy, sore, and smelly. Her boots were caked with mud, and her pants smeared with dirt. Bits of plants were lodged behind her ears.
“A bath is an indulgence,” Fern snapped, “and not worth the risk. But we need to stay in Wenderways, because we seek a thief named Katy Allaborgia. She’s riding a stolen chestnut mare, and trying to trade a stolen gold ingot for food and supplies.”
Briggar pursed his lips and gave a long, low whistle. “You can sleep above my store room tonight. There’s no bedding, mind you, just a straw floor, but the woman you’re looking for is over at the hot pools—she’s a friend of Mackelman’s. Make yourselves comfortable in the loft. I’ll bring you a meal shortly and later, under cover of darkness, we’ll slip over to the pools. If you have anything of value to trade, I’m sure Mackelman will let you bathe.”
It was late when Briggar pulled a rope, and rang a bell in the loft. Leaving Rumpus with a bowl of water and a bone to chew, they followed Briggar to the hot pools building. Stars poked through shreds of cloud. Briggar pushed his chair up a stone ramp Sarah hadn’t noticed before. Rat-a-tat, ta-tat, rat-a-tat-tat, he hammered an intricate knock on the front doors.
A thin man in army fatigues opened the door, inspected the visitors, and waved them inside with sharp, jerky motions. Glass windows opened out to aquamarine hot pools, sparkling water lit by candle lanterns, steam billowing in the cold air above them. Levvy gazed at the pools with bald desire. “Sarah Spellings, I presume,” the man said, bowing towards Fern.
Fern jabbed a thumb. “I’m not Sarah—she is. Who are you?”
Raising an eyebrow in mild surprise, the man removed his baseball cap. A smile like oil spread across his narrow features. “My name’s Mackelman. Don’t call me Mack,” he said. “You must be the kids who wrecked Parleyment’s reactor plan. I’m grateful—this town is full of desperate people, and desperate people are handy.”
Mackelman reminded Sarah of a weasel. She shifted her weight, feeling uncomfortable.
“These folks are my guests tonight,” Briggar said cheerfully. “I’m afraid they’re leaving at first light, and before they go, they would appreciate a bath.”
“A bath—is that all? How dull,” said Mackelman. “I have contraband for sale. Powdered eggs, dried pasta, a few cases of canned kidney beans. Make me an offer.”
“We don’t need your contraband,” said Fern. “We want to trade gold for revenge.”
“Gold?” said Mackelman. “What a coincidence! Someone else just offered me gold. It’s not a common barter. Sarah Spellings, I thought you would offer to keep mice out of my dry goods, or make sure it snows at Christmas. But of course I’ll trade for gold; its value is timeless. I could make a handsome trade for dentistry supplies alone. Where is your gold, and what kind of revenge are we talking about? I don’t take promissory notes, I’m afraid—too many bad experiences.”
“Katy Allaborgia stole an ingot of gold and a horse,” said Fern. “We need you to repossess both things, and the gold is yours, if you return the horse to Gustavus Sneep at the Pig’s Ear Saloon.”
Mackelman smiled, and rubbed his palms together. “Oh my—such an intriguing offer! Please, help yourselves to a long soak in the hot pools. By the time you’re towelling off, I’ll have the gold, and the horse will be on its way back to Gus.”
“What will happen to Katy?” Sarah asked.
“What do you care?” said Mackelman with a shrug.
“We don’t want her hurt,” said Sarah.
Fern rolled her eyes, but didn’t object.
“It’s a deal,” said Mackelman. “Katy will be minus gold and horse, which I suppose is punishment enough. Towels are in the change rooms. Take long showers before bathing—you kids look filthy. If I have to drain and clean the pools, it will cost you.”
“I’ll wait outside,” said Briggar.
Leaving dirty footprints on the tile floor, they changed into saggy black swimming costumes and showered. Sarah stood in a cascade of hot water, watching bits of leaves swirl down the drain and marvelling at the luxurious sensation. Even at her childhood home on Wailsmouth Street, showers had been a treat reserved for special occasions.
“This is what I’m talking about! Clean at last!” Levvy whooped.
Outside, Sarah sank into a hot pool and sighed with pleasure. Water washed over her head, and her heavy black hair fanned out on the surface. She felt weightless, carefree, and peaceful. Quinn and Fern sat solemnly on the edge, immersing only their feet. “Have I died? Because this feels like heaven,” said Levvy. She floated, spreading her limbs like a starfish. An hour later, fingertips wrinkled and cheeks rosy, they donned clean tunics from Quessnell Raft and returned to the lobby. A smirking Mackelman tossed a gold ingot in the air, and caught it deftly on its descent.
“Easy as pie,” said Mackelman. “Thanks for the gold. The horse will be reunited with Gus in a couple of days, and the woman is unharmed. A good deal for all concerned. I’m open for business—anytime you folks want to strike another deal, come on back.”
Not likely, thought Sarah, with a shudder. Mackelman gave her the creeps.
As promised, Briggar had waited for them. He escorted them back to the loft. Sarah fell asleep comforted by the subtle scents of clean skin and pine forest. As they were saddling up the next day, Quinn gave Briggar a gold ingot, a dozen emeralds, and a packet of paper money.
Briggar clutched the share of Billy Miner’s treasure to his chest. “This is too much!”
“Well, we wouldn’t say no to a packed lunch,” Levvy hinted wryly.
Briggar packed them a generous pannier of dried fruit and fresh bread. The day was still young when four horses filed west out of Wenderways.