Sarah Spellings & The Cariboo Posse

Bugs, Battle, Branches

Sitting tall in the saddle, Charlie led the ragged caravan. Grump plodded obediently behind Splotch. Spex’s short legs bounced in midair as the wagon, pulled by the pony, bumped along an overgrown dirt road. When fallen trees or dense underbrushed blocked their progress, Hanx and Trig cleared the way using hatchets and brute strength. Fern and Murdock scouted for potential enemies. Quinn, Sarah and Levvy walked alongside the wagon, Rumpus scampering at their heels.

The scorching afternoon sun felt even hotter as dirt gave way to cracked pavement bristling with weeds. Houses they passed were dilapidated, with peeling paint and crumbling concrete. Broken doors and windows hung askew, suggesting forced entries, or desperate exits. Splotch and Grump’s hoofbeats echoed emptily from yard to yard; they encountered no one on the forlorn streets. Rusty cars sagged, abandoned where they were last parked.

“Mercedes-Benz!” Hanx shouted. “My grandfather drove one just like that!” He and Trig crossed the street to inspect the boxy old silver car.

“Why don’t have buggies here?” Charlie asked.

“Buggies?” Levvy smiled. “Do you mean, like, mosquitoes?”

“Of course not,” Charlie said. “Buggies are wagons made out of old cars. You remove the engine and everything under the hood, and hook the frame to a horse.”

“All these old cars are going to rust. In the future they’re just nuisances—obstacles to clean up and clear away,” said Quinn.

“How far in the future—?”

AIEEEEE! Charlie’s question was cut off by Hanx and Trig, screaming as they bolted away from the Mercedes, chased by a cloud of flying insects. Swatting at the air, their enormous backpacks jiggling, the giants turned a corner and vanished. Rumpus dashed after them, barking furiously.

“They should have been more careful,” said Charlie. “They probably disturbed a wasp’s nest inside the engine bay—happens all the time in the Cariboo.”

“Why didn’t you warn them?” Quinn asked testily.

“I didn’t know there would be wasps in that car,” said Charlie with a shrug.

Quinn’s lips twisted angrily, but Spex cut in, averting an argument.

“What a shame! Charlie and Quinn—help me dismount, fellows, if you would. There’s nothing to do but rest, and wait for them to return.”

It was a barren street in a shabby neighbourhood. The only shady place was a circle of brown grass underneath a big maple tree on a lawn, its lower branches slanting down protectively, like a giant parasol. Charlie tethered the horse and pony on a neighbouring lawn, and Fern filled an empty plastic planter with water from the barrel for the animals. Levvy opened packages of dried salmon, bread crisps, dried apples, and cheese. They sat under the maple tree, said blessings,and devoured the food.

An hour passed. Rumpus returned, but not Hanx and Trig.

“It won’t rain tonight,” Spex said, peering at the cloudless sky, “and this tree is good shelter. We’ll spend the night here. Once the sun sets and the air cools, Fern will locate those two oafs by their body-heat prints. I’ve a good mind to send them back to Sassamatta for this unnecessary delay.”

Sarah unpacked blankets and sleeping bags. The first stars came out. Fern scanned the neighbourhood, and reported back to the maple tree. “I couldn’t find Hanx and Trig, but there’s dozens of people in this neighbourhood,” she said. “This isn’t a safe place to camp. We should pack up, and go somewhere more remote.”

Spex harrumphed. “Good gracious, we can’t leave without Hanx and Trig. We’ll take turns on guard duty. Charles, take first watch—you seem to have plenty of energy.”

Charlie was doing push ups.

“I’ll take first watch,” said Quinn. “Charlie has no experience with cities and suburbs.”

Charlie regarded Quinn evenly. “That doesn’t matter—first watch is mine.”

Quinn opened his mouth to argue, but Levvy punched his arm, and scowled. Charlie untied a bundle that had been secured to Splotch’s saddle, produced a bow and a quiver of arrows, and sat cross-legged on the lawn, outside the maple tree’s branches. Sarah slid into her sleeping bag, and fell asleep.

“Get up,” said a harsh, unfamiliar voice.

Rumpus erupted in sharp yaps, waking Sarah up. Something firm nudged her forehead. Opening her eyes, she blinked in darkness—a boot was hovering beside her head! Abruptly she was wide awake, and she sat up to see Quinn and Fern crouching defensively, Charlie and Levvy rubbing sleep from their eyes, and Spex groping in the grass for his spectacles.

“Got you surrounded,” said the person wearing the boot.

Outlined by moonlight, Sarah peered at bodies holding weapons. They were young, she realized; there was a boy wielding a baseball bat, and a heavy girl leering, and three masked kids no bigger than Sammy brandishing knives. A skinny girl with badly protruding teeth holding a sharpened broomstick lunged, and pressed the point of her weapon to Fern’s throat. One of the knife-kids grabbed a handful of Spex’s bushy hair, and yanked.

“Unhand me!” Spex blustered.

“Shut up, troll,” snarled the buck-toothed girl.

“What do you want?” Quinn asked calmly.

“Hand over all of your food,” said the heavy girl, “and hurry up.”

Sarah tried not to glance at their food, which was under burlap sacking in the wagon on the street. Rumpus unleashed a volley of desperate, squeaky barks.

“Shut that stupid dog up!” screeched the buck-toothed girl, and she jabbed Fern’s neck with the sharpened broomstick. Sarah saw Quinn’s fingers flex beside knife-sheaths sewn into his rawhide pants, and Charlie Crow was casually holding a length of coiled rope at his side.

“We have no food,” hissed Fern. “Obviously. Scram, kids, or we’ll teach you a lesson.”

The fat boy released Spex’s hair. He interlocked his fingers, and cracked his knuckles.

Spex strung the wire arms of his spectacles behind his ears, popped up to standing, and wobbled like a penguin. “Now then, my friends,” he said. “Surely we can come to a civil agreement.”

“Wrong, freak!” hollered the buck-toothed girl. “Give us your grub, or else!”

“Or else what?” Charlie asked, smirking.

“Or else we’ll mess you up, and take your food anyway,” the fat boy said.

The moonlit standoff seemed to recede. Sarah found herself gazing dreamily at supple younger branches of the maple tree. The golden hexagon around her neck glowed, and her hands buzzed with energy. She wiggled her fingers in the air experimentally, and fresh maple twigs sprouted from the young branches, new shoots that grew quickly, curving and creaking gently as they stretched. A sneaky branch encircled the waist of the boy beside Sarah, and constricted like a tropical snake. The boy screamed. He hit out blindly with his baseball bat, but another branch swirled around his upper body, cinching his arms to his sides.

Fern took advantage of the distraction Whip-quick, she snatched the spear from the buck-toothed girl, twisted it out of her grasp, and shoved the girl to the ground.

The yard erupted in combat.

With a war whoop, the buck-toothed girl scrambled to her feet. She flung herself at Fern, fingernails extended like claws. Fern did a backbend to avoid being scratched—but the girl’s head snapped backwards! A new maple shoot had snagged and yanked her matted mess of dreadlocks, and two more branches spiralled around her wrists like handcuffs. Levvy had climbed the tree; the kids with knives were slashing at her ankles. A blade found flesh, and drew blood, and Levvy screamed. Fern, now wielding the broomstick, shoved it under the knife-boy’s jacket and lifted him off his feet. Levvy, whimpering, climbed to safety. Fern dropped the knife-boy, straddled him, and used a leather strap to bind his wrists behind his back.

It was mayhem under the tree. Rumpus barked and nipped at the attackers’ heels. Sarah was struggling to stay focused; Levvy’s scream had distracted and upset her. She was concentrating on the other two knife-kids and trying to tie them up with the tree when they left the ground, and hovered in midair, feet dangling, mouths hanging open in shock!

It was Hanx and Trig, returned at last! Each of them had lifted a knife-kid by the scruff of the neck, and they tossed them clear of the maple tree as if they were turnips. A figure whipped past on a bicycle—Murdock—Sarah hadn’t noticed he was missing! The reinforcements strengthened Sarah, and her hexagon necklace shone brightly. Murdock ditched his bicycle, wrenched the big girl’s baseball bat from her, and wrestled her to the ground. Murdock was spry, but the girl was powerful and heavy; she grabbed his shoulders, kicked his legs out from under him, and pinned him to the ground. Energy coursed from Sarah’s arms, and she sent a long branch spiralling around the girl. She stumbled, lost her balance, and sat down with a grunt—right on top of Murdock.

Get ‘er off me!” Murdock gasped.

Levvy had climbed to a lower branch. She jumped out of the tree, knocking the big girl off Murdock, but the kids Hanx and Trig had tossed were back in the fray. One of them lunged at Charlie, knife extended. Charlie sidestepped the knife neatly and punched the kid in the nose. She was a young girl, and tough; she didn’t cry out, but raised her hands to stem the flow of blood pumping from her face. Charlie grabbed her jacket, spun her around, and shoved her toward the street. Quinn caught a coil of rope tossed by Charlie, and trussed her like a calf at a rodeo.

The biggest member of the gang, a boy, rushed under the tree, seized Spex by his gnomish arms, and shook him violently. “Where’s yer food?” he shouted. Spex spluttered incoherently. Hanx and Trig hurried to defend their friend, and the boy was soon wrapped in newly-lengthened maple tree shoots while Spex brushed himself off.

“Only a coward picks on someone half their size,” Spex declared.

Only a few minutes after it had begun, the fight was over. Hanx and Trig dragged all the bound assailants into the street, and tied them together in pairs, back to back. Sarah was exhausted. She sank to the grass, the glow fading from her hexagon necklace.

“Sarah, sorry, but you’re not finished,” Quinn said quietly. He was kneeling beside Levvy, applying pressure to dark-stained bandage on her leg.

“Oh, not again,” Sarah sighed. Levvy was always the one who sustained an injury.

“It’s not like I try to get shot and stabbed,” Levvy said, through clenched teeth.

Sarah’s palms tingled. Like her powers to influence nature, Sarah’s healing powers only worked when the wellbeing of the group would be compromised without her help. Her gold hexagon shone once more, and in the light it cast, Sarah saw a diagonal cut starting at Levvy’s knee and ending mid-calf. She held her hands over the wound, and muscle and skin grew together. A chorus built in Sarah’s ears, blocking out other sound; sometimes, when she used her powers, there were echoes of the Song of the Talisman, a unique chorus that emanated from the hexagon.

Some time later, Sarah blinked, and came out of her trance.

“It was my fault,” Murdock was saying. “I’m sorry. The street was quiet, so I decided to take my bike, and search the neighbourhood for Hanx and Trig. I left you guys open to attack.”

Fern clucked in disapproval.

“Ahem,” Spex cleared his throat. “Each of us has been guilty of poor judgement, at one time or another. Fortunately we had Sarah Spellings with us—I believe this tree has doubled in size! Lesson learned, Murdock, and no harm done, except for Levvy’s leg. But our Queen of Nature has righted that wrong, also. Come—we should interrogate these aggressors.”

As Sarah had suspected, the marauders were just desperate children. The youngest one was about ten years old, and the others probably thirteen or fourteen. Where were their families? Why were they scavenging for food at night? Sarah felt sorry for them. Fern prodded a strange emblem on the buck-toothed girl’s jacket. It was a red triangle, topped with a cartoonish eye.

“Check this thing out,” said Fern. “It’s on all of their jackets.”

Spex squinted at the symbol, and frowned. “Doubtless some kind of gang sign,” he pronounced.

“We’re Slickers. And there’s more of us,” said the broomstick girl.

Quinn leaned over to examine the triangle-and-eye sign, and the buck-toothed girl spat at him. He staggered backwards, wiping his face with his sleeve.

“How dare you? Levvy raised a hand, preparing to slap the girl across the face.

“No, don’t,” Sarah said softly. “There’s been enough violence for tonight.”

“I’m hungry,” Hanx said, his voice trembling, “and I miss the grove.”

“What’s wrong with your face?” Sarah asked.

Everyone peered at Hanx. There was a swollen bump on one side of his nose, his cheek was deformed by a series of lumps, and his left eye had vanished inside a puffy doughnut of flesh. Trig face was strange too, his lips lopsided, his ears lumpy and raw.

“Wasp stings,” said Levvy.

Hanx nodded, and tears glittered in Trig’s eyes. Sarah wished she could soothe their injuries, but her healing magic wouldn’t work on injuries that didn’t slow down the group. Fern whistled sharply. She had gone to the wagon, and was pouring fresh water from the barrel’s spigot. While the bound attackers sat sullenly in the street, the Followers of the Grove drank deeply, refilling their tin mugs again and again. Spex doled out handfuls of dried fruit and nuts.

“That gang symbol is weird,” said Murdock. “I wonder what it means?”

“But—it’s the rig eye, of course!” Charlie exclaimed, arching an eyebrow. “Don’t you guys know about Slickers?”

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