Rumpus bolted from the bushes, and quivered at Sarah’s feet.
Long, mournful howls ricocheted down the valley, a haunting sound Sarah found unsettling at first, then frightening, as more wolves joined the chorus. Fern, her bow upright and loaded, prepared herself to defend the group, and Quinn unsheathed a knife, but Charlie just smiled. “I guess you’re not used to wolves,” he said. “The howls sound nearer than they are, because they echo off the hills. Relax—we’re not about to be attacked.”
Slowly, Fern lowered her bow.
“Will the smell of our food attract them?” Sarah asked.
“It might,” said Charlie, stifling a yawn. “But wolves aren’t like bears; they’d rather make a fresh kill than scavenge our scraps. And we’re tough prey compared to deer, so there’s nothing to worry about. Hey, I’m tuckered out. We should sleep. Another long day in the saddle tomorrow.”
Soon Charlie was snoring. Side by side in their sleeping bags, Sarah and Levvy stared wide-eyed at each other, listening to the wolves howl. When the hills fell silent, Levvy slept, but Sarah stayed awake, wishing she were snug and safe in a golden Sassamatta treehouse, and when she drifted off towards dawn, she dreamed of a wolf with yellow-bright eyes and lolling tongue.
Sarah woke feeling tired, but excited. It was September fourteenth—her fifteenth birthday! She scratched Rumpus behind his ears, recalling her Golden Birthday the year before. She had celebrated in Vancouver, with the crews of three tall-ships that had sailed from far-flung continents to find a fabled Sorceress of Nature. Even now, Sarah was amazed it was she who had launched those three ships. She sighed; there would be no birthday beach party this year. The sky was cloudy, the air crisp. Levvy was squatting beside the campfire, boiling water for tea. Noticing Sarah was awake, she grinned, and tossed a package. Sarah caught the rectangular gift; it was wrapped in a fuzzy mullein leaf, and tied with dandelion stems. She fumbled, and leaf and stems fell to the ground, revealing a small handmade book, its pages of rough, thick paper filled with tidy lettering and beautifully detailed sketches in black ink. It Choosing a page at random, she read a few lines out loud:
“May 24—lettuces doubled in size. Vegetable seeds sprouted an hour after planting. June 5—blackberry bushes thickened, and a meter taller. June 7—hailstorm passed overhead without damaging crops. June 15—healed Tomin’s fractured wrist, (fell off a ladder).”
“Is this…” Sarah flipped through the pages. “What is this?”
“I kept a journal of your powers,” Levvy said, with a modest shrug.
Sarah turned to the first entry, April 27—strawberry plant ripened instantly in the forest near Wailsmouth Street, and understood: Levvy had recorded every natural miracle she’d ever done. Every entry was accompanied by tiny, perfect illustrations and maps. Sarah threw her arms around Levvy. Quinn sat up abruptly, his straw-coloured hair flattened on one side and sticking up on the other. “I have a gift for you too,” he said seriously.
Quinn had given her a folding knife for her fourteenth birthday, its wooden handle inlaid with a gold tree. She had only used it to slice apples, and cut string, but she loved its heavy reassurance in her front pocket. Now he showed her a wishbone-shaped piece of smooth, polished wood, outfitted with leather thongs, and fitted with a length of brown elastic. With a fluid motion, Quinn stood up, flipped the thing onto his forearm, and pulled the elastic taut. Pointing at a large, slate grey boulder some twenty meters away, he released the catapult. CRACK! A wispy tendril of dust rose up from a fresh white chip on the rock.
It was a slingshot. Sarah shuddered, remembering her father hiding in Mister Nickel’s kitchen, wearing a steel-and-rubber version of the same weapon.
“It’s a custom fit—precisely the shape of your arm. The elastic has twice the firing speed of those old Parleyment slingshots. Do you like it?” Quinn’s eyebrows arched anxiously.
Sarah gave her friend a timid glance. Slingshots could inflict injuries as bad as bullet wounds; when conflict arose, she preferred to use her powers for defence. But she rolled up a shirtsleeve and donned the weapon, well-sanded wood silky against her skin. “It’s perfect,” she said.
Quinn exhaled, and smiled broadly. He handed her a small and surprisingly heavy drawstring bag. Inside were hundreds of metal pellets.
“Ball bearings, the best slingshot ammunition. Pebbles are good, but metal is deadlier. I got those from Spex. Well—go on!” Quinn enthused. “Try it out!”
Fern and Charlie were pouring themselves tea. Everyone watched as Sarah fit the weighty bag snugly in her pocket, extracted a single ball bearing, raised her left arm, and aimed at a Ponderosa pine. Grasping the elastic with her right hand, she placed a pellet in the sling, drew it back, and released. Thwack! Bark splintered and sprayed—the pellet had struck the tree! Quinn and Levvy whooped—and then shouted in alarm, as a bristling, black-nosed animal streaked straight toward them!
“Shoot, shoot!” Quinn hollered.
Instinctively Sarah rebelled. She couldn’t hurt a terrified animal. Fern lunged for her bow as the beast tore through the campfire circle, leaving a rank odour in its wake, then doubled back and hurtled into the forest, pursued by another small mammal!
“Rumpus!” Sarah shouted.
“Erithizon dorsatum,” said Levvy. “Porcupine.”
“Porcupines are tasty,” Quinn muttered. “It would have been supper for us all.”
“But they can be dangerous,” Levvy said.
As if on cue, yelps of canine pain came from the underbrush. Rumpus entered the clearing, black-and-yellow quills sticking like long whiskers from his muzzle. The whimpering terrier ran to Sarah, eyebrows tufts perched imploringly over his round, brown eyes. Sarah stripped the slingshot from her wrist and flung it to the ground. She tucked Rumpus firmly under an arm.
“Quills have barbs, like small pointed hooks,” Levvy said. “Straighten the hooks, Sarah, and I’ll pull out the quills.”
“This wouldn’t have happened if you’d shot the porcupine,” said Quinn.
“Thank you, Quinn,” Levvy snapped.
Sarah’s fingers tingled. She pictured hooked barbs embedded in the soft black meat of Rumpus’ muzzle, and in her mind, she unfolded them until they were pin-straight. Levvy seized a quill firmly, and pulled hard. Rumpus squealed, but the quill slid out smoothly, leaving a tiny bubble of blood. One by one, Levvy removed the quills, seven in total. Engrossed in the task, Sarah didn’t notice the clouds thickening. When she came out of her trance, it was raining. Fern had packed the bedding, and Charlie had saddled the horses.
Sarah longed for apples, hot rice, and honey, her favourite breakfast pudding. But they had no time, and breakfast was rubbery bits of dehydrated fruit. Rain fell steadily. Quinn strapped the new slingshot to her saddle horn, and they rode north, mountains to the left and river to the right. In an hour the countryside dried up. Rain receded to high, thin clouds. The canyon walls stretched higher and higher, streaked with bands of yellow, grey and red rock. Rumpus, recovered from his porcupine encounter, rustled in plants Sarah had never seen, cactus and sagebrush.
At noon they stopped to chew on crusts of bread from Gustavus Sneep. A herd of brown-furred, white-rumped, curly-horned mountain sheep climbed nimbly up cliffs much too steep for horses. As the afternoon wore on, there were less trees. Sarah felt exposed, and startled at the rustling of birds. At last they came to a railway bridge, a criss-cross of wooden trusses. The Fraser River flowed peacefully under the bridge, and the horses calmly clopped across the wooden deck. On the other side, a silty dirt path climbed steeply upward.
“The Cariboo Posse will expect us to follow the old highway, along the river,” said Charlie, “but we’re going overland instead. By the time they figure it out, we’ll be beyond Blue Earth Lake.”
Levvy squinted doubtfully at a light brown squiggle snaking up the hillside. Charlie urged Splotch up this narrow path, and the other horses followed. Merrylegs gamely tried to keep pace, but once again Sarah fell behind the group. It wasn’t much of a birthday, Sarah thought, wishing Spex Gribble were there to remind her about the importance of adventure. Hooves crunched in dried pine cones until they reached a high plateau, and the vegetation changed. Small bogs appeared in the trees, reeking of skunk cabbage, and reeds poked from standing brown water. The horses squelched through slick black mud. Rumpus picked his way along high ground. A pair of crows dive-bombed Sarah, their angry caws sounding like taunts. Dismounting beside a quick-flowing stream, they let the horses drink. The stagnant air was uncannily quiet. Sarah saw a shiny brown snake slither bright green grass, and her sense of foreboding grew. Mosquitoes whined behind ears and pierced exposed skin.
“The chapel isn’t far now,” Charlie said quietly.
The swampy area dried up as they climbed through dry forest, past rocky outcroppings. Daylight drained from Sarah’s cloudy, bleak birthday. Soon a tall white obelisk jutted on the horizon, with a beacon shining from the top. Sarah thought of the rig eye symbol, but it was the church steeple, rays of orange-pink sunset glinting in the octagonal window.
“We should ride past quickly,” said Fern urgently. “If it’s a trap, they’ll ambush us here.”
Charlie thought differently. He dismounted, tethered Splotch to a tree, and walked toward the chapel. Fern hissed at him to return, but Charlie strode confidently though the tangle of weeds before the weathered building, white paint flaking from broad planks. He climbed four rickety wooden stairs, and knocked.
Clunk, clunk! Wooden double doors swung outward.