Fern recalled the route to Jed and Rohanna’s farm, and two relaxing days of riding brought them to the old couple’s locked gate. Daisy barked, drooled, and bared her teeth, until Rohanna came rushing from the barn. Sarah, suddenly sentimental, stroked Merrylegs’ mane; they had been through a lot together, and the horse felt like a friend. Rohanna opened the gate, waved hello to the humans, and greeted her horses affectionately. The animals recognized her, and nickered happily in return. “Oh, you beauty,” she said, nuzzling Jubilee. “Jed’s out back, fixing the water pump. He’ll be along in a minute. We’ve been thinking about our herd, and we have a proposition for you kids.”
Jed emerged from the little farmhouse, thumbs hooked in the suspenders of his denim coveralls. “Well, you kept your promise, and brought ’em home,” he said. “Let me have a good look at ’em.”
“They’re fine. We fed, watered and groomed them,” Levvy said defensively. “At Quessnell Raft they were stabled, and on the trail we always made sure—”
“Hush, girl,” said Jed. “I have eyes. I can see the horses are healthy. I want to look at ’em for the last time. Rohanna and I talked it over. We’re old, and it’s time to simplify our lives. Feeding horses in winter is a big chore. While you kids were off on your adventure, we had a holiday, too. It’s been really relaxing—right, Ro?”
“Sure has,” Rohanna said, patting Daisy distractedly.
“Our trip wasn’t a holiday,” Levvy said, adjusting her orange toque; a chilly wind was blowing through the valley. “Sarah got injured, and in the same battle, someone died. There was a nuclear—”
“Yep, sure has been calm here, with just our two mouths to feed,” Jed rambled. He picked a stalk of grass, stuck the end in his back teeth, and chewed it thoughtfully. “Oh—plus Daisy and Duchess, naturally. Our cats are more or less feral. Take care of themselves. As for horses, Duchess is all we need. One horse for a pair of codgers is plenty. And that reminds me—shortly after you left, your friend Murdunk brought us Bang. Murdunk? Mardork? I can’t remember the fellow’s name. Rohanna, what was that young man’s unusual—”
“Murdock,” said Fern, gritting her teeth.
With a flush of shame, Sarah realized she’d forgotten about Murdock. Fern had been ill-tempered and distracted the whole journey, and Sarah hadn’t spared a moment to acknowledge her distress. Murdock had been crushed to be excluded from the mission. He was like a big brother to Sammy; selfishly, Sarah had been relieved when he returned to Sassamatta Grove. Now she wondered if Murdock had made it home without misadventure. Fern gazed west, her expression unreadable.
“Murdock, right!” Jed was saying, the stalk of grass bouncing on his chin. “Weird name, but a nice young fella. Seemed a bit down in the dumps. We said he could ride Bang home, and bring him back in the spring. He refused, and took Rohanna’s rusty old bicycle instead.”
“Repaired it in under an hour,” said Rohanna. “Could have used his help thirty years ago. Right after Murdunk left, Jed and I got to thinking—we don’t need horses! We need more of that blackberry jam. Oh, our jam is pleasant enough. A little on the tart side. But yours—sweet as pie.”
“And fish,” said Jed. “Rohanna and I are too busy farming to go fishing. So here’s our proposal: four horses, in exchange for four annual food deliveries.”
“But a horse is worth a whole wagon load of food,” said Levvy.
“I reckon,” said Jed.
“Five horses, and five deliveries,” said Rohanna. “Bang misses Puff terribly—you’ll have to take those two as a set.”
“We’re really busy during harvest season,” said Quinn. “Could we pay with gold instead?”
Fern drew a shiny ingot from her backpack, and handed it to Rohanna.
“I do declare,” said Rohanna, examining the ingot. “Jed—this is real gold!”
Jed took a hearty bite of the gold bar, and examined it for tooth marks. “I’ll be darned!” he exclaimed. “This here is the real deal! Where’d you kids get gold?”
“I’m not a kid. I’m twenty one,” said Fern with a grimace.
Jed lifted his chin and laughed heartily. “No offence, young lady! But compared to us, with our grey hair and sore backs, the lot of you are kids. Where’d you say the gold came from?”
Quinn told the story of finding Billy Miner’s treasure.
“Mighty interesting,” said Rohanna, when Quinn was done. “But Jed and I have no use for sparkly metal. We need more food, and less labour. Harvest for horses is our offer.”
“This farm is only a single day’s horseback ride from Sassamatta,” Fern reasoned. “Horses will help us trade with rafts and groves. It seems like a good deal.”
“Horses for harvest—I like it,” said Levvy, and Quinn nodded.
“It’s a deal,” Jed boomed. He grasped Sarah’s hand, and shook it formally. “Saddles, blankets, panniers and tack are included.”
Laxgi wheeled overhead, crying sharply.
“There’s a storm blowing in,” said Quinn. “We can’t rest for long.”
An hour later, humans and horses were fed and rested, and Jed and Rohanna stood at the gate, waving goodbye. Fern had promised to return in ten days with the first food delivery. Laxgi soared north to the Fraser River, perching in tall fir trees, encouraging the riders. Rumpus, scampering ahead of the horses, reached the sandy riverbank first. Gusts of wind tugged deep yellow poplar leaves loose, and they swirled into the low, meandering river.
“Looks like an easy crossing,” Sarah remarked. She tucked Rumpus under her arm, and led Merrylegs through the knee-deep water. Laxgi floated on an updraft, tipping her wings to the west, where dark clouds were somersaulting inland from the sea. Reaching the north bank, they stamped their feet and shivered; the air was too cold for wet clothes.
“We need a campfire,” said Levvy, her teeth chattering.
“That’s just an excuse to dawdle,” Fern snapped. “I want to get home. If we ride nonstop, we could reach Sassamatta before sunrise.”
“No, a campfire makes sense. I don’t want to ride all night,” said Quinn. “We can sleep by the river, wake up early, and ride in daylight.”
Fern stamped her foot in frustration. “I’m sick of this snail’s pace! I could have ridden to the Cariboo and back three times by now! Jubilee is itching to gallop.”
Levvy started to argue, but Quinn shushed her. “Fern, why don’t you ride ahead solo?” he suggested calmly. “We’ll be fine without you. Tell Spex to organize a ‘welcome home’ feast.”
Fern looked shocked, then smiled radiantly. Hie—giddyup, she shouted, and Jubilee pranced up the riverbank. Galloping hoofbeats faded into the distance. Sarah wanted to linger by the river, and enjoy the final night of the journey, but she was also keen to see Sammy, and sleep on her cedar-branch mattress in the treehouse she called home. While Quinn and Levvy built a campfire, fat drops of rain splattered on the rocks. Sarah imagined supple poplar branches weaving and bending to become a shelter. Summoning her powers, she created a curved wall that blocked out weather from the west. She stuffed the cracks with fallen leaves, and gave the structure an arched roof. Levvy struck flint on stone until sparks flew, igniting a pyramid of dry leaves and kindling. Sheets of rain swept up the river. The three friends huddled together in the humble shelter.
“I feel safe,” said Levvy.
“It’s an illusion,” said Quinn with a frown. “We’re close to where those Slicker kids attacked us, remember—when Hanx and Trig got stung by wasps?”
“But there’s no more Parleyment payments, so there’s no more Slickers,” said Sarah.
“I think they’re still around. Now they’re just gangs of hungry, desperate kids,” Quinn rotated a piece of Quessnell Lake dried trout, skewered on a stick, over the flames. Fat sizzled on coals.
“What do you think Harpminster Abbott will do now?” Levvy asked.
“He’s furious about the reactor, and Ichamus probably told him things about the Grove,” said Sarah glumly. “I guess he might rally his army, and attack Sassamatta again.”
Blood drained from Levvy’s cheeks. “Do you think Ichamus told your uncle about Burnubbee Mountain Grove, where my parents are?”
“Harpminster Abbott won’t risk fighting us again,” said Quinn, “but he might come after you, Sarah. His powers are stronger when he’s near you. I think that’s why he wanted to intercept us at Blue Earth Lake. Your presence gave him the strength to pull the uranium out of the ground.”
“That makes sense!” Levvy blurted. “And your powers are stronger when you’re near him!” Sarah protested, but Levvy spoke over her objections. “Think about it—the whirlwind at Christmas Day, and drilling that uranium underground—your uncle was right there, both times!”
A gust of wind battered the shelter. Sarah shivered; she didn’t want to think about her powers, or her monstrous uncle. “How did that Rafter song go, about a river travelling well?” she asked, changing the subject. They took turns trying to remember the beautiful melody of the song, and fell asleep around the fire, snug and dry under the poplar-branch roof.
Under a cloudy sky the next day, they rode through the suburb where they’d been attacked by Slickers. Rig eyes, spray painted on rusting cars and trucks, were fading, and the streets were deserted. In late afternoon they took the forest trail to Sassamatta Grove. It was almost midnight when Rumpus tore ahead of the horses, yipping in delight. Through swooping cedar branches, Sarah caught a glimpse of glittering gold treehouses.
They were home at last.