Sarah Spellings & The Cariboo Posse

Like A River, Travel Well

Sarah’s bottom was sore. She was tired of riding on a cold, blustery day, but they were finally getting close to Quessnell Raft. All she could think about was Jimbo. Charlie was riding ahead with the Rafter elders, his shoulders hunched in grief. Jimbo’s body, wrapped in a blanket, had been laid across his horse’s saddle. If it weren’t for her uncle, Sarah thought, Charlie would still have a brother. She felt responsible. She felt awful.

Levvy and Quinn were having a loud disagreement about the Billy Miner treasure. The packets of paper money, stock-and-bond certificates, gold ingots, and leather purses of precious stones had been divided between panniers. They had abandoned the metal box in the cave.

“Gold is only good for tooth fillings,” Levvy argued, “and paper money and jewels are practically worthless. Food and fuel are the only currencies that matter.”

“You’re wrong,” said Quinn. “Gold has value, especially at Wenderways. Food spoils, and fuel has limited uses, but gold is timeless.”

“Stocks and bonds are useless,” Levvy persisted.

“Wrong,” Quinn said impatiently. “As historic documents they’re worth a lot, to the right buyer. It’s Billy Miner’s lost treasure, hunted for over a century! Why aren’t you excited about our discovery?”

“It’s a rusty old box of crumbly paper and pretty rocks,” said Levvy.

Quinn spurred Geronimo to ride ahead.

Sarah, reunited with her horse, guessed that Merrylegs had enjoyed his sojourn at the watering hole; he plodded reluctantly, and seemed disappointed to be back at work. At least she wasn’t the slowest rider; injured Rafters with bandaged arms and patched eyes rode behind her. Fern rode last of all, scanning to make sure they weren’t pursued; her vision had improved. “Once a month,” Fern confided in Sarah, “my eyes get unfocused, and my heat-sensory implants don’t work.”

“What causes it?” Sarah asked.

“What do you think?” Fern asked wryly. “My womanly cycle.”

Sarah sighed, and glanced at Fern sympathetically. Womanly cycles were an added complication to camping, and living in the grove. It was hard to decide which was worse, the practicalities of monthly periods, or the surges of raw emotion that came with them.

It was late afternoon. Winter was coming, and the sun was setting earlier each day. Sarah’s eyelids were heavy; she kept falling asleep, and waking up when her head lolled forward. She was relieved when the horses wended single file along the narrow path to the Quessnell Raft paddock. Shayna and Lily, anticipating their return, had filled water troughs, and stacked a lean-to with fresh bales. Unsaddled, the horses crowded the hay, chomping and nickering contentedly.

Charlie supported his brother’s shoulders, and Paolo carried Jimbo’s lifeless feet. The riders walked slowly through young poplars to the barge, and crossed to the raft in groups. Charlie and Paolo went first with their terrible burden. A wail of grief sounded across the water, slicing Sarah like a blade.

Ma Crow was mourning her son.

A quarter hour later, Sarah, Quinn, Fern and Levvy stepped through the willow branch curtain and entered the Grand Hall, where Ma Crow was cradling Jimbo’s broken body, surrounded by weeping Rafters. Shayna and Lily hugged each other and wailed, their hearts broken. Sarah wished she could offer words of comfort, but her throat closed, and her tongue hardened to rock. She slipped out of the Grand Hall. In her bedroom, she found a folded cloth containing a hunk of bread, a wedge of cheese, and strips of dried venison. Thoughtful hands had also provided a fresh tunic, clean wool socks, a new cake of lavender-scented soap, and a full pitcher of clear wash water. Blessings, Sarah murmured, feeling unworthy of the Raft’s generosity. When she had eaten and washed, she lay down. Rumpus vaulted onto her bed, and nuzzled her with his wet nose.

At breakfast the next day a puffy-faced and sombre Ma Crow sipped tea silently, ignoring platters of eggs and meat. Sarah opened her mouth to console Ma, but courage failed her, and she couldn’t speak. Rumpus rubbed against Ma’s broad calf. The bereaved matriarch reached down absently and scratched the little dog between his ears.

“We should leave today,” Fern said brusquely. “There will be snow soon.”

“I miss the grove,” Levvy said, glancing at Charlie’s dejected profile.

Sarah missed her family and friends at Sassamatta. She was eager to talk to her father; since learning about the origin of her powers, strange memories had surfaced. Once, her father had ordered her to shift a large rock. Daddy, I can’t even budge it, she had protested. Another time, her mother had encouraged her to think cheerful thoughts when Sammy, a toddler, was crying. What good that would do? Sarah had asked. Her mother had said that happiness was contagious, and some people could make other people happy just by feeling that way themselves.

Sarah touched the shiny burn on her breastbone. She hoped for Sammy’s sake that he was normal. Her awesome powers came with tremendous responsibility; for the thousandth time, she blamed herself for not saving Jimbo’s life. Reading her troubled expression, Quinn patted Sarah’s hand, and smiled sadly. “Thanks to you, the Cariboo Posse is disbanded, and your uncle’s nuclear reactor will never operate,” he said.

Sarah couldn’t muster a smile in return.

Ma Crow pushed back from the head table, and straightened her imposing frame to standing. A hush fell over the hall. “There is no balm for losing a child,” Ma said. She inhaled deeply, as if the words had emptied her lungs of breath. “My soul is torn. A part of me died in Billy’s Bay, with Jimbo.”

Shayna burst into tears, and Lily gently shushed her sister.

“Last night, I couldn’t sleep,” said Ma. “I went to my son’s favourite places, and pictured him doing things he loved. Jimbo embodied the values and spirit of Quessnell Raft. He fished every lake and river within a week’s ride. He knew every stand of trees, and every hill of grass. He was kind, helpful, and humble. Jimbo leaves a huge hole in our hearts, and in our home. At midnight, I was furious he was taken from us, but at dawn my anguish dulled, because I remembered that Jimbo died defending his home.” Ma Crow swallowed hard, and bravely raised her voice. “My son died defeating a bully who planned to poison our land, water, and people. Jimbo’s death marks the end of Posse raids on our raft. I want to extend a special welcome to you, former Cariboo Posse members. If Jimbo were here, he would invite you to live at Quessnell Raft, and enjoy the fruits of honest labour.”

A table of former Posse members stood, hands over their hearts, and bowed toward Ma Crow. She inclined her head slightly, acknowledging the tribute, then seemed to deflate. She sank to her bench, and placed her turbaned head in her folded arms. Only the clinking of cutlery broke the silence in the dining hall. When the dishes were cleared, Quinn went to the head table, carrying a burlap sack.

“Ma Crow,” said Quinn. He turned the sack upside down. Gold ingots, bundles of cash and bonds, and leather bags of jewels thumped onto the wooden table.

“Billy Miner’s lost treasure,” Ma said, wearily raising her head. “I heard you found it. Congratulations.”

“It belongs to you,” said Quinn.

Levvy and Sarah exchanged surprised looks. Fern nodded sharply in approval.

“It won’t ease the pain of losing Jimbo,” said Quinn. “But it’s a Cariboo treasure, and it belongs to the people of the Cariboo.”

“A very noble gesture,” said Ma Crow. “Keep your treasure, young man.”

“You opened your home to us,” Quinn persisted. “And gave us hospitality—”

“And you gave us hunaja bees,” Ma interrupted gruffly, “which are worth a hundred Billy Miner treasures. We’ve been searching for over a century—if we were meant to possess the treasure, we would have discovered it. You’re the one who found the damn thing. It belongs to you.”

“We need supplies for our journey home,” Levvy said quickly. “Non-perishable food, warm cloaks, and rain ponchos. And personally, I would like a dozen pairs of these socks.” Charlie flashed Levvy a lopsided grin. “Can we buy these things with gold?”

Ma leaned back in her throne, and considered Levvy carefully. “Well now—that’s another story. A barter for food and clothing is acceptable. I request that you stay another night, and help us lay Jimbo to rest. The ceremony will take place when the first stars appear. We’ll organize supplies today for your departure tomorrow morning.”

Fern twitched impatiently, and Sarah spoke before the spy could object. “Of course we’ll stay, and help celebrate Jimbo’s life.”

“I think we should stay two more nights,” Levvy said softly, glancing at Charlie.

“Would you consider meeting Charlie at Wenderways next spring, Levvy?” asked Ma Crow, arching a crafty eyebrow. “Quessnell Raft would like to trade our venison and duck for more of your excellent Sassamatta Grove blackberry jam, and salt sea fish.”

Levvy, her cheeks pink, rummaged in her satchel and produced a notebook calendar. “Let’s choose a date right now,” she said.

“The fifth of June?” Charlie suggested with a wink, and Levvy flushed with pleasure.

“What a coincidence,” said Sarah innocently. “Levvy’s sixteenth birthday!”

Ma addressed the Followers of the Grove kindly. “Quessnell Raft thanks you for all you’ve done. The outcome is better than we dared to hope; the Posse are on our side now. Who better to protect us from Harpminster Abbott than his own team of thugs?”

At twilight the Rafters assembled in the dining hall. Ma led a silent, sombre procession down the long corridor to the boiler room. Mourners crowded onto the circular deck. Many of the Rafters held long bows, and quivers of feather-tipped arrows.

Jimbo’s family took the position of honour, closest to the telescope. A trumpeter played a single note that carried across the lake. The evening was windless; still black water reflected the bright points of stars. A series of gunshots crackled and boomed from the far shore. A red flare shot skyward, and burst into a cascade of sparks. The single note faded, and became a simple, sad melody that brought tears to Sarah’s eyes. When the trumpeter’s musical tribute was done, a canoe floated out on the lake.

Ma used a flint to rain sparks on a torch of dry grass and pine cones. The torch burst into flame, and Rafters lit arrows from the fire. Bows twanged, and flaming arrows flew over the dark water. Many arrows splashed into the lake, and were extinguished, but a single arrow found its mark.

The canoe ignited. Fire spread quickly from bow to stern.

Silhouetted by flames, Sarah could made out the shape of a body laid out ceremonially, hands crossed over chest: the canoe was Jimbo’s funeral pyre. As his body burned, his ashes drifted across the surface of the lake, joining the mirrored brilliance of stars. The trumpeter blew another single note and the Rafters sang in harmony:

Life’s a circle, round and round

To earth’s laws we all are bound.

Each day’s a gift, each hour is gold

Each life a unique story told

To Jimbo’s spirit we bid farewell

Ring out, all voices of Quessnell!

In harmony, we send you on

In dreams to meet us, and beyond.

The final note of the song reverberated in the hills, and a deep bell rang three times. Holding hands and wiping away tears, the Rafters processed to the Grand Hall, where family and friends took turns telling stories and paying tribute to Jimbo Crow.

It was after midnight when Sarah slipped down the corridor with Rumpus, and snuggled beneath the duck down comforter. She closed her eyes, saw the fiery canoe, and heard the low ringing of the funeral bell. Jimbo came to her in a dream that night. I lived well, he told her. I lived happily, and unencumbered by guilt. Do not carry my death like a stone around your neck. His body got brighter and brighter, until it seemed to be made of stars, and disintegrated.

The Grove expedition traded two bars of gold for a dozen packages of dried food, enough for their journey home. They were allowed to keep all the clothing they had borrowed for the trip to Billy’s Bay, and Ma presented them with extra fur coats and rain slickers, gifts for others at Sassamatta Grove. Shayna and Lily headed to the paddock to saddle up Geronimo, Merrylegs, Puff, and Jubilee.

It was time to travel southwest, toward home.

Charlie, his expression earnest, took Levvy’s hand, and whispered in her ear. She hugged him, tears flowing down her cheeks. Quinn hurried to explain a few finer points of hunaja beekeeping to the Rafters. Rumpus had endeared himself to everyone at Quessnell Raft; the dog scooted here and there, collecting pats and fond goodbyes. Ma Crow surprised Sarah by entering the Great Hall with Keena, the Seer. Keena stared directly at Sarah, frowning. Sarah tried to ignore the strange little girl, but as Paolo and Ionia were parting the willow curtains to the barge dock, Keena hurried to Sarah’s side.

“The thing you fear is true. But you shouldn’t fear it,” squeaked Keena.

“What do you mean?” Sarah stammered.

“The boy, of course. It’s not a bad thing. In the end, you will be glad,” Keena said.

A crease formed between Sarah’s eyebrows. What did the little girl mean? Her duty dispatched, Keena whirled around and returned to Ma’s side. With a final wave to his new friends, Charlie let the willow fronds fall. As the barge floated away, a farewell ballad rose from Quessnell Raft, the hidden village on the lake:

O River strong and wide and deep,

To one sweet home you cannot keep.

Forever on and on you flow,

Your mysteries, we cannot know.

So like a river, travel well

From source to mouth, in current swell

When you are weary, bones and chest,

May eddies give you peace and rest!

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