Savouring the sweet taste of honey, they rode into Sassamatta Grove. Rope bridges swooped between towering trees in the distance, sparkling like golden streamers, and shiny ladder rungs climbed to the hazy, glittering shapes of treehouses. Sarah’s heart thrummed with joy.
“Thank you for saving some hunaja,” said Sarah, inclining her head toward Quinn. “I would have felt like an outsider, if we hadn’t been able to see the treehouses.”
“We should gallop right into the clearing,” said Levvy.
“Seems kind of showy,” said Quinn drily.
“Oh come on—we’re home! It’s okay to be excited!” Sarah exclaimed.
She prodded Merrylegs’ flanks gently with her heels, and the horse surprised her by breaking into a lively canter, but Quinn and Levvy quickly tore around her on Geronimo and Puff. Bright moonlight shone in the forest, and Sarah’s euphoria grew with every familiar sight: tall deer fences around the vegetable gardens and orchard, stacked beehive boxes, and tangled, rotting blackberry thickets. Sarah greeted individual trees like old friends; she waved at her favourite giant maple, leaves circling its pale trunk, and blew a kiss toward a stately cedar, its perfume sweet and clean. Hooves thundered around tight bends and splashed through puddles. Mice scurried, and owls flapped. Levvy whooped with glee as they burst into the main clearing.
Fern’s early return had given the Followers of the Grove time to prepare a hero’s welcome. Candle lanterns lit a raucous crowd, cheering and shouting elated greetings. Mateo strummed his guitar and sang a throaty Spanish ballad. Bram saluted smartly, and Song performed a graceful veil dance, flanked by a troupe of fledgling performers. Levvy and Puff led a victory lap around the clearing, inspiring shrieks of pleasure, and general applause.
Sarah dismounted, and scanned candlelit faces for her father and brother. She was distracted by a bluff young man with wide shoulders, a mass of black dreadlocks, and a full beard and moustache. He stepped directly in front of her and placed a heavy, formal hand on her shoulder.
“Sarah Spellings,” he declared, raising a bass voice to address the gathering. “Welcome home to Sassamatta! We celebrate your victory in the Cariboo, and your safe return.”
A few awkward seconds elapsed before Sarah realized this confident, authoritative speaker was Tomin, matured to an adult in a scant few weeks! Tomin graciously welcomed and praised Quinn and Levvy, and the crowd roared its approval. Two tall silhouettes emerged from the shadows; with a shriek, Levvy ran into her parents’ arms. Doug and Debbie Dwight were lean, and they had aged too; they both had more silver hair and wrinkles than Sarah remembered. Geronimo, the big black stallion, quickly drew a throng of admirers, and Quinn proudly introduced his mount. Rumpus rolled on the forest floor in an ecstatic canine frenzy.
“Hey, Sarah,” said Murdock coolly, taking Merrylegs’ lead from her hand.
“You’re here—you made it home!” Sarah gushed.
Murdock glanced at her, unsmiling. “Yeah. To be honest, I wasn’t thrilled about abandoning the mission. I was really disappointed you guys sent me back. Turned out it was a good thing, though—it’s been pretty weird around here.”
“Murdock!” Fern shouted. She was leading Geronimo and Puff toward a makeshift stable, her expression stern. “These animals are exhausted—we need to get them fed and watered!”
“See you later,” said Murdock.
“Okay for sure,” said Sarah. “I’ll definitely see you later, but what do you mean, weird? And where’s Sammy?”
Murdock retreated, shaking his head. Sarah’s buoyant mood faltered. Where was her family? She started toward a knot of people, determined to find her father and brother, but two enormous silhouettes converged, blocking her way forward.
“Are you mad at us?” asked Trig, his voice trembling.
“When you didn’t come back across the river, we were scared,” said Hanx.
“Spex said you’d be okay, Trig interrupted, “but we didn’t believe him, and anyway we were supposed to protect you guys! So we waited until Spex was asleep, then swam across the river to find you.” He slapped Sarah’s sore shoulder for emphasis, and she winced.
“Oh you guys,” Sarah said, chagrined. “You shouldn’t have crossed the river! We sent Murdock back to communicate that we were riding east. He was supposed to tell you and Spex to go home. I never thought you would leave Spex alone in the middle of the night.”
Hanx looked abashed. “We left before Murdock got there,” he admitted. “Spex is still really angry with us. He and Murdock searched the neighbourhood, but they never found us, ’cause we had crossed the river. So they came back to Sassamatta without us.”
“Were you lost?” Sarah asked, feeling sorry for the dim-witted giants.
“Yep, for three days,” Trig replied, biting his lower lip. “Then Hanx saw an eagle he figured was Laxgi. We followed her, and she led us to Sassamatta. Doug Dwight punched me when we got home. My jaw hurt for a really long time.”
“That eagle couldn’t have been Laxgi,” Sarah began to explain, but Hanx and Trig were backing away from her, their eyes round and apprehensive.
“My dear, dear, Sarah.”
Sarah whirled around. Spex Gribble was waddling toward her, the cracked lenses of his spectacles reflecting candlelight. “I apologize for interrupting your visit with those two louts. They make themselves scarce when they see me coming. I am punishing them severely for running away.”
“Oh, Spex. They only wanted to keep their promise to Levvy’s parents.”
“Nevertheless,” Spex snorted. “Hanx and Trig must be taught to follow instructions. I have given them the job of digging out the old septic field, and creating a new one. It’s rather unpleasant work; I am hopeful the lesson is sinking in. But sewage is such a nasty topic! Please allow me to change the subject. I must compliment you on the genius of sending Fern ahead; the kitchen staff had plenty of time to prepare a proper Sassamatta feast. The menu is magnificent.”
“A feast sounds great. But have you seen—?”
“Your father and brother?” Spex guessed, raising a bushy eyebrow, and Sarah nodded. “Tony and Sammy are unavoidably detained, I’m afraid. A rushed, pre-winter expedition to Vancouver to trade for salt, sugar and flour. Such unfortunate timing. If your father had known you were about to return, I’m sure he would have delayed the trip. But cheer up, my dear; their return is imminent, and oh, good gracious!” Spex tapped his little hands together nervously. “Is that Quinn Braxt, and our young friend Levvy Dwight? Do excuse me, Sarah. I mustn’t neglect the other victorious heroes.”
Spex rushed away. He was keeping something important from her, Sarah was certain. She strode toward Song and Mateo, intending to milk her friends for information. The crowd was shifting toward the dining area, and lining up for the feast. Tomin appeared at her side, and steered her to a broad tree stump covered with a white cloth, decorated with holly leaves and berries, and illuminated by a beeswax candle lantern.
“Your place is at the table of honour, with Levvy and Quinn,” said Tomin.
“Fern should be here too,” Sarah protested.
Tomin smirked, and pointed to a remote stump in the shadows. Fern and Murdock sat close together, their foreheads touching. Murdock leaned in and kissed Fern’s cheek. Levvy arrived, saw the romantic scene, and sighed. “Spring seems like a long time from now,” she mumbled.
“I’m sure Charlie’s thinking the same thing,” Sarah said.
“Where’s your dad and Sammy?” Levvy asked.
“Spex said something about a trip to Vancouver, and they’re supposed to be home soon? But I got the feeling he was leaving something out.”
A deep gong sounded. Bram marched from the kitchen playing a brisk, ceremonial rhythm with plenty of rolls and flourishes on his snare drum. The people waiting to eat clapped along, and Tomin rapped rhymes about the grove to the beat. A long roll built dramatically to a final rat-a-tat-tat! Bram’s drum solo ended, and he stood at attention. Pietro emerged, staggering under a tray loaded with piping-hot dishes. He made his way unsteadily to the table of honour, and deposited the tray with a grunt.
“Pumpkin pepper soup,” Pietro announced, his chest inflating with pride, “served with cornflower biscuits, and kale-and-pickled-beet salad. Salmon Supreme, with walnuts, honey, and spiced wild rice. The vegetarian entrée is a potato omelette with fresh tomato salsa.”
“Pietro, this dinner is a dream come true,” said Sarah earnestly.
The cook smiled graciously, and returned to the stone kitchen. The food was hot, perfectly seasoned; forgetting her worry about her father and Sammy, Sarah tucked into the feast. Quinn and Levvy made appreciative noises, and rolled their eyes with pleasure. When they were scraping up the last grains of rice, Tomin stood, and clapped smartly to get everyone’s attention.
“Your bellies are full with the fruits of our harvest labour. Now it’s your turn to entertain us,” Tomin gestured toward the table of honour. “Ever since Spex returned with your supplies, we have worried and wondered about your welfare. Please tell us your stories!”
“Fern,” Sarah called out. “Didn’t you tell them anything?”
“I’ve been busy,” Fern shouted back, smiling at Murdock. “They’d rather hear it from you, anyway.”
Sarah took a deep breath, and began to speak. Over the next hour, she took turns with Quinn and Levvy describing their journey to the Cariboo and back again. They were still answering questions as dawn was breaking. Pietro served bowls of deep dish apple crumble, and Quinn passed around a gold ingot from Billy Miner’s treasure.
“Are you sure it was a nuclear reactor?” Spex asked.
“There was absolutely no doubt,” Quinn answered patiently. “The technology was advanced.”
“It hardly seems possible,” Spex mumbled.
“I don’t understand why those Slicker kids were collecting oil,” Song cut in.
“For gas-fuelled power generators,” Quinn replied. “Generators are like engines. You can plug electricity-operated things into them. Parleyment burned oil and gas to build the reactor.”
“That makes no sense!” Bram thundered. “Solar, wind and cycle power are cheaper and easier, so why would anyone burn dirty fuel, or create radioactive waste?”
Sarah shot Quinn and Levvy a warning look. She didn’t want anyone to know about the strange origin of her powers, and she had asked her friends to keep her altered genes a secret. She held her breath, hoping they would keep the promise.
“Harpminster Abbott’s as cuckoo as they come,” said Levvy nonchalantly.
“But you let him get away,” said Doug Dwight.
Levvy’s shoulders slumped.
Sarah narrowed her eyes, and frowned at Levvy’s father. “We’re not murderers,” she said acidly. “Are you suggesting we should have killed my uncle? We were supposed to defend ourselves, not intentionally hurt people.”
Doug raised his voice. “The Cariboo Posse is running free—that doesn’t sound like victory to me! I heard some of them are living with the same people they robbed!”
“Quessnell Raft was glad to take the Posse members in,” said Levvy testily. “Ma Crow understands what it’s like to have a change of heart. They were just hungry, desperate people.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t bring one home with you,” said Doug Dwight sarcastically.
“Respectfully, Mr. Dwight, you weren’t there,” said Quinn stiffly. “The situation wasn’t simple. The reactor workers weren’t soldiers—they were simply exchanging labour for food and shelter. When the project failed, most of them left the mine immediately.”
Sarah shivered. The morning breeze contained a frigid hint of winter. Song appeared with soft blankets, and wrapped one around her shoulders. Sarah scanned the clearing, wondering when her father would arrive. It was just like him, she thought, to leave Sassamatta when she was expected home. Doug Dwight, cracking his knuckles and glowering, looked as if he wanted to continue the argument, and Sarah was relieved when Mateo intervened.
“I would like to hear more about this Billy Miner treasure,” Mateo said.
“Sammy should be here,” Sarah remarked. “He’s gonna love the lost-treasure story.”
“He’ll be back from the doctor soon,” Hanx said solemnly.
Sarah’s jaw dropped. “Doctor? Spex—you never mentioned anything about a doctor! What’s wrong with Sammy?”
“Nothing. I assure you, nothing at all,” Spex stammered. “Merely a checkup. Your father had some minor concerns, and it was time to barter for staples in Vancouver, so combining the two purposes into a single trip made sense…”
“What kind of concerns?” Sarah spat. “Tell me—I want to know!”
Spex produced an exaggerated yawn, and rose from his tree stump table. “Concerns so small, I can’t recall what they were. Now if you’ll excuse me, all this excitement has simply worn me out. As always, you will find that I have carefully provisioned your treehouse. Sleep well, my friends.”
As if Spex’s exit were their cue, Followers trickled out of the clearing, and Sarah, Quinn and Levvy went to their treehouse. It was swept clean, and provisioned with fresh water, bedding, and extra blankets, as Spex had promised. She had wished for her own bed and beloved treehouse, but Sarah couldn’t fall asleep. Wind rushed in giant firs, and birds trilled. Quinn and Levvy slumbered peacefully.
Soft butterfly wings brushed Sarah’s forehead. Sunlight streamed into the treehouse, dappling the leaves of the giant maple. Quinn hovered nearby. Sarah touched her forehead—had he kissed her?
“Your dad and Sammy are home,” Quinn said.
Her brother’s voice got Sarah out of bed. Balancing on the rope bridge, she searched the forest floor below. Sammy was jumping up and down, waving madly, and grinning his huge, happy grin! She descended the tree-ladder in a hurry. Sammy met her at ground level, and flung his arms around her neck; she lifted him up, hugged him tightly, and whirled him in a circle. Sarah’s father stood nearby, his stance awkward and his expression remote. She put Sammy down.
“Welcome home,” Tony Spellings said carefully. “I’m so proud of you.”
“Sarah Sarah SARAH!” Sammy insisted. “Look what I can do!”
He reached into a jacket pocket, pulled out a baseball, and extended his arm. Lips tight with concentration, Sammy removed his hand—and the baseball stayed where it was! The white sphere hung in midair, spinning slowly, like a planet. Sarah sucked in her breath.
“I asked you to wait, Sam,” sighed Tony.
Sammy moved his right hand horizontally. The baseball followed the motion, sweeping sideways. He twirled an index finger, and the baseball whirled in response. He slowed the finger, bounced his hand playfully, and the ball bounced, too.
“Catch,” said Sammy.
Her little brother flicked his knuckles. The baseball flew into Sarah’s hands.