Five Miles From Manchester

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Action and Adventure  |  House: Booksie Classic
A short adventure story for the young at heart.

Peter wakes to find the grey suburbs that surround his modest home covered in a thick blanket of snow. He is eager to explore this unexpected winter wonderland that has magically appeared overnight and the depressing thoughts of the first day of the new term are dispelled from his mind.

However, he is brought back to earth with a bump when his mother insists he take his younger sister Lucy with him, on account of the blizzard that was now raging outside.

But what awaited them would turn out to be far more exciting they they could ever have imagined as they were swept up in a life and death race against time.

Submitted: July 13, 2016

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Submitted: July 13, 2016

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This work is purely fictional and is a product of the Author’s imagination.  Any resemblance to persons - living or dead - places or events is entirely coincidental.

 

 

Chapter One

 

It was a cold, snowy day – the first day back at school after the Christmas holidays – and a strong north easterly wind was blowing.  The year was 1970.

Peter opened his eyes.  The room was dark except for an iridescent glow which sliced through a gap in the curtains.  He caught a glimpse of his breath in the orange light as it curled towards the ceiling, indicating the cold waiting to greet him. 

Peter pulled the covers over his head.  At this moment he heard his mum’s voice.

“Peter…. time to get up.”

On hearing these words, he drew the covers tightly about him.

“Maybe if I lie still long enough” he thought, “she’ll forget about me.” 

This thought had occurred to him on several previous occasions but to date his presence – or rather lack of it – at the breakfast table, hadn’t gone unnoticed.  A few minutes later Peter’s door opened, his mother’s ample frame silhouetted in the doorway, hands on hips.

“You’ll be late for school” she announced.

A depressed voice rose from beneath the twisted mound of covers, “Ok.”

With this response his mother closed the door.

Christmas had come and gone and Peter’s mind began to dwell on the thought of a new term which seemed almost too much to bear so soon after the holidays.  Slowly he slid from the warmth and security of his bed, the cold enveloping him immediately, bringing to mind Mr Bracknell’s biology lessons and the description of a new born seal pup sliding onto the frozen wastes of Antarctica.

Placing his feet into his slippers, Peter made his way to the window and drew back the curtains.  To his surprise, the window had completely frozen over, the ice crystals forming a wonderful feathered pattern.  Using a fingernail, he scraped at the ice to reveal a winter wonderland.  Instead of the usual three shades of grey, everything was covered in a thick white blanket.

Peter could hardly contain himself and with a screech of delight he was dressed in record time and fell rather than ran down the stairs.  The kitchen door flew open with a resounding crash revealing his mum and Lucy sitting by the coal fire, their faces illuminated by the yellow glow.

“It’s been snowing” he announced with great pride, as if somehow it had all been his own work.

“It’s been snowing” repeated Lucy in a sarcastic voice.

“Sit down and have your breakfast” said his mum, rising from her chair.

A large bowl of steaming hot porridge was duly presented and Peter immediately reached for the sugar bowl, tipping half the contents into his dish.  Reaching for his spoon, he started to stir.

“Mum, Peter’s using all the sugar on his porridge” shouted Lucy.

“No I’m not” snapped Peter.

“Stop arguing and finish your breakfast then get yourselves ready for school.  You’ll have to leave earlier this morning as it will take longer to get there.  Oh, and you’ll need your wellies.  By the way Peter, I want you to take Lucy with you.”

“But that’s not fair” protested Peter, “I always meet Mark and Tony.”

“You can still meet Mark and Tony and go to school together.  Anyway, today is different, the snow is very heave and you must look after your sister.”

How different their day was going to be, they could not have imagined.

Lucy and Peter jostled for space in the narrow hallway as they pulled their wellingtons on over their thick socks.  Finally they were dressed and ready to face the elements.

Peter opened the front door onto a magical world of white.  Lucy made a dash to be first across the unblemished snow but Peter’s arm shot out to bar her way.

“Me first squirt” he said.

With his hand clasped across his nose and mouth, he lifted his right foot in an exaggerated manner and in a silly voice announced, “It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

With this he raced to the front gate, kicking and scuffing snow in all directions, with Lucy in hot pursuit.

“Wait for me” she shouted, “remember, what mum said.”

Watching the two figures disappear into a swirl of white, Peter’s mum closed the front door.As she made her way down the hall, she paused and began to wonder whether sending them to school in such weather was a good idea.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

When Peter and Lucy turned into the High Street the snow blew straight at them, causing them to reach for their collars, burying their faces in them.  However, small particles of ice found chinks in their armour and stung the exposed skin.  When they reached the corner, Peter could just make out two dark shapes – it must be Tony and Mark.

As Peter and Lucy grew closer, a hail of snowballs rained down on them.  Lucy was the first to react.  Grabbing a large handful of snow from the top of the hedge to her left, she quickly moulded the powder into a perfect sphere, hurling it with great accuracy.  As if it were a guided missile, it crashed into Tony, just under his chin. 

With a whoop of delight, Lucy reached for some more snow to continue her counter attack.  By this time, Peter had joined in and snowballs were flying about in all directions.

At this point, the number 14 bus drew up at the bus stop, the conductor catching a snowball in his right ear.

“Just for that, you lot can walk” he grumbled, and with a ding of the bell, the bus slowly disappeared into the blizzard.

The four antagonists, now subdued by the thought of a two mile walk to school, started to shuffle their way in the same direction as the bus.

Peter then had a sudden brainwave “I know” he said, “let’s take a short cut through the park.”

Mark pointed out that the Park Keeper didn’t open the gates until 9 o’clock.

“That’s no problem” said Tony, “we can climb over.”

“Your forgetting one thing” answered Peter.  “What about squirt here” he added, nodding in Lucy’s direction.

“That’s no problem” repeated Tony.  “We’ll squeeze her through the bars.”

The three boys laughed in agreement while Lucy folded her arms.

“You’ll do no such thing” she replied indignantly.  “Anyway, we’re not allowed through the park.”

“But this is different” pointed out Peter.

“Mitigating circumstances” added Mark, who loved to use large words.

“I don’t care” said Lucy, “I’m not going through the park and I’m going to tell mum.”

Peter grabbed her arm, “We’re going through the park like it or not, and you’re not going to tell anyone.”

They continued along the road and after about five minutes arrived at the park entrance where they were confronted by two large ornamental iron gates.  In no time at all, Peter had secured a foothold and, reaching up, pulled himself onto the top of one of the gates.  With much excitement and shouting, Tony and Mark lifted Lucy up onto their shoulders.

“Grab my hand!” shouted Peter.

But Lucy protested and began to cry.  The boys had a change of heart and lowered her gently to the ground.

“It looks as though we’ll just have to be late for school” said tony.

As Peter went to climb down the gate he slipped.  Reaching out to save himself, he grabbed the head of an ornamental eagle in the centre of the gate, just managing to prevent himself crashing to the ground.  The gates clanged and rattled and to their surprise, parted.

“The Park Keeper must have forgotten to lock them” announced Mark.

Peter waited as the other three squeezed through and joined him on his side of the gate.

By now the wind had picked up even more and the heavy snow had turned into a full blizzard.  Even the low drone of the traffic had died away.  The only sound was that of the wind, it was as if their world had deserted them.

The four of them felt isolated and completely alone.  Little did they know that these feelings were completely justified.

As they trudged further and further into the park they began to wonder if they had made the right decision.

“I think perhaps Lucy was right” said Mark.

“What do you mean by that?” asked Peter.

“Yeah, let’s turn back right now” replied Tony.

“Don’t be silly” answered Peter.  “We must be at least half way across the park by now.”

“But we might be walking in the wrong direction” added Lucy.

Peter had a sinking feeling in his stomach.  It had just occurred to him that he gates on the other side of the park (if they could find them that was), would probably be locked and unless they were to repeat the fiasco of earlier on, they would have to turn back.

“Ok” said Peter.

The four children turned to retrace their footsteps but these had long since disappeared, filled in by falling and drifting snow.  Completely disorientated, they began to wander in what they thought was the right direction.

Peter glanced at his watch then shouted at the top of his voice so as to be heard above the wind, “It’s 5 to 9 - we’re going to be late whatever we do.”

“I want to go home” cried Lucy.

The children continued silently, heads bowed against the driving snow, four small specks of black against a backdrop of white.

Suddenly Mark tripped and stumbled into the deep snow.  Coughing and spluttering, wiping the freezing whiteness from his face, he rose to his feet.  Peering up at them through the snow was a dark brown object.  Curiosity got the better of them and they began to dig.

As the four of them stood back and gazed down on what they had uncovered, Lucy began to cry and scream hysterically.  A large dog lay frozen on the ground, its muzzle drawn back tightly, revealing long white fangs.

“That’s one hell of a dog” remarked Tony.

“That’s no dog” answered Peter, thinking back once more to Mr Bracknell’s biology lessons.

“Of course it’s a dog” said Mark.  “What else could it be?”

The three of them looked at Peter eagerly, awaiting an answer.  They could just about hear his voice above the blizzard as he uttered just one word.

“Wolf.”

Without prompting, acting as if one body driven by some kind of primeval instinct, the four children started to run.  However, the deep snow hindered their progress and they began to tire rapidly.

“Stop” cried Tiny.  “Stop, it’s no use.  I can’t run anymore.”

The others returned to where Tony stood, bravely fighting back tears and bringing out a handkerchief to wipe his nose.  “I’ve always been a bit wheezy” he explained.

“Not to worry, we’ll stick together” reassured Peter.  “It can’t be far now, we’ll be home soon.”

But Peter was thinking differently, he had glanced at his watch earlier and an hour had elapsed since they had decided to turn back.  Where they were heading he hadn’t a clue, but it certainly wasn’t in the right direction.

By this time the cold was getting the better of them and little did they know they were all suffering from the early stages of hypothermia.  It was becoming obvious that time was not on their side and Tony’s wheezing was growing worse and his breathing had become laboured.

They started to bicker, blaming each other for the predicament they were in.

“Quiet!” shouted Peter at the top of his voice.

Silence was resumed.

“Listen” he said, “listen.”

The children stood like four black statures in a wilderness of white.

“Dogs, I can hear dogs” exclaimed Lucy.  “That must mean there must be somebody with them.  They can show us the way out of the park.”

The children could just make out a dark object approaching them and the sound of dogs growing louder.  They could not believe their eyes as a team of dogs and a sled with a large man standing at the rear, emerged from the blizzard.

“Whoa!” cried the large figure, “whoa boys.”

The team of dogs slowly drew to a halt and the two parties stared at each other in disbelief.  Finally the silence was broken by Lucy, staring into the deep blue eyes of the figure opposite.

“Please sir, could you show us the way home?”

Her request was met with stony faced silence.  His only expression was still that of disbelief.  They stood studying the weather-beaten craggy face of this large man until finally, after what seemed an age, his lips began to move.  One word issued forth.

“Home?” he enquired.

Peter stepped forward, “Yes, home.  We’re lost.”

He began to explain how they had taken a short cut through the park and how, on not being able to find their way out at the other side, they had turned back.  The large figure raised his hand.

“I hear what you’re telling me young ‘un but it just don’t make any sense.  Anyhow, we can’t stand here all day, its well below and you’re gonna freeze in those flimsy garments.  Climb on the sled and I’ll take you back to town, Sheriff Peterson can sort this one out.”

The four children hesitated and looked at one another.

“We shouldn’t take lifts from strangers” said Mark.

“I would hardly call a ride on a sled a lift from strangers” answered Tony.  “Anyway, what choice do we have?” he added, his voice just audible above his wheezing.

Lucy, stamping her feet and rubbing her hands, began to cry.  “I’m so cold” she said.

“This is not a matter for debate” said the man.  “Climb on the sled or die, that’s your choice.”

With these words, the children moved forward slowly, each finding his or her place amongst the furs piled high upon the sled.

“Hold tight now boomed the deep voice.  “Hike on, hike on!”

The dogs raised themselves from the show, shaking vigorously.

“Hike on, hike on!” came the command for a second time.

The leather reins joining one dog to another started to tighten and with great excitement and determination the dogs started to strain, yelping and barking.  A kind of canine hysteria broke out and with a jerk the sled broke free from its icy bonds and was moving at an ever-increasing pace.

The dogs, sensing their homeward journey, barked and yelped in great excitement, each one straining against its leather harness and the children hid their faces in a vain attempt to protect themselves from the crescendo of ice particles hurled in their direction by the efforts of these magnificent creatures.

The icy wind found gaps in their inadequate clothing and bit deep into their flesh as they hurtled through the white wilderness, clinging to this unconventional form of transport, each one trying to come to terms with the strange and unbelievable events now unfolding around them.

Was this possible?  Could it be a dream?  What was happening?

But uppermost in their minds was the desire to be free of the cold and be somewhere warm.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

 

After a while the sled began to slow, the dogs pulling at a much steadier pace and one by one the children slowly raised their heads.  In the distance they could make out small building.  At first their excitement grew in anticipation that they would soon be home but these feelings of elation were short-lived as it became obvious that wherever this might be, it was certainly not home.

The buildings were shed-like in appearance, knocked together from all sorts of pieces of wood, each one with a tin chimney, smoke billowing skywards.

The sled drew to a halt opposite a large timber building, outside which stood several men dressed in furs who seemed to be arguing.  One of them glanced across and noticing the children piled upon the sled, called out.

“Hey Jake, what the hell ya got there?”

Jake applied the brake to the sled and with a short command the dogs curled up upon the snow, noses tucked into tails.

“Found them Bill” he said.

“Found them where?”

“Up on Pine Ridge, couple of miles from the Baxter’s place” Jake explained.

“The Baxter’s don’t have any kids.”

“I know that, that’s why I brought them into town.  Sheriff Peterson can take over from here.”

“You ain’t heard the news then?”

“What news is that?”

“Found Tom down by Yellow Fork” said Bill.  “Bullet hole clean through his chest.  They reckon it was the Chiswell gang.  Apparently Joe Chiswell had been up to no good as usual, panning for gold on other people’s claims.  Tom rode out to have a word but it seems they were in no mood for talking.  Sorry to have to break the news to you like this Jake, I know he was a close friend of yours.”

Jake remained silent for some time, then slowly turned towards the sled.

“You’d better come with me kids.”

The four children, their hands now frozen in a vice-like grip, slowly eased themselves to the ground and one by one followed Jake into the wooden building.  As the door pushed open they were almost overwhelmed by the smell of wet fur, tobacco and the sweet aroma of beer, but the most over-riding sensation was that of warmth and they were too cold and tired to care about the strange surroundings they found themselves in.

Jake and his entourage made their way slowly towards the back of the room where he knocked on a door marked Private.  The door was opened by a large woman in a bright red and green dress.  On seeing Jake she hollered with delight and threw her arms around him.

“Thank goodness you’re ok Jake.  That Joe Chiswell and his bunch of vermin murdered Tom at Yellow Fork.”

“I know Molly; I heard the news from Bill.”

Molly had had her eyes closed as she squeezed Jake with all her might.  On opening them she peered over his shoulder and spied the four bedraggled figures.

“My goodness, what do we have here Jake?” she said, releasing her grip and moving towards the children.

“Found them up on Pine Ridge, poor evils, freezing to death.”

“Oh my poor darlings” exclaimed Molly as she drew the children about her in an embrace that smothered them in taffeta and lace, the smell of her strong perfume almost making their eyes water.

“No idea how they got there” continued Jake, “haven’t had chance to talk to them properly.”

“This is no time for questions” answered Molly, “they need looking after.  Hot bath, warm dry clothes and the biggest steaks you’ve ever seen.  That’ll set them right.  Questions can wait till later.  Oh my poor darlings” she repeated and with this sentiment she whisked them off.

An hour later they were warm and dry and were kitted out with new clothes.  Lucy was dressed in Molly’s youngest daughter’s cast-offs comprising of a gingham dress and layers of petticoats, while her hair was tied back with a silk ribbon and she wore ankle boots.  Although this was hardly the fashion of 1970 that Lucy was used to, she was secretly pleased with her new look.

The boys on the other hand had proved more difficult.  Although there was no shortage of men’s clothing as the town comprised of nearly 90% men, finding the right size was more of a challenge.

Finally, after much searching and some minor alterations, they were kitted out in thick heavy shirts, corduroy trousers, boots, braces and jackets – not to mention red flannel long-johns complete with a flap at the back which caused much excitement and laughter.

The boys had hardly had time to collect their thoughts and discuss between them the strange events and experiences they were having, when there was a knock at the door.

“Come in” called Peter.

The door opened and there stood Molly, holding Lucy by the hand.  When the boys saw Lucy in her new clothes, they could not contain themselves and fell about laughing.

“Take no notice of them sweetie pie” said Molly, “You’re the prettiest thing between here and Twin Peaks and that’s a fact.  And as for you three” she added, looking at the boys, “supper’s ready and I want you down those stairs before I count to ten.”

Molly was not the kind of woman you disobeyed and the clatter of heavy boots on the wooden floor signalled their departure to the dinner table.  At the head of the table sat Jake, dressed no longer in the fur hat pulled down over his face, nor the beaver skin coat, but in a crisp white shirt, pressed black trousers and a red necktie.

The children tucked into their supper with great gusto, the cold and the physical exertion of the day’s events making then ravenous.

“These are wonderful” mumbled Tony with his mouth full, spilling crumbs everywhere.  “What are they?”

Molly smiled, “Them’s corn dogs, made with pork fat, my very own recipe.”

Finally the children had had their fill.  It was then that Jake drew his chair back and with chin resting on his thumb and forefinger, leaning the chair back on its hind legs, he began to rock slowly back and forth.

His deep voice broke the silence.

“Now you kids have some explaining to do.  One thing’s for certain, you ain’t from around these parts, but that story you was giving me about late for school and parks and that, well I’m not sure where the nearest school is but it must be miles from here.  Do you know of any schools around these parts Molly?”

She shook her head.

“And as for the nearest park” he continued, “well who knows?”

Jake switched his gaze from one child to another in anticipation of a plausible explanation.  After some hesitation, Peter was the first to speak.

“I’m not really sure what’s happened but we were on our way to school and we did get lost in the snow.  We tried to find our way home and it was then that we met you.  But I just don’t understand … the buildings, the clothes; they’re all so old fashioned.”

“What do you mean by old fashioned?” asked Molly.

Mark spoke up, “I don’t know about the rest of you but I think this is pretty amazing and I would love to know how we got here.  But wherever we are, we’ve got to get home.”

“And where exactly is that?” enquired Jake.

“Stanford Green” replied Mark.

“Where?” repeated Jake.

“Five miles from Manchester” answered Tony.

It was at this point that the conversation was interrupted by a knock at the door.  Molly stood up.

“Leave it to me” said Jake, “I’ll see who’s there.”

He slowly made his way over and stood at the side of the door.  “Who’s there?” he asked.

The reply was a hail of bullets that punched their way through the door.  There was complete pandemonium and panic as the children and Molly hurled themselves to the floor, plates crashing around them.  The bullets, like hysterical bees, whizzed and bummed about them, sending up large splinters in all directions.

After what seemed to be ages the firing stopped.  The only sound was a steady dripping coming from the punctured coffee pot.

Jake was the first to speak “Everybody ok there?”

One by one they all replied that they were ok.  Molly’s face was ashen, her hands trembling.  Lucy reached across and held Molly’s hand.

“Are you alright?” she whispered.

“Yes I’m fine, don’t worry about me.”

The children gathered round Molly in a semi-circle while Jake slowly turned around, surveying the damage about him.

“In all my years I’ve never know the likes of this” he said.  “Seems somebody’s after getting rid of me and I bet I know who that is.”

“Joe Chiswell?” suggested Mark.

“Yes boy, him or one of his gang.  You see, Tom and I go back a long way and I guess they know that I’ll be looking for them, so before I could get to them, they thought they’d get to me.  But they made a big mistake.  They didn’t do the job properly and now I’m gonna make them pay.”

At that moment the door opened, it was Bill Travers.  He had a look of surprise on his face.

“Err, everyone all right?” he asked in a hesitant manner.

Molly rushed forward and grabbed Jake’s arm.  “Leave it Jake, this is a job for the Mounties, let them sort it out.”

“The pass is blocked deep with snow and you know as well as I do that it’ll be the Spring before they get here, and by that time, I’ll be six feet under.”

Jake turned to Bill “I’ll need some help with this one.  You with me?”

“Yeah sure” replied Bill in an unconvincing tone.  “I’ll get a few of the boys together; I’ve got a pretty good idea where Joe and the gang will be hiding out.”

Molly pleaded again with Jake “Leave it till the spring, leave it for the Mounties.  I can hide you; keep you out of harm’s way till they can get here.”

“In all my life I never hid from nothing or no-one” said Jake, “and I’m not going to hide from the likes of Joe Chiswell and his gang.  They killed my best friend and I’m gonna make sure Justice is done.  Someone’s got to uphold the law.  Now I’ve got things to do, best get those kids off to bed Molly.”

Molly led Lucy by the hand and the boys followed.  Just as they were about to go up the stairs, she turned to Jake.

“Do you think it’s safe?  Suppose they come back?”

“They won’t come back.  I reckon they think they’ve done for me and they’ll be miles away by now.  Anyway, Bill and I’ll not be far away and if they do come back, they’ll wish they hadn’t/”

With these words, Molly led the children up the stairs.  Lucy had a small room with chintz curtains and a large bed all to herself.  The boys were bedded down in bunk beds in the room next door.

“Goodnight” said Molly, “and try and get some sleep.”

Despite the terrifying events they had just experienced, all four of them were completely exhausted and before long, had fallen asleep.

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

 

The boys were woken early by the sound of dogs barking and men’s voices.  Peter was the first to the window where he scraped at the film of ice and made a hole big enough to see through.  He paused for a second – somehow this seemed familiar, his mind cartwheeling back to his bedroom and all the things that had happened since.  He was soon joined by Mark and Tony.

“What’s going on” asked Mark, rubbing his eyes and doing his best to suppress a yawn.

At that moment the bedroom door burst open.  It was Lucy and seeing the three boys standing by the window, dressed in their long johns complete with button-down back flaps, she squealed, tears of laughter running down her face.  Lucy fell on her bottom then rolled onto her side in a fit of hysterical laughter.

“That’s just typical of girls” remarked Tony.  “Can’t you do something to shut her up Peter?”

Peter took no notice and soon Mark and Tony were peering through the gap in the ice with him.

“That’s the men Jake spoke to yesterday” said Peter.

“And that’s Bill with them” replied Mark.

The men were studying a map and acting in a suspicious manner, glancing furtively around them.  Peter tried to open the window so as to listen to their conversation but it had frozen shut.

“Help me you two” he called. 

The three boys pulled at the window as hard as they could and with a sudden jerk, the frames parted just enough to listen.

“What are they saying?” whispered Tony.

“I can’t hear” answered Peter.

The boys turned to face Lucy “Be quiet” they hissed in unison.

This sudden and unexpected chorus of disapproval stunned Lucy into silence and she got to her feet and joined the boys at the window.  They tried hard to hear what the men were saying above the baying and yelping of the dogs, but all they could make out was “Cut him off at Yellow Fork,” “Beaver Creek,” “How do you know he’ll have the other half” and “Don’t question my judgement, I knew last night would be a mistake.  Leave things to me in future.”

“What’s going on in here?”

They turned to the sound of Molly’s voice.

“The noise woke us up” came the reply.

“Well now that you’re all awake you might as well come down for breakfast.  Lucy, come and help me get things started.”

It wasn’t long before the aroma of bacon and eggs made its way upstairs.

“Boy, that smells good” said Tony.

“Don’t you think of anything but your stomach?” answered Mark.

Following their noses, the children made their way to the breakfast table and sat down, one by one surveying the damage of last night’s events which was still very much in evidence – bullet holes and broken crockery everywhere.

It wasn’t long before they were tucking into their breakfast, Molly hovering over them like an old mother hen with a jug of hot milk in one and a plate of corn dogs in the other.

“More milk anyone?” she asked.

Peter looked up, “Molly, those men with Bill this morning, where were they going?”

“Well my dear, before light Jake left for Yellow Fork, you know - the place where Tom was shot?  It’s there Bill and the others will meet him.  They hope to catch the Chiswell gang early the following day.  They sometimes use a cabin further up the river.”

“Where’s Beaver Creek?” asked Tony.

Molly looked surprised “How do you know of Beaver Creek?” she asked.

“We heard Bill mention it this morning.”

“Bill you say?  But that’s not possible.”  Molly sat down heavily, placing the jug of milk on the table.  “What else did you hear?”

“Only that they would cut him off at Yellow Fork and something about not doing the job properly last night” continued Peter.

Molly sprang to her feet knocking the milk jug flying, spilling its contents on the floor and shattering into a thousand pieces.

“What’s the matter?” asked Lucy.

Molly looked at the children, her face completely drained of colour.  “Only Jake, Sheriff Peterson and I know of Beaver Creek.  We made it up to keep it a secret.”

“What sort of secret?”

Molly sat and started to tell them what had happened.  “Last year Jake and Tom – Sheriff Peterson that is – went prospecting.”

“What’s that?” interrupted Lucy.

“Looking for gold” explained Molly.  “The weather then closed in on them so they sheltered in a small cave.  During the night there was a rock fall which completely blocked the entrance to the cave.  Jake and Tom were trapped, no way out.  Their only hope was to use the dynamite they had taken with them so they placed the explosives as best they could, climbed to the back of the cave and lit the fuse.

The blast almost killed them but when the dust cleared, a small speck of light could be seen and they both dug away until they were free.  It was then that Jake saw something bright and shiny amongst the blackness.”

“It was gold, wasn’t it?” said Mark.

“That’s right, and lots of it” replied Molly.  “They drew a map so’s they could find their way back in the Spring.  They used made up names in order to keep the site secret.  Jake had one half of the map and Tom had the other, so if someone found one half, it wouldn’t be any use to them.  Only three people in the whole world knew of those names – myself, Jake and Tom – and one of those names was Beaver Creek, and it was on Tom’s half of the map.”

“So how could Bill know about it?” asked Peter.

“Don’t you see” said Lucy, “it was Bill, not the Chiswell gang who shot Sheriff Peterson.  They must have his half of the map.”

“So what do we do now?” wondered Peter.

“We must get to him before Bill and the others” replied Molly.

“Just how do we do that?” enquired Tony, his voice shrill and excited.

“There is only one way – by dog sled.”

“But they have a head start and must be miles away by now.”

“There is a way” answered Molly in a quiet voice, “but it is very dangerous.”

“What does it involve?” asked Mark.

“Well…” Molly began to speak then hesitated.  “It’s no use, I can’t ask you to do it.”

“Ask us to do what?” they chorused.

“To cross the lake” Molly answered, looking at them in a concerned manner.

“The lake?” repeated Tony, “but how?”

“I know” shouted Lucy, arm raised as though she was in school, “it’s frozen, isn’t it?”

“That’s right, and it would take nearly 15 miles off our journey.”

“But what’s the problem?” asked Peter.

“The problem Peter is that this early in the winter it may not have frozen thick enough to take the weight of a full dog sled, plus the five of us.”

“We can stay here until you get back” suggested Mark.

“I’m afraid you can’t do that.”

“And why not?” asked Tony.

“If I leave town with a fully laden sled, it won’t take long to work out where I’m going. And if any of Bill’s men come back before Jake and me they could take you hostage.”

It then dawned on Mark what they would have to do.  “We’ll take three sleds and distribute the weight between them” he announced, feeling confident enough to use big words again.

“No, I won’t hear of it” said Molly in a stern voice.  “Have you ever driven a dog team?”

“If we don’t try” cried Lucy, “they will get to Jake first and kill him.”

“We must try” said Mark, “he saved our lives.”

The other three agreed, and so the die was cast for an adventure beyond their wildest dreams.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five

 

 

Molly started to organise the children.  “First we need supplies – food, blankets, lamps, matches, dog food and many other things.”

She put pen to paper and started to make a list.  “I want you three boys to take this list over to Taylor’s – you’ll find his store on the other side of the street, halfway down.  Just mention my name and tell him it’s to go on my account.  But bear in mind not to say a word to anyone about what we’re going to do.”

The three boys in beaver hats, fur coats and heavy boots trudged their way over to Taylor’s store.  The door opened to the sound of a brass bell revealing a store full of just about everything you could imagine.  In front of them, the storekeeper stood behind a large wooden counter.  Peter approached and handed him the list from Molly.  Without saying a word, the storekeeper took the note and read it carefully.

Peering over the top of his glasses he studied them for a few moments.

“You must be the kids Jake brought in the other day” he said.  “What’s this lot for then?” he added, glancing at the note.

Remembering what Molly had said, Peter didn’t answer

“Cat got your tongue sonny?”

Still Peter, Mark and Tony didn’t reply.

Realising he wasn’t going to get far with this line of enquiry the storekeeper turned his attention back to the list.  “And who’s this lot for then?”

“It’s for Molly” replied Peter, “and we need it in a hurry.”

“Well if it’s for Molly, that’s ok by me.  It’ll be about an hour.”

The boys turned and left the store and started to make their way back to Molly and Lucy.

Lucy was busy helping prepare blankets, clothes and other supplies.

“Molly, what do we need a rifle for?”

“Don’t worry, we’re not going to shoot anyone, it’s just in case we come across some wolves.”

“Wolves?” repeated Lucy.

“Don’t worry your pretty head about that.”

When the boys arrived at Molly’s, they opened the door, kicking snow off their boots, and removed their fur coats before making their way to where Lucy and Molly were in the back room, in the centre of which stood a large pile of equipment.

“Well it’s now or never” said Molly as she pulled on her large fur coat.

The others followed suit and son they were all dressed in thick furs and ready to take on the challenge that lay ahead of them.

The four children followed Molly out of the building and down the centre of the High Street to the outskirts of the town where stood a large wooden barn.  Lined up outside were various sizes of sled.  To the rear of the building were dozens of empty wooden beer casks with one end removed, each housing a husky. 

They entered the barn where, bending over a sled carrying out some repairs, was a short man with a patch over his left eye.  He looked up as they approached.

“And what can I do for you Molly?”

“I need three of your best teams.”

“Is this some kind of joke?” he asked.

“It’s no joke Sam” she answered.

“And who’s going to drive the teams?”

“I’ll be taking the lead and my companions will follow.”

Leaning to his right and looking around Molly’s shoulder with his one good eye, Sam studied the children.

“That’s a right gang of desperados you’ve got there Molly” he said with a smile.  “These must be the kids Jake found the other day.”

“That’s right Sam; I’m taking them over to Clearwater.  They can see the winter out there. Much better than staying in this godforsaken hole.”

“But that’s nearly a hundred miles.”

“That’s why I need your best teams” replied Molly.  “Well I haven’t got time to stand and chat all day Sam, I’ve got to get going.  Are you going to hire me the teams or not?”

~”Well to be truthful with you Molly, business has been a bit slow of late and you promise you will look after them?”

“Hand on my heart Sam.”

“Well ok then.  But if it was anyone else but you…”

It wasn’t long before there were three eager teams harnessed to their sleds, and it was hard to tell who was more excited, the dogs or the children.

“Now listen carefully” said Molly.  “When you want the dogs to pull away you release the side brake and give the command Hike On.  When you want them to stop you cry out Whoa and apply the brake.”

The brake comprised of little more than a stick that bit into the snow.

“I’ll take the lead sled, Mark and Tony in the middle, and Peter and Lucy at the rear.”

Excitedly they mounted their sleds - Tony driving first with Mark sitting while Peter held tight to the rear of his sled while Lucy made herself comfortable.

“Hold on tight” called Molly, and with a firm and loud command she told her team to Hike On.

Releasing their brakes, the other two teams carrying the children duly followed.

“First stop Taylor’s to collect the supplies” she said.

Dividing the supplies equally among the sleds they then made their way to Molly’s and repeated the same exercise with the equipment she and Lucy had made ready.

“Well I guess this is it kids.”

The three sleds lined in tandem, Molly shouted her team to Hike On, and with a jolt the sled shot forward.

As Tony and Mark’s team followed suit, the sudden motion caught Tony by surprise, almost pulling the sled from under him, his legs and feet dragging in the snow behind.  On hearing Tony cry for help, Mark quickly turned and reached out, grabbing him by the collar, then pulling with all his might, he managed to get Tony back on the sled.  Holding tight and with his feet straddling the back runners of the sled, Tony felt he was once more in control.

Seeing what had just happened to Tony, Peter was better prepared and their sled got away to a smooth start.

One woman, four children and eighteen dogs disappearing into the wilderness.

 

 

 

Chapter Six

 

 

At first the going wasn’t too bad but as the snow got deeper things became more difficult and full concentration was needed to prevent the sleds from tipping over.  This was not only mentally challenging but very physical, and even taking turns to drive the sled, it was not long before they tired.  Molly, keeping an eye on her companions, slowed to a halt, the other two teams slowing behind her.

“We’ll stop here for a while and get some rest” she said.

“What about Bill and the others?” asked Peter.

“Don’t worry too much about them” replied Molly.  “They will be going over Sawtooth Pass.  Up there the snow will be much deeper, plus it’s uphill.  Besides, if we get too tired we will never get to Jake in time.  One thing Jake taught me was that you must pace yourself out here.”

Removing a large knife from her belt she took a small box from her sled and using the knife to prise the lid off, she handed each of the children what looked like a brown stick.

“What’s this?” asked Lucy, wrinkling her nose.

“This will keep us going until we can get a proper meal.”

Even Tony, who was never usually fussy about anything that was remotely edible, was curious to know what it could be.  “What is it?” he asked.

“It’s Jerky” came the reply.  “Dried, salted meat - just the stuff for out here.”

It was then that Peter asked a question “If Bill gets hold of Jake’s half of the map and all the names and places are known to just you and Jake, what use would it be to Bill?”

Molly sat with her back against the sled “I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that question” she said. 

There was a brief silence while Molly shuffled to make herself more comfortable.

“Well the way I see it is that Bill knows the map is something of importance.  You don’t make maps for no reason and the only reason round here would be where to find your claim.”

“But how did Bill know Jake had the other half?” asked Peter.

“It was no secret that Jake and Tom were prospecting - you can’t keep something like that quiet.  Folk would soon find out from Taylor’s - the moment you bought your first pick and shovel, the whole town would know.”

“If Jake doesn’t tell them what the names mean it won’t be any good to them” said Lucy.

Molly didn’t answer.

“It’s ok” said Tony, “we have a pretty good idea what they would do to Jake to make him tell them.”

The five bedraggled figures sat in silence chewing on their jerky, each one imagining the terrible things Bill and the others might do to Jake to make him talk.  Finally the silence was broken by the howl of a distant wolf.

Molly stood and gazed into the distance.  She was concerned that soon they would have to cross the lake, fully aware of the dangers that lay ahead of them. 

She turned quickly “Ok kids, check your sleds and make sure everything is secure.”

The children checked, double-checked and then Molly made a final inspection.

“We’ll soon be crossing the lake” she said her voice hesitant and unsure.”

The renewed activity had alerted the dogs.  Raising themselves from their slumber and shaking off the snow, they arched their heads skywards and stretched their limbs, preparing themselves for the exertions that lay ahead.

The children and Molly mounted the sleds and gave the command Hike On.  Within seconds the reins were taught and the sleds began to move forwards through the snow, the runners gliding easily across the now frozen surface.

It wasn’t long before them lay a huge, flat expanse of snow.  Raising her right hand and commanding the dogs to stop, Molly came to a halt at the edge of this iron flat surface.  She dismounted then walked back and gathered the children around her.

“We’re about to cross the lake.  I want you to listen very, very carefully to what I’m going to say.”

Molly unloaded some of the supplies from the children’s sleds and loaded them onto hers in the hope that if the ice was strong enough to take her weight, the children’s lighter sleds would make it without any problem.

 “I will go first then when I raise my right hand high above my head, I want you to follow.  Then and only then - you are to cross the lake one at a time.  Peter and Lucy first then I will signal for Mark and Tony.

Molly mounted her sled and began to cross the lake.  The others watched her disappear across this flat expanse, waiting for the signal.  When it seemed she was almost out of sight, she raised her right hand.

Peter and Lucy were the next to go, their sled following Molly’s tracks.  Tony and Marks team, now excited and wanting to catch their companions, became difficult to handle in spite of Tony giving the command to stay and Mark pulling back on the brake as hard as he could.

All of a sudden the brake handle snapped and with the sudden release of pressure the dogs took this as a command to move forward.  Impatient at being left so far behind, they went into an immediate run, Mark and Tony desperately trying to slow them but their commands only seemed to spur the dogs on. 

Soon they were closing in on the sled in front.  Knowing well that the ice might not take the combined weight of two sleds close to each other, the boys began to scream and shout a warning to Peter and Lucy.

Finally Peter turned and seeing what was happening, urged his dogs on, but Tony and Marks team had already gained momentum and were bearing down on them quickly.  Peter and Lucy shouted Hike On, Hike On at the top of their voices, willing their dogs on with every fibre of their bodies.  But it was in vain and soon the two teams were parallel.

Then came the sound they were dreading – the ice was breaking beneath them.

Molly, securing her team on the far bank, turned to see the disaster about to unfold.  She ran as fast as she could on to the edge of the lake, yelling encouragement to the children as she did so, knowing their only chance they had was to keep the momentum going, for now the speed of the sleds was the only thing stopping them breaking through and disappearing beneath the ice to a dark and watery grave.

Inky black streaks appeared in their wake as the pressure of ice and snow forced the water to the surface.  It seemed as though the dogs sensed the danger they were in and were now working harder than ever, using every ounce of their brutish strength to draw the sleds to the other side.

The children’s hearts were pounding as Molly, now just a spectator, stood as frozen as the lake about her.  It seemed and eternity but finally both teams reached the safety of the opposite bank.

Drawing their teams to a halt the dogs, now seemingly oblivious to the danger they were just in, immediately curled themselves up to rest.  Molly ran to greet the children and hugged them as hard as she could, tears of relief rolling down her cheeks and freezing pearl-like against her coat.

Not wanting to dwell on the near disaster, she knew it was important to keep their minds occupied.

“We can’t stay here” she announced, “we must got to the forest, make our shelter and light a fire.”

Remounting their sleds, the dogs as eager as ever obeyed the command to Hike On once more and soon they were heading in a straight line towards the forest.  Gradually the trees grew closer, their boughs laden with snow and finally they reached the edge of the forest.

“Whoa” called Molly, this command being repeated by the other sled drivers.

“This looks like a reasonable place to make camp” she said as she removed a large ground sheet from her sled before turning to Peter.

“I want you and Mark to collect some firewood” she instructed, giving them a small and very sharp axe each.

“I want you to hack off the lower branches, especially the dead ones, and make a pile over there – and don’t wander too far.  Lucy, Tony, I want you to help me with these boxes.”

Removing the boxes of supplies, they used them to form three walls.  Molly then handed Tony a small saw.

“You see those spindly trees over there, the small pines – I want you to cut down 15 to 20.  They’ll cut real easy with that saw but mind your fingers.”

Tony wasn’t sure why they needed so many trees but Molly obviously knew what she was doing so he didn’t question her.

After half an hour or so, Peter and Mark returned with bundles of wood.  “There’s plenty more back there” said Mark, “we’ve made a huge pile.”

“Well done” answered Molly.  “Now I want you to go and help Tony and use your axes to clean the branches off the poles he’s cutting.  And when you’ve done that, bring them back here.”

Dutifully they marched off to help Tony.

“Now Lucy” said Molly, “I want you to help me dig away the snow to form a pit between the boxes but we need to leave some around the edge.”

The snow was very deep and it was hard work but after some time they managed to dig a suitable sized pit.

The boys returned carrying several poles and Molly started to lay them across the pit between the boxes until they formed a kind of floor.  She then used the branches that had been cut off to lie on top to make it more comfortable and provide insulation from the cold ground.

They then cut some of the thicker logs into shorter lengths and laid these as a base for their fire, onto which they placed the driest of the twigs and branches.  Molly placed a piece of scorched cloth and some dry moss into the centre which she then lit with a match and pursing her lips, blew steadily.  Within seconds the dry twigs and branches had caught light and she gradually added more wood until the fire was well established.

“Right” she said, “we need five more poles.”

The boys disappeared to fetch the poles.  On their return, Molly placed two poles at either end of the pit to form an “A” frame and using some twine, lashed a pole between them.  Climbing on the boxes, she threw the ground sheet over the top of the poles and weighting the edges down, she formed a tent like structure with an opening facing the fire.  The children stood back to admire their work.

“Well done” said Molly, “I guess this must be your first bivouac.”

The boxes formed sturdy walls, the snow removed between them made a pit while the poles lying across formed a floor.  This was then insulated with pine branches and the ground sheet formed a tent-like structure above.

The fire was now burning well.  Two forked twigs had been pushed into the ground at either side and on a branch between them hung a metal pot filled with snow.  Soon this would be boiling water to which would be added cocoa and sugar and the five of them, content with their labours, made themselves comfortable in their temporary home.

Before their evening meal they would have to feed the dogs.  Forming a semi-circle with the dog teams and sleds, Molly broke open a large box.

“Come here” she said to the children, “give each dog one piece.”

Looking into the box they could see large squares of brown meaty stuff.  On realising they were about to be fed the teamwork and companionship the huskies had shown earlier disappeared and was replaced by intolerance and bad temper.  Dogs began to snarl and snap at one another.

“It’s important to get the dogs fed quickly before they get too impatient” explained Molly.  “Remember, a husky will never bite you but when it comes to one another at feed time, that’s a different matter and we must avoid injuries at all cost.”

After the dogs had fed, they curled themselves into tight furry balls and went off to sleep immediately.

“Would you hand me the cocoa and sugar please Lucy.”

Lucy rummaged in the box next to her and handed Molly two tins.  Prising the lids off with a large hunting knife, Molly spooned several heaps of cocoa and sugar into the pot before turning to the box next to her.  Using the knife again, she removed the lid, took out a large flat metal tray and placed t half over the fire then she brought out a greasy brown packet.  Undoing the string, she unfolded the contents, removed several large pieces of bacon and placed them on the metal tray.  The bacon immediately sizzled and spat.

With the cocoa now boiling, Molly poured the liquid into five tin mugs and handed them out.  “Be careful, it’s hot.”

Refilling the pot with some more snow she placed it back over the fire and then took a tin of flour from the box. She twisted off the lid and poured some of the contents into the melted snow.  Removing the pot from the fire, she began to mix the flour and water together to make a soft dough.

Taking small handfuls from the pot, Molly flattened them in the palm of her hand and placed them on the tray next to the bacon.  It wasn’t long before they were tucking into a well-earned meal.

“What’s that?” asked Lucy, pointing.

The others looked in the direction she was indicating and saw bright luminous lights dancing and flickering on the horizon.

“They’re the Northern Lights” explained Molly.

“They’re beautiful” replied Lucy.

They watched the lights for a short while before Molly said it was time for them to bed down as they would need all the rest they could get.  “It’ll be an early start.”

With the glow of the roaring fire illuminating the interior of their shelter and with thick furs wrapped around them, they were soon asleep.

 

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

 

Molly was the first to wake, the last few embers of the fire just visible through the dark.  She moved herself forward slowly so as not to disturb the others and picked up a handful of twigs left by the fire to dry.  Placing them gently onto the embers, she crouched down and blew.  Slowly they brightened and a small flame appeared amongst the twigs.  Molly then woke the children.

The first thing to greet them was the glow of a roaring fire.  The moon was still shining, reflecting off the snow and it was almost as if it was daylight.

Filling the pot once more with snow, it was placed over the fire.  Before long the snow had melted and the water started to boil to which was added several heaped spoons of dark cocoa powder followed by as many spoons of sugar.

Peter, needing to relieve himself, stood up and made his way into the forest.

“Not too far” called Molly.

Peter turned and gave a sheepish smile “I won’t go too far” he promised, “just far enough though” he thought.

Some 50 metres into the forest he had the sensation he was being watched and the hairs on the back of his neck rose.  At that moment a large wolf leapt at Peter’s back.  He spun round to see the wolf now in mid-air – its lips drawn back across its jowls revealing long white fangs, its yellow eyes transfixed on its prey.

As Peter drew his arm up across his face in a vain attempt to protect himself, a blinding pain shot through his arm as the wolfs jaws fastened onto his arm.  The next sensation was that of its immense weight crushing him into the deep snow knocking the air from his lungs.

The force of impact on such a light prey caused the wolf to somersault over Peter, at the same time wrenching his arm backwards.  The release of pressure allowed the air to rush back into Peter’s lungs, only to be expelled a second later with a scream of fright and pain.

As the wolf released its hold on his arm in order to regain its feet, the pain and shock disappeared from Peter who thought that everything seemed to be happening in slow motion.  He was the first to his feet and remembering the axe Molly had given to him earlier, he wrenched it from his belt, holding it high above his head, readying himself for the final onslaught.

It was now a fight to the death – from the relative safety of a 1970’s suburb, Peter had been catapulted back to the Stone Age.  Like two gladiatorial adversaries they faced one another, eyes locked in a stare of death, the wolf’s teeth drawn back showing its formidable array of weapons.

As if a coiled spring, it launched itself at Peter who turned his body side on to the attack and with all his might, brought the axe down.  At the same time a loud crack filled the air about them and the wolf slumped to the ground.

Molly rushed to where Peter lay in the snow clutching his arm.  As quickly as she could she took off his large coat and many layers of clothing to reveal his arm.  Peter sat motionless in the snow.

“You’re a very lucky boy” she said, examining his arm, “nothing more than bruises.”

“Must have been that coat and all these clothes” remarked Tony, standing over the wolf’s body.

“Is he dead?” asked Lucy.

“No, but the wolf is!” replied Mark, bending down in the snow and picking something up and handing it to Peter.  Peter put out his hand into which Mark placed a large tooth.

On finishing her examination of Peter’s arm, Molly helped him get dressed and then turned her attention to the wolf, prodding it with her feet.

“It’s very rare for wolves to attack people, even little ones, but I can see why this one did.  It looks as though he’s been caught in a trap, he must have been starving.  I guess we’ve saved him from a long and painful death Peter.”

When they returned to camp, Molly decided they didn’t have time for a cooked breakfast and would have to make do with cocoa and jerky.  Nobody was really in the mood for eating after what had just happened, but Molly insisted they eat and drink as much as possible.

“You will need the strength for the next stage of our journey” she told them.

Together they started to dismantle the camp, Molly giving instructions as to what when where and how it should be secured.  They would also be taking the poles with them and these were fastened to the bas of the sleds first before the rest of the equipment was piled on top.

Finally, before they left, they fed the dogs.  This task proved to be a favourite with all the children, eagerly handing out portions of condensed meat.  In no time at all, the hungry dogs had consumed their rations and an inspection of each husky was carried out, with particular attention paid to their paw.  Any dog with suspected injuries would be moved to the back of the team.

This completed, they mounted their sleds and gave the command to Hike On.  The sun, now half-way above the horizon, gave the illusion of warmth despite it being many degrees below freezing.  The huskies, trotting rhythmically forward, drew the sleds through this icing sugar coated wonderland, their breath – condensing immediately on contact with the cold air – froze into tiny ice crystals which collected about their muzzles, giving the impression of crushed diamonds.

Despite their short time in this vast and remote wilderness, the children were soon becoming accustomed to the environment about them and their ability to increase distances between stops had almost doubled since yesterday.  They were making good time and everybody felt confident. 

But confidence in this remote wilderness could, and often was, tested to the limit.

Molly raised her hand and indicated for the party to slow.  She drew her sled to a halt, the others stopping just behind her.  Using her hand to shield her eyes from the glare of the sun, she stared into the distance before reaching into a bag slung about her neck and drawing out a spyglass.  Extending it to its full length she raised it to her right eye and peered into it.  Making fine adjustments she brought into focus what appeared to be five dog teams.

“Impossible, it can’t be” she uttered, lowing the spyglass slowly from her eye.

“What’s the matter?” asked Mark whose sled was closest to her.

“Unless I’m very much mistaken, it looks like Bill and his men have beaten us to the crossing point.”

“The crossing point?” repeated Tony.

It was then they were joined by Peter and Lucy.

“We have to cross the river and make our way over High Ridge to Yellow Fork.  There’s only one place the river flows slow enough to freeze so that we can cross.”

“Not more ice!” exclaimed Lucy.

“Don’t worry” reassured Molly, “the water’s fairly shallow.”

“Can’t we cross anywhere else?” enquired Peter.

“That would mean carrying all the equipment across a piece at a time through the water and you would freeze to death before you got half of it across.  Getting wet out here is the ultimate sin.”

Molly raised the spyglass back to her eye to check on the progress of Bill.  No sooner had she done so than she drew it back down quickly, looking about her in a frantic manner – hills and mountains to the left and right and the thin ice of the lake behind them.  The children immediately realised something was wrong.  Hardly daring to ask, Tony was the first to speak.

“What’s the matter Molly?” he said in a quiet voice.

“It’s Bill alright” answered Molly, “and he’s seen us, he’s heading this way.”

“What do we do now?” asked Peter.

“I’m afraid there’s not much we can do, we’re trapped.”

It wasn’t long before the dog teams were getting close enough for them to hear the harsh voice of the mushers as they shouted encouragement to their dogs.  Molly and the children stared at the approaching sleds, wondering what their fate would be in the hands of a ruthless killer like Bill Travers.

Molly realised she had miscalculated how long the journey would take with a group of inexperienced children.  Despite their heroic efforts, they had not been quick enough and now they found themselves in a situation of great danger.  Stay and hope for the best, or make a run for it.  These were the two choices that lay before them.

Suddenly, with a sparkle in her eye, Molly’s face brightened.  “I have an idea” she said.  “Mount your sleds as quickly as possible and face the oncoming sleds.  When I give the word I want you to drive your dog teams as hard as you can straight at Bill and his bunch of no-goods.”

Manoeuvring their sleds, the three of them lined up to face the oncoming teams which were now bearing down on them at great speed.  The air was filled with an excitement, a kind of electricity that was almost tangible and the children’s hearts were pounding as Bill and his men grew closer, Molly still telling them to wait.

Bill was now no more than 50 metres away when Molly screamed “Now, Hike On my beauties” and with this command, the three sleds lurched forward on a collision course with the oncoming teams.

Molly, her auburn hair streaming out behind her, slightly in the lead, steered her sled directly at Bill.  This took the oncoming musher completely by surprise and Bill frantically swerved his sled to avoid a collision, the sudden manoeuvre causing the sled to tip sideways.  Losing his balance, Bill lost control of his speeding sled and it turned over, sending its contents and Bill into the snow.

Peter had similar success, causing one of Bill’s men to fall from his sled while Tony and Mark had mixed fortunes, their sled striking a glancing blow which, although it winded Mark and injured his hand, had the effect of causing his opponent’s sled to tip upside down.

Bill and his men were in complete disarray.

With their teams recently fed and full of energy, Molly and her companions made a dash for the river crossing, leaving their enemies desperately trying to reorganise themselves and collect together the spilt supplies which were essential for their survival.

Looking back, Molly could hardly believe her good fortune - like rider-less racehorses, two of the teams had broken away and were following them.  This would now mean that Bill and his men would have to double up and load the supplies on the remaining sleds which would surely slow them down long enough for Molly and the children to reach Jake at Yellow Fork.

Molly’s main objective now was to get as much distance between themselves and Bill Travers as she could.  Although they had the advantage of lighter sleds, how long the children could keep going before they tired was another matter and one thing was for certain, Bill would not rest until he had caught up with them.

The sun was now getting higher and although it was farm from warm, it had the effect of making the snow softer, causing the runners of the sleds to sink deeper into it, thus slowing them down.  Fortunately this would also apply to Bill and his men.  Molly periodically looked over her shoulder both to make sure the children were keeping up and to see if there was any sign of Bill.

 

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

 

Nearly two hours had passed since their encounter with Bill and they had been travelling at a pace that could no longer be sustained.  The huskies were tiring and the gaps between the sleds were increasing all the time.  Molly knew they would have to rest so she slowed her sled to a halt and waited for the others to catch up.

“We’ll rest here for a while” she said, “feed and check the dogs, and get something to eat ourselves.”

Molly sent the boys off to collect firewood as it was important they get a hot drink.  Lucy made herself busy opening the box that contained the cocoa and sugar and sorting out the mugs.

Soon the boys returned carrying bundles of wood, the fire was alight and the snow that had been melted was coming to the boil.  Molly added the cocoa and sugar and soon each had a mug of strong, bittersweet liquid that tasted better than anything the children had drunk before.

“We don’t have time for a hot meal” explained Molly, opening a box of jerky and handing each of the children some.  Even this chewy cardboard stuff tasted good to them.

It was then time to tend to the huskies.  The problem was, what to do with the two teams that had adopted them.  Molly knew that she did not have enough food for all the dogs so she decided to feed their teams first before checking the meat supply.

She knew that if she secured the teams here and allowed Bill to find them, he would use them to his advantage and soon make ground on them, but at the same time she couldn’t afford to use their own valuable rations on these unnecessary dogs.  The cruel realisation was that she had no choice but to shoot them.

There was no easy way to do this and she knew it would be traumatic for the children, especially Lucy who had fallen in love with every one of these wonderfully loyal creatures.  Before she carried out this unpleasant task, she felt she owed the children an explanation as to why it had to be done.

Molly made her way over to where the children were sitting finishing the last of their cocoa.  One glance at her face told them something was wrong.  Molly tried her best to explain what she was about to do “I’m not quite sure how to tell you this but we can’t keep these other huskies with us.”

“Why not?” asked Lucy.

“Well sweetheart, we only have enough food for our dogs and little to spare and I can’t leave the dogs here for Bill to find as he would make use of then.”

“Can’t you let them go?”

“I’m afraid not, they would either find their way back to Bill or follow us and when they grew hungry they would then try to steal the food from our dogs.”

“So what shall we do?” asked Mark.

“I’ve given that a lot of thought” explained Molly, “I’m sorry but we have no choice but to shoot them.”

The children were stunned into silence.

With that, Molly turned her back on them and walked over to her sled.  Lucy rushed forwards and grabbed her arm.

“You can’t shoot them, please don’t shoot them” she pleaded.

Molly didn’t look at her but glanced across to where the boys were standing and told them to take Lucy and look after her.  She then drew the rifle from her sled and a box of ammunition and made her way over to where the other dogs had laid down in the snow.

The huskies, on seeing her, raised themselves from their slumber and wagged their tails excitedly.  Molly was now trembling and she was finding it difficult to load the bullet into the rifle.  Raising it to her shoulder, she took aim at the lead dog.  As its eyes met hers, they were deep blue and trusting. 

Molly’s index finger squeezed against the trigger and there was a loud crack.

Lucy screamed, hiding her eyes behind her hands.  The boys, their backs turned on Molly, couldn’t bear to watch.

There was silence.

The children were waiting for the next shot but it never came.  Lucy slowly removed her hands from her eyes, hardly daring to look and saw Molly walking towards her.

“I couldn’t do it” she said, “at the last minute I pulled the rifle away.  I just couldn’t do it.”

“So what do we do now?” asked Tony.

“We’ll give each of the dogs a quarter ration.  I’ll remove their sleds and they can follow us.  I just hope I’m making the right decision, compassion in the wilderness always comes at a price.”

Molly and the children made ready and prepared themselves for the next stage of their journey.  She told them they would be travelling at night as the sleds would move faster on the frozen snow.  She also told them that it was very important they concentrate and not get lost.

“The sky is clear and there’s almost a full moon so visibility should be good.”

Finally, after checking that everything was secure and nothing had been left behind, this strange and unconventional convoy made its way off in the fading light.

It wasn’t long before the last of the suns weak rays had disappeared beyond the horizon and the sky was inky black, beset with a myriad of stars, each one twinkling in the cold night air.  Soon the moon had taken the place of the sun and as Molly had said, visibility was good.

As the snow beneath them froze, the runners made a strange squeaking noise as they glided across the surface.  The temperature began to drop rapidly and in spite of Molly and the children being well dressed, their thick furs helping to insulate them from the falling temperature, they began to feel the cold.  Any exposed skin, especially around the face, began to tingle as the frost poked at them with its icy fingers.

Although the clear sky gave them the advantage of moonlight, it led to a rapid fall in temperature.  Molly was fully aware of the dangers of hypothermia and knew that the children’s small frames would make them more vulnerable.

Consequently she was now facing another dilemma between taking advantage of Bills misfortune and gaining as much distance between them as they could, and the risk of frostbite.

Molly used an old native Indian trick to test for the early stages of hypothermia which involved touching the thumb and little finger together.  When this becomes difficult you know that your body temperature is falling.  It was now becoming difficult even to perform this simple exercise and Molly knew they would have to stop and make camp.  She felt that they had made good progress though and that the chance of Bill catching them tonight was fairly remote.

She turned and indicated to the children with her left hand the direction she was taking.  The others duly followed and they made their way into the forest.

“We’ll stop here and make camp” she said.

They removed some boxes and the large ground sheet from one of the sleds and using the poles as before, they made themselves a bivouac.

What they really needed was a good fire to warm them and something hot to eat but Molly knew they could only afford to light a small fire, enough for a hot drink and to cook some bacon, as a large fire would not only give their location away, it would also tell Bill they had stopped.

It seemed to take ages for the water to boil and they were all beginning to feel the effects of the cold, especially in their fingers and toes.  They watched early for the first signs of boiling and eventually it was hot enough to add the cocoa and sugar.  Each took his or her mug of hot sweet liquid and cradled it so as to make the most of its warmth.

The bacon took less time and soon they were helping themselves to mouthfuls of hot fatty pork, the residue of which dripped down their chins, instantly congealing in the cold air.

After this welcome feast they bundled themselves into the shelter and huddled together for warmth.  Although the hot cocoa and bacon had helped to warm them, it was no substitute for a blazing fire and it wasn’t long before the cold renewed its relentless attack and they all began to shiver.

“It was then that Lucy had a suggestion “I know what we can do Molly” she said, her voice trembling with the cold.

“What’s that?” Molly replied, her arms wrapped around Lucy.

“The huskies, why don’t we bring them in here to help keep us warm?”

This simple but obvious solution had completely escaped Molly.  “What a wonderful idea.”

The dogs needed no encouragement – for if there’s one thing huskies love and that is to be close to people.  Soon the children had fallen asleep, buried amongst a pile of very smelly bur very warm huskies.

Molly was fully conscious of the risk they were taking by stopping like this but she also knew there was a limit as to how much the children could endure.  It would be a fine line between reaching Jake and being caught by Bill and his men.  Tomorrow would be the hardest part of their journey as they could have to make their way over High Ridge.

She did her best to stay awake but no matter how hard she tried, the exertions of the previous two days were catching up with her and it wasn’t long, despite strenuous efforts, that she too joined the children in a deep sleep.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Nine

 

 

Molly woke with a sudden start, she had no idea what the time was or how long they had been there, or even if Bill was now close by.  She glanced across at the children curled up among the huskies, their faces red and chaffed with the cold and knew she would have to wake them and get moving as fast as possible.

Molly’s heart missed a beat as she heard something move outside and she immediately reached for the rifle.

“I don’t care who you are Bill Travers or how many men you have with you” she thought, “but there’s no way you’re going to harm these kids.”

The children were still fast asleep.

Molly slowly cocked the rifle and placed a round into the breach.  Bracing herself for what could be the last decision of her life, she sprang from their shelter, rolling head over heels in the snow and drawing her rifle up to a dark shape standing next to the tent.  Quickly taking aim, she squeezed the trigger and with a loud bang and a muzzle flash, the shadow slumped in the snow.

Molly looked around her anxiously but it seemed as though they were on their own.  Raising herself to her feet and keeping the rifle aimed at the dark object on the ground, she slowly moved forwards.  To her surprise it was not Bill or one of his men that lay before her but a large deer and Molly felt a sudden rush of relief.

The children, woken by the shot, had tumbled out of the tent in disarray and Molly went forward to reassure them that everything was ok.

“What’s happening?” asked Peter sleepily.

“I heard a noise and thought it might have been Bill or one of his men” she explained, “but it was only this nosy old deer.”

This encounter proved to be to their advantage, for drawing a large knife from her belt, Molly began to butcher the deer.  The four children watched this exercise with great fascination and even Lucy was not upset as Molly went about her work.  Soon the snow around Molly was a dark red and pieces of steaming flesh lay on the ground next to her.  Turning to the children she told them to prepare a small fire and put some water on to boil.

“We’ll have venison for breakfast!” she announced with a smile on her face.

Using her hunting knife, she sharpened several sticks onto which she speared pieces of meat.  These they then held over the flames long enough for the outside to cook and the meat to warm through before tucking into this welcome supplement to their diet with great relish, meaty juices flowing down their chins, following in the same direction as the pork fat of the previous night.

After breakfast they dismantled their camp and secured the equipment to the sleds, by which time the larger pieces of meat had frozen.  Opening one of the half-empty dog food boxes, Molly began to place the meat inside, feeding the remainder to the dogs.

“There’s enough here to keep all the dogs fed now” she said.  “Maybe, just maybe, things are going to go our way.”

Molly made her way to the edge of the forest some 50 metres away and using her spyglass, surveyed the distance.  There was no sign of Bill so she turned and returned to where the children were.

With the dogs fed and with a hot drink and some food inside them, they were ready to face their next challenge.  Molly was apprehensive of what lay ahead of them – High Ridge was always treacherous at any time of year, let alone winter.  In summer there could be flash floods and rock falls, in winter there was always the risk of avalanches.  This part of their journey would be made all the more difficult for they would have to walk the last mile or so as it was too steep for the huskies to manage the fully laden sleds and themselves.

The snow was still frozen hard after the cold night and the going was good.  The sun, now almost above the horizon, gave the snow a pink tinge and although its rays were weak, at least they gave an impression of warmth which helped to raise their spirits.

The three dog teams and their accompanying sleds made good progress throughout the morning but the higher they got, the deeper the snow became and this, combined with the fact they were now heading uphill, almost brought them to a standstill.

It was now time to dismount and walk so Molly brought her team to a halt and the others did likewise.

“I’m afraid we’ll have to walk the next couple of miles” she explained.

As the children dismounted they sank in the snow past their knees.  Molly was busy removing what looked like large tennis racquets from her sled and handed a pair to each of the children.

“Anyone for tennis?” said Mark in a vain attempt at humour.

Molly showed them how to tie the snowshoes onto their feet and with these cumbersome items secured, they started to shuffle their way up towards the summit of High Ridge.  Even with the aid of snowshoes this was a tiresome task and they all began to labour.  Tony’s wheezing had started again and he began to fall behind.  On noticing this, Molly told Lucy to stay with her team while she made her way back to him.

It was then, in the distance, she caught sight of what she had been dreading.  It was Bill Travers and his bunch of no-goods.  Molly tried to hurry the children up but their pace could not be increased and if anything, it was slowing all the time and they still had nearly a mile before they could mount their sleds to make the journey downhill to Yellow Fork.

It was not long before Bill caught sight of his quarry and he forced his dog teams on in an unforgiving and relentless manner, caring nothing for their wellbeing, knowing full well that if he reached Molly and the children, he would have all the huskies he needed.

Molly and the children were now desperately fighting their way through the deep snow, stumbling and falling, raising themselves from this icy powder only to be swallowed up in the next snowdrift.  Every muscle in their bodies was racked with pain.  The fear of Bill and his men was the only thing driving them forward, their lungs bursting as they took great gulps of freezing air.

They had now almost come to a standstill and Molly knew that for all their brave efforts, it was now a futile exercise.  All she wanted to do was fall into the snow and weep but she had to stay strong for the sake of the children.

The noise of Bill and his companions grew louder and Molly, hardly daring to look, turned slowly to see that Bill was now no more than half a mile away.

The children, slumped against her sled completely exhausted, made a pitiful sight.  Molly knew that they had no choice but to wait for Bill and rely on his mercy and kindness – if he had any – although this was something she would rather not have had to find out.

Bill and his men, now reaching the steepest part of the slope, brought their sleds to a halt and dismounted.  Confident of their victory they slowly trudged forward through the deep snow.

Molly glanced at across at the rifle secured to her sled.  For a split second she thought of using it against Bill and his men but this would be futile for there were too many of them and anyway, she could not bring herself to shoot a man – not even Bill Travers – in cold blood.

Kneeling down next to the children placing an arm around Lucy, she glanced skyward, the deep blue of the sky contrasting against the brilliant whiteness of the snow.  Suddenly she pulled Lucy to one side and drew the rifle from her sled, aiming it in the same direction she had been looking in a few moments earlier.

Molly then began firing round after round.  Bill and his men dived for cover and prepared to return fire, the sound of the shots echoing and thundering about them.

It was then that Bill realised what Molly was trying to do.  A large overhang of snow towering above them began to move, slowly at first, but in no time at all it had turned into a tidal wave of ice and snow.  Bill and his men started to scramble down the hill as fast as they could, their confidence now evaporated and in its place, sheer terror.  They tried desperately to stay ahead of this white juggernaut that was about to swallow them up but their efforts proved to be in vain.

Molly and the children stood awe-struck as they watched this force of nature sweep Bill and his men into what seemed to be oblivion.  When the avalanche had finally ground to a halt, the party of five surveyed Molly’s handiwork.

The dog teams had survived and it also now seemed that possible Bill and his men had only been caught on the edge of the avalanche for it wasn’t long before they saw the first black shape prising itself free from its snowbound captivity.  A few minutes later, the first black shape was joined by others, rising phoenix like from the ashes of disaster.

Without waiting to see more, Molly spurred the children on to one last effort to reach the summit of the ridge.  It seemed that Bill was not only bad but also lucky – a dangerous combination.

At least the avalanche had given Molly and the children one great advantage.  It would take Bill and his men a good deal of time to negotiate the large uneven mass of snow.  They would probably have to lead the dogs through and then carry their supplies over.  This hopefully would give Molly time to reach Jake at Yellow Fork.

The combination of Molly’s quick thinking and nature’s willingness to co-operate had renewed their spirits and with renewed confidence, they clawed their way to the summit of the ridge.

On reaching this high point a large open valley lay before them, the shape of the river clearly defined as it cut its way through the vast expanse of whiteness.  The downward slope faced north and although the snow was deep, the sun’s meagre rays had not been able to soften the surface.  This in turn prevented the dog’s paws from sinking into it and allowed the runners to glide across the top and soon they were heading down towards the river at what felt like a hundred miles an hour compared to the slow going of the ascent.

Molly glanced over her shoulder periodically but each time she did so there was still no sight of Bill.  Reaching the river they followed its banks, this part of the valley still in shade.  Their progress was now swift and morale was high.  Molly knew, as they neared a bend in the river, that the cabin where they hoped to find Jake would soon be within easy reach.  Spurring the huskies on to ever greater efforts, the distance between them and the cabin was soon eroded.

There before them stood their destination, no more than a wooden box constructed from whole trees, the gaps filled with mud.  The tin chimney pointing skywards through the wooden shingles gave them the signal they were hoping for, as thin wisps of smoke curled into the air.  On reaching the cabin they dismounted and Molly forced open the door.  Hoping to find Jake there, her heart sank when she found the building deserted.

“What should she do?  Wait for Jake to return?  Try and find him?”

She knew that he could be anywhere in this vast wilderness and if he should return before she had the chance to warn him then Bill could have the opportunity to carry out his evil plan and all their efforts would have been in vain.  Yet if she stayed and Bill got to the cabin first, they would be at his mercy.

The children were outside, tending to the dogs as Molly had instructed.  She was still pondering as to what to do, her concentration was broken as the cabin door flew open and the four children rushed in.

“It’s Bill!” they shouted.  “He’s making his way up the river.”

Molly rushed to the door - it seemed the avalanche had not delayed them for as long as she had hoped.  She took the rifle from the sled and some boxes of ammunition, at the same time telling the children to untie the boxes of food and take them into the cabin as quickly as possible.  When they had done this, they closed the door, dropping a large plank in place to secure it.  They then pushed the boxes of supplies against the door and waited.

 

 

 

Chapter Ten

 

 

Bill and his men arrived at the cabin and dismounted from their sleds.  Bill was not about to take any risks for he knew Molly was armed so taking shelter behind a large tree, he called out “Give yourself up Molly, there ain’t no point in you and the kids getting hurt.”

But Molly knew giving themselves up was not an option.  Removing the shutter from the small window and keeping her body flush to the wall in order to keep out of sight, she answered “If you want us Bill Travers you’re going to have to come in here and get us.  You know I have a rifle and I’m not afraid to use it.”

“Don’t be silly Molly, there are five of us and if needs be we’ll burn you out.”

This was the one thing that Molly was afraid of, for at the moment they had the advantage of shelter and warmth and enough food to last for several days.  She knew his plan would be quite simple – approach the cabin from the blind side at night and using kerosene from their lamps they could easily set fire to the building.  But this was a risk she would have to take, for there was no going back.

Taking a pan of water sitting next to the fireplace, she poured it onto what was left of the glowing embers, for she knew the simplest way for Bill to burn them out would be to pour the kerosene down the chimney onto the fire.  She then made the children as comfortable as possible in the centre of the cabin, knowing the walls would probably give them enough protection against gunfire.

It wasn’t long before the sun slipped slowly behind the hills and night was upon them once more.  Molly wasn’t sure how much time they would have, maybe Bill would strike straight away, or perhaps he would leave it until morning to see if they had changed their minds.

Molly was not certain how much Bill was aware of what they knew.  He certainly wouldn’t know for definite that Molly was aware of the map, but then again, if she didn’t know, why would she have come all the way out here with the children in tow?  She felt sure it was pretty obvious that Bill was now certain Molly knew of the map and her reason for being out here.

Sitting silently in the cold and dark listening for the slightest sound, the night slowly slipped past.  Finally a chink of light crept through a gap in the shutter and Molly knew it wouldn’t be long before Bill and his men made their move.

Just as she had predicted, Bill was going to try and burn them out.  Kerosene poured down the chimney and into the fireplace, followed moments later by a burning rag.  Molly realised her big mistake – she should have blocked the chimney with damp clothes but now it was too late.  The five of them battled against the flames but it wasn’t long before the confined space of the cabin became full of smoke. 

The door burst open and coughing and choking, the five inhabitants stumbled out onto the frozen ground soon to be surrounded by Bill and his men.

Bill gave instructions to two of his men to put the fire out inside the cabin and then stand guard as the other two dragged Molly and the children away from the building.

“I guess you know why I’m here” he sneered.  “And if you have what I’m looking for, you’d better give it to me now.”

“I don’t have it” answered Molly.

“Well that’s just too bad.”

Just then the two men came out of the smoking cabin, coughing and wiping their eyes.

“The fire’s out now Bill.”

“Ok, get the kids back inside and tie them up, we want everything to look as normal as possible.  Wouldn’t want to make Jake suspicious now would we Molly?” Bill added with a smile on his face.  “We’ll just sit here as planned and wait for Jake to come to us.”

“Do you honestly think you’re going to get away with this Bill Travers?”

“See no reason why not.  We’ll just make it look as though the Chiswell gang were responsible, everyone thinks they murdered Sheriff Peterson, we’ll just say we found you here.  Nobody else knows about the map and soon we’ll be rich beyond our wildest dreams” he added, chuckling harshly.

Molly slowly bowed her head in acceptance of her fate.  Her only hope lay with Jake, but as far as he was concerned, it was the Chiswell gang he needed to be wary of, not Bill Travers.

Bill, full of confidence, drew Molly to her feet and marched her into the cabin.  He instructed the two men there to tie her up and left them to guard Molly and the children while he and the others went back outside.

The children and Molly sat on the floor in silence, their guards watching over them.  A slight breeze blew some grains of snow under the door and into the cabin, the shutters creaked and ash in the fireplace billowed out into the room.  One of the men walked slowly to the door and looked outside.

“Wind’s picking up” he observed, “clouding over too.  Looks like snows on its way.”

Just then Bill came back into the cabin “Well Molly, it looks like our plan’s working just fine.  There’s a sled approaching from the north and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it isn’t Jake.  Been up river probably, to see if there’s any sign of Joe Chiswell and his gang, should imagine he’ll be glad to see us.”

This remark was followed by laughter from the two men inside the cabin.

“Well I guess we’d better go and greet him” Bill added, turning to the men standing next to him.  As the three men left the cabin, Molly knew their only chance would be to warn Jake before it was too late.

“We have to warn Jake” said Peter anxiously.

“But how can we?” replied Tony, “we’re all tied up and he’ll never hear us shout.”

Lucy had been looking round the cabin “I know” she announced, and shuffling on her bottom, she made her way over to the fireplace.  Turning herself round, she picked up a piece of broken glass then shuffled her way back to Molly.

With their backs one another, Lucy began to cut the ropes tying Molly’s hands together.  The glass cut quickly through the twine and soon Molly’s hands were free.  Removing the large hunting knife from inside her coat she cut the ropes securing her feet.  In no time at all she was free and moving from one to another, she quickly cut the ropes securing the children.

“I want you to stay here” she ordered as she made her way to the door.

Slowly and as quietly as possible, she made her way round to the back of the cabin.  Peering round the corner she could see Bill and his men standing in a line but it was too late to shout a warning, for Jake was only metres away from them.  Bill reached into his pocket and drew out a pistol.

Molly ran forwards as fast as she could, and holding the hunting knife by the blade, she drew her arm back, aiming at Bill.  She sent the knife spinning through the air, striking Bill with a resounding thud between the shoulder blades.

Fortunately for Bill it was the handle and not the blade that struck him, but the force of this heavy weapon and the shock of being hit so hard caused the pistol to fall from his hands as he fell forwards into the snow.  For a split second Jake was confused and couldn’t make out what was happening.

“It was Bill that shot Tom” screamed Molly, “It was Bill that shot Tom.”

Before the other men had time to react, Jake had pulled his hunting rifle from its case and took aim at the four of them standing in front of him.  They raised their hands immediately.

Bill, picking himself up slowly from the snow and making one last desperate attempt, reached for the pistol that lay just in front of him.  Jake immediately turned his aim on Bill and shouted a warning “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

But Bill had made up his mind; he hadn’t come this far for nothing and anyhow, now they knew it was him that shot Sheriff Peterson, they would hang him anyway.  Lifting the pistol from the snow he pointed it in the general direction of Jake and squeezed the trigger.

“Jake’s hesitation cost him dearly.

Luck was once again with Bill as the two weapons seemed to fire simultaneously but it was Bill’s shot that reached its target first, sending Jake hurtling backwards, his rifle flying into the air.

One of Bill’s men rushed forward to grab the weapon.  Jake, still conscious, realised what was happening, grabbed the muzzle of the rifle, and using it in a club-like fashion, struck the oncoming figure across the jaw with a sickening crack.  Although Jake had been wounded, he was not the kind of man to give up easily and as long as he had an ounce of breath in his body, he would fight to the last.

However, Bill was upon him before he could use his rifle properly and towering above him, Bill aimed his pistol down at Jake, his finger slowly squeezing the trigger, causing the hammer to draw back.  Jake knew he had seen his last day.

Molly rushed forward but the two men grabbed her and threw her to the ground  as she lay face down in the snow, the sound of a gunshot made her feel sick.  Turning to her side she was Bill standing over Jake.

Bill’s body began to sway from side to side, his knees seemed to give way beneath him and he crumpled into the snow like a bundle of old rags.  Molly and the four men stared in astonishment.  Turning slowly to look behind them, they were amazed to see little Lucy standing there with Molly’s rifle pulled tight to her shoulder.

Jake immediately picked up Bill’s pistol and Molly rushed over to grab Jake’s rifle.  They marched the four men into the cabin and tied them up tightly using the same twine that had bound the children.

Molly and the children re-lit the fire and boiled some water.  Removing Jake’s coat and shirt, Molly tended his wound while the children made themselves busy feeding and looking after the dogs.  Molly did her best to bandage Jake’s wound but he would have to get to a doctor quickly to have the bullet removed.

Now Jake had to make a decision as to what to do next.  He decided the best thing would be for him and Molly to take Bill’s body and his four no-good companions back to town.  The children would be left with plenty of supplies and the cabin would provide good shelter.  They would only have to wait a couple of days or so and then Molly and Jake would return for them.

Jake explained to the children why they would have to be left “There aren’t enough sleds to get us all back together and if we leave Bill’s men here they will bound to have made an escape by the time we return, and then we’ll be back to square one.  You’ll be ok here, there’s plenty of wood for the fire and you’ll have enough food to last more than a week.  Molly will be back for you in a few days.”

The children helped to harness the dogs and prepare the sleds.  Molly hugged each child in turn before Jake shook the boys by the hand and told them how brave they had been and that they were real Mountain Men.  He then knelt down in front of Lucy, took her by the hand, and thanked her for saving his life.

“Remember now” he said, “don’t stray too far from the cabin.  We’ll be back for you in a few days.”

With these words, Molly, Jake, Bill’s body and the prisoners made their way slowly off into the distance.

The four children walked back into the cabin and closed the door behind then.  Tony put more wood on the fire, Lucy placed cocoa and sugar into the pot that was now boiling, while Peter mixed flour and water together and Mark prepared the bacon.

They cooked their supper in silence and when they had finished eating, they sat around the glow of the fire.  It was the first chance they’d had to come to terms with what had happened to them.

Mark was just about to speak when the door rattled which startled the children and they all stared in its direction. 

The blizzard had arrived.  The wind began to whine and howl and the snow began to pile up outside, being shaped into large drifts by the strong wind which funnelled its way down the chimney, blowing smoke and ash into the room, causing the children began to cough and splutter.

The roaring heart of their cabin was now a mere flicker as the icy wind forced its way down the chimney.  Soon the fire was out and it was obvious they wouldn’t be able to re-light it until the storm had died down.  However, the storm grew stronger and what at first had seemed to be a fortress against the elements, now seemed to be of little protection at all.

The children, using spare clothes, tried to plug the gaps to prevent the snow and ice from blowing in as the temperature inside the cabin began to fall rapidly.  They huddled together for warmth but this time there were no huskies to cuddle into and slowly the old was getting the better of then.

Remembering what Molly had told them “the one thing you must never do when you’re very cold is fall asleep” and despite their desperate efforts to stay awake, one by one they gradually succumbed to an overwhelming tiredness and fatigue brought about by hypothermia.

Peter was the last to fall asleep.  Holding his hand to his face in what was left of the meagre light, he tried to draw his thumb and little finger together but no matter how hard he tried, it proved impossible.  No longer being able to keep focused, his eyelids, weighing heavy, flickered and closed.

The cabin was now virtually buried beneath a huge snowdrift.

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven

 

 

Peter started to dream he could hear his mother’s voice calling.

“Peter, Peter.”

The dream was so realistic he could even feel her hand shaking his shoulder gently.  He could hear her voice again.

“Peter, Peter.”

Slowly he opened his eyes.  At first he found it difficult to focus and he closed his eyes again and turned his head to one side.  He could still hear his mother’s voice and feel her hand on his shoulder.

Once again he opened his eyes and this time he could make out a face peering down at him.  The lips seemed to be moving, calling his name.  It was his mother.  As he lurched forwards, his mother grabbed his shoulders.

“Now now” she said, “you must rest.  Dr Matthews is here to see you and I’ve brought you some chicken soup.”

Peter sat up in bed while his mother plumped the pillows behind him.  He felt disorientated and giddy.

“Well young man” said Dr Matthews.  “It seems as though you’ve had a lucky escape.”

“What about Lucy?” asked Peter, a worried look on his face “and Tony, and Mark?”

“They’re all ok” Dr Matthews reassured him, “just very cold and exhausted.”

Peter, his head reeling, was trying to make sense of what was happening.  The previous events – Jake, Molly, Bill, the park gates, the blizzard – came flashing through his mind.

“What about Jake?” he asked.

“Jake?” repeated Dr Matthews.

“And Molly?”

“I think you’ve been having what we call hallucinations.”

“Hallucinations?”

“Yes, very vivid dreams.  Dreams that seem… well, real.  It’s one of the conditions you get with hypothermia.  When you get very cold that is” explained Dr Matthews.

“And you were very lucky” added Peter’s mother.

“Lucky?”

“Yes, you managed to find the pavilion and get inside.  The amateur dramatic society was using it to store their costumes for the winter.  That’s where you got these fur coats and hats from.”

It was then that Peter realised that everything must have been a dream – or a hallucination as Dr Matthews put it. “Now there’s a word Mark would like” he thought.

Peter drank some of the soup while his mother tucked another hot water bottle at his feet.

”Now young man, you need complete rest” said Dr Matthews, “and I would think at least the rest of the week off school” he added with a twinkle in his eye.  Peter managed a weak smile.

“I’ll just show Dr Matthews out” said his mother as she picked up the half empty soup bowl and left the room.

The smell of the clean sheets and the weight of the warm eiderdown pressing against him made Peter feel secure and his eyelids began to feel heavy.  He glanced across at the chair by the window, lying across the back of it was a pair of thick brown corduroy trousers.

Peter stared at them.  He lay there for some moments just staring at the trousers then he pulled the covers back and slipped his feet to the floor.  Sitting on the edge of the bed for a moment before he raised himself slowly, Peter made his way gingerly over to the chair.

He placed his hand into the right pocket of the trousers.  It was empty.  He then placed his hand into the left pocket.  That was empty too.

Peter turned and made his way back to the bed.  Just then he felt a sharp pain in his right foot and lifted his leg immediately.  Still tired and dazed he couldn’t keep his balance and fell to the floor.  Peter sat up and reached forward.  He picked something up.

In the palm of his hand lay a large white tooth.

 

 

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2017 charlie gibb. All rights reserved.

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