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Mountain Runaways

Chapter One

Edge of Willmore Wilderness Park in west-central Alberta, Canada

It’s the family’s last day together, but nobody knows that yet. Nobody knows anything except that they’re all tired after a full day of February snowshoeing on the mountain above their log house, and that the mist is floating down, wrapping all five in a shroud. They can’t even see their tiny mountain town of Peakton below.

Jon’s snowshoes crunch to a stop as he squints through the blanket of white. His father’s face, ruddy as his wool scarf, turns to Jon and his siblings, Korka and Aron.

“So, kids, what do we do when visibility is bad?” Dad asks. “Stay put,” Jon says with full confidence. As if he even needs to be asked. At seventeen, he knows more than most of the adults who file through his parents’ two-week wilderness-survival courses. “Or —”

“— use a compass if there’s still a sightline left,” his younger sister, Korka, finishes for him, flipping her thick blond braid back with gloved fingers, her blue eyes sparkling. At fourteen, she annoys Jon with her constant attempts to prove herself.

The two watch Aron plop down in the snow with the angelic smile of an eleven-year-old. It’s his way of saying that when you’re fogged in, you should stay where you are. And who cares about weather, anyway? If you’re with the only four people who matter to you in the world, all is well.

“Good, kids,” their mother, bundled in a parka, says in her enthusiastic teacher’s voice. “And why do we not just continue to march forward?”

“Because without a compass —” Jon begins.

“— we’ll end up going in a circle without meaning to,” Korka finishes.

Aron rolls onto his back and kicks one leg up in the air like a baby moose trying to right itself, chuckling as his snowshoes send white stuff flying.

Their mom interprets: “Because we all have one leg slightly longer than the other, which means no matter how hard we try, we can’t walk in a straight line without a sightline or compass.” She leans down to tickle Aron through his padded snow vest. “Good answer, my young Viking.”

Jon watches Aron wrap his mittens around her ankles and tug her off-balance, sending her into the snow beside him. She screeches with laughter, and they create synchronized mother-and-son snow angels. Warmth radiates through Jon’s chest. It’s always good watching Aron come out of his shell.

“We have a compass,” Korka declares, folding her arms and frowning at her dad like she’s keen to get home.

She’s always got places to go, things to do, Jon reflects. Fog’s not about to slow her down.

Jon, on the other hand, is happy to linger in the soup. Not only does he love an outdoor navigation challenge, but up here, there’s no phone reception. That means he doesn’t have to listen to whiny apologies from his date from hell at the Valentine’s Day dance the previous evening. Maybe today’s fog can obliterate the recurring flashback of the high school gymnasium strewn with crepe paper and the echo of her harsh words as she dumped him, shouting over the racket of a musically challenged band.

All he’d suggested was ditching the dance and going to the local café for a bite. Okay, maybe he put it too strongly. He’d felt so claustrophobic in the overwarm, overlit, jarringly noisy gym that he insisted they get out of there. She seemed to take it the wrong way, like girls always do.

“No way. We came to dance. Stop ordering me around. Like you did last week when you dragged me up a slope on a stupid, freezing ‘walk.’ We’re done. Go find a girl who likes a bossy tyrant.” After another fifteen minutes of arguing, she stalked off.

When he looked for her to apologize, he found her in a dark corner making out with some other guy.

So, being wrapped in a heavy cloud pretty much suits his mood. Besides, the last thing he wants is to get home and be yanked into his father’s home office. “You’re the oldest, and the most responsible, the one with a good head for marketing and numbers,” his dad likes to say. “We need you to help run the survival school as soon as you graduate.”

In a few months he’ll march across the stage at Peakton High School. But for now, he’s hopelessly clinging to his own plan for the future. He knows his parents can’t afford to send him to college, but they only shake their heads when he begs them to let him get his emergency medical technician — EMT — certification this summer, a course he’s been studying for every minute of his spare time. An EMT job could earn him decent money, and he’d be able to save lives in the great outdoors that he loves so much.

“Sorry, Jon,” his dad has said a million times, frowning. “The survival school needs you, immediately. More work, less play when you graduate, son. It’s all about earning enough to feed the family.”

Jon sighs. The family. A family enveloped in fog at the moment and, unknown to his younger siblings, in debt.

“Let’s turn around already!” Korka demands. “I want to get home in time for my Krav Maga session!”

“Hmm, not till you demonstrate something you’ve learned from that martial arts class,” Dad says with a smile.

“It’s not technically martial arts, Dad. It’s a tactical defence system,” she declares with her usual pout.

Jon rolls his eyes.

“Okay,” Dad says, grinning and raising protective arms in front of his face.

The words are barely out of his mouth when Korka thumps him on the back of his neck with the palm of her hand. Not enough to hurt him, but enough to surprise him. He drops his tall, lanky frame overdramatically into the snow, playing along.

“See how I kept my elbow in front of my ribs, rather than let you expect the blow by pulling my arm back?” she asks proudly. “So you couldn’t see it coming!”

Dad rubs his neck and grins. “Got that right,” he says.

Laughter filters through the gauzy air between them. Then Dad leaps back up and faces her with his head lowered. Jon barely hears his next words. “I’m sorry you’ll have to miss the summer sessions. We just can’t afford them anymore.”

She pulls away and crosses her arms. “Maybe I can ask Mrs. Alpern if I can pay for them by cleaning her basement studio every day.”

“We’ll talk about it later,” Dad says, patting her arm.

Really? Jon thinks. We have to mention money stuff even up here? Still, his father has found a chance to get out of his office to spend some family time outdoors. Which is good but kind of sad, considering his business is being outdoors and teaching its mysteries to others. The family’s survival school has been low on customers and cash for a while. Barely surviving (okay, that wasn’t funny). Mostly because Mom and Dad are better at teaching what they love than at the business end, Jon figures.

Korka helps Aron leap up and dust off the snow, then wraps him in a warm hug that brings out a wide grin. The kind of high-beam smile that Aron gets when reading his books on Viking heroes. “Okay,” says Dad. “I say we escort Korka home to get ready for her lesson as soon as the three of you demonstrate your snow-pit competence, which will assure us that all is safe for a return using our compasses.”

“Compasses are no good now that we’ve lost our sightline,” Korka says, nose scrunched up like she’s caught him out on a trick question.

“According to our last sightline a few minutes ago, home is one hundred forty degrees southeast of where we stand right now,” Jon says quickly, proudly.

“Exactly, son. Well done. So, we use our compass.”

None of them wants to do a snow pit, Jon figures, but they know their parents too well to bother protesting. Obediently, they drop to their knees and, using their hands and small shovels, start shovelling snow on the slope to the side of their path. The idea is to check the stability of the snowpack. It’s like digging a little hole a ski-length wide and knees-to-head height, then slicing off a side like it’s a piece of layer cake in need of inspection. Like preparing to poke fingers into the icing and cake layers to see if any part is so doughy or slippery that one layer might slide off another.

Within minutes, there are three side-by-side minipits. The siblings compete to finish, brushing their mittens vertically across the face of the pits, checking which layers are crusty and weak enough to crumble and which are hard enough that their fingers, fists, a pencil, and maybe even a knife won’t go through.

“Aron, you’re not digging a hole to China,” Mom says.

“Nope. He’s digging to Iceland,” Jon says, making Aron smile. His Viking-obsessed little brother would definitely prefer to dig a hole to one of the Nordic countries.

Jon glances at Korka. She’s crawling around in her tiny pit, shoving her arms into the weak layers.

Aron is smelling his, and chewing thoughtfully on some of the snow. Aron likes to do things a little differently. But when it comes down to instincts, Jon would pretty much trust his little brother with his life.

Once the pit walls are smooth and vertical, the three get to their feet, dust themselves off, and reach for the ice saw on the end of Dad’s ski pole. Korka gets her hands on it first. She conducts her stability tests, then hands it to Jon.

“It’s all good,” she says, hands on her hips.

Jon chops out a study block roughly fingers-to-elbow length and places Dad’s shovel on top of the column. Then he taps the top of the shovel, first lightly, then harder, till his cube fractures.

“Compression test hard, which is good,” he rules. “Low danger.” Unlike his siblings, he has had a full avalanche-training course.

An impatient Aron grabs the shovel from Jon, completes his test, and offers a thumbs-up. He can speak — he just prefers not to. That’s how it’s been ever since the three siblings had a childhood misadventure that their parents never found out about, and that Jon figures the other two were too young to remember. It’s a trauma he wishes he could forget, too.

“You’re all correct. Low avalanche danger between here and home,” Dad confirms.

A nearby crunch of snow startles them. Two large, shadowy figures on cross-country skis emerge from the mist.

“Ha!” bellows Officer Greg Vine, the absolute last person Jon wants to see right now. He’s the cop father of the girl he took out last night.

Greg’s brother David, equally big and muscle-bound as his brother, pauses behind him.

“Got your kids on their knees praying for the mist to blow away, Gunnar and Eva?” Officer Vine asks. “Is that a strange Icelandic tradition? Or is this snow-pit school?”

As if we need schooling on snow pits, which we’ve been making all our lives, Jon thinks.

“They’re practising their snow pits, Greg,” Dad replies breezily. “Remember, kids, always dig them on a slope that’s the same aspect and angle as the slope you’re about to travel across, without triggering an avalanche.”

“We know that, Dad,” Jon says.

“Of course you do.” He grins and turns back to the men. “Are we on for skiing first thing tomorrow morning, gentlemen?”

“Storm coming in, so it depends on conditions,” Officer Vine replies, his dark eyes on Jon. As Jon’s mother and father move ahead out of earshot, the big cop says in a low voice, “Jon Gunnarsson. When you pick my daughter up for a date, I expect you to deliver her home, not ditch her at the dance and make her walk home in the dark.”

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The Jagged Circle

Chapter 1: The Calm Before the Storm

Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.
— Vivien Greene

Evangeline Gibb’s spirits were low. It was Monday of the spring break, and all her friends were away with family, either skiing down snowy slopes in faraway lands or sunbathing on romantic beaches. And here she was, mucking stalls in her grandmother Mary Parson’s four-stall wooden barn. Sixteen-year-old Evie envisioned a lonely week of boredom.

The snow should have melted by now, she brooded. Flowers should be shooting up. Birds should be singing. Leaves should be sprouting. But no. The tree branches were stark and budless against the grey, unsettled sky, and she was bundled up in her old winter jacket with her blue knitted toque pulled over her long red hair. When she exhaled, she could see her breath. The water tap was stiff with frost, and she’d had to use the hairdryer on it to get the water running.

At least the pipes weren’t frozen, she thought begrudgingly. She switched on the old barn radio beside the telephone.

Good morning this Monday, March twelfth, at two minutes to eight. The current temperature is minus four, but good news, folks! By two this afternoon we’ll hit plus seven. You heard right! Our wintery weather will be moving down to New York. Might as well &8230; they blame us anyway.

Dumb joke, Evie moped, as she put down her pitchfork to empty the wheelbarrow. The very idea of a spring thaw seemed like a distant dream.

Followed by her tall black dog, Magpie, Evie pushed the heaped cart over icy ruts to the manure spreader. In her irritation, she shoved it harder than necessary up the slippery ramp, and the whole thing tipped over, spilling horse manure and urine-soaked wood chips onto the ground.

“Arghhh!” she yelled. “Shh-shoot!”

Magpie scampered for cover, and Evie stomped back into the barn to retrieve her pitchfork. Angrily, she forked up the mess and refilled the barrow. “I can’t stand this!” she muttered aloud.

The winter had been especially long and harsh. With intense storms, high winds, and frequent power outages, it had been so bad that her grandmother had finally invested in a generator. Evie was glad, since no power meant no water, and no water meant driving miles away to haul it back for the horses to drink. And they drank a lot of water.

She dumped the twice-handled load in the spreader and carefully backed the wheelbarrow down the slick ramp. This time she managed to keep the front wheel from sliding off.

“Calm down, you jerk,” she told herself. She was acting like a spoiled brat, and she knew it. Being on a horse farm surrounded by beautiful countryside wasn’t a bad way to live. She filled her lungs with fresh air and counted to ten.

She gazed over the sloping fields and winding driveway fenced with ancient cedar split rails. The property had been in the Parson family for years, and from the first time she’d laid eyes on it, Evie had thought it was totally charming. As she stood at the barn door, to her right the lane curved up to the yellow Victorian farmhouse with a white wraparound porch. To her left, the lane ran down to the gravel road and across a meandering stream by way of the quaint wooden bridge that gave the farm its name, Parson’s Bridge.

Her spirits lifted further as her gaze landed on the four horses in the big paddock out front, munching on the round bale of hay that Glen Judge had dropped off the day before. Each horse was attractive in its own way, Evie decided, from tall and thin to short and curvy. And all with such different personalities. She took pleasure in how pretty they looked against the white snow.

Each horse wore a different coloured blanket. Calm and collected Paragon was a lanky bay, and his blanket was bright green. He’d been Gran Mary’s show hunter and was still elegant and in surprisingly good shape. The retired old chestnut racehorse, Bendigo, who’d won half a million dollars in his career and was still feisty, wore burnt orange. Christieloo, Gran Mary’s cheerful, willing hacking horse, was a palomino. Her deep-blue rug contrasted perfectly with her coat.

Last —but certainly not least, Evie thought —was her horse, No Justice. He was a sleek black and very nicely suited up in his blanket of crimson red. She called him Kazzam.

Her eyes rested on him. He belonged to her, she reflected, but really, she belonged to him. Kazzam’s bad temper was legendary, but Evie understood what angered him and why, and she felt he usually had good reason. She loved him for his distinctive personality. He returned that love by trusting her and allowing her to ride him. Together, they made a great team.

How proud she was to have a horse like him! A smile slowly brightened her freckled face as she thought about the ebony gelding. His ear tips almost touched together when pricked forward, and he had a crisp white heart on his forehead. His alert eyes shone with intelligence, and his profile was patrician, lending him a regal bearing and an air of confidence. He was small but mighty, standing only fifteen hands, but possessed of powerful speed. He was a Thoroughbred, bred for stamina and swiftness.

Nine months earlier, against all odds, Kazzam had won an upset victory at Canada’s most prestigious Thoroughbred race, the Queen’s Plate. Evie had been the rider. She’d just turned sixteen and had barely made apprentice jockey in time. It sometimes felt like it had all been a dream.

A training injury had sidelined their plans that year, and Evie worried about further damage being done to the gelding if they raced again. She was contemplating what other career might suit him best. For the past few months, when the weather permitted, she’d been training Kazzam to jump. It had begun as a strengthening exercise, but the small black horse had such an aptitude for the sport and was so eager to work that Evie had expanded their training schedule. She’d found the book How to Train Your Jumper at BookLore in Orangeville, and Gran Mary helped her pace out the proper striding. They did gymnastics and triples and bounces and oxers. Evie dragged out old lawn furniture for Kazzam to jump, and an old blue tarp from the barn became a water hazard. She admired his talent and his brains. He learned very quickly, and once he figured something out, he never forgot. Plus, they were having lots of fun.

She stretched out her arms and shoulders, noticing how the sun was trying hard to break through the clouds. The day was starting to look promising.

Normally on school mornings, she would get to the barn by six o’clock. She’d feed the horses their grain and blanket them while they were eating. After turning them out into the field, she’d scoot back to the farmhouse for a shower and a bowl of oatmeal before catching the school bus at seven-thirty. She mucked the stalls after school, unless Gran Mary had time to do it.

But today was a school holiday, and Evie could take her sweet time. Like mucking stalls is a holiday, she thought wryly. To be honest, though, she really didn’t mind because where there’s manure, there has to be horses.

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