It felt like it took Stormwind forever to reach the beginning of Parson's Road, as Jake and I leaned into the wind that numbed our faces and listened for the buzzing of the snowmobiles. We didn't speak. We just huddled together on Stormwind's back as the falling snow crusted on our clothes.
The lump on my head hurt; I wondered if I had gotten a concussion when I fell down the stairs. Warm in Jake's leather jacket, and his furry hat with the earflaps that I didn't think was so silly now, I leaned back against him and tried to stay awake. I knew that he wouldn't let me fall off if I went to sleep, but he didn't know the way to the cave. I wondered, too, if Stormwind would cross the river that had almost drowned us last summer. It wasn't deep if we crossed where the trail led to the water, but any misstep could send us plunging into water far over our heads. And what if she balked at the river crossing, and threw us? We'd never find her in the blizzard.
"Do you want me to take over for awhile?" Jake said softly. I nodded and let him take the leadrope, glad that I could stuff my frozen hand in my pocket.
"The cave," I mumbled. "Cross the river…follow it a mile off the trail…"
I didn't know how much he heard, because soon after that, I finally passed out.
Jake's voice sounded far away. I was so tired. I tried to open my eyes, but instead felt myself slowly flop forward and slide sideways off Stormwind's back.
"Kat!" Jake gasped. My raw face brushed against Stormwind's mane as Jake grabbed me and set me gently on my feet, helped me stand. My legs quivered as I looked around the twilit forest, not sure of where we were. I heard nothing but the wind that drove the snowflakes against us with a whispering sound.
My toes were numb. I looked down and saw that I stood in snow up to my knees. It didn't reach too high on Jake, though.
"I wish I could get you into town, Kat," he said grimly. "You should see a doctor. Do you know that you've been unconscious for the past half-hour?"
I was surprised that I hadn't felt him get off Stormwind. "How far are we?" I mumbled.
"We're not going to the cave. It's not safe in this weather. Look, Kat, I think I'm too big for her to carry up this hill…" Jake picked me up and set me on Stormwind's back as if I were a little kid. He looked up at me. "You just sit tight, ok?"
I shrugged and clutched Stormwind's mane in both hands, and let him lead her up the steep hill. At the top stood the old log cabin. In the summer it was a cheerful place, its yard overgrown with prickly raspberry bushes and wild roses. But now I could barely see the cabin's squat dark form through the swirling snow.
I couldn't help but think about how this was the second time that Stormwind and I had gone camping there. When I had run away from home last July, it had been our first night's stop on our journey into the wilderness. But I wasn't alone this time, though - and I was glad that Jake and I escaped my panicked aunt and that madman, Pierre. But I knew that we couldn't stay there. We were still too close to home…and the police. I was in big trouble now, even bigger trouble than the time that I had stolen Stormwind. I had defied both Aunt Betsy and the law, fleeing into the woods with a man everyone suspected of murder. Of course, Dave, Randy, and I knew the truth. Jake had seen the real criminal. But none of that mattered, since we really were fugitives now.
Jake and Stormwind both slipped on the ice a few times, scaring me out of my daydreams, but soon made it up to the cabin porch. Icicles hung halfway to the ground. The empty black windows seemed to stare at us, wondering what we were doing there on a night like that.
"Home sweet home…I guess," Jake said, rubbing his chin. "We can start a fire, though it'll have to be out by morning. Just in time, too - it's getting too dark to see out here. Come on."
As he shoved open the warped wooden door, I tied Stormwind to the porch railing and adjusted her crooked horse blanket. Ice clung to the shaggy fur on her legs.
"She'll be alright, Kat," Jake said softly. "She's out of the wind and snowdrifts. Let's get inside."
Reluctantly, I left Stormwind and followed him into the cabin. He went to the table and lit the room's one oil lamp. It cast a soft golden light on the rough wooden furniture and log walls.
I took off Jake's wet jacket and hung it on a nail over one of the cots, and watched as he untied his roll of four thick wool blankets. He had barely had enough time to grab it as we fled the secret room.
"Why don't you just buy a sleeping bag?" I asked as he spread a blanket over the other cot.
"Because then I couldn't do stuff like this," he said as he tossed me his other three blankets. "Wrap up in those. You'll warm up in no time."
I did as he told me, and looked out the window at Stormwind's dim figure. She stood with her head down, back to the wind with her tail blowing between her legs. I hoped that her blanket would keep her warm enough, and that she wouldn't catch a chill from our ride.
I closed my eyes and pulled my blankets higher around my chin as I shivered and sat down at the table.
"You know, things could be worse," Jake said as he knelt before the stone fireplace, laying kindling on the cold ashes. "We could still be out there."
"That's true ," I said. "But you know, this is the dumbest idea I ever had!"
"Hey, don't knock yourself! We did what we had to do."
"And we almost froze to death doing it!"
Jake didn't answer. I watched him at work at the fireplace, where a meek little flame had begun lapping at the kindling. "There, that's better. I think there's enough wood here to last us the night. We have all we'll need."
Jake wrapped himself in his blanket and sat down across from me, reached into his shirt pocket, and pulled out a mushy chocolate bar. He tossed the wrappers in the fire, and split it with me. We both licked every trace of melted chocolate from our fingers, since we had no idea where our next meal would be coming from.
Just as I started worrying about our awful situation, Jake's hand appeared from under his blanket and I caught a flash of something metal. "Tonight we should try to stay awake as long as we can," he said. "I have my harmonica. Do you want to sing, or something?"
"Jake, how can you think about singing at a time like this?" I said. I was annoyed that he didn't even seem worried about what was going to happen to him. Still, I reminded myself that he was used to living this way, sleeping in whatever shelter he could find, in all kinds of weather. He'd been doing it for…well, I had no idea how many years.
There was so much that I didn't know about him. I thought that his lifestyle sounded like a lot of fun, and even then, as we sat in the chilly cabin, I envied him. Randy, too. They were free. They were true outdoorsmen. I wanted to live just like them. Instead of riding freight trains or hitchhiking, though, I would ride Stormwind around the United States.
"Will you…you and Randy, I mean…will you teach me how to be a…well, a person of the land?"
He sighed. "I don't think so, Kat. I can teach you survival skills if you want me to, but I can't encourage you to roam around the country the way that Randy and I do. It can be a dangerous life."
"I see," I snapped. "It's because I'm a girl, right? You think -"
"No, I get it. You think that I'm not as hardy as you and Randy, that I'd slow you down and be scared of everything -"
"Kat, Kat!" He held up his hand for me to stop. "It's not because you're a girl. I think you're always jumping the gun here, kid, always thinking that people are being sexist when they're not."
"I'm not -"
He held up his hand again. "There's no way I can, with good conscience, tell you to go tramping around the country with nothing but a bedroll and a backpack. You have no good reason to."
"But if it keeps you free -"
"Don't worry about me. Look, we have to go back sooner or later." He sighed again. "Kat, just listen to me. Randy ran away to save his own life, and I left home so I could live my own life. But you, kid, there's no reason for you to do that. Your father loves you, Kat. He's not the kind of parent that Randy and I ran away from."
"But Randy told me that you were really rich, at one time. Is that really true ?"
As he grinned over at me, his teeth looked very white in the gloom. "Appearances are deceiving, aren't they?"
"But if you were rich, how could you possibly run away from all that?..."
"...That's a story we can save for another time." He looked at his watch under the lamplight. "Huh. It's 1:30 in the morning. You better get some sleep, because we might have a long day tomorrow."
I gathered my blankets around me and moved to my cot, grateful that we had those and not the icy cave floor where we would've been sleeping if I'd had my way. "Jake?" I murmured as I lay down. "Have you ever been on trial?"
He sighed. "Nope."
"Are you scared?"
"Yeah." He nodded. "But you gotta have faith, kid. Everything will be alright if you just have faith." Half-asleep, I felt his hands brush against my face as he pulled my blankets higher around my shoulders. "You just get yourself some rest, now. Things will look better in the morning."
I wasn't so sure. I was stranded alone in a snowbound cabin with a man the whole town suspected of murder. I knew that I was safe with Jake, but our situation was enough to make Aunt Betsy and the police accuse him of doing unspeakable things to me. I was the one who got us into this entire mess. I was the one who had to get us both out.