This is a fictional story based on the life of Ah Jai, a gold miner and gambler who went by the nickname “Sweet Apple” because of his belief in the power of apples to keep him alive. He had lost most of his vision and was known to play cards with his eyes shut. He also sold lottery tickets. Ah Jai spent many years toiling for gold on Williams Creek near Barkerville, BC during the gold rush years.
Mah Ying Chee was a miner in coal mine #4 when it blew up from coal dust. He was supposed to be dead according to the supervisor because his lantern was amongst the 116 men and mules that didn’t return to the top after the explosion.
About half past midnight, Chee managed to crawl out, after everyone else had gone home and given up any hope for survivors.
Chee decided to keep walking; tired as he was he just wanted to escape. He didn’t want to go back to the mine, even if it meant that his wife and family back home in China were short of money. He would make it up for them somehow.
His friend had got a job as a cook at a road house in Beaver Pass, between Quesnel and Barkerville where the gold was. “If you need money, try working for the CPR. They have an office in Yale and you’ll probably get a job.”
Chee boarded a boat from Victoria to New Westminster and from there took a steamboat to Yale, crowded like sardines into bunks, six tiers high. It was filthy and foul and Chee questioned whether he had done the right thing, following the herd of people up to Barkerville and what remained of the gold rush.
To say it was a relief to disembark the ship and breathe some fresh air was an understatement. With its assortment of tents, shacks and wooden buildings of various heights, Yale itself was quite different from the planned company town he had come from.
It was the sort of town that could only exist at the edge of towering mountains, in a place where the steamboats wouldn’t travel any further. Chee got off the boat and stretched his legs, looking for a place to eat. He passed a motley group playing cards in front of a hotel with a false front. There were false fronts everywhere. There were also a lot of questionable characters and some hardened ones too.
After a few inquiries and directions, he found a shack that his friend had told him about and encountered the man they called ‘Sweet Apple.’ His real name was Ah Jai and he too had been a coal miner who had gone mostly blind from working in the dimly lit mines.
They exchanged stories for a while and then Jai gave Chee ten cents and asked him to buy some sweet apples.
Chee wasn’t sure how or where he was going to find some apples but the money felt good in his hand anyway and he was hungry himself. Still, a promise was a promise and he felt obliged to be kind to this eccentric man who had shared the same past.
After a while Chee returned empty handed just as Jai was settling down to eat a meal of ham and rice and a variety of vegetables he claimed he grew in his own yard. Chee pulled up a crate and sat down to eat. Between mouthfuls of dinner, Jai told Chee the secret to his success.
“Apples. Sweet apples are what saved my life. Do you want to hear a real story?” he asked.
Chee nodded, grateful to be eating a good meal at last.
“I came up here for the gold in 1865 but I found I made more money gambling. I don’t see too well but I know when I have the four aces in my hand. Plus, I sold lottery tickets. I told myself, if you stay sober, then you have more money to send back home. In a few years, I will set sail for China.”
“How did apples save your life?” Chee asked.
“I still have a claim up there near Williams Creek and I go up every year. One thing I learned early on is that you never let anyone know how well or how poorly you are doing. That’s why I always had lottery tickets. That explains everything. People are up here to get rich, nothing else.
“One day, I was halfway to Barkerville when I ran into four men from England and they were all very hungry. Hallucinating. Nothing that was coming out of their mouths made any sense. They had money and I had food. So, they gave me money for my food. It was enough money for me to buy my claim and pay off what I owed to the mining company.”
Chee was skeptical of the story but he didn’t doubt that Jai was a decent gambler. Later that evening, after Chee had inquired about transportation out of Yale, he saw Jai sitting at a table down a laneway behind the hotel, dealing cards with quick, fluid movements.
There were only three ways to get to Cariboo at that time: Barnard’s Express which cost $75 one way, by bull team or walking. Chee didn’t want to walk, but he didn’t have the money for the express.
Chee went to sleep on the wood slat floor of the shack and slept soundly until the morning and someone opened the door.
For a moment he was disoriented, but then Chee realized at once and in another moment, realized something was terribly wrong.
There lay Ah Jai, sprawled dead on the floor with a knife sticking in his back, between which lay a lottery ticket.
(to be continued)