Owens brushed aside the snow enough so that he could see the body of Marcel LaPrairie. Barnard took in the view of the river and the small lean-to structure. Barnard filled him in with the details of how LaPrairie was discovered.
“LaPrairie was last seen at Gott’s Saloon, from what I’ve heard. He used to have a claim at the bar somewhere around here, but he sold it before the snow set in.”
Owens stood up, “He’s too frozen to get a good look at him but he was definitely shot. I think we should talk to Ah Ming, the fellow who discovered him, but first let’s stop at Gott’s saloon.”
There was a lively discussion going on as they entered and then the sound of voices ebbed away until the only sound was the bartenders towel squeaking against a shot glass. They were a rough brunch; dishevelled and with a complexion that suggested too many days subsisting on pork and beans mixed with alcohol. One man who had been picking his teeth with a bowie knife stopped and put it away.
Barnard and Owens ate the “special” which was an overpriced plate of potatoes and pork.
After the meal, they went through to the back of the establishment and found Ah Ming standing over a large cast-iron pot, stirring.
The door was closed but Barnard could hear some chickens in the coop outside.
“Marcel was Memaloost when I came and found him.”
“Memaloost?” Owens repeated.
“That’s Chinook for dead,” Barnard said.
“Why were you looking for him?”
Ah Ming looked around as if wondering what else to add to the pot.
“He left some jade here he found. Told me where I could find some by the river. Too cold to look for gold so I look for jade.”
“Do you have this jade here?”
“I have it outside.”
They followed him to a small shed out the back and waited while he retrieved a chunk of dark green jade.
Afterwards, Owens suggested they split duties. He sent Barnard to talk to some of the gold miners at Gott’s Saloon while he went and inspected LaPrairie’s cabin.
Having inspected the outside, Owens couldn’t find anything unusual. Inside the cabin, was a pair of patched up moccasins, blunt edged pick axe, and a piece of paper with the mark of the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was a receipt for the purchase of tobacco.
After further inquiries, Owens discovered that LaPrairie was working a new claim at Bridge River with three other French-speaking men. One was described as a ‘gens du pays’ and the other two were old voyageurs like LaPrairie.
Despite the cold and lack of gold mining activity, there was no accommodation to be had – every one of the thirteen saloons that had rooms were full as were the shacks that dotted the main street.
“Most of these men just had one or two months of gold panning,” Barnard said. “The ones that can’t afford to pay for shelter have built snow caves for themselves.”
Over a bowl of beans and dry bread, they discussed what might have happened to LaPrairie.
Owens pulled out the receipt he had put in his pocket for safekeeping and showed it to Barnard.
“‘100 lbs’ – that’s a lot of tobacco; more than someone would need for the winter.”
“How much tobacco is for sale in this town?” Owen asked. “I noticed that the General Store has taken their sign down but I still see people smoking.”
“You’ve got a point there. At $9 a pound, tobacco is probably more lucrative than gold, especially during the winter months when people are loitering about.”
Around six thirty, when it was dark out, Owens put on his snowshoes and told Barnard he was going to stay at LaPrairie’s cabin.
“Someone should be watching that place,” Owens said.
The stars were already visible and he could clearly see Orion the hunter as he trudged on snowshoes towards LaPrairie’s cabin.
Anyone else would have been tempted to light a fire inside but Owens knew that there were other eyes on LaPrairies’ cabin.
Bundled tightly, Owens pulled up a chair facing the door and waited. Sooner or later someone was going to show up.
The next day, Owens decided to set out and see LaPrairie’s claim for himself, but Barnard suggested otherwise.
“There’s no one there, the others have left. They’ve either gone south to Victoria or to Fort Hope to get more supplies.”
It seemed as though everyone knew LaPrairie. ‘Marcel’ was known for his outdoor skills, but no one had heard LaPrairie talking about gold somewhere. Everyone who Owens talked to was reluctant to answer his questions about how LaPrairie managed to afford his own cabin. It was only until he went inside the General Store that Owens got his answer.
“Most of the miners probably bring up their own tobacco,” said the clerk. “Our last shipment from the Hudson’s Bay Company never arrived.”
Owens had a plan that would shed some light on the mystery. He told the shopkeeper that he had found the missing shipment.
That same evening,something stirred outside of LaPrairie’s cabin. Owens crept behind the door just as it was pushed open.
A flickering kerosene lamp washed the inside walls in yellow.
The fellow was too preoccupied to notice Owens. He rested the lamp on the floor as he felt along one of the boards with his foot. Then he bent down and using the edge of a bowie knife, he pried up one board and then another.
Within a minute the man had managed to pull out several packages from under the floor. Just as he was piling them on, Owens jumped him from behind and kicked the knife out of the way.
The bartender from the Gott’s Saloon struggled against him.
“I bought the tobacco from Marcel!”
“That tobacco was stolen. It was the property of the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was supposed to have been shipped to the General Store and instead it wound up here. You have a lot of explaining to do Mr. Gott!”
Owens secured handcuffs on him and then led him outside.