Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Missing Black Brimmed Hat (part 2)

After several days exploring the rugged coast, Elmwood decided to investigate Yak-Tulamn, the place where the red earth was sold.
He followed a rough path to one of the coal town of Nanaimo on the east coast of the Island, wearing his black brimmed hat, the one thing that kept him dry, unlike his boots which allowed water in everywhere. By the time he reached so called civilization, Elmwood realized he was getting strange looks. He removed the hat as he entered the Clipper Hotel and put it on the counter while he checked in for the evening.

“I’m a collector,” he said as he placed a battered oil cloth sack on the counter.

The clerk raised his eyebrows and gave Elmwood an appraising look of his own, as if not quite believing Elmwood matched his idea of a collector. After several days in the bush, sleeping in his same clothes, Elmwood had a rough idea of what he looked like.

“Do you have a safe place for this?”

The clerk handled the sack at arms length with only the tips of his fingers and put it in a drawer below the desk.

The clerk showed him to his room and politely asked him if he wanted a bath before dinner.

“There’s a laundry service too, for an extra dollar. He’ll pick up your clothes and have them washed and dried by the time you’ve finished your bath.”

Elmwood doubted that was the case, but he put his clothes in the laundry sack provided and left it outside his door as instructed while he waited for word that his bath was ready.

Looking out the window, he saw a man with a hat pulled low over his eyes trudging along behind the hotel with a wheelbarrow containing several sacks. He briefly wondered if one of the sacks were his.

After several days in the bush, Elmwood was grateful to settle in for a warm bath and he must have dozed off because he didn’t hear the footsteps treading down the hall.

Someone shuffled down the hallway and he thought he heard someone say something about dinner. Elmwood grunted in reply. Although he didn’t usually care much for eating meals, the water had turned tepid and his stomach grumbled. He got out, dried himself off slowly, dressed then ambled along the hallway to his room.

Opening the door to his room, he realized something was not quite right. On the bed lay some clothes, but they were not his. He had always been very fastidious about his belongings and how he travelled, yet nothing was how he had left it.

With some consternation, Elmwood slipped on the shirt and pants which hardly came up to his knees and made his way down to the lobby to see the clerk.

“I have received someone else’s clothes instead of my own.”

The clerk looked at him solemnly, “sometimes if the launderer is busy, he will provide clothes until yours are ready. In the meantime, dinner is being served,” indicating the dining room door which was propped open.

Elmwood was doubtful this was the case, however, he went to have dinner which consisted of a meat loaf and mashed potatoes, washed down with some port. He felt rather than noticed that someone was looking at him.

Turning his head, he caught sight of a man whose name should have been familiar to him but he couldn’t remember, other than he was a member of the ‘Know Nothings’ an absurd name for a political party.

A week before, he had knocked on Elmwood’s door claiming to be a friend of one of his patients, Ned McGowan. Always reluctant to discuss patients’ business, Elmwood told him he didn’t know anything, to which the man smiled and made a strange gesture with his hand, a signal of some sort.

“Did he pay you?” the man asked.

Elmwood had too much pride to discuss anything to do with money or lack thereof; he’d just been sitting on the crate eating some week old bread. He was about to close the door on the man, when he thrust an American dollar bill at him.

“If you happen to see McGowan, tell him Boyle called. I’m staying at the Inn by the wharf.”

“What use is an American dollar on British soil run by the Hudson’s Bay Company? It would be more useful to have a sack of nails,” Elmwood said and shut the door.

He wasn’t about to say anything about the visitor when he went to check on his patient who was languishing in the next room with a bruised jaw and several lacerations. It was evident by the look on McGowan’s face though, that he knew something was up.

“He’ll be back,” McGowan said through gritted teeth. “He’s a Know Nothing man.”

Sure enough, ten minutes later, there was another knock on the door. It was the Know Nothing man with a small sack of nails.

At this point, Elmwood should have declined. But there he stood holding the nails as the man walked away.

Although it pained McGowan to speak, he did.

“The Know Nothings are a bunch of no good traitors. I used to have a newspaper for a few years and none of them liked my questions about who profited from the arson fires of San Francisco.”

Elmwood crossed his brows, “how much trouble are you in?”

McGowan raised himself onto his elbows and winced as he swung his legs around. Elmwood steadied him as he got to his feet.

“My name has been cleared of any wrongdoing, it’s just that certain people want me dead and they’re willing to travel to the ends of the earth.”

Elmwood didn’t ask where he was going but McGowan’s words had an affect on him. Just how far would one’s enemies seek to travel?

He managed to avoid any contact with Boyd but Elmwood couldn’t help but feel shadowed. Now that he was in this hotel in Nanaimo, the same feeling came over him.

Immediately after dinner, Elmwood inquired about his clothes which he was told should arrive at any time.

Elmwood returned to his room and sat on the bed, wondering why he felt so ill at ease. It wasn’t just the fact that his clothes were elsewhere or that his collectibles were out of sight. There was something else. He refused to think about McGowan’s problems; they weren’t his. But why were the people following him? It didn’t make sense.

Suddenly, it occured to him that he hadn’t seen his black brimmed hat.
With some difficulty he found a match and lit the kerosene lamp. It cast shadows over the walls and the furniture, but it should have been adequate to see something as large as his black brimmed hat, but he couldn’t see it. His black brimmed hat was missing!

The sky had turned into shades of charcoal and the clouds were low. In the distance Elmwood could make out a small figure wearing a grey coat pushing a wooden wheelbarrow. A few fat drops of rain hit the window.

Just then, a pair of heavy shoes came along the hallway followed by a knock at the door.

“Dr. Elmwood? I’ve got your laundry here.”

The voice sounded distinctly American and he was sure it didn’t belong to the fellow at the front desk, nor the one with the wheelbarrow.

“Just a minute,” Elmwood said. He went to the window and looked out.

Down the lane, was the laundry man, running, his feet splashing in the puddles.

Elmwood lifted the sash and had one leg out the window and balanced on the ledge when he heard the door open. There was the Know Nothing man and his partner behind him.

“Stop!” A shot whizzed past Elmwood as he tumbled out, hanging by his hands.

It was about fifteen feet to the ground but high enough that he hesitated to jump.  Just then, the laundry fellow rounded the corner and glanced up at the commotion.

Elmwood landed in pile of mud. He was stunned at first then his eyes focussed and he recognized the launderer, hovering above him. He checked himself for broken bones, but other than bruises, he was okay.

A minute later, the hotel clerk came around with a small glass of potent liquor and asked him what had happened.

“Your clothes are ready,” he said.

The Missing Black Brimmed Hat

Black Brimmed Hat

“Conical shaped hats are made of spruce roots split into fine fibres, and plaited so as to be impervious to water. They are very ingeniously manufactured, and it requires some skill and experience to make one nicely.” – James Swan 1865

Wiy-wek took a mouthful of dried salmon eggs and chewed them for a while until they were a glutinous texture and then spat them out on a rock. Then he took a piece of coal from his pocket and ground it against the rock, and eventually the coal combined with egg mass to make a soft paint.

Using a cloth made from soft hide, Wiy-wek painted the wide black brim around the outer perimeter of the hat.

With a small quill like reed, Doctor painted in the shape of a frog ovoid eyes with its webbed feet spread out, as if it were lying across the head of the person wearing the hat.

To create the red, he repeated the same process of chewing the dried eggs, but this time he combined it with vermilion until it turned a deep red.

Why red? Elmwood wrote this in his notes, careful not to interrupt Wiy-wek’s concentration as he began to paint red figures in between the frog. The red colour was bound to stand out like a beacon, Elmwood thought to himself as he looked around. They were on a narrow stretch of sandy beach north of Wiy-wek’s village. Even though the tide was retreating, waves crested on the greyish blue water. Beyond that was a light grey line where the horizon should have been. Above were charcoal grey clouds, threatening to burst at any moment.

It was no wonder then, that he noticed Wiy-wek’s people wearing hats of various shapes. They were much more practical than any hat he had owned.

After several days of travelling in the rain, Elmwood decided he would like one for himself and so Wiy-wek had offered to make him one in exchange for a sack of nails, he had retrieved on his last and only day working as a labourer on the governor’s house.

“Where did you find the coal and the vermilion?” Elmwood asked, looking around.

“The coal comes from the east coast above Fort Victoria and the vermilion from Yak-Tulamn.”

Elmwood was curious about Yak-Tulamn, as there was very little in his notes about that place on the Smilkameen River.

Originally, Elmwood had come to Fort Victoria as a doctor but he quickly learned that most of the patients with any means already had someone to look after them. What did interest him though, were the artifacts.

How could he begin collecting when most of his funds were diminished? He had sent letters requesting funds to several well-connected people, but he had given up waiting. It was time to move on and explore Vancouver’s Island.

Afterward, Wiy-wek had him wash his hands in the ocean and then he said a few words in his language as he placed the hat on Elmwood’s head.

It would only be later in his journey, that Elmwood wished he’d asked Wiy-wek about the figures he’d drawn.

(to be continued)

Missing in Plein Air part 2

The sun was several hours from setting but according to Captain Reynolds watch it was the last sailing of the evening and the rest of the crew were tired and thinking of a warm cot in the Soda Creek Hotel on the edge of the Fraser River.

There wasn’t any role call of passengers taken. It didn’t occur to the captain nor his crew to check that all passengers were still aboard.

The Soda Creek Hotel was short staffed too and while Elsie was just finishing preparing the rooms while Yun “Chip” Sang mostly struggled alone in the kitchen, his face reddened by the constant steam from the pots. Elsie Rankin chatted to the passengers while they ate in between checking the cook’s progress and eventually they retired to their rooms, one by one except the captain.

After the final pot was wiped down, Sang walked bleary eyed into the night and to his own living quarters; a narrow cabin that had been converted from a woodshed. He had been there a couple of years already but his days were kept so busy he didn’t have time to think about his future plans. He paused for a minute to look up at the sky. It was sprinkled with bright stars and with his finger he traced the constellations. He followed the ancient astrologers’ thinking that you could predict a type of event would occur by looking at the stars and where they had moved.

Probably because he was so tired that Sang didn’t perceive anything unusual in the stars patterns, but he had a sense of foreboding that kept him awake despite his fatigue. Frustrated, Sang rolled out of bed, put his boots on and went for a walk. The light from the stars was enough for him, but evidently not enough for someone else because he saw a yellow glow of light spilling out from under the stable door.

Walking closer, Sang heard the horses snort and the sound of hooves hitting the side boards. Sang had never been particularly fond of horses but feeding them was one of his jobs and they knew him well enough that they didn’t kick him. Someone inside the barn wasn’t as lucky it seemed. There was a loud crash and a stifled cry.

Sang walked around the barn to another door, undid the latch and quietly pulled it open so he could see what was going on. He could hear the swoosh of the horses tail and the clink of metal.

He couldn’t see who it was, he was tempted to call out but instead he grabbed one of the blacksmith tools. As he held it tightly in both hands, he could hear a man’s voice, barely above a whisper, cursing. Sang crept closer until he could see the ears of the horse, held straight back.

Suddenly, the gate opened and the rider mounted, his face in the shadows of the light. The horse, unaccustomed to this new rider, stumbled back a few steps and the rider who was holding onto the lamp, dropped it.

Sang could see it falling. It was precisely at the moment when the glass shattered on the dirt floor that Sang threw the tool and it landed square in the rider’s back. It wasn’t enough to knock him off the horse, but it made him turn around suddenly in the saddle.

He looked at Sang for an instant and the shadows fell across his face, disappearing into in dark recesses. Then, just as swiftly he turned back in his saddle and gave the horse a determined kick and out they went at a full gallop.

Sang stood transfixed for a moment before he realized the situation. A small line of flames were heading towards the barn wall like a row of fiery ants. Sang ran over to where the tools were kept, grabbed a shovel and threw dirt on the fire. Then he hit the soil with the back of his shovel. As he was banging his shovel down he heard the unmistakable sound of wood splintering.

There was enough moonlight that he could just make out the dark shape of a box. Fearing the worst, Sang gathered it up and hid it behind one of the bins.

About six hours later, Sang was back working in the hotel kitchen preparing breakfast. He had contemplated telling Elsie about the missing horse, but she appeared flustered and out of sorts when she came into the kitchen.

“Mr. Abbott is missing and Mr. Smythe is missing his belongings!”

Just at that moment, the Captain entered the kitchen as if it were his own home. “What about Mr. Sayers? We should find him before he disappears!”

They both trotted out before Sang had a chance to say anything. He wondered about the box he had found.

Missing in plein air

Steamboat Crew

Frankie Sayers was freshly broke. He’d made money from cashing in on his claim but then he somehow managed to lose it all in a card game at the hotel in Barkerville. Now, here he was at the Quesnel docks, looking down at the churning water below the S.S. Charlotte. The steamboat was making noises. Sayers looked over at the dock and saw the rest of the passengers board the ship; most of them tired and glum faced except one man carrying two suitcases and an easel. Nobody bothered to help him but he didn’t seem to mind.

Sayers always paid attention if there was somebody around who had money. Sayers could smell money on a person. For him it was something like a sixth sense. He watched the way the ship’s porter straightened up when the man with easel showed his ticket.

After another hour or so, the captain blew the ship’s whistle and the steamboat ventured out along the Fraser River.

The crossing from Quesnel to Soda Creek was 5 hours and so far Sayers had managed to avoid paying for a ticket. There wasn’t much in the way of food to be had, although at this point he would’ve settled for a bowl of dried prunes.

What was he going to do once he got to Soda Creek?  The thought of carrying on down the Anderson Lake trail on foot was a daunting task. He wondered if Elsie remembered him or her helper, Chip Sang. He’d done them a few favours that ought to be worth something.

His stomach rumbled. Sayers looked around and recognized the man with his easel. On closer inspection he saw that his boots were scuffed and his coat was a size too big, but they were cut from good cloth, probably straight from England he presumed.

“It’s a good time as any to paint, the sunset is going to be a good one,” Sayers said. He watched the man as he opened a small wooden box and removed a trowel and a couple of metal cylinders containing pigment. Painting outdoors – en plein air they called it.

“Have you been on this crossing before?”

Sayers nodded, “several times. I worked two claims at Keithley Creek. What about yourself?”

“I am here to appreciate the natural beauty and record it for posterity.”

Sayers nodded. “There is a lot of beautiful areas around, underappreciated.”

He talked on for a bit while the man set up the paper against the stand. His name was Horatio Abbott and he said he had sailed from Portsmouth, England just three months before.

“I’ve done many commissions for the Geographic Society,” he said proudly.
After a while, Abbott pulled a silver flask from another pocket and proceeded to drink from it, holding it out long enough to see the initials on the side.

“I’m not eating so you might as well have my dinner ticket,” he said. Sayers was about to politely decline but his hunger collided with his pride and before he knew it he was half way to the dining area where he was duly ignored.

Most of the diners were well into their meals and Sayers sat at one of the unoccupied tables.

“Sir? You haven’t paid for a dinner ticket.”

“Horatio Abbott said that I could eat in his place,” Sayers said and showed the attendant his ticket.

The attendent looked it over and then hustled off to the kitchen. Sayers leaned back, pleased with himself. His luck was improving he told himself.

Deep in the recesses of the kitchen, a conversation between the cook and the attendant carried on in short cryptic sentences between the sizzles and sputters of kitchen noise.

“Do you think he’s working with Abbott?”

“We should tell the captain.”

“I’ll let him know when he comes round for his meal.”

The attendent carried out Sayers meal and arranged the food on his plate with a flourish, his face a perfected mask of solicitude.

The cook passed on the message to the steamboat helper when he came down for his meal.

“I don’t think it’s Abbott,” the steamboat helper said after he returned to the control room making sure the door was firmly shut behind him. “I think it’s someone else.”

Captain Reynolds squinted at the piece of paper on which was printed the notice of Horatio Abbott’s disappearance.

“He wouldn’t come down for dinner and instead he sent this other character, Sayers. Have you heard of him?”

“No, what about him?” Captain Reynolds said.

“One of our passengers recognized Sayers as the one who took off out of Barkerville without paying the money he owed for his mining supplies. He still hasn’t paid for his ticket.”

Captain Reynolds grunted in reply. “We’ll keep an eye on them both, but get the money from Sayers.”

“Yes sir!”

As it turned out, they didn’t have to because by the time they reached Soda Creek, one of them was gone.

(to be continued)

Gold Bar in the Fraser Canyon

Just a few years before gold miners began to arrive in his territory along the Fraser River in 1858, Chief Spintlum had made peace with the Lillooets after years of fighting.  Now, he was glad he did.  They were going to need all the allies they could have in dealing with this unruly bunch.

Spintlum stood at the entrance of the meeting house overlooking the confluence of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers. The merging colours were a sight that normally enthralled him into a sense of wonder but on this day his mind was distracted. Further along the Fraser Canyon along the side of the cliffs were gold miners coming forward.  There had been thousands of them in just a few short months, desperate, hard-bitten men who persisted like ants, carrying twice their weight in supplies, all of them looking to get their hands on gold at any cost.

Almost a month previous, Chief Spintlum had sent a letter by one of his messengers destined for the Colony’s headquarters in Fort Victoria.  The letter was as follows:

All the country to the headwaters:  one post up the Fraser at [Lillooet] – one down the Fraser at Spuzzum – one up the Thompson at Ashcroft – one up the Nicola River at Quilchena – one down the Similkameen River at Tcutcuwiza. All the country between these posts is my country and the lands of my people. At Lytton is my centrepost. It is the middle of my house, and I sit there. All the country to the headwaters of all the streams running into the valleys between these posts is also our territory in which my children gather food.  I know no white man’s boundaries or posts. If the whites have put up posts and divided my country, I do not recognize them. They have not consulted me. They have broken my house without my consent. All Indian tribes have the same as posts and recognized boundaries, and the Chiefs know them since long before the first whites came to the country.

Signed: Cexpe’nthlam (or Spintlum), Head Chief of the Nlaka’pamux, 1858

So far, there had been no news and now he had received word that one of the chiefs of the Stl’atl’imx tribe was shot and killed over something so insignificant it defied explanation.  This was not the first time that something tragic had happened and he feared it wouldn’t be the last.

Spintlum stood at the entrance to a mud and grass structure known as a kekuli that was almost hidden from plain view.  A short time later arrived the Lytton War Chief, Cuxcux’sqEt,  the Chief from Spences Bridge, and the Chief of the Lillooets.

“They say we created a massacre at Hill’s Bar,” said Spintlum after everyone was seated.  He looked at the others.  He could see the concern on each of their faces.

“This is totally false of course.  Only two miners were killed but we have reports that already a party is being sent from Victoria.”

Cuxcux’sqEt couldn’t refrain from speaking.  “They drowned trying to take our gold!  We were the ones who were first at Hill’s Bar.  As soon as they “discovered” gold at Yale, we knew of a better source just up the river.  Twenty of us were working the area for several days then when we figured we had enough and it was time to go.  Just as soon as the canoe was lifted up onto the bank, there were a bunch of thugs at the bank pointing pistols at us and yelling for us to hand over the gold lightn1ngs.”

“What did you do?” Cunamitsa, the Chief from Spences Bridge asked.

“At first I pretended as if I didn’t understand but then they started shooting and they put a hole in the canoe, so I knew if I didn’t act quickly then there was going to be worse trouble. I ordered two of our men to overtake them and they did.”

Spintlum raised his hand before Cuxcux’sqEt could go into the details.  “Was this worth the price of gold?  Now we have been barred from trading at Yale until the Company man arrives and makes his decision,” he said, referring to their contact at the Hudson’s Bay Company.

“We’ve always had a good relationship with the Company.  We brought the gold dust to Kamloops, that was several years ago.  Now everyone knows about it.”

The Lillooet Chief spoke.  “I think something must be done.  We’re paying double for our mining licences compared to everyone else yet we are being prevented from working the river because of these criminals.”

Cuxcux’sqEt crossed his arms.  “One of the important things I discovered when I was down there was that several of these men are working together in some sort of hierarchy.  Their leader is Ned McGowan, a man with a lot of influence at those gambling houses in Yale.  He’s bought out the Company man in Yale and got him to write up the false report about the massacre.  He even threatened to have our people arrested if we dare come to Yale again.”

Spintlum stroked his chin, deep in thought.  “We need to make new allies, someone who isn’t under the thumb of this McGowan.”

“Who is left?” said the Spences Bridge Chief.

There was muted laughter all around followed by silence.  No one spoke for a while.

“They even took our dried salmon!” said the Chief of the Lillooets.  “We were planning to sell our berries and dried salmon to the miners coming up but they didn’t have any money, just bullets.  Our people came back empty handed.  How many times did they have a moose or deer in sight when about fifty or so miners came around, chasing anything in sight and even robbing their camps of what food they had brought with them on their journey?”

Cuxcux’sqEt placed a stick on the floor indicating the Fraser and a stone where the miners had made camp.

“There isn’t a bar that hasn’t been named already,” Cuxcux’sqEt said.  They’ve blocked our access to our river at every step of the way.  If we just send a few people to Yale for help, they’ll have a hard time just making the journey.”

Spintlum looked around and saw the others were nodding in agreement.

“We need to show solidarity and strength in numbers,” said Spintlum.  “We will all go together, from all four tribes.”

“What if there is no one at Yale to help us?” Cunamista asked.

Three days later, several hundred men gathered at the trail head to embark on their trip to Fort Yale.

Ned McGowan entered the office where the gold commissioner sat.

“I hear the steamboat is arriving late tomorrow,” McGowan said.

The gold commissioner, upon hearing McGowan’s voice behind him, sat up straight as if he already felt the point of his gun between his shoulder blades. The gold lay in sacks on the table in front of him.

“What do you want?” Hicks asked.

“I need you to do me a favour.  I’ve got a few bets going on at the Last Chance Saloon and I need you to cover the odds with that pile of gold you’ve got over there.”

Hicks didn’t move a muscle.  “Why don’t you come around and show me what you had in mind.”

McGowan and two of his men walked around to the front and lifted a bag each.

“What’s in it for me?”

“One of the miners is betting one of the richest grounds around Yale at Hill’s Bar.  I don’t think he’ll win.” McGowan smiled.

Hicks had several of these mining claims registered in his own name; if he could add another he would be a very rich man indeed.

His assistant McLennan, was another matter.  He’d only had the job for less than three weeks and already he was beginning to squawk at the numbers Hicks was asking him to change on an almost daily basis.

McLennan, had been sitting with his ear next to the door the whole time McGowan had been there.  Quietly, he slipped out the back and resumed smoking.  A few minutes later, Hicks tapped him on the shoulder.

“Three bags of gold dust short,” Hicks said gruffly pointing a finger at the ledger which featured several lines of crossed out figures.  Fumes of alchohol emanated from his clothes.

McLennan had had enough.  It was time to draw the line.

(to be continued)

BC Gold Rush Gambler Sweet Apples Part 2

This is a continuation of my story from last week.  I left off in the town of Yale, BC in 1862 when Mah Ying Chee woke up to discover someone had murdered Ah Jai also known as “Sweet Apples”

Chee scrambled to his feet and looked around.  Other than the sounds of horses’ hooves going by there wasn’t the cacophony he had heard yesterday.  Perhaps it was still too early in the morning for most people.  The sky was a light grey; dawn had not yet arrived.

He turned around and took another look at the piece of paper pinned to Jai’s back.  It was written like a poem, almost unidentifiable except for the indelible spots of ink next to some of the characters.

He didn’t have time to think about it, Chee reminded himself.  He had to get on the road before someone blamed him for a crime he didn’t commit.

Gathering a few meagre supplies, Chee headed out and started up the main road past a few sleeping characters with their hats hung low over their eyes.  Chee kept them in mind as he passed but he didn’t see anyone that would threaten him.

At the end of the main road was the start of the trail that led to Barkerville.  Someone had painted something on a rock but he was too distracted to think of anything.  However far it was, Barkerville was a destination at least.  Perhaps his fortune awaited him there.  He had to be optimistic.

Chee wasn’t the only one who was walking along the trail.  He was about an hour into his journey, when he came upon a man so burdened down with packs that he looked like a moving boulder with two feet.

The boulder stopped short and paused, sensing Chee walking up behind and turned around and nodded.

Chee walked behind him at a distance, lost in his own thoughts.  He didn’t have much food left and basically no money.  How was he going to make it to the town of Barkerville?

His stomach rumbled as he picked up his feet and forced himself onward.  The edge of the cliff was a constant reminder of the perilous drop down the canyon to the Fraser River.  Chee didn’t look down.  After a few hours of almost constant uphill trudging, Chee saw that the man was taking a break behind some rocks.

The man waved him over and Chee approached him.  Chee recognized from the evening before, playing cards with Jai.

“Care to join me for some food?” the man asked in words that were so familiar to Chee.

Ordinarily Chee was a lot more wary but he was out of his element and there was something about the fresh air and the constant hiking that made him feel reassured.

The man’s name was Tong and he offered some of his food to Chee and then he said, “how do you expect to make it to Barkerville on such few supplies?”

Chee shrugged his shoulders, “I could try to catch something along the way,” he said.

“Good luck.  In the next hour or so we’ll probably encounter dozens of men, coming back or passing us.  With all the noise they make, you’ll be hard pressed to find a mosquito.  There might be someone looking for some extra help though.  Do you have any of that black juice?”

Chee shook his head, “I’ve sworn off that.  If I want to send money back home then I must stay sober.”

“What about lottery tickets?”

Chee shuddered involuntarily.  “No,” he said emphatically and then he spat on the ground.

“The draw was for fifteen hundred dollars.  Enough money to buy supplies for a year.  You should’ve bought a ticket.”

Chee got up and hoisted his packsack on his shoulders.  “No money for tickets either.”

“You can earn extra money selling lottery tickets to the miners,” Tong said as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small pad of the Chinese poems, similar to the one he had seen in Jai’s back.

“I sold these in California and they made me a good living.”

“They’re illegal here,” Chee said.  He’d been working in the coal mines on Vancouver Island long enough to know the rules.

Tong laughed, “where’s the law around here?” he said waving his arms around for emphasis.  Besides, you could use the extra money.”

“Did you sell for Jai?”

“Sweet Apples?  He sold for me.”

“He was murdered,” Chee said.

Tong’s grin turned upside down.  “What are you accusing me of?”

Chee started to walk away when he felt a sharp blow near his shoulder blade.  He turned away just as Tong was aiming a knife his way.

“You’re heading to the wrong place,” Tong yelled at him.

Chee grabbed a rock and threw it at his head.  Tong staggered on his feet momentarily before falling backward.

A few miners below heard the skirmish and stood quiet on the trail as if waiting for an outcome.

Nobody bothered Chee as he set forth on the trail again.

 

Sweet Apple

Ah Jai – Barkerville, BC

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)

Bootleggers in Upper Bend Canyon

Spring 1939 – Upper Bend Canyon

Reginald drove his truck along the narrow confines of the Upper Bend Canyon. About two feet from the edge of the gravel road was a precipitous drop to the river below. There wasn’t much traffic in these northern parts and it was just as well. The rock face on the left hand side was unstable at this time of year when the snow was just starting to melt; rock falls were a common occurrence and it was up to the locals to get out and clear the road. It was no surprise when he turned the corner and saw a large boulder blocking the path of a car in front of him.

Reginald hit the brakes firmly and parked the truck behind a newer model car and two men who were standing next to the boulder.  The first thing that registered in his mind was that they weren’t from around here; only a handful of people were inclined to take this switchback road, even if it was a shorter route to the highway. It wasn’t on a tourist map and Reginald wasn’t sure one even existed. The second thing that registered in his mind was the knowledge that this incident was going to make him late delivering his truckload of moonshine.

Reginald got out of his truck and walked towards the two men who were looking at the boulder as if they’d never seen one before. He took a sidelong glance at the car, admiring the fancy wheels. One of the men was smoking and the other had taken his jacket off and was grunting loudly, trying to push the boulder in the direction of the cliff. They didn’t acknowledge his presence like you’d expect a couple of strangers in need of help.

The man with the suit turned to him, “looks like we’re stuck. Would you mind lending us a hand?”
Normally Reginald was the first to dig someone out of a ditch; he was a strong young man who had done a lot of manual labour, but he was damned if he was going to help someone  in an expensive suit with a sneer on his face.
“I could.”
The other man stopped grunting and leaned against the rock just as the other stubbed out his cigarette and laughed.

“If you want to be heading anywhere, I suggest you help. What do you have in the truck?”

The question caught Reginald off guard. He scratched his arm and looked towards the canyon, “I was just taking some supplies to town.” He could see a small puff of dust on the other side and he wondered if that was the book service.

“What kind of supplies?”

Reginald looked at the man. “Farm supplies. And you? What’s your business?”

“We’re investors and we have a train to catch.”

“Alright, let me see if I’ve got something in my truck to help move that.” Reginald walked back to his truck and noticed that the man was following him, trying to make small talk.
He didn’t sound nervous to Reginald, just nosey. He had a bunch of supplies behind his  seat for moving rocks; leather gloves and a crow bar and a piece of tough old fencing. Luckily the moonshine was stored in wooden crates from the fruit packing company, although he wished he’d put a tarp over the whole thing.

“Are those peaches or apples?”

“A bit of both.” Reginald replied as he backed out of the truck with his supplies and took another look at the canyon. The vehicle on the other side had passed the midway point; he was sure it was the book service with Tanner at the wheel, kicking up a few puffs of dust. In another fifteen minutes it should come into sight again.

“Not much traffic around these parts,” the man said.
Reginald nodded his head in agreement. He didn’t like how the man continued to shadow him. The other large guy was still leaning against the rock as they approached and wordlessly got up.

As he position the crowbar on top of the plank, Reginald noticed the rock had hardly been budged.  He didn’t know much about rocks but he did know something about how to get them moving. The one thing he knew was that rocks moved in their own direction; it was hard to move rocks the way you wanted them to, much less boulders of this size. This one wanted to roll to the left.

“You’ll have to back it up.”

The man in the suit man got into the car and backed it up towards the truck until Reginald gave him the nod. The man in the suit stayed in the car with the engine running, with one hand on the steering wheel.

“I think it’s easier to roll it back towards the side.” Reginald said as he walked around the rock until he got the levers pointing the rock towards the slight decline and then it started to roll. Reginald kept pushing, completely focused on moving the rock.

Just as he was bent down to move the levers, and the rock rolled off to the side of the road and the car roared past and then he caught sight of the large man climbing into his own truck.

“Hey!” he yelled. Reginald started running in the truck’s path but the driver wasn’t about to stop and at the last second, Reginald scrambled out of the way, aiming the crowbar at the back wheel as it drove past. The truck came barrelling along and he could feel the heat of the metal as he flattened himself against the rock face. He couldn’t see where the crowbar went and he was too screaming mad to think about anything else except his truck and the load of moonshine.

A short time later he thought he heard a boom echo in the canyon. He stopped and wondered if it was his imagination. Then he heard the familiar horn of the book service vehicle. Reginald waved and Tanner slowed down to give him a lift.

“You wouldn’t believe what happened,” Tanner said, his eyes wide. “There was a massive explosion down at the bridge. I had just crossed over the metal bridge when this car and truck come skidding along towards me, hell bent. I saw sparks flying from under the truck, the next thing I knew there was a huge explosion. I pulled over to get my nerves back but there was nothing I could do…”

Traces and Tracks

Kyle was holding the piece of paper not sure what to do with it, not even sure why he picked it up.  It was about the only thing he could find on his father’s desk that didn’t look out of place. It was put under his father’s laptop.

It was a copy of a statement from a dry goods store called D. Hamilton & Son, “Dealers in Dry Goods, Boots and Shoes, Hardware and Groceries” The date was April 15, 1938.
Kyle’s father had gone missing the week before. He had headed out the door for his morning constitutional and that was the last anyone had seen of him; heading down the highway until he reached the park. Some people speculated he was a victim of a hit and run. “It’s a dangerous stretch of road around here.”

As soon as he got the word of his disappearance, Kyle drove south to the small coastal village of Overlook Bay, surprised by how much had changed since the last time he had visited was almost a year ago. There was another strip mall built and the road was being widened for extra traffic which seemed excessive but this was October and all the vacationers had gone home.

His father had been 77 and in good health. Kyle had come with him on a couple of walks but there was a lot more traffic than there used to be; he had lived in Overlook Bay for the past 10 years since he had retired and a lot had changed since then he had tried to tell him. But he was stubborn and besides he liked to walk; his black lab at his side. The dog had died two months ago.

For the past couple of days he had been driving around, hiking the same trails his Dad would’ve done, checking the rocks and beaches below for any sign that he would’ve slipped and fell. He dared not think of someone who might have tossed him in the back of their truck to dispose of elsewhere. He’d heard of stories of outwardly normal people who were determined never to be caught and going to great lengths to cover their guilt.

His father was the son of Dean Hamilton and he shared the same name. Kyle had never paid much attention to his father’s recollections of working in the store that was next to the fish cannery. It closed in 1950.

In the desk were copies of emails his father had printed out and filed away from a museum that had expressed interest in the “fonds” of the Talcan Cannery which had first opened in 1915 to process all kinds of salmon from sockeye to chum and redspring.

Kyle put the statement aside and sat down at the desk. There wasn’t much else except the laptop he’d given him on his 75th birthday. He turned it on and opened the email program.  Nothing was filtered out, not even spam and his father kept everything in the same folder marked “received” As he scrolled down, he saw one that read, “you have a new comment from…”

It took a minute before Kyle realized that his father had a blog on the web. Kyle was stunned, his father of all people; who warned him not to “click on the link.” A new page appeared asking him for a username and password which he didn’t have, but at least this way he found out that his father had a blog called Hamilton’s Rant.

He had been posting on a regular basis at least once or twice a week and he was getting lots of comments that seemed suppportive of his opinions which covered just about every topic affecting the good citizens of Overlook Bay.

Kyle wondered whether his father had told any of the other family members about his blog, maybe got one of his grandkids to set it up for him. It hardly mattered, he told himself.

The latest post was a recap of his week’s events; going to the legion, an outing with a hiking group called the Ramblers and the cost of food. The previous post was complaining about the lack of parking at the bank now that a new building was being constructed in town. Previous to that, he mentioned the demise of the old cannery.

Kyle turned off the computer and went to sleep on the couch.  This was the third day he’d stayed there in the house and each time he was so tired he could hardly keep his eyes open, as soon as he turned off the lights his brain started whirring around and prodded him awake.

It was about three in the morning when he woke up with a start. Rising up on his elbows, Kyle looked around trying to adjust his eyes to the darkness. There it was again, a scrape against the window – probably that old arbutus tree. It was windy outside and half an hour later he put on his coat and pants and went outside. He thought he could just snap off the offending branch but arbutus trees were made of dense wood which required a sharp saw.
Kyle turned on the porch light to see what he was doing as he sawed the wood, back and forth.  It reminded him when he was a kid, and this bungalow was just a cabin the family would come to in the summer time. His father took everything very seriously, even chopping wood. Words echoed back as he the saw wobbled. He was ten years old and his father was telling him, “keep it straight, keep it straight!” Finally after about ten minutes the branch gave way and he picked up the fallen branch. The wood was good, it would’ve made a good walking stick.

The thought struck him as he was making coffee. What if his Dad hadn’t gone for a walk? His car was in the carport though. Someone picked him up? The odds were slim.

It was barely six o’clock in the morning when Kyle headed out to the site of the Talcan Cannery. The buildings were mostly torn down with just a few huts remaining. The boardwalk was mostly intact though; thick strips of fir had stood the test of time.
According to one of the old maps he’d found, D. Hamilton and Sons would’ve stood in line with the bluff which meant that it must’ve been the spot where only the foundations laid.
There were traces of broken bottles, old graffiti and burnt timbers. He walked along the rickety pilings and smelled the dampness that was trapped by the low clouds overhead. As he walked along, he noticed there was a small building at the end that looked like it was going to collapse any minute. Why had they left it standing? He ventured as far as he was willing but there wasn’t much to see. There was no door, it was just a black hole of emptiness.

Where had his father got all those documents for the museum? He wondered. Further down the boardwalk he came across another dilapidated wooden hut and this time he went inside. Part of the roof had collapsed but the wallpaper was still attached and on the floor  was an old newspaper article, brittle and water damaged about changes at the Cannery. You couldn’t see the date of the article or from what newspaper. Had his father seen this and decided to leave it?

There were some stairs that went down to a basement but he hadn’t brought a flashlight with him and somehow he couldn’t see his father venturing down there either.
Backing out of there, Kyle noticed recent tire treads in the soft earth that looked like they belonged to a large pickup truck. Curious, he walked on the other side of the tread marks, following them through a clearing and onto the road. The ground was deeply rutted and he could see the point where the driver had accelerated.
This was a dead end road so there weren’t too many reasons why someone would want to come down here.

At the other end of the cannery was a rocky beach. Kyle stood there with his hands in his pockets and looked out at the tide. Overlook was in a sheltered bay; at the end of a long inlet that rarely saw any storms. It would be a great place for a cabin, he thought.
Kyle drove into town and checked the missing posters that were attached everywhere. They were still there, untouched but ignored. He walked into the legion and sat down with a drink. There were a couple of watery eyed old men talking in the corner and one of them he recognized as Walter Malloy, one of the village counsellors.

“Sorry about your father,” Malloy said shaking his head. “I always said Dean, you’re too healthy for your own good, all that walking is going to kill you.”

Kyle nodded. “Did he ever mention anything about the Cannery?”

“What about it?”

If Kyle was surprised at the sharpness of Malloy’s tone, he didn’t show it. Malloy left and the other man, smaller and stooped over, leaned towards him. “Your dad was a good man, Kyle but he was always raising a raucus with that website of his.”

It was hard for Kyle to believe that his father raised a ‘raucus’ over anything; he’d had the same government job for over thirty years and had never railed against the powers that ran the department. But maybe his father had changed. Maybe he saw this was his opportunity to do something that he believed in.

Kyle went home and made himself some lunch and then sat at the computer and read his father’s blog for the next two hours. There was some heated discussion to do with a few problems like garbage pickup. His father argued that the village should provide garbage pickup at least twice a month. There were a couple of responses from a couple of anonymous readers that said they were happy with the status quo. Another blog post dealt with the setback for a new subdivision. His father attended a council meeting and declared the whole council was “under a spell” when it came to the ‘well-oiled’  developer named Dick Snowden.

It was Snowden who had built the latest strip mall. Kyle looked around the desk for a list of passwords and tried a few but nothing worked. He could tell by the anonymous person’s writing style it was the same person; same use of words and punctuation. He was curious to get their ip address.

It was heading towards three in the afternoon when Kyle headed out to the dump with some of the branches and leaves he’d gathered the day before. As he drove along the pitted narrow logging road, he saw a newer model truck pulled off to the side with a couple of garbage bags in the back. As a matter of habit, Kyle memorized the licence plate.

It was quiet at the dump so he took his time unloading the yard waste. The other garbage disposal was expensive. He asked the clerk who took his money about the garbage pickup in the village but she was reticent to talk about such a disputed topic. “Lots of folks are happy with the way things are run,” she said as she frowned. “Just the new people want everything different.”

As Kyle drove back he saw that the truck had gone. He pulled up just beyond and stopped. He wasn’t sure what had caught his eye until he walked around the back of his car and stood looking at the tracks left in the soft shoulder. He wondered how many trucks had the same tread as the one he remembered seeing at the cannery. This was certainly one.
Walking into the bush, Kyle surveyed the scene, noting the black garbage bags hadn’t been tossed far. Clumps of ferns were barely visible under the refuse. Ignoring the obvious junk, Kyle peeked inside one of the bags and saw a couple of water damaged bits of paper that looked familiar. Pulling them out, he recognized the name, “D. Hamilton & Son,” Phone: One long, two short”

Kyle walked back to the car and called the police reciting the licence plate from memory. Whose was it? He demanded to know. Someone would come soon he was told.

The Transplant

1909

At the age of 18, Benjamin left Scotland with £300 and went to Ceylon to learn tea and rubber planting in the hills near Kandy at the Condera Estate. 

Benjamin was keen to learn the Tamil language and travelled to the cooler, northern part of Ceylon.  Upon his return to Kandy, he was given his own bungalow with several servants and two porters who transported all the supplies into that mountainous country, even a piano. Another time, the porters carried two terrier dogs sent by his parents from Scotland to be company for him.

He rode his horse around the terraced plantation and was in charge of 2000 labourers, supervising their work and health.  He also had a motorcycle for travelling longer distances.

The nearest tea planter, Arthur, was twenty miles away and he would ride that distance to play tennis.  Arthur was approaching sixty years old but he could reach the end of the court in a few strides.

In 1914, Benjamin heard of the threat of World War I, Benjamin prepared to return back to Scotland to enlist.  It was hard to think of leaving this beautiful place that had been his home for almost five years and he vowed to return.

He would make one last visit to Arthur for a game of tennis and he had brought with him his faithful companions, Ramsay and Firth, which Arthur had promised to take care of in Benjamin’s absence.

Benjamin was so preoccupied with thinking about this new war and what it would be like, he didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary as he eased his motorcycle to a stop near a shady tree.

The dogs were growing restless in their wagon so Benjamin took them out one by one and they bounded up the wide steps to the veranda as he walked up behind.  His dogs playful barking changed tone suddenly as they ambled along the veranda on their short legs. Arthur was well-loved by the dogs and it was unusual not for Arthur to welcome them.

There was no one there. Perhaps he was sick? Benjamin knocked on the front door and called the dogs back. There was no answer.

Where was Arthur?

Benjamin discovered the dogs around the side of the clay court and there was Arthur, dressed and ready to play, except that he was lying face down. Benjamin bent down and rolled him to his side. It was if he had died of shock.  Benjamin checked his pulse. It was too late.

It seemed odd that no one had noticed Arthur, a rather loud spoken fellow.  Where were his servants?

Benjamin called out but there was no answer.  He would have to summon help. Gathering up the two whimpering dogs, Benjamin rode his motorcycle back along the bumpy, dusty road back home.

Along the drive back he couldn’t help but see the pained expression on Arthur’s face and he wondered what had been the source of his death.

He passed on the message to one of the porters to give to the police who came and did their investigation, and Benjamin provided a brief statement.

No more was mentioned of the matter and weeks later, Benjamin arrived at Bombay after several days travel with Ramsay and Frith in tow. The ships were crowded with young men like him returning to the old country to enlist.

1919

Scarred emotionally and physically from the Great War, Benjamin was preparing to go back to Ceylon when his brother told him he was emigrating to a small farming community in Canada after seeing an advertisement in a London newspaper.

“Come and help me out for a short while,” his brother implored.

Benjamin and George bought some farmland and started planting fruit trees. Benjamin decided they needed help so they hired Norton who also transported water in barrels on a horse drawn stone boat.

As it turned out Norton had also spent some time in Ceylon and in the evenings when they would gather together for a meal, they would share stories, but Benjamin never mentioned anything about what had happened to his neighbour.

One evening in November, there was a bad storm that blew whitecaps across the lake and bent trees.  Benjamin could not believe his eyes, out in the water was a sailboat. Who would be out there in this weather?

He rubbed his eyes and wondered if he was seeing a mirage, but the shape was there.
The next day, Benjamin went down to the beach and discovered the remains of the sailboat, washed ashore.

There was no one on board that he could tell.  For an instant he felt as if he were back in Ceylon again, looking for Arthur.  Benjamin closed his eyes at the thoughts that he envisioned and walked back up the hill.