It’s that time of year again. The time when The Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick holds their annual writing contest. It’s a great opportunity for people of all ages and writing skills to get their work looked at by professionals and maybe even win a prize…. I was lucky enough to win an honorable mention not so long ago, since then I’ve gotten my first book deal and a second is not far off I’m hoping. Check out the contest poster and the website, www.wfnb.ca , you’ll be glad you did.
So what better way to get the ball rolling with a little story by yours truly. Sit back, relax and hold onto your hats. This is a story called HEAT….
I first heard the story when I was a kid. And I must admit I didn’t appreciate it much. What kid in elementary school wants to hear something like this? The truth is, it wasn’t told directly to me. My great-uncle was visiting, and I was supposed to be asleep. But I crept down and hid at the foot of the stairs, all wide-eyed and transfixed as I hung onto every word.
Great-Uncle Edward had been working on a highway in the north of the province. He was really curious about a car that he saw outside of Bathurst, heading towards Caribou. It was if they’d built the road around it. It had clearly been burnt to a crisp and decades of desertion had reduced it to little more than a pile of rubble. But it was so close to the road. Why hadn’t someone towed it away for scrap?
Being the curious sort, Great-uncle Edward asked the other men on the road crew with him about the car. None of them seemed to know anything about it. Except for Thomas Scott, the old bachelor from Bathurst hired by the Department of Transportation to run the portable scales. When Edward asked him, he got pale and told him to mind his own business. Of course, there was no way Edward was going to let up. When work finished for the day, Edward followed him home and right into his house.
At first he didn’t want to talk about it at all, and almost tossed my Great Uncle out of the house. But by and by, he began to relax. Especially when Edward plied him with a bottle of good whiskey. After they had a few shots and traded a few good yarns, Edward tackled him again about the car. Thomas looked out the window nervously, took a big slug of whiskey and lit up his pipe.
I know who owned the car. It was a feller by the name of Jim. A big, gangly fellow from out west. I met him in a bar downtown, round the time of the depression. He was drinking with another lad by the name of Sylvester. I was setting on a stool listening to them talk. Gold was on their minds. Someone had done some prospecting a few years earlier in the Caribou Mountains and had found a few nuggets. Well, me being young n brash, I joined in the conversation. I’d heard the stories too. So I bought them a round a whiskey and introduced myself. We had a lot in common.
I’d done a few months in jail for breaking into the post office. Sylvester had been in and outta the clink more times than he could count. And that Jim feller, he was something else. He was born in the Klondike during the gold rush. His father was a claim jumper who wound up with a bullet in his back. His mother done the best she could for him, cleaning houses and such to put food on the table. When he was thirteen, she took sick and died. So he hit the road.
I says, “What could you do when you were just thirteen?”
He says, “Ya could do whatever ya set yer mind to. I hoboed me way from Dawson City to Edmonton. Riding the rails I was. I got a job straight away with a rancher. He taught me how to wrangle cattle, and how to survive. Well, I learned heaps from him. I also learned bout whiskey. Soon I was hanging with some bad sorts. We took to thieving cattle. It paid a lot better than working for a rancher, I figger. Till we got caught. I got eight years in western jail. I did three months and broke out. Been on the run ever since, so to speak.”
Maybe he was telling the truth, maybe he wasn’t. It really don’t matter much. He had an air about him, like he’d done and seen a lot. And I was still young, only 21 or so. Well pretty soon he asks if I want to join up with him and Sylvester to go pan for gold. I never even thought about it. I said yes. We drank till the bar closed I figure, then we went our separate ways, with plans to meet at daylight.
I was up before the sun, mostly cause I was parched and me head was pounding. I went outside the boarding house and waited. Soon I see this car coming towards me. I jumped in the back beside this fellow they called Daniel. A frenchman from Quebec who’d seen and done as much as Jim by the way he talked. We swapped some yarns and the drive went by pretty quick. Pretty soon we were out in the boonies, close to where the burnt out car is parked. There was a trail there heading into the bush. We parked the car, got our gear and started to hike.
I asks, “How far is it to the creek, or brook or whatever it is?”
“Only bout five miles.” Jim answered and shoved a plug of tobacco into his cheek,”when we gets there we’ll set up camp, right away. Then we’ll be able ta pan at first light tomorrow.”
“I tink we might do de panning tonight, if we hurry,” that Daniel fellow figured, “if we keep da speed up. Might only take us de morning to get to de camp.”
“You wasn’t out drinkin’ half the night.” Jim disagreed, “Me headache is telling me yer wrong.”
I agreed. Drinking so much before a five mile hike was a bad idea. We stopped a lot, did a lot of bitching and moaning, and drank most of our water before we were there. By mid afternoon, we were at the brook. It was a lovely sight; clear, fresh water bubbling around big, round rocks. We drank and drank, then sat down on the bank and listened to it roaring as it sped up downstream.
“Lucky fer us there ain’t no flies about yet.” Sylvester says, “Right Jim?”
I didn’t care for that Sylvester fellow much, he turned out to be what you young people call an ass kisser. It didn’t matter what Jim said, he’d agree with it. As a matter a fact, I think if Jim had a told him to stand on his head in the middle of the brook, he probably woulda done it. But anyways, I was happy just to lay back on the bank and look at things. The leaves were just startin’ on the hardwoods. There was a patch a snow here and there, but it was pretty much all gone. And the birds was singin’.
Soon Jim says we got to set up camp. We got to work and pitched our tent in a clearing close to the brook. There was a lot of uneven ground there, almost mounds in it, but we found a level spot that suited, then we set about gathering up firewood. Jim lit a fire and cooked up a mess of beans and heated up some biscuits. It was a grand feed after all that walking. When we were done eating, I set back and lit my pipe. Sylvester rolled a cigarette, Daniel took it so he rolled another. Jim, he shoved in another wad of tobacco and got to talking.
“We gots nuff supplies to last us bout a week. I figger we’ll know in day or so if there’s any gold. If there is, we’ll stay as long as we kin, stake a claim, then head back to town for more grub and such. I’m a fair feller, so I’m willing to give each of ya 15%. I’m keepin’ the rest on account of it bein’ my car, my gear, my supplies and my idea.”
Daniel, he got to grumbling that it wasn’t quite fair, but I was okay with it. And that Sylvester fellow, I’m pretty sure he’d a done it for one per cent. Them days we were working for bout a dollar a day, so if there was any amount of gold at all we’d be rich in no time. Soon Jim got to rummaging in his tent and came out with a whiskey jug. We passed it around and swapped some more yarns. Jim told us stuff that’d curl your hair. Stealin’ catttle, fighting and killing.
I just laid back and listened. I hadn’t done anything like that. Course, Sylvester and Daniel tried to trump him with better stories, but it weren’t no use. He was a devil, or something close to it. Anyway, it was a beautiful evening as I recollect. The stars was a shining, it was cool but next to the fire it was alright. Afore long the jug was empty. We crawled into the big tent, and were sleeping in no time, as we were pretty well whipped from the hike and the booze.
At daylight we were all awake, in a hurry and excited to start piling up the gold. Jim made us a feed of biscuits and salt pork, then we were off to the brook as fast as we could go. I remember taking off my boots and socks, then stepping into the water. Christ, it was cold! But gold fever was a lot hotter so I just ignored it and got to work panning. Afore long, Daniel whooped; he’d found a nugget. Then so did I, and everyone else. It was like Christmas. We were getting flecks and little nuggets in every pan.
We were so intent on panning, we never paid much attention to the time. All of a sudden, Jim tells us we better head back to camp for something to eat. Turns out, it was mid afternoon. We gathered up our gold, grabbed our boots and socks and headed to the fire. Sylvester stoked it and we all sat there with our feet next to it. We were all near frozen. After a bit we had some biscuits, then Daniel gets out a magnet and starts testing the gold.
“Dis one’s not good,” he says, “or dis one. Dere fool’s gold.”
What?!” Jim says and jumps to his feet, “You’re fulla shit I say!”
“Is no good. None of it.” Daniel says again. “Fool’s gold.”
“You tryin’ ta cheat me you no good french bastard?!” Jim says, real ugly now.
“See for yourself.” Daniels says real calm like. “Dey all jump on de magnet. Pyrite dey call it. Fool’s Gold.”
Jim looks at the mess and kicks the pan outta Daniel’s hand. He goes on real crazy like, swearing and tearing up the ground like a bull moose. Then he picks up another pan and throws it real hard into the clearing. It hit a mound, tore off a piece of sod, then bounced into the bushes. I stared at the tore up ground. Something didn’t look right. So I got to me feet and went over for a look. It was a grave. An Indian grave. I could see some bones and trinkets. I reached down and picked up an arrowhead. Then the head of a tomahawk. And there was more. A couple of pipes. And more arrowheads.
Jim was still cursing as he brushed up beside me. When he seen what I got, he let out a big whoop.
“Yeehaw! We done found us an Injun burial ground! Pay dirt!”
Before I knew it, he’d grabbed the pan that he’d kicked away and started digging with it like he’d lost his mind. As I stood there in shock, Sylvester and Daniel joined in, panning the graves like they was bailing a ship. I put my finds in my pocket, knowing if I tossed ’em back in the hole, they’d just pick them back up.
After a few minutes, Jim looks at me real angry like. He says, “What the hell’s wrong with you boy? Why ain’t you diggin’? There’s fools in Moncton and Fredericton that’ll give us a big wad a cash for this stuff. It ain’t gold but it spends.” Then he laughs at his joke.
“I don’t like this,” I says, “It’s sacrilegious or something. Robbing graves.”
“Sacrilegious? Are you nuts, boy? These dead Injuns ain’t got religion. Bunch a heathens, more animal than man I figure. Now git diggin’”
“Nope.” I says, “I ain’t doin’ it.”
“Yah kin dig these graves, or ya kin dig yer own.” Jim says, now he’s right in my face, “I brought you along as part of the team. All er nothing. This ain’t gonna pay as good as the gold would’ve, so we need every relic that’s buried here. Now get to it or I’ll gut you like a hog.”