ONE LAST TIME
by Alan A Sandercott
Short story collection (10)
110 pages. Perfect bound. 5" X 8".
Published in 2013
ISBN - 978-0-9866037-1-6
[Out of Print]
NOTE: This previously published work is covered by copyright.
No printing, copying or use by any means without written permission from the author.
THE PROSPECTOR by Alan A Sandercott
Charles Washington Barnes came from true pioneer stock. He and his family crossed America's western plains back in 1848, all the way from Ft Wayne, Indiana to Oregon. In April, 1848 Charlie, his father, mother and two younger brothers crossed the Missouri River and headed west for Oregon. They had heard many tales of danger, rumours such as the Cayuse Indian uprising in Washington State that killed a bunch of settlers and took others captive.
First stop was St Louis, Missouri where they bought or traded wagons, yokes of cattle to pull them and horses to make the rigorous trip. All necessary provisions were secured and packed into the wagons. Their company was headed up by an experienced wagon-master and included ten other families of men, women and children. Civilization as they knew it soon disappeared behind them and ahead lay the treacherous trail to Oregon and a new life in the unknown.
Days turned into weeks, miles crept by. They past through Fort Laramie, followed the Big Blue to the Platte River. They passed the known landmarks along roads with ruts worn deep in the rock by thousands of steel-rimmed wagons wheels over the years. Their wagon train consisted of eleven wagons, two dozen men, women and children. Along with their draft animals there were loose cattle and horses to be herded. They passed massive herds of buffalo numbering in the thousands. They had to closely watch their cattle and horse for fear they would drift off with the buffalo. In the company of his father, Charlie experienced the thrill of a buffalo hunt, one that nearly cost him his life as his horse stumbled sending Charlie sprawling through the air in the presence of several stampeding beasts. Fortunately, his father was close by and plucked him from the ground. Charlie's horse disappeared in the dust with the herd.
After setting up camp each night the stock had to be moved to grazing. Dried buffalo chips had to be collected for the campfires that would burn throughout the long nights. The night guards were always vigulant in protecting their animals from being stolen during the night. Guards never slept in the saddle having heard tales of Indian using bird and animal calls to decoy the Whiteman. Anyone wandering away from the wagon train was likely to be tracked and killed by marauding Indians.
Food was scarce for the Indians along the trail. In the North Platte Valley they came across a Sioux Indian village of some 200 natives. Many of the Indians offered trade or outright begged for anything they could get. Most desirable to them were muskets, powder, cap & lead that we refused to provide.
The only real confrontation they had with Indians was in the Snake River Valley where mounted Indians rode right into their camp; in among the camp fires and tried snooping in the wagons. The sight of such bold Indians scared the hell out of the women and children. However, when the natives saw the white men suddenly producing guns or long rifles and preparing for a fight the Indians changed their tune and reverted to trading for food. After that encounter Charlie devoted his spare time to learning how to handle weapons, a talent that would serve him well in later years.
All the river crossings were tough with quick sand often swallowing wagons to the axels. Some rivers had ferries or barges to ferry the wagons across, others had to be forded. At Green River there was a crude ferry run by some Mormans. They made mention of gold being discovered on the American River at Sutter Fort. While no one put too much stock in the rumour, it did plant the image of gold in Charlie's imagination.
It was July before the wagon train reached Independence Rock on the Sweetwater River. The fear of Indians was ignited once more when the wagon train reached the Grand Ronde Valley. There they heard factual accounts of Oregon volunteers having pursued the Cayuse Indians after the Whitman Massacre. A peace treaty had been signed but not too many believed it would hold. Shortly after that a band of Cayuse Indians rode into camp. They claimed to be friends but all the Whiteman's hands were close to their rifles. The Indians later rode out of camp having accepted the offer of a cow.
After crossing the Columbia River near Fort Vancouver, and several more days on the trail, the weary wagon train finally rolled into Portland, Oregon in November 1848, six months after crossing the Missouri River.
During their first winter in Oregon gold fever burned in Charlie's mind. As winter wore on his dream of striking it rich spread to Charlie's best friend. The following April they hooked up a wagon and headed for California. Rumours of gold discoveries had proven true; the California Gold Rush was on.
Despite a few encounters with hostile Indians along the way they arrived at the Sacramento River in California, following that to the Feather River and ending at Bidwell's Bar. It was there that Charlie found his first gold, scraping a half ounce of dust out of crevices in an afternoon.
The two men joined with four others and worked the gravel bars together. Two rockers with one man on each, and the other four digging and carrying the gravel to the rockers. Returns were moderate, sometimes as much as a hundred dollars per in a day. They systematically worked Bidwell's Bar, Longs Bar, and Middle Fork.
Lodgings consisted of tents along the river. They worked long days, as long as there was daylight. At nights there was always a poker game. Charlie father hadn't approved of his poker playing while crossing the plains but Charlie watched and learned. Two of the men in Charlie's group played every night. With a little prodding by the two Charlie agreed to try his hand at poker one night.
Charlie was surprised at how quickly he mastered the game. It cost him dearly at first but as the summer wore on Charlie recouped his losses and more. It soon became clear to Charlie that there were other ways to accumulate gold other than slaving over a gold pan all day.
With the growing number of miners competing for gold, fights regularly broke out, often resulting in deadly conclusions. Charlie went nowhere without his revolver strapped to his waist. He confidently drew the weapon early one morning when a pair of new miners tried to take over what Charlie and his crew considered their stretch of the river bank. Starring into the barrel of Charlie's gun convinced the pair to seek real estate elsewhere.
Later that summer Charlie's best friend fell ill, pneumonia one miner advised. Charlie set out for Long Bar where there was a store and maybe a doctor. But by the time he returned with medicine and some rudimentary instructions to treat his friend it was too late. The man had died within days of Charlie's departure. Several of the miners had buried his friend above the high-water mark along river, making his grave with a pile of river rock.
After that Charlie lost interest in prospecting. Within the week he and two others struck camp and headed for San Francisco where Charlie booked passage on a bark to Portland. In October he arrived at Baker's Bay in the mouth of the Columbia River but terrible weather held them back from entering the river for over a week. Passenger were constantly sick, one even died and had to be buried at sea. Finally favourable winds drove the bark up into the river. Plaguing Charlie all the way was the unenviable task of breaking the bad news to his friend's parents.
Back in Portland, Charlie had no choice but to find work and settle into a rudimentary lifestyle. He was twenty-three years old when gold fever stirred in his veins once more. Rumours of gold being discovered British Columbia were proving true.
He was on the banks of the Fraser River at Yale in the spring of 1859 when the big Hill's Bar gold strike was made. The lessons he learned in California soon had Charlie partnered with three others. He fashioned a rocker and the group were soon working the gravel bars. They found themselves working elbow to elbow with others that flowed onto the river each day.
Accommodations consisted of canvas tents dotting the river banks. Language often determined the placement of tents. Eager prospectors of every nationality hunched over gold pans washing pan after pan of gravel, always alert for the specks of gold that hid beneath the black sands. In such close proximity, disputes often erupted and the river valley would echo with excited foreign languages. From his first day on the river Charlie had carried his trusty revolver and kept his rifle loaded back in his tent.
The one common denominator along the river was the nightly poker games after dark. For Charlie it was an opportunity to sharpen his card skills and improve his gold stake. He was no longer the novice he was back on the wild prairie or in California. Now he was prominent in games and took his share of the winnings.
"You're one lucky son of a bitch," his partner on the rocker told Charlie one day. The man's name was Jacob Stagg, or Jake as everybody called him.
Charlie grinned and nodded. His winnings at the poker table were almost as good as his earnings as a prospector.
"Where'd you learn to play poker like that?"
"California in 49," he replied.
"You was down there?" Jake asked.
"I was there."
"Were the findings as good as they say?"
"Better," Charlie grinned.
"I heard there was too much Indian trouble down there."
"Not really. We used to do some trading with them."
"For furs and stuff?" the man asked.
"Some. There was one Indian that showed up at our show one day with some small gold nuggets. I offered to trade him for some glass beads I bought at an Indian Agency."
"Yep, four of 'em. Not very big though, but they were gold sure enough. I dug out our scales and poured his nuggets in the cup on one side and filled the other side with beads untill they balanced. The Indian nodded his head, I gave him the beads and he left."
"Is that true?"
Charlie grinned and nodded his head.
Food became problematic along the river. Most miners hunted the rapidly declining local wildlife or traded with Indians for fish. Any food supplies packed in very expensive because everyone believed miners had gold.
As fall approached Charlie had planned to head back south for the winter, that is untill the word of a big gold discovery on the Quesnel River up north. Word quickly spread up and down the river banks. Two weeks later Charlie and Jake rolled up their bedrolls, gathered their equipment and headed up river. Their plan was to spend the winter in Ashcroft, a small town filled with miners. Saloons, hotels and bawdy houses sprang up everywhere.
For Charlie the long winter nights and a variety of poker games to choose from proved profitable. Experience taught him how to spot and avoid the card sharks that preyed on unsuspecting miners. Many found themselves victims and lost everything. Murders became common place.
Early in the spring Police Constables found Jake's body behind a saloon with his throat slit. He had been robbed and left to die in the snow bank. Two days later Charlie and a group of five other hopeful prospectors were on the trail out of town heading north for the Cariboo Gold Fields.
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NEW BEST FRIEND by Alan A Sandercott
The body of 'ol John Simpson broke the lake's rough surface at exactly 10:15 pm. I know that because I was one of the spectators standing shivering on the shore. It had been raining most of the evening and the accompanying winds persisted. Everyone in the area knew that 'ol John and I were best of friends so it was no surprise that I was one of the first to be called.
The lifeless body bobbing in the waves lay face down. The life jacket John used as a seat cushion was probably still out there where he had been fishing. Ironically, several large treble fishing hooks held his body fast to the rusty steel pipe a few feet away, the same pipe that was attached by rope to the police boat. They had been dragging the lake back and forth for several hours, ever since a neighbour had reported John's boat washing up on shore in the wind. The boat was now tied to the shore, half submerged.
A large dog that I recognized as John's was sniffing around the boat. From the way it was whining it was obviously confused and very worried about its master. There was a good chance that Shadow, as John called her, had been laying at the end of the dock when the accident happened. Years earlier Shadow always went out in the boat when John went fishing but, like us, she was getting older and rheumatism prevented her from getting around.
It was after midnight before I got home that night. I lived just a few miles down the lake from John. We had been good friends for a long time, a couple of old bachelors burning off life's remaining years. I didn't sleep that night, just sat out on the front porch staring off across the moonlit lake. The mournful call of a loon only saddened me more. I was feeling all alone while trying to convince myself that my best friend was really gone.
Around ten the next morning a police car pulled up to the cabin. A young cop got out and opened the car's rear door. I could see the end of a piece of rope in his hand, and then I saw what was tied to the other end; Shadow. John may have been my best friend but his dog certainly was not! I could never figure out what John saw in that animal. As far as I was concerned it was nothing but a pain in the ass. She was always hungry, always crapping around the yard and she smelled, especially when she was wet. She was always laying around the house, on the furniture, leaving hair all over the place. So what was the cop doing bringing the dog to my place?
It tuned out John had often mentioned to his daughter that should anything ever happen to him he wanted Shadow given to me. He obviously didn't know how I felt about his faithful dog. I never told him because I didn't want to hurt his feelings. Well something happened and suddenly I had an unwelcome fifty pound furry guest. I kept hoping that if John was up there, he wouldn't be reading my thoughts right about then.
I figured I'd lock the mutt in the woodshed for the night. It seemed like a good idea, until she started barking, howling and whining around two in the morning. I spent most of that night with my head buried under my pillow. A sleep starved neighbour reminded me that the dog was lonely for her master and that she needed someone to console her, not lock her up. The neighbour declined my offer so I had to go to plan 'B'.
Weeks past and Shadow settled down. She started eating again, thanks to the big bag of her dog food the cop left. She seemed happier sleeping on the mat inside the cabin door. For the first week or so she spent hours laying at the end of the driveway waiting for John to come and get her. Then she slowly shifted her attention to me and I tried to adjust to being followed around all day. I kept putting off a call to John's daughter about taking Shadow. I figured she would be having a tough time adjusting to John's death, I know I was; I missed our daily phone calls checking up on each other.
I'm not sure when it started but I began to notice myself talking to the dog, like she was a person. Stranger yet was the fact that she seemed to listen to me, like she understood what I was saying. Like it or not, we appeared to be bonding. I was becoming more and more aware of her presence. It was actually making me feel better, like I wasn't alone after all.
The real test was our first winter together in the cabin. If she was still the smelly thing I remembered her to be, I wasn't noticing it. Her hair all over everything bothered me but regular brushing seemed to help. We walked every day and she enjoyed our ice fishing episodes. I tried to teach her to fetch in firewood, but that was in vain. On the bright side, nothing or no one approached the cabin without her warning barks. Turned out that was the first winter in many years that I didn't suffer from cabin fever.
Spring came, then summer, and before long it was a year since John Simpson had drowned. Both Shadow and I had made the difficult transition. I've now come to know what John saw in her. Shadow has become my constant companion and I like to think of her as my new best friend.
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WHEN LEAVES TURN TO GOLD by Alan A Sandercott
The changing colours of fall signifying approaching winter was usually enough reason for a prospector to pull up stakes and head south, but Charlie Barnes had more reason to leave than most. He hadn't yet struck it rich, but his prospects were fading like an autumn sunset.
Even though the Caribou Gold Rush was in full swing when Charlie arrived full of hope in the spring of 1862, the famed gold laden creeks were not too kind to Charlie. Creek after creek he worked the gravel bars elbow to elbow with other prospectors, always hoping for the sight of gold nuggets in his pan. But like the many others around him he had to settle for meager but enticing traces of yellow gold dust. But unlike many of the others, 28 year old Charlie was strong of mind as well as body and he didn't give up and abandon the gold fields to return home disappointed and broke. He always found the strength to keep going, to hold onto his dream of striking it rich. He dreamed of one day returning to Montana with money in his pockets, money enough to buy a ranch like those he worked on as a young man.
Over the long winters Charlie worked his skills at Richfield's poker tables that kept him well fed and a wood roof over his head, and there were lots of poker tables. It was a dangerous game. Lots of gold pokes changed hands in those smoke filled dingy lit rooms. Many an unfortunate prospector was found by police constables, robbed of their gold and left to freeze in a snow bank after a night of drinking and gambling. What little law enforcement there was in the area was administered by a handful of police constables who patrolled the creeks and mining towns.
Not everyone who worked the goldfields were prospectors; many were professional gamblers or men intent on becoming rich at the expense of the lowly prospectors, like the disheartened ex-miners who used other desperate means to strike it rich. New business' sprang up daily along the muddy streets, rough lumber bases with canvas tent tops, freezing in winter and always wet. The price for food and dry goods was always too high.
During the mosquito and fly infested summers Charlie continued to try his hand at panning gravel from the area creeks. The days were long and hard, the nights cold and dangerous. News of any gold discovery, no matter how small, traveled up and down the creeks like wind. Charlie always slept with his pistol tucked under his bedroll. Everyone knew of some unfortunate prospector killed in his sleep for his gold cache.
On one snow-bound night Charlie was at a poker table with four others, two prospectors, himself and a known card shark that had been frequenting the tables. Normally Charlie tried to avoid associating with such types but the gambler had joined the game while Charlie was enjoying a winning streak and he wasn't about to fold while his luck was running. He should have known better as it wasn't long before he detected a shift in the game in favor of the gambler. Charlie new the man was cheating, he just didn't know how.
After a few more deals and more of the prospector's gold dust passed to the gambler's growing winnings one of them uttered an accusation, "You're just too damn lucky, mister!"
"You accusing me of something?" the gambler asked, shuffling the deck casually while watching his accuser cautiously.
"I think youse cheatin".
Charlie, on the other hand, knew the gambler was cheating, he just hadn't figured out how.
"I don't hold with cheaters," the prospector said. He deliberately pulled a long bladed knife from his belt and slammed it on the table and ordered. "Deal."
Another hand was played and again the prospector lost, only this time it was Charlie's full house that took the pot. "I think youse two is working' together," the prospector snarled.
"Careful what you call me," Charlie replied, pushing back from the table and picking up his winnings. "I think I'll find a friendlier game."
"Youse ain't going nowhere with my money." The prospector's hand was now closing slowly on his knife.
The gambler, whose talents had started the whole mess was sitting back fingering some of the coins in his pile, an amused look on his face. The usual noisy din in the room dropped off and eyes focused on Charlie's table.
Charlie rose to his feet. With one hand he pocketed his winnings in his coat, his right hand moved slowly in the direction of the pistol secured in its homemade holster attached to his belt. "I don't want no trouble," Charlie said.
"You put my money back on the table, now!"
"I won this money fair and square."
"Youse cheated me and I'm getting my money," the prospector yelled as he jumped to his feet, knife in hand he started around the table. Charlie backed away a couple feet before bumping into the next table. Suddenly the sound of the pistol in Charlie's hand shattered the silence and gunpowder smoke filled the air. The attacker's face filled with pain as blood streamed from the bullet hole in his chest. He was dead by the time he hit the floor. For several seconds Charlie stared down in disbelief at what had just happened. The noise in the room returned with a vengeance, with some yelling to "… go fetch the Constabulary". The incident didn't seem to bother the gambler; he still sat in his chair with that amused look on his face.
Charlie spent the night as a guest of the law in a jail cell. Next morning he faced a barrage of questions. Fortunately for Charlie there was little doubt he had shot the man in self defense, everyone in the room short of the man's partner attested to that fact. But the damage was done. Unfortunately for Charlie, he was now under the scrutiny of Judge Begbie, the one man who doled out his style of justice for the entire region, the one man everyone wanted to avoid.
It was getting late in the season of 1866, winter was fast approaching and time was running out for those wanting to get out of the north before snow fall. That year Charlie Barnes was one of them. The only way out was by river aboard one of the many small freighter canoes that plied to rivers between breakup and freezeup. Most had already left. He approached the last remaining boat operator to arrange fare south on the rivers.
"Can't," the boat owner told Charlie, "only room for two riders in the boat an' them's took."
"I really need to get outta here," Charlie pleaded. "I can pay with gold."
"So kin them two," he replied, motioning to two men walking back up the path into town. "They was here first."
"I'll pay you more."
The man thought for a second. "I'm castin' off near first light in the morning. Them's here first with the money goes," the man said, then turned his head and spat out juice from the tobacco wad tucked under his lower lip.
Charlie recognized the two men. They were a couple of prospectors who had been hanging around Richfield for a few days, spreading gold dust around and bragging of hitting the mother lode.
Later that night Charlie noticed the two prospectors right where he expected; sucked up to a poker table in the Bonanza Saloon. Charlie joined the game with full intension to impairing the prospector's ability to make the boat trip south. As the game waged on into the night Charlie kept ordering bottle after bottle of rock-gut whiskey, drinking very little of it himself. One of the pair took a liking to a lady of the night working the floor and paying particular attention to the two prospectors. Before long one of them followed her up the stairs to a second floor room. Charlie grinned to himself and dealt another hand of cards. Sometime after midnight, after the whiskey had taken its toll, the last of the two stumbled out of the saloon and into the night.
First light next morning when the freighter skipper cast off and drifted out into the rapids, Charlie Barnes was one of the two passengers on board. He never looked back as he bid farewell to the goldfields. He had deliberately kept his departure quiet.
The boat ride south was uneventful except for freezing weather and patches of slack water ice in the river. Very little was said during the trip. Tension between Charlie and the other prospector was thick enough to cut with a knife. He made a point of not asking the prospector what had happened to his partner.
The freighter skipper spent his time maneuvering the boat, swearing profanities at the ice, and spewing out some sort of melodic ballads in a language Charlie had never heard before.
The second morning of their trip down river they woke to a severe snowstorm. Visibility was terrible. Charlie rose just long enough to stoke the fire, add a few more sticks of wood, and then crawl back under his bedroll. The skipper got up and walked to the river's edge, staring downstream through the driving snow.
Even in that short distance Charlie could barely make out the man's form.
"Let's get at it," the boatman called out, returning to collect his gear.
"You're crazy," Charlie replied. "We can't see anything out there. We'll end on the rocks sure."
"You fellers can stay if'n you want, but I'm leaving." The skipper continued to gather his things and pack them into the boat.
The prospector finally stirred from beneath his blanket. When he saw the snow he moaned and groaned and pulled the blanket back over his head.
It was obvious to Charlie that the boat's skipper was serious about leaving, with or without his passengers. So, swearing to himself, a reluctant Charlie threw off his blankets and began rolling them up. He said nothing to the other man who, at the very last moment, grabbed his blanket and ran for the departing boat.
There was no breakfast that morning, just some dry biscuits from Charlie's pack that he didn't offer to share. Nothing more was said, other than Charlie's occasion warning to the skipper of rocks ahead, and the skipper calling back, "Where, where?" unable to see beyond the boat's bow. Those were the scary conditions under which they proceeded throughout the better part of the day. By early afternoon the snow stopped and the sun finally managed peek through the tree tops. As they rounded the next bend in the river the welcome outline of Fort Alexandria finally appeared through the gold coloured cottonwood leaves. The first leg of Charlie's southern journey was over.
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THE BATCHELOR by Alan A Sandercott
I continued to watch as the plane nosed up and roared off into the distance. On board the jet was my wife starting the first leg of her two weeks vacation in Europe. I on the other hand was remaining behind to maintain the home fires so to speak. Strangely, in all the years that we have been married that was the first time that I had been home alone for any length of time. I had visions of those good bachelor things that I would be able to do in her absence. As the plane disappeared from sight and I nudged my vehicle back onto the road for home, my wife's final words lingered in my mind, "Are you going to be all right on your own?"
I had passed her one of those looks that asked, 'Are you serious?'
"I can cope you know!" I told her, "You just go and enjoy yourself and don't worry about me."
My first realization that I was on my own came that next morning when I entered the kitchen to a cold and empty coffee pot. 'Not to worry' I thought, in future I would simply make up the coffee the night before, set the timer and fresh coffee would be waiting for me. It was Saturday, our regular day for pancakes, and just because my wife wasn't around to make them was no reason to change. I reasoned anyone can make pancakes. No problem, in went the pancake mix, milk, an egg, plus a piece of eggshell that I never did find. No sense mixing it by hand when you have power tools, right? Wrong! When those mixer blades, whizzing around at high speed, hit the stuff in the bowl, a great white cloud suddenly exploded from the bowl. I was quick to realize my mistake and promptly withdrew the mixer. Wrong again. I stood there dumfounded as the mixer sprayed a coating of pancake mix all over the place. By the time I fumbled around and turned the thing off, the kitchen and I had a splatter design that defies description.
If there was a humorous side to it all, it was my cat who had taken up station on the counter to observe my efforts. Her fur had taken on a whitish tinge and bits of raw pancake batter dripped from her whiskers. Needless to say she was not amused as I stood there laughing at her. I had not intended to undertake a major cleaning of the kitchen within a day of my wife's departure, however, during that period of labour I realized why she had stocked the fridge with frozen waffles.
One of the things I had been looking forward to was lazy evenings of TV with hot buttered microwave popcorn. That night I stuffed a bag into the microwave, set the timer for a few extra minutes to ensure all the kernels popped and retired to the TV, my ear tuned for the bell. Well, you can imagine my surprise when, after opening the end of the bag, this great black lump drops into the bowl. Perhaps there was a reason for the precise time they recommended. Not to be deterred, I returned to the TV as the pungent odor of burned popcorn filled the air and picked through the darkened kernels for what ever I could salvage. It was one of those rare evenings the cat didn't want to sleep on my lap.
Being a firm believer in the old adage that all good things come in three's, I knew all my tribulations were now behind me. Time to get on with the fun experience of batching on my own. First thing I needed was an Angle Food cake, my all time favorite. A search of kitchen cupboards turned up a mix and as the label did say, No Cholesterol, I figured I had it made. What could be more simple, dump mix into bowl, add water, and mix. And what's more, the recipe called for an electric mixer, and I was experienced with a mixer. Being careful not to redecorate the kitchen walls I worked the batter to a consistency resembling that on the directions; it did however take considerably longer than the one minute in the instructions. I poured the batter into an Angel Food pan and stuffed it into the oven, set the timer, and grinned with satisfaction. It wasn't long before I was watching with fascination as the cake rose . . . and then rose . . . and rose! Soon there was as much batter on the bottom of the oven as there was in the pan. I learned later that I had used a Bunt pan, what ever that is, that was much shallower than a proper Angel Food pan.
Right about then I should have realized the operation was doomed and quit, but as usual, I forged ahead. Next the cake wouldn't come out of the pan properly, and when forced out, the shape left something to be desired. My attempts at applying icing bordered on disaster as the icing was too thick and I virtually tore the cake apart. The anticipated mouth watering taste that drove me on never materialized. The Angel food cake, normally light and fluffy when made by my wife, turned out to be heavy and sort of sticky. While I swallowed my pride and ate it anyways, I knew any future cake would be store bought.
As the days past I found my expertise in the kitchen extended to such delicacies as soups or macaroni and cheese, enhanced occasionally with frozen TV dinners and pizza. It wasn't long before my new menu required me to visit the super-market. My wife had left the weekly grocery budget money along with grocery flyers, circles drawn around the good value items. Well that was all fine but I knew what I wanted, and scooping up half the money, headed for the shopping mall.
Wandering up and down the isles of the store I was amazed with all the variety. I couldn't understand how my wife had overlooked all the good stuff. Isle after isle I maneuvered the shopping cart around, whistling as I went. At the checkout counter I followed the lead of others and unloaded my cart onto the counter and patiently waited my turn. The smile on my face was soon replaced with shock when the check-out girl asked for $168.50. 'There must be some mistake' I thought and questioned the girl. She smiled and showed me the till tape. I quickly emptied the contents of my wallet, then my pockets, but alas, I was well short of the bill. I gave the girl a sheepish look and explained my plight, to which she suggested I remove some of the items. Well the idea was fine, but the moans and groans of the people in the line behind me did little to ease my embarrassment while I struggled with the decision of what to put back. No wonder my wife was always content to have me wait in the car while she shopped.
The weekend rolled around with little problem and just when I was sure I was getting the hang of this bachelor living I started running out of dishes. Now I determined you didn't have to be a rocket scientist to run a dishwasher. Things had been going smoothly lately and a few dishes should pose no problem. I also determined that as long as I was going to run the dishwasher I might as well make it worth while by loading it with everything from the sink. That way I wouldn't have to wash anything by hand. I found a bottle of dish soap under the sink and filled the compartment in the door. Considering the state of some of the pots I had in there, I decided to add lots of soap. Door closed, I turned the switch and heard the swish of water inside and the rumble of the machine as it started. Proud of myself I retired to the living room and a spot of relaxation.
It was a while before I wandered back into the kitchen, but when I did, I received quite a surprise. The kitchen floor was covered with soap suds oozing from the front of the dishwasher. I wasted no time wading through the foamy mess and turned it off. Then, with a great deal of caution I slowly opened the door, releasing more of the soapy lather that flowed to the floor like white molten lava. With the aid of a dust pan I scooped up soap and dumped it into the sink. It took two attempts before the dishwasher would run without oozing the white lather. The dishwasher never did flush all the soap out and I ended up having to remove the dishes from the machine, rinse them under the tap, and dry them by hand. So much for time saving! By the time I had the floor cleaned I couldn't help wondering if my wife spent as much time cleaning the kitchen as I had to this point.
Towards the end of the second week my hopes of not having to use the clothes washer waned. I was still paranoid of soap after the dishwasher fiasco, but after a week without incident I was sure I could pull it off. I dumped in the clothes, added a cup of bleach, and carefully studied the instructions on the soap box. Cautiously I added the soap, closed the lid and turned the switch. The sounds of water filling the drum confirmed I must have done something right. To my delight things went smoothly. The washer went through its cycles and when it was done I transferred everything to the dryer. Needless to say I was rather proud of myself. Another hour and I was done. Then, as I was folding my still warm clothes I noticed a problem with my jeans. When I shook them out and held them up I could not believe my eyes. There were big white splotches all over them from the bleach. Two of my darker shirts showed the same unusual patterns. Murphy's Law had taken one last crack at me.
The day prior to my wife's return I decided I'd better get the house back into shape, not that it was that bad, considering the number of times I had to clean up after disasters. However, the farther I got into it, the more I became convinced that this house cleaning stuff was not for me. At any rate by noon of the second day the house was spic and span. Now it remained only to get to the airport on time to meet my wife.
After all the niceties of a welcome home, it came as no surprise to me when my wife asked, "Did everything go okay while I was gone? I hope you didn't leave a big mess for me to clean up."
I gave her a bit of a sheepish look but then quickly replied, "No problem . . . I can cope you know!"
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RETIREMENT PARTY by Alan A Sandercott
No one should ever retire without a party. That was high on Larry's personal list of corporate obligations. Larry Sparzak was Sales Manager for Hughes Equipment, a small west coast distributor to the logging industry. They handled everything from flaging tape to saftey gear to power saws. The company's owner, Arne Hughes, was retiring after suffering a heart attack. Larry seized the moment and convinced the staff that a going away party was in order and, as usual, he neglected to touch base with his wife before volunteering their house for the big party.
Susan Sparzak was less than impressed when Larry finally broke the news of the party to her over breakfast, a day in advance.
"Well I hope you plan on doing all the work yourself," she told her inconsiderate husband. Larry had heard this response many times before.
"Don't worry about it," he replied, "some of the staff are coming over to set things up."
"And who's going to clean up the house?" Susan enquired.
"I'll get Florence to come in the next morning to help." Florence was the janitor from the office who Larry felt sure he could sweet talk into helping.
"I'm talking about before the party. The whole house needs a good cleaning before we can have a bunch of people in here."
"Why?" Larry asked, shrugging his shoulders and following her out to the double garage. "The place looks fine. Besides, it'll just get dirty again."
She didn't respond as she closed the door of her bright yellow corvette behind her. The look on her face was all the reply Larry needed. Later that morning Larry convened a meeting of office staff to plan for the big event.
The next morning Susan left for work, but not before aquainting Larry with the vacuum cleaner and a list of things to do. Larry was no stranger to vacuuming, he once had to do all the housework for a week when Susan was sick in bed. He was very proud of himself at the time and could'nt understand why his wife's first task after getting back on her feet was to thoroughly clean the house. Anyway, he spent the morning vacuuming all the carpets on the main floor, dusted all the exposed surfaces and ran a damp yacht mop across the linoleum floors. By eleven he retired to the back patio with his well earned cold beer where the pool cleaner had just finished rolling the heavy plastic top across the swimming pool.
"All done, Mr. Sparzak," the pimpley faced young man said. "It's super clorinated so you'll have to stay out of the pool for at least twenty-four hours."
"No problem," Larry replied. "Want a beer?"
The man thought for a moment, looked at his watch, then said, "No, I better not. The old man will go balistac if I get back to the shop smelling of beer."
Shortly after lunch some office staff showed up at Larry's Bellevue, Washington home to set up for the party. By mid afternoon, under the supervision of Jennifer, Arne's secretary, the house was ready to party. Streamers and baloons spanned the room and the patio area and, as per Susan's instructions, breakables removed from harm's way. Francine, Larry's secretary, showed up with a ton of snack food and enough drink mixer to float a battleship. Dave, the company bookkeeper, had volunteered to make the booze run and wasted no time sampling his valuable cargo. Larry's best friend, Brice, showed up too late to help with the decorating but just in time to help Dave pack in the alchohol. All was in readiness.
By the time Susan arrived home from work everyone, with the exception of a few, were heading home to get changed. Dave who was playing the part of a real gentleman for a change was busy mixing drinks and already too drunk to drive. Jennifer had made arrangements with her baby sitter to stay the night so she wasn't going anywhere. She helped Susan with last minute preparations before splitting a jug of margarettas on the patio.
It wasn't long before the doorbell started ringing. Secretaries from the office section, dock workers, inventory and sales clerks, all with wives and husbands in tow. Being a BYOB event, most men arrived with a bottle that Dave quickly retrieved and added to the growing bar. One guy stood out from the crowd with an open six-pack of beer tucked under his arm. No one was really sure who he was but he wasted no time joining the festivities. Dave positioned himself behind the bar and commenced demonstrating his mixology talents.
By the time Arne and his wife Phyllis arrived, there were twenty-seven people in all, more than Larry had bargained for when he offered to host the party. Even Louise, the cleaning lady showed up. Larry made a mental note to talk to her about the next morning's cleanup. The only one missing was Brice who, unknown to everyone, was sitting out front in his car with the newest love of his life steaming up the windows.
The party had been in full swing for a good two hours or more. Bellevue is a quiet community compared to the hustle and bustle of Seattle, especially the area where Larry and Susan lived. Normally one could walk their cul-de-sac at night and almost hear a pin drop - not so that night! The dinn of music and chatter spread out onto the patio. A few of the men discovered a basketball and started shooting hoops until the ball ended up over the fence and into a neighbor's yard. Rather than going to get it, the six-pack man says, "Here, let's use this," and picked up a beach ball from the pool area and threw it over to Brice. It worked. They managed to make several baskets before ball got stuck in the net.
"Let's find something to knock it down with?" Brice suggested.
"Like what?" one of the men asked.
"Not to worry," six-pack said, climbing up onto the fence and the pulling himself up the steel pole.
"Be careful you don't fall," Brice warned.
"Never fear, when I'm here."
Minutes later a '911' phone rang at the Fire Department's station house. The firemen's nightly poker game was interupted by a laughing switchboard operator. The night shift had just reported for work and looked forward to another quiet routine shift. As always there was a poker game at the round table in the crew quarters upstairs. Four playing. On one of two couches a guy was reading the newspaper. All was quiet, quiet until the dispatcher came running up the stairs.
"You're never going to believe this one. We just got a call about some guy who's stuck in a basket ball hoop."
"Sure you did," came the reply from the poker table.
"No. I'm serious. Apparently we got some guy stuck in a basketball hoop! Let's go, rescue's rolling!"
"Oh sure, just when I finally get a decent hand," one of the men said, as he jumped up, took a last look at the cards in his hand, and then headed for the stairway.
Normally, on a seemingly straightforward rescue call, only the rescue van would be dispatched. However, this one sounded so weird that one of the two fire trucks tagged along. Then the police, overhearing the '911' call and seeing both the rescue and fire trucks tearing down the street, joined the parade. Suddenly Bellevue's peaceful streets were alive with screaming sirens and flashing red and blue lights.
When the rescue van pulled into Larry's driveway, followed by the fire truck and then two police cars, they were greeted by several of the would be basketball players, milling around the driveway just killing themselves laughing.
"He's stuck up there," Larry said, as soon as the driver stepped from the van.
"What's he doing up there?" the driver asked, fighting to hold back his laugh.
"We were shooting a few baskets. Then someone threw a beach ball up and it got stuck in the hoop. So he volunteered to go up to get it down."
"How did he get up there?"
"Climbed up. But somehow he got his belt caught on the hoop and now he can't get down."
"Why didn't someone just climb up and unhook him?"
"No one wants to get underneath him. He keep saying he's going to get sick," Larry explained. "I know I'm not going up after him."
"Couldn't you put your ladder up so he could simply climb down?" one of the police officers asked.
"Can't, I loaned it to a neighbor and I've never seen it since."
By that time the men from the fire trucks were milling around as well. "I'll get a ladder from our truck," one of them said.
The police officers, then noting the varying states of sobriety in the crowd, asked Larry, "What have you got going on here?"
"It's a retirement party for our boss," Larry explained. "We all work at Hughes Equipment in Seattle."
"And who's that?" the officer asked, still fighting back laughter, and pointing to Melvynn hanging from the basket ball hoop, "Your entertainment director?"
That brought out the laughter.
"Not intentionally. Listen, can you get him down from there before he throws up all over the place?"
"That's our job," a rescue worker said, steadying the ladder for his partner.
A cheer went up and a round of applause followed as Melvynn was unhooked and assisted to the ground. He quickly beat a hasty retreat into the nearest shrubbery bush, making good on his threat of getting sick.
"Try and keep it down to a dull roar tonight, okay?" the police asked.
"No problem officer, it's all under control."
Embarrassed, Larry herded his partygoers back to the house as the city's finest put their equipment away, releasing their pent-up laughter. The crowd of neighbors, who had gathered to watch the show, dispersed as well.
Back inside, Dave returned at the bar, still on his feet, still mixing drinks. One of the last drinks he mixed was a Caesar for Jennifer. His earlier endeavors hadn't been too bad, but this one was something else. After pouring the glass over half full of Vodka, he dumped in Clamato mix, most of which ended up on the bar, and then added enough Tabasco Sauce to tickle the fancy of a Mexican soldier. For garnish he used a carrot stick from a vegetable platter because he couldn't find any more celery. Jennifer's first sip of the drink almost put her into orbit.
Brice and his new girlfriend, Linda, had now moved inside, only he seemed to be showing more interest in the other women at the party. All Linda wanted to do was dance, and she didn't care with whom. Dave's stiff drinks had done her in as well. So had several others before Dave finally collapsed into a corner of the chesterfield.
Harry, one of Brice's staff from the dock took over the bartending duties from Dave. At least he was a little more moderate. Clarice was looking after the music and her and her husband, Wilf, were dancing continuously. Melvynn was doing a fair amount of dancing as well, or trying to. He was mostly stepping on everyone's toes as he staggered around the room. When it finally got to the point no one would dance with him anymore, he called out, "Who wants to go for a swim?"
Fortunately, Larry heard him. "You can't go swimming. I just had the pool super-chlorinated. No one can go in it for 48 hours." It was a lie, but he didn't want a bunch of drunks in his swimming pool.
Then Melvynn moved outside to the patio, that's when he discovered the hot tub. Within minutes he had stripped off to his jockey shorts and was up to his neck in hot water. A few others were soon to follow.
Then Lisa's boyfriend, Karl, - Lisa was one of the clerks at the office - took an interest in Larry's fish tank. There were two large brown Oscars that seemed to show a good deal of interest in the party, swimming back and forth along the front of the glass. Karl started looking around for something to feed the fish. He found a whole bag of pellet food in the cupboard under the tank. Each time he dropped a pellet, one of the Oscars would dash to the surface, grab the pellet, and return to the bottom. Soon he was feeding them by hand. This fascinated him, right to the point where Lisa jabbed him in the ribs. "You shouldn't be doing --"
Right then one of the Oscars bit at Karl's finger. He instinctively yanked his arm back, "Yow!" he exclaimed, his other hand squeezing the bag of pellets, slitting the bag. Pellets spilled all over the place, a goodly portion ending up in the tank. Guilt shrouded Karl's face as he cautiously glanced over his shoulder. Fortunately for him no one saw the incident. He quickly stuffed what was left of the bag into the cupboard and headed into the kitchen for a beer, trying to look innocent. Larry wouldn't be any the wiser until the next morning, but by then his fish were overly well fed and the tank needed cleaning.
Linda was standing at the bar, an empty glass in one hand and a beer in the other. Karl quickly offered to get her another drink. "The usual," she said.
She stared at Karl for a second, and then a smile crossed her face. "Are you the new bartender?"
"Sort of looks that way. What can I get you?"
"Bourbon," she replied, flopping her glass down onto the bar.
Karl filled her glass and handed it back.
"You got a light?" she asked, stuffing a cigar into her mouth.
"You should really remove the wrapper first," he said, taking the cigar from her. "May I?" He removed the cellophane and handed it back to her.
She was having a little difficulty standing but managed to hold still long enough for Karl to strike a match and hold it for her. She puffed a few times, and as the smoke curled up over her face her eyes began to water.
"You don't smoke much, do you?"
"Oh sure, I smoke these all the time," she said. Then she turfed back the bourbon and followed it with a long pull on the beer. She had been taking bourbon shooters with beer chasers most of the night, but it was the cigar that did her in. A few more puffs and her face took on a green hue, and then she headed for the bathroom.
Brice had witnessed her show and was waiting at the bathroom door when she reappeared. "Are you okay?" he asked.
"What do you care? Why don't you go back to your other woman?"
"I think you've had too much to drink."
"You may just be right," she said, loosing her balance and falling into Brice's arms.
"You want to go?"
"Are you trying to get rid of me?"
"No. I just think maybe it's time we went home."
"Well I don't..." She suddenly felt sick and reached for the bathroom door again.
From outside, Brice could her Linda throwing up, sicker than hell. When she finally came out she still refused to leave.
"I just want to lay down for a few minutes," she said.
So Larry helped her upstairs to the guest room and flopped her across the bed. She was asleep by the time he reached the door.
Brice got back downstairs just in time to answer the front door bell. There on the step was a pizza delivery boy with an armload of boxes.
"Bring 'em in!" Brice said, and stood back with the door open.
Neither Larry nor Susan were in sight at the time so he directed the kid right into the kitchen. Soon there's a half dozen pizza boxes scattered across the counter and lids are coming off, chunks of pizza being eaten.
The kid reached into his pocket and produced the bill.
"How much?" Brice asked, reaching for his wallet.
"Holy shit! On second thought I'll find Larry. Wait here. Have a drink, ... or better yet, a piece of pizza."
Brice found Larry busy emptying ashtrays. "There's someone here to see you."
"He's in the kitchen."
When Larry walked into the kitchen he was confronted with the mess of partially empty pizza boxes, and a strange young man sitting at the table eating a piece.
"You Larry?" the kid asked.
"Yeah, who are you?"
The delivery boy handed him the bill.
"I never ordered any pizza."
"Well, somebody here did," the boy said, "the call came in at 8:15 from your number and address."
Then Susan showed up at Larry's side, also unaware of any pizza order.
"What're you going to do?" she asked.
"We'll have to pay it I guess."
"How much is the bill?"
"Don't ask --"
"$93.90" the kid replied before Larry had a chance to finish.
Susan almost choked, "I don't have that much money in my purse."
Fortunately Arne walked in at that moment. "Let me get it," he said, handing the kid a hundred dollar bill. When the boy digs for some change Arne told him to keep it. "Thanks," the kid mumbled with his mouth full, and with a partially eaten slab of pizza in his hand he leaves with a big smile.
"Thanks, Arne. We'll pay you back later," Larry said, fully intending to take up a collection.
"Don't worry about it. I don't mind pitching in."
"You already have," Larry told him. "We charged all the alcohol to you."
"Just kidding, boss. Just kidding." Then Larry turned and headed out into the other room. "Okay, who ordered all the pizza?"
"I think it was Heather's husband," someone said.
"Where the hell is he?"
"Last time I saw him he was in the hot tub trying to talk Jennifer into taking off her top."
Actually Melvynn was heading back into the kitchen, straight for the bar, his jockey shorts dripping water all over the floor. "Okay, where's the bartender," he called out, and Harry came running.
Just then Heather came over and cornered Melvynn at the bar.
"Did you order all this pizza?"
"Pizza? Where's the pizza?" he asked. "I'm starved. There's nothing to eat around here."
"There are plenty of snack trays around."
"That's not food. I want real food ... pizza," he said, reaching for a slice.
"I think you should slow down a bit, don't you?"
"Hey, it's a party," he replied.
"You're making an ass of yourself."
"I'm having a good time."
"Well cool it a bit. Look at the mess you're making of Susan's floors. Go on back outside."
"Great idea," he said, grabbing his drink from Harry and heading back out to the tub. "Should be warm by now." He had cranked the heater on the tub as high as it would go.
Almost midnight. A few people, including Arne and Phyllis have left. In the living room Dave had slowly toppled over on the chesterfield, sleeping. Everyone ignored him until his snoring got too loud. Try as they may, they couldn't wake him so they tried to get him to sit up straight. Big mistake. He was far too heavy to move and ended up falling over onto the floor. Even then he didn't wake up so they rolled him onto a throw rug and dragged him down a hallway out of hearing range to sleep it off.
A while later Linda came back downstairs wanting to go home, claiming she woke up to find someone trying to undress her. Everyone looked at each other, mentally taking attendance. The only man unaccounted for was Melvynn; a point that didn't escape his wife. Rather than get upset, Brice simply offered to arrange for a ride home for Linda. He really didn't want to leave at the moment; he was having too good a time dancing with Jennifer, so he sent Linda home in a taxi.
Along about 1:00 in the morning Heather finally managed to get Melvynn into the car and drove them home. Harry was determined to stay, the booze was pretty much cleaned up so his talents as a bar tender were no longer needed, but he too had discovered the hot tub. Joe, who hadn't said more than two words all night, must have left because no one had seen him for the last two hours.
The house was a mess. Jennifer and Susan started cleaning up until Larry told her not to bother. "I gave Louise a key," he said. "She's going to come around tomorrow and clean up."
"What about sleeping beauty?" Jennifer asked, referring to Dave, still sleeping in the hallway.
"Leave him sleep. Harry said he'll drive him home."
Then, for the first time all evening, Larry was able to sit down with his feet up and have a relaxing drink. The music played quietly in the background.
"I hope you're not planning another party in the near future?" Susan asked.
"If I do, shoot me."
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CABIN FEVER by Alan A Sandercott
Fort Alexandria sat perched at the edge of the Fraser River between the Quesnel River and William's Lake. It was a fur trading post that served trappers of the area for many years. The fort and its meager accommodation provided a stop over for prospectors traveling to and from the gold fields. For Charlie Barnes it was a chance for a good night's sleep and a hot meal before striking out for Ashcroft along the Cariboo trail.
Unfortunately, it snowed that night and all the next day, and the next, and the next. Winter was setting in early. Despite his need to press on south, it was not to be. Like it or not, he and several others were to become captive guests of Fort Alexandria for the remainder of the winter.
Winter at the fort was long and boring. Day after day crawled past with nothing to do but sleep and stare out the frost covered windows. Volunteers for hunting parties charged with obtaining food for the fort's inhabitants were easy to find. The only means of transportation in winter was by dog sled. One team per month traveled the snow-covered trails and frozen river back and forth between Yale and Richfield carrying mail and emergency supplies.
In one of the log cabins a never-ending poker game provided some relief from an otherwise monotonous existence. Charlie virtually lived at that table and slowly but surely increased his winnings. Many a grubstake changed hands at the fort's poker table over the years, leaving the hopeful prospectors destitute with little option but to turn back in the spring. For every gold seeker heading south that was fortunate enough to strike it rich, there were other unscrupulous types waiting to relieve them of their pokes and Charlie was intent on continuing his journey in the spring much richer than when he arrived.
One of the more interesting players at the table that winter was a Metis from the Northwest Territories. Born to a French/Canadian from Quebec and an Indian mother, Francois Dubois grew up along his father's trap lines. He had an adventurous nature and eagerly followed the fur trade farther west. Along the way he learned the art of packing from an old mule skinner. Francois eventually inherited the business when the old muleskinner was killed by a grizzly bear while crossing the Rocky Mountains.
The card games at Fort Alexandria were usually made up of men tired of just laying around and who played just to break the monotony. Others were more serious. During one of the games the other passenger from the freighter boat accused Charlie of cheating. Such an accusation was not taken lightly by a group of men living in close quarters on the verge of cabin fever. The man was drunk and had just lost a sizable amount of money to Charlie. He jumped up and yelled, "You cheated me!"
At first Charlie didn't do anything, but when the man pulled a knife and threatened to stab him, Charlie was forced to react. He pushed back from the table and quickly pulled the gun stuffed in his belt. The carrying of firearms was strictly forbidden at the fort but rarely enforced. But before Charlie could use his weapon Francois grabbed his own chair and swung it at the man with all his might. The impact knocked the man over backwards, the knife flew from his hand, and he landed on his ass on the floor.
"I knows 'bout you," the man snarled up at Charlie. "You was always at the tables in Richfield. I saw you."
"So what?" Charlie replied, staring down at his attacker.
"Word 'round Richfield is 'ol Judge Begbie is looking to lock you up for robbing some of those poor miners."
"Ain't he that hanging judge?" someone whispered from the onlookers in the room.
"That's a downright lie," Charlie spat, even though he had heard the rumor himself. Truth was, those rumor about Begbie looking for him was Charlie's main reason for leaving the goldfields.
"You're one of them card sharks. You cheated me and my partner that last night at the tables. Maybe you're the reason he missed the boat." The man reached over to retrieve his knife. "I'll cut your bloody heart out."
Charlie instantly raised his gun and leveled it at the man, but before he could squeeze the trigger Francois interceded and stepped in front of him. Just then the fort's factor and his assistant barged into the room. Someone had run to get him when the fight broke out. Charlie's gun quickly disappeared from sight, tucked securely under his heavy coat.
The Factor at Fort Alexandria was middle-aged Scotsman with a strong accent and even stronger disposition. He was sizably overweight and when his temper raged the colour of his face matched his red hair. He was never with out the tartan-trimmed Scottish hat on his head or the matching plaid sash around his waist that held his Hudson's Bay coat tight.
"Ye'd best be securing that knife," the factor told Francois. He then turned his attention to the man on the floor amidst the admissions of sever men that the guy on the floor pulled a knife and started the fight. The factor accepted their word and ordered his assistant to, "Lock him in the stockade." The prospector tried to argue but he was quickly dragged out the open door.
"The poker game is over," the factor advised. "I suggest you all get some sleep."
After they left Charlie picked up the chair and returned it to the table, smiled and nodded a thank you to Francois and asked, "Whose deal is it?"
Those in the room just looked at one another for a moment and then took their places at the table, ignoring the factor's order. The poker game resumed with no further incidence. The subject of Charlie's cheating, or not, was never mentioned again.
Charlie talked with Francois on several occasions over the winter. They often sat around one of the big barrel wood heaters, smoking their pipes and chewing the fat. Francois' English wasn't too good but he liked telling tales of his experiences on trail. He was using his string of mules to haul freight between Bella Coola on the coast and Fort Alexandria. He and his pack train of eleven mules, one horse, and a helper made regular trips four or five times a year between April and October. It was a trip that passed through some tough country. The trail also crossed through territory belonging to the Chilcotin Indians, an inhospitable band living near the coast and who hunted most of the lands west of the fort.
"Do you ever have trouble with them Indians?" Charlie asked once.
"No. Old Antoine, he talks to 'em"
Turned out Old Antoine was a full blood Chilcotin Indian that Francois hired to pack mules and lead the second string. The fact that Francois was part Indian and even looked like one helped as well.
It was also during one of those long chats that Francois revealed to Charlie that there was gold to be found in the Chilcotin country. He had seen it himself in some of the creeks.
During one game near spring breakup, Francois sat quietly at the poker table staring intently at the cards in his hand. He had two pair; two kings and two sevens. His rough face, hidden behind a scruffy black beard, showed little emotion as he raised five dollars and discarded one card. "Une," he said, holding up the stubby index finger of his right hand. Francois was one of the most colourful characters Charlie had ever met. He always wore a red coat made from Hudson's Bay blankets that was decorated with Indian beads and tufts of coloured wool. A bright sash surrounded his waist and tied to the side. Over the sash he wore a wide leather belt that held his large bowie knife, and cartridges for the Winchester 1866 lever action rifle that was never far from his side. He had bought it from a prospector in Bella Coola that was heading for Alaska.
Charlie had been in that poker game since waking up at first light. He studied his own cards carefully. It was one of the better hands he had been dealt; two queens, two tens and a duce. He had the possibility of drawing a full house. The fingers of his free hand rolled some of his coins back and forth on the table. Charlie was ahead and feeling lucky.
"Your five," Charlie said, "and I'll raise ten more." He counted out fifteen dollars and added them to the pile in the middle of the table. "I'll take one card."
That spooked some of the players.
"I'm out," the man next to Charlie said, folding his cards.
The man on Charlie's other side sat back in his chair, his lips pursed while making his decision. Then he threw in fifteen dollars as if to call, then pausing for a moment pushed a gold coin into the pot. "I'll raise another twenty," he said, "I think you're both bluffing."
The fifth man at the table toyed with the cards in his hand, rearranging them, over and over, getting on everyone's nerves.
"Well?" Charlie asked, pressuring the man to play.
He finally folded.
Eyes then moved to Francois who didn't even flinch, he counted out twenty and dropped it into the pot. Charlie still felt lucky enough to dig into his reserve cash and add his twenty. Tension grew in the room as the dealer carefully dealt one card to Francois, one to Charlie, two to the other man, and then set the deck down on the table. It was Francois' move.
From outside the cabin a commotion could be heard in the courtyard. One of the men got up and opened the door. "It's just the dogsled coming in from Richfield," he advised and quickly closed the door again. Spring was right around the corner but it was still twenty below zero outside. There was one hundred and forty-five dollars in the poker pot. That was more important than the dog team's arrival.
Francois picked up his one card and inserted it into his hand. Charlie did likewise. Both men remained stone-faced, not wanting to reveal their positions. The third man allowed a small smile to cross his face as he peeked at his two new cards. "Okay, what have you got?" he asked with a grin.
"Not so fast," Charlie interjected, "It's Francois' play."
Francois took a big swig from the small crock of rum hooked to his belt. As the rock-gut liquid burned down his throat he stared at Charlie for a moment and then said, "Pass."
Just then a man, the one who earlier in the winter accused Charlie of cheating, entered the room and headed straight for the barrel heater to warm his hands. "The mail's in from Richfield," he said. "One of Judge Begbie's special constables came in on the sled as well. Word is he's here to get you Charlie," he added with a satisfied grin.
Charlie showed little interest in the man's report. Instead he concentrated on his game. "I'll raise twenty," he said, sliding a twenty dollar gold coin into the pot. The smile disappeared from the third player's face. He stared at his cards intently. He had used most of his cash in his last raise, but he felt so confident he announced, "I'm calling you."
Francois just shook his head and muttered a few words in French. He had a feeling his two pair weren't worth another twenty dollars. He folded his hand and leaned back to fill his pipe.
"Well?" the other man asked nervously. With just the two players left in the game Charlie laid out his hand, "Full house. Queens and tens," he said confidently.
On seeing Charlie's cards, the other man slumped back in his chair, threw his cards down angrily and swore to himself.
Charlie smiled. Had he of lost the hand he would have been nearly broke. But he didn't loose. He reached out and dragged the money towards him and into his waiting hat.
"You're one lucky son of a bitch, you know that?" the loser said.
"You're right," Charlie agreed with his unhappy poker rival, "it's all luck."
When morning broke at Fort Alexandria Charlie Barnes was nowhere to be found. There was little doubt as to who told the constable that Charlie Barnes was at the fort. The police constable and the fort's factor conducted an unsuccessful search. Questions were asked but no one, especially Francois, could or would explain Charlie's disappearance.
As visibility increased with the rising sun a disappointed police constable stood outside the fort's river gate. Fresh tracks in the snow of a man on snowshoes led away from the fort, across the frozen river and west into the Chilcotin country.
"He won't last long out there," the constable said. "That's Indian territory."
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FREE ENTERPRISE by Alan A Sandercott
The Free Enterprise System, the opportunity to venture forth and seek one's fortune and hopefully not the fame that usually goes along with success. This was the allure that attracted two brothers to Canada. Tales of riches to be made with little more than daring, determination, and the ability to evade the law, caught their imagination. Expectations ran high when they presented themselves as tourists after landing at Vancouver International Airport in the spring of 2010. "Enjoy the 2010 Winter Games," they told Canada Customs. They were very limited in the amount of English they knew and talked with heavy accents. Both short and stout, both balding, and both sporting gaudy coloured sport shirts and sun glasses, the looked the part of tourists. But the 2010 Winter Games were the furthest thing from their minds when they boarded the Canada Line rapid transit for downtown Vancouver.
Right from the beginning the brothers had their minds set on the internationally famous British Columbia Marijuana Trade; BC Bud, Green Gold. Thanks to several illegal scams, a bit of extortion, and the sale of their mother's house without her knowledge they had amassed a considerable amount of money to finance their dreams. Earlier research on the internet had turned up several contacts and several suppliers of Grow-Op equipment. Experts abounded on the streets and within days the brothers were well on their way to starting their new enterprise. "Go north," they were advised, "things are too hot down here. Head up into the interior where no one gives a damn what you do."
Kenny was a long time loser with a criminal record as long as his arm, but he had the silver tongue of a car salesman. He dressed to give a successful impression but his prison-pallor face gave him away. He soon zeroed in on the two gullible foreigners. He quickly gained their confidence and impressed them with his wealth of knowledge as it applied to the business of marijuana grow-ops. "I know all about growing pot," he told the brothers. "Cut me in and I'll teach you everything you ever wanted to know about running a grow-op." However, he neglected to tell the brothers that he had just been released from prison for being involved in a lower mainland marijuana grow-op, along with multiple possession charges including trafficking across the border into the US. It was true though, he did know what was required to set up a grow-op and he did have the contacts, providing the brothers had the money, which they did.
The three formed a bonding friendship as they planned for their future business partnership. The brother's took on the role of regular entrepreneurs, although with their new wardrobes complete with sun shades they presented the picture of a couple aspiring criminals. They did, however, get some exposure to the 2010 Winter Games, usually on wide-screen TV in one pub or another.
Spring was well underway when the two brothers, along with their new partner, Kenny, were winding their way north along Highway 97 into the Cariboo Country. In Quesnel BC., Kenny eased the well used truck into the parking lot of a real estate office. "We're looking to buy an old farm," Kenny explained to the agent who quickly smiled at the prospect. "We want to be away from the rat race," Kenny added. The agent then identified the perfect location for them. "It's and old 100 acre homestead out in the Blackwater," the agent told them, showing them the location on a big wall map. "The previous owners farmed the place 'till last fall. They're getting too old so they want to sell. I'm sure if you make a reasonable offer they'd probably take it. They live here in town. I could get you an answer today."
Outside by the truck the three men discussed the matter and an offer was agreed on by the brothers, seeing as how they were putting up all the money. The agent wrote up the offer and went to see the owners. Sure as hell, they accepted the offer and the deal was finalized at a lawyer's office that same afternoon. After picking up some take-out meals and a couple cases of beer the three retired to a local motel for the evening.
Next morning they bought provisions, gassed up the truck, bought a map, and at the insistence of the brothers they bought two AK47 Semi-Automatic rifles with enough ammunition to last years. "I suppose those are for hunting squirrels?" Kenny joked. The brothers just grinned. Soon they crossed the bridge over the Fraser River and headed west on the Blackwater Road. The brother were city types and the miles and miles of pot-holed dusty gravel road with nothing but trees and more trees was very strange to them. They constantly checked the map trying to reassure themselves that they weren't lost.
Following directions given them by the real estate agent, they crossed a rickety old bridge and found the narrow road that branched off and sloped down towards a bit of a valley. Two miles later after dodging deep water filled ruts they emerged from the trees to the old farm. It was perfect! No one around for miles. A bid chunk of the farm had been plowed the previous fall and was ready for planting. A creek flowed along side the field in case they need extra water. It was the beginning of May and if they planted right away, and Mother Nature cooperated with enough sun and rain they could have a bountiful marijuana harvest. Then they could pack the old truck full and head back to the coast. By the end of their first year in Canada the two brothers would be rich beyond their wildest dreams.
Almost immediately they started to work following Kenny's directions in setting up a large temporary greenhouse to give their marijuana plants a head start. For the lumber they needed they dismantled a couple old farm buildings. Kenny made several trips to town for material and supplies, always taking one of the brothers along to pay the bills. One special item was a good sized gas power plant to supply special lighting night & day to the greenhouse. Within three weeks they had close to five thousand tiny marijuana plants
The weather was dull & dreary when they started moving the seedlings out into the rich earth of the field. Kenny explained the conditions were important so the plants wouldn't suffer undue stress from the move. The brothers complained the hours were too long and the work too tedious. Kenny kept reminding them of all the money they were going to make when they took their harvest south.
Their field of dreams exploded with growth, and so did the work tending the crop. As the summer progressed the rains diminished and the heat of the sun increased. They found themselves packing water from the creek in buckets for the plants. Kenny finally had to make a special trip into Quesnel to buy a water pump along with rolls and rolls of hose, but gone was the bucket brigade. They all had time to sit back and make plans of what they would do with all the money. Kenny talked long and hard to the two brothers trying to convince them that they would get a far better price for their pot by smuggling it across the border into the states. Higher prices meant more money in the pockets of the two brothers so they bought into the idea.
By the middle of August the temperatures were soaring and with no rain they were watering night & day. The portable radio they had reported lots of forest fires were burning in the province; several in their area. They had seen smoke a few times and there were a lot of planes flying over. Some were obviously water bombers identified by the colour and the markings. A few helicopters seemed to be patrolling the area. The brothers worried one of them may spot their marijuana crop from the air but Kenny assured them the fields would look like corn from the air and not to worry so much.
Unknown to the three temporary pot farmers their field had caught the eye of one of the pilots. He had reported it to the RCMP in Quesnel, who in turn passed the information on the RCMP Drug Section in Prince George to the north. A couple days later one of the choppers patrolling the area had a special passenger onboard; a drug officer who knew what marijuana looked like from the sky and took several revealing photographs.
The following week a special team gathered at the Quesnel RCMP Detachment comprising officers from the Drug Section in Prince George and Vancouver along with regular RCMP officers from Quesnel. They discussed strategies for the pending raid on the remote marijuana grow-op. Several blown-up photographs of the farm were spread on a large table along with road maps of the area. "There was a time," the lead officer explained, "that we would have to find our way into an illegal operation the hard way. Now, the 'copter goes out and radios back and we know exactly where to go if necessary."
The plan consisted of two helicopters, one to fly back and forth like it's patrolling a fire but close enough to monitor movements on the farm. Several vehicles would approach from the ground in a surprise attack. The second chopper would join in to drop down unexpectedly to make the arrests. The first chopper would remain aloft to aid in tracking the farm's operators should they try and make a break for it.
The last thing Kenny and the brothers expected when they awoke that last day on the farm was to find themselves in jail by nightfall, but it happened. The peaceful tranquility of the remote farm setting was shattered when a helicopter suddenly appeared over the trees and swooped down on the surprised men enjoying breakfast. Four uniformed RCMP jumped from the chopper as it touched down in the clearing by the truck, blocking it from moving. They immediately approached the old farm house, two with handguns drawn, and the other two brandishing rifles. One of the brothers appeared in the doorway and as soon as the officers started yelling commands at him he retreated back inside. Then Kenny appeared in the doorway with one of the AK47's in his hands. The officers began yelling commands at him to drop the rifle. Instead, Kenny slowly raised the rifle in a threatening manner. Big mistake! The police officers opened fire. Following a hail of bullets, the rifle dropped from Kenny's hands, he pitched forward and then crumpled to the ground.
Almost at the same time the strike force's ground vehicles roared into the yard in a great cloud of dust. Armed officers poured out and the farmhouse was quickly surrounded. The two brothers understood very little English but there was little doubt as to what was expected of them. One of the brothers who had picked up the other AK47 rifle now dropped it to the floor. They stood staring wide-eyed at each other for a few seconds fearing they would be next to be shot.
It was another hot sunny afternoon when the two brothers stepped out of the stuffy police van. The chains attaching their shackles rattled on the hot pavement as they made their way into the Quesnel RCMP Detachment, ending in the cellblock. It was the start of many days and nights staring through bars. Ahead of them lay months of legal trials in Vancouver courts for numerous violations of Canadian and British Columbia law. Everything they had acquired since arriving in Canada was confiscated so they had no choice but to helplessly rely on court appointed attorneys to aid in their defense.
In mid December, 2010 the two brothers arrived at the departures level at Vancouver International Airport under escort of Canadian Immigration officials. They were handcuffed together. The excitement they felt eleven month earlier when they landed in Canada now a distant memory. Four months behind bars in Canadian jails had dulled their sense of adventure. They were flat broke and had nothing to show for their visit to Canada but a crumpled copy of the Deportation Order stuffed in their pockets. On the bright side they qualified for pre-boarding of the plane that was to return them to their own country and an uncertain future.
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I REALLY GOTTA GO! by Alan A Sandercott
Emerson Pharmaceuticals had a new boardroom. The last of the contractors had cleared out their tools and leftover materials the day before. All Friday morning the cleaning staff cleaned and polished. They were followed by the staff of a catering service that adorned the room with party regalia in readiness for a corporate bash that was intended to baptize the new boardroom. Cocktails at 6:00 pm, the office memo read, but there are always those that start early.
"Wow," Larry commented immediately on entering the boardroom. "This is nice." He walked to the middle of the large room, pausing to look around, and then ventured out onto the balcony. The location presented a spectacular view overlooking Seattle's harbor with its lines of piers. Beyond the viaduct, and on out into Elliot Bay, the water was dotted with pleasure sailboats. In the distance he could see a ferry on its return run from Bainbridge Island, skirting around several freighters anchored in the harbor. Larry Parsons was Field Manager of Sales, responsible for sales for the entire west coast, and he was an alcoholic in denial.
Dave Privy, one of several corporate lawyers retained by the company, was already in the room and busily ordering himself a drink from the large selection of booze the caterers had hauled up in the service elevator. The hired bartender, outfitted in a tight white waist jacket and bow-tie, expertly passed a glass through the ice cube tray and tipped a bottle of expensive scotch. "What are you having?" Dave asked Larry. "Howie's buying." He was referring to Howard Price the company President and CEO, Howard hated the nickname 'Howie' and Dave knew it.
"Just a beer," Larry replied. "I promised the wife I would be home early today. It's her birthday and she's made plans." In truth he had spent most of the afternoon in a nearby tavern with a couple of client's and had downed enough beer to finance a small brewery.
"You can't fly on one wing. You of all people should know that."
"No, a beer's fine," he confirmed, accepting the open bottle and a glass from the bartender. "First one today, always the best," Larry said, and took a long drink.
Dave chooses a comfortable looking easy chair and settled on in, wiggling his butt for the perfect fit. He needed a big chair; he must have weighed close to three-hundred pounds. Where others walked; Dave waddled. His face always looked like he was about to have a heart attack. "I need one of these in my office," Dave commented.
"I agree," Larry said, having settled into one of the new posh highly padded chairs. "Maybe now I'll attend a few more meetings," he added with a grin.
"So what are your plans? You planning on buying a house or...?" Larry asked. Dave had only joined the company a few weeks earlier having come from a similar position in Chicago. "House probably. I'd be happy in an apartment, but my wife, she's determined to have a house."
"So you're married?" Larry inquired.
"Second time round. She's still back east, trying to get her act together. She'll be flying out this weekend to look at houses with me, but I doubt I'll be moving her out here any time soon."
"Any idea where you might want to buy?" Larry asked, standing up to get himself another beer.
"Well I don't dare make a decision until after the wife has been out here, but I saw some nice homes last night. A real estate agent took me out to ... Mercer Island, I think it was."
"Mercer Island," Larry remarked. "That's a prestigious part of the city. I know. I drive by there on my way home everyday. A lot of mucky-mucks live there, but there are some beautiful homes on the island."
"Expensive, too," Dave added.
Suddenly the big oak boardroom door opened and Brice, the company's Human Resources Manager, filled the doorway. "Evening all," he said, a big grin on his face. "This sweet young thing with me is Vickie, the love of my life," he advised, stepping aside to make room for a very attractive young lady. "I hope you don't mind? Her car is broke down and I've been driving her back and forth to work. I talked her into stopping by here for awhile and meeting everyone."
"Perfect," Dave said, "Always nice to meet a pretty new face. What can I get you to drink?"
Larry immediately arose from his chair to admire this newest of Brice's conquests, a roguish smile on his face. Vickie was absolutely stunning. Tall, perhaps even taller than Brice, given the four-inch heels she was wearing. Flowing auburn hair; one of those hair styles that made her look like she'd just been caught in the wind; long enough to require her to regularly sweep it from her well featured face. But what really caught his eye was her hourglass figure that attracted stares like a magnet.
"This here's Larry," Brice said. "Larry's a very good friend. We do everything together."
"Everything?" Vickie asked, with a girlish smile, her beautiful gray eyes melting into Larry's.
Larry couldn't help himself, his eyes ranging freely up and down her body. Vickie noticed, and began a knowing blush. He wasn't sure if he should shake or kiss the hand she extended - he chose the former. Then like a love-struck teenager he stood and stared, soaking in her aroma that quickly permeated the room.
"That's enough," Brice interrupted, breaking the spell. "He's not that good a friend. And this here is Dave. He's a lawyer, so he doesn't count."
Dave let Brice's comment slide for the moment. He too was taken by Vickie's beauty. He handed her a glass of champagne and then downed the one he'd brought for Brice. He then returned to the bar for another scotch before reclaiming the padded chair. He then leaned over towards Larry and said, "Brice sure knows how to pick 'em."
The next hour passed with mixtures of business and miscellaneous conversations. More company executives showed up, some with wives, others straight from their desks. Along with Dave and Larry, a couple other guys had all pulled their chairs around in a sort of semi-circle, not surprisingly around Vicki. She didn't complain and seemed to enjoy being the center of men's attention. Brice, who should have been paying more attention to her, instead preferred talking on his favorite topic; stock cars and racing. What ever money Brice didn't spend on women he spent at the race track. Between the two he was always broke.
Vickie spent most of her time making eye contact with Larry. Her seductive, secretive smile flustered Larry making him lose his concentration. Either she hadn't picked up on the fact that Larry was married or she didn't care. She was sitting next to Brice, but she acted like he didn't exist, with good reason, she had other things on her mind.
Brice was describing the thrill of roaring down the racetrack, all the time unaware Vickie was hitting on his best friend. Every time Larry glanced over at her, she would be gently nibbling her bottom lip, or giving him her seductive smile, a hint of tongue tracing the inner curve of her sensual lips. He caught her doing it several times and it caused him such distraction that he had to get up from his seat and walk to the bar for another beer. There were no doubts as to the signals she was sending.
At some point Larry found himself out on the balcony with several others. A discussion was taking place about how computers were making everyone's life so much easier. A group that had gathered around the bar were watching a basketball game in progress. Brice was still running on about race cars and Vickie was still sitting at his side, bored stiff.
The beers were taking a toll on Larry as he finally excused himself and headed into the bathroom. A second later he was surprised when the door opened.
"Don't you lock doors?" Vickie asked, a mischievous smile on her face.
"Didn't think I had to."
"I'm glad you didn't," she said, reaching behind her to lock the door.
"I don't think this is a very good idea," Larry said.
"Well for one thing, Brice must have seen you come in here."
"I doubt it, he's too wrapped up in his stupid cars.
"Brice is my best friend. I wouldn't feel--"
"No one needs to know anything," she said, stepping up to Larry, now backed against the counter.
"No I can't," he said. The fact was he could and wanted to, but it was the wrong time, wrong place.
"What's' wrong? Don't you find me attractive?" she asked, her finger running up and down the edge of Larry's tie.
"Sure. I think you're very attractive, it's just --"
"The ring on your finger says you're married. I also see the way you look at me. But I'm not out to steal you away from your wife, just borrow you for a while. Maybe one afternoon...?" She pressed herself against him, the heat from her body rushing into his.
'This is crazy,' Larry thought to himself. 'Does she just want to hop up on the counter and go for it?'
When he felt his own body beginning to stir, he snapped to reality. "I'm sorry." He twisted away and quickly unlocked the door and escaped.
Back in the boardroom Larry grabbed another beer and headed out onto the balcony and fresh air. He was kicking himself, already regretting passing up such a clandestine moment with a beautiful women. He glanced back at Vicky once again sitting beside Brice, but she deliberately turned her look away.
'Damn,' he swore to himself. He chugged back the rest of the beer and announced, "Okay, it's getting late. I better head out. I don't want Susan sending the dogs after me."
"You sure?" Brice asked, suddenly shifting his attention away from those 'stupid cars', as Vicky had referred to Brice's hobby. "You don't want to break up the party, do you?"
"No choice. I've got a long way to go."
"Yeah I know. And a short time to get there," Brice added. "You sound like a take off from 'Smokey and the Bandit'. Just watch that 'peddle to the metal' shit though, eh?'"
"You're not driving, are you?" Dave asked.
"Yeah?" Larry answered, taking it as a strange question.
"You sure? I could call you a taxi if you like. You could always pick your car up tomorrow, you know?"
"I can drive okay," Larry replied. There was no doubt in Larry's mind that he could control his drinking.
"Maybe you better take one of my business cards," Dave said, "you'll need my services if the cops stop you."
"No, I'm okay. All I've been drinking is beer." He knew damned well he would be pushing his luck driving, but if he came home without his car Susan would kill him. Plus it would mean she would have to drive him to the office in the morning, in her Corvette, in the city traffic!
"I've seen him drive in a lot worse shape," Brice added, getting to his feet.
"Are you leaving too?" Dave asked.
"Nope. Just going to the little boy's room. Have to make room for another drink."
"Let me go first," Larry said, having missed on his first trip.
"Too late," Brice said, already heading out the door.
"I'm gone then," Larry added impatiently. He was already a couple hours late.
To get home, Larry usually drove out on the 'I90' highway, across Mercer Island and then on into Bellevue. That night, of all nights, traffic on the floating bridge to Mercer Island ground to a crawl. Vehicles backed up for miles, bad news for Larry who hadn't waited to use the bathroom. Now he was somewhere near the middle of the bridge, and he had to take a leak, bad. He should have known better, drinking beer all night, but who would have expected running into a traffic jam at night.
Music helped some to get Larry's mind off his pressing need. He cranked up the volume, stared at other drivers, and cursed at what ever was causing the holdup. All he could do was sit there, wiggling his legs back and forth, praying traffic would start moving again. But the cars were bumper to bumper, barely moving, but moving enough that he couldn't get out. And even if he could, there was nowhere to go; he was in the middle of the bridge.
Agonizing minutes worn on. The pain in Larry's bladder was about to explode. He leaned over and glanced at himself in his mirror, half expecting to see his eyes turning yellow. He leaned back in his seat; twisting, his legs crossed, conscious that the female driver in the vehicle beside him probably knew what was going on. He couldn't help wondering if the woman felt sorry for him, or if she was on the verge of laughing. He didn't care, that was far from his immediate concern. Out of desperation he tried to think of something in the car he might use, a tin can, in the trunk perhaps? Then his eyes settled on the ashtray. He pulled it out and stared at it for a moment, wondering if he dared. He did.
There are few words to describe his feeling of relief, as time and time again, while trying his best to mask his actions from the sight of others, he filled that ashtray, and ever so cautiously open his door a crack and spilled the contents onto the pavement.
There was a touch of sweat on his brow and a dampness down his pant leg as he leaned back and relaxed. The ashtray lay on the floormat between his legs and a look of contentment crossed his face. The car with the woman driver had fallen behind a bit. Larry adjusted his rearview mirror; there was no mistaking the contemptible look on her face. He quickly deduced she probably lived on Mercer Island.
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IN THE SHADOW OF MOUNTAINS by Alan A Sandercott
After a blistering hot day, a cooling shade began descending on the railway train labouring its way north into British Columbia's historic Caribou Country. Both to the east and west evening sunshine bathed the rolling hills as far as the eye could see. Bordering one side of the tracks lay a large lake; its crystal waters bearing testament to the area's rugged beauty. Far to the west the snow-capped Coast Range Mountains glistened in the setting sun.
The PGE Railway had just been completed through to Prince George BC earlier that summer and this was its first regularly scheduled trip from Vancouver BC to its northern terminus at Prince George.
From one of the passenger cars an old lady sat staring out the window, her eyes captivated by the unfolding panoramic view. With each curve of the track came the increasingly large natural meadow lands. She watched as herds of cattle grazed contentedly on the lush spring grass.
Ahead the steam engine's shrill horn shattered the evening stillness and signaled their approach to the next town, one of many they had passed during Sarah Karlsson's trip north from Vancouver very early that morning. News of the railroad's inaugural run into the north prompted Sarah to make her final visit into Cariboo country. It would also be an opportunity to take care of some long overdue business.
A colored porter made his way up the aisle announcing the upcoming town and a brief stop. "Williams Lake," he called out. "Next stop, Williams Lake."
He paused when he reached the old lady.
"This here's your stop, lady," he advised her.
Within minutes the passenger train slowed to a crawl at the edge of small rural community serving outlaying farms, ranches and logging operations, finally screeching to a stop amidst huge blasts of steam at the newly constructed Williams Lake train station. From her window Sarah saw a nearby sawmill with its rusty beehive burner belching out plumes of gray smoke. A loaded logging truck approached the mill, huge clouds of dust bellowing from beneath its wheels. Farther over, what appeared to be the main street of Williams Lake was dotted with various buildings, a few vehicles parked here and there. The lack of local residents on the streets presented the eeriness of a ghost town.
Sarah pulled the small suitcase from beneath her seat and made her way along the aisle towards the exit. "Here, let me help you down," the porter offered, reaching for the woman's arm.
"Why thank you young man," she said, grateful for his assistance. "I'm afraid I don't get around as well as I used to."
"You're doing just fine," he assured, steadying the elderly lady as she gingerly stepped down onto the platform.
Mrs. Karlsson stood quietly, her gray hair waving gently in the cooling breeze, pleased to be off the stuffy railroad coach. Tired as she was, she scanned the length of the platform expectantly. Other passengers disembarked the train and exchanged excited greeting with those waiting for them. A few other people waited to board. A woman with a restless baby in her arms struggled up the steps with the porter's help, followed by two excited children.
Long moments passed as Sarah stood patiently breathing in the fresh country air. She felt better now that she had solid ground beneath her feet to replace the wavering motion of the train.
"Are you Mrs. Karlsson?" a voice from behind her asked.
She turned back to face a little fat man with a puffy red face.
"Yes . . . yes I am," she replied. "You must be Mr. Denesbroux?"
He smiled, nodded and offered a stubby hand.
Sarah felt strange; she had known this man for over twenty years but had never met him. He was nothing like she had expected, a fact that somewhat amused her but she tried not to show it.
He smiled another toothy grin and reached for her suitcase. "I'll drive you over to your hotel so you can get settled in," he said, "you must be tired after your trip. You should get a good night's rest."
"Is everything all arranged? I really want to conclude the sale."
"All taken care of. Now if you'll just follow me." He then turned and waddled across the platform towards his 1955 Ford Crown Victoria.
The 'ol Williams Lake Hotel was like something from a western movie; a wooden sidewalk out front, minus the hitching post, saloon type double doors leading to the lobby. The wooden plank floors were covered by a huge wine coloured carpet. Lots of big old leather chairs backed against the walls and several glass-mantled lamps affixed to old wagon wheels hung by chains from the ceiling. A winding staircase next to the clerk's desk led up to a dimly lit hallway. "Welcome to Williams Lake, Mrs. Karlsson," the clerk said with a big smile, spinning the register book around for her to sign. It made her feel important that they were expecting her.
"I'm sure you'll be comfortable here," Mr. Denesbroux assured her. "I lived in this hotel myself for many years."
"I'm sure I'll be fine." She was tired and looked forward to a peaceful night's sleep.
"I'll see you here in the lobby in the morning then? Perhaps we can have some breakfast before our meeting."
He waited as Sarah checked in and then watched as she followed the clerk up the stairs, one painful step at a time.
The next morning the small cow town of Williams Lake had taken on a new face. It seemed somehow vibrant compared to what Sarah had seen on her arrival. From her hotel window she noticed the town's folk were out and about. Several vehicles moved along the newly paved main street.
Downstairs in the lobby Mr. Denesbroux was waiting as promised. He politely escorted Sarah into the dining room where he helped seat her at a window seat. Breakfast conversation was casual at first but then moved to business. He explained that the mining company representatives, who had made the offer to purchase her family ranch, would be on the return train from Prince George later that day.
"They are eager to meet with you," her lawyer explained, "they have been on the phone with me almost every day. They feel the sooner the title to the ranch is transferred, the better."
"Why is that," Sarah asked.
"Because of young Simon," he replied. "The boy is causing their company some real headaches."
"In what way?"
"Every time company officials attempt to enter the property to conduct exploration work, young Simon Williams chases them off, sometimes at gun point. He is taking his role as caretaker of your ranch very seriously. He treats the ranch like it's his own."
"I agreed to hire Simon and his father after Old Antoine died. I needed someone to care for the ranch and Simon and his father were already living on site."
"Well there's only Simon out there now. His old man lives on a local reserve as far as I know."
"I wasn't aware of that," Sarah remarked.
"A couple weeks ago the police had to go out and arrest Simon. They held him in jail overnight. I had to do some fancy talking to get him released. The judge warned him to stay out of trouble."
"Oh my. Does Simon know I'm about to sell the ranch?"
"I've said nothing to him but perhaps people from the mining company have said something to him."
"I had no idea there would be a problem," Sarah said with a concerned look on her face.
"You needn't worry yourself about all this. I'm sure it'll all get straightened out. Right now we should go over to my office and get the sales documents in order before our meeting with the mining company owner this afternoon."
It took less than an hour for the lawyer to explain the various documents to Sarah. By the time they were finished, and Sarah settled into the leather chair in front of Denesbroux's desk, she advised him of a decision she had made the previous evening.
"I want to visit the ranch before we close the deal."
"If you're worried about Simon I wouldn't be," the lawyer said reassuringly, "he can move in with his father. The Indian Department will look after him."
Sarah still wasn't comfortable. "No, It's not that; I simply wish to see the ranch one last time," she insisted.
"Well," he started, "Simon should be at the ranch. But what about our meeting with the mine representatives?"
"The meeting will have to be delayed," she replied matter of factly.
"What am I going to tell them? They're expecting to finalize the sale this afternoon."
"You're my lawyer; tell them what ever you have to. Tell them I'm a stubborn old lady. Better yet, tell them I absolutely insist on visiting the ranch one last time before the sale."
Denesbroux slumped back into his expensive plush chair. He pondered the problem of making contact with young Simon out at the ranch. There was virtually no telephone service in the area of the ranch. There was two-way radio communications with the mining company's exploration crew that was working on an adjoining property, but chances were they would never venture over to Simon's cabin with a message knowing that Simon may shoot first.
"Are you really sure you want to make the trip out to the ranch?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied, "I've thought about visiting the ranch for many years and this is my last chance. Yes, I want to do it."
"It's a long way out there," he said, "No hotels, rough roads ―"
"I recall a day when there were no roads," she reminded him.
The lawyer accepted the inevitable. He recalled seeing a rancher in the hotel earlier that morning who owned a ranch just a short distance from Sarah's property. "Would you want to head out there today?"
"I have nothing else planed," she quipped.
"Okay then, I'll walk you back to your hotel. Then I'll see what I can arrange."
Within the hour Denesbroux returned to the hotel with the local rancher he had seen that morning. Sarah obviously had faith in her lawyer's ability to arrange the trip as she had changed into clothes more fitting for a long road trip.
"This here's Art Harmon," Denesbroux said. "He owns a ranch a few miles this side of yours. Art is prepared to drive you out to your ranch."
"That's very generous of you," Sarah said, offering the man her hand.
"Always happy to help a neighbour Mrs. Karlsson. I understand you want to go out and visit the Shadow Ranch? I was just getting ready to head out. Did all my business yesterday," he told her.
"Call me Sarah, please."
"It's a long way so you're more than welcome to spend the evening with my wife and the kids," he offered.
"Art will drive you into the ranch and introduce you to Simon. It'll be a bit of a surprise to him as he doesn't even know you were coming up here."
"I'm sure Simon and I will get along just fine."
"You should be back by noon tomorrow," Denesbroux told Sarah. "Tell Simon I'll pay him for driving you back into town. I know he can use the money."
"Don't worry Mr. Denesbroux," Art reassured, "I'll make sure she gets back here safe and sound."
"Okay then," Denesbroux said, shaking the hands of both people. "I'll rearrange our meeting with the mine owner for tomorrow afternoon."
Art led the way outside to where he had parked his single axel flat bed truck with its load of supplies buried under a worn tarpaulin. He helped Sarah up into the truck and they were soon on the road out of town. At first the road followed the lakeshore south for a few miles then climbed a sharp hill and turned sharply to the west. Art struggled to miss the myriad of ruts that pockmarked the gravel roadbed. The open fields of grazing cattle soon succumbed to forest patches of spruce and pine that blanketed the hillsides. Higher and higher they climbed as the old truck ground its way out of the Williams Lake valley.
Sarah studied the middle aged man behind the steering wheel. He would have been about fourty-five to fifty she guessed. "I understand you have a ranch near mine?" Sarah asked.
"Yup, I homesteaded it 'bout twenty years ago. I was never sure who owned Shadow Ranch. I just figured it was young Simon's father's or something."
"My father found the property back in the late 1860's," she revealed. "He was the only white man in the area for many years."
"Didn't the old Bella Coola trail used to go right by there? Wasn't it a rest stop of some sort?"
"That's right. It was a regular overnight stop to rest the teams. The trail master used to run mules on the ranch for many years. My father raised horses and a few head of cattle as well, but that was a long time ago."
Before long they were heading downhill, down towards what appeared to Sarah to be a wide river. She stiffened in her seat, her smile disappeared. "What river is this?" she enquired.
"The Fraser River," Art replied. "We still have a long way to go yet."
Sarah sat back in the seat trying to get as comfortable as possible while being bounced around on the bumpy road. Art noticed her discomfort.
"It's not as smooth as the train, eh?" he commented.
She responded with a forced smile, finding it difficult to try and converse over the noise of the leaky exhaust muffler, not to mention the truck's many rattles. It all made the trip seem even longer.
Time passed slowly for Sarah whose tired body ached with every jolting bump in the road. Over and over in her mind she attempted to rationalize why she had decided to make the rigorous trip to her ranch. She was seriously considering asking Art to turn around and take her back to Williams Lake when he suddenly advised, "There's a good place up ahead to stop and rest."
She seemed pleased with that idea. More than anything she just wanted to get out of the truck and stretch her cramped legs.
Before long they were once more descending into a valley. As the long hill grew steeper Art laid on the brakes, resulting in the squeal of worn brake shoes on steel. The noise sent shivers down Sarah's back and she glanced nervously at the driver.
"Don't worry, I've been up and down here lots of times. As long as the road's dry we're okay," he assured the nervous woman.
Sarah's facial expression said otherwise. Her knuckles turned white as she strained against the dash to brace herself.
Finally they reached the bottom of the grade and rounded the last of the switchback corners. In front lay a large wooden bridge spanning a narrow spot on a river. Below the muddy waters churned and raged their way down stream, charged by spring thaws higher in the mountains.
"What river is this?" Sarah asked.
"This here is the Chilcotin."
Her face suddenly paled. Sarah chose not to look as Art carefully maneuvered the truck across the narrow one-lane bridge; instead she stared down at her feet waiting for solid ground beneath the vehicle's wheels once more. He slowed and brought the truck to a halt at the end of the bridge.
"We can get out here and stretch our legs," he said, opening his door.
"No! Please, keep going."
"But I --"
"Please!" she begged.
"Okay," Art agreed, not knowing why she was so frightened. "You scared of rivers or something?" he asked.
"I'd rather not talk about it," she told him, her eyes closed. Memories of an unfortunate incident that had claimed the life of her mother on the river flooded her mind.
He couldn't help notice that she was shaking. He said nothing as he released the clutch.
Art Harmon heard the old woman's sigh of relief as they started moving again. He left the truck in low gear for the winding climb back up the hill on the opposite side.
"We've still got an hour to go to get to the ranch," he told her. "Let me know if you need to stop."
After leaving the Chilcotin River the countryside leveled off, lakes and small creeks became more common. The thick cover of trees thinned somewhat, revealing increasing areas of grass suitable for grazing cattle.
"My ranch is right close. We can stop there and rest for awhile," he suggested.
"That would be nice," Sarah replied, eager for the opportunity to stretch again and perhaps use a bathroom.
"My wife can brew up some tea or something."
Sarah was soon watching the Harmon children run and play as Mrs. Harmon prepared lunch. It was a pleasant respite for Sarah after two hours of being bounced around in the rancher's truck.
Fortunately, Art Harmon had a newer pickup truck which they used for the next leg of Sarah's journey to the ranch.
"It's not that far to your ranch," Art said. He could tell Sarah was getting anxious to get there.
With each cresting of a hill the distant mountains drew closer, and Sarah felt a growing calm. They were soon traveling along a ridge among large ponderosa pine trees. Every so often she could see glimpses of a valley below and hints of lush grassy slopes not unlike the ranches she had seen from the train.
"The road into the ranch is just up ahead," Simon revealed.
Minutes later the truck slowed and turned onto a rut-filled road leading downhill through the trees. A few more curves and suddenly a large valley opened before them.
"We're here," Art said, maneuvering the truck to a stop at a wide gate spanning the road.
Nailed to the gate was a board with the words, "NO TRESSPASSING", no doubt intended for the mining company, Sarah concluded.
While Art maneuvered the truck through the gate Sarah said nothing and stared through the opening in the trees.
"I would like to stop here a moment," she said, reaching over and touching Art's shoulder as he pulled his door closed after closing the gate.
Shadow Ranch spread along several miles of green valley with majestic pines crowning the upper reaches of the hills on each side. The western end of the valley widened to reveal a breathtaking view of the Coast Rage Mountains, the rugged peaks locked in snow covered icy glaciers. She could see the small creek meandering down through the valley and flowing past the remains of some old buildings.
Within a couple minutes they noticed a man on horseback ride out from behind a log cabin at a gallop. As he drew nearer Sarah couldn't help but notice the man was carrying a rifle.
"That's Simon," Art told her, "he probably heard us coming."
"I've never met Simon, yet I feel I known him all his life," she admitted.
Simon rode directly towards them, reigning in the appaloosa stallion just feet from the front of the pickup. Sarah was awe struck with beauty of the horse; obviously pure stock she surmised. He sat rigid for a moment before throwing his leg over the horse's mane and sliding easily to the ground. His stocky six-foot Chilcotin Native frame stood proud as he surveyed the occupants of the vehicle. He was decked out in western denim and a pair of dusty, brown cowboy boots. He wore a wide-brimmed black stetson hat, an eagle feather protruding from the leather hatband. Only after Simon nodded a knowing acknowledgement did Art open his door and get out of the truck.
Sarah waited as the two men exchanged greetings and shook hands. After a few more words with Simon, Art motioned for Sarah to join them.
The young man smiled as Sarah took the hand he offered.
"It's nice to meet you," she said. "Oh my, you look just like someone I once knew."
"A friend who used to live here on the ranch," she said, "his name was Old Antoine."
"He was my grandfather. Now I know who you are," Simon replied, "there's an old picture of you down in the old house."
"That was a long time ago."
"You own this ranch, right? I've been looking after it for years."
"I'm hoping you have time to show me around the ranch," she asked.
"Can you ride a horse?"
"I grew up on this ranch," she replied, matter of factly.
"Come on down then," Simon said. He turned, grasped his saddle less horse by the mane and swung himself up onto the horse's back and headed back down the hill.
It took only a few minutes to drive down to where the road met the creek, and from there it followed the creek upstream to the old ranch house. She was surprised to see that it was still standing. Her mind began flashing back to her childhood and all the years she had spent here.
Art pulled the pickup around the side of the ranch house to a small log cabin right along side of the creek. Simon was waiting close by.
"Here we are," he said, switching off the ignition.
"Is this is where you live?" Sarah asked, stepping from the vehicle and surveying the small one room cabin. She didn't recall the cabin having been there before. It was newer than the other buildings and showed less signs of age.
"Yeah, my father built this one before I was born. I've been living here ever since he left."
"How long has that been," she asked.
He shrugged, "I don't know. 'bout six or seven years. When I ran away from the Residential School I came out here so the cops couldn't find me."
"What does your father do?" she asked.
"Nothing. After my mother died he moved back to the reserve in Williams Lake. But there's nothing to do there. There's no work on the reserve, just drinking and fighting."
"So you live out here and run the ranch all by yourself? That's amazing. It must be difficult." Sarah was very impressed with the young man's determination.
"I better get back home," Art told them, "I still have a truck unload yet."
"I'm thankful to you for driving me out here," Sarah said.
"Like I said, you're welcome to overnight at my place," Art said. "Simon can run you over before dark, up to you."
"I'd like to stay here," she said, turning to Simon and adding, "if that's alright with you?"
"Sure, if you want. You can have the cabin. I can sleep in the hay loft."
With that Art turned and opened the pickup door. "If you need a ride into town you know where I live."
When Art's pickup disappeared around the corner at the top of the hill they were alone. It had been a long day of sitting for Sarah. She needed to stretch and relax her tired body. She breathed in the fresh mountain air and began walking towards her old home. "The old house has seen better times," she remarked.
"The logs and timbers get too old and rotten and can't take too much weight anymore. I've propped the ceiling up in a few places so the roof wouldn't cave in, but I wouldn't go in there. It's too dangerous."
Sarah nodded and peered through the doorway. Again, old memories cascaded through her mind. As she stepped back an old rocking chair on the porch caught her eye. Despite its rickety condition she lowered herself into the chair and leaned back. From the porch she surveyed the landscape off to the west where the glacial snows filled the mountain ravines right down to the upper meadows, its melting waters creating the creek that flowed within feet of where Simon's cabin was.
"I remember when the old barn caved in years ago," Simon told her. "I had to put up a new one. Mr. Harmon cuts and bales the hay and I keep a quarter of it. So I had to have some place dry to store it."
"How much stock are you running?"
"Eleven horses, the best of the original herd. There used to be some mules but they died when I was just little."
"Whose cattle," Sarah enquired, having noticed some grazing back near the tree line.
"Mr. Harmon's. I let him graze some of his cattle in here and I get a hind quarter of beef every fall."
As Sarah sat gently rocking back and forth she closed her eyes and enjoyed the piece and quiet of the valley. She wasn't sure how long she had rested but the sun was beyond mid afternoon when Simon rounded the corner with two horses in tow.
"Horseback is the easiest way to see the ranch," he explained.
"It's been a long time since I rode a horse," she replied.
"This is my mother's horse, it's her saddle blanket too, but we never used saddles around here," Simon explained, maneuvering the animal along side the porch so Sarah could mount with little effort. "She's getting old, but she's still gentle."
"Just like me," Sarah mused, as she eased herself onto the horse's back. It had been many years since she'd sat on a horse but to her it seemed like just yesterday. She nudged her mount and headed in the direction of the upper valley and the lure of the mountain.
As they rode, Simon pointed out the beauty of the ranch and his memories as a boy growing up in the wilderness. He talked about his father who had taught him to ride and some of the stories his father had passed to him about his grandfather, Old Antoine.
"Whatever became of your grandfather?" she asked.
"He died before I was born. He's buried in a little grave on the hill above the cabin. My father never said much about him."
Suddenly, Simon halted his horse and jumped to the ground. He bent down and picked up a feather. "Eagle feather," he told her. "The bald eagles fly over the ranch all the time. My father always told me I was like an eagle; always roaming free and easy. He gave me my first eagle feather," he said, removing his hat to show her. "He told me to always keep the feather close to me so the eagle's spirit can protect me." Simon slowly replaced his hat, and then brushed the dust from the feather he had found. He walked to Sarah's horse and reached up, handing her the feather. "Keep this eagle feather close to you and the spirit of the eagle will always be with you and protect you."
Sarah was deeply touched by the young man's gift. She looked at it for a moment and then said, "I'll treasure this for the rest of my days." What happened next took Sarah totally by surprise; the silence of the afternoon was suddenly broken by the unmistakable scream of an eagle. They both immediately looked up searching the skies. There, high above them a lone eagle was slowly circling in the sky. "There's your eagle," Simon said with a big grin throwing himself onto his horse and trotting up the valley leaving a stunned old gray-haired lady shaking her head.
As they topped a small rise the view took Sarah's breath away. At the glacier's lower reaches the green-blue waters of the glacial fed lake reflected a mirror image of the view above. A good sized stream flowed from the lake through the center of the valley floor providing nourishment to both plants and animals as it meandered along. Along the edge of the small lake she noticed several horses grazing contentedly.
"That's all that's left of our horses," Simon told her in a sad voice. "There used to be a whole herd at one time."
"What happened to the others?"
"Sold off over the years," he explained. "Not much work for Indians around here. I had to sell one last spring so I could buy my pickup truck. My father's old truck wouldn't run anymore and it wasn't worth fixing."
"That's a shame," Sarah replied, "having to sell such beautiful animals."
"I've always wanted to rebuild the herd but that takes time and money."
After riding a bit farther along the lake Simon slid down off his horse near up a short wooden pole stuck in the ground. It had little metal plates nailed to the top of it.
"What's that," Sarah enquired.
"It's a mining claim stake," he explained, roughly grabbing the stake and rustling it from the ground. He muttered something Sarah couldn't understand then threw the stake back onto the ground. He slowly turned and looked up at Sarah.
"Are you really going to sell the ranch?"
Sarah was taken back by Simon's question. "Where did you hear that?"
"The foreman from the mining company. They are doing exploration work a couple miles to the south of here. He said they were buying this ranch and I would have to move off the property."
"Where would you go?"
He shrugged, "Have to go live on the reserve I guess. Probably end up a drunk like my father."
His comments concerned Sarah profoundly but she felt there was nothing she could do.
"Is it true? Are you really going to sell the ranch?"
"My lawyer, Mr. Denesbroux wrote me a letter stating a mining company did want to make me an offer for the ranch. That's why I traveled up here."
Sarah could see that Simon was visibly upset. He turned and stood staring towards the lake. "They have been coming here for the last few years collecting rock samples from under the glacier. I've never said anything until this year when they started surveying and putting up claim markers. The foreman says they are going to open a mine right over there." He pointed with his finger to an area just across the lake. "They plan to use the lake as a settling pond, I think they called it. That's going to kill the fish in the lake. No more fishing." Simon walked over and knelt by the edge of the water. "There will be a wide road right up the middle of the ranch. All the buildings will be burned. There will be lots of big machines tearing up the ground under the glacier," he revealed. "People in town say that chemicals from the mine will poison all the grassland so there won't be any more ranching around here." He went silent again.
A few moments later Simon swung up onto his horse and trotted back down the valley. Little was said between the two as they made there way back down the valley to the old ranch buildings. It was getting on towards evening.
"If you want I can give you a ride over to Mr. Harmon's place," Simon offered.
"If I may," she smiled, "I think I'd rather spend the night here on Shadow Ranch."
"The cabin is nice and warm and there's lots of food here. There's still time for me to catch a few rainbow trout in the creek."
With a tummy full of pan-fried rainbow trout she pushed back from the table. "There's really nothing to match freshly caught trout. You can't get anything like that down in the big city."
"They won't survive after they start mining the glacier," he reminded her.
Regardless of Simon's revelations about the mining company's intentions, Sarah tried not to dwell on the matter. Her intentions were to thoroughly enjoying her visit to the ranch. So while Simon went about his ranch chores, Sarah spent the remaining hours of daylight sitting in the old rocking chair watching the encroaching shadow of the mountains.
The new day dawned with blazing sunshine from the east. Simon expertly prepared a hearty breakfast, far more than Sarah would normally eat but she was hungry. The Mountain air was having an effect on her. While Simon did a few chores she walked over to the old ranch house. Grass and wild flowers now grew from within the rotting log walls. Daylight poured in through the open doorway where she stood for several moments staring at the interior. She couldn't help but notice the few discoloured pictures on the wall. With the exception of the stone fireplace everything was deteriorating with time including the rough plank floor. The windows, one facing the east and one to the west were now broken. After glancing over her shoulder she cautiously inched across the floor to the fireplace. She placed her hand on one specific stone and twisted it slightly several times. From behind the secret spot she extracted a small leather pouch, opening it with a smile before slipping it into her pocket. The pouch contained what her father often referred to as his 'Good Luck' piece. Quickly, she replaced the stone and gathered up the few pictures from the wall and retreated to the safety of the porch. The old rocking chair that had weathered the test of time provided a moment of rest and contemplated taking it with her as well.
"I'd like to visit that grave site up on the hill," she asked of Simon when he returned.
"Sure. Have to do it on horseback though; I don't think I could get my truck up there."
"I think I'm up to another ride," she agreed.
The climb to the grave site was steep but once up there the view was the reward. The ranch stretched out below and was visible from east to west, a most appropriate location to spend eternity.
They paused near the remains of an old dugout house. Years of deterioration had reduced the building to moss covered rubble.
"This was my father's original cabin," she revealed. "He built this the first winter he was here. I used to play up here when I was a little girl."
"Not much left now," Simon noted.
A bit farther on the remains of a huge pine tree that once sheltered the graves now lay rotting on the ground. It did come in handy for Sarah to dismount her horse. For several moments Sarah stood quietly staring at the two wooden crosses behind the dilapidated picket fence, the names long since faded with time. Simon couldn't help but notice the tears in the woman's eyes.
"Are you okay," he enquired.
"I'm fine now," she replied with a smile, "I'm just fine." For the first time in years she felt completely at peace with herself.
Sarah sat down on the big flat rock beside the grave plot, deep in thought, saying nothing. She leaned back to rest against the old dead pine tree and watched their two horses grazing near by.
"This is my grandfather Antoine's grave. They used to call him Old Antoine," Simon said, pointing to one of the crosses, "but I don't know who the other one is."
A knowing smile crossed the face of Sarah Karlsson. She leaned forward and pointed towards the other cross and said, "That's Charlie Barnes, my father, the man who first discovered this valley and eventually started Shadow Ranch."
Back down at the cabin Simon hooked up the old horse trailer and carefully led the two horses into the trailer and secured them. "I'll take these two into town now," he explained. "I'll have to make a few more trips but I'm not leaving anything out here for the mining company."
"What will you do with the horses?" she asked.
"I'll have to sell them I guess. I can't afford to keep all of them in town."
She could see the disappointment in the young man's face.
Simon's '48 Ford pickup truck that had seen better days. Important to Simon was that fact that it did run and besides, it was all he could afford. The exterior was covered with mud and dust that managed to cover what little of the original blue paint was left. The truck box contained several old bales of hay and what looked like assorted ranch gear. Fortunately for Sarah, the truck's interior was much more presentable. Simon had the presence of mind to clean the inside in consideration of his passenger.
It was early evening when Simon's pickup truck pulled up in front of the hotel in Williams Lake. The trip had gone without incident. Sarah had said little the whole way, staring out the window, her mind deep in thought. The streets were now quiet, much like they were when she first arrived on the train. Supported by Simon's arm Sarah stepped from the dust covered truck. She turned briefly to make sure the old rocking chair was still in the back and then they slowly made their way across the wooden boardwalk and into the hotel.
"You've been very kind," she said, squeezing Simon's arm.
"I'm glad I met you," he said sincerely.
"You've made an old lady very happy." She grasped his hand in hers.
Simon waited as Sarah got her key and slowly made her way up the stairs and out of sight.
Next morning Mr. Denesbroux was waiting in the lobby when Sarah descended the stairs.
"You had me a little worried," he admitted. "I didn't expect you to spend the night at the ranch."
"It took longer than I expected. Young Simon was a perfect gentleman. He even had me up riding a horse. I must say, I was a little hesitant at first about visiting the ranch but now I'm happy I did."
"Well when you're ready we can get down to business," the lawyer suggested.
Later that morning at her lawyer's office Sarah was introduced to two very business-like gentlemen. Both in suits, one considerably older than the other. The younger seemed anxious. The older more professional and relaxed. Both had leather briefcases beside them on the floor, several papers spread neatly before them on the desk. The older led off by asking, "I hope you had a pleasant trip up here, Mrs. Karlsson?"
"Yes, it was very interesting. Thank you."
"We were here yesterday but apparently you were busy?"
"Yes," she replied, not expanding on her whereabouts.
"Okay," Renee Denesbroux intervened. "We all know why we are here. I have drafted all the necessary documents for the sale and transfer of Shadow Ranch to BC Premier Mining Company." He then took a moment to lay out a set of papers for the participants.
Over the next half hour the lawyer read aloud the terms of the transaction while everyone listened intently, except Sarah. Her mind was back at the ranch overlooking the crystal blue lake and recalling what Simon had told her about the proposed mine. She remembered clearly the quiet and serenity of the valley. Her eyes closed and she visualized 'her' eagle flying high over head.
At some point in the meeting the little gray-haired lady at the end of the boardroom table interrupted with a question, "What will become of eagles?" The room was silent for a moment. Her lawyer's face winced with confusion.
The company men put their heads together and whispered back and forth. It was the younger that spoke first, "I'm not sure what you mean?"
"What will happen to the eagles? What about the ranch?" she asked again.
"Well there isn't really a ranch there now, is there? Just some Indian and a few horses."
"I'm concerned about the lake and the lower pastures. I understand there will be roads and --"
"Excuse me," the older man suddenly interrupted when he saw the look on Sarah's face. "What did you expect would happen to the property?"
"I don't know," she responded, "but I'm finding all this very disturbing."
"Excuse me, but can we get back to reviewing the sales agreement?" the lawyer interjected.
"No," Sarah objected, "I'm sorry, but I want to know what will happen to the lake."
"The lake will be used as a holding pond for all the tailings from the mine operation." The younger man explained.
"And the creek? What about the creek?" she asked.
"There won't be a creek," he replied matter of factly. "It will be shut off at first. Later it will be used to drain into other settling ponds."
Sarah sighed and sat back in her chair, her shoulders slumped and the lines of age that crossed her face seemed to deepen.
Another long moment of tenseness passed with whispers passing between the two mine executives. Sarah's lawyer sat quietly not sure which way to proceed. He wanted to complete the sale and realize a fat commission but at the same time feeling compelled to respect the wishes of his client. None of those present paid much attention as Sarah withdrew her eagle feather from her handbag. Nor did they notice as she slowly drew the feather across her face, feeling its softness, absorbing its strength. But they did notice what she did next.
Sarah Karlsson suddenly and deliberately sat bolt upright in her chair. A bit of a smile crossed her face and with a renewed confidence she announced, "Gentlemen, I wish to confer with my lawyer!"
"Perhaps we could all meet here in my office after lunch," the lawyer suggested.
The mine executives, while expressing some displeasure with Sarah's action, agreed to a later meeting and returned to their hotel.
Before returning to her hotel, Sarah Karlsson wrote out new instructions for her lawyer. "I would like you to see to this matter right away," she told him. A confused Renee Denesbroux read through her hand scribbled notes and then sat back, a confused look on his face. "Are you sure you want to go this route?"
"Absolutely," she replied.
Respecting her decision he helped her from her chair.
"I'll be leaving on the train this afternoon, but there's one last thing you can do for me." She removed the small leather pouch she had retrieved from the old fireplace and handed it to him. "This is for Simon," she said.
"You can open it if you wish."
Curiosity drove the man to do just that. She watched as he opened the pouch to reveal a shiny gold nugget, still attached to a weathered strip of leather that once encircled her father's neck.
The man grinned, holding the nugget up to the light. "Is this real gold?"
"Yes it is," she confirmed. "That's the only real piece of gold my father found in all his years of prospecting out in the Chilcotin. He finally realized the valley was far more valuable than gold, but he decided to keep the nugget for luck."
"Is it really lucky"?
"Worked for me." With that she shook Mr. Denesbroux hand and left his office.
Early in the afternoon after a phone search and several messages left around town by Renee Denesbroux, Simon Williams showed up at the lawyer's office. Simon figured he would be getting notice to move off the ranch.
Renee surveyed the young man for a moment and then commented, "Mrs. Karlsson has obviously taken a liking to you. Tell me, did you really get her up on a horse?"
Simon grinned. "Yeah. She can ride as good as I can, almost."
"Well, I don't know what happened the last couple days," the lawyer said, "but she's giving you the ranch."
Simon wasn't sure if he'd heard the man correctly.
"I have the papers all drawn up ready for you to sign. After that I'll arrange for the deed to the ranch to be transferred into your name."
There was a look of disbelief on Simon's face. He tried to speak but no words came. A thousand thoughts crossed his mind, then questions. "You mean I own Shadow Ranch?" he asked, just to be sure.
"All yours. This too," Renee said, holding out the leather pouch. "Mrs. Karlsson instructed me to give this to you. That's a solid gold nugget, probably worth a lot of money. She said it should be enough to start rebuilding your herd of horses."
Later that afternoon a little gray-haired lady stood on the platform of the Williams Lake railway station waiting to board the train for her return trip to Vancouver. One of the train's porters was preparing to help her board as she took one final look around, fully expecting someone to be there to see her off, but there was no one.
The porter glanced at his watch and called out, "All aboard." He then picked up her suitcase and helped her onto the train and guided her safely to her seat.
The train suddenly belched steam, its wheels started spinning before gripping the steel track and started its long voyage south. Sarah watched through the window as the town faded behind. A sawmill, with its rusty burner, came into view and went. The fence posts with the drooping barbed wire she remembered along side the road began to drift past.
Then, as the road took that sudden turn towards the hill, she saw a familiar young man sitting on a beautiful appaloosa stallion. As the train approached he raised his arm into the air and waved to her, there was a broad smile on his face, and as their eyes met for those few brief seconds Sarah knew Simon Williams would be a great rancher. Tears streamed down her face as she waved goodbye for the last time.
For the next while the old lady sat back in her seat with her eyes tightly closed, clutching her new eagle feather, a contented smile on her face. To the west the shadow of mountains flooded her beloved valley.
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