© Christopher Barton
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1893: A True Story.
*“In accordance with your instructions, on July 21, I purchased provisions and outfit for myself and one man, for the journey...”*
Wrecked, parched, head throbbing, I lie; flotsam spat from a sea of despair. Somewhere on the shore seagulls squawk and squabble. With the heels of my hands, I squeeze gum and grit from my eyes. The sky is dark. No, a ceiling. Dark wood beams. Warm light bleeds about an ill-fitting door. A roughspun blanket lies rucked beneath my hands.
Groaning, I swing my stockinged feet from the bed, the dim room pitching and yawing. My stomach lurches - almost spills over. Elbows propped on knees, I rest my head in shaking hands. A fierce whiff of pipe smoke.
I flinch. The voice sound soft, distant. Peering from behind the bars of my fingers, I survey the room. Knotted plank walls, shelves, a table, dresser, iron stove. With a creak, a shadowed figure rises from an armchair.
“Here.” The tall man proffers a tin mug.
I clasp my hands around the cool metal and gulp down the cold water. “I am obliged,” I croak. “Mr…”
A pause. “Smith.”
Crack crack. A large bird taps at the low four-pane window.
Mr Smith stoops and waves his arms. With a shriek, the insolent seagull takes flight.
I rub my tender, throbbing skull.
“I trust you slept well.”
“Yes, I believe… thank you, for your hospitality.” How did I wash up in this spartan sea cabin? “I seem to have gone astray.”
He chortles, tapping his pipe on the table. “That does not bode well, considering.”
“Considering your line of employ. Surveyor?”
“Well, yes...” I rub my temples— temples? More like torture chambers. “...but with surveying, half the fun is finding your way home.”
He smiles. “With that, I most heartily concur. Smoke?” He pulls another pipe from a shelf.
I shake my head, and regret it. “I fear my only salvation is hair of the dog. Would you perhaps…?”
He regards me, pipe balanced between his lips. His black hair is side-parted, his moustache trim. Perplexing… the man sports the complexion of a farmer but the poise and speech of a gentleman. He turns to the dresser. Noticing my jacket at the foot of the rude bed, I cautiously place the mug on the floor and tug it to me. I can feel my wallet. Not that there is likely anything to lose.
“Rye?” He holds a bottle, almost full.
I pour myself a decent slug and offer the bottle. His head twitches sideways. I knock back the golden elixir. A rich smell. Warmth courses down my throat. Everything will be fine. “And you are...” I probe.
“My field of expertise is the law.”
“Apologies, I meant your name.”
A brief frown. “Smith.”
“Ah, yes, of course.”
“You truly have no notion of where you are?”
“On the coast, I surmise...”
“The Flats.” He sits again, refilling his pipe from a leather pouch.
I pour a second slug, my head beginning to moderate its wicked perambulations.
“Oh, that’s right.” I remember I had been in town. Looking for a way back. Back? No, a way… away.
“You were in a saloon in Gastown and... bumped into a mutual friend - Frederick Hussey - he brought you down.”
I swill the second shot around my mouth, the bright fire cleansing the dregs of the night. No memories come. “Yes. Of course.”
“He believes we could be of help to one another.”
“With regard to...” I pour one more. The day feels brighter.
“We talked last night. You don’t…” He shakes his head questioningly.
“Indulge me,” I chuckle. “I fear I caroused too much. My memory is sketchy.”
“You seek passage back to England...”
I drink again and nod.
“...but were not explicit why.”
I consider a moment. “Work is hard to find.”
Mr Smith puffs on his pipe. “A surveyor who cannot find work?”
“This panic, you know? Banks failing… the effects will snowball.”
“Hmm… even so...” He puffs again. “Last night, you mentioned work in Maple Ridge—”
“All finished there. And the climate does not suit. The rain is immoderate and in my line of work....” I sip and swallow. “... you can imagine…”
“Summer is upon us. You should at least enjoy that before returning home.”
“I must confess to... unbearable homesickness.”
Mr Smith’s eyes do not stray. “Debts?”
I swill my mug, gaze into the golden whirlpool.
Mr Smith stands. “Forgive my intrusiveness.” He turns to the window. “That said, I am in a position to fund your return passage to England.”
Feeling stronger, ebullient even, I rise. “I am most heartily grateful, Mr Smith. I have family in England who will be happy to reimburse you, with interest,” I confabulate.
“That won’t be necessary, Mr Doolittle. All I require are your services...” He fiddles with the window. “...for a few short weeks. And I promise you, sir...” The window pops open. A warm breeze, the tang of the ocean. “...IT WILL BE GLORIOUS.”
*“...in search of Clarke and Braden...”*
With my first step on the crowded wharf, the palpitations commence. The water is calm, glassy even, but my heart thumps. Dull, forested mountains rise above the bay, crushed beneath a gunmetal sky. Keeping my gaze high, I force my legs forward onto the rough beams. Longshoremen shove past, carrying boxes and bundles, to and from the berthed ships. Most men are native, some Chinese. I focus on the mish-mash of voices, the strange tongues, the harsh clicks and vowels. I imagine what they say, breathing in their sweat, their stale tobacco, wafting woodsmoke. It’s no use; I turn and stagger ashore, head reeling with half-formed horrors.
Among the crooked wood and brick buildings jostling the waterfront, a painted sign above a door draws my eye. It depicts a wooden scaffold, a hangman’s noose.
“The Last Drop,” I read aloud and smile.
At the bar partition I am propped, ensconced in a fog of voices and laughter, working hard on my Dutch courage when I sense a brief hush. A woman has entered. A lady even, in riding habit. Begrimed navvies mutter from behind their tankards. She traverses the smoky room with purpose, tapping a crop to her side.
“‘Ere, darlin’.” A stout workman pats his patched spread knees, leering. “I’m ready for a ride.”
The room sniggers.
Her eyes flash beneath her broad-brimmed hat. “I ride horses, not pigs.”
The room erupts with laughter, allowing her to slip through the saloon door directly behind me.
I nudge the bag at my feet, carefully, to check it’s still there. We don’t want any breakages.
I have purchased items from the list provided. Fortunately, some funds remained for… medicinal supplies. He does seem generous, Mr... I drain my tankard, thinking hard. Mr...
The woman’s voice comes from beyond the partition. “Mr Smith?”
I jerk forward, cough. I did not speak aloud—
“Mrs Braden.” A man’s voice, and the tap of a pipe on the saloon bar. “I apologise for the locale, but it is the best of a bad lot.”
“That does not concern me, Mr Smith. I spent my best years on the stage and have ample experience of cocksure boors...”
Listening with intent, I grasp my whiskey glass to steady my nerves, ignoring the cool ale soaking into my shirtfront.
“...What does concern me, sir, is your mission. I wish to contribute—”
“Unnecessary, Madam. Superintendent Hussey has secured funds, under cover of surveying. I have a man for the purpose and we are well provided with stipends and expenses.”
Superintendent Hussey? I envision a suited man with moustache, hair oiled and flattened, shaved around the sides... I know this policeman, but from where?
“I applaud your willingness, Mr Smith, to undertake such a…” Her voice cracks. “...difficult and thankless task. I imagine it taxed Mr Hussey to find anyone fool - nay, forgive my nerves - brave enough to pursue my son, and his abettor…”
“I embrace the challenge, Mrs Braden. Though I am afraid I do not foresee the outcome to be favourable. It may well be unpleasant—”
“I do not care, Mr Smith,” her voice rises, “The facts are likely ugly, but I want Joshua brought back, ALIVE OR DEAD.”
*“We started July 24…”*
Mr Smith escorts Mrs Braden from the premises. I skulk at the bar - another ale, another chaser - mustering my thoughts. Mr Smith is deceiving me. This is no simple jaunt, the land survey ‘just up the coast’ he portrayed in his sea cabin. The recovery of a man, dead or alive… Mr Smith advised his business was the law… perhaps I misconstrued…
I sip. Nonetheless, the terms are satisfactory - more than. A daily stipend, all expenses, and passage to England upon our return, but… why me? Surveyors are in high demand, certainly; there are many new settlements along this budding coast, railway lines to the interior, but I am cognisant of my failings. I do my best, in the circumstances…
A quandary. The ale cools the burn of rough whiskey in my throat. My mood lifts when I appreciate I need do nothing. The steamship will depart, perhaps already has… how long has it been? The room is hazy, but convivial, a place of brotherly love. Much safer to bide here than venture—
A firm grip on my arm. “Mr Doolittle!”
“Mr Smith!” I greet my vexer effusively, a long lost friend…
He does not smile. “We must go.” He stoops, grabs my bag, pulls me away. “The Saturna—”
“Surely we have time for one together,” I laugh. “To toast our endeavour… for luck!”
“...the ship…” He drives me through the saloon doors. “...is leaving. You did not hear the horn?”
The steamship, red and white above, black below, wallows, commanding the wharf. Great gouts of smoke cascade from the stack of this frightful leviathan. Dockers at the prow and stern unwrap the lines to cast the beast loose. I falter. Mr Smith propels me forward. I clamp my teeth, breathe in hard as he makes me walk the plank. I focus on the courage that sings within my bag.
Apprehending Mr Smith’s tempestuous mood, I seek shelter below decks. The fug of woodsmoke, the warm bodies, the cries of babes... it is all too much. Up the companionway I stumble, trekking, hand-over-hand, along the rail to the prow. Here the sea breeze feels cool, but my hip flask swaddles me in warmth.
On encompassing shores forests drift by, mountains loom, an occasional village of shanty huts, warded by lank totems. Long-haired native children frolic, naked, in the shallows. The captain sounds the horn as we plough by and the youngsters run screaming. Deck passengers point and laugh. With my flask I overcome the shaking dread, surrendering to the mystery and magnificence of this land.
The Saturna pauses at villages and hamlets, shake-roofed cabins gripping the mountains’ toes, menaced by crowds of cedar and hemlock. Plank houses balance upon stilts over water, tethered to the shoreline by precarious ladders and planks. Small craft sally forth, manned by tough homesteaders, wild-eyed trappers and suspicious, hard-handed prospectors. I watch roustabouts drag forth cases, boxes and sacks from the hold, exchanging them for bundles of pelts, baskets of fish, and hopeful bags of ore.
In motion again, we loop around succulent islands, squeeze through crabbed channels, are threatened by rocks and heckled by seals. As night falls I happen upon three men enjoying cards in the lifeboat. With a half quart of rum, I buy my way in. We laugh and joke, trade lies and half-truths. With my bottle, we toast the stars through the black smoke which ribbons above as the Lady Saturna bears us north INTO DARKNESS.
*“...and reached Squamish on the evening of the 25th...”*
Rattled awake, I gasp. Harsh light illumines the mouth of my cave.
“Mr Doolittle.” He shakes my shoulder again.
My head bangs and clangs like a clapper come loose in a bell. “Where am I?”
The man snorts. “In the lifeboat. This is becoming an unfortunate habit…”
My stomach clenches, my heart gallops with formless fears. “Shipwrecked,” I croak. “Drowned…”
“Pull yourself together, man.”
A sharp slap to my face. I blink, bewildered.
“You’re a mess.”
A canteen is shoved into my chest. I grab it instinctively.
“We’ll be landing in Squamish within the hour.” And he’s gone.
I roll from beneath the bench, sit upright and gulp the water. I am in the lifeboat on the rear deck of a steamer. The air feels close, muggy. I wipe sweat from my face and find my hands blackened by soot. I squint at the sun hovering above mountains to the east. Mid-morning. But then we are heading south. Gripping the boat’s gunwale I struggle to my feet. Ahead I make out the end of a fjord and a wide flat plain. It must be north, but that means… it is mid-afternoon?
Once refreshed and cleansed with a bucket of seawater a deckhand kindly provides, I meander back to the prow to watch the land approach. We sweep past the broad mouth of a milky green river and the ship shudders, cinched by the sudden current. I grasp the rail and bite my lip. She swerves, leans, then rights herself and powers through. I breathe deep, knuckles white, and lick blood from my lips. Thankfully I have replenished my flask. I see houses, piled timber. Beyond rises an extraordinary rock, a singular mountain, foreshadowing an array of distant peaks.
At the dock, Mr Smith engages a dray to transport our baggage to town. The longshoremen, all Indians, shuttle a cornucopia of boxes, bags and sacks from the bowels of the steamer. I am dumbfounded,
“Mr Smith,” I chortle, “are we embarking on an excursion or establishing a store?”
“It is best to be prepared.” He directs where particular loads should be placed; some supplies seem more fragile, or precious, than others. I take note of two rifle cases and boxes of ammunition.
With all secure, we climb up next to the drayman; an aged, taciturn fellow with but one eye. He clicks, and whips the old piebald nag into motion. We jolt between roley-poley stacks of timber at an unspectacular pace.
“Where would you recommend for lodging?” enquires Mr Smith.
“Can ask at Mashiter’s.” The drayman whips the horse again.
Having mulled on that overheard conversation with the horsewoman in Vancouver, I decide to touch on the subject. “Mr Smith, I confess to reservations. You defined my commission as survey work north of Squamish...”
“That is correct.”
“And the guns?”
“Not your concern, Mr Doolittle. You are engaged to join a surveying team. With the man you replace, I will travel further, and as I said, it is best to be prepared.”
First relieved, then intrigued, I probe, “And what is your mission with this other man?”
He remains silent a moment. “We pursue two men.... so to speak.”
I feel a flutter of nerves. “And who are they?”
“Edmond Clarke and Joshua Braden.”
“What is their crime?”
Mr Smith turns, his expression vexed. “Their crime?”
“The guns,” I bluster. “I speculated… you as a bounty hunter—”
Mr Smith barks out laughter. The old nag jerks and snorts in surprise.
“Steady, Maisy.” Our one-eyed drayman scowls.
“My apologies, good man.” Mr Smith turns to me. “My involvement in the law is of an academic nature. Words more than action. Rest assured, Mr Doolittle, you are not to be press-ganged into a posse.”
“Then why do you pursue them?”
“They are missing since May past. Mr Frederick Hussey of Victoria… you know him—”
I start in surprise, remembering. “Victoria. I met him there. A policeman—”
“The Provincial Superintendent of Police. Mr Hussey has commissioned me to investigate.”
“Investigate what?” My fingers brush the hip flask in my pocket.
The old horse clops onto the plank road into town.
Gripping his pipe, Mr Smith sucks repeatedly, as though it were lit. “Suspicions… of FOUL PLAY.”
*“The two men who are now missing... took as a guide, an Indian known, as Douglas Bill...”*
The dray judders to a halt beside a low wooden building. ‘Provincial Police Squamish’ proclaims a board above the door.
I gather my voice. “You are in pursuit of a m-murderer?” My hip flask is now gripped tight within my fist.
Mr Smith climbs down onto the boards. “If there is a murderer...” He steps across the unswept ground towards the building. “...he is most likely closer than you think.”
I glance up and down the desolate street, swig from my flask, and clamber down.
Within, a beefy, florid-faced man reclines, feet rested upon his desk. He sports the distinctive hat of the Provincial Police - I can but think of a plated Christmas pudding. Glancing up from his task - rubbing the brass buttons on his jacket - he frowns.
The man swings his legs from the desk and climbs to his feet. “How can I help, sir?”
Mr Smith shakes the constable’s hand, introduces us, and offers an unsealed envelope. “From Superintendent Hussey.”
Constable Perkins fishes out the letter and reads it. “I have the Siwash concerned, sir.”
“May we visit?”
The constable regards Mr Smith. “He is a dangerous man. In the circumstances I would not recommend—”
“The superintendent has directed me to investigate. This man is the last known to have seen the missing.”
“The case has progressed, sir, and damning evidence has emerged…” The constable drags a ring of keys from his desk drawer. “but if you must.”
Beside the windowless, thick-walled log cabin behind the police building, Perkins pauses to pick up a cudgel. “Just be careful, sirs.” He unlocks a door. We enter the cell, perhaps eight foot by ten. The odour of sweat and urine makes me cover my mouth and nose. My eyes struggle to adjust to the gloom.
“Bill.” With his cudgel, the constable raps the end of a wooden cot.
Something stirs. The rattle of chains. A bear-like form rises from the cot. I make a rapid retreat outside.
Mr Smith turns to the constable. “Can we please take him outside?”
“I insist.” Mr Smith steps back into daylight.
With the constable prodding him forward, the prisoner shambles out, stooping in the low doorway. He is a monster of a man, a head taller than Mr Smith. The Indian’s hair hangs long and lank, covering much of his face. His ragged, stained tunic barely reaches his thighs.
“*I chen tl’ik.*” Mr Smith takes the man by the elbow, guiding him to a half-log bench.
“*I chexw tl’ik,*” he replies.
“You are wasting your time, sir. Man’s defective.”
The prisoner sits, shoulders hunched, face concealed in tangled greasy hair. Dull iron bands circle his wrists, connected by chain.
“*Chexw men wa ha’lh?*” asks Mr Smith. It seems he can speak some of the Indian’s language.
Face still hidden, the prisoner raises his arms and rattles the chain.
“Constable Perkins, would you please remove these shackles.”
“I absolutely will not—”
“Mr Doolittle,” Smith turns to me. “I spied a jug and cups in the office. Would you kindly fetch some water for Mr Bill… and a chair.”
As I hurry off, Constable Perkins raises his voice.
When I return with the cup, balanced atop a chair, Constable Perkins is holding the cudgel in one hand, shackles in the other, glowering. The prisoner’s legs remain chained. Mr Smith holds a can of chewing tobacco. The prisoner has pushed the hair from his face and is chewing. A livid scar jags across his cheek and jaw. Mr Smith takes the cup from atop the chair and offers it to the prisoner, who spits tobacco juice to the ground and accepts the cup with both hands.
Placing the chair back to front before the prisoner, Mr Smith sits. “Douglas Bill, my name is Stanley Smith, I am here to help, if I can. Please tell me about Messrs. Clarke and Braden.”
“Man’s a savage, sir. Can barely speak. The evidence—”
“Constable Perkins, our drayman waits out front. Would you kindly assist him in securing our supplies within police headquarters.”
“I cannot condone—”
“Perkins, the superintendent of police has instructed you to assist me in any way you can.”
Constable Perkins strides off, scowling.
I am tempted to follow; remaining with this unchained brute seems reckless...
“Douglas Bill,” says Smith, “you guided Clarke and Braden up the Squamish River.”
The man chews. I stand poised, ready to run. He nods.
“Where did you last see them?”
“River…” The Indian holds his vast palms together and then throws them out sideways.
“A fork? A split? Which way did they go?”
Douglas Bill raises his right hand. “We pack, up river, back down. Pack more. Three days.”
Mr Smith pulls his pipe from his jacket pocket. “A portage? No canoe?”
Douglas nods.”Up up. And water is…” He slides a hand sideways.
“Calm, so above the rapids,” muses Mr Smith.
“Bimeby see old canoe. They want it. I say is *cultus*.”
“Bad... to take someone’s canoe?”
The Indian shakes his head. “Old bad canoe.”
“What did you do?”
“Canoe... two men, bad. Three…” He twists his fists sideways as though snapping a stick, and spits juice to the ground. “I come home.”
Mr Smith pulls out his pouch of tobacco, retrieves a handful and gently packs it into his pipe. He lights up and puffs.
“What did you think of Messrs. Clarke and Braden?”
Douglas Bill shrugs. “Fine men, but…” He raises his brow. “...green?”
Mr Smith nods.
“They pay me.” He shakes his head. ”Fool. Bad canoe.”
“Mr Smith.” I nod to where Perkins forges back towards us.
Mr Smith presses the can of chewing tobacco into Bill’s paw, where it vanishes, and stands. “Constable Perkins, I am failing to see a case for detaining—”
“Sir!” bellows Constable Perkins, his face the colour and texture of mashed cranberries. “You talk... you listen to the mumbles... the evasions of this brute... yet I have recovered unassailable proof…” His fist shakes. He holds it out, and opens his palm. I see a pocket watch on a chain.
Mr Smith takes the watch and examines it.
A small voice, like a child’s, “A gift.” On the bench, Douglas Bill rocks back and forth.
Mr Smith passes me the watch. It is simple but elegant. The casing may be gold. On the face the manufacturer is inscribed; Breguet, Paris.
“The reprobate was caught,” spits Perkins, “attempting to pawn this.”
“A gift,” moans the prisoner.
I turn it over. On the reverse, the casing is engraved. The cursive is beautiful.
*My heart, my joy. My only son. JOSHUA BRADEN.*
*“...we started up the river…”*
When, next morning, we return with the drayman to police headquarters, we do not see Douglas Bill. Constable Perkins seems in a good mood and willingly helps us load our baggage.
“With the new bridge across the East Channel, you can take government road as far as Seaichem. That’s the place to find boatmen to take you upriver.”
After hefting my bag onto the dray, I down the last of my hip flask to soften the pounding in my head. The previous evening I fortuned upon a rough but convivial tavern on the waterfront. Unfortunately, upon ordering refreshment, I found I had no money, and was forced to return to our lodgings and make do with the sole remaining pint of whiskey in my baggage.
“What are our resupply options en route?” I ask Perkins.
“Beyond here your best bet’s the store at Judd’s Beach. Just above Seaichem.”
We thank him and set out for the north.
The rough road leads us through hay meadows and woodland, past occasional homesteads. The day grows warm. Mr Smith has been beyond taciturn since our interview with Douglas Bill. After supper at our lodgings, he had retired to his room with a headache. We are some way along when he breaks the silence.
“The case is confounding, frustrating. I analyse, I speculate, yet I see but two sides of the coin, both ugly.”
“At best the man is a thief. At worst…”
The horse snorts.
I consider, “Why would he be so fool as to pawn a watch with another man’s name upon it?”
“He is likely illiterate… and thus ensnared himself.”
“On the bright side,” I venture, “if he is merely a thief, Clarke and Braden may yet be alive.”
Smith grunts. “After more than a year? I sorely doubt it.”
“A year?” I exclaim. “You said they departed in May—”
“May, last year.” Mr Smith rummages in his bag, and pulls forth a newspaper; The Victoria Daily Colonist, dated February 26th. An article has been circled in ink.
*Two Missing Men*
*Anxious inquiries are being made for E. J. Clarke, a surveyor, and Braden, a young English artist, who last spring were sent out to the northern country by a Vancouver firm of real estate men to prospect. The two men who are now missing left last May for their destination…*
The piece identifies Douglas Bill as their guide and echoes his account of events.
“Is this why you engage the man I am to replace?” I chortle. “Does it take a surveyor to find a surveyor?”
“It may help,” Mr Smith muses, pipe in mouth. “He is both a surveyor and brother to one of the missing men. I am hopeful the combination will be beneficial.”
In silence we watch the bucolic, flower-filled countryside sail by.
Beyond the new wooden bridge, the road shadows the Squamish river, a broad mass the colour of bile. Half the day has gone when the drayman pulls to a halt beside a clutter of rude huts raised above the waters.
“Seaichem,” he announces. “Need a boatman, ask for Jimmy Jim. Knows this river better than most.”
Parched and sweating, I descend shakily from the dray. Bright rays of sunlight stab into my skull. “Sir,” I mutter, “I will stroll up to that store at Judd’s Beach. I require a few final supplies from your list.”
Mr Smith regards me. “As you wish, though items are likely twice as dear as Vancouver…”
“Ah, yes, I remember… I seem to have been left indigent following our boat trip.” I give him my most ingratiating smile. “You said our expenses would be covered, so if I may beg…”
Walking along the trail beyond the native village, I am tailed by a gaggle of curious dusky children. Their clothing - tunics and skirts - seem composed of strips of bark, shredded and twined. When I turn, the girls cover their eyes. The boys cross theirs, and pull faces.
The trail arrives at a two storey log cabin in a clearing on a small rise above the river. I am surprised to find a white woman behind the counter. She wears a striped dress, her hair bound in a tight bun.
“Good afternoon, sir. Welcome to Judd’s Beach.” Her voice sounds deep, smoky. When the children peek in the doorway, she shoos them away.
“I have been charged with purchasing liquor supplies for a trip upriver.”
“Up the Squamish?” she asks. ”Headed for Jemmett’s?”
“Quite possibly,” I hedge.
“Well…” She sashays to the far end of the counter. “...I have rum and rye.”
“Splendid.” I have a moment of inspiration. “As we are headed on an expedition, to save on weight, I wonder if you have any overproof…”
“Rum, yes. Rye, no.”
I smile beatifically. “If I may try a sample...”
I am attentively wrapping the bottles and stowing them in a sack when the store-mistress queries our mission.
“In search of two missing men, Clarke and Braden,” I boast merrily.
“Good luck with that.” She rests her chin on one elbow, watching me over the counter. She is pretty, in a rugged, country way. “From what Douglas Bill tells, be best searching the bottom of the river.”
I straighten up. “You know Douglas Bill?”
She laughs. “Everyone knows Douglas Bill. He’s a card. I call him Bill-less Doug.”
“He does not pay?”
Her mouth twitches amusement. “Most Indians who come in buy on account. I earn more on interest than on the goods. Bill-less Doug, though…”
She nods. “Earns good money, guiding for logging and railway concerns. Been up to Pemberton Meadows and the Lillooet.”
“Would he have tried to pawn a gold watch here, recently?”
She frowns. “Doug showed me a gold watch… very proud of it, he was. Said it was a gift from one of those greenhorns you’re seeking.”
“You saw the name on the back?”
“You didn’t think it peculiar he had another man’s watch?”
“I suppose… but would he be showing me the man’s name…” She gives me a quizzical look. “Braden?”
“...if it were questionable?”
“But he can’t read.”
She leans across the counter. Her lips pout. “He ran through the letters for me. Sounded out the name. Douglas Bill’s no fool. He can READ ENOUGH.”
*“...reaching Jemmett's camp at noon on the 28th...”*
Grubby children in tow, and feeling much like Browning’s infamous Pied Piper, I return to the Indian village. Along the way, I amuse myself by turning indiscriminately to shout ‘Boo!’. The scallywags run screaming, but soon enough I am again tailed by giggles and whispers.
In a tight slough at a bend in the river, Mr Smith supervises the loading of our multitudinous supplies into a deep-bottomed canoe.
“This is Jimmy Jim?” I ask of the elderly man holding the stern.
“Jimmy Jim is upriver. His uncle’s taking us as far as Jemmett’s Camp,” informs Mr Smith while regarding my bulging sack.
“The chief surveyor you’re joining. In the bush two days upstream.”
“The bush?” I clutch my sack.
“This is the end of the road. Literally.” He snorts as though it is funny. “Just trees and mountains here on in.”
“I am a city man. I know nothing of… the bush,” I splutter.
“No matter,” he says, pipe in mouth.
“H-how long… will I be… in the bush?
“I cannot tell you, sir.”
Struck speechless, I only realise he has relieved me of my sack as I rediscover my voice. “I simply refuse to… to countenance joining such a foolhardy expedition if you will not tell me—”
“I cannot answer for Mr Jemmett,” snaps Smith, stepping into the prow. “But if you will humour me for two days, you may ask him yourself. And if it proves beyond your capacity, I am confident he will release you.”
The old Indian stands in the stern, gripping a tall pole to hold the canoe in place. The bow begins to swing away from the shore.
I see my sack atop the freight and scramble aboard.
Settled in the middle, enthroned amongst the baggage like some primitive potentate, I watch the shoreline drift away. The boat slides into the main current, sways - I grab the sides - and swings upstream. Before me, jacketless, hatless, sleeves rolled-up, Mr Smith rises, dragging a long pole from one side of the canoe. He plunges the end into the milky water, and pushes down. The canoe surges forward. It hardly seems fitting for a gentleman, but I have learned things are done differently in the Colonies.
“Could we not have hired another oarsman?” I call above the rush of water.
Mr Smith glances over his shoulder as he raises the pole and drives it into the riverbed. “There is a paddle to your side, sir. I recommend you practice. The sooner the better. Otherwise, you are likely later to regret it.”
I do not like his tone, but cast around and find the paddle. Gripping the handle, I dip the blade into the water, gingerly.
We hang close to the bank, where the current is moderate. Our progress feels jerky, fast when Mr Smith or the Indian push with their pole, slower as they reposition. I remain unconvinced my paddling is of consequence, but go through the motions. We progress directly towards the great mass of mountains barricading the valley, approaching the impenetrably forested foothills. I see no egress. My heart beats faster.
“Mr Smith, is there some kind of tunnel?” I ask. ”Will we travel beneath?”
He shakes his head. As though by magic a new vista unfurls to our right, the river curving away, shadowing the mountains’ toes. I glance back as we round the bend and glimpse the village sliding from sight. The last remnant is smoke rising from the huts.
I swiftly fall spellbound. Hundreds of white-barked poplars range the banks, silver-green leaves reaching for the sky. We manoeuvre around pale sandbars, surge up shallow chattering channels, dodge dark, ragged snags. Mr Smith stoops beneath overhanging logs and branches, constantly poling.
“A kingfisher!” I cry, pointing as a flash of blue and white dips in the water, before flitting away between smooth white boulders.
The mountains guide us north, the valley narrowing. The spare, aloof poplars are usurped by lush, intriguing maples. We pass two small Indian settlements but otherwise are in the bush, the wilds, the back of beyond. I pause my paddling, take refreshment, drink in this Garden of Eden, both physically and spiritually. I feel reborn. I lurch to my feet, hip flask held high. “To Clarke and Braden!”
Behind me, I hear the Indian contribute in his own language.
Encouraged, I toast the summer sky. “May we find them safe—”
“Be seated you damn fool!” roars Mr Smith.
At dusk, at a sandbank straddling the stream, we run the canoe aground, gather driftwood and build a crackling fire. The Indian has salmon. He splits them, spreading them across sticks. The pink fish sizzles and smokes. Mr Smith unwraps bannock bread and cuts slices to grip the fish. The amalgam is smokey, oily and delicious. With my whiskey, we have a merry time, until the midges force us to take shelter beneath our blankets. Rushing water lulls us to sleep.
At dawn I awake, achy and shivering. Sleeping on sand is not the soft comfort I had presumed. Washing my face, I am shocked awake by the icy coldness of the water. Wrapped in blankets, we breakfast on apples, bannock and boiled eggs, load the canoe and push off into the current. The river writhes, wisped in fog. High above the maples, we spy peaks, some white. We watch an otter, glimpse fish jump, and are stalked by a crow. The river meanders, prevaricates, equivocates. We travel north, south, east and west. My hands grow sore. I sweat, I paddle. The forest draws closer. It whispers. I don’t like it.
Another night. This time we camp on shore. The trees feel oppressive. I hear noises, shuffles, patters, the snap of branches. Watching, waiting, ready to pounce. I hardly sleep. When cold light begins to bleed between the trees I mutter a prayer of thanks.
Advancing upriver, the sun is at its zenith when I see lazy smoke rise above the ocean of trees. Canoes line the beach. Behind, canvas tents stand among the flotsam and jetsam of camp life.
A solid middle-aged man with short sleeves, braces and a slight paunch swaggers down to meet us. He greets our guide in what I take to be the Squamish language.
“Mr Jemmett?” ventures Mr Smith.
“Aye.” The man nods, thumbs hooked in his braces.
“I am Stanley Smith and this is Mr Doolittle.” He steps ashore.
Jemmett’s eyes narrow. “And why are you here?”
“We seek Clarke and Braden.”
Mr Jemmett rubs his chin. “You’ll be staying till evening then.”
Mr Smith gives him a quizzical look.
“He’ll be back then,” Jemmett elaborates.
“Who?” asks Mr Smith.
“Who do you think?” Jemmett guffaws. ”Your man CLARKE.”
*“...had to wait to see Clarke, who was at work in the woods and would not return until evening...”*
Fred Clarke, ambling into camp at dusk, is the epitome of a backwoodsman; well-built, with a snuff-coloured beard, matching eyebrows, and as loquacious as one would expect. When Mr Smith informs him of his mission, he merely nods.
“Superintendent Hussey was hopeful you would join me…” He entreats the silent sibling, “...which would be desirable, both with your surveying knowledge and familiarity with your brother. I am sure it has been a difficult year for you, not knowing... and any resolution we can provide...”
Clarke turns towards the camp tents. “Edmond made his bed. You want to join him…” He strolls away. “...I sure ain’t gonna stop you.”
I look at Mr Smith in surprise as he steps after him.
After ‘grub’, the survey crew gathers about a big fire. Some have canvas camp stools, others jostle on flattened logs. Jemmett fills a canvas chair equipped with wooden arms and a backrest. King of the Jungle. Everyone has cups; coffee, soup or hot toddy of some sort.
“Mr Jemmett,” I proffer, “you must know this valley well.”
“Some of it.” Jemmett perches his pewter mug upon the armrest.
Grogan, a voluble Irishman, pitches in. “Mr Jemmett been managing survey work up here, on and off for what, twenty years?”
“Close to,” concedes Jemmett, swilling his drink.
“Reckon no-one knows the place better,” Grogan boasts.
“Wouldn’t say that, Grog. Fellows like Jimmy Jim’d run rings round me. Remember that tale? Wasn’t even ten and walked out of here on his own. In the snow.”
I cut in, “Jimmy Jim is supposed to be taking Mr Smith upriver from here, I believe.”
Jemmett frowns. “Don’t know about that. Jim’s working for me. Setting a camp up the Ashlu.”
“And when will he be back?” Behind me in the gloaming towers Mr Smith.
“Due back today.” Jemmett shrugs. “Jim marches to the beat of his own drum.”
“Mr Jemmett, I understand Jimmy Jim is a valuable commodity,” Mr Smith demurs, “but if you could spare him a week… Superintendent Hussey would, I am sure, be grateful. He is most anxious to clear up this Clarke and Braden affair.”
Jemmett puffs atop his flimsy throne. “I’ll think on it.”
When Fred Clarke appears, and takes the free spot next to me, I seize my opening. “Are you not planning to accompany Mr Smith in the search for your brother?”
“I am not.”
“May I ask why?”
“Nothing but a snipe hunt.”
Though unacquainted with the colloquialism, I get the drift, so to speak.
“You see no hope in finding your brother?”
Fred reaches for a stick and begins whittling.
I recognise I have a problem. I am contracted to replace Clarke on this survey team, and if he is not leaving… “Mr Jemmett, did you request Mr Clarke remain working for you?” I impute.
Jemmett frowns upon his throne. “Fred’s a free man. If he fancies to go chasing a brace of damn fools—” He glances across. “No offence, Fred.”
“None taken,” Fred says brightly.
“Myself, I’m too old for such a bootless errand.” Jemmett huffs, then sees my pensive face. “Oh, don’t fret, man!” he snorts. “You’re in a safe pair of hands with Mr Smith.”
It takes a moment for the implication to sink in, then I am speechless with horror.
Mr Smith steps forward and stands silhouetted against the flames as he packs and lights his pipe. “Mr Jemmett, what are your deductions on Clarke and Braden?”
“Fools took a rotten canoe, against their guide’s advice. Most likely sank and drowned. This river plays for keeps.”
My mind whirrs. Mr Smith cannot expect me—
“Edmond could swim,” Fred Clarke wittles. “but as Mr Jemmett says, this is a glacial river. Even if you get out of it, you’ve lost your gear…” He shrugs.
“Perhaps the Wild Men got ’em.” Grogan leers across the fire.
“The Wild Men?” repeats Mr Smith.
“*Te Smailetl*,” Jemmett mutters. “Old Squamish legend about a chief’s daughter. Ran off with a slave and started a new tribe in the mountains. All skins, clubs and rocks… real tooth and claw stuff.”
“Almost got me once,” Grogan speaks again. He scans around the circle, making sure he has the floor. The fire spits and crackles. His eyes settle on me. “Couple of years back… at dusk, I’m amblin’ back to camp. Passed a clearing with a big old stump in the middle. Heard a crash off to me right. Something in the bushes. I stop - it gets dark quick in there under those cypress, ye know. I’m gripping me axe, wishing I had me rifle, when…” Grogan whistles, casting his arm forward. “...a rock. Goes right past me it does. I’m not liking that. I yell ‘show yerself’. Nothing. I peered at that big stump... can see its outline against the bush. Seven, eight foot tall, easy. A bear could hide behind that ye know - not that bear throw rocks mind. Is that where he is? Behind that stump? I back away down the trail, watching the stump, the trees all around. Then…”
“Then?” I demand.
He shrugs. “Last I saw of it.”
I breathe out. The men mutter and snigger.
“Was the next morning...” Grogan speaks loudly over them. “...I goes back to that clearing. Hunting for tracks… man, bear, whatever. Was a while till I realise.”
“Realise what?” I ask.
“That clearing… ain’t no stump.”
Remembering my cup, I take a gulp, glad I have chosen the overproof rum. Beyond the fire circle, I sense movement. A tree branch shakes violently. I hear a howl. Men turn in surprise. A great shadow leaps to the ground. I see dark fur, horrific white eyes, outlandishly long dragging limbs... Men are shouting, tumbling away from the fire, cups fall, logs roll, sparks fly. No time to think, I am ON MY FEET AND RUNNING.