Authors: Gil Adamson
Tags: #General Fiction, #FIC019000
“I stuck to Bonny â I knew where my bread was buttered,”
he said, and the Reverend chuckled.
At semester breaks, he returned home, a little taller, a little worse in
the head, and, to counterbalance, a little more self-controlled. He ate with his
clamouring family at the dinner table and recounted tales of other boys' exploits.
When asked about his own, Arthur would affect an enigmatic air, as if he himself might
be the ringleader, which he was not. When he was old enough, his father decided he would
go west and join the North West Mounted Police. It was what he did with all his sons
â this boy will go to architecture school, that boy into business. So, at the age
of eighteen, with an officer's commission, Arthur found himself on an afternoon
train heading into the sun. Black billows of engine smoke blew past his window while the
other recruits slept or played cards. He was alone again among men.
The train stopped at Maple Creek and Fort Macleod, and a few boys got off
at each. Arthur Elwell was stationed with the rest in a small outpost called Strike Him
on the Back, close to the disaster of Batoche. He found himself on a windy plain with a
trunk full of books, a notepad or two, regular exercise and duties, and all this
punctuated by brief clashes with whisky runners and the occasional small band of
Indians. Many people in the area were glad to see the police, but some were not. They
came in futile war parties of two or three men at a time. Usually the dead lay where
they fell for a day or more before someone came to claim them, a splash
of colour in the dry and antic grasses, the wind ceaseless and disquieting, weather
brooding on the horizon.
One lingering twilight, Arthur stood watch by the gate, rifle at his
shoulder, gazing at two bodies â one of them a man Arthur himself had killed
â their shirts riffling in the wind. As he watched, he discerned movement, a jerky
flailing, and incredibly the man rose up. This spectre stood, bent at the waist, hands
held to his fatal wound, and staggered toward the trees â he was neither dead nor
alive. At the last moment, he turned his terrible face toward Arthur. It was ashen and
streaked with tears.
Arthur's madness kicked into overdrive. In the morning, the bodies
were gone, and so was Arthur Elwell. He was a deserter.
But his father was a member of Parliament and wealthy, and he had some
influence. It would do no one any good, he explained, to have Arthur executed, would it?
Arthur had been a fine officer, a quiet man, and a very good shot. It was difficult to
get recruits in the first place, to convince young men to leave everything behind and
become police officers in a country so wild and empty it was unfathomable to those who
had never seen it. So the
tolerated his frequent absences and always
took him back.
The widow sat back in her chair. Her aversion forgotten, she pondered this
“So, you just light out? Where do you go?”
“Sometimes I visit Bonny. Other times, I . . . don't know
where I am.”
“Why don't you go home, Arthur?” she said gently. Such a
fine, warm family. It seemed a glorious thing to her. Arthur's eyes skated over
her knees and shot away again.
“They wouldn't know me any more.”
Behind Arthur, the Reverend shook his head at the widow.
And suddenly Mary's heart withered to think of it. Of course they
would not. Look at him: a restless ghost. Arthur could not return home any more than she
TWO DAYS LATER
, it was a bright afternoon, and Mary came
sliding down the mountain's talus. Above her stood hard white peaks, clouds of
snow caught there, blowing curlicues. She held her rifle high and waded through the
loose pebbles as if she were coming down a waterfall. Boulders the size of horses lay
among the smaller rocks, but mostly rivers of pebbles and sand flowed downhill in a
hiss. She could feel dissolution with every footfall. Her leg was healing nicely now,
and she had grown accustomed to the tug of stiffness in the ruined muscle. She turned
and headed for the trees. The air crisp and dry, snow above, the sun pinwheeling through
the cold, crystalline mist. A few summer flowers poked from rotted logs, but she knew
that when evening shadow passed over them, they would grow filaments of ice along their
edges. At the first touch of sun the next morning, the petals would melt to colourful
The thick dark buffalo coat weighed heavy as a yoke on her shoulders, so
she took it off, hung it on a branch, and sighed. She took up the rifle again and
ventured through the trees, going laterally along the slope, which was carpeted by
seasons of needles. Her footfalls were quiet. Her boots fit loosely, and so she slid
continually downhill inside them and was glad they laced high up on her ankle or she
might have slid right out of them. Birds whirred from branch to branch
before her. After a short distance, she sat on her haunches and listened, elbows on
her knees and the riflebutt on her boot.
Her little horse would have been no use to her now, she reflected. The
ground was too sloped and awkward. In any case, the Reverend had sold her.
“To whom?!” she had burst out when he told her.
“Henry, in fact. And, uh”â he fiddled with his buttons
â“I sold her for nothing. But, Mrs. Boulton, Henry
do you a
wonderful service. Searching you out, bringing you here to me. I thought we owed him
She'd thought about that for a long time afterwards. The word
So her hunting was done on foot, as it would have been anyway, and she was
cognizant every morning when she rose that she did not have to feed and water the horse
as well as the Reverend. There was some good in that.
She had washed and repaired her clothes, tidying the seams of her wide
pantlegs, hemming up the shredded cuffs. Her original stitching had been utterly wild.
She had sat by the Reverend's homey stove and peered in disbelief at the pinched
and buckled inseam, the inexplicable gaps. It was as if someone else had done the work.
She remembered telling the bird lady she wasn't mad â but perhaps she had
been. She recalled sitting naked on a rock, bent to the work of making pants from her
skirts, intent on dressing as a man, a mermaid wishing herself legs. Was she any better
now? She held a palm up and looked intently at it, but she saw nothing in the lines of
her hands, no patterns, no intimations of anything.
Now the Reverend had two of them â lunatics â and he seemed
quite content with it. Arthur followed him to his church every day, and she had taken up
the rifle to find them
all something to eat. Incredible to think
it, but having Arthur in the house was almost a happiness for her â he was so
unutterably mad, a chattering, trembling wreck of a man, and yet so benign in his
character, his real self. Sleepless, he wandered the lower floor of the house at night,
whispering, tidying. The widow would lie upstairs in her bed, listening intently, pacing
the floor with him in her mind, her own head mostly silent, struck dumb by pure
curiosity about the man. And she would wake in the morning to find him asleep in a
chair, bony and slack-jawed as a corpse. His quiet thank-yous to her, his attempts to
help at the stove, the alarming sight of him at the chopping block wielding an axe with
badly palsied hands. She had begun to see what the Reverend saw in him. And that made
her wonder what the Reverend saw in her . . .
A muffled boom came. The widow felt it through the soles of her boots. And
then, from all directions, she heard the rattle of loosened rock seeking lower ground.
She jumped up, wild-eyed, expecting the mountain to come down upon her. But after a
moment, the world was quiet again. Eight feet away, a sparrow sat on a thread-thin
branch and balanced itself with silly jerks of its tail, undisturbed by the noise. It
bent and wiped its beak on the branch. So, after a wary moment, the widow took up her
rifle and went on.
Cresting a rise in the land, she came upon a little door cut in the
mountainside. An opening into the mine. Like the others she had seen, this one had been
expertly framed and supported with rough wood beams; masses of cut rock had been cleared
away from its mouth by hand. But how did the men get in there? A child would have
trouble fitting in. She approached it and bent to peer inside. The floor and walls
were uneven and jagged, cut without care, and it went in only a
short way before angling sharply down. She leaned closer and listened. A discernable
suck of air came from the hole, and when she leaned even farther into it, strands of her
dark hair flowed forward against her cheeks. It was an air-shaft meant to ventilate the
mine. The air was going in, downward, sucking constantly. And then she felt a boom
again, and the airshaft's damp breath puffed in her face like a hollow cough.
Pebbles bounced downhill again. She stepped back, tasted rock dust on her lips. The
miners were using dynamite.
Hurrying back to find her coat and collect her game, the widow chased a
porcupine from its fetid hollow log. The animal set off downhill with a rolling,
stump-legged gait she could barely believe â quills rattling. She'd never
seen a porcupine move that fast. In the lowlands, where her husband had taught her to
hunt, they merely waddled grumpily to the nearest tree, climbed ten feet, and hung
there, stinking. John had never bothered to kill one. But now the widow pitched herself
downhill after the beast, stopping to take aim, losing her target, then scrambling on.
It began to dawn on her that she was not a wily hunter, and she was now lame as well.
How different it was, this slalom through the trees, from standing by the cabin,
shouldering a rifle on a hostage tree trunk with her husband behind her correcting her
aim. Or walking with her father and a stable boy out into high grasses, a dog flushing
game birds up into the air like cards in a shooting gallery. The widow lost her quarry
at the same moment she began to realize she'd lost her bearings. The porcupine was
somewhere nearby, hidden. She stood panting.
The sound of a waterfall. Wind in the trees. The scent of water on the
air. She went a little farther, and the trees began to thin and then fell away
completely into a deep gorge blurred by mist, across which stretched a strange
contraption she could not identify. She ventured down the slope a little to look more
closely. The thing in question seemed to be an assemblage of trees and saplings and rope
spanning the gorge. Exceptionally slender, it swayed like a spine. It was, in fact, a
suspension bridge made from two fallen cedars, one on each side, reaching across the
drop, constructed without the aid of metal or milled wood, nothing but trees, branches,
and rope. Something of it spoke of Indians, some whisper of flexibility and ultility. A
rough elegance in the sway of its back. It was a shortcut for hunters, perhaps.
Impossible to know how old the thing was or who had built it. She ventured out onto it a
little way and discovered that, despite its spindly construction, it felt solid
underfoot, possessing a strange elastic strength. She ventured a little farther. She
could see the edge of the drop, the river below, misty and green. The widow bounced
experimentally and, a moment later, received an alarming series of motions in return,
fluid and uneven, as if something powerful stood at the other end trying to shake her
off her feet. She backed cautiously off the bridge and stood watching it swell and
heave. Then she went on her way, heading back uphill toward the spot where she had left
Twenty minutes later, she found herself standing above the front yard of
the mine. Below her lay a wreckage of lumbered trees, various paths webbed across open
ground, wheel tracks dug in deep, and here and there, mine cars, a few rusting or tipped
over or missing a wheel. A gaggle of silent
miners knelt at a long,
stained trough, bent over it, separating the good rock from the bad, piles of discarded
culm about them, their hunched bodies silver-black and spidery, their arms moving
ceaselessly. A few mine carts stood lined up at the edge of the hill, ready to be
wheeled down, perhaps to the train platform. To the widow's left stood the
towering mine-head, shrouded in trees. She wandered to the edge of the curiously flat
overhang on which she stood. She leaned incautiously far out and saw she was standing
directly on top of the upper frame of a large entranceway, the gaping mouth of the mine.
All paths across the scarred ground converged here. Two men sat eating their lunch. One
big, the other small, both black in the face and white round the neck and forehead,
wearing the common markings of miners. The widow heard their spoons clacking on metal
plates as they ate. The men's voices came out suddenly, and she could hear every
word. One man said, “You ought to said something, Ronnie.”
“I said you oughta told me about that goddamn hole.”
They ate a little more in silence before one of them spoke again.
“It wasn't there yesterday.”
“I know it.”
“That whole north seam is a fucking bag of tricks. Nothing's
holding it up is why. We got no business laying charges.”
“That's not your say so, nor mine. So just shut up about
“That big fella, you know, the . . . Italian or whatever?”
“He dropped a match down the north end, where Flynn fell, and you
should have seen how far down it went. It just fluttered down there and kept getting
smaller and smaller.”
“Don't tell me, goddammit! And don't say his name.
What's wrong with you?”
“Sorry, Jim. . . . You get that smell yet?”
The other man put a blackened hand to his forehead and sighed. There was a