Uncle Charley's secret treasure
Young Ernie knew it was there, and so did the gang of small children who followed Uncle Charley to his fabulous sluice box. While Ben and I were blinded by shame and black hate, the kids found
ILLINGWORTH H. KERR
AWARE greater shock though than I the was news of Ben’s of Uncle growing Charley’s hardness, death it when was he a refused to go home for the funeral.
“What’s eating you? Afraid you won’t get a slice of the old goat’s fortune?” Ben chucked me a cigarette.
“Sure,” I said, “he might have left something in an old sock. Like a hole. What about Mother and Dad?”
“They never even asked us,” Ben said, glancing at the telegram that had waited our return. “They wouldn’t expect me to play the hypocrite.”
“No. They are simply expecting us.”
“Okay, Bud. I guess it’s all over now. You can tell them I’ll be home—later.”
rl here was no shaking him. I could hardly bear it, for Ben and I had always been closer than most brothers, and now death, which was new to us, set us apart.
Then the landlady called Ben down to the ’phone. He came back and stared at me vacantly. Despite freckles and bristly yellow hair he made me think of Young Ernie.
“It was long distance—Grafton. Dad called. Both of them gone —Young Ernie, too.”
I just sat and stared back, while Ben added, “Ernie fell in the creek—high water and ice going out and Uncle Charley in after him. Both near drowned and barely made it home. They went down with pneumonia together. Looked like Ernie would pull through, Dad said, but when Uncle Charley went—he—well, Dad said it seemed Ernie just couldn’t help taggin’ along. Like always.”
Ben ended very softly and I found myself taking a deep breath, as if the first real breath in all my seventeen years.
You see, it is hardly likely that you ever had a brother like Young Ernie. He was the eldest, but due to mental deficiency was to remain forever “young.” In many ways he was quite a nice kid, the best looking of all three, people said, except for something vacant behind his eyes, and sometimes that frown of puzzlement as if it troubled him to be so different. Usually he was playful as a pup and just as anxious for affection. But and there were a thousand buts—he had remained a constant burden.
Looking back now, his death was a blow only in its suddenness. You may not believe it, but I kept thinking, “Thanks, God now Ben has to go home!”
By the next day Ben was as tough and laconic as ever when I met him at the service station after checking out at business college. A substitute was already in Ben’s coveralls, Ben’s motorcyle was set and we roared off westward on our hundred-and-ninety-mile journey from Winnipeg, as if on a fishing trip.
But that was all on the surface. As Ben’s bike hit the mean gravel highway to Grafton, all churned up in spring thaw, my thoughts jounced in mad rhythm from one family member to the other, from one episode to another, crazy in relation to time, so that if I put them down that way you would never get anything sorted out.
WE WERE ONLY tads when Mother first told us about her very much older brother, Charley, who had left their Ontario farm home to hunt for gold in B. C. and had disappeared without a trace. A mountain avalanche, white water, scurvy the Lord only knew what had accounted for him. “Wolves!” Ben guessed. “Maybe outlaws!” And we gloated over innumerable grisly endings until Ben hit
on a better angle. Suppose Uncle Charley
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had not died? Suppose he had struck it rich!
Mother laughed. "Richest thing Charley’d ever strike would be C-flat on his cigar-box banjo, so your grandfather always said.”
But necessity fathers invention: Uncle Charley became something fabulous, a sort of Uncle Ben Gump. He represented all that was unattainable, from baseball gloves and real skating boots that fitted, to shining new bicycles—as compared, for instance, to that ingenious contraption that Ben later devised from nuisance - dump salvage. Aching desire made Uncle Charley real, a benevolent being who must suddenly materialize, hungry in his old age for the affection of kith and kin. The disappointing Christmases and birthdays he saved!
Even better, we never had to accept with finality what Ben’s bravado dubbed "The Biscuit Box,” our square, flat-roofed, mustard-yellow old house, set among willows near a slough by the tracks. Nor, like Mother, did we accept as more than temporary Father’s joh as CNR section man. A plaguedout Saskatchewan farmer, Father now seemed content with a pay cheque; but, of course, when Uncle Charley came . . .
Had she heard this last, Mother might not have laughed as she usually did. "Boys, your Uncle Charley’s bones would blush to hear you, if what they said was true. He’d sooner whittle a stick than make hay. Sooner make a trout fly than go catch fish.”
"Aw. Maw! But just supposin’!”
"Just supposing you make your dreams come true by yourselves. Now that’s real supposin’. So quit addling your brains.”
This was after she had caught us bragging to the Crawford boys. There were tears in her eyes when she said it, as if it hurt to explode the dream.
You couldn’t be sure; Mother often was fretful, since Ernie, as she said, added up to a family of twenty. He could never be trusted—with sharp tools or whatever. He might stare at the chickens for hours or chase them into the slough. He might take off down the railway track, and Mother never missed a train time or heard the whistling of an off-schedule freight without checking on Ernie.
"Be patient, laddies,” Mother would beg when we got tough with Ernie for ruining our games. "Some day we hope he’ll be like any other hoy, if the doctors find out how to treat him.”
But despite the protests of endless prayers, Ernie’s trips to the city with Mother were never rewarded by coherent speech or a sense of responsibility. In the end could we, as well as other children, help wondering if the Stoddards were a lesser breed—Ernie what he was, our Dad a pick-andshovel man?
Only Ben and the myth about Uncle Charley salvaged my pride. Ben could shut his mouth like a trap when other kids made sneering talk, while I must hurl back equally stupid insults or brags. Ben’s fists backed me up.
WE HAD been playing cricket, a peculiar version of our own employing baseball gear and bastard rules, and with Young Ernie running interference all over the lot until the gang couldn’t take it any longer. So Ben and I shooed the chickens into the henhouse and locked Ernie in the chicken run, which was wired over.
After the game we guiltily lit out,
hoping Mother hadn’t gone looking for eggs—and there was no Ernie—only a gap at the wire joints.
Half hopefully we eased into the kitchen. An old man was sitting at the kitchen table. In his hand was a glass of Mother’s chokecherry wine, so he could not be an ordinary hobo from the tracks, which his coal-dusty clothes implied. Thin and stringy, with Adam’s apple bobbing from checkered work shirt stronger than his bony features, he had pale eyes and wispy moustache. All added up somehow like zero, zero, zero.
"Hello there.” He spoke from our own level, not that of an adult. His voice was reedy.
"Hello,” Ben said. "Where has Mother gone?”
"Out checkin’ up on Ernie.” He smiled slowly and his eyes crinkled as they came to focus on each of us. "Well, well. So 1 reckon you’re Ben an’ Buddy. Ben thirteen past, older’n
Buddy. Well, by yesterday, if you
ain’t like your Maw was, near as I remember. Chock-fulla pep and vinegar. Now Buddy, I see—he’s more like me.”
He chuckled at my sudden horror. I shifted gaze from his bobbing epiglottis to Ben, who was eyeing a battered rucksack over by the sink.
"Wonder who I am? I betcha a plug’ nickel, if I had one, you’d never guess.” He could never guess the depths of our growing apprehension. For the moment we were saved by Mother coming in with Young Ernie. She flourished a corn sickle.
"Well, you two! What a help you were! Ernie slashing around with this thing—Mrs. Zabrowski’s hollyhocks! Oh, Ben, how could you!”
"Almost all afternoon we watched him, Maw. Honest we did. The kids didn’t want him — knocking over cricket wickets, maybe getting hurt.”
"Wickets or hollyhocks. Ask Mrs. Zabrowski who should get hurt! Oh boys, I try not to ask it so very often, but I must get my work done. Dears, you know!”
"Come on, Ellie,” the stranger put in, "I’m scairt you’ll scalp the young bucks. Just boys, after all.” He turned. "And so this is Young Ernie! Well, and what a nice lad. Come here, Ernie, and shake hands with your Uncle Charley.”
It was true! I barely noticed Ernie, head coquettishly sideways, grinning in his half-shy way, sidling up to that outstretched hand. Ernie loved shaking hands. He would play meaningless finger games with you as long as he could feel the response of your hands.
Uncle Charley ! Ben looked at Mother as if her sickle threatened to cut the ground from under him.
"Didn’t you know?” she asked softly. Her eyes were suddenly sharp with realization, and perhaps from recent thought of how this must hit us. And so, very soon, she trumped up a need for kindling wood and feeding the chickens and we made our escape.
"Who cares?” Ben rapped when I wondered how Uncle Charley had found us. "The old stumblebum! I wisht he had died!” And when Mother came out back of the woodpile to see us, his trial of Uncle Charley was brief.
"What’s he been doing all these years?”
"Oh, all sorts of things. He’s been everywhere—from the north and west coast right across to Florida. You’ll enjoy—”
"How long’s he staying?”
"Ben,” Mother caught him by the shoulders. "I know how you feel. But he’s my brother—your uncle—and he’s a lonely old man. You’ll like him—if you just forget all those silly old games of pretend. Sometimes I couldn’t help pretending, too.”
But now there was nothing left to pretend, except my pretense of being as tough as Ben. Because without a word I was challenged to choose between him and Uncle Charley.
"I guess they’re just a mite shy of old folks,” Uncle Charley excused us when we were told to answer up to his questions at suppertime. And after, with Ben heading for ball practice and Father inviting talk about prospecting for gold—wbat 1 would have given my ears but not my heart to hear—I answered Ben’s challenge.
Uncle Charley quit teasing and let us alone until he came out with an offer to make bows and arrows, real Indian ones. "Come fall we’ll git us a mess of rabbits, like the Swampy Cree kids do.”
I was sorely tempted. Ben hedged with excuses about Ernie getting hold of dangerous weapons. Then Jack and
Cy Crawford called for us to go swimming and we became doubly embarrassed.
"Who’s the old tramp?” they asked us as we beaded for the creek.
Suddenly our best friends became our enemies, penetrating sham. A blessed fight might have changed the whole story. But they became even more cruel: they pitied us. From now on their sneers bolstered us against the enemy.
Ben became less and less polite until Father took us for a hike and lectured us on respect to our elders. Then he softened. "Look how nice he is to Young Firnie. Your Mother’s having the first holiday—my God!—the first she has had in sixteen years!” His own words hit Father hard. "Sure, you’ve been a great help with Ernie, too. Call it a holiday for us all.”
SUMMER holidays were here—the freest ever—but now what we had long suspected was confirmed: there was a weakness in our blood. For only one who was mentally deficient himself could have given his whole time and heart to Ernie, as Uncle Charley did. Endlessly he repeated words which Ernie echoed with glee until their novelty wore off. Endlessly he transplanted what Ernie tore up as they weeded in our garden, a rented vacant lot which was located at a distance for safety. Though Ben and I hated weeding we suddenly suffered as much as that garden. And conversely we suffered in proportion to Ernie’s new’ sense of security as he tagged after Uncle Charley. For in Grafton, a town of six hundred, every newcomer becomes quickly known—and labeled.
Our protests at having to share beds with Ernie and Uncle Charley caused a cot to be set up in a storage hut made of old railway ties.
"More homelike for me,” Uncle Charley approved, as though unaware of the protests. "Had me a shack like this in Gowganda, while squattin’ on the richest gold claims in the country.” "Whose claims?” Ben challenged. "Mine.” Shocked by our sudden interest, Uncle Charley’s pale eyes lit. "What did you do with them?”
He chuckled. "That was quartz ore, boys, rock country, which you don’t operate with a pick an’ shovel. Only big minin’ interests develop that stuff. They can afford to wait a little man out.”
"You’re still waiting?”
"Nope. Never did git them claims proved up. The last summer I hung on I lived seventy percent on fish. Golly blue, my belly still cain’t see eye to eye with a pickerel. Y’know, this camp’d look right nice for a lick of whitewash.” "Did some big mine get your gold strike then?”Here was a tale for Uncle Charley’s deriders!
"Huh? Not to my knowledge. When tie boom bubble bust they wasn’t much left Fiut test holes.”
Uncle Charley pushed back his old black felt hat and squinted at the distant sky.
"I sure been a sucker for a gold rush,” he mused. "All over the North American lot. An’ the fattest deals I ever got was when I wound up bull cook in some shyster’s hash joint.”
That was our wealthy uncle. Not merely a has-been-that-never-was: he advertised it.
As when we found him and Young Ernie squatting on the curb at the post office with their shoes off’, entertaining a group of farmers: "Yep, it’s a tough way to travel but hoppin’ freights for the last thirty years is how come I saved so much money.”
At home we had to act out his sly pretense of being on good terms all round. Mother appreciated his ready
help but discouraged his guff. Father the reverse. After a long hot day’s work on the tracks he enjoyed sitting out under the willows on a summer evening, swapping yarns. It hurt not to listen.
But we knew that Uncle Charley gabbed everywhere—in the pool hall, the general stores, the service stations —and always with Fïrnie beside him, head cocked, vacantly smiling and listening. "The Gold Dust Twins” they were called, and Uncle Charley would accept the insult with his silly cackle of laughter. "You know, Sam,”
he might add, "you remind me of a certain Texas mule.” And the last you would see would be Tonele Charley peeling it off abou' nule. Or it
might be a certain lm. er camp skid boss or a certain oil millionaire.
After "The Gold Dust Twins” it became "The Siwashes,” because Uncle Charley and Ernie made sorties along Whip Creek in search of young willow gads, like as not to return right through town, each laden with a sheaf of sprouts, selected for the weaving of baskets. "Squaw work,” Uncle Charley would crack. "Picked it up from the
Siwashes. Man, how they could weave baskets!”
Before an audience of small kids he spent endless hours under our willows, weaving. And persisting in his crazy belief that he could teach Young Ernie, he set him to fumbling with rulibery strands. People came to ask for baskets, and for special sorts, and when it came to a price Uncle Charley would say. "Aw, it's just a hobby of me’n’ Ernie. 1 reckon whatever you say'll be right.”
Here Mother lost her temper, for she had opinions about some people’s honesty.
"If those baskets haven’t a market value like store goods, you’d better find something better for your time. I don’t want to hate my neighbors. Squaw work indeed! Squaw prices!”
Uncle Charley hunched his scrawny shoulders.
"Okay, Elbe. We’ll try a man’s job for a change.”
He became absorbed with slabs of pine and cedar, some small, two of fence-post dimensions which became totem poles. "Used to whittle a bit for the tourist trade on The Island,” he j said. But he spent less time at whittling and chopping than in telling small children legends about killer whales, ravens, salmon and thunder-birds.
Guiltily I found ways to listen, being much alone these days; for Ben, loving machines as intensely as he despised Uncle Charley, now hung out at Meaker’s garage, sweeping, tinkering,
! selling gas. So I became witness to the final madness — this object of our father’s charity presenting his carvings to small kids who had best recited the legends!
"Smart little papoose,” he said to black-eyed Sophie Zabrowski. "Never forget that learnin’ is fun and dogin’ is work. That’s why I’m all bet up.”
"What’s bet up?”
"Means you lost all your bets. Now what story can you make of the doorposts on my shack? One totem is mine, the other is Ernie’s.”
I reported to Mother who was hanging a washing. She shook her head queerly, then hid behind a wet sheet. "If you wanted a totem you should have learned a legend yourself.”
I choked. "You know they’re crazy! Why can’t he ever do anything sensible, and why do we have to keep him?”
"Because your Dad says he’s one luxury we can afford. Now yoLi figure that one out and don’t he a snob because Ben is.”
I took off to a chokecherry hush, where somehow the brackish fruit j tasted of snob. Could I at thirteen, or I even Ben, be a snob?
Kids and more kids came to clutter our yard, sometimes brought by mothers with else to do. And if Uncle Charley took off on a stroll he would have all these brats trailing after him. Folks hailed him as the Pied Piper of Grafton but he only laughed, never ’ caring how ridiculous he made us.
Farmers took him away—and Young Ernie of course—to tramp their fields with a willow wand, dowsing for water. "As a witch,” he declared, "some swear by me, others at me. Myself, I’d sooner strike beer than water.” His witching seemed the final madness; it was the butt of endless jokes.
AUTUMN saw Uncle Charley employed as cook on a threshing crew.
Then he calked up the logs of his shack for the winter and installed a heater. Ben could no longer hold his tongue.
"Where would you have him go?” leather asked. He was satisfied that Uncle Charley justified any trouble and expense. "Your Mother’s a new woman, twenty years younger. Are you blind? You boys shame me, and Charley’s kindness and forgiveness toward you shames me too.”
Yes, but we fought a deeper shame. So when we were surprised at Christmas with homemade skis, truly beautiful ones, our thanks stuck in our teeth. Ben’s crashed on a rock that day. Of mine I said, "So what! He’s only earning his keep.”
Uncle Charley passed off Ben’s "accident” as bad luck and offered to make a new pair. Father clamped down and only The Day itself saved Ben a beating.
Except for some work at the curling
rink, club of the entire district, and some unloading of coal cars that winter, Uncle Charley made slight shift at being independent. With spring, he became caretaker of the cemetery, a two-bit job which was offered by the town council—not sought. Later came another job, one that officially stamped his status. Twice daily he put out from the post office with a pushcart to meet local trains, to receive and deliver mail. How perfectly suited! An hour or so’s work, a chance to gossip, to mix with departures and arrivals, a focus of public attention. A chance also for youngsters to ride on the pushcart, to shriek after their unpaid Pied Piper keeper, for Young Ernie to amble the platform, staring up at travelers on the train.
In the end this remains the most burning memory—the reedy old man, the pushcart, the yelling kids, the queer quiet one — the daily public laugh.
But that began a year later, as if to confirm Ben’s departure. Now Mr. Meaker offered Ben a regular job at the garage through holidays and though it broke his heart to refuse, Ben was set to leave home. All summer and right through a late harvest he worked on a farm. Glen Neilson said the kid was terrific, especially with tractor and machines, a real genius, and Ben got double his promised pay.
Left holding the fort alone, I had to admit my weakness. For sometimes in the summer evenings, a rank deserter, I sat with Father and Uncle Charley and reveled in tales of the north—as if Service danced his puppets to a drawling tune—and queer little episodes of prairie and desert and the frightening deserts of cities.
"You might say I got a worm’s eye view of things, Larry, but I reckon I wasn’t built for ulcers.”
Endless topics crowd back: "Clumb
up on the rig of an oil well in Texas; happiest coward ever dumb down . . . Then, woof! She went up like the flames of hell . . . High-rigger in them B.C. woods sure earns his dough . . . Apple pickin’s slim pickin’ but ’bout my height . . . When that tow cable let go and snapped back the grease monkey’s head just fell off like a pumpkin . . . Band of Indians down in the foothills sooner raise horses ’n beef. One chief’s got over four hundred an’ not one worth thirty-three cents ... You kin make your own caviar from Canadian sturgeon. Up on the Saskatchewan River ... It was in Oklahoma I seen my first combine harvester . . . Amazin’ what you learn about people as a garbage collector . . . Nothin’ like newspapers to keep you warm sleepin’ out. Called ’em our room in the Ritz.”
Late that summer the sluice box came into being down by the creek. From tales told to gaping children grew a slatted set of wooden troughs as used for free-washing gold—or at least authentic enough to satisfy the youthful sourdoughswho, with castoff sectiongang shovels, piled in dirt while others carried water and sluiced endless mud into the sluggish creek. And how long could such labor entertain? Just so long, apparently, as the pay dirt held good: come clean-up there were inevitably enough pennies in the trough to take care of a bunch of small kids.
We discovered them, Ben and I, Ben for the first time, that Saturday in September when, grown-up and rich, now fourteen-past, we returned from farming. To celebrate we walked down the tracks smoking real cigarettes.
At the bridge we peered down on the last leaves of autumn reflected in a muddy creek and on a moderately silent gold-mad mob of eight, all about that age or younger except for Flrnie. He towered above them, clumsily
wielding a bucket. Uncle Charley reclined on the bank, occasionally chanting:
"Swing them shovels, you’ll get backs like camels,
Dig her boys, there’s a fortune waiting!”
Ben’s lips were never so ugly as he drew back and away.
"Damn the old fool! Listen, Bud, I’m getting away from this crazy asylum—well anyway, just as soon as I can. Listen. I got a plan.”
OUT OF THIS backlog of years j came jouncing the episodes that crowded my mind as on Ben’s motorbike we fought the rough gravel highj way, going home.
Yes, Ben had had a plan, and not a j childish one. For another year he j would work on the farm; the following ! spring he would go to Winnipeg, get mechanical work and take evening classes. A year later I would be ready for a business course and he would help stake me. Some day we’d be partners. Stoddard Brothers' Garage. We saw it in neon, even then.
Riding the tractor that summer, while turning the long prairie furrows, Ben had thought things out. And with an awful clarity, too, he had seen us at home, not drawn together in a common cause, but tortured and divided because of Ernie and Uncle Charley. Was the rest of Mother’s life to be given to Ernie who could have no real life? Then make the break soon. Save us all by sending Ernie to an institution where he, too, might profit.
Decently enough Ben tried to win our parents toward his decision, but in their final arguments every type of ¡ sentiment was weighed in the balance j —especially his deep-seated prejudice j toward Uncle Charley—and when he j finally left home it was in common bitterness. He had not returned in two years.
My final year was no happier for his absence because I must uphold Ben’s part, at least sufficiently to maintain his bond at home. Now I had been away eight months, with only a quick trip at Christmas which had proved long enough.
Again the buildings on Main Street seemed shrunken; the shabby old "Biscuit Box” twisted my heart as never before. But Ben was home and for the present tragedy was somewhat lifted.
The double funeral was set for tomorrow, since most of our relatives were far away., The old house was sickly with the odor of flowers; we could hardly move for visitors. Not just close neighbors but people from all over town were there, and they brought endless contributions of food, plus tears and sympathetic talk about Ernie and praise of Uncle Charley until Ben thumbed toward the door.
"Can’t people be the blasted hypocrites!” he said, and I replied that perhaps they were just gifted with hindsight.
We jerked out "Thanks,” when people downtown offered condolences, quizzing us with their eyes. Our onesided feud was no secret.
We became a couple of stones. All that evening and next day even as we went to the white church on the far side of town in one of the mourners’ cars my chief grief was that something in Ben would not break. It had to be broken if we were to go on as the Stoddard brothers. For in defense of him I, too, was throttled of normal emotion.
Then I looked out on street after street lined with cars, then on the church steps and yard thronged with late arrivals. I recognized farmers from far afield and, most unusual, it
seemed as if no one wished to go into the church. We soon found out why: because it was packed. And it looked more like a Sunday school, because every child in town was there.
For a time they all went into a blur and we stumbled to our places. Then I saw the two coffins and such enormous banks of flowers that I knew I had to get hold of myself before the children sang. Their voices began to whirl giddily as in a past scene when Uncle Charley, weaving baskets under the willows, had been called on for a story. Fie had thought for a moment, then improvised
"Tell you all about a skunk
"It stink, stank, stunk.
"It stink, stank, stunk.”
"More,” the children had shouted.
’At’s all,” Uncle Charley had said, and then the children, instead of being disappointed, had run in circles shouting, "Stink, stank, stunk!” i had walked away in disgust. Now the silly words kept pounding hack, all mixed up in a hymn.
Come on, Ben, admit it for both of us. Harder than the endless battle to love Young Ernie was our struggle to dislike Uncle Charley.
" He was our shame and therefore our enemy. He never fought buck: therefore the enemy was within ourselves."
Was that an inner voice or the Reverend Morrison reading a text?
"Whosoever therefore humbleth himself as this little child, that same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
This was Morrison’s voice and never had it so much rung like a voice from the past.
Not for me was it necessary for Morrison to go on, to speak of one who had spent a lifetime seeking for gold, and failed; yet this same one with the Midas touch; one who endlessly shared his bounty with others. Admit it, Hen, damn you, with your mechanic's hands bone-white solid on your knees, solid as your icy shoulders ! Admit what we always knew! "Dig her out, boys; there's a fortune h iding!'’
Yes, Ben’s hands make it necessary for Morrison to go on. " This man had a secret. The great and dreadful secret of humility. He was so humble that no one could hurt him. Ho was the rarest of men—a truly happy man.
"Today, then, let us feel that we are gathered together to do honor to a lost friend. Simply to do him honor. He does not need our prayers. Let us pray for ourselves.”
Pray for tight-jawed Ben. Let us all pray for lien! Because only Ben can release me from this frozen prison and the black lumps blinding and choking. Wait! We have not prayed enough!
There is the last tight glimpse of the two tight faces. ’Then there is the ride to the cemetery past a child who will never learn about a skunk. I hen there are the final words, the black huddles, the final finalities, the black half-frozen soil, the black heavy lumps, those falling, those that will not fall from under the lungs.
"Tell you all about a skunk. Tell you all . . .
Parents and aunt and uncle—aunt broad and steady like father being graciously handed into the first big black car. Heading for tea and cakes with the kindly, kindly neighbors.
Ben’s eyes dry ice. "I’m walking.” Walking did In* say? Not going home— now—this hour! Take it or leave it did he say? I don’t believe it hut I am walking with Ben, away from the second mourner’s car, out through the black throng, first through the small gate, into Henderson’s pasture, a short cut through trampled, silver-barked poplar groves, direct to town.
Quite a few people don’t plough mud! to the cemetery. They look at us as if we are ghosts. I am Ben’s ghost. At the garage Mr. Meaker looks at us andj spills gas from the hose of a pump. Non here then. But here, in the pool halij 1 n the pool hall no one is playing! except two strangers. And all others are strangers as we approach. Awkward, uncomfortable, halting talk. Ben buys cigarettes. Cork tips do not stick to the lips. Then we step outside and stand, Ben lighting up.
Clapham the harness and shoe repairer with his back turned to us faces Tod Hunter who is supporting a telephone pole. Better than he supports his family.
"You got it wrong, Tod. Old Charley just didn’t care about what other people thought was important.”
"What I meant, Ed. Charley was a free agent.”
"He was sure a lot bigger’n his boots. No wonder he liked takin’ ’em off. Remember how old Charley -
Tod sees us suddenly. "Uh — hello, hoys. I uh reckon this isa hard day for you. But a good one for a youn» fella to remember.” Tod nods. "Oughta be mighty proud, you two.”
It. echoes. "Mighty proud.” Ed Clapham smiles with his new false teeth. One up on nature.
We say thanks and jerkily shake hands. We are walking away now, automatically, to the station no, to the railway track and down it. fleeing the town. Two stumblebums getting out of town.
It is the shortest way to that point on the river below the bridge where Young Ernie fell in. Now we see where the river, still running high and muddy, sliced the cave-in. Ben, what are you seeking? Ben! Evidence that what happened was not an accident? Ben, what have you done to yourself? What are you doing? Can’t you leave well, enough alone?
TT»HERE near the cave-in, half under M. water, swirling current lapping its slatted grey floor, is Uncle Charley’s sluice box. We go down to the grey rustling river, automatically, as if drawn by some outside power, to stand beside this pitiful contrivance of weathered old hoards. Poor, silly old toy !
Ben sees something. I see it, too. A one-eent piece winks up al us from under a slat on the sluice-box floor. And there is another lower down, just¡ at the swirling brink of t he river.
Those pennies haven’t been there all] winter. Uncle Charley’s clean-up gang would be too sharp for that. The old rogue had been salting the sluice box for Ernie when Ernie was caught by the cave-in. 11 was an accident.
I am reaching for my penny when Ben jerks my arm. His face is no longer a mask. He turns and picks up one of the old discarded section mens shovels lying there and begins shovelling half-frozen dirt into the sluice box.
1 watch till my eyes are blinded like Ben’s, then I seize a rusty hucket and start dipping water and sloshing it over the dirt.
"Swing them shovels, you’ll git hacks like camels,
"Dig her, hoys, there’s a fortune waiting !”
We worked and worked those diggings. How long I don’t know or care. But I know we did not care if anyone chanced to find us there, two big lugs in our best clothes, doing what we were doing.
Black chunks of earth flew into the sluice box. Water washed it awayHard dark lumps eased from behind aching eyes, from beneath choking lungs. Hard dark lumps. Water washing them away. ★