Spain Remembers

Spain Remembers

Friday, November 2, 2007

Charile's Chance

By Joan Baril

Charlie Derbyshire, eighteen years old, an immigrant from Birmingham, England, and, in 1920, a cookee at the Bickford Company bush camp, sat on the chopping block well away from the five-foot icicles dripping from the cook shack roof. Stretching his long legs and planting his shoe-pack boots in the snow, he took out his rolling papers and Bull Durham tobacco to fix himself a smoke. All the while, he was keeping an eye on the track that entered the camp from the other side of the clearing.

This was the best time of day, the afternoon rest hour, the lunch dishes done, the bread rising in the iron tub, the kindling chopped and the Polish cook, Wenzel, asleep in his chair by the stove, his snores tumbling through the half open door. Charlie was watching for the postman, Albert Blott, also an English immigrant, who’d come to Canada several years before. Charlie looked forward to the postie’s weekly visit because Albert was the one person he could talk to, if only for a short time. The lumberjacks, mostly Galicians from Eastern Europe, had about two dozen English words among them. The owner and foreman spoke English but did not converse with a cookee. The small, tough French Canadians, who lived in Bunkhouse Three, were able to make themselves understood, but they were a closed group.

That very day the French Canadians had again complained about the grub to Charlie while he was setting the tubs of food on the lunch table. “One more the dry pea and the damn raisin pie, la, and we get our ax to work.”

Thus Charlie was also watching, rather anxiously, for the grub sleigh, hoping that Reynolds, the foreman, would soon get back from town with fresh supplies. He’d left three days ago and should have returned the next day. His absence was inexplicable.

“Oya! Young Blighty!” It was the postman calling from across the clearing. He was swaying like a pine tree in the wind as he walked because his snowshoes were hampered by the heavy April snow. He used a thick stick to knock off the wet clods. Spring break-up was not far off and, Charlie realized with a pang, this visit could be his friend’s last trip. The postman unlaced his snowshoes in the trampled clearing and, stepping lightly over the water-filled ruts and horse balls, stopped at the office shack to hand the mail to the boss, Mr. R. J. Bickford, who came to the door to meet him.

Wenzel yelled from the cook shack. “Grub sleigh? You see it?”

Albert shook his head several times so the cook would catch his meaning. “Not a soul on the trail,” he said to Charlie. He hung his snowshoes on a nail high on the wall of the cook shack, well out of reach of the camp dog. “If you got grub coming, the bloke better hustle along before the road breaks up.” He clapped Charlie on the back in greeting and drew a letter from his leather bag.

“Many thanks, Albert,” Charlie said. His sister’s handwriting seemed to smile at him from the envelope and he carefully folded it into the pocket of his bush shirt to read later.

“Shit!” The cook smacked his ham-like fist so strongly against the door frame the entire building rattled and several icicles shot to the ground. A torrent of Polish swept out of him as he stamped inside followed by the postman and Charlie. The Polish curses continued as he fished into the wood box and brought out a bottle of “white lightning”, a searing liquor made by the French Canadians in Bunkhouse Three. He filled a tin cup for Albert and another for himself. Charlie took a cup of coffee from the pot on the woodstove.
Tossing his beaded mittens and mail pouch on the table, the postie unbuttoned his parka, hitched up a chair and tilted the whisky straight down his throat.
“Gor blimey,” he said with a shudder, ripping off his beaver hat and flinging it beside the mitts. “This stuff would choke a bear!” He held out his cup for a refill. “Gimmie another, Wenzel.”

Charlie took a raisin pie from the pie safe and slid a large slice on a tin plate toward his friend. Albert forked it down with a half dozen gulps and then tossed off another mug of whiskey, shaking his shoulders as he did so. “Lead me to the river, Charlie, lad,” he said heaving himself to his feet. “Time to patter on.”

The postman’s weekly route ended at a camp about six miles away on the far side of the Jackpine River. He’d spend the night there and be back at the Bickford camp in the morning. Then, after a smoke and chat with Charlie, he’d return to base, the town of Auden, ten miles away.

As they crossed the clearing, Albert leaned on the young man, breathing his whiskey breath in his ear. “Listen, kid, don’t expect no grub sleigh. Your foreman blew town. Hopped the train to the Sault three days ago.”

“What?” Charlie’s heart jumped. This, his second cookee job since he’d come to Canada a year ago, had been swell so far – plenty of chow, a sauna every Sunday and a good clean bunk with no lice or bedbugs like his first camp. He was just a beanpole kid from the slums of Birmingham who’d grown up on bread and dripping, but he knew he’d found heaven the first time he wrapped himself outside Wenzel’s good food. Over the winter, he’d put on weight and muscle and planned to return next season after a summer of farm work. The postie’s words drove an icicle into his heart. He knew what was coming.

“This camp’s on the skids, kid. The outfit’s going belly up. Pretty soon the boss’ll do a bunk and you’ll be up shit creek with no pay for a winter’s work.”

“Christ.” Charlie stopped and leaned forward, his hands on his knees. He thought he might be sick. “I’ve two hundred dollars on account in the office, Albert. A year’s wages. I’ve already ordered a few items from the Eaton’s catalogue to send on home at the end of the winter. What’s going to happen to me?” He’d heard tales of bankruptcies in bush camps but this place seemed steady on.

Albert was still talking in his ear. “Buck up. The game’s not over yet. Here’s what to do. Go to the boss now and ask for your winter’s pay in full. Make up a tale—your mam’s sick or something. Hide the cash away from thieving hands. When I get back tomorrow at lunch, give me the money. I’ll take it to Auden and put it in the bank for you.”

“I don’t know,” Charlie said, his brain half numb from the news.

Albert bent to tie on his snowshoes. He adjusted his leather mail bag, clapped Charlie on the arm and side-slipped down the bank. “Use your loaf, son. It’s the only way.” He waved before starting off.

Charlie watched in silence as the postman crossed the river, a swaying black figure in a grey landscape. He leaned on a deck of logs piled for the spring drive. What crummy luck. And yet, what else could he do but take a chance? He walked to the office shack and knocked on the door. The next day he gave the postman the entire two hundred dollars less a fiver that he kept in his sock.

Two days later, the flour ran out which meant no more pie or bread. Supper consisted of beans, hard tack and prune pudding. At breakfast, the French Canadians turned up carrying their axes and, before sitting down, smacked the blades through the oil cloth into the wooden table. It was a message and not a pleasant one. The same gang buttonholed the boss in the office shack but they soon came out and headed down the trail, muttering and smacking their ax handles against their palms. Charlie was surprised that old man Bickford had enough French to sweet talk them back to the job.

Luckily, there was still plenty of bacon but that wasn’t enough for these guys. He and Wenzel spent the morning trying to round out the next meal with the bits of dried food left in the sacks in the storeroom. He thought of warning Wenzel about the bankruptcy, but he knew the old cook didn’t have enough English to understand.

Then, on Wednesday, the unexpected happened. The grub sleigh arrived. It was pulled by Moocher, the small percheron that the foreman had taken to town and now was driven by Joseph LeClair, one of the French crew, who had probably been sent to town by the boss. Charlie wondered where the valuable horse had spent the week, but, as usual, there was no one to ask.

Thursday came but not the mailman. For the first time in his life, Charlie lost his appetite. “I’m a bloody lard head,” he said to himself bringing his ax down on the kindling log. The folded five-dollar bill in his sock chafed his instep like a blister. He smashed through a half dozen stove logs in quick succession. He’d give Albert one more week before he hit the trail to the post office in Auden either to get his money back or make hell of the postie’s face. He’d nothing now to lose.

Just after midnight, Charlie woke. Around him were the familiar grunts and snores of the bush workers and the fug of wet work clothes. But there was another sound—a slow slapping noise, like the tick of a tree branch on an outer wall or the flap of a flag. In his long underwear and wool socks, Charlie padded to the bunkhouse door and looked out. The temperature had dropped. The snow had acquired a sheen but it was still old snow, as pockmarked as a pin cushion yet it gave off just enough light. He could see the door of the office shack swinging back and forth. At his bunk, moving with lynx-like caution, Charlie felt for his pants and boots, pulled them on, and slipped outside.

The clearing was so quiet he could hear the horses stomping in their shelter a few yards down the track. The air was icy with a tang of spruce wafting in with the light wind. He snapped a match against the door frame of the office shack and looked inside. Papers were scattered about. The cash box sat open on the small table. He went through to the double-bunk room beyond where the foreman and boss slept. He flared another match. No one there. Only the crumpled work shirt in the corner and the pair of socks hanging on the rack over the stove and slowly twisting in the breeze signified human occupants.

Charlie ran to wake Wenzel but a shout from Bunkhouse Three roused the camp. Lanterns flashed and half-dressed men poured out of the three sleeping shacks like water from a broken dam. The French Canadians immediately ran for the horses. Charlie saw the stable boss step out on the track to stop them. Next, he next saw the stable boss crumple to the ground, the victim of a lightning kick to the head.

The previous winter, at his first camp, Charlie had witnessed three dog teams in a tangle fighting each other. It seemed to him now the noise and confusion were the same. It took five minutes for the Galicans to loot the cook shack; then they started on the other buildings tossing everything into the snow. A half second later Charlie saw the empty stable go up in flames. He ran to his bunkhouse and caught his duffle as it was flung out the door; his parka was lying a few feet away. A second later, he realized his only work shirt, which he had hung to dry over the stove, was now burning merrily after one of the Galicans tossed a coal oil lantern though the open door and the dry timber flamed up with a sound like thunder.

Wenzel was by his side. “We leave by foot,” the cook said pulling him by the arm toward the track.

“Give me a minute.” Charlie sprinted to the office shack, one of the few buildings not on fire. Someone had taken the socks from the rack but the shirt was still on the floor. He snatched it up and left, pushing through a crowd of men gathered around several kegs of white lightning whiskey. He caught up with Wenzel and they tramped the wet snow without speaking to each other. Occasionally Wenzel yelled out a Polish curse. Two hours later they reached the sleeping village of Auden.

“Train?” Wenzel asked. Charlie shook his head. Wenzel pumped his hand. “So long, Cookee.” The old man turned and slouched dispiritedly into the CNR station.

Charlie sat on the bench outside the Chinese restaurant until it opened at six o’clock. The main street remained empty; nobody had followed him and Wenzel to town. The horse hooves had headed off onto a side track a mile from the camp; quite likely the French Canadians had their own plans; perhaps to sell the horses to the local farmers or to another camp. No doubt the remaining bush workers were still in the middle of their jag. They’d got no pay but at least they had the traditional blow-out at the end of the season.

In the restroom of the cafe, he took off his parka and washed the soot streaks from his face. He pulled out the looted shirt which he had shoved into his duffle. Something crinkled. Three ten dollar bills in the pocket. Charlie stared at King George’s profile as if it were a holy icon. Thirty bucks, a month’s wages. In the restaurant, he ordered three eggs, fried ham and a pot of tea. He lingered in the booth, sipping sugar-laden tea, half asleep, as customers came and went. The post office didn’t open until nine.

“Albert Blott is no longer employed with us.” said the bespeckled man behind the wicket. Charlie turned away without a word. He walked along the wooden sidewalk to the false-fronted tar-paper shack which housed the Royal Bank of Canada. He leaned against the building, dozing, waiting for it to open at ten.
It was the first time he’d been in a bank. He felt like a fool but he squared his shoulders and approached the wicket.

“Mr. Charles Derbyshire,” repeated the clerk as he consulted a large ledger. “Yes, you have an account with us. How do you want to proceed now, sir?”

Charlie stepped into sunlight, the entire one hundred and ninety-five dollars in his bush pants pocket. In the dazzle from the snow-covered street, he slammed into a pedestrian, Albert Blott, carrying a small suitcase.

“Charlie! Got your money? Come with me right now to the train. I’m off to Port Arthur to join the police force. The grapevine says they’re looking for ten guys. Maybe they’ll take you too. Steady job, good pay, free uniforms, nice town. They want tall blokes like us. Step along now; the train leaves in ten minutes. You can tell me everything that happened at Bickford Camp once we get on board.”

This story is based on an incident in the life of William Allen, (1900-1968) who was a policeman in Port Arthur from 1922 - 1965.

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