Dead Man's Gold and Other Stories

BOOK: Dead Man's Gold and Other Stories
13.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Dead Man's Gold

And Other Stories

Paul Yee

Illustrated by Harvey Chan


Text copyright © 2002 by Paul Yee
Illustrations copyright © 2002 by Harvey Chan

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Distribution of this electronic edition via the Internet or any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal. Please do not participate in electronic piracy of copyrighted material; purchase only authorized electronic editions. We appreciate your support of the author's rights.

This edition published in 2013 by
Groundwood Books / House of Anansi Press Inc.
110 Spadina Avenue, Suite 801
Toronto, ON, M5V 2K4
Tel. 416-363-4343
Fax 416-363-1017
or c/o Publishers Group West
1700 Fourth Street, Berkeley, CA 94710

Yee, Paul
Dead man's gold and other stories
ISBN 978-0-88899-475-2 (bound) ISBN 978-0-88899-587-2 (pbk.)
ISBN 978-1-55498-468-8 (ebook)
1. Chinese--Canada--Juvenile literature. 2. Ghost stories, Canadian (English) 3. Children's stories, Canadian (English) I. Chan, Harvey II. Title.
PS8597.E3D42 2002         jC813'.54         C2002-901055-1
PZ7.J365De 2002

Cover illustration by Harvey Chan
The illustrations for this book were done in Adobe Photoshop
Design by Michael Solomon

We acknowledge for their financial support of our publishing program the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF).

To Troy and Cassandra Cardozo-Richardson, from the past for the future

Dead Man's Gold

men like a magnet awakening metal pins, like honey humming to bees. It shines and never rusts, flattens thin as tissue and reels into feathery threads. It crowns the kings of mighty empires and dazzles the eye when spun as filigree jewelry. It has caused nations to go to war, men to commit murder, and innocent people to be enslaved.

Chinese, too, have fallen under its strident glow and dark shadows.

In the mid-nineteenth century, when rumors of faraway gold rushes reached Big Field village in South China, many men decided to go to the New World, including Yuen and Fong. Born in the same month and same year, these two friends had chased tadpoles through ponds and played at the same school as children. Although both inherited plenty of farm chores, Yuen was the only son of poor peasants who owned a single pot to cook all their meals, while Fong's father had several fields, seven sons and two wives to manage his kitchen.

When it came time to leave, the families of both men gathered by the river to say farewell. Yuen's mother and sisters wept and clung to his sleeves, begging him not to go.

“I will send you news and gold as soon as I can,” promised Yuen, but the women only wailed louder.

Fong stepped in. “Don't worry,” he told them. “No matter where we go, we'll look after one another.”

“Of course,” added Yuen. “We'll stay together until we both get rich.”

“Two heads are better than one,” said Fong. “And four hands can carry any load.”

So the women were comforted and the village men set forth.

In China, their black-brick village was snuggled in a coastal plain of rice paddies cultivated over many centuries. Ancient streams meandered by, and the horizon held low rolling hills. In the New World, the Big Field villagers shouldered picks and shovels and tramped through mountainous forests. They marveled at jagged, dark cliffs rising like castle walls, and at a river that boiled and churned through treacherous boulders.

Miners from around the world scrambled along the mighty river, its banks and many tributaries. Impatient to start, Fong often darted ahead to talk to miners who had already staked their claims on the river. He always returned in great excitement: “A man from Yen-ping was crossing a shallow stream when a glint in the water caught his eye. He crouched down and there lay a gold nugget round as a walnut, just waiting to be plucked!”

The villagers gathered as he continued, “Another man from our county took two fistfuls of gold gravel from nearby water. All in one day! A smart man, he stood at a bend in the river where the current slowed to drop its gold. He has returned to China to build two new houses!”

But the farther inland the villagers went, the costlier the supplies for daily living became. Soon the Big Field men faced a decision. Stop and take jobs working for other miners, or keep trekking until they could find an empty stretch of river where they could stake their own claims.

Yuen decided to hire himself out to miners, but Fong declared, “No one grows rich working for bosses. Don't stop here!”

“Poor families like mine have always relied on wages,” Yuen insisted.

“Oh, just pull your belt tighter!” retorted his friend. “Come with me. Remember, we swore to stay together.”

Yuen hung back. “Even if you go, you may never find gold. At least I will be paid.”

“Paid?” Fong laughed. “You'll get pennies.”

“Hah! You look down on hard work, yet you want instant riches.”

“Of course I do. Don't you?”

As Fong stalked off, Yuen sighed and hoped his was the right decision.

“Hard work is heavens way,” he told himself. “That fool Fong has lived amidst abundance all his life. He has never ached or sweated from an honest days toil.”

Every day, Yuen hacked into the hard ground and dumped it into long sluices built from logs. There, river water roared through to wash away the dirt and leave behind the heavy gold. Yuen labored twelve back-breaking hours a day, for two dollars a shift. When rain or mosquitoes swarmed him, he wanted to run for shelter, but there was none nearby. What kept him working were thoughts of his mother and sisters, sniffling and waiting for news and money.

Just when he had saved enough to travel farther, the temperature dropped. All along the river, miners scurried south with packs on their backs and mules laden with equipment. They spoke of lakes freezing solid and thick, snowfalls higher than houses, and storms that devoured humans and horses.

The news alarmed him, so he wintered in the port city, too, and searched for Fong.

Other miners commented, “Your friend might have stayed north, or he might be dead and cold already.” They invited him to games of dice and dominoes, but Yuen clung to his few pennies. Storekeepers who saw him frowned and looked away, for they knew at a glance that he had no money to spend.

Once winter retreated, he headed out again. The river ran high and fast with melting ice. Trekking north on muddy trails, he passed crude posts marking miners' claims, ragged tents and makeshift cabins, and graveyards guarding the unlucky.

Surely, he told himself, this time I will stake a claim on a section of this river.

But his savings were spent before he could reach an unoccupied stretch, so he found wage work standing in a shallow river. All day he shoveled mud and gravel into rocker boxes that strained the muck for gold. His legs turned numb and blue. At night he wrapped hot cloths around them, but they rarely warmed him. One day, he slipped and fell. His ankle swelled like an egg and ached, and by the time it healed, he had to head south for winter.

In the port city, Yuen ate low-grade rice and shared an attic with eight men. There was no room to stretch his legs, and he had no tales of lucky strikes to share. All winter he sat by the potbellied stove and stared glumly at the holes in his socks.

When spring returned, he headed north again. This time, with borrowed money, he purchased a second-hand claim — one given up as worthless by white miners. Chinese miners reworking such sites waded into the river to heave boulders and flushed out crevices with fine whisks. When they found gold, they crowed, “This is truly Gold Mountain.”

Yuen found nothing — not a single nugget, not one speck of gold. He cursed heaven and earth, even damned his ancestors. Why did the precious metal of the New World evade him? But he kept on digging because images of his family tormented him. Night after night, he saw his parents huddled at a low bare table, holding empty bowls that gleamed in the dark.

One day, a familiar voice rang from the forest. There stood Fong in a leather jacket and gleaming boots that rose to his knees.

“What happened, old friend?” Fong shouted. “You're an ancient man of seventy!”

Yuen caught his reflection in the water. On a gaunt face, bloodshot eyes
rolled in dark hollows and brown teeth hung loose. His skin had the color and texture of tree bark, while his hair bristled like a porcupines.

He tried to smile. “And you, Fong, you haven't aged a day since we parted. You've done well?”

“Indeed!” He held up a weighty bag. In it Yuen saw the quiet gleam of gold nuggets, gold flakes and gold dust — enough for four lifetimes. He felt dizzy and clutched at his hat.

The two men strolled into the shade.

“Don't be envious,” Fong said. “I wouldn't do this again, ever. I was frostbitten and huddled in a canvas tent under five blankets. Who knew the winter lasted six months! Then we starved because ice jammed the river and prevented supplies from reaching us. And I almost drowned when my horse and I rolled over a waterfall.”

Yuen said nothing as he fingered the gold in the bag.

What an idiot I've been, he thought. If I had followed him, I would be a rich man, too! He wanted to pound his head hard against a tree. If he could have just half of Fong's gold, he could buy ten new paddy fields, rent them out, and build a spacious mansion for his family.

Fong added, “Bandits jumped my claim and tried to rob me, but I fought back with my rifle. Bears prowling for food wrecked my camp and sent me running up a tree. And like everyone else, I got sick and couldn't find a doctor. Sometimes I thought I would never see China again, or you, my friend.”

Yuen nodded. “You are a lucky man. What next?”

Fong grinned. “I'm going home!”

When Yuen saw the gleaming white teeth in his friend's mouth, fury exploded inside him like overheated gunpowder. He slammed his shovel into Fong's head. His childhood friend fell to the ground, dead.

Yuen dropped the shovel and staggered back. What had he done?

But then China swirled through his mind. He imagined his scrawny ragged parents kneeling in the market square, weakly begging for food. Fong's family would be healthy, crowded around a table crammed with fish and chicken, vegetables and eggs. They even had enough to feed the stray dogs of the village.

In the woods, Yuen removed his friend's clothing and boots, buried them, and left the body for hungry wolves. No one would ever trace Fong's last steps. In a frontier so vast and deep, who would notice that one Chinese miner had gone missing?

In the port city, Yuen visited steam baths and scrubbed himself with stiff brushes. At the tailor, he ordered new suits and shirts. When his ship set sail for China, he felt as fresh and clean as a newborn babe, and he vowed never to return. In bustling Hong Kong, he bought extravagant gifts before heading home.

At Big Field village, the neighbors attended Yuen's banquet. Enviously, they watched him present a watch chain to his father, earrings to his mother, and necklaces to his sisters, all fashioned from pure gold. Plans for a new house were announced and everyone congratulated the successful miner.

When Fong's mother came up, Yuen saw that her hair had whitened, and her back was bowed over.

“Do you have news of my son?” she asked.

Yuen pressed two gold coins into her hand and turned away, but she cried out, “You two vowed to get rich side by side, or to return home in disgrace together! What happened? Tell me!”

She thrust forth her wrinkled face, but he could not bear to look her in the eyes
Panicked, he pushed her aside and hurried off.

Then, within a week of Yuen's return, his mother donned her new earrings and went to wash in the creek. Days later, an ear infection rendered her deaf. The watch chain hung from the father's vest during his walk over the dikes. He fell and became paralyzed. At her home, Yuen's older sister was dangling her necklace at her child when he suddenly tipped onto the stone floor. After that, the child never spoke or cried again.

The villagers averted their eyes and whispered about cursed gold. When they persisted in asking about Fong, Yuen replied, “Gold Mountain is wild and dangerous. Animals might have devoured him, the river could have carried him off, or an avalanche may have suffocated him.”

“Alas, Heaven can be cruel,” cried the villagers. “Hopefully, his body has been properly buried. Without a safe home so far away, his soul will never rest.”

Yuen swallowed hard and tears slipped from his eyes.

Then his younger sister rushed in and flung her necklace at him. Weeping, she shouted, “This carries nothing but bad luck!”

After that, Yuen announced he would return to Gold Mountain to search for his friend.

During the ocean voyage, he braced himself on the tilting deck as waves battered the sailing ship. If only he could restore the heartbeat in Fong, send warm blood coursing through a dead man's veins. He needed to loosen the curse on his family and prepare an offering worthy of his friend.

After much thought, he started whittling on a piece of wood.

In the port city, he visited a jeweler and threw all the gold items his family had worn into a blazing furnace. Afterwards, he ordered the lump of gold smashed and pounded and ground into fine powder. Then he trekked north.

For weeks he pushed through the bush toward the source of the great river that had carried gold throughout the land. He crashed through thick undergrowth and clambered over decaying logs. Blackflies tormented him until he bled. Rain fell steadily. Onward he pressed, climbing to heights slippery and cold.

Finally he reached the mountaintop where the river started. He opened the sack of gold dust and sprinkled it over the stream.

He watched the current eddy away and silently prayed:

“All you who find this dust must honor Fong. He found the gold, but passed it along.”

Then, after days of walking back, he reached the site of his old claim. It was deserted, for no one expected to find gold there. In the silent forest nearby, he dug for Fong's clothing and spent the day deepening the hole, one shovelful after another. The soil went into huge canvas bags that were rolled over the narrow grave. At its head, he planted a wooden marker carved with Fong's name, dates and home village, along with sticks of sweet incense and long candles. Then he pulled on his friend s dank clothing and slid under the canvas bags into the pit. Stretching out his legs, he breathed deeply and shut his eyes. Then he jabbed a sharp knife upwards and slashed the bags. Dirt gushed out and smothered him.

BOOK: Dead Man's Gold and Other Stories
13.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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