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Authors: David Thompson

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Talking at the Woodpile (9 page)

BOOK: Talking at the Woodpile
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Taffy was the first to congratulate him and the happiest. “What a good neighbour I have, the best there ever was.” He then invited Victor over to his house for the first time.

Amongst the crowd of visitors was RCMP Constable Smithers, who'd been sent to arrest Victor for assault.

“Assault with turps?” Wilfred scoffed, and he and Taffy tried to talk the officer out of it.

The officer said, “Charges have been laid, so now it's up to the magistrate to decide.”

Faith went around the neighbourhood apologizing profusely for her husband's thievery. “I don't know what I'm going to do with him. He just won't stop.”

“Don't you worry, dear, this has nothing to do with you,” Dot told her.

“But yes it does, Dot,” Faith said tearfully. “This is the most embarrassing thing I've ever had to face in my life.”

To make amends, Faith hauled out a trunk of contraband that Neil had been storing and dumped it onto the boardwalk outside her house for all to pick through.

“There's my damn garden shears,” Taffy said. “I wondered where the hell they'd walked off to.”

“And look here,” said Wilfred. “If it isn't my brace and bit.”

The rest of the street went through the pile, and people took what was theirs. Some even took what wasn't theirs in compensation for something they'd lost.

When his court day arrived, Neil still couldn't sit comfortably on his turpentine burn and squirmed in his place. Faith sat behind him wiping the tears from her eyes with a pink handkerchief. Neil turned and said, “Don't sob so loudly.”

“Shut up,” Faith snapped back.

The courtroom was packed to capacity. It was a typical day: a few assaults, one drunk and disorderly and a few break and enters.

When it came Neil's turn to state his case, he hummed and stuttered for so long that he was hardly understood. He had brought the pastor from his church to speak for him, but even the pastor had a difficult time finding enough positive things to say about Neil. The pastor's unenthusiastic presentation did more harm than good. Neil was a thief through and through, and nothing was going to change that, not even religion.

Magistrate Arthur Goodman looked exasperated. O'Neill was back in his court, accused of almost exactly the same thing as he had been after Wilfred Durant put gunpowder in his firewood.

“I'm not happy with you, Mr. O'Neill, not happy at all,” Arthur said as he looked over O'Neill's papers. “Caught stealing again, and Mr. Caldararu took matters into his own hands to punish you. I see here by the report that your buttocks are somewhat the worse for wear.”

There was a titter of laughter in the courtroom, but after one sharp glance from Arthur, everything went silent again.

“This is becoming a habit, a bad habit. I'm fining you a hundred dollars for thievery, and when your burned butt is up to it, you can go spend thirty days on the RCMP woodpile cutting cordwood.”

Neil shook his head in disagreement. He hated the woodpile. Everyone in town could see you working on it, and that was embarrassing. He turned and whined to Faith, “I've been punished enough. This isn't fair.”

Faith ignored him, but she couldn't conceal her look of disgust.

“As for you, Mr. Victor Caldararu, you are to spend thirty days in the RCMP jail for common assault.”

Everyone in the courtroom sat in silence, holding their breath, waiting for the gavel to come crashing down and the word “suspended” to roar out for all to hear. But it never came. Magistrate Goodman stood, turned and walked through the door at the back, with the court clerk following quickly behind him. The room sat in stunned silence. The drama had not played out as they had expected.

“Those gypsies, always causing trouble,” the clerk said as he helped Arthur off with his robe.

“Gypsy or anyone else has nothing to do with it,” Arthur said. “I'm tired of people taking the law into their own hands. Let this be a lesson to all of them.”

Victor was handcuffed by the officer and led away to jail. Faith stopped him in the hall and said, “Don't worry, I will take care of your place.”

Later that day Wilfred and William made sure Victor's house was closed up. They met Neil coming down the boardwalk and warned him, “If we see you even come near Victor's house, you will get a beating so you can't walk. We mean it.”

Neil looked away and didn't say anything.

That night Faith could be heard giving Neil the dressing-down of his life. In the morning he was still asleep on the old couch on the front porch. People laughed out loud as they wished him good morning on their way to work. Neil pretended not to hear them, and as soon as Faith unlocked the door, he picked up his blanket and ran inside to the warmth of the kitchen.

Faith baked and cooked for Victor every day he was in jail. She also made enough food for the young RCMP officers tending the cells, who couldn't hide their pleasure at getting decent cooking. They were not allowed to marry until they completed five years of service, and were on their own as far as housekeeping went.

“If I have to eat one more of Sergeant Selnes's moose pot pies, I think I will desert,” Constable Smithers told Faith as he took a second helping. Dipping slices of thick rye bread into a plate of steaming pork and beans, he dryly added, “I will be sorry when Victor's time is up.” He asked Victor, “Could you do something else, like throw a rock through a store window or something?”

“No, no,” Victor said, waving his index finger in the air. “Once I go, I'm gone and never come back.” He seemed to lose his appetite and put down his plate. Quietly he trudged back to his cell, pulled the door closed behind him, lay down on the bunk and drew the blanket over his head.

“You hardly ate anything again,” Faith shouted so Victor could hear, but he didn't respond. She gathered up the dishes and left.

After thirty days the lights came back on in Victor's place, and the neighbours dropped by to see if he needed anything. Faith called on Wilfred, and together they went over to see how Victor was.

“I think he might need some cheering up,” she said.

There was no response to the knock on the door, so they let themselves in. Victor stood by the kitchen table, where a Bible lay open. A grey blanket was draped over his shoulders, and he held a small, worn book in one hand. The other clutched the folds of the blanket to his chest.

He put up his hand to silence them. “Listen to this. Tell me if Shakespeare is true,” he said. In his strong accent he read slowly, “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions: fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons … ” He paused there.

Wilfred knew the passage well and recited the last line with him.

“Poor Jew. I'm very glad I'm not Jew,” Victor said. “They have terrible life. No justice, fairness or anything. When God made man, he made the Jew last. I feel badly for them. I've met them, they are good people. If you don't like Jews, you don't hurt because you don't like. If a Jew comes to Dawson, we should welcome him, make him feel at home, not steal from him, not make him feel alone. Not put him in prison. That's what I hope for Jew.” By the end of this, Victor was passionately thrusting out his arms as if begging for understanding.

No one said anything. They were too surprised.

“Never mind,” Victor said, waving an arm in the air. “It's just words from long ago, it means nothing.” He put the book on the shelf, took off the blanket and draped it over the back of a chair. “Come and sit down. I'll make tea. We celebrate and never speak of these things again.”

Soon the three of them were sipping hot tea, enjoying each other's company. Wilfred told of his mammoth find on Bonanza Creek a few years ago, and when he described how they'd been scared out of their wits, they all had a good laugh. Next door, Taffy looked out his window at the sounds of conversation and laughter coming from the brightly lit kitchen.

The gypsy must be having one of those parties they have
, he thought. Then he went out and made sure his sheds were locked up.

Buford's Tooth

Born and raised in Mayo, the brothers Buford and Craven Clutterbuck followed their father and laboured in the Elsa underground silver mine. They worked as a team of blasters.

“That nitroglycerine is good for your heart but it gives you bad headaches,” Craven said, reaching for the bottle of aspirin in his locker before he walked home from work.

After twenty years the headaches got to them. They were offered jobs as catskinners hauling the silver ore from the mine to the riverboats and barges at Mayo Landing, but they wanted to follow their bosom buddy Victor the Gypsy to Dawson, so they quit.

“Too bad we weren't here when that stealing went on. We would have stood by you, Victor,” Buford said over a cup of tea the day they arrived.

Buford was named after the first British sailor to be devoured by a great white shark off the coast of Australia in 1770. Apparently, after so many months at sea, young Buford Gateman spotted some near-naked aboriginal girls on the beach, jumped ship and tried to swim to shore. The great white bit him neatly in two, leaving the upper torso and head floating in the water. The captain's log recorded that the shark must have known Buford had no brains, since he took the best part.

“That is the funniest thing I ever heard,” Orville Clutterbuck said.

Craven was named after the brand of cigarettes his mother, Claris Clutterbuck, enjoyed. She was a farmer's daughter from Saskatchewan who'd smoked Craven A since she was sixteen years old and died of lung cancer at fifty-six.

“I have to have my cigs and coffee,” she said.

“I'm just thankful she didn't add the A and name me after the place they were made. I could have been called Craven A Jamaica.”

Claris, who had ignored her children all her life, tried to apologize on her deathbed. Craven and Buford weren't buying it.

“Sometimes ‘better late than never' is crap,” Buford said.

“We had no mom,” Craven said.

Craven was over six feet tall and had not an ounce of fat on him. His veins were like road maps on his arms and legs. His hands and feet were long and thin, a sprout of uncombed red hair topped his narrow head and wire-rimmed glasses sat crookedly on his broken nose. He personally didn't care how he looked; fashion to him was a new pair of green GWG work pants and matching shirt. He had an inquisitive nature about crime and justice, and when people got to know him, they started to think that if Sherlock Holmes had a father, it might be Craven. When someone mentioned this, he admitted that he really was the father of Sherlock Holmes. Not knowing a lot about Arthur Conan Doyle, some people believed him. Years later, when he died, his friends wanted to write “Here Lies the Father of Sherlock Holmes” on his headstone, but his wife stopped them in time.

“It's funny how rumours start and grow,” Buford said.

Parents would point out Craven to their children. “Look, there goes the father of Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective.” They thought Sherlock was a real person.

Buford, the younger sibling, was the opposite of Craven. He was a man of girth at three hundred pounds, bald as a billiard ball—he played billiards with great skill—and a thick beard that hid the bottom half of his face and ended at the top of his ears. For such a big man, he had dainty hands and feet. Buford was determined to do as little as possible in life, and if he could have been anything at all, he would have been a famous writer and poet.

That is why they pooled their savings and bought a bungalow with white bevelled siding next door to Pat Henderson and down the street from Robert Service's home on Eighth Avenue.

“Maybe the spirit of Robert will rub off on me and end the writer's block I've had for the past ten years. Then I'll become famous,” Buford said.

“I doubt it,” Craven said. “You hardly wrote anything before.”

Buford had the most childish of faults—craving to become the centre of attention—but he rarely succeeded. “It's because his mom never paid attention to him,” Craven bemoaned. It was by chance that Buford found attention. Over the years his teeth had either been knocked out of his head or fallen out through neglect.

“Maybe it would have been wise to have brushed every day, as father told me, and listened more than spoken in those bar fights,” Buford said to Craven and Victor as they drank coffee and repaired a bicycle chain at the kitchen table.

“That's why God gave you two ears and one mouth,” Craven said.

Victor agreed with Craven. “Yes, very true what Craven said. Two ears, one mouth, God very wise.”

Finally Buford had only one tooth in his head and that was a top front one. He became obsessively possessive about this last tooth and determined to keep it. He quit playing hockey. The players who had been boarded by his bulk were thankful.

Buford had a beaming smile, so the tooth gave his face the appearance of a large, round jack-o'-lantern carved out for Halloween. The tooth began to garner Buford more attention than he'd ever had, and he loved it.

“It's only a tooth, but I'm famous,” he said. “That's all it takes, a tooth.”

“You must be desperate,” Craven said.

Buford brushed three times a day and flossed the tooth with a shoelace as though he were pulling a rope around a hitching post. He had the tooth capped with gold and admired it every morning in the mirror.

“That lovely tooth, you make gypsy proud,” Victor said.

“Let me pull that damn thing out,” Craven demanded. “It's the ugliest thing I ever saw. Just let me get the pliers.” He would run out to the shed and rummage through piles of rusty tools in their beaten-up storage boxes.

The men moved in their sparse furniture and had a housewarming party. Buford cooked and baked all day while Craven tidied the already cluttered house. They had a bad habit of bringing in mechanical things, mostly bicycles, to be worked on. The kitchen looked like a workshop, with tools strewn about and a sawhorse in the corner. They used the sink to wash greasy parts, and it was paint-stained from washing brushes.

BOOK: Talking at the Woodpile
5.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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