– Fiction by Edward Cloney –
Ted climbed the ridge-crest and saw the distant mountain. Saw its perfectly coned summit white against the blue October sky. The mountain had no name; he had checked his map earlier – it was only one of many unnamed peaks in this remote corner of north-central British Columbia. The sharp, pyramidal symmetry of the mountain was striking. “Looks a bit like Mount Fuji,” he mused – and because of ﬁnally sighting the mountain he did not notice the end of the ‘cruise-chain’ slither past his foot until it had gone ten meters too far. “Chain!” he shouted, running and snatching up the trailing end. “Back!” he commanded, and dragged the nylon-rope chain back the ten meters he should not have allowed it to go. He could feel the resistance in the rope as he hauled Liam, his compass-man, back with it.
Ted quickly followed along the chain’s ﬁfty-meter length, occasionally hanging strands of ﬂuorescent -coloured ribbon so as to mark the ‘cruise line’. In his ﬁeldbook he made comments on the local terrain, and on the forest’s overstory. When he got to the end he saw that Liam had already selected a ‘plot-center tree’ and was busy tagging it to mark the location of the ‘sample-plot’.
“Sorry about that,” Ted said.
“See the mountain?” Liam asked, the mountain now out of view. “Yeah, ﬁgured we would. So perfect – looks like Mount Fuji almost.” “Where’s that?” Liam asked, done at the plot-center and with a can of
spray-paint in hand ready to number the trees in the plot.
“Most famous mountain in Japan – I’m going to climb it someday,” Ted said. He stepped to the plot-center and viewed the surrounding trees through his ‘basal-area measuring prism’. “Those three are all in,” he said, pointing conﬁdently to three stout Douglas ﬁr trees standing nearby. He waited while Liam swiftly painted the numbers 1, 2 and 3 onto the tree trunks.
“Why?” Liam asked.
“Because it’s beautiful, that’s why – and sacred, too.” “Whoo – whoo,” Liam purred, done at tree three.
“That white spruce is four,” Ted said, as he continued to circle the plot’s radius as measured by the prism. And now Liam was ahead of him, as usual, estimating correctly which trees were in the plot and which were not – positioned at the tree ready to paint before Ted conﬁrmed it through the prism. Ted smiled, for it was this – Liam’s uncanny ability and physical the Company.
The trees of the plot now identiﬁed, Liam went up to each in turn, hooked on his ‘diameter-at -breast-height-measuring tape’ and hollered the tree’s species and its diameter: “One – Doug ﬁr – ﬁfty-six point four. Two – Doug ﬁr – sixty-four point two.” And Ted recorded the data in his ‘tally-sheet’ as Liam spoke. To maintain accuracy it was Ted’s strict rule that there be no talk – no small talk, till these three data points were recorded for all the determined trees in the plot. That way there would be no misinterpretation and they could leave the sample-plot conﬁdent that it had been accurately measured, and that it would pass any random checking routinely conducted by government ‘check-crews’. While recording the data Ted also slowly circled the plot with his head raised and closely inspected each tree from top to bottom – looking for defects that also had to be noted: broken top, ﬁre-scar, mistletoe infestation. On occasion Liam hollered out a tree’s defect he had found: “Tree six – conk,” (the conk indicating probable rot).
The ﬁnal task was to select two ‘sample trees’ – trees representative of the average height and age of the forest stand they were in. Ted did the it – Japan?” Liam asked, drilling the ﬁrst sample tree with his ‘increment borer’.
“Not that far,” Ted answered, aiming his ‘inclinometer’ at the top, then the bottom of the tree Liam was drilling. He triangulated the tree’s height and entered the result in the tally-sheet.
Liam carefully withdrew the age-core. “When ya going?” he asked. “Counting.”
“Some day,” Ted said, reﬂecting on the thought but with no further comment, allowing Liam to ﬁnish his count. “It’s ninety-one,” Liam said.
With the information of the second tree recorded and notes made of the understory vegetation and the general health of the forest they were ready to proceed to their next plot – two hundred meters ahead, the plot located by Liam’s chain and compass. Rock-steady he shot the line’s compass bearing and with chain in hand set o . “Be watching the chain not the mountain,” he said, grinning, “Fuji-Man.”
“Be o ,” Ted said, already searching for the white of the mountain through the green of the forest. Liam disappeared into the trees, the chain snaking behind him. Ted checked the time – the plot had taken thirty-ﬁve minutes to complete. At that rate, he calculated, they’d be done early – time perhaps for a short hike closer to the mountain.
At noon they had completed six plots and stopped for their lunch-break. Liam made a small ﬁre to heat their sandwiches – ham and cheese tasted so much better with the cheese melted, the bread toasted, the ham hot. A hot lunch was Liam’s one rule he insisted they follow. Since he had begun working with Liam six weeks ago they had a campﬁre every day and Ted soon eagerly agreed to it – the simple luxury of it helped ﬁght o the boredom he was increasingly ﬁnding the work to be. They rested by the ﬁre and ate, were warmed by the ﬁre, the hot sandwiches, and the October sunshine.
“Lost sight of the mountain an hour ago,” Ted remarked.
“Should come back when we head up the new line,” Liam said.
“When do you pick the car up?” Ted asked.
“Payday – then I’m a free man.”
“I remember my ﬁrst car – lasted all of three weeks.”
“Chev Impala, a ninety – just two years old – big three-ﬁfty in her.”
“Christ,” Ted muttered, “go easy with it will ya?”
Ted looked at his young compass-man quietly eating his lunch and not for the ﬁrst time saw himself from some years ago. “Girlfriend will like it I’ll bet,” he said.
“Told ya before – ain’t got one,” Liam said, quickly adding: “maybe now.”
“Oh you’ll hook one now Liam – don’t you worry.”
“Road trip somewhere would be good,” Liam said.
“The coast – most deﬁnitely – never seen it, the ocean.”
“Really – you haven’t?”
“Nope. Like to.”
Ted pictured them in his mind’s eye heading for the coast. “Ah – youth,” he said, “another cig? I’ll bet we’re way ahead of those two bastards – we’ll only end up waiting for them at the truck.”
“Sure,” Liam said.
“Give me a light,” Ted said.
They smoked and lay sprawled in the noon-day sun and talked of cars and girlfriends and traveling and what they’d rather be doing instead of timber-cruising. Ted nodded o and Liam’s stomping out of the ﬁre brought him back. “Let’s go Fuji-Man,” Liam said.
“Stop calling me that.”
“Okay Teddy-Spaghetti.” And he was gone.
An hour later they were on their ﬁnal cruise-line, the undergrowth much denser now and it slowed Liam’s compassing – only short shots. While he waited for Liam to compass out each ﬁfty-meter section Ted was able to enjoy the mountain-view. And daydream of being in other places, doing other things. Three years at it now and he’d had enough of timber-cruising. He liked working in the bush, being in the wild, but the repetitiveness demanded by the work had grown mind-crushing. The cruise-lines he followed all day seemed like a prison holding him back from what he really wanted to do – travel and explore white mountains, hike them, climb them – not merely peek at them from afar.
He had the chain draped over his boot so he could detect Liam’s progress and at the same time view the mountain. But now, for several minutes he chain had not moved, was well-short of having gone its ﬁfty meters. Difficulty getting a good shot, no doubt – but no – it still wasn’t moving. He looked around and dug out the aerial photo from his ‘cruiser’s vest’ locating where they were. “The little bugger,” he muttered. For Liam was at a creek and Ted knew what he was doing there, why he had stopped there. Liam was looking for gold. Not as preposterous as it sounded, Ted acknowledged once more. This part of the Province was so remote – only one logging road in and it less than a year old – there well could be undiscovered gold in the creek beds, though it was highly unlikely you’d ever stumble on any. But it was Liam’s childish passion and he pursued it far more often than Ted cared for.
“You’re getting paid to cruise timber not prospect for gold,” he’d tell him (not near as angry as he pretended to be). Liam’s cheerful reply was always the same: “Split it with ya – what I ﬁnd.”
Ted noted the meter-length of the stopped chain – 37, and walked down it to the creek.
He spotted Liam’s red vest; he was crouched on a small gravel-bar examining the sediment. Ted shook his head indulgently – what was the harm? He knew they’d have plenty of time to spare waiting for Rat and McPhee to show up. “Hope you’re not planning to pay for that Chevy with gold nuggets,” he called out.
Liam turned on his big grin. “Found some,” he said.
“Someday – you’ll see,” he said, “split it with ya – what I ﬁnd.” He quickly moved back on line and shot his compass.
“You need thirteen more meters,” Ted said.
“Okay, Mr. Fuji.”
The afternoon and the white mountain slowly slipped away. At three-ﬁfteen they ﬁnished their last plot. A half-hour hike brought them back to within sight of the truck. There was no sign of the other crew.
“Ian wanted me to check if there was any bedrock south of this timber that could hinder a road into it,” Ted said. “I’m going to do a quick recce – you wait at the truck – okay dude?”
“Might be a creek around,” Liam said, mischievously.
“No looking for fucking gold!” Ted snapped, truly annoyed now. “It’s late, wait at the truck – those goons should be out before I am – understand?”
“Yes, sorry.” Liam walked towards the truck, raveling up his chain as he went.
Ted strode into the forest, upset with himself for having lashed out at Liam. But sometimes he needed it, he rationalized; sometimes Liam didn’t take the job seriously enough. He studied the air-photo, located himself and followed along where the proposed access-road would go. Carefully he checked for bedrock outcropping. A half-hour’s reconnaissance found none and he wrote a brief note saying so in his ﬁeld book. He began the trek back, soon alarmed at how fast the daylight was ending. Ted well-knew how quick darkness could descend this far north this time of year, had even considered not doing the recce.
But that was that – done – Ian would be pleased. He quickened his pace, his exit helped considerably by the ribbon strands he’d taken the time to hang going in. He sighed relief when he caught a glimpse of the truck through the trees. Relieved, also, as he drew near and saw that Rat and McPhee were there – now they could all drive to camp, the day’s work completed.
But when he came up to them there was no sign of Liam, and they were behaving strangely. They were laughing – howling with laughter – bent over – laughing uncontrollably.
“What’s going on?” Ted demanded. “Where’s Liam?”
Rat spoke: “Listen! . . . Listen!”
“Just listen,” McPhee said.
Perplexed, Ted turned to where they were pointing. And from there he could just barely hear Liam – thrashing about in the bush. It sounded like he was bashing the underbrush. At once he knew. “Oh for Chrissakes!” he said. “He didn’t fall for that did he?” He looked at the two. Rat was now slapping his knees, so obviously pleased at their success. Of their gag. Disgusted, he went to the back of the truck and unloaded his gear, dismayed that Liam had fell for it. The old ‘snipe-gag’ where you convinced someone gullible enough, to go into the bush and ﬂush out snipes – a supposed rare gamebird – so that others waiting on the road would be able to catch the birds when chased out. “They’re real plentiful this time of year,” or some other encouraging comment was the convincing hook.
Ted grew angrier at the cruelty of the pair. He hated their guts to begin with because they were slackers – never managing to get their daily quota of sample plots. He walked over to the edge of the road, cupped his hands and hollered: “Liam – let’s go!” He waited for him to emerge but he didn’t. He hollered again: “Liam – you hear me?” There was no reply. Instantly he realized the danger – it was close to complete darkness. He raced to the truck, clawed the air-photo out of his vest and scanned it in the fading light. “You bastards!” he shouted. “There’s nothing in there but alder swamp!”
“Good snipe habitat,” Rat said, giggling.
“Jesus!” Ted swore. “He’s got turned around!” He ran to the edge of the road. “Liam!” he shouted. “Liam!” There was no response. He lunged into the alders; a branch swatted an eyeball. “Christ!” he winced. “Liam! Liam!” Ted stood abruptly still, rubbed his throbbing eye, controlled his breathing, turned and made his way back to the road. The others were hanging sheepishly by the truck door. He roughly shoved them aside, jumped in and pressed on the horn. He started the ignition, reversed – the headlights shining into the bush. He got out. “McPhee,” he snarled, “you blow that fucking horn.” He leapt to the high side of the road’s ditch and between blasts from the horn called Liam’s name until his voice was too hoarse to continue. Rat joined him and hollered.
“You bastards,” Ted croaked. “It was just a joke,” Rat said.
They continued signaling for a quarter of an hour but there was no sound or sight of Liam.
Ted paced in front of the headlights and calmly spoke, his voice pained.
“All right – both of you – drive back to camp fast – McPhee you drive – bring a party with lots of good lights. Ian will know how to manage it. Go to Ian. Can you do that? Can you do that for me?”
“Yes,” McPhee said, getting in the truck.
“It was only a joke,” Rat repeated, joining McPhee. “Please hurry.”
When they sped off, Ted took the ﬂashlight he had retrieved from the truck and in its light gathered tree debris and soon had a small ﬁre burning. He tried to stay focused, positive. Ian would spare no resources – that was good. It was fairly warm, the heat of the day having not much dissipated – that was good. Also good, Ted tallied, in the six weeks he had worked with him, Liam had grown increasingly bush-wise (despite having been sniped). He felt reasonably sure that Liam would stay put in one spot and wait for help. And, yes, get a ﬁre going – he was good at that. The ﬁre could be smelled – seen. He lit a cigarette. Rolled the lighter in his palm. Looked down at the lighter. At the yellow lighter. Liam’s lighter.
. . . .
They searched all night but it was morning before they found him. He lay was completely enshrouded in the four inches of wet snow that began to fall around midnight. He had made it through the alder swamp and gone another full kilometer straight into the forest.
At the funeral Liam’s father accepted Liam’s compass from one of the Company bosses. He spoke of his son’s recent happiness in a job he had come to enjoy very much, and of the comradeship he spoke of having had with the crews. Beckoning Ted to join him, they stood beside Liam, and Ted recited the poem he had selected: Robert Frost’s Nothing Gold Can Stay. At the graveside Liam’s father gave Ted the compass. “He’d want you to have it,” he said, “I’m sure of that.”
What happened to Liam? He got lost looking for gold. That was the cause, as put to Ian by Rat and McPhee from the very beginning. The cause was readily accepted by everyone – crews and bosses – because Liam’s gold-seeking penchant was well known. Ted did not dispute it – they’d only deny it. His anguished thoughts were elsewhere – a private grieving for having departed Liam in anger, for not having given him back his lighter. He saw was far more noble than one for snipes – he could at least give Liam that. Work carried on as usual and in a very short time, Liam, and all he had been, was on the way to anecdote.
The alarm on Ted’s watch woke him at midnight. Outside his tent, wearing the warm clothes he needed for the ﬁnal push, he donned the small pack containing his full water bottle, the packet of powdered, energizing sugar, his small camera and Liam’s compass. Turning on his headlamp and griping his hiking-poles he set o for the summit.Five hours later, breathless, dehydrated, light-headed but steadfast, he trudged on till he heard the snapping of the wind-whipped summit pennants announcing his success. He sat down to rest, the dark world and all his cares far below. When it arrived he stood and bowed slightly to the rising sun, turned and descended, his ﬁnal cruise-line completed.
About the Author – Edward Cloney
Edward Cloney is a retired Forester residing in his hometown of Nova Scotia. His time is now spent backpack travelling and writing. He has a published novel (Oberon Press, Ottawa) and short stories published in Canadian university journals. GOLD is fiction, however, he did once prevent his compass-man from being ‘sniped’.
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