The Cameron Ridge Conspiracy - Chapter Samples
The Cameron Ridge Conspiracy
by Steven Hunter
Two young loons fought over a trout today, wings beating and beaks spearing, the last fish of the year. Soon they’ll have nowhere to go but up, and away.
The open water narrows as ice from the south shore reaches to meet the ice clinging to the north side. It’s late fall, and if the inching ice succeeds in meeting today it will be the earliest freeze up in our time here. I think it will, when the sun sets.
Soon the breeze will no longer ripple, and gusts will no longer chase the waves. Ice will slowly leave the water below as it thickens and becomes polished to a sheen by wind-whipped tails of snow. Then, for half a year or so, all will be still under its frozen blanket.
Just as the water was alive under the blue sky—constantly in motion, changing colour with the weather’s moods, ducks bobbing, fish leaping and eagles snatching—the ice becomes winter’s stage. There are no tracks yet but they will come. Light-footed coyotes hurry to the hunt on slick shortcuts, no longer seeking thin trails through tangled thickets and snow covered windfalls. The swinging strides of moose dot the lake in single file, etching a line from willow shores to poplar slopes. Ravens croak and hop, drawn by small details striking their sharp black eyes and curious minds.
Under the ice the current is cold and subtle. A stream feeds this lake and another drains it. Water that runs in eventually runs out. On cold moonless nights the ice moans and mourns to the frosty stars, rumbling and snapping like thunder, echoing against the forest.
In my mind’s eye I see my brother and sister under the ice, drifting in the slow dark current, their long black hair flowing; touching, bumping, tumbling over each other in an endless caress, a dance of the deep. They are at peace. They have become the lake.
My name is Rose. I’ll tell you a story, a story of our family and of our people and of things that changed our world forever.
The Promise of Change
“The governor knew something of our ways and I became hopeful that he might understand our concerns,” Chief Dubeau said to us.
Chief Simon spoke of how the trouble that the miners brought nearly started a war, one that was to be joined by three other Indian Nations. The number killed on both sides in the canyon was growing quickly. He told of the great council of chiefs held at his village and their resolve to find peace with the white intruders. Soon after the council of chiefs decided for peace a man named Snyder arrived in their village. They made treaties with him about passage through their territory and about sharing the river.
At that point the governor’s face darkened and he spoke loudly, “That man, that American, had no authority to negotiate any form of treaty in a British colony.”
Chief Simon remained calm and told him that it was their territory and that their nation could make treaties with whomever they chose. He asked, “Where was the queen when the trouble started?”
He then asked how things were going to be different now that the queen had arrived. How would British law protect his people? How would they make sure the land was respected and that traditional ways of survival could continue? These were the questions that Chief Simon asked the governor.
The time to speak passed to Chief Dubeau. He told us that he thanked the governor for delaying his return to Fort Langley so that he could hear from them. He thanked Chief Simon for his words and said that our fears of things to come were the same. He said that while we had not experienced conflict and violence to the same extent as the Nlaka’pamux people, there had already been deaths at the hands of the newcomers. He told Governor Douglas that every day more and more people pass through Shuswap territory.
Chief Dubeau told him that in the past we have welcomed and looked after guests. We will continue to do so as long as our people and our land is not harmed by them. So far there has been enough game for everyone, including the foreigners, but this will not last if people bring in cows that destroy the grasslands, cut down trees for wooden houses, destroy streams that keep the salmon. People are settling on our land without permission. Many of the newcomers have set traplines in our traditional places. We won’t let them take our furs.
“How will your British laws make peace between these newcomers and our people? How will they respect our rights to our traditional lands? How can they, if these laws have a purpose to give away our land? It’s not the queen’s to give.”
The governor looked around the room in silence, studying the faces of our men, and said, “Many more men and women will come to your territories. They all come from somewhere far away and that is why they see things differently. Some leave behind a life of pain and suffering and they flee to this new land in search of a better way.”
In my mind I could see the black men at the camp near Fort Yale.
The governor continued, “Some bring lawless and violent ways with them and are driven and desperate in their search for gold because it is their only hope of a better life. It is not the Crown’s desire to strike down your laws or customs but the queen’s laws are needed to maintain peace and order in the midst of sudden and great change. British law will provide for a method of justice that will serve to settle conflicts and disputes and stop the reckless violence. You may find that these laws are not so different than yours and that they will be useful to you. They will be enforced by constables under Judge Begbie and will serve one and all equally, regardless of their race and land of origin.”
“I wondered what he meant by ‘race’,” said Chief Dubeau. “We have no word with that meaning in our language. I think the governor used that word to point out the differences between men—their colour, their country, their customs.”
The governor continued to say that without these laws there would be no order among the miners, the merchants and the settlers. He said that it was his fear that our territories would be overrun by the newcomers. Without laws that provided them with land and claims to work they would take whatever they wanted and this would destroy our land and our ways. Laws would put limits on how much and where and under what conditions they could have land. That is how the queen’s laws would protect our nation.
“The governor promised to reserve enough land for Indians that would let us continue our traditional ways and still live in peace with the newcomers,” Chief Dubeau explained. “We were encouraged but not convinced by his words. We believe the governor himself is an honorable man and he treated us well. Whether his good intentions come to pass, and what others who follow him will do, remains to be seen.”
On Silvercat Lake great black thunderclouds climb slowly over still blue water. All is calm and then suddenly the current of the lake, with the tumbling spirits of my brother and sister, joins with the wind and rides on fierce gusts, racing together, charging at the oncoming storm.
I don’t know why I chased Red Foley. Maybe I felt it was my job to watch him. Maybe the big man was just a victim of other’s misdeeds and that he played no part in the fate of my brother and sister. Did I forgive him and now feel that I had to warn him of the trap? Was I simply curious to see what justice would look like?
Now, as I look back, I think that a great storm gripped me and lifted me into the wind with the current, with the spirits, and with all that had happened around me. The storm inside me pulled me racing toward its blackness. I didn’t choose to chase Red Foley. I was called.
I ran as if in a dream, not seeing the frost on the brown grass and spider webs, shining silver in the early morning; not hearing my moccasins splashing in the stream and slapping in the muck. I ran along the wagon road clutching China doll close. Was this the way to Cameron Ridge? I saw a huge boot print that could only belong to Red Foley over the top of smaller tracks with pointed toes and deep heel marks.
I ran through the cedar and fir trees climbing higher and higher up the mountain. I ran on the twisting trail that dodged through boulders and crossed over a stream. Light in the forest faded as the sun dove behind a cloud.
When I could run no more I stopped for breath. There were voices of men, men who were not from here, men who had come from far away lands. The sounds of anger and accusation flew to my ears. I crept forward a few feet at a time and kneeled down behind a big fir tree and watched and listened as the men argued.
“Well big man, like I said, we don’t know what yer talkin’ about,” said Brian O’Leary. “We’ve been here in camp for days. We ain’t got yer gold. Settle down now. We’ll help you get it back.”
“That gold was my fare home,” said Red.“It meant a new life for me and my kin, and for Petey’s kin.”
“We don’t know nothin’ about no gold and nothin’ about no Petey,” said Reg O’Leary. “If you’re not gonna shut up with this crazy talk you’d best turn around and head on back the way you came if you know what’s good for you.”
The O’Learys had not gone to the mine yet that morning. Red saw the red dirt on their boots, the colour of the ground beside his cabin. Then he looked at the sacks lying around the shack and his gaze fixed on one.
“That one, that one over there,” Red shouted.
Brian O’Leary picked up the sack and was surprised by its weight. He opened it to see inside and a look of wonder came over him. He showed it to Reg, who seemed stunned at first, and then a grin crept onto his greasy face.
“This here, this here ain’t your gold, it’s ours from our shaft over yonder,” he said.
“You lyin’ thieving bastards,” said Red.
He had a rifle in his hands. The O’Learys’ pistols hung in their gun belts on the side of the cabin. They lunged for them just as Red Foley charged. As the big man stepped on the loose pile of boards and empty gunny sacks the earth gave way and with a roar he plunged down the hole that was a mine shaft. As he fell his rifle clattered to the ground near the O’Learys’ boots. Somehow Red stopped his fall down the shaft and now he stood with his hands pawing at the rim of the hole trying to pull himself out. Brian O’Leary circled Red, pistol in hand.
“Well, Reg,” he said, “looks like we got ourselves a clear case of self-defence now don’t we.”
“Yep,” said Reg. “Feller with a rifle comes at you aimin’ to get his hands on your hard-earned diggings, don’t leave a man much choice does it.”
Terrified, I threw a stone. It landed on the ground beside the hole. As Brian O’Leary turned to see where the stone had come from Red heaved himself up and grabbed O’Leary’s foot with a giant hand, pulling him down into the shaft. There was a brief struggle and a dull snap. Brian O’Leary’s body slid and bounced down the shaft.
I could see the top of Red Foley’s flaming head as he struggled to climb out of the hole. Reg O’Leary circled the rim of the mineshaft to face the big man, said nothing, and shot Red Foley in the head. Red fell back and slid to the bottom of the shaft with a heavy thud.
Reg O’Leary turned to me. I was standing frozen by the fir tree.
“What are you doin’ here girl,” he shouted. “You come over here. You got some explainin’ to do.”
He pointed the pistol at me but I couldn’t move.
“Come over here,” he screamed.
Instead I ran. I ran from the murderer Reg O’Leary. I ran, terrified, the way my brother and sister had run. I ran because there was nothing else I could do. Up and up and up the trail I ran like a deer, my heart thumping and breath gasping. I could hear the pointed boots pounding behind me. Reg O’Leary was shouting words I had never heard before ordering me to stop, but still I ran.
A person can throw a stone from the cliff at Cameron Ridge and never hear it strike the ground. The rock face drops two thousand feet or more to the shore of Quesnel Lake. It was there, at the edge of that cliff that I dropped to the ground, exhausted and with no escape.