Ridgerunner (an excerpt)

Gil Adamson

The following takes place deep in the novel, when Jack, a young boy, finally escapes the confines of his captivity at the hands of Nurse Beatrice in town, and returns to his rustic family home in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Jack, not unlike the ruffian who went by the name Huckleberry Finn a generation before him, settles in to take stock of what his father has left behind. And, thus settled, he prepares to set up a new life for himself, alone, there in the woods, while waiting for his father to come home from his latest string of robberies.

Jack was indeed sprawled on the bed, alone in the family cabin, far from the town of Banff, finally, deeply asleep and dreaming. As night passed and dawn began to ruminate behind the ranges, an enormous dog stepped out of the trees and walked across the clearing. It was pale and lanky, and there was a lot of wolf in its ancestry. There came a short hiss of wind through the upper branches. It went to the paddock where the Morgan stood, and they regarded one another for a long moment and read each other’s scent.

Then the dog went silently around the building, nose down, drawing its shadow along the walls. When it found the front door again it sniffed the handle, the front step. Then it reared back on hind legs, placed paws on the door, and shoved it open. It dropped to all fours and eyed the dark room. As if the air within had stunned the animal it stood unmoving for many minutes, brooding on the news. Then it padded into the cabin.

The bed was wide, covered in a tumble of stale wool blankets and quilts and pillows. The dog approached the kid sleeping there and panted hotly in Jack’s face until he moaned and pushed the muzzle away. As always it hopped up onto the bed, stepped over Jack’s sleeping body, circled twice, trampling the blankets, flopped down at his back, and lay with eyes open. It sighed the way some dogs do, a protracted groan. Icy air poured in through the open door until the boy rose and closed it. He whistled under the blankets again and covered his head. His hand came out and explored the dog’s familiar head, the stiff ears. He scratched the filthy chin whiskers. The pallet was large, the cabin silent, and the two of them lay warm and together in the dark.

Dawn found them both at work sprucing up the cabin. For its part, the dog nosed around in corners, breakfasting on mice, snapping them up mid-scurry. It sniffed deeply under the kitchen shelves and pawed til something rolled out to its doom. Then the dog trotted outside to make a thorough search of the cabin’s perimeter, where it found vole smell under the mulch, and dug madly.

Meanwhile the boy constructed a tinder nest in the stove with gnarled hemlock twigs and dry grass that spat and crackled when he put the match to it. Holding half-charred logs at the ready — relics from previous fires, last held by his father. It was still so dark inside the cabin that the stove provided the only light, and when he shut the grill, it glowed and smoked merrily, a black jack-o’-lantern.

He opened the cabin door onto a soft blue morning and stood there shivering and grinning. In the old lady’s house he had never risen this early. Refused to, in fact. He’d always closed his eyes against the light, against whatever chores, schooling, and civilizing nonsense the day held. He’d slowly cultivated the ability to ignore even the worst of her halloos, knowing that the long staircase would conspire to buy him time. But here he was now, skinny landlord, standing at his own front door at dawn.

He ferreted among the kitchen shelves to see what food might be left, and almost immediately crowed in triumph, holding up a hinge-stoppered glass jar with a fistful of oatmeal dust left in the bottom. “It’s still dry,” he laughed to the dog, and joggled the powder within. The animal wagged its long tail, chewing all the while on some small unfortunate creature with its back teeth.

He found a crusted brick of salt his mother had kept in an empty ammunition box; sugar in pretty good shape; some chicory, which he generally refused to drink, but without coffee it would have to do; and at the end of a plank shelf, he discovered a blackened blob of . . . something. He bent to sniff it, immediately staggered back, stood aghast for a moment, and then gagged. It might once have been jerky of some sort but it was now spongy with rot and mined by ants, lying in a shadow of its own grease. He took it between finger and thumb and straight-armed it out the door, side-shuffling across the clearing, past the creek, toward a rock precipice, where he flung it into the air and watched it flutter stiffly into the bristling forest below. Wiped his fingertips on stiff moss. For a moment, he and the dog stared at the tips of the trees where it had vanished, as if the thing might come leaping back up like running salmon. But the world down there was tranquil. The boy sprinted back to the cabin, the dog whining and dancing ahead of him, and together they resumed their work.

By noon, the air had warmed and he had a decent pile of windfall branches stacked near the stove, broken under his heel into foot-long pieces and stacked together almost neatly. He’d scrubbed out the water trough in the corral, filled it with buckets of creek water, and bent to watch for drips at the corners, but it was still well sealed. And the little windowless shed, where his family stuffed anything they didn’t want in the cabin, stood with its door closed. The floor inside the cabin was swept and the blankets were now hanging from branches outside to dry in the sun. Waterproof matches in their little case still hung from a nail on the wall. The bed was a simple, raised wood platform, knee-high, burdened by a heavy tick that was still in pretty good shape. That was where all three of them had once slept together. Sometimes the dog, too.

The big blue water crock in the kitchen was full again, sweating from the cold liquid it held. A small pot of boiled water steamed on the stove. Jack Boulton sat on his own threshold and sipped stale, soupy oatmeal from a tin bowl, and when he was done he let the dog lick it clean. Together they watched the Morgan as it wandered its corral, at work on the long grasses. The scene was almost domestic. The corral was a wide, spindly affair, running somewhat downhill at the outer edge, and more than a few bars in the fence had collapsed. It was habit more than wood that kept the horse from wandering beyond its confines. At the lower end of the corral was a three-sided windbreak Moreland had constructed for the Morgan, unnecessary in most weather but in a bad wind the Morgan would be glad to wander to it and shelter there. For a hairy cold-weather animal, this was a good solution.

Inside the cabin, the family books were still lined up on a shelf. It was set low enough even a small child could peruse spines and reach for them. A scrawny offering compared to the library in that eminent house, but to Jack it felt like plenty.

They were in unchanged order, no hand had touched them in his absence. Some volumes had bloated in the spring damp, their pages fanning so that the endmost volumes had tumbled to the floor. Moonfleet was not bad, as was The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. But Toomai of the Elephants was badly rotted and unreadable past the halfway point. Of course Alice’s Adventures Under Ground was pristine. It would be. Mary had loathed the book for its nauseating unreality. The boy disliked it because it was boring and about a girl whose choices seemed to him to be mostly terrible. He had no problem with a talking rabbit, but what idiot would follow one into a hole? But the book had charmed the hell out of Moreland. He found it uproarious. He would read sections to his wife and son as they begged him not to. He would quote the Cheshire Cat often, saying We’re all mad here, and then beam at Mary.

“Very interesting,” she would say. “Especially coming from you.”

Above the bookshelf, looming huge and homely, was his father’s map. It was not made of paper or canvas; instead it had been hand-carved directly into the wood, etched with knives and chisels, daubed with paint and pencil, with notations everywhere, even across the chinking between logs. From a distance it looked like an amorphous mess, but when you stood close and studied its details the thing was admirable, and it made perfect sense. Like every map-maker, Moreland had put himself at the centre of the world. The cabin was a simple red O carved into the wood at an adult’s eye level. The rest described the jagged ranges in which they lived, the lakes and towns, the rivers, the rail lines, and everything beyond. He had even devised a way of conflating distances. Two areas that in the real world were some distance apart might be placed side by side with notations between them, “2D↑” to denote a trek of two days on foot and a rise in altitude. The mark “5H↓↓” meant five hours of steep downhill travel. You always knew direction by assuming the traveller was going away from home, or failing that, you read directions left to right. The two major towns were Banff and Laggan, the latter having only recently been renamed Lake Louise, but even most folks who lived there still used the old name. Moreland would likely never change it on this map. These had been inscribed in some detail, with larger buildings and notable houses shown, and they looked like squashed candy boxes with a ribbon of road trailing across the box. An arm’s length to the right was the great, unimaginable metropolis of Calgary, but since Moreland had a marked aversion to everything a city promised — crowds, noise, police — he had never visited, and its existence was indicated with a simple nailhead and the letter C. At the lower margin of the map was a snake-like chiselled indentation meant to indicate the Crowsnest Pass with its daisy chain of mining towns, and below that was nothing but the cabin’s floor. Everything south of the Pass, including the American border, was out of frame.

Now Jack lay his stolen books on top of those precious older ones, to press them flat. He riffled through the nun’s notebook, the flowing blue-black script blurring and waving at the margins, her drawings and diagrams and charts flashing past too quickly to read. Then he lay it at the apex of his pile of books, and went about scrounging again.

The whetstone was eventually found where it had landed under a collapsed shelf. But there was no longer anything for him to sharpen. The hatchet and the enormous axe, as well as the snowshoes, pots, and frying pan, were gone. From this fact the boy knew someone had been in the cabin and taken whatever was useful. He knew who’d done it, too. Their nearest neighbour, Sampson.

That old man was a little superstitious; he believed in omens and was sometimes worried by his own dreams. It was just him, Sampson’s own unique way of seeing the world. In some ways he was like Jack’s own mother. The two of them always vigilant, attending to the ebb and flow of fortune and misfortune. Mary had once said, “He’s seen bad things and that can wear you down in ways you don’t expect it to. You must behave around him, Jack, and for goodness sake, don’t argue with him. You’re a child. He knows more than you do.” So it was a shock to the boy that Sampson had even crossed the threshold of a house so marked by misfortune. But somehow he had managed it, and out of kindness and care removed valuable or delicate things, objects that might rust or attract animals; otherwise he’d left the place untouched. No, it wasn’t the old man who had wrecked the place. Time and winter had.

At the back was a ladder and Jack clambered up to a small loft by the eaves. Broken axe handles. Jars full of nails. An empty barrel. The dinged tins that used to hold India tea and tobacco. He pounced on a leather pouch full of old tobacco and little white papers, formerly forbidden to him but now fair game, and he pressed the thing to his nose and assessed the stale perfume. Tucked it into his pants pocket, already feeling like a man. There was the large roughsawn trunk with leather handles. His mother’s sewing box with its little black clasp, within which she had carefully arranged fine things: scissors, needle cases, a tuft of steel wool for buffing pins, tambour, embroidery floss, buttons, ribbon. A tailor’s measure. He remembered her amusing him with it, before he could even count, slowly unwinding the tape and counting out the numbers — eight, nine, ten, and what comes next? – covering the number with her thumb. And when he was older, she laid the tape out before him and asked: Ten plus three is . . . ? Seven-eighths of an inch minus one-quarter?

He lifted the box and set it gently on the trunk. He told himself not to open it and look at her handwriting. He could bear looking at the nun’s notebooks. But not his own mother . . . to gaze at the indigo lines and see her thoughts and her energy there. Daylight came through a ruined shingle, a shaft in which the boy stood, his movements having stirred up a liquid wash of motes.

He followed the smell of some soured thing until he found old bolts of cloth, now mouldering together in a mass, stratified and hard as shale, gone to weather and rot. So he impelled it toward the brink of the loft with the toe of his boot and watched it drop to the floor below with a mighty thud. The dog skittered outside and swung round to watch from a safer spot.

There was a yellow-and-blue girl’s church dress wrapped in paper and folded into a cedar box, all that was left of his mother’s tailoring career. He drew it out and held it up by the shoulders, then let it crumple back into the box. The dog wandered back inside and stood at the foot of the ladder, looking up.

Finally, he found what he was looking for: the tin of Dr. Oronsee’s snuff with a smiling chow dog on it, in which his family kept all their money. Jack sat at the edge of the loft and counted out $257.43 between his thighs, the sum total of what his parents had saved on this earth. He looked at the bills and coins for a long time. Remembered the old lady cooing to him, “Don’t you listen to one word they say about your daddy. That man has no interest in money.”

There on the table lay Pearl, a scabbard stuffed with more than fourteen thousand dollars, a burden his father had laid on him; other people’s hard-earned cash. Slowly the boy let the coins fall across his palm into the tin’s dark hole, folded the few bills and poked them inside, and fitted the lid back on. This was his family’s money, earned fair and square. It would be his bank, this and no more.

From the book RIDGERUNNER by Gil Adamson. Copyright © 2021 Gil Adamson. Published in February 2021 by House of Anansi. Available for purchase online at Powells.com.

Gil Adamson is the author of Ridgerunner. Her first novel, The Outlander, won the Dashiell Hammett Prize for Literary Excellence in Crime Writing and was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She lives in Toronto.