I found him slumped in a chair on the store verandah, fingers shaking on the dregs of a smoke. I nodded like you would for a stranger. He raised his hand like he’d only been gone for a day.
It had felt like spring when I hitched up the trap and harnessed old Betsy for Reefton. I was going to the store for some items for mum, one of them my stepdad, Vince. It was over two months since he walked off the mine. We heard he’d taken root in Hokitika, where the pubs are full of strangers who’ll buy a drunk a beer out of pity if he’s got a yarn to spare. But a yarn’s not as funny on its fifteenth outing, so like a dog slinking back to the place where it shits, Vince took a coach to Reefton and sent word that we should come and pick him up.
I tied Betsy to a trough and walked past him to pick up mum’s order. When I came out with a crate, Vince had climbed into the trap and was sitting in the driving seat, reins dangling from his hand as if he’d ambled into town himself to get the shopping.
Something made me stop still in the doorway. He was whistling a tune that was just like a bellbird. Sweet and clear, it floated up like a charm. When you hear a whistle like that, it makes you want to think the best of a person. Then I noticed he was patting down his pockets, rummaging around in his coat. He pulled out a bottle and unscrewed the lid and that was the end of the whistling. He tipped back his head and I heard a slosh, a smack of his lips as the whiskey ran down his chin.
I slipped Mum’s change in my pocket and put the groceries in the back of the cart. Betsy flicked her tail, waiting for some orders. I stood for a moment, then backed silently away to the corner. Vince didn’t turn around. He hadn’t even noticed me go.
I ended up in Hokitika, because I hitched a lift in a rattling Ford and that’s where it spat me out. I walked past the stores and rowdy hotels and sat for a while on the beach watching gulls come into land. The sand was grey and shingly, the view was grey and flat. I felt bad about keeping Mum’s money. I ate a lump of the bread I’d bought and listened to the tide dragging stones back out to sea.
Next morning I went inland to Kaniere. I’d heard about the mines, not the one-man claims like Vince’s but the sites that ran their water off the Lake Kaniere powerhouse, the big operations with dozens of men and sometimes a room in a hut. I wasn’t yet fourteen, but I was tall and strong and I’d already worked a sluiceway. So long as I added two years to my age, I reckoned they’d take me on.
A sign at Kokatahi sent me deep into the bush. It was one of those colourful mornings that comes after rain. The kind that turns everything rich and green, makes every living thing seem twice what it was. Above my head, the spreading ferns made way for lines of light, so straight and bright I’d almost want to swerve them. The path opened out to the sound of a river then widened to shingly flats. It was strewn with remains from the last great rush, a half-buried dredge, thick wires strung back and forth across the banks. The place I wanted was a half-mile down, a cutaway cliff-face strung with pipes that snaked through rock and sandstone. Men swung shovels at the wash, pushing barrows out of tunnels, bent double to the water as they fossicked through the shingle with their hands.
Ten minutes later, I was standing in a lean-to, conjuring a story for the boss. He had his feet on the desk when I walked in the door, his face buried deep in a paper. I cleared my throat and said I’d just arrived from Auckland.
“Been working a mine up north,” I said. “The pay dirt’s better down here.”
His eyes flickered up. “Parents know you’re here?”
“Sure,” I said. “They sent me.”
It wasn’t the worst lie in the world. He looked like he half-believed me.
“What do you know about sluicing?”
I pulled a scholarly face and made my job sound real elaborate – how I managed all the waterways, how it was me who dug the ponds that fed the race. The way I was carrying on, you’d have thought the whole operation would have come to a creaking stop without my specialist expertise. I even said I did the blasting.
“I need the money,” I said. “And a bed.”
The boss went to the window and peered out the slats. He stood there for a while, scratching his forehead with his thumb.
“Alright,” he said. “I reckon I’ve got something. You’ll find overalls in the shed, Dougie Maybee up the hill. Ask Dougie what to do.”
Dougie Maybee looked like he’d spent a life time staring off into the distance, a fella who’d had no luck in the rush but had stuck around anyway hoping that might change. He got me cutting wood to line the tailrace, where gold would sink in matting in between the submerged blocks. With all those boulders washing down, the blocks would rot and split, and that’s why Dougie told me to replace them. No one wants that sort of job. A real digger wants to be in on the wash-up, not covering himself in sawdust hauling timber up a hill. But Dougie was old enough to know what tasks were suited to a person. He sent me deep into the bush to measure Rimu trees for chopping, the right sort of job for a boy who needs to keep his head down. I marked up the trees and cut back the ferns and I swear I heard those pungas hiss and groan, as if their fat brown trunks had things to tell me.
At knock-off, Dougie said I’d be sharing his hut and showed me down to the door. He pointed out the porridge and where to make a cup of tea and when we’d washed the pots, he poured himself a glass of Scotch and a second one for me. I didn’t drink it. I didn’t want to smell as bad as Vince.
It took two weeks to fill in every rotten tail-race block. Then Dougie sent me down to see the boss. “You tell him you want shovelling work,” he said. “Something simple.” The boss sent me up to Barney Hicks.
Barney was a blaster, the only bloke to come back from a war with a taste for more explosives. His face looked a lot like the cliffs he was blasting, all scored in lines with two bright eyes peering out like quartz from the cracks. He took me to the smithy and pointed to an open box of sawdust on the floor, with small brass caps all packed in rows and spaces in between so nothing touched. Percussion caps. The detonators. I knew that much from Vince. They looked a bit like empty rifle shells, but there was nothing harmless about a loosely-packed box of percussion caps. Every mine this side of Christchurch had a story about a fella who’d handled a cap the wrong way. Seemed the fella was never around to do the telling.
“Know what to do?” said Barney.
I picked up the box. “You want me to take them somewhere?”
Barney laughed out loud.
“No lad. I want you to fuse ‘em.” He nodded to a work bench. “You can do it over there. Careful now. Don’t start knocking ‘em about.”
I placed the box gently on the bench, taking in the contents of the shelves. A row of fuses, pots of clay, and in the corner, wooden crates marked Gelignite. I’d seen Vince crimping fuses onto caps, but I couldn’t see the crimping pliers to do it with. Vince always had his pliers to hand. They stopped you squeezing so tight you’d set the cap off. He wouldn’t have dared to crimp a cap without them.
“Where are the pliers?” I said.
Barney shook his head. “We do it the proper way here, son. You need to get that fuse locked in tight. Boss hates wastage.”
“Right,” I said. I scratched my head. I was starting to think it hadn’t been a great idea, making out to the boss that I had my shot-firer’s ticket.
Barney looked me up and down.
“Boss said he’d found me a replacement. That’s you, ain’t it?”
“Damn right,” I said. I shuffled about for a minute. “I’ll watch you first. Make sure we do it the same.”
Turned out I wouldn’t need a pair of pliers. Barney crimped it on with his teeth, crushing the cap between his molars like he was dining on a chewy piece of meat. A line of sweat ran down my back. You’d always be running a risk, handling explosives – you’d lose a finger if the cap burst into life. Barney’s way, though, you’d blow off half your face if you bit too hard. I looked at the box on the bench, then back at Barney. I added it up in my head. He must have been pushing sixty. If he’d lasted that long, I stood a decent chance of getting away with it once. I took a cap, stuck in a fuse and placed it between my teeth. My throat was dry. I prayed I wouldn’t cough. I bit down until I felt the fuse inside. I went a little tighter. Then tighter still.
I didn’t breathe out till I’d seen it through. The tightly-fused cap gleaming gold in my fingers, Barney’s eyes shining brightly behind. I followed him to the rocks where they’d been drilling holes for blasting and I watched him pack them tight and seal them up. He lit those fuses like you’d light a smoke for a friend, cupping the flames until they caught. They didn’t blow till he was crouching down beside me. It was almost like he’d told them to wait.
Later, in the hut, I told Dougie what I’d done. For a long time, he didn’t say anything. Then he leaned across the table and poured me out a large glass of scotch. He hadn’t bothered doing that since I’d turned down the first one. My hand shook on the glass as I drank.
I got used to lighting fuses, but I never got used to crimping on the caps. I’d been at it a month when I heard the commotion. I was standing at my bench and it was drifting in the open smithy door. Some diggers were gathered by the entrance to a shaft and someone had a fella by the neck. The strangled bloke was Harris, a tunneller from Reefton. I’d always steered clear of Harris. A drinker from Reefton was too close to home for my liking. He was pinned against the wall by an outstretched arm and was bawling and pleading with the man who was holding his throat. The sun came at me sideways. I shielded my eyes and squinted down the hill. That fella doing the strangling was Vince.
I shrank inside the smithy, peering out. Vince’s face was red, his chin thrust forward. It looked like he’d gained some weight. If I were Harris, I’d be glad of that arm length between them, no matter how much it choked.
Barney came out for a look, straightening his back. “Aye aye,” he said. “Someone’s caught up with his man.”
The crowd all winced together, as Vince punched Harris hard in the guts.
“What’d he do?” I said.
Barney shrugged, wiping his hands on a towel. “Debts, most likely. Drinkers always fall out over money.”
Then I noticed Harris was pointing up the hill towards the smithy. Vince loosened his grip. Harris dropped to the ground, clutching his neck and making all sorts of high-pitched noises. Vince shut him up with a kick in the pants and the gawping diggers dispersed like trickling water.
Vince started up the hill in a half-run. I went back to my bench, my heart jumping out of my chest. Moments later, the room seemed to darken. I took the cap from my teeth and turned around. Vince was standing in the doorway, blocking out the light.
“You’re alive then,” he said.
“Looks like it.”
I glanced across at Barney, squeezing gelignite into plugs, looking like he wanted to get as close to them as possible. I rested an arm on the box of percussion caps. Vince was hardly going to grab me by the throat when I was one shake away from blasting the whole damn smithy to Hokitika.
He jerked a thumb out the door. “This little bastard. Harris. He thinks it’s alright to disappear with someone’s money.”
I swallowed hard. I’d never intended to steal that money of mum’s. I hadn’t been planning to go. Vince looked all around the smithy, inspecting the boxes in the corner, studying the contents of the shelves.
“So this is where you’ve been.”
I said nothing at first. I kept my hand on the caps. I looked over at Barney, then back to Vince.
“I’m doing alright,” I said.
“We’re doing alright too,” said Vince. “Thanks for asking.”
He stared at the detonator I held in my hand like he wanted it to blow my head off.
“Your mother wants you back,” he said. He took a pouch from his pocket and started rolling up a smoke. “You oughta come home. Work our own mine, not somebody else’s.”
“I’m fine right here.”
There was a long breath of silence. I wondered how long he might stand there. After a while, he tucked the smoke behind his ear and gave a dismissive sort of shrug. “Suit yourself.” He took a last look at my bench and turned out the door, pulling it hard behind him. I wiped sweat off my lip and said the old bastard scared me less than those lumps of gelignite Barney was holding too close to the caps.
Down on the track, Vince’s truck was idling. I watched him from the window, walking around the back to rummage on the deck under the canopy. He took out something long and sort of shiny, a metal tool or a bar, and he tucked in the pocket of his coat. Then he went around the front and walked straight past the cab, starting back the hill at a lick, light glinting off that thing poking out of his pocket.
I looked out at the cliff. Harris had scarpered down a tunnel. I hoped it was a deep one because I didn’t want to see what Vince would do. I went back to my bench and tried to get my mind on the job. Next thing I noticed was a fast-moving shadow at the window. It was Vince striding past, then he burst through the door. Barney backed into a corner. I was trapped between the door and my work-bench, Vince closing in, reaching for that object in his coat.
Then he was right up close, pressing something into my hand. Long-handled pliers – crimping pliers, for fusing percussion caps. I held them up, turned them around. They were heavy, well-oiled, the pliers I’d seen Vince use himself. I opened my mouth to speak but nothing came out. Vince said nothing either, just turned and walked out the door.
I stood for a minute, then I looked across at Barney. He was back at his bench, kneading gelignite like bread. Outside, I heard noises. Vince’s truck reversing down the track. Metal clanging on rock. That bell-bird, still ringing in my ears.
Stefanie Seddon’s short stories have won the Bristol Short Story Prize and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Europe & Canada (both 2016), have been shortlisted for the Royal Academy & Pin Drop Studio Short Story Award 2018, and have appeared inthe Bristol Prize Anthology, the Mechanics Institute Review and on Granta.com. Stefanie is currently working on a novel inspired by the high country landscapes of her native New Zealand.