Bill Meilen
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CHANGO JADE

 

“Good. Then you will go far in this life. It is not merely a matter of being a ‘yes’ man, but proper filial piety. Respect, yes?”

“Yes, Father.”

“So you are prepared to forget for a while that you want to be a stupid Yankee-doodle gambler and gangster, and subjugate all base Gwailo desires when we go home to your birth-place? Chinese gangsters would really frighten your screen idols. It is best to walk quietly in China, I warn you.”

“Yes, Father. I promise.”

“It is most important that we leave with this shipment. It goes as ballast in a Japanese merchantman.”

“Yes, Father.” His son sagged a little.

“You look tired, my boy. Good going! How long now since you slept?”

“Seventy-six hours, Father.”

“Excellent. Quite long enough. That proves you can do it if necessary. You have tested yourself. Now go to your tent and get some rest.”

“Yes, Father.” The young man bowed and walked away, his hand-made shoes grey with dust, his smart suit besmirched with rock-grazes, the white collar of his shirt glazed with quarry dirt. His father was a hard task-master, unrelenting, and he could not wait to splash in the ice-cold river water to be clean again.

From the secret jade quarry to the nearest landing place accessible to sea flotation in barges was a distance of thirteen miles as the crow flies. It was considerably more by the animal footpaths available to the porters, traversable by foot and initially by the three sad old twin-hump Bactrian camels bought down in the dry Cariboo country as beasts of burden to help out their four stubborn mules. These lost souls of camels cut up their great padded feet so badly on scree-strewn rocky paths that one by one they had ended up providing a lot of curried meat and ‘working jerky’ for the quarriers. Their bones were cleaned and bleached and they were restructured down by the saltchuk inlet and boxed for sale to museums.

The flotation place was a flat area above the saltchuk tide formed of flattened and packed scree at the deep eastern end of an inlet arm of the salt sea. A jetty jutted from it that had all the marks of being a military structure. Although the quarry was a legitimate claim registered with all requisite authorities, no actual road led to the quarry, nor was the industry of the miners, quarriers, blasters, labourers observable from any point other than the air, and aeroplanes were rare visitors indeed. The workers, all of them male, lived in the immediate area of the quarry, supported by their field kitchen and sleeping in shifts in rows of cramped tents. Some older men were detailed to look after the worker’s laundry and clean camp quarters regularly. There was not a single female on the site, nor any sign of the softness women might have brought to the workers’ hard lives. It was a harsh life in a mercilessly tough wilderness. Canada did not come free, on a silver plate. You had to earn your piece of it.

Several groups lived in native tipis, ideal in summer, while others crowded into the log huts that had even less room in the cold weather that snapped open the year 1937, the year of three Kings. In the British Empire the year

 

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