Third Prize winner of the 12th Annual Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest
Lady came to Barkerville sometime in late 1862. I stumbled into the area mid-2011. Once it was the largest city north of San Francisco, gold riches in the mountains for any man lucky or foolish enough to go looking. When I came it was a living museum, a monument to a time no one remembers.
Lady was brought off a ship and bought, along with twenty-three of her pack, to walk the Old Cariboo Road. Camels are hardy beasts, able to haul five or six hundred pounds. Almost double what a mule could muster. I was brought in to work the forge. My first day, I worked the sledgehammer until there were blisters on top of my blisters. My hands bled for a week. All that summer, mouth-breathers would ask if I knew how to make a sword. All I knew was how to turn a horseshoe nail into a ring.
The day my boss told me of “The Lady” was the same day he told me about his time in the military. He was a sniper, named his rifle Courtney. Said it was a good name for a high-maintenance bitch. His platoon called it the Devil’s hose.
He said horses are naturally scared of camels. Said once a horse spooks, it always remembers, that’s why you sometimes see horses coming in backwards in the stables. They remember seeing the gate that caught them.
An actor playing the town lawyer stumbled by. A drunk. My boss sighed and watched the boy.
“That man walked here from California. Now he’s a clown. I pray to God I’m not remembered.”
Camels are resilient animals but that only goes so far. On the hard mountain terrain, their soft feet got chewed up. Canvas bags were made to cover them but those quickly tore. I tried to wrap my blistered hands in bandages but they just came off at the next hammer stroke.
The few camels that survived the first season camped at Quesnel Forks and were soon auctioned off as novelty pets. Judge Begbie, the Hanging Judge, had one spook his horse so bad he was thrown from his saddle. He was said to have hated camels for the rest of his days. Another was shot dead, mistaken for a bear. That night the local hotel served “bear” meat. They called the shooter “Grizzly” after that.
Me, I didn’t last the summer. My desire for rest outweighed my desire for money. I couldn’t make a fist for two months.
Some say Lady died on a ranch in Grande Prairie, the last of the Cariboo Camels. But some say she escaped one night. Maybe the call of the desert still sang in her ears. But the story goes, one night in 1905, a camel’s body was found in Manitoba, a tatter of canvas around her hooves.