|"Too anecdoted" was what the scribble had said,
the scrawny hen scratch hastily made in pencil across the margin of page one of another
rejected story. There was no rejection slip - they didn't even bother to send these any
more - just the twelve pages in the brown envelope addressed to himself in his own hand -
"Shit!" I said when I
picked it up from my P.O. Box.
"Shit! I said again, two hours later as I sat in the
makeshift rural courthouse that was rented each Friday morning from the Royal Canadian
Legion in Peenawak.
My client was an Indian by the name of Billy Three Feathers.
My opponent was a lady attorney out of the City of Winnipeg with a face that threatened to
stop the town clock.
The judge was as poor an excuse for a man as I had seen since
last Friday. He too was from the city.
The six rows of rickety wooden chairs in the Legion Hall that
lay between the lawyers and the cracked entrance door were sparsely occupied by other
accused waiting their turn, wives and relatives of victims, and a few of the town's
pensioners - the good old boys - who came every week for their morning's entertainment.
They sat in checked shirts and suspenders, sporting baseball caps that read Wheat Pool
or Retired -no money or I drove the Coquihalla.
Billy Three Feathers was easily the best-looking man in the
"Anecdoted" - I had double checked it -
"pertaining to personal reflection, of or concerning private….."
"Number eleven, Three Feathers!" The little bald
clerk of the court, who used to work for the C.P.R., piped the words in a
cock-a-doodle-doo voice that had earned him his nickname, "Henny" Johnston. He
glowered at old Bill Giles in the pensioners' seats challenging him to have a proper
respect for the proceedings. The octogenarian banged his walking stick on the bare floor -
"Three months to retirement Henny," he cackled and the others joined in. Henny
pursed his lips and looked pleadingly towards the judge who ignored him.
I blinked and got up to approach the counsel table. "I
appear for Mr. Three Feathers, Your Honour." I motioned to my client.
The big Indian stood up. His eyes had a tired, vacant look as
they panned around the room; from me to the little clerk, the judge and the pensioners'
gallery, then back to me. Billy Three Feathers looked older than his thirty-two years. He
had the no-necked, big shouldered appearance of his nation -Dakota Sioux - and the kind of
flat wide face and big nose that might have been handsome in an earlier time, before the
Europeans came. The dull black hair fell unevenly to his shoulders and he constantly
flicked up his head to clear it from his eyes with a kind of bold arrogance.
I could do two things at once and usually did. Still
pondering on my rejected story, I launched into the ritualistic monologue.
"Your Honour, this matter was remanded from two weeks
ago to allow Mr. Three Feathers to obtain legal counsel and consider his plea. Your
Honour, we are prepared to enter a plea at this time."
The lady Crown Attorney rose. "Your Honour, this is my
understanding also. Your Honour, the Crown is ready to proceed." She got to her feet,
spoke the words and sat down all in one fluid motion without lifting her eyes from the
file on her desk.
"Mr Johnston will read the charges," the judge
continued tonelessly. Now the morning process was under way.
The pensioners relaxed back in their chairs with a bit of
throat clearing and sniffing and pressing the odd pinch of tobacco into a cheek.
"Anecdote…narrative of a detached
incident." I was trying to figure out what was wrong with detached incidents. "
…unpublished details of history…" That was true - unpublished was bloody
true OK - for sure.
"…that you did, at approximately 10.30 p.m. on the
10th. Day of September at or near the town of Peenawak, unlawfully consume
alcohol, to wit two bottles of beer…" Henny screeched on with his weekly
performance ever hoping to impress the pensioners.
Three Feathers stood there, impassive, now and then flicking
up his hair.
"…contrary to the Liquor Control Act
Old Bill tapped his stick on the floor. "Hey, Alex, is
your man guilty eh? What will you get for this one eh? Two hundred bucks eh?"
The pensioners smacked their lips. The judge raised his head
as if he might speak, then looked back at the papers on his table.
My man pleaded guilty.
"Carry on Miss Tope," the judge nodded to the lady
Helen Tope was no beauty, inside or out. She didn't enjoy
life nor any of its pleasures. All she enjoyed was screwing people. I knew it. Everyone in
the court knew it; even Billy Three Feathers - especially Billy Three Feathers. The last
time he had been caught drinking beer in a truck he had been fined the maximum, and then
he went to jail for thirty days for non-payment of the fine. The last time had been the
fourth time. This was the fifth time.
Helen Tope put on her little working sneer as she began to
recount the tale of how Billy came to be "in this court-room today."
I still puzzled over it. How could a story about so
significant a man as my uncle be too anecdoted? My own Uncle Jack, who had woken up in a
prison logging camp just outside Riga on the Baltic Sea one freezing morning in 1919 to
find the place deserted and the German guards gone, and who had walked across Latvia.
walked it, all on his own, eating raw turnips and even rats when he could catch them.
"Too anecdoted my arse! What did they know about life,
about men's lives….what the hell did they know?"
Miss Tope relished each unlawful detail of the accused's
clandestine guzzling of two beers while he sat on the hood of a truck parked behind a
grain elevator, shooting the shit as Indians do.
"….and his attitude when cautioned by the police
officer, Your Honour," she looked up at the judge, pausing for full effect,
She spat out the word as if it had a bad taste. She looked at
Three Feathers and then at me and the sneer returned.
Three Feathers flicked the hair back from his eyes. He knew
what came next. The lady attorney would now recount all the previous offences and look for
the maximum sentence - more if she could get it. The good old boys in the stalls were
breathless with anticipation.
I thought about the time Uncle Jack got up after a lunch
of drinks at the British Legion and sang "Hearts in Exile" in a bass voice that
sounded like the Volga.
Judge Albright really was a useless judge. His appointment to
the bench had been a political thank you for a substantial donation to the party from an
even more substantial legacy from his bachelor great uncle. Albright's donation shot him
from incompetent associate to ineffectual justice in a few short weeks.
A skimpy reddish beard tried unsuccessfully to span his big
florid face. It was the face of a lightweight with darting little eyes that constantly
dodged contact. Albright spent his time trying to avoid decisions in a decision-ridden
occupation, and he managed surprisingly well. This was one of his easy days.
Three Feathers was an Indian and everyone knew what Indians
were. They were guilty. Everyone knew that.
Miss Tope came to the end of her plea for inclemency and
Albright smiled benignly at her. A period of incarceration was demanded by the lady - a
substantial period of incarceration in view of the accused's record - six months at least.
Uncle Jack Armstrong had been in the prisoner of war camp
in Riga for over two years. Two years of freezing in wooden shacks watching friends wither
and die, two years of cold, silent dying, wishing he were somewhere else - anywhere - even
back in the trenches amidst the deafening roar of death - but death quick and sudden when
"What did they know, these publishers?"
"Mr. Aitken…Mr. Aitken!" Albright was
addressing me, going through the motions. He banged his gavel on the bench and old Bill
banged his stick on the floor.
"Yer man's goin' to jail, Alex - straight to jail
without passin' go, and you git the two hundred bucks." Bill cackled to his
supporters who joined in. "Straight to jail….two hundred bucks…"
Billy Three Feathers just plain didn't care. The whole
process had nothing to do with him. His apparent lack of interest in the proceedings was
not an act. Billy had never felt that anything mattered in the white man's world. He
existed there, but it wasn't a life. It was a drab succession of days, without purpose or
direction, with only a few beers now and then to uplift the soul. One day he would get up
and go. Get up and walk away from this. Go somewhere…he didn't know where but not
I stood up. I had resolved to try once more to explain the
crazy inequalities of an ill-conceived law as it applied to men like Billy Three Feathers.
I looked from the heartless Miss Tope to the witless Albright and I knew it was hopeless.
I could feel the anger rising in me.
"Your Honour, the law in this province prohibits the
consumption of alcohol in any public place or any vehicle. In fact, it can only be
consumed in a person's home or in a bar or lounge. Beer purchased from a vendor for
off-sales use can only be lawfully consumed at home. My client, Mr. Three Feathers, lives
on an Indian reservation - a reservation that, as you know, Your Honour, and as my learned
friend Miss Tope knows, is dry. Possession of intoxicants on that reservation is an
"What that means, Your Honour, is that Mr. Three
Feathers, while he can go to a vendor and buy a case of beer like the next man - like
yourself perhaps, Your Honour, has a problem immediately thereafter. He can't drink it for
he has no place to drink it within the law. And if he does proceed to open the case and
take a beer behind the elevator, harming nobody, annoying nobody, my learned friend will
demand that he go to jail for six months. Your Honour, I think the injustice of this is so
apparent that I need say no more, and I trust to your sense of fairness Your Honour and
leave the disposal of the matter in your capable hands."
I sat down. I knew it was a waste of time, that Albright had
no sense of fairness - in fact no sense at all - and that his hands were not capable. I
glanced behind me and wished that Old Bill had been the judge. Bill sensed the thought and
made a brief thumbs-up sign accompanied by a very kind smile. In the silence that
followed, the judge ruffled his papers, staring now and then at Three Feathers.
The hardest bit of the whole trek was the first steps, the
decision to start walking. That was what Uncle Jack had said. Once he had summoned up the
courage to get up and start walking, to get up and go, to leave the rows of shacks and
dying men, it got easier. That was because he was going home. That's what Uncle Jack had
Judge Albright sentenced Billy Three Feathers to six months
in jail, mumbling something about horrendous record and teaching him a lesson. The best
looking man in the room was led away by a square cut little sheriff officer with a
Two weeks later, when I had just got back to work on a
re-write of Uncle Jack's trek and the first steps of it, I heard that Billy Three Feathers
had escaped from custody while out with a working party and had just walked off into the
Brandon hills. He hadn't been seen since.
I thought briefly about my former client and felt a sudden
sadness that came from somewhere just beyond my understanding.