by Esther Darlington MacDonald
The Old Cariboo Road that still straddles the alluvial fans from Cache Creek to 20 Mile hill is rife with ghosts from the past. Why, you can’t turn a corner of that road so full of corners that you dared not drive through any of them without your eyes wide open and your senses alert. Anything and anyone could be around that corner from a robber to a sleigh drawn over the snow, for they didn’t plow the snow off the roads in those days like they do today.
It may be hard to imagine the goings that went on and on at the road houses along that historic route. Hat Creek House and Ashcroft Manor were bustling bosoms of commerce l a century ago. You may look at the two story frame wood structures today with their long verandas and their simple rectangular lines and see them as simply, benign monuments of the past. But rest assured, that was never the case when your great grandparents were alive.
As Chief Historian and Interpretor at Hat Creek Ranch years ago, I had an experience which I could never forget. I would tell you about it to your face over a mug of coffee, but it is better this way, on the printed page. Circumstances, like the time I saw a living legend in the flesh who had been dead a good half century before, and not only saw her, but spoke to her are not incidents that just happen in this changeful life. They materialize forever after.
The day began with warmth and a clear blue sky. But by noon, clouds gathered in the east and in the north, moving to the west and to the south. In a word, we were engulfed. The world that had been all light and color became a veritable black hole. The wind eddied dust devils across the road. Day had become night. Time had stopped.
We stood at the windows looking out on the storm. Debris flew crazily in every direction. Leaves, sticks, hay, weed pods. There was no question of leaving in a storm like this. The skinnier of us would have been blown away. Car doors would not have closed without a struggle, if at all. So we all stood at the windows, wondering how long it would last. Hoping it would be over soon. Suddenly, a stage coach loomed in front of us.
“It’s Merv, he’s been out on a ride with tourists and got caught in this,” reasoned one of the staff. We didn’t know that Merv had driven the stage into the livery stable an hour before the storm hit.
The stage driver jumped down off the seat of the stage, and two men, utter strangers, appeared from nowhere.
“Those hostlers, who are they? We don’t have hostlers here,” someone asked.
The stage door opened, and a lady stepped down, helped by the driver. The hostlers released the horses and lead them away to the barn.
We opened the door. What else could we do? The wind whipped the lady’s broad brimmed hat with a scarf around the crown. She held it with one hand, as the driver helped her in. Inside, the lady smiled. The driver removed his hat. We stood for several seconds looking at them, but they moved away from us, into the dining room, quite familiar with the House and its layout. Not a word was spoken. The only sound was the wind whistling through the telephone lines, the house timbers groaning, the windows rattling. We were in darkness, not quite pitch, but dark just the same.
“Would you like some coffee?” I asked them both as they sat down at one of the dining tables. The lady doffed her hat, placing it beside her on the table. She shook her magnificant head of dark hair, and turned to us and smiled again.
‘My God,’ I thought, ‘it is Fanny Faucault. The driver, her husband Al.’
“I’d prefer a nip from the bar,” Al replied, rising up from the chair and walking toward the bar room, cowboy boots resounding on the floor boards. One of us hurried behind him to accomodate him, though we knew there wasn’t a drop of alcohol there. Still, we had to keep an eye on him.
“Where is the piano?” Fanny asked, looking around her, apparently mystified.
“The piano?” I asked. “We don’t have a piano.”
“You don’t?” she asked. “That’s strange, I’ve always played the piano when we stopped on our way to Lillooet.”
Meanwhile, Al had disappeared into the bar room. The guide that followed him, suddenly appeared again. He was baffled.
“He’s gone,” he said.
“Maybe he went out to relieve himself,” one of the guides suggested.
“No. He’s gone. Evaporated. Pfft! He’s gone, I tell you!”
We all turned to the dining table. Fanny had left too.
The wind continued to howl. We stood frozen in our tracks, then the front door flew open. Merv stumbled in. “My God! That’s one hell of a wind out there,” he said, shaking the dust off his hat.
“Did you see the hostlers?” I asked. Merv just looked at me, frowning. “The hostlers who took the horses away?” I repeated.
Merv just shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, “but I am dying for a mug of coffee.”
Note: Fanny Faucault was a Cariboo musician performed throughout the Cariboo for over 50 years. She lived at Walhachin with her husband, Al Faucault, a stage driver and teamster who was a legend in his time. They are both buried in the Ashcroft cemetery.