Beyond the Western
Heinz Noonan, the “Bearded Holmes” of the Sandersonville Police Department, was pleasantly and uncharacteristically jovial with Mary. He loved Mary. He enjoyed the company of Mary. Particularly when he was in Alaska because in Alaska he was on vacation – except when his mother-in-law was within talking distance. His wife, Lorelei, as luck would have it, was off with their twins on some Alaskan enterprise which was fine with Noonan because it left him alone with Mary. His favorite vacation companion.
And all her kith and kin. Ah, yes, Mary was indeed the perfect vacation companion.
Mary continued to be the perfect vacation partner until Noonan’s mother-in-law broke into his holiday repose with the tool of Satan. She handed him the electronic Lucifer and said, “It’s some Japanese guy from Beaver.”
Noonan grunted, which was his technique for ending conversations with his mother-in-law, and took the IPhone fiend with dissatisfaction but, with satisfaction, because he watched his mother-in-law leave the gazebo where he was ensconced. Only then did he answer the phone.
“Not while I’m on vacation. Here it’s Heinz.”
“OK. Heinz. This is Jacob Asahi. I’m calling from Beaver. Up on the Yukon. I’m sure you’ve never . . .”
Noonan cut him off. “As a matter of historical fact, I do know where Beaver is and its unusual history. You clearly have a Japanese name so that fits with Beaver’s history.”
“I’m surprised, sir, er, Heinz.”
“Don’t be. If you know your Alaskan history you know all about Beaver. Founded by Japanese-Inupiat refugees from Barrow during the Second World War. The Japanese and their Inupiat relatives had a choice: move inland or go to relocation centers for the entire war in the Lower 48. They chose to move inland and founded Beaver.”
“I’m impressed. Not that many Alaskans know about Beaver.”
“It’s all history, son. All history. I’ll also bet you’re a VPSO because I doubt Beaver is large enough to fund a State Trooper.”
“Again, you are right. I am the VPSO and we have a population of a little more than 80. However, that does not keep crime at bay. We’ve got an odd problem here and you have a reputation of solving unusual crimes.”
“Sometimes I can; other times, not so much. What’s your ‘odd problem?’”
“Someone’s stealing water out of our water tank lorry.”
* * *
Noonan, a veteran of decades of odd, weird and impossible crimes, was a bit taken aback. “Water. As in what you drink? I mean, Beaver, Alaska. That’s on the Yukon, right? So, when it comes to water, I’m betting you have more than you fair share. That’s quite a bit considering Los Angeles is running out of water. On top of that, a lorry is the English word for truck. Do I, at least, have that right?”
“Answering your questions backwards, yes, a lorry is the English word for truck. The man who started the water truck business here in Beaver had an English mother. He used a lot of English English, if you know what I mean. Ate odd things too, like kidney pie and blood pudding.”
“Neither of those are on list of favorite foods,” Noonan said blanching. “But you are on the Yukon River.”
“Right on the bank of the river, yes. But that’s river water. The water being taken, stolen, removed, whatever, was in a water tank truck, a lorry.”
Noonan was having a hard time understanding what he was being told. “Let me see if I have this right. You live in a village on the bank of the Yukon River, one of the largest in the world, and someone is stealing water out of a tank truck?”
“I’m assuming the tank truck has filtered water, not water taken directly from the river.”
“Yes and no.”
“I hate answers like that.”
“We have two tank trucks. One is for drinking water when it is needed out of town. We are a small village but we do have a small filtration plant. The drinking water lorry, er, truck is small, 750 gallons. The larger truck, 5,000 gallons, is for road work, construction projects and the like. It isn’t used that often which is why we didn’t know about the water thefts until recently. The smaller truck is used frequently.”
“So the water being stolen is unfiltered.”
“As far as we know.”
“What do you mean by ‘as far as we know?’”
There was a pause on the other end of the electronic line. “Well, we only know water has been stolen because of the mileage. We had to do an audit and found the mileage for the two trucks was way off. Off by several hundred miles. We have to record the miles for the record book but since we have several drivers, no one noticed the discrepancy. Drivers just logged in the start and finish mileage and that was that. They don’t check to make sure the starting mileage is the same as the finishing mileage from the last driver. Or trip. But when we looked over the books, we found the trucks had been making extra trips. All were about 35 miles. That’s 17 and half out and back. There’s nothing special 17 and half miles out of Beaver so we don’t know what’s going on.”
“What is 17 and a half miles out of Beaver?”
“Not much. Some beaver dams, what’s left of a spill pile ridge from a dredge from 50 or 60 years ago, an airstrip from the Second World War, some decrepit World War II barracks stripped of all boards, an old gold mine that went belly-up in the 1930s and some trap line cabins.”
“Nothing of value?”
“Believe me, if there was anything of value out there someone in Beaver would have been on it like white on rice.”
“That’s an odd idiom to use for someone in Beaver.”
“Maybe, but everyone here is always looking for a way to make a buck. We’re in the bush and money is hard to come by.”
Noonan smiled as he shook his head. “Let me think. Here are some questions. I’m guessing whatever is happening is taking place 17 and half miles out of Beaver. So, in that location, how many beaver ponds are there, how big are they, how long and wide is the landing strip, when was the spoil pile ridge dropped, who actually owns the land under the abandoned barracks, who actually owns the old gold mine, is any of the land in the area part of a national forest or preserve, have there been any hints of a large company looking to come into Beaver and, I guess lastly, is anyone in town in deep debt.”
“I can answer all of those questions. Do you want the answers now?”
“OK. There are at least a dozen beaver ponds in the area, six or seven of them are on tributaries from the main river. The largest beaver pond is about the size of a small lake and it is the oldest. The spoil pile ridge is from a dredge that was abandoned about five miles upriver. Everything usable from the dredge is long gone. All that is left are the buckets and the skeleton of the ship. The last time the dredge was used was in my grandfather’s day. The landing strip is about as wide as a football field and twice as long. It is still usable. That is, it is not overgrown and there are no large trees at either end. None of the land in that area has any special designation and anyone can start a mine or take over an old one. Or the barracks for that matter. All they have to do is file a claim. No big company is looking to come in and everyone in Beaver is deep in debt.”
Noonan thought for a moment and then said. “Let me tell you what I think I know. When someone works a mine, they take out tons of debris to find ounces of gold. And when it comes to a dredge, the buckets pull up hundreds of pounds of soil from the bottom of a river and sieve out nuggets. The difference between the two is the mine can recover gold all way down to dust flakes while the dredge only gets large pieces of gold. The smaller sizes of gold, the flakes, get left behind by the dredge.”
“Basically, yes. The very small bits of gold, the dust, are never really recoverable. They are so small it would cost more to recover them than they are worth. The big chunks of gold, the nuggets, were taken out of the mine and dredge piles years ago. You could pan the dredge spoil pile ridge for the gold that was left but we’re talking about a five-mile-long snaking of earth and rock that’s, say, ten feet high and 30 feet wide.”
“But there is gold in the spoil pile?”
“Absolutely. About as much as was taken out by the dredge. But it’s all small stuff, flakes. It would take a lot of work to dig through the overburden.”
Noonan went silent for so long Asahi had to ask if he was still there.
“I’m still here. I’m not going to fly out to Beaver so I’ll take a wild guess. If I had to bet I’d say whoever is stealing the water is dumping it into the beaver ponds. Why? Again my guess. If the water perpetrator can put enough water into the large pond, the old one you mentioned, it will break. Since there are no beavers in that pond, there will be no repair. The overflow will flood the other ponds one at a time and break them open. With luck – luck if you are the perp – there will be a flood of water over the spoil pile and a lot of the soil will wash away. That will reveal the gold in the spoil pile. It would be just like panning for gold expect the flooding water is doing the swirling. It would be like a long tom, if you know your Alaska Gold Rush history. The water will flood over the spoil pile until the beavers repaired the other dams. But between the time the old dam breaks and the beavers repair the newer ones, the flooding water will do the work of a small sluice. Why not set up one of those remote cameras near the old beaver dam. Maybe you can get a snapshot of the perp.”
“I had not thought of that. Let me see what I can do.”
Before Noonan could add a word, the satanic invention went, blessedly, silent.
A week later Noonan got a package.
From Beaver and it was the first time he had thought of Asahi and the drained lorry since the beast of Beelzebub had gone silent. Inside was a dark snapshot of a water truck – or lorry as Asahi called it – pumping water into a large lake. It had to be a beaver pond because Noonan could see stickwork near where the water was being dumped. A note with the photo read: “You were correct. BUT, it’s not a crime to put water into an old beaver dam and it’s not worth prosecuting someone for stealing water. No crime so no investigation. But we did change the ignition key for the water trucks. No harm no foul. Thanks for the help.”
Noonan chuckled and turned to his wife.
“What was in the packet, dear?” she asked.
“Oh, nothing important. Just a photograph of someone putting water into a beaver pond.” He showed her the photo.
“Why would anyone put water into a beaver pond? I mean, it already has water there.”
“Absolutely,” Noonan replied. “Do you know what the beaver said when he went into the bar?”
“A bar joke, eh? No, I don’t know.”
“Shut the dam door.”