By Abbey Howard
I looked around wildly, spotting Jasper jogging towards me from the hotel.
“What happened?” he lowered himself onto the step beside me.
“I found one of Tom’s friends. Their group was at Henderson Creek five years ago.”
“Shit,” Jasper swore, running a hand through his black hair.
“Bud – that’s Tom’s friend – had gotten stuck here with a hurt ankle, but he said that Tom wasn’t found at Henderson Creek. He never came back here, either.” With that, fresh tears rolled down my face, plopping onto the black cover of my notepad. I shouldn’t have hoped so desperately for Tom to just be waiting at Sulphur Creek to be found.
“You never told me how you know Tom.” Jasper looked down at his clasped hands, digging his heels into the mud.
I smiled sadly. “He’s my older brother. Mama has been sick with grief since he stopped sending letters five years ago, so when my editor offered me a position as a correspondent, I jumped at the chance.”
Jasper shifted beside me. “That was kind of him.”
“I’m supposed to be reporting out of Fairbanks, Alaska. It’s just taking me awhile to get there.”
Jasper laughed. “Very crafty, PJ.”
“I have my moments,” I sniffed, wiped my nose with my sleeve. “Did you get us rooms?”
“The best money could buy at the Sulphur Hotel.”
“I’m gonna turn in now, if you don’t mind. I have a lot of thinking to do.”
“Sure thing. Here, take your key.” He handed me a rusty key with a tag bearing a nearly illegible “five” on its front.
“Thanks,” I replied as Jasper stood up. He held out a hand to help me up as well, which I accepted. I was still wary of the secrets he was keeping from me, but those answers could wait until after I figured out what I wanted to do next about Tom.
“I have room six, if you need me. I’m not turning in yet though.” Jasper turned toward the saloon.
“Please, no bar fights,” I called as we walked in opposite directions.
I got a hearty laugh in return. “I’ll just be drowning my sorrows!”
I trudged across the road to the Sulphur Hotel, whose dilapidated door nearly came off in my hand as I entered the building. A petite woman behind the front desk eyed my cropped traveling skirts and mud-spattered boots with distaste, smoothing down the front of her own immaculate gingham dress.
I offered her a small smile, holding up my room key, and scurried down the hallway past her desk.
Once locked away in my room, I shrugged off my coat and boots and collapsed on the bed, intending to lay down for a minute before getting a plan – and my thoughts – in order.
I awoke hours later, judging by the dusky light coming in through my small window. Stretching, I crossed the small room over to the window. Outside I could see pine trees bathed in twilight, with several pitched tents in the foreground. A group of men were clustered around a fire, over which something was cooking in a pot. Two of the men were laughing, no doubt at something one of their group mates said. Was Tom’s group like that? I imagined Bud and Tom lounging around a fire with a few other men. Tom chewing tobacco, a habit Mama would’ve chastised him for picking up, and Bud reading a book.
I turned away from the door, my eyes pricking with tears. I looked over at my notepad and pencil, which I had abandoned on the small table opposite my bed at some point before I fell asleep. There were no more leads for me to follow, I thought. This was it. Time to finally head up to Fairbanks and pray my editor hasn’t realized that I should’ve been there weeks ago.
A knock on my door snapped me out of my thoughts. I walked over and opened it, finding Jasper standing in front of me with two chipped bowls brimming with stew.
“Dinner?” he asked.
“Yes, thank you,” I replied, opening the door wider to admit him.
Jasper set the bowls down on my table, producing two spoons and a heel of bread wrapped in paper from his jacket pocket.
“Have you decided on our next move?” We dragged my table next to my bed, so I could perch on my bed while he took the single chair.
I took a bite of stew, making sure to savor its flavor before taking another. The food Jasper and I prepared on the trail couldn’t hold a candle to this. “I fell asleep, so no. But I don’t know where to go next. Bud said Tom wasn’t at Henderson Creek, but he also never came back to Sulphur Creek. Did he go to Dawson? Or farther north? Or,” I sighed, “is he dead?”
“People go missing up here all the time,” Jasper replied. “And usually it’s because they go up against Mother Nature and lose.”
I don’t reply to that, looking down at my stew-laden spoon. Tom loved going off trail, Bud had said. What if he went too far off the trail?
“Can you take me to Henderson Creek?”
Now Jasper didn’t reply to me, and we continued eating in silence.
Jasper swallowed his final spoonful. “Henderson Creek isn’t a camp anymore. The murder of your brother’s friends deterred any future prospectors from stopping there on their way up the trail. There’s only ghosts there now.”
“But you can take me there?”
“Yeah, I can.” Jasper stared at me for a long moment. “But why, Philadelphia?”
“For the headline.” I smirked despite myself. “Just imagine it: ‘Woman Walks Yukon Trail In The Steps Of Her Missing Brother, Finds Skeleton And Closure.’”
“The masses will eat it up.” I brushed back a curl. “I can pay you extra for this.”
Jasper shook his head. “No need. Just be sure to mention your dashing trail guide in your article.”
“Dashing and dangerous?” I eyed Jasper, who flinched.
“I’m not dangerous, PJ, I swear.”
I stood and went back to my window. Night had fully fallen, but the darkness was permeated by the fire that the group of men had been cooking over. “I believe you.”
“We’ll leave tomorrow morning, then.” I heard the scrape of the table as Jasper stood and pushed it back to its original position. “Good night, Philadelphia.”
I waited until I heard the snick of my door closing before turning back around. I had cried in front of another person too many times in one day for my liking, and my tears had begun again at the sight of the fire. I let them fall freely as I swept aside the remnants of dinner, making room for my notepad. Not quite knowing what I was going to accomplish, I began to write.
The next morning, I met Jasper outside my room, bleary-eyed but resolved. I had stayed up for most of the night with my thoughts and my pencil, thinking on what exactly I wanted to do at Henderson Creek.
“Morning, PJ.” Jasper held out a cup of coffee to me, which I eagerly accepted. I downed the scalding liquid in a few painful gulps.
“Good morning. Ready?”
“As I can be for a jaunt over to a ghost town.” We made our way out of the hotel, dropping our keys and empty mugs at the front desk, where the petite woman was now knitting.
“Is there another way to get there?” I asked once we were outside. “Off the main trail, I mean.”
“To Henderson Creek? Yeah, but I’m not too familiar with it.” Jasper glanced at me. “Do you not want to take the main trail?”
“Bud said my brother loved going off trail. Something about looking for money making opportunities. Maybe he went off trail while going to Henderson Creek and that’s why he wasn’t killed with his friends. Because he wasn’t with them.”
Jasper sighed heavily. “I don’t think it’s a good idea. The mud may make it difficult.”
I echoed his sigh. “Understood.”
Jasper turned toward the north, where the trail we’d been on picked back up. “Let’s go.”
After a few hours, the sun hung high in the sky and Jasper and I were still making our way up the trail with just the sound of our steps and the breeze rustling the vegetation around us. It had grown muddier the farther down the trail we went, and I had a feeling my boots would never be the same.
“Only an hour or so more,” Jasper said. “Even with the mud, it’s easier going to Henderson Creek now than in the dead of winter.”
I shivered at the memory of the snowy months of my own journey from Boston to the Yukon Territory. Even when I finally made it to Silver City, I couldn’t shake the chill I had picked up. “I’ve only been around for one, but I’m not sure how many more of these winters I can take.”
Jasper chuckled. “They’ll start to settle in your blood like a stiff drink. I’ve been up here since I was young, so I hardly know anything else, but most newcomers feel the same way you do.”
We fell back into a companionable silence. Glancing to the left, I noticed that the Yukon River was snaking its way almost parallel to our path, its turquoise glint winking at me through the pines.
We rounded a few more bends before Jasper broke the silence, pointing ahead of us. “See that tall, scraggly pine? That marks the edge of Henderson Creek.”
“We’re so close!” I started to jog. Even if there’s no clue as to Tom’s whereabouts, Henderson Creek felt like a significant place. “Come on, slow poke!” I shouted at Jasper over my shoulder. “I’ll wait for you there!” I turned back around and froze.
Ahead of me on the trail was a wolf, big and gray. No, not a wolf. A wolf dog. With only one eye.
“Oh my God,” I whispered. The wolf dog turned and ambled down the trail, disappearing around a bend. I ran to follow.
I hadn’t even realized I left Jasper behind until he grabbed my elbow a minute later, yanking me to a stop.
“Damn it, Philadelphia!” he exclaimed. “Don’t just go off on your own, that’s how people die.”
I stared at him as he realized what he’d said, my eyes burning.
“Shit, I’m sorry.”
“No,” I said, turning back to follow the wolf dog, “you’re right. But the wolf dog who was with Tom’s friends is here and I need to follow him.” I started jogging again, as I hadn’t yet reached the bend the wolf dog had turned down.
“You sound insane,” Jasper sighed, but followed me anyway.
The wolf must’ve veered into the woods, I thought, as there were no fresh tracks in the mud of the trail. After a few more minutes, though, all thoughts of tracks left my head as we came upon an overgrown clearing, a crumbling row of three stone foundations in the center and a measly creek trickling along the far end.
“Welcome to Henderson Creek,” Jasper mumbled. He stalked toward the foundations, leaving me to follow. I could see splintered chunks of wood beneath the undergrowth, along with the occasional shine of metal.
“More? This was more of a glorified campsite than a settlement, no one lived here permanently. That was the main building,” Jasper indicated toward the center structure, which was slightly larger compared to the others, despite its derelict condition. “The other two only ended up getting used if there were a lot of prospectors travelling through, which hasn’t been the case since the turn of the century.”
He gestured to the right, at a sloping embankment topped with a thick copse of pines. “The secondary trail is up there. It’s sort of indirect, but offered an alternative when the area was filled with travelers.”
“We should head up there and look around a bit.” I pulled out my notepad and pencil, flipping to an empty page. “Did you ever camp here? What was it like before it was abandoned?”
“I never stayed, only passed through.” Jasper kicked at a crumbling corner of the main building.
“Were you travelling with anyone else?” I began to circle around the three foundations, examining the detritus that had accumulated within them, where there used to be living quarters. I couldn’t pick out anything still intact or identifiable, those items had probably been scavenged long ago.
“I was in a group, yes.” Jasper had slung off his pack and was sitting against the foundation, the brim of his hat pulled low over his brow. Had he not just answered me I would’ve thought he was sleeping.
“Please, tell me less.” I chuckled, surprising myself with my cavalier attitude. The wind picked up, causing the tops of the pines rustle and sway together, their earthy scent filling my lungs. Spring in the Yukon, while muddy, was shaping up to be quite lovely.
“I’m sorry.” I turned back to Jasper, who ran a hand through his hair, his hat now perched on his knee.
“Why?” I made my way over to Jasper, slinging off my own pack to sit beside him. I tilted my head back to better feel the breeze. “You’re doing fine with my questions, and I won’t include a quote if you don’t want me to. I can talk to Bud again when we head back.”
“That’s not why I’m apologizing. Philadelphia, I haven’t been completely truthful with you.”
“Okay…” I trailed off, unsure of what to say.
“I agreed to be your trail guide after overhearing you in Silver City, asking about Tom. I had to help you. For my own sake.”
At this, I sat forward, staring. Jasper had his head in his hands, his hat now on the floor. I stayed silent.
“The folks in Sulphur Creek don’t trust me, and it’s not because of a bar fight. It’s because I used to run with a group of looters.” He looked up, pain in his eyes. “I left the group in the dead of winter, five years ago. I had agreed to be a thief, not a murderer.”