By Abbey Howard
Yukon Territory, Canada, 1907
A brisk spring breeze rustled the tall pines around us, carrying the bracing scent of earth with it. A few yards ahead of me on the trail was Jasper, who paused to take a swig from his canteen.
I paused too, drawing out my pocket watch. Two in the afternoon. I’d hoped to reach Sulphur Creek by noontime, but given all of the mud on the trail I was surprised it hadn’t taken us longer to get this far. And someone who’s been missing for five years can wait a few hours longer to be found, I thought grimly.
“Doing okay, Miss Jones?” Jasper looked back at me, scratching his unkempt black beard.
I rolled my eyes. “I’m fine, Mr. Connelly.”
“Mr. Connelly? How formal of you. I thought we knew each other better than that.”
“You’re the one who started it, Jasper,” I retorted, emphasizing his first name.
“My apologies, Philadelphia.” Grinning, Jasper turned and continued down the trail, his boots squelching as he forded a large patch of mud. “We should reach Sulphur Creek in the next hour.”
I followed, choosing to carefully skirt around the mud rather than stomp straight through it. Even though I was outfitted in the shorter skirts recommended for women travelling through the Yukon, my hem had somehow managed to get splattered with mud.
“Where would you like to stop first?” Jasper called over his shoulder. “The hotel to store our gear?”
“I’d like to go straight to your source, please.” Despite the discomfort of carrying my fifty pound pack, I didn’t want to waste any time in tracking down Old Man Culpepper. I was already two weeks late getting to my correspondent’s post for The Bostonian in Fairbanks and I didn’t want to push my luck much farther. Mr. Abrams, my editor, was only so forgiving.
My thoughts now on all the articles looming in the near future, my fingers drifted up to my right ear, checking to make sure my pencil was still securely perched there. Hopefully I would have plenty of use for it once we finally reached Sulphur Creek.
Just as Jasper said, after another hour of walking I found myself looking down on the tiniest town I’d ever seen.
“Welcome to Sulphur Creek,” Jasper drawled.
I decided that “town” was a generous term to use, as Sulphur Creek was more of a cluster of buildings. Running through the center was a muddy road not unlike the trail we had travelled on, with buildings on either side of it. I could pick out a saloon, a general store, a hotel, and a bank; other than that, matchbox houses and tents were haphazardly scattered up to the tree line. A corral of a few dozen horses was behind the main drag, with a handful of armed figures guarding it. Everything was weathered, from the houses to the people sitting out in front of them.
“It’s a bit different from the big city you’re used to, eh?” Jasper readjusted his wide-brimmed hat, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
“I’ve been to many places, you know, big and small,” I replied. “Now which house does Old Man Culpepper live in?”
Jasper scanned the matchbox houses for a moment before pointing to a rundown house with a blue door perched a bit away from the others. “That one. At least, that’s where he was the last time I passed through.”
“Wonderful. Let’s go.” I started down the small hill we were on, leaving Jasper to catch up with me.
“Are you okay?” Jasper asked, appearing beside me. “You’ve been off this whole day.”
“I just really need this lead to pan out,” I replied, fidgeting once again with the pencil behind my ear. I plucked it from its perch and stuck it in my mouth so I could fix my disheveled brown curls. My attempt at a low bun had failed, so I quickly braided my hair as we approached the house.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw a curtain move. I looked around, realizing the few people who were outside their houses were either staring straight at us or making a point to not look anywhere near us. “Jasper?”
“Do the people here usually react strangely to newcomers?”
Jasper looked around, shaking his head. “Not usually. You must be so odd looking they can’t help themselves.”
“Oh, please,” I retorted, earning a snort from Jasper.
Jasper knocked on the blue front door, its paint peeling and dull from countless lashings by the unforgiving northern weather. I had been travelling for almost a year and still marvelled at the massive swings the weather could take in regions like this.
A moment later, as I tucked my pencil back behind my ear, the door was answered by a willowy, middle aged woman wearing a beige calico dress. The gray shawl around her shoulders matched her salt and pepper hair. “Can I help you folks?” she asked, keeping one hand on the door.
“Hello, ma’am,” I answered, “my name is PJ Jones and I’m a reporter with The Bostonian, way back in Massachusetts. I was hoping to speak with Mr. Culpepper. Is he home?”
She stared at me for a long moment before glancing at Jasper. “Now why would a woman in the company of John Connelly need to speak with my granddaddy?”
“I’ve taken up a post as a trail guide,” Jasper interrupted, “and Miss Jones here is my latest client. She’s searching for a missing person from her hometown who most likely spoke with your granddaddy before heading farther up the trail, about five or six years ago now.”
“I see,” the woman replied, returning her gaze to me. “Well, my granddaddy passed last spring, so I’m afraid you’re out of luck. Have a nice day.” With that, she closed the door in our faces.
“Damn it!” I said, turning away from the house. “All this way for nothing.”
Jasper patted my shoulder. “Sorry, Philadelphia. I really am. I hadn’t realized that Old Man Culpepper had died.”
“I don’t see how you could’ve foreseen this. Don’t worry about it.” I grabbed my pencil and pulled my notepad out of my coat pocket. Next to the name Culpepper I jotted: ‘Dead, one yr.’
“Let’s go grab a drink,” Jasper suggested. “We’ll look for a new lead.”
“Thank you,” I sighed, following Jasper over to the saloon, which had a sign above the door that read ‘Slper Sloon’. I chuckled at the missing letters.
I trudged up its steps, pausing to stamp some of the mud off my black boots before entering behind Jasper. Inside, mismatched tables and chairs were scattered across the floor, with a bar installed along the back wall and an upright piano pushed into the corner. A staircase to my right led up to a second story landing, where I could see several closed doors. A woman with blonde curls piled high on her head and a slit up her red skirt winked at me from her perch on the bannister.
We approached the bar. Jasper leaned against it, waving to get the bartender’s attention.
“Why was Culpepper’s granddaughter so unfriendly to you?” I asked.
“Two beers,” Jasper called to the bartender, who grunted in assent. “What was that?”
“Why was Old Man Culpepper’s granddaughter so suspicious of you?” I scrutinized Jasper, who turned to look at me fully. “And why did she call you John?”
“I wouldn’t say unfriendly, just wary of strangers.”
“She asked why a woman in your company would need to speak with her granddaddy.”
“Last time I passed through here I made some folks angry.”
“Well, that makes me feel quite secure all of a sudden!”
Jasper shrugged. “It was just a… misunderstanding.”
“What sort of misunderstanding?”
Jasper ignored me, tossing some coins down on the bar before picking up our beers and moving to sit at a table against the wall. He sat, and I plopped down across from him, not ready to let go of this line of questioning.
“What did you do?”
“Nothing!” Jasper took a long draught from his beer. “It was just a fight, is all.”
“Oh great, have I been dropped into the middle of a feud that will end in a showdown and someone dying?”
At that, Jasper burst out laughing. “Jesus, PJ. Do you think I’m an outlaw? No, it was just a drunken brawl. I think one of the men involved was Culpepper’s grandson-in-law or something. A few got some jail time, but I escaped before that could happen to me.”
“Lovely, I’m with a convict.”
“I was never arrested, so not technically a convict. And she called me John because that’s my middle name. I used to go by it, but decided to switch things up a few years ago. No different than you being Mr. PJ Jones in print and Miss Philadelphia Jones in person.”
“PJ Jones is still a woman,” I retorted, then lowered my voice when I realized a neighboring table was beginning to stare. “People just assume she’s a man.”
“Well there you go.”
“Thank you for all this, I feel much better now.” I took a swig from my beer, grimacing at the taste and the fact that I couldn’t tell whether I actually felt better or worse. I pulled my pencil and notepad back out, making note of my suddenly shady travelling companion. I’d only known Jasper for a month; I hired him on as a trail guide back in Silver City, but in our time travelling together I’d come to find him easy to talk to and reliable. Though, I was starting to second guess the latter sentiment.
“PJ.” I was startled at Jasper’s voice, not realizing I had absentmindedly been doodling tents and pine trees on what was meant to be a page of notes on Old Man Culpepper. Not that he had anything for me to make note of now.
“I was just saying that I can head over to the hotel and rent us some rooms for the night while you search out a lead here.”
I downed the rest of my beer. “Sounds like a plan,” I replied, pulling out some money from the inner breast pocket of my Mackinaw jacket and passing it to Jasper.
“I’ll come back here after.” He finished off his own beer and stood, grabbing his pack off the ground before exiting the saloon.
I pushed our glasses into the center of the table and looked around the saloon. Almost all of the patrons were men, drinking alone or in small groups. A few were playing cards, and a man sitting in the corner opposite the piano had a book propped against his tankard. He wasn’t reading, though. He was staring at me.
I stared back, but the man made no move to come over or stop staring. So, I picked up my pack and my notepad and made my way over to his table.
“Hello,” I said as I sat down across from him. “My name is PJ Jones, and I’m a reporter from The Bostonian.”
“Yeah, I heard your name already. You have quite the voice.” He stuck out his hand, which I eagerly shook. “Name’s Bud.”
“Could I ask you a few questions? I’m looking for a missing person.”
“What’re you doing with John Connelly?” Bud asked.
“You mean Jasper?” Another person questioning my affiliation with Jasper?
“Boy’s bad news,” Bud replied, “watch yourself.”
“I can take care of myself.” I narrowed my eyes, searching his face for deceit.
“Who’re you missing?” Bud asked, changing the subject. “Lots of people disappear ‘round these parts so I’m gonna need specifics.”
“His name is Thomas – Tom – Vincent.” I hesitated, then flipped to the back of my notepad, where I had pasted a small, grainy photograph. A man with light hair and striking eyes stared out from the photo, his impeccable suit at odds with the clothing he would have worn while travelling the Yukon Trail.
“This is him, about seven years ago when he was twenty two. He left shortly after this was taken, and after sending some letters over the next year and a half from various locations in the northwestern United States and Canada, wasn’t heard from again.” My voice caught at that last part, which I covered with a cough. Damn him, I thought, running off to the Yukon to make his fortune.
Bud took the notepad from me, staring down at the photo. “Tom?” he asked softly.
“Do you know him?” I asked sharply. “Where did you last see him?”
“How do you know him?” Bud asked in reply.
“He’s my brother. Half brother. Older, by five years. We share a mother, but his father ran off when he was a baby.” I stopped, realizing I had begun to ramble.
“You have the same eyes.” Bud passed me my notepad. “We travelled in the same group of prospectors from Silver City. We were aiming to go to Dawson.”
“Were?” My heart began to pound.
“We’d been on the trail for a few days before I messed up my ankle pretty good. The boys pulled me on a makeshift sled, then got me some help when we reached this hole of a town. I told ‘em to go on without me, I’d catch up with ‘em once my ankle felt better.” He paused to gulp down some beer. “It was dead of winter, so cold my nose guard almost didn’t help. I decided to stay here till spring, wait for the boys to come back through after hitting up Dawson.”
“And?” I prompted when Bud stopped speaking to dazedly gaze at the other patrons.
“Didn’t have to wait till spring. A week later news came of a happening at Henderson Creek, which is the next camp up the trail from here. The boys had been found, throats slit and gear plundered. The wolf dog that had been with us was hiding, half-dead and missing an eye, under one of the slashed tents.”
“Oh, God,” I whispered, tears blurring my vision.
“Tom wasn’t with ‘em.”
I squeezed my eyes shut as my heart surged with hope, despite the odds I knew it was up against. “Where was he?”
“Don’t know, miss. They didn’t find his body, but he also never came back through here. That was five years ago now.” He finished off his beer, letting a trickle make its way from the corner of his mouth into his ginger beard. “I never did make it up to Dawson. Found me a missus and now I spend most days searching for that mysterious Klondike gold.”
Wiping my cheeks, I managed a smile. “I’m glad you got stuck here, Bud. Thank you for your help.” I collected my things and stood, turning to leave.
“Miss?” I stopped. “Your brother, he liked wandering off the trail. Was always looking for money-making opportunities. I’d hate to think one of ‘em got the best of him.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“And miss? Tom was one hell of a guy. Cocky, but funny as hell. I hope you find him.” He fumbled with his jacket pocket, pulling out a small, dented tin. “Here, take this. Tom chewed tobacco like no one I’ve seen before.”
“Thanks.” I accepted the tin, tucking it into my pocket.
Bud nodded, turning his attention back to his book.
I wove my way between the tables, desperate to reach the door. I burst through it, the spring breeze caressing my tear-soaked face. I sank down on the steps, uncaring of the mud and the curious stares. I stared up at the sky, blue and white blurring together as my heart broke. I was never going to find Tom.