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Disappearance on the Yukon
This story marries my loves of thriller and classic western. These themes work perfectly together especially with the ties to Native folklore
The air was brisk as snow piled on the skeletons of the trees, and ice clung to the edges of the Yukon River. It was an awful night for a delivery and the crew aboard the Morris Steamboat were miserable. A crew of five explorers had picked up a banker in Nome with a safe full of gold bars after being promised a good pay day in return for providing passage to Fairbanks. Man gathered around the pipes of the steamboat for warmth; some with cigarettes between their fingers, some with tin mugs of coffee in their hands.
“Curse this cold!” Hissed Casper Morris, the leader of the explorers, “at this rate we’ll all be dead by morning.”
“We better get paid good money for this.” Charlie Tibbett said firmly.
“This darn gold rush is gonna have us runnin’ back and forth to Canada on a wild goose chase,” Casper said, taking a sip of black coffee.
Clayton Schaller, the banker, joined the other men. His spurs clinked as he approached them, “Calm down, boys, your reward will be worth this goose chase”. Clayton was very open minded about the otherwise treacherous situation.
“This ain’t gonna be a goose chase,” Charlie Tibbett said, turning to Casper, “We do this one job, collect our dues , and out whole exploration will be paid for.”
Casper shuddered at a sudden tease of wind, “Yea,” he mumbled, “guess your right.”
“Come inside, gentlemen.” Mr. Schaller gestured towards the boat’s cabin.
“It ain’t any warmer in there than it is out here.” Charlie complained.
“Yes but at least you won’t be snowed on.” Mr. Schaller led the men into the boat cabin where the other crew members were gathered. The interior of the boat was grey and lifeless. The men gathered around the stove I the tiny kitchen for warmth.
The room became quiet as Mr. Schaller sat in a chair in the corner of the room. For a banker, Clayton Schaller was rough around the edges. Scruffy facial hair and deep scars that ran across cheek made him look more like a jail warden than a banker. But as the crew knew, to stand up to outlaws and thieves, you had to be tough. The room settled and he began to tell stories about his adventures in the Alaskan frontier. He talked about Nome and the gold fever that had taken hold of it. But he told the tales of coming face to face with fierce outlaws with the most passion. To him, stopping a robbery made him a hero, and he didn’t hide his pride in the retelling. The crew were invested in Clayton’s stories like fish on a line, hanging onto his every word. Everyone, that is, but Tom Meissner. Tom was quiet, lurking about the boat tending to its various odd jobs. His appearance was gruff and he was usually unpleasant.
“Tom,” Casper barked, “give it a rest, work can wait till morning.”
Tom grumbled in response and walked out onto the deck.
“What’s his problem?” Robert Harden, the newest crew member, asked.
Casper sighed, “The miserable fool’s had hate in his heart since I met him. Long before you met him I’m sure.”
Clayton, sensing the crew’s attention diverting, pulled a knife from his boot and hurled it through the air and nailed it in the wall near Casper’s head. “Land’s sake!” Casper shouted, “what the devil are you doing, Clayton?” He jumped from his seat and rested his head on the butt oh his gun in its holster.
Clayton cooly walked to the knife protruding from the wall and plucked it out. His head lowered and his brow left his wild eyes in shadow. “Just making sure you gents are on alert. You better be for the tale I’m about to tell ya.” He gestured out the cabin window, “see that boys?” The silhouette of a totem pole came into view through the fog.
“That’s just something the natives around here dance around or somethin’” Robert snorted.
Clayton chuckled, “Inuits. Or the eskimos put that there pole up as a warning. To tell us that we’re entering the territory of the Wendigo.”
Charlie squinted his eyes skeptically. “If these eskimos are anything like normal natives, then their legends are full of nonsense.”
“Not this one, Charlie.” Casper chimed in with warning in his voice. “I’ve heard the tales, too”. they turned to Clayton.
“It comes howling in with the wind on cold snow-covered nights and attacks weary travelers and lone hunters. The eskimos know not to hunt at night because that’s when the Wendigo comes out. And sometimes,” Clayton hesitated, “it can freeze entire seas and rivers to capture members onboard vessels.”
“What does the Wendigo do?” Robert asked.
“Now, no one really knows what happens once someone is snatched. All I know is, someone disappears for a few days, and returns. But when they come back, they aren’t the same. Oh, they look the sane and talk the same, but it’s not them. It’s the Wendigo.”
Just then the door flew open. The men jumped as the captain, Francis Hughes, entered the cabin.
“Captain,” Clayton greeted as the others collected themselves, “any trouble?”
Francis pulled the scarf from around his face and slung it over his shoulder, “We’ve come to a fork in the river and I ain’t quite familiar with these parts.”
Clayton grinned, “Well, it’s a good thing I know this river like the back of my hand. Take a left, captain.” Francis nodded before catching a flask Casper threw to him. he took a big gulp, bundled back up, and started back up the stairs to return to the helm.
Clayton shut the door. The men seemed unsettled, looking out the window and murmuring to each other. Clayton waved his hand, “Anyways, that’s the Eugene. Now who wants to hear about the time I took on Alaska’s most wanted outlaw?” He told the crew about his encounter with the notorious outlaw, Cody O’Farrell. “O’Farrell had his gun to my head. He was close.” Clayton shook his fist, “As his dark soulless eyes looked into mine he thought, how easily I could kill you now. However he didn’t want me dead yet. I led him to the vault and opened the door. As his back was turned I clogged him good and he woke up in a jail cell.” He clenched his fists tightly and stated hard into the floor and breathed heavily.
“You ok, Clayton?” Robert asked.
Clayton broke his gaze, “Forgive me, fellas, but all these stories are gettin’ me worked up all over again. See ya in the mornin’”.
The night faded into a lull, the men had gone to their rooms until only heavy lidded Captain Hughes was half awake at the helm.
Everyone’s sound sleep was halted when a sudden jolt hoisted them awake.
“Mister Hughes!” Casper shouted as he emerged from the hull of the ship, “What the devil is going on up here?” He followed Francis’s glance. The river was completely frozen over. Casper lost his breath, then finally sputtered, “Well… well that’s just great.” He huffed, swallowing hard. “We’ll have to walk over the ice and find the next nearest town.”
“That won’t work,” Hughes warned, “the water is too thin to walk over and too thick to sail through.”
By that time the crew had come out to see what had happened.
The sound of Clayton’s spurs echoed across the deck. “What if this was the Wendigo?”
“Nonsense!” Charlie huffed, “you mean to tell me you believe in those silly legends?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never traveled through here at night,” Clayton explained with a furrowed brow.
“But you just made those stories up, to have a bit of fun right?” Robert asked, his voice shaking. “Right?”
Clayton stared at each man with fear in his eyes.
After a long while, Casper nudged a few of them. “Gentlemen, I think we all better go to our cabins and stay there until morning.” He looked at Clayton, “Just in case.” Clayton nodded.
Each man heard it that night, whether they wanted to admit it or not; the howling in the wind.
The next morning, there was no sign of Clayton. The men searched his room and found scratch marks on the floor leading to the stairs. “He’s been taken!” Robert cried.
Casper studied marks and drew his pistol. “No, no I don’t think so.” Casper stormed down the hall and pounded on a cabin door. “Robert you check the safe, I’ll find out who’s done it”.
“Done what?” Robert asked.
“Killed Clayton. I know we needed the money but I won’t be associated with a murderous thief!” Casper pounded on each door. “Where’s Schaller?” He asked forcefully, “Where in God’s name is Schaller?”
The door was pulled open, “I know just as well as you do.” Tom Meissner said forcefully, “Now get that pistol out of my face before I throw you overboard.”
“Like you did to Clayton?” Charlie asked. Tom raised his pistol at him. Before long, everyone’s pistols were aimed at each other.
Robert ran down the hall. “The safe is still locke-” he raised his hands, “easy fellas, lets just calm down. We all know what happened! It was the Wendigo!” Everyone turned to look at Robert. “And we all know that Clayton will come walking through those door tonight. But it won’t be him.” After a few moments, everyone lowered their guns. In the backs of their minds, they knew it as well. “Now what we need to do is send smoke signals and hope for a rescue. Or God help us come night fall.”
* * *
Late that night, they heard the howling, that haunted sound that carried through the wind. But it wasn’t the Wendigo. It was a team of sled dogs pulling a rescue team. A man in a suit and coat with a round bowler hat climbed aboard the ship from the sled, “Good morning, mister, I’m Schofford, sheriff Schofford of Nome.” He shook Captain Hughe’s hand, “I need to know where the man that boarded this vessel with the gold is.”
Casper sighed, “Well shoot, Clayton went missing last night. Found scratch marks on the floor but no one will fess up.”
“Clayton Schaller ain’t missin’, Clayton Schaller was found hog tied back in his office back in Nome.”
“What are you saying?” Morris asked slowly.
“I’m saying that the man that boarded this boat with the gold was none other than criminal outlaw Cody O’Farrell. He escaped from jail after vowing to get revenge on the bank that sent him there.” he looked over the crew of shocked and confused men. “And it looks like he got it.”
“But, but the safe is still locked, Sir,” said Robert.
“Locked but empty. Cody got Clayton to cough up the combination before he boarded the boat.” The sheriff looked at the ground. “He tell you the story of the Wendigo to get you to stay in your cabins while his posse brought the dog sled out of the woods? He use his spurs to make scratch marks on the floor to make it look like a creature had abducted him?” Schofford chuckled. “He’s done this so many times, I often wonder if he’s just a no-good outlaw, or if he really is a Wendigo.”