A Drink of Darkness

Here is my stab at a horror story set in Dawson city during the Yukon-Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-1899. Miners were dropping like flies during the long, dark winters. Flu, scarlet fever, small pox and even just the brutal cold were killers. But the most lethal of them all was scurvy. While the British understood that giving their sailors lime or lemon juice prevented scurvy, the underlying mechanism, vitamin C was not understood. Potatoes were a great source of nutrients as well. Miners were known to give whole bags of gold dust in exchange for a good bag of potatoes.

But why don’t we let our imaginations wander? What if something more sinister were stalking this mining town in the subzero darkness? Enjoy the start of my story below.

“How many this week?” He asked, eyeing the burlap sacks of bodies and coffins stacked inside the fenced area, protected from the wolves and bears but not from the wind and snow blowing off the frozen Yukon River.

“Fuck, at least 20. I’m running out of wood for coffins. They’re starting to stack up in bags,” he motioned to the pile inside the fence next to his shop with his gloved hand. “Can’t believe how bad scurvy’s going ‘round this time and it’s barely December. We ain’t even hit the real cold months yet. It’s not just smallpox, flu, consumptions, or just cold that’s killing ‘em this year.” Joe the carpenter said they loaded bags from the pack teams into the open bay of his warehouse.

“Are they sure it’s scurvy?” The other man said, picking up a sack of potatoes and tossing it. “I’ve heard rumors. Some people are saying its plague. Hear they’re dropping too fast and too sudden for it to be just mere scurvy.”

“Nah, Frank. I’ve made too many coffins in my time and buried too many idiots,” Joe said, pausing to spit off to the side. “I know scurvy when I see it, and these men are rife with it. Goes from working to hard, eating rotten potatoes and not having a good woman in your life.” Both men laughed. It was a common joke here in Dawson City. The lack of women in this gold-rush town in the Yukon.

“But have you seen their necks? I’ve never heard of scurvy doing that before.” Frank said, rubbing his own neck then his protruding belly.

“Scurvy can make people do some strange shit. They pull out their own teeth and hair. The start to hallucinate when it gets bad. Hell that really pretty blonde, Helena, that serves whiskey at the Last Dog? You heard what her husband did to her?” Joe said.

“No, what?” Frank asked.

She coughed, subzero night air clawing at her throat and lungs. She shuffled her feet and pulled her dead husband’s jacket closer around her. She knew they didn’t know she was there, standing in the shadows, listening. Otherwise they wouldn’t talk so freely, but now she was tired of their gossip, she wanted them to just shut up and move along.

They both looked up, jaws dropping. “Sorry Mrs.—I mean Ms. Olsen,” Joe stammered. Of course, he would remind her of her single status. No one in this town of hundreds of single men wanted a young woman like her to remember she was a widow. “Please excuse the foul language,” he said, tugging at his wool cap in the cold night air.

“Of course.” She replied with a nod, wrapping her thick scarf closer around her face, as if it would offer some protection from their scrutiny. The two men gaped at her for a moment longer—all of the men in the town did. She stiffened her back, clenching her jaw, knowing exactly what they were looking at. Her white-blonde curls tucked as best as she could under her wool cap, her fair skin, courtesy of her Danish ancestry. Her figure—while much little thinner than in times past—still tucked and constrained by her corset and woolen dress, shrouded by the thick coat. She supposed she was pretty, she couldn’t remember the last time she felt pretty though. Here in this strange world she felt like some sort of freak on display. At the saloon every night, men told her lots of things: pretty, beautiful, a goddess. Wasn’t hard to be in a world with nearly no women. She drew a deep sigh, thinking once more of her dead bastard of a husband and how she’d ended up in this frozen hell.

She ignored the men, now talking in much lower voices, occasionally pausing to stare at her once more. She trained her eyes on the neat stacks of crudely constructed caskets. People dead too late in the season to be put into the frozen ground. After three months, she didn’t have to count her way to the right one anymore, or even dust the frost off to read the name inscribed on the side, she knew the pattern of the warped birch by heart.

She came here nearly every night if the weather wasn’t bad. She came here to stare at the coffin and curse his name. She swallowed hard against the bile in her throat. Too bad he wasn’t still alive so she could choke him to death with her own hands for what he’d done to her. Her belly ached in sympathy with her thoughts. She closed her eyes and put her hand over her already flat stomach, made even smaller and more fashionable by the tightly laced corset beneath her coarse woolen dress. The bruises he’d left on her body had long since faded, but the memories of that final fatal night never would. But why? Why did he have to take that from me too and before he died leaving me in this place?

And then the good people of this shitty mining town had the nerve to put my dead baby in with the bastard.

Every night she fantasized about wrenching open the casket and ripping the tiny mass from the dead monster’s arms.

Without meaning to, she began to listen to the conversation of the two men again. Probably because it concerned her boss, Gus Bronstein.

“Speaking of women—have to been to the new ‘parlour’ that’s opened?” Frank asked.

“Nah, have you?”

“No, but I walked by there the other night, the old Lewiston place. It’s appointment only. Real classy. Bronstein owns the building. He’s renting it out to this foreigner and his gals. The gals are something else.”

“I may have to stop in,” Joe laughed, he paused again. Helena saw him stare again out of the corner of her eye. He adjusted his belt and looked her over. The hair prickled on the back of her neck. She willed herself to focus on the wooden box.

“Yeah other than Bronstein and the other saloon owners, I think you’re the richest man in town, what with all the coffins.”

I should leave. Before Joe gets it into his head to propose again. Helena thought, clutching at her coat again. The pistol she wore at her side beneath the dress digging into her hip.

“Helena? Helena? What you do out here?” the low, soothing voice scolded from the darkness. A smile came to her lips at the woman’s familiar broken English.

“You know ‘what I do’ Nellie.” She said turning her head as the elderly native woman hobbled toward her, willow cane clicking against the ice. The wolverine fur of the woman’s parka fluttered around her face, her dark eyes narrowed into tiny slits as she examined Helena critically.

“It too cold for you. You still too thin. Go in. Now. No keep stare at dead baby and bad man.” Nellie motioned with her thick fur mitts, beading winking at Helena in the glow of the gas lamps.

Helena let out a long sigh, looking down at the heavy boots that used to belong to her husband. “You’re right. It’s cold. I need to get ready for work anyway.”

Nellie untied a large leather pouch from a belt at her waist and handed it to her. “You still sad you have no man, no baby. You find new one soon. Many men here. You young, pretty.”

“Sure Nellie.” Her stomach roiled, thinking of the few times she and Charles had actually consummated their marriage. She shuddered. I don’t think I ever want to do that again. That was disgusting. She closed her eyes as she continued to clutch Nellie’s arm. Don’t think about that now. You need to have your pretty fake smile on tonight, get lots of tips so you can get out of here on the first steamer south come spring. Go…somewhere.

She opened her eyes again to see Nellie blinking back at her. How did the woman always know what she was thinking? Was she a witch? If she was, Nellie was definitely a good witch. I wouldn’t have survived the miscarriage and fever without her. I’d be in a box with Charles. Helena shuddered.

“You drink tea? Everyday?” Nellie motioned to the leather bag.

She gave Nellie’s arm a squeeze, “Absolutely. Your tea is wonderful, Nellie. It makes me feel so much better. I can’t thank you enough.” The old woman turned her weathered face up to her, worn and cracked yellow teeth shinning against her brown leathery skin, gripping her arm.

“It good for you. Make strong. Able to make new baby when time right. Not so sad,” Nellie stopped walking and motioned with her stick. “I go home now. You go work. Make sure you sleep.”

“I will Nellie,” she replied. “When I come see you, can I bring you anything?”

“I think about it. Let you know,” Nellie said, waving her free hand and hobbling away on the path back toward the village. She always said that, and Helena’s heart sunk as she thought of the multitude of reasons why.

Half of Nellie’s village died of small pox from government blankets. I wouldn’t trust white people after that either. Well, she trusts you. She just doesn’t trust the stuff you want to bring her from the white people.

She shuddered again and turned down the main street away from the river docks toward the saloons. Though late afternoon, the sun had set an hour or more ago leaving only faint traces of rose and violet to the west. Low music played here and there from the multitude of hastily constructed wooden buildings along the icy gravel street, but it would get rowdy later. As she passed the Golden Shovel, she paused as she looked in the window. Black-eyed Sue, one of the young native prostitutes gestured with a bottle of whiskey while she argued with a group of men about what they were willing to pay for her services. Her slurred speech and the way she stumbled about left no doubt in Helena’s mind the girl was already drunk.

The people around here treat Nellie and her family like they’re subhuman. Hell, I used to think of Indians that way until I came here. Who would have thought I would be a widow at 21 with an old Indian woman as my closest friend after saving my life? My mother would be horrified…if she were still alive. She’d be horrified to see me, her college educated, well-bred daughter carrying a pistol down the street of a mining town in the dark, on her way to work pouring whiskey so men could stare at her. Well, it beats some of the other jobs around here.