Missing in plein air

Steamboat Crew

Frankie Sayers was freshly broke. He’d made money from cashing in on his claim but then he somehow managed to lose it all in a card game at the hotel in Barkerville. Now, here he was at the Quesnel docks, looking down at the churning water below the S.S. Charlotte. The steamboat was making noises. Sayers looked over at the dock and saw the rest of the passengers board the ship; most of them tired and glum faced except one man carrying two suitcases and an easel. Nobody bothered to help him but he didn’t seem to mind.

Sayers always paid attention if there was somebody around who had money. Sayers could smell money on a person. For him it was something like a sixth sense. He watched the way the ship’s porter straightened up when the man with easel showed his ticket.

After another hour or so, the captain blew the ship’s whistle and the steamboat ventured out along the Fraser River.

The crossing from Quesnel to Soda Creek was 5 hours and so far Sayers had managed to avoid paying for a ticket. There wasn’t much in the way of food to be had, although at this point he would’ve settled for a bowl of dried prunes.

What was he going to do once he got to Soda Creek?  The thought of carrying on down the Anderson Lake trail on foot was a daunting task. He wondered if Elsie remembered him or her helper, Chip Sang. He’d done them a few favours that ought to be worth something.

His stomach rumbled. Sayers looked around and recognized the man with his easel. On closer inspection he saw that his boots were scuffed and his coat was a size too big, but they were cut from good cloth, probably straight from England he presumed.

“It’s a good time as any to paint, the sunset is going to be a good one,” Sayers said. He watched the man as he opened a small wooden box and removed a trowel and a couple of metal cylinders containing pigment. Painting outdoors – en plein air they called it.

“Have you been on this crossing before?”

Sayers nodded, “several times. I worked two claims at Keithley Creek. What about yourself?”

“I am here to appreciate the natural beauty and record it for posterity.”

Sayers nodded. “There is a lot of beautiful areas around, underappreciated.”

He talked on for a bit while the man set up the paper against the stand. His name was Horatio Abbott and he said he had sailed from Portsmouth, England just three months before.

“I’ve done many commissions for the Geographic Society,” he said proudly.
After a while, Abbott pulled a silver flask from another pocket and proceeded to drink from it, holding it out long enough to see the initials on the side.

“I’m not eating so you might as well have my dinner ticket,” he said. Sayers was about to politely decline but his hunger collided with his pride and before he knew it he was half way to the dining area where he was duly ignored.

Most of the diners were well into their meals and Sayers sat at one of the unoccupied tables.

“Sir? You haven’t paid for a dinner ticket.”

“Horatio Abbott said that I could eat in his place,” Sayers said and showed the attendant his ticket.

The attendent looked it over and then hustled off to the kitchen. Sayers leaned back, pleased with himself. His luck was improving he told himself.

Deep in the recesses of the kitchen, a conversation between the cook and the attendant carried on in short cryptic sentences between the sizzles and sputters of kitchen noise.

“Do you think he’s working with Abbott?”

“We should tell the captain.”

“I’ll let him know when he comes round for his meal.”

The attendent carried out Sayers meal and arranged the food on his plate with a flourish, his face a perfected mask of solicitude.

The cook passed on the message to the steamboat helper when he came down for his meal.

“I don’t think it’s Abbott,” the steamboat helper said after he returned to the control room making sure the door was firmly shut behind him. “I think it’s someone else.”

Captain Reynolds squinted at the piece of paper on which was printed the notice of Horatio Abbott’s disappearance.

“He wouldn’t come down for dinner and instead he sent this other character, Sayers. Have you heard of him?”

“No, what about him?” Captain Reynolds said.

“One of our passengers recognized Sayers as the one who took off out of Barkerville without paying the money he owed for his mining supplies. He still hasn’t paid for his ticket.”

Captain Reynolds grunted in reply. “We’ll keep an eye on them both, but get the money from Sayers.”

“Yes sir!”

As it turned out, they didn’t have to because by the time they reached Soda Creek, one of them was gone.

(to be continued)