Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The people who journeyed west in the early days of the continent came from many countries, many customs, many cultures, and brought much of that mix with them. Nothing is more intriguing and interesting to me than their pursuits, their dreams, and the harsh life they entered as they gathered here in their search for new footholds, new visions, new adventures. They came from nations all over the globe, carrying all kinds of visions that drove them onward; and in these pursuits they rose, they fell, they faulted, they were often exalted or saluted, they served, and many survived the harshest rigors. Their stories, fact or fiction, where we rarely know the complete details of any act, should be carried on.
Here are five pieces of such journeys over water: oceans, rivers, frozen wastes of the Far North:
The Viking Road
Elvie Vandergaard was full of spirit, and the Viking blood was in her, “All the way back to kingdom come, in Rafn’s world,” as her father used to say, and all that spirit and all the generations were working on her as the new world of the Americas called on her as they had called on the Vikings of yore. She believed adventure had no equal other than discovery, and the Great Dane, fellow Scandinavian, Carl Christian Rafn, had fed them curiosity with the lethal punch of his Viking travel study, a curiosity that dug deep into Elvie.
The new way for her, the new life of dedication, began in a small port in Scandinavia, spring happening, promise rising, the ice breaking apart in the fjords, the sea opening out to the horizon, and a rugged little ship setting sail for quest, adventure, riches.
Elvie Vandergaard was introduced to another young passenger, Francine “Frankie” Feltoneau, on the ship sailing for the new world. Opportunity called from beyond the western horizon where the day’s sun drew them with its waiting dreams. The introduction was made by one of the vessel’s officers, First Mate Thorn Haverstrom, a friend of each of the women.
“Elvie,” HaverstromHHaverstrom said, “I’ve known you for a long time and this is the first time I ever met anyone who could be a sister to you. She’s so much like you, dreaming of being out there in the new world and finding all that waits on the adventurous. She has the same fire in the middle of her gut you have, the drive few women have of those I’ve known. I don’t think she’s afraid of anything, like you’re not afraid of anything, at least nothing I can think of.”
The comparison made him smile.
Frankie, as it was quick to see, took to Elvie right away as Elvie took to her. And Frankie soon found out from their initial talks that Elvie had a map emblazoned on her mind, the map of the elusive but dreamt-of Viking Road, the way into the new land and whatever was in the way of pushing on to dreams. The verbal points of the undrawn map had been talked about in Elvie’s family for generations; and she believed she could draw the map in her sleep. “I see them as I drift off to sleep,” she said, “like they were set in place by a branding iron. Hot and true.” She spit on her fingers.
Frankie, deeply in tune with her, was also loaded with hope and optimism, seeking adventure as well as riches.
They bonded before the ship was on the high sea, for Elvie had told Frankie about her grandfather always believing the remains at “Anse à la Medée” in Newfoundland on the coast of Canada, had been a site settled by fellow Scandinavians. The information of the site had come from crew of the ship Medée that had sailed on French channels. That knowledge made a solid connection with Frankie.
Elvie, in her spirited way, had told Frankie, “I think the map in my mind to be as accurate as could come from sailors’ eyes, those others before me who were seeking Norse settlements further inland, but in the heart of new America, on the route of the inland waters. In my map each point of looks out past the east coast of the continent, down the great rivers, at feet of one or more of the great lakes. I am obsessed that Norsemen put up small settlements along their route after coming from northern settlements along the edge of the vast sea. Their route, the Viking Road as I call it, goes down the St. Lawrence River, onto Lake Erie, land-traveled onto Lake Huron, and moved by boat to Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. From there the whole middle of what would be known as the continent of North America opened before them. “
She qualified her ideas. “I have laid my map onto a continental map of North America as it is now known, from all kinds of explorers, Viking and French alike, and we are going to go along that route. On our way the Viking Road promises a great supply of food - animals, nuts, and other vegetation to sustain us, like it did for those before us --- once we get to mid-America.”
“Where has that road gone, in what directions?” Frankie said, catching Elvie’s spirit and enthusiasm. Frankie’s eyes were alive with the same fire and interest that Elvie showed.
They were, indeed, a pair.
Elvie answered, “From Scandinavia and Iceland and Greenland and Newfoundland in one part of Canada, where the French had an impact to the inland ways. They had been there in real early times in places now named Rhode Island and Cape Cod and New York and North and South Dakota and Wisconsin and Iowa and Minnesota and all the way to Oregon. I want to travel that road, along its whole route, to see what they saw, what tempted them, what fulfilled them. I want to find rune stones and mooring stones where they tied off their ships so long ago it seems unbelievable to some, but not to me, not to me or to my family. The stories about them have been handed down for hundreds of years.”
The two, in a quick tandem, thought endlessly about their coming adventure, but it was First Mate Haverstrom who poured some sense and awareness into their feelings. “Excitement is great,” he told them as they were sitting at the aft end of the ship nearing landfall, “but do me the great favor of always watching who and what is about you, who’s around you, who pays inordinate attention to what either one of you is doing. Keep your eyes on the other. Do that and you will do yourselves a great service.”
He stood as the ship rolled and the rhythm of the sea came to him again. “The beauty of each of you will make some exorbitant demands on some men. Be aware of it.” He went off as the second mate called him.
So it was, in a small town beside the Turkey River as they were heading north in Iowa, their supplies depleted, that Elvie Vandergaard was preparing to renew their supplies at the only store in town. They were headed for a sighting of a rune stone in Minnesota.
As had been their custom for a number of such duties, Frankie went first and alone into the town and stationed herself where she could watch Elvie arrive later and do her errands. She spotted the two men who talked hastily as Elvie passed by them and entered the store. One man stayed behind and the second man stationed himself a short way down the town road, between two buildings. Both men seemed too interested in Elvie, from Frankie’s perspective. The sight of them at some underhanded task unsettled her and he kept her eye on them all the time Elvie was in the store getting supplies. A few times she checked her rifle and the pistol on her belt.
Elvie, coming out of the store in the company of an older man and a young boy, all carrying some of the supplies, came to the wagon and loaded the supplies on the back end, Elvie finally putting things in place. When she turned the wagon around and headed out of town, the two strange men, too interested in Elvie for her own good, were following her. Frankie kept pace well behind them, the usual practice in place when new supplies were obtained: Elvie at her work, Frankie as the watchdog with certain responsibilities at hand.
Two miles out of town, in a small wooded section along the river, Elvie pulled the wagon to a stop and began to free the horses from their traces at their campsite. She was a bit nervous because Frankie, as if by an unmade signal, had not appeared: it meant that there was a question in the air. Elvie saw nothing as she moved about the campsite, neither the strange men nor Frankie, and she kept at her business but was alert.
The two men, from a hidden spot, watched Elvie at the campsite – as Frankie watched them, silent as they had been, and as hidden and patient as a mountain lion on the prowl.
The men finally tied off their horses to a standing dead tree, kept themselves out of sight, and stealthily approached the campsite, evil intentions quite obvious.
Elvie did not wear a handgun as Frankie did, but she had two pistols secreted on the wagon, both free for grabbing if needed. She could see the edge of one gun handle near the tailgate and it gave her comfort: if there was someone watching her, and she was fairly certain that there was, they would see she was unarmed --- for the time being, she might have added, looking at the handle and the second gun was not far away from the visible one. The sense of comfort, despite the apparent danger, came with a cool vigor through her whole body; in any two women in the west were ready for trouble, Frankie and she could handle it.
She went on with her work, aware that something wrong was afoot, but Frankie was close by, as made evident by her silence.
When the two strangers tied off their horses, Elvie was about 40 yards away, and as the men came nearer their moves became slyer and more secretive. They were so immersed in covering their approach that they did not see or hear Frankie come quietly up to their horses, knife the saddles loose from each horse and quietly placed the cinch-cut saddles on the ground. She left the horses where they were, reins free, motionless, free of saddles, munching on a patch of grass.
Frankie took the two rifles from the saddle scabbards and hid them under a mound of brush, then she circled around to her right and came nearer the campsite, all the time her eyes on the two men, her finger on the rifle trigger.
When they rushed Elvie and overpowered her before she could get to one of the secreted weapons, Frankie fired a rifle shot into the branches above the horses, which bolted, saddle-free, and took off across the grass.
Elvie, at the sound of the shot, grabbed a handgun from under the wagon when one man let go his grasp. The men stood erect when Frankie fired a second shot, this one at their feet and Elvie was quickly standing in front of them with the revolver aimed dead-on at belt level, not a quiver in her grip and the soft, lovely face they had seen in the town was now set as hard as a cut stone. Her eyes, they noted, were filled with more hate than anger.
With a sudden wide but vindictive smile coming on her face, she sternly said, “Whatever you gents had in mind, I have a better idea: you’d best start walking to catch up to your horses because my partner and I don’t know how far they’ll go or where they’ll go because they’re each have a snake tied to their mane. We knew you were coming.”
She snickered and added, “In the meantime, better drop your gun belts intact and with no extra motion, no surprises, not even a wiggle. When we move out we’ll hang them someplace around here where you can spend an hour or so looking for them. We’ll be out of here and off on the Viking Road, of which I am sure you have no idea whatsoever.”
Frankie still had not shown herself, but from her hidden spot put another round that took an empty can right off a stone at the edge of the dead fire. The empty can flipped into the air and flopped down noisily against a wheel rim.
The two men looked at each other in silent amazement, and made no quick moves.
Elvie added a further caution. “My pard meant that shot as proof of an eye that never misses. You best leave before that trigger finger gets too itchy and scratches itself the wrong way.”
As the men walked away muttering to themselves, Elvie added one more piece of advice, “Don’t come back anytime today or tonight or you’ll never find your weapons or your saddles. We’ll bury them if you do. It’s only a few miles to town, so spend the night there and come looking in the morning for your gear. Consider yourselves lucky this time around. If there is a next time, the ending will be momentous and quite memorable. I’ll guarantee you that.”
With a sudden move, Elvie jumped sideways and yelled out, “Again. Do it again.”
The answering round hit the empty can again and it leaped into the air and flew onto a small pile of firewood with a harsh sound that left a fierce echo.
Both campsite invaders dashed off onto the wide grass and kept running until they were out of sight.
The young ladies of the Viking Road broke down their camp and were out on the road before darkness set it, and Elvie asked Frankie where she had hidden the gun belts.
“Oh,” Frankie said, “it’s not where I hid them, but what I did when I stuffed the barrels. That pair of lug heads better clean their weapons, or they’ll never fire them again.” The smile covered her face with broad glee, as though she was seeing the image of the bad guys trying to fire their weapons with the subsequent explosions.
The pair laughed all the way down the Viking Road, bound for the next stop in Elvie’s internal map, which happened to be composed of her own memories of family tales and one quick look at a map associated with Carl Christian Rafn’s detailed study of the Viking exploration of the New World, "Antiquitates Americanae" that was published some 30 years earlier, in 1837. Her father had said that Rafn firmly believed in early Viking explorations in the new Americas. Her father had added, “The man’s adamant about these Viking exploits, has devoted his life to the study. ‘He’ is the Royal Dane.”
Bringing this news to Frankie, an avid listener, brought great joy to Elvie. They bonded deeper in their awareness of what the other brought to the pair of them.
But even in their quick joy and laughter about outwitting the two strange men bent on obvious evil doings, they knew, both of them, that the way ahead of them was peppered with the odd fates due women alone in the wild and wooly west, a world that many saw besmirched with gunfighters, rustlers, road bandits and brigands of the worst order, all of them acting their way in spite of the richness of the land around them, in spite of history unfolding about them, which most men are oblivious of, hunger of one sort or another having the greater demand on their appetites.
Immersed in deep thoughts at one point of the trail, they neared a special location in Minnesota, which had been admitted to the Union in 1858. One fabulous rune stone had been uncovered here in a farmer’s field, and Elvie and Frankie had hungered for the sight of it. The wanted to look upon what a Viking hand had done to immortalize a chunk of rock … hundreds of years earlier, perhaps near a millennium earlier. The possibilities astonished them, flooded them with the ultimate curiosity. Their talks for days on end, since the incident with the two rowdies, centered on what they might see, how it would fuel their interests, or now it might set a further desire in place.
On this leg of the trail they had not seen a person in a day and a half, when Frankie cautioned Elvie to ride on alone while she slipped off the trail. “There’s a lone man back there,” she said. “He’s been trailing us since dawn. You go on, as usual, and I will net him for us. Net him surely,” she laughed as if punctuating her thoughts with a devious point.
With that said, at a point in the curving trail, she slipped into a wooded section and waited there out of sight for the lone tracker to pass by.
She saw he was as young as she was, blond as Elvie, fair of skin as she herself was, and he rode a golden palomino that collected a dash of the morning sun. Frankie also noted that he wore two guns on his belt and carried a rifle in the saddle scabbard. He seemed intent on keeping his distance from the wagon, holding the horse back, as if he was biding his time for surprise or visitation. A small note came to her, saying that she found him as handsome as any man she had seen this side of the Atlantic Ocean. She hoped that her quick appreciation of his looks would not cause any problem in the completion of her task.
Frankie continued to watch him closely as he passed by her position, and then she slipped out behind him. It was obvious he did not hear her come out from the shadows under the trees.
The lone young man almost fell of his horse as he heard Frankie click her weapon and, with a serious voice, say, “Hold there, mister, and don’t you move or make a pass at your guns or I’ll knock you dead off the saddle.” She waved her rifle at him as he stared at her, his eyes wide with surprise, his face red with embarrassment.
“Oh, my,” she said to herself, “he’s as handsome as I thought he was.”
“I mean no harm,” he said, his face a sudden blaze of honesty. “I came to tell you that there’s some trail rats waiting to set on you and your friend. I wasn’t sure how to tell you. I heard them talking in the saloon last night. They got a telegraph saying two lovely ladies riding by themselves are bound for Mortonsen’s Farm just to see a hunk of stone he dug out of the ground.”
He looked ahead of him where Elvie had pulled the wagon to a stop. “They went on ahead last night. There’s three of them and they’re final hell raisers of the worst sort. I seen ‘em before doing their thing and got whipped pretty bad for butting in. They don’t like me and I don’t like them, so I think you and your friend better hear what I have to say and plan something. I’m a little short on planning stuff. I’ll shoot at ‘em if it comes to that, but of a sudden. I don’t plan on shooting. Just doing it when the time comes, when it’s needed, and only then.”
The young man and Frankie told Elvie what had transpired, the night before and at their meeting on the trail. “We can’t walk in there blind, Elvie,” Frankie said. “We have to set something up. Dingo here, as she pointed him out, “came all the way from Australia as a kid. He’s into history because some of his folks were shipped out of prisons in England to prisons in Australia. He calls himself Dingo, but his real name is Colum McCourt. He knows the farm too, the whole layout.”
Colum “Dingo” McCourt volunteered what he knew of the farm. “Nobody’s there now. Mortonsen was in town last night and he’s staying over waiting for his daughter to come in from Chicago on the noon stage. He does the place by himself. Lost his wife last year who got kicked by a bull. His daughter is coming to tend the house. He sent her off to school a year ago but she has to come back now. So the hell raisers have the place to themselves as we talk, ‘cause they saw him in town same as I did. They probably had a good sleep there last night waiting for you.”
Then he positioned himself, hands on hips, and said, “Waiting for us.”
Frankie was in love with the handsome young man who would dare take their side in a fight. But it was Elvie who said, “If they’re expecting us to walk in there, we’ll just have to turn the tail on them and let them chase the dog. We’ll make them come out to look for us when we don’t arrive as expected. They won’t want to wait all day for us to show. That means we have some time to set the bait.”
Frankie smiled, first at Elvie and then at McCourt. She felt giddy at both prospects. She looked at Elvie and said, “What will we use as bait?”
Nonplussed, nodding an affirmative, Elvie simply said, “Our wagon.”
Then she asked McCourt a bunch of questions, measured the responses, and finally offered a final query. “Of the several sites you mentioned, what will serve us best for us to get them afoot and be able to run off their horses?” She added a few more necessities to perfect her plan.
“I know the perfect place,” McCourt said, his eyes suddenly lit with appreciation for coming events, as though pay-back-time was at hand.
The three of them, ready to entice the bad element, set up the wagon at the far end of a small canyon, positioned so that it was partly visible from the regular trail to town. There was a place at the open end of the canyon where horses could be tied off by men trying to approach the wagon on foot.
“We’ll hide at this end, under cover, and if they see the wagon and do as I believe they will, we’ll be behind them, run off their horses, and have them like pickles in the barrel.”
They were set up and spent the waiting period talking about Vikings in general and particular attention to the rune stone. “Have you seen the stone?” Elvie asked of McCourt, her interest not flagging a bit, whereas Frankie was fully confident that she was in love, her dreams slightly altered … at least for the time being. She might have said that time and receptive hearts made all the difference, because time and hearts are partners in most everything.
“Only from a distance,” McCourt said. “I know he has it socked away in his barn. A neighbor’s son saw him drag it in there. Had it hitched to his mule, it’s that big, but I don’t know how much it weighs, or what it says on it. Or even what it’s supposed to say. The kid says he couldn’t read a word of it when he helped to get it into the barn. Very strange writing, he said, a kind he’s never seen before, not that he’s a keen student of languages at all. And he wouldn’t say where it’s hidden in the barn. I think that’s a promise the kid made. It’s most likely buried in a stall or under the floor, but lots of people want to see it. I believe he’s trying to lock something up for his daughter’s future. Can’t blame him there, can you? He’s mostly a dirt poor farmer working alone. All he has is the little farm and this big rock people want to see … just to prove a point of history or belief. There are sides to all of this, like you say.”
McCourt’s interest had been fully aroused and he asked Elvie, and not Frankie, if she thought she could read what the stone might say, if they could find it.
“I can read some of the Viking words on stone,” Elvie said. “Not all of them, but enough to know if it’s real or not, and not one that someone’s played around with. All the way back in the Atlantic states I heard there are arguments of all kinds about people making things up about the old days, the real old days. I have heard that some people, some very smart people, have doubts the Vikings could get this far inland, into the middle of the new world. If those intrepid Viking explorers, in spite of all possible troubles, crossed the Atlantic in boats not much bigger than a few wagons strung together, why couldn’t they have come where we have come? Where we are right now? We are not super people, Frankie and I, are we?”
McCourt, pulled in Frankie’s direction by the unsaid, replied, after a studious pause, “If they didn’t get lost out there in the middle of the ocean how many years ago I couldn’t count, I sure believe they could get here and you can bet that no Indians, no Pawnees or Cherokees or Kiowa or the very Sioux themselves, could stop them.”
At that moment they heard a surprised voice from the head of the canyon say, “Hold it there, boys. You see what I see down there in that canyon? Them two gals got that wagon hid from the road. Hell, they didn’t do a very good job of it, did they? Let’s tie off our mounts and sneak up on them gals. They won’t even hear us comin’, will they? They’re goin’ to a party and hell, they don’t even know it yet.”
They were three awful looking roustabouts and the hidden explorers watched them as they roped their horses to some shrubs and proceeded to slip into the canyon. They didn’t even have their guns in hand as they moved slowly toward the wagon sitting clear as any target could be against the wall of rock, dead sure of the party coming their way, surer than hunting.
One of them, the obvious leader, said in a hushed voice, “Luke, you go off there to the left and just keep your eyes peeled for them two gals. Don’t let them get near any weapons, not that they could get much done with ’em.” He laughed at the thought of guns in the hands of two lone women.
“Collie, you go to the right, up in among them rocks. Both of you best draw your weapons and be ready in case them gals hear us comin’, and keep your eyes on that wagon. I’m goin’ up in the middle to check on ‘em from the front end.”
He advanced slowly, confidently, quietly. He heard nothing from his two companions, both also moving slyly toward the wagon. A soft but persistent draft touched at the canvas top, but not a whisper was heard. The horses leisurely munched on grass. High overhead, floating on a thermal rising from the canyon, several large-winged birds of prey watched as though a meal was being readied for them. A night owl, disturbed by movement, uttered a sound of curiosity.
Frankie had her rifle eye right on the leader. Elvie had another of them and McCourt had the last one in his sights. .
When Frankie clicked her rifle, the leader spun around and she put a round right into his holster; there was no drawing of a weapon. But he screamed.
At the same moment, their horses, loosened from their ties by McCourt, sprinted at a dead run out of the canyon.
Luke, the one advancing on the left, spun and fired without looking for a target; more to make noise, to be belligerent, to be aware. He hit nothing, but Elvie, slow and steady on her rifle, hit him in his hand, the one holding his pistol. The gun flew loosely into the air and fell harmlessly, but its chamber still loaded.
McCourt, eyeing the one called Collie, simply said, “Your pals are in trouble, so don’t do anything foolish, else I’ll do the same to you.” He put a round right between the man’s feet. Rock shards flew into the air and the bullet flew away in a whistling carom.
There came a serious silence, tempers and attitudes being measured, being understood.
No further moves or sounds were made by the three interlopers.
The three men, without horses, their guns taken from them, one of their hands wrapped by Elvie, were directed with legitimate threats out of the canyon.
Frankie knew deja vous as Elvie said, “Better find your horses. You can find your weapons hereabouts, but not until tomorrow. If you come back any earlier, we’ll do a bit more to hinder your life cycles.”
In an hour the two girls and their new friend McCourt found the stone simply leaning against the barn wall, under a canvas shrouding it and implements leaning on it like it was a tool rack; a three-tine pitchfork, an ax, a two-man saw, a rugged looking sledge, a pair of spades with the points worn to a near flat edge, a good bucksaw, a broken frame of a worn-out bucksaw, and a bow saw an inventive blacksmith must have improvised out of hot iron.
Frankie and McCourt felt a swell of admiration for Mortonsen, the man who had worked his way into the wilderness, but it was Elvie, shoving any and all adulation aside, who immediately set to copying the inscription on the stone. She went at it as if it was a meal coming after a fast of 40 days, and meticulously added each character to paper the exact way it appeared on the stone. It took her more than an hour to copy it all down in a pad of paper, many of the pages already filled with strange entries from other sites that had revealed a place once reached by the Vikings of yore, by explorers who shared her bloodline.
Elvie, it was easily noted by the romance-bound Frankie and McCourt, was oblivious of them as she studied the stone and entered her notes in the pad, both of them realizing that Elvie was in her dream world come alive right there in front of them, the Norse roots calling deep within, the allegiance manifest in her attention.
The differences in them were immediately known to Frankie and McCourt. “She doesn’t even know we’re here,” McCourt said at one point, as his hand found Frankie’s hand, which she accepted at his touch.
Frankie, seeing it all, knowing herself at the same time, said, “It’s what has driven her here. It’s what will drive her on from here, to the next place in that map she carries in her mind, to that far Oregon place.”
She told McCourt all that Elvie had told her. “She will never tire of her task, of her journey, of her search.”
It was not long out of her mouth before McCourt said, “It’s very obvious to me, as it must be with you, that she can’t go on alone. She’d be more than a mere curiosity out here alone, so I guess we’re in it for the long haul. Do you agree?” His arms were around her, stating the obvious case, seeking her agreement.
Frankie went back in her mind over the whole passage of her own place in this journey and knew everything had been pushed, driven, carried through by Elvie’s passion. She assumed at that moment that history at times has its impact on today’s actions as much as romance does, as much as true love does. She knew she’d believe all Elvie might translate from the rune stones they’d find, just as she’d believe every word McCourt would say to her, on the long trail to wherever those Norsemen had traveled on the Viking Road.
On for the long ride she was, that was a sure thing; and Elvie Vandergaard, bent to her own promise, was bound to write her own book as a follow-up to Carl Christian Rafn’s book, though he might never have stepped a foot on the Viking Road.
Two Fathoms Down
“Though curious, be you kind to yourself, and leave here now, lest you ….”
Anton Chalkov thought he chased only a dream out of Siberia, a dream and nothing more. He boated across the Bering Strait, with divine intervention on few occasions, and into Alaskan waters. Once ashore in Alaska it was obvious he had not gone far enough and set out, overland for a portion of his journey and then back on coastal waters in the company of fishermen, for the New World of America. All this travel in pursuit of the dream. The dogs he bought for the overland portions of his trip were masterful, they too having good blood in them, born for the snow and the task. The dogs got him all the way through a few of Canada’s territories, before he swapped them for one horse in Montana territory of America, where he had been headed all the time.
He’d been a Cossack, now he wanted to be a cowboy.
In Montana, once again in the saddle, his blood began to rollick, ride and stride, the blood of a true horseman in the rhythm of the saddle, a Cossack on the move.
Though far from home, he was closer to his dream, even as he recalled the words of his grandfather: Wherever you go, look for messages in your own language. The words will direct you. People of your blood have gone where you dream of going, though many years ago. Their history lies along the way.
Chalkov was 22 years old, a Cossack with rebel Tatar blood in his veins, and all the men before him in his family were Cossack horsemen, of the Siberian Host. He wore the mark of a Cossack host or Cossack voisko (Казачье войско, kazachye voysko). In several villages, where the Host was quartered after battles, he heard tales about the American west, and the horses that the Spaniards had brought centuries ago from the other end of Europe. He could feel the ride in his seat. Animals like that could run with the wind, turn like a mountain goat out of the Urals or the Ukraine range, bear on one like a wave from the wild Pacific.
If any person of authority on the way asked him where he was from, he knew what he’d say. “I am descended from Mazepa and Petro, great Cossack leaders, and probably from the Tsar himself, for he too rode the horses of the steppes. The horsemen of the central Plains ran with fear as their frontal attack, setting opponents back on their heels.”
It was simple. “I am a Cossack,” he would be proud to say.
He passed down through Alaska, taking a year to complete the journey, fighting the cold one time and the huge mosquitoes another time. He lived with Eskimos for a while, fishing and hunting and sharing an igloo, learning much from them in the ways of survival.
Then he contended with a section of Canada, and eventually landed in a high Montana village, the mountains wild and savage in their looks. It was the dead of winter, but he had been through three harsh years in his journey, much of it under extreme winter conditions. The horses still called on him, the grasslands he had heard about, spring flowers bouncing across the grass as fast as rabbits. He could hardly wait for it to all come true … the cowboys and the Indians and the huge herds of cattle he had heard about. Also filtering through to him were stories of gunfights and duels in the main street of little towns and big cities, the shoot-outs among rival forces, like Cossacks loose in America.
In the village, an old Indian he befriended asked his pardon to make a suggestion. “The new land you have entered is a strange one. It is made up of people who came from elsewhere, all of them, and they look back with disdain at those who came also from distant places. My people were here before all of them, for centuries they were here. What I am saying to you is that before we came here, we were there, where you come from. We made the same voyage you did, but many centuries ago and made the journey by walking and not on boats or canoes.”
He looked back over his shoulder as if he was seeing all of it again, all the trials, all the troubles, all the history. “What else I am saying is to change your name, merge with the landscape, settle in as though you were born here, give no one an edge on you, or the chance to slight you.”
“I am Cossack,” Chalkov said, “a Cossack from the Siberian Host. Take me as I am. Take me as what I do. Take me as the man that I am. Why should I change my name?”
The old Indian, putting on the face of a god or a chieftain, said, “They call me John Bush now, even as I fail at holding onto life. It is the only reason I am the last of my tribe that lived here in this mountain range and can live here now. I was ‘Wind in the Bush’ before. I was saved by a mountain man, Tall John, who gave me a name and I should give you a name. You shall be called Andy Chalk from now on. It will save enough of your energy to go where you want to go and do what you want to do … ride the horses in the new land, and find the dream that dances at your feet and in your eye. I will make the way clearer for you in the white man’s way.”
Came then a significant pause, things being measured, parceled out, and shared singly. “You will be granted a formidable gain,” John Bush said. “I only want to make the way to that gain as clear as I can. I am the last of my tribe. I am the keeper of secrets. I know that you come here among us as the new hope, for you come here with a new air about you, the freshness of a spring breeze the saplings have found, but more than all things measured, we share the same roots of the soul.”
“What is this gain I should be looking for? How will I find it?”
John Bush, ailing as he had for a long while, sat straight in his place. “It will find you. Be aware, for the line you follow comes from behind you. That is less mystery than you can imagine.”
Because Anton Chalkov deeply respected the old Indian, he became Andy Chalk and said his new name a hundred times before he went off to sleep that night. “Andy Chalk” sounded, at length, like a rider of horses might say his name to a friend, just a cowboy named Andy Chalk, but underneath a Cossack.
“Who has gathered all this information?” he had asked John Bush, who replied, “The Assiniboine of the Meadows, of the village of Pasquayah. My people cooked great meals over heated stones. Pasquayah was in the land of the Sioux, of whom we were brothers. They told the stories of the Great Crossing in past centuries.”
Andy Chalk, Cossack forever, but also now with a new name, was a good and patient listener, as John Bush continued what he knew of the history of his people and the new connection with Chalk. In truth, he felt his end was near, and he was bound to pass on the word of his people. It was his legacy.
“My people,” John Bush continued, “the Assiniboine were not different from the other Sioux in the land. Men wore their hair in many ways; it was not cut very often, and when it got really long it was twirled in locks. They often wore false hair to make the twirl longer. Sometimes it reached down to their feet, but usually wound up in a coil on top of their heads. Their customs were much like our Cree cousins of the Plains. Traders liked to visit them, for they made pemmican, a good barter for liquor and tobacco, among other goods, and, of course, for gunpowder, lead and knives, for warfare and for hunting. “
During much of the night he carried on with history, tales, legends all about his people who had made the same trip that Andy Chalk had, and Chalk waited for the specific information that John Bush was going to give him for a clear start in the new world. “You will need a hand in the new land,” he had said.
During much of his sleep, Chalk was visited by visions of his journey at every phase, including the times when his life was threatened or nearly taken away, when danger came from many sources, and signs of odd meanings were visible around him. Some he could read and some he could not.
In the morning John Bush was dead beside the dwindling campfire. In one hand he held a map laid out on a leather skin. It directed the seeker to a mountain tarn where fish birds dare not light. The tarn, according to the map, was not too distant from where Chalk was standing, the map in his hands. Landmarks on the map were obvious to him, and a legend at the bottom was in his own tongue … it said, “Хотя любопытно, не будьте Вами вид к вам непосредственно, и отпуску здесь теперь, чтобы Вы ,” which said in English, “Though curious, be you kind to yourself, and leave here now … .” The statement, he understood for some vague reason, was incomplete.
Chalk knew that too was a sign … and a challenge.
On a magnificent red stallion, Chalk started his short journey as directed by the map. The destination, he figured, was about two days away in the mountains. The horse that he named Pavlo was stronger than an ox and climbed the hills as steady as a current. Chalk was happy and proud as he rode the stallion, a mingled sense of might and confidence filling him.
He carried a single revolver on his belt and a rifle sheathed on his saddle. But those were not his only arms. Back in Russia he had promised he’d not be without his sword in the new land, his Cossack sword. He now carried it also in the sheath with his rifle. Even if he did not say so, some people would know he was a Cossack by that sword.
Preparation, and readiness, had long been needed by him as a Cossack and he had heard many stories of the new land, of its robbers, brigands and road agents. It wasn’t that they did not have them in Russia, but in Russia such scum stayed clear of any Cossack, and the Host that Cossack could bring down on a new enemy. Chalk was rigid with that confidence.
He’d be prepared, he vowed as he set out. Steep, precipitous trails met him right at the start, as the first part of the route was a climbing one. He was but a few hours on the trail, on a very steep incline, when a robber on foot stepped in front of him with a rifle in his hands.
“Hold it right there, old pal,” the robber said. “All I want is the money you’re cartin’, your horse ‘ats bigger ‘n a mountain, and thet saddle you’re asittin’.” He was young but bearded, carried a scar right across his nose as if he had been wounded in the war, and carried a pistol on his hip. Chalk had measured him from the outset.
The young, scarred youngster waved the rifle in a threat.
But that poor, lonely misguided road agent, that youngster at a new trade, raw as a colt in the business, had never faced off with a Cossack in the blood.
Chalk drove his spurs into the flanks of Pavlo with such a quick thrust that the huge animal leaped forward, knocking the robber on his backside, his rifle falling down the side of the mountain. Before he was aware of anything, he was under the sword hanging over his head, with a slant of sunlight shining off the sharpened edge.
“Take your side arm,” Chalk said, "and throw it over the side of the trail. Throw it downhill so it will take you time to get it, but don’t throw it so far you can’t recover it. You may need it up here. If I ever see you again, I will drop this sword across your neck. That is a promise as dear to me as life. Now go!”
l on Pavlo, went out of sight. The hoof beats went silent just as quickly.
John Bush had told him that obstacles would appear in the quest for his “clear gain” in the new world that he had promised would come to him. Chalk believed John Bush was a prophet of the new world. That belief was cemented firmly with Chalk for he faced three more robbers or brigands in his own quest. The next one came in a small village at a mountain crossroads, and in its usual saloon.
He entered, ordered a drink, and was assessed by another patron as a “complete stranger from a weird source”
“You ain’t from around here, are you, bud?” Here was another young cowpoke stepping out beyond his territory. Of course, the arrogance came with the questions, the stance, the hard look fashioned under his sombrero brim. “You sure ain’t from around here, are you, bud? I saw a sword in your saddle out there. What the hell is that? Where are you from? You one o’ them strange foreigners keep comin’ in on top of us? You a Swede or a Brit or a Harp or a Russkie clammerin’ for new freedoms? You one o’ them German from thet far place? Them’s funny lookin’ boots you’re awearin’. Them dancin’ boots? You feel like dancin’ for us, mister?”
Everybody in the saloon thought the young bigmouth was about to draw his gun, but Chalk, fast as a loose pig, snapped a fist in the face of the young upstart. Blood spurted from his nose and he leaned over the bar wondering what had hit him so fast.
Chalk, alert to the whole room, said loud enough for all to hear him, “I am a Cossack. Nobody touches my sword. Nobody makes me dance when I don’t want to dance. I can ride better than anybody here. Shoot better than anybody here. Use that sword in a way that none of you can imagine. I am going on my way now and if anybody follows me, tries any tricks on me, the sword of this Cossack will fall on his neck.”
As he moved to the door, his eyes on the young bigmouth still bleeding on the bar, he said, “That is a vow of utmost honor I place on myself.” He went out the door, mounted Pavlo and rode out of the village.
A mile out on the trail he knew nobody from the saloon would follow him.
In two days he was as high in the mountains as he could get without giving up his horse. Up here in the rarified clime, the sweet air came at him as if he were in the Urals, and the quick turns it had as it whistled within winds off rock walls and pillars of stone and sharp corners. All the while he kept looking for the signs that John Bush said would come to him. Many things caught his eye, but nothing said more than what appeared to him.
And then, as he rode around a sudden tarn in a quick valley off the trail his eye caught signs on a sheer face of stone rising above the tarn. First he saw a fish cut into the stone, then he saw a horse and then a bow. A tipi was next on the rock face and a small boat, maybe a canoe.
John Bush’s voice came back, saying “It will find you.”
Chalk believed he had arrived at “the place of advantage” that John Bush had promised. He searched all over that wall, as high as he could scale and down to the edge of the tarn’s water. He saw nothing that said more. No message delivered.
As he was sitting on the trail, alone in all this mountainous world, him and his Pavlo, he noticed that there was no way to ride to the other side of the tarn. The water shone bright blue in the sunlight, and sat like a clear reflection of all light. When he cast a stone across the surface, skipping off the water a half dozen times, the ripples ran all the way to the other side … where he could not ride.
As he mused he believed that was the first sign of this place in the mountains. Clearly it said he had to go to the other side and check the steep wall over there.
He hid his weapons, including the sword, in a crevice, took off his clothes and swam to the other side. The water was cool but not cold, as if the sun warmed it with direct rays. He swam easily, quickly, and was at the other side in a short time.
A ledge appeared as a thin line and he climbed out of the water and up to the ledge, which ran for dozens of feet in each direction. At one point he saw the scratching on the wall, deep scratches as if an artist had made the cuts.
Chalk rubbed the words that seemed to appear. More words came visible, and then he saw words that he had seen before, and saw them to a conclusion … Хотя любопытно, будьте Вами вид к вам непосредственно, и отпуск здесь теперь, чтобы Вы не оказываетесь два, понимает вниз, which he translated to English as “Though curious, be you kind to yourself, and leave here now, lest you find yourself two fathoms down.”
Chalk felt the excitement leap up through his body, like finishing a ride on a horse never ridden before. He thought about lightning striking across the sky, or a big fish on the end of his fishing line or the first time he wore his Cossack uniform.
A mere 12 feet down he found a shelf and on the shelf a small crevice in which objects of gold came to his hand, a grand clutch of objects, enough for one man in this life, and much of them solid pieces that took him at least a dozen trips to bring to the surface. One tree stood on the other side, and with his sword he cut limbs from it to make a small, clumsy, but serviceable raft to move what he would take with him. On the second day, he had brought what he wanted to the other side, and left much in place. “If ever …” he said. “If ever.”
When Chalk left the tarn on Pavlo, his saddlebag sufficient for a start at ranching, for having his own herd and driving them on a long trail to market, he thought he was halfway to where he wanted to go.
He wondered what the other half would bring.
Valley of the Lost Swan
Dan’l L’Fleur was caught up in two mysteries that would confound any man on any continent; the marked stone he discovered, with the graceful bird imposed on it, and the Indian maiden he saved from certain drowning in the St. Lawrence River, and the night following when she empowered him.
From then on the girl held his imagination at odd hours as he moved inland on old routes of travel. And the strange markings on the flat stone, found right at his feet at “Anse à la Medée,” supported his long-held belief that early Norse explorers and settlers had gone inland right from “Anse à la Medée,” a known Norse site at the tip of Newfoundland. They too had gone west and he believed they had gone farther than any interested party had thought.
The stone weighed mere ounces, but the swan chiseled on it was so elegant that it ought to be treated as solemn as a religious rite. It must have been so treated in its time, though he could not fathom how many years back the swan had been marked into the stone. There was, however, no argument this day on any of this subject, for antiquity itself filled the air. The smell of it. The thrust of it. The taste of “old or aged,” like a good cheese left too long in the larder.
The mantel of antiquity came imposing and draped with warmth and possibilities crowding his mind. Conjecture and proof riding the same horse in a race, guesswork and fact, earthly connections as broad as the entire horizon. What could come out of darkness, out of time? He wondered how many hard facts could come from his query and his quest. Blood tingled and raced in his body. Interest leaped its fever. Nightly he dreamed of shaking hands long in the dim past with a giant man of the north, eyes bright blue like the secret tarns, hair the color of mountain peaks and with such a man there came always the sound of bronze and steel, a warrior at the grind of battle.
And, too, there was the Indian girl to contend with. “Blue Feather,” she had said, eyes of the dove, fingers with the touch of petals setting night apart as he brought her safely from the waters of the St. Lawrence. He assumed it was Blue Feather who followed him thereafter, but at a great distance, though this time he had not seen her for days.
Dan’l L’Fleur, “avec deux apostrophes,” as he’d say, had lingered only one day in the deeply-sequestered valley that began where he left the mountains, going down by a steep trail. With nobody on his tail for the first time in six or seven dawns, he was shortly drawn back into the mountain ranges, the rocky tors and the blue tarns, on his endless search for more Norse remnants. The land was so easy for them, he assumed, until he was in the mountains and found measurement. Uphill in any fashion was enough to make a difference, be an obstacle to any man.
“Believe it,” he could have shouted, “Men of history had been in these mountains long before me, great men, great warriors who fought and conquered the seas, the ice in its huge spreads and forms.” His grandfather told him tales an elder of the Indians had relayed; “White men with white beards and blue eyes were here in long boats many moons ago, before we were born, before the Great Fathers of the Nations were born, before our people came here to set their teepees on this ground.”
L’Fleur and his grandfather believed nothing could be truer than what an Indian said. “In their languages they do not have a word for “liar,” the grandfather said, “in none of the languages I have encountered in the Nations.”
He knew his grandfather had never lied to him.
Dan’l L’Fleur was 29 years old, a student from his first reading years, and often talked aloud to himself in the wilderness. The adventures in reading and in the lore and legends he listened to from all sources had built their own history within him. He’d been thoroughly exposed to the Newfoundland site of the early Norse settlement, “Anse à la Medée” (cove of the ship Medee), which became “L’Anse aux Meduses,” Jellyfish Cove, named by French fishermen, which in turn by phonetic adaption, became known as "L'Anse aux Meadows” for the area’s open spaces.
He understood the ways nicknames arise or are converted from other intents. Despite what they were called, his intense curiosity was bound on antiquity.
L’Fleur and his grandfather always believed the remains at “Anse à la Medée” had been a site settled by Norsemen. The information of the site, arising from crew of the ship Medée and traversing French channels, was thought to be unimpeachable by the pair, and drove them to seek other Norse settlements further inland, but in the heart of new America, on the route of the inland waters. Each one looked out past the foot of one of the great lakes. Each one was obsessed that Norsemen had put up small settlements along their route after coming from northern settlements along the edge of the vast sea. They had come down the St. Lawrence River, onto Lake Erie, land-traveled onto Lake Huron, and then moved by boat to Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. From either lake the whole middle west of what would be known as the continent of North America opened before them, with its great supply of food animals, nuts, and other vegetation to sustain them.
L’Fleur’s map dated 1862, the year his grandfather died, had been rolled by someone into a soft rabbit skin and mysteriously left at his campsite in a lower part of Canada, near the many huge lakes. It was left hanging well off the ground. He suspected it was done by Blue Feather, the Indian maiden who had trailed him for hundreds of miles from a piece of Canada where he had talked freely of seeking remains of Norse settlements. Many times he had seen her on ridgelines behind him, but she never got close enough for him to be certain, except the one time when he found the map. She had been that close and he had been asleep, in the arms of his own god, by the warm fire.
A few times he had double-backed after darkness descended, but never found her. “She knows when I am coming. She must be part witch or shaman-lady,” he said to the elements. Fully with him was the first memory of her in his arm as he plied the other arm against the current of the St Lawrence, trying to bring her to the banking. Then the last memory, warm but fleeting, stayed a solace he kept trying to recapture.
Otherwise he often reflected on the things he had learned, believed, put into a file in his mind: Artifacts found at “Anse à la Medée” were said by northern Indians, in legend or lore of their tribe, to be objects from back in the time of Wabantanka, Great God of the North Skies. It was also said Wabantanka’s children, white and blond before the sun colored them, had roamed the land far from their homes in that “north of another place.” In “Anse à la Medée” and other such sites, Wabantanka’s children had lived in what the Indians called “Great Earth Houses,” long and wide and made of earth parts put together by bronze and iron tools harder than rock, sharper than odors, more rugged than grizzly bears or the great white bears of the ice places. The artifacts had revealed much to Indian wise men. And so to Dan’l L’Fleur, intrepid seeker of truths, of solutions to mysteries.
When L’Fleur found the single flat rock with the elegant marking chipped into its features, he was mesmerized, overcome with a possible connection between the blond giants of the longboats and the carved swan. The neck of the swan to them had to be more gracefully elegant than anything they had ever known in the land of colored skies and cold air. And it widened the path of zeal and interest for him.
He had come down the length of Lake Michigan, not without minor trouble from renegades and campsite robbers, and was seven days west of the end of the lake when a small wisdom told him that the woman rider tailing behind him once again was not Blue Feather. She sat her horse in a different manner, shifted oddly, bore herself not so upright on the bareback. Again, he promised to back track during the night and find her. But as before, she was not to be found, as he had not found Blue Feather. “They are special spirits in their own way,” he whispered into the soft sky.
As always, the stone burned with curiosity and mystery in a small pouch he had hung on his shoulder with a rawhide loop. It also made his heart leap at odd hours.
The route he had followed, to this point in time, was the route of Norsemen driven by curiosity and adventure to travel inland, to see the sights, to see how this end of the Earth sat.
Sitting by his fire at night he reflected often on the places he had been in his short life, and the things he had seen. In one corner of his mind a thing persisted, trying to tell him he had missed something, something found once had mystified him. The stone kept inserting itself in his mind, saying it belonged to “that thing once seen.” Then, in one flash of celerity, like a bolt of lightning had lit his brain to view, he saw where the stone should belong. Once, in that long forgotten past, in these mountains, near a tarn as blue as Norse eyes, he had seen its place of selection.
Up here, in this piece of the mountains, in a place he had been perhaps 25 years earlier with his grandfather, he had seen a place of markings on a wall of a tarn. Could he possibly find that place again? His grandfather had said he would be here again one day. He thought the old man had meant in spirit, but it was him he was talking about, the grandson with the same thirsts and hungers. Parts of that landscape eluded him. He tried to recall a peak that labored into the skies, an old peak worn to brown on the top, but he could not find it. For days he took different trails, ended some as fruitless, and took another. He saw bear and deer and wolves, and goats high on one mountain were dots in his eyes. He looked down on two sparkling rivers; saw the falls that set them off on their run, passed under one fall he had passed under before, a crude but secret crossing of a river beginning its flat run. Twice he saw wagons, freighters and settlers in the mix, as they moved west, and bands of riders, perhaps friendly and perhaps not, as they moved on a series of lower trails. He kept his distance from these groups. But these people, as they did in the long past, still moved to the interior of the land. Or the end of it, at the edge of the next ocean.
Once when he entered a cave, he found it to be a perfect place for a good rest. It was from the mouth of the cave that he finally spoke to the older Indian woman still trailing him.
He caught her unawares, startled her from his hidden place, and said, “Why do you follow me?”
She was embarrassed to be discovered so easily, but quickly responded. “I come this way for Blue Feather, to tell her where you go, man of her heart. I will follow you always until I can tell her where you rest your horse. It is my promise. Where do you go?”
“Why does she not follow me as she did before? I knew she was there from the first day. And why are you so faithful?”
“Blue Feather’s horse jumped from rattle snake. She fell off horse and broke her arm. Came to my tepee to fix. Tell me her story of love. I give promise.” She smiled at him, and nodded a secret affirmation. “She choose well. You do not stop. Keep moving all the time. Where do you go? What do you look for?”
“I look for the place of a blue tarn in the mountains, where one mountain sits down like a tired dog, where men from the north marked walls with signs in stone. I have one of their stones that I believe was carried from there.”
Three Leaves exhibited real interest. She extended her hand and said, “Let me see the stone.”
L’Fleur took the stone from the pouch. “I think this came from a wall above the tarn. Once, long ago, with my grandfather, I saw signs like this on a wall. One sign, carved like this, was a fish. Another one was an animal. A puma I think. One was a man in a great canoe. I visited there once so long ago it wants to fade away.”
“Oh,” said the older Indian squaw, “You went to a place I know, the Place of the White Warriors. The signs swim, they crawl, they walk, they fly. My people talk about them all the time. Wabantanka sent them, all of them when the Earth was being formed, to hold up the mountains, to fill the great waters, the great skies. To be plenty for the gods who come later. Men of great arms, men who hold great weapons in their hands. Kill great white bears for meat. Fight buffalo one at a time with their hard weapons.” She paused as if in repose and consideration. “Long ago,” she said almost whimsically, “Long ago.” The wonder of it all sat right on her face.
“What is your name?” said L’Fleur. “What tribe are you from?”
“I am Three Leaves from the first Lacombe Village, also in the north. We were sent by the Great North Gods to make the Earth ready. Blue Feather is Lacombe, too, but from a secret place. She found her god in you. She come to you again.”
“I wait her all my nights.”
“She make that happen. She tell me.”
“Can you show me how to get there, to the Place of White Warriors?”
“You come here long time on the trail. Dead mountain is around the bend of trail, in next valley in these high mountains. All the stone signs are there except the one you carry with you. We have always been told a god would come back with it.”
L’Fleur studied the eyes of Three Leaves. They did not lie, he believed, and believed her words came from a special source. “I am not a god and I did not take away the bird stone. I found it a long way from here, in the cold land of the north. I think it was carried off by one of the north men.” Wonder and question sat in his eyes. “I am not a god,” he repeated.
Three Leaves was adamant in her reply, though she evinced no anger or disappointment in his remarks. “Blue Feather say you are god. A good thing. We know things from early time. We know you bring bird stone back, make place whole again. Wabantanka speak it long time ago, to some of the Great Warriors. Vow from god is ever.”
At the next turn in the trail on the edge of the mountain pass, as Three Leaves had promised, L’Fleur shook with excitement when he saw the tired mountain rise above the land and the circular walls of a magnificent tarn or mountain pool sitting like guests at a party. A minor high valley held a gorgeous scene. The walls on the far side of the tarn he studied with a looking glass carried in his saddle pack. High on a section of cliff forming one end of the tarn, he saw the place of the inscriptions, and the missing spot where he figured the swan was originally set in place, and from which place had been taken by a scavenger or some other person and carried off, all the way back to “Anse à la Medée.”
Questions would ever abound about both sites. Books would be written. Was the swan taken as proof by another explorer?
After his study and lengthy examination of cliff structure, L’Fleur had to climb the walls to re-fit the swan where it belonged, and where he could again look at the series of carvings thereon, to imagine the stories they told.
He realized he’d have to explore the bottom of the tarn and look at every piece of material found on the bottom. History sat below the water level, just as it did above on the cliff faces.
Then, if Blue Feather had not healed sufficiently well to come to him, he would go to find her, and they would celebrate the rest of their lives before it would pass too quickly on them. How far back had the wall been decorated by the Norsemen? With unknown years piled up, dizziness mounted in his mind. The taste stayed with him.
With extreme care he re-set the graceful swan stone into its place, along with the other equally delicate, but worn, stones that showed a fish, a bear, and a Norse warrior. The lost swan fixed the complement back to its intention, and to its story.
It was only then that the order of the stones issued the story for him, the fish from the sea, the animal on the land, the bird in flight, and the man coming last as the gods had decreed from another place in the sky where the stars at night burned like fiery embers of a wide-spread fire. Or like a bucket of jewels cast from the hands of a god seeking to make all things more beautiful, more promising. All things gave promise of the next in the order.
For two days L’Fleur took dives at odd times trying to reach bottom or see what had dropped to the base of the tarn centuries back. Fish he had seen in many rivers and bodies of fresh water swam in all parts of the tarn. He saw trout and other fish he recognized, and a scattering of crayfish never seen before, a smaller variety that skittered away from him on vertical surfaces. A few times he fled to the surface to renew his air supply.
A small waterfall ran off the lip of one edge, the lowest point in the containment structure. It was narrow, but not sharp, worn down by unknown years of wear. The Indians said great calves of ice, born of the Earth itself before the gods came to visit, had made the tarns or mountain pools, gouging room for ice melt to hold within the mountains to keep the fish, to feed man, to extend life on Earth. Many of them were in small circular shapes eroded by ice and water into the rocky mountains.
L’Fleur could not reach bottom, but on two occasions, in the proper light close to sun at the zenith, he saw a collection of shapes on the bottom. He could only recognize a boat or canoe of full size. He wondered how it had sat on the bottom, unless it was not made of wood. The mysteries leaped with each assessment of time, article or artifact. The chiseled stones were so fine his amazement went fully around to numbness. The stories that Three Leaves told by night fires, the ones that Blue Feather would unleash in years to come, were enthralling.
“She must have more knowledge that ever I bore in my short life,” he said to Three Leaves. “Is she as lovely as I think I remember?”
“Blue Feather could be queen of the Nations of the North, but she chose to be with a God of Earth.”
L’Fleur cringed when he heard that, but felt exultation at the same time. “I hope she mends fast, that her bones set quick as a fox.”
Three Leaves smiled. “Blue Feather also.”
Once, when he surfaced after a long dive, Three Leaves was standing stoically by the rocky rim of the tarn. “You swim too deep. Blue Feather might worry if she here. I see you go near the bottom of water, but water is deeper now than in time of other gods. If mountain talks in the ground sometime and shake loose promise, the water might rush down the mountain. You get to bottom then. Not before.”
At night, with Three Leaves off in a cave, L’Fleur dreamed of Blue Feather. Once more she formed against him as she had in the river.
The next evening, after another fruitless dive where he could not reach the bottom, nor reach any artifacts or see what the boat or canoe was made of, he was conscious of a slow motion in the earth, as if it were mumbling or catching its breath. Then the sensation took a serious turn and there was a positive shaking underneath him, in the walls of the tarn, on the whole mountain. For a moment L’Fleur thought Three Leaves had called it up, the shaking of the whole Earth, her being a god of the Lacombe.
His horse seemed to know more than him what was coming. It shied and skittered in place, and its eyes grew wide and yellow as a train’s beacon. L’Fleur rushed to the animal and patted his neck and spoke to him in the softest voice, as if he was riding night guard on a herd.
Rocks tumbled in a landslide in the canyon, the noise at first a slow rumble like distant thunder, then sounded a harsh retort, like a blast of lightning, and a section of a wall on the far side of the valley disengaged from the mountain and slid down the side of the mountain. In the tarn, blue as ever, a small wave gathered energy into itself and rolled across the pool. Another thunderous crack, like a cannon shot, boomed on the other side of the tarn. The rim of the tarn opened and water rushed forward. A second wave rushed over the edge, and then the rim split as the thunder in the Earth continued. A huge rift appeared and the tarn water began to pour out of the once-solid closure. It was a mighty waterfall for a while as thirty or more feet of water emptied from the tarn.
A new miracle was at hand, as if ordered up for him. Wonder pulled at him again, as he thought of Blue Feather and Three Leaves and the Norse men of long ago, and the delicate swan he had brought back to roost.
In the morning he dove again, and saw the boat and knew it was made of stone like all other things. He found a few tools so clean it was as if they had been dropped into the tarn the day before. He knew old steel and bronze the way it might look in a shop run by a blacksmith in any town of the west.
He was exhilarated; they had been here. They had done these things, and he was sharing them. He turned to show Three Leaves. She was nowhere to be seen. At the tarn the water had ceased its flow downhill. The waves were still. There was silence, eerie silence. Dan’l L’Fleur breathed it in one more time, sharing this huge echo of antiquity.
On the edge of another mountain, off in the distance, on the lip of another trail, he saw Blue Feather coming his way with her play on history. A warm anxiety and a new energy overcame him. He wondered if Blue Feather or Three Leaves had a way of telling his grandfather all he had found; it was possible, he fully understood.
On the wall of the tarn he read one more time the progression of a long story coming to him all the way from “Anse à la Medée” and from elsewhere. He wondered once more what Blue Feather would add to the Valley of the Lost Swan in the middle of the new world of the west.