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Western Short Story
The Viking Road
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

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 Medéein 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.


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