Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
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.