Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Chapter Eight: Conspirators and Collaborators

Once Upon a Fjord was funded, in part, through a Kickstarter campaign. This chapter has been sponsored by Randy and Nina Wahlquist:

“This chapter is dedicated to my beloved son-in-law, the author of this story, who treats my daughter with a love and respect that is a worthy successor of a parents’ tenderness. I also dedicate the chapter to my dear grandchildren, who fulfill my life and give me the opportunity to play my favorite role since motherhood: being a grandmother!”

Sponsor had no editorial control over the chapter content. The author maintains full responsibility for content.

©2012 by Marty Reeder

Chapter 8: Conspirators and Collaborators

John Ross spat on the ground again. He tossed a curse down with it. If they were going to succeed, he thought, they should have been back by now. The sun lowered more on the western horizon, and he strained his eyes past the creek where tracks led towards the north, the direction Dustin and his men chased the runaways.

The two men with John Ross shifted in their saddles uncomfortably. John knew they sensed his irritability. Plus he knew they felt especially vulnerable, since their horses served as the distraction that helped Owen and the Norwegian girl to escape. They’ve a right to be nervous, John thought.

One of the men in particular shared the brunt of John’s, as-of-yet, unexpressed frustration. Not too long after Dustin left, a couple riders tore past their camp, and John found soon enough that it was due to the loose mouth of one his men telling some strangers about the occurrences. Granted, the man at least had the sense to lie about the circumstances, but John did not like the idea of outsiders joining the mix.

Increasingly annoyed, John Ross felt that some overseeing might be necessary. He packed up, herded the two men onto their horses, and then moved up the trail. At the point where the tracks led off, he figured he best wait for them to return, but a full morning and part of the afternoon passed without any sign of the band.

Though he did not seek conversation with his partners, the silence preyed on John’s mind. He kept referring back to his discussion with Owen late the night before. His own boy had the audacity to judge his actions in war—Owen understood nothing of war. Yet, John’s mind chewed the conversation over and over so much that he thought he saw the pale, ghostly face of one of his victims in the wooded hills to the south of the trail, hauntingly peering down at them.

The face he saw, however, was not one of his victims from war. This boy appeared to be a younger version of a later atrocity. Against his conscious, the memory assaulted him.

After chasing off his wife and establishing the beginnings of his cattle kingdom, John found the perfect reserve of land to base his idyllic ranch. Unfortunately, the Indians he and his soldier friends had defeated from that fated battle years ago (others had started dubbing it a massacre, but John Ross knew it for what it was) had been sent to that same land.

Through his old military connections, John convinced the government to relocate the tribes to the mountainous southern region, and he quickly purchased the newly available land. About this time, from seemingly out of nowhere, John’s wife had the impudence to show up.

John winced at the memory. He could tell that the woman he once loved had wallowed in misery for the previous decade, probably drinking and wandering aimlessly from town to town.

When she first came back, disheveled and unsightly, her timing coinciding with his growing success, he should have been repulsed by her. But a part of him thought that she had forgiven him, that she was ready to resume their marriage. He welcomed her back. Then the shock came when she coldly told him that she came to take away her son for good.

John’s face remained impassive at the memory, but his insides snarled. He hated that he ever allowed himself to love her again. He hated himself for tossing the lantern at her face in anger and that it made her go blind. He hated that he left her screaming for her son instead of her sight. And when he came to his new ranch land, and some of the Indians showed reticence in leaving, he hated them too.

John Ross set fire to the plains where their nomad homes stood, and he watched as they wildly fled in all directions. Something inside of him laughed while something else cried. One of them appeared trapped in the blaze, and before it consumed him, he turned, strangely calm, and looked at John.

John will never forget the face, which is probably why it still haunted him, why that face up in the woods looked so familiar, why he looked away that night and could not watch, in spite of his evil mood, and why he had to look away from the younger version of the face above him now. Both times, then and now, by the time he returned his glance, the faces had disappeared.

John shivered in the hot sun, hoping for anything to break the grip of the fearful hallucinations now disturbing him. That reprieve would not come for another four hours or so when the creaking of wagon wheels brought John and his men’s gazes towards the southeast. It also brought their hands to their hips.

Tumbling around the corner wobbled a wagon driven by a sullen-looking man with a prominent eyebrow. The wagon, from all appearances, seemed to be full of mounds and mounds of multi-colored, silky cloths. In the back of the wagon, a huge basket held some ropes and other equipment.

Behind the wagon rode the most dapper person John Ross had ever seen. The man sported a flawless top hat, a tightly tamed mustache, and even balanced a sleek cane along his elbow as his elegant horse patrolled the back of wagon.

As soon as the man driving the wagon saw LeRoi and his men, he stopped and called out in a gruff English accent, “If ya want our money, ye’ll need to foight me for it.”

John recognized the edge in the man’s voice. The edge of a man pushed to his limits, with no dignity, a man who would do anything, even the most extreme, to another human being if triggered. John knew that edge.

The elegant man steered his horse around to the front of the wagon and addressed John Ross. “You’ll have to excuse Snorre. He was raised by wild animals,” the man glanced over at his partner. “Until the wild animals kicked him out for being too impolite.” John said nothing, so the man continued. “My name is LeRoi, and I hail from France. Seeing as how Snorre and I are strangers to the Rocky Mountains, I wonder if you might help us?”

John spat on the ground—his only response.

“I heard from people in Junction City that there were Norwegians living up this trail somewhere. You wouldn’t be able to tell me about how far, would you?”

John tried not to let his eyebrow rise, but LeRoi must have seen it. “You see, they made an order for some special cloth, a cultural thing I’m assuming, but we did not get very precise directions on how to deliver—”

“Stop lying,” John stated, his dark face impassive, but danger lining his tone. “What do you want with the Norwegians?”

John saw LeRoi readjust his approach. “What I want from them is my own business. Clearly, you have business with them too.”

What at first seemed like a distraction, now made John uneasy. “Well, LaRaw,” John purposefully chewed on the pronunciation of the man’s name. “I’ve got two men here that agree that my business is more important than yours.” John’s cohorts straightened in their saddles, hands openly resting on pistols. “Might be in your best interest to turn right around.”

LeRoi somehow stiffened more. John was mildly surprised that the snobby European refused to be intimidated. “I haven’t come across an ocean and a continent to turn around at the sight of a savage and his cronies.”

The mention of “savage” put John Ross on edge. He worked too hard to gain his place in this world to let some foreigner come in and try to relegate him to his past, to his parents’ past. He drew his knife, barely containing his urge to use it.

Though incensed, John still had enough presence of mind to note the man named Snorre gripping at something underneath his shirt. LeRoi saw the look and commented, “Let us dispense with the scalping for the immediate present,” he said. “I am graciously offering you, Sirs, one minute to remove yourselves from the trail.”

John hefted the knife expertly in his hand. “One more reference like that, and you’ll be studying this knife hilt up close.”

LeRoi squinted his eyes coldly. “I’ve no doubt you mean what you say. So respectfully consider that I am serious when I say that no matter what you do, Snorre will kill you. He might die and I might die, but if shots are fired, if a knife is thrown, he will still have it in him to kill one person. And that will be you.” LeRoi’s sneer could not be contained. “If you are wise, you’ll choose the peace pipe.”

John hissed, his knife raised and ready to skewer the Frenchman, regardless of threats. At the same moment, the man Snorre removed his dagger and prepared to launch it. In this position, with their arms raised, the ruckus of an approaching pack of horses delayed any murderous movements.

Appearing on the opposite bank of the small creek, Dustin Trampas dejectedly led his team towards the main trail. As soon as he saw John Ross, he stopped.

“Dustin!” John said, annoyed at the man’s delay but relieved at the extra numbers.

“Boss,” Dustin suddenly noticed the scene and stopped. He drew his pistol. “Want ‘em taken care of?”

John lowered his knife, swiveling towards Dustin and examining his group. “And why would I trust you, if you couldn’t even take care of the others I put you in charge of?”

Dustin shifted, his eyes wandering to a couple equally uncomfortable men in the large group behind him. “Boss, we was … there was …” he stopped. John expected a blundering excuse, but Dustin expressed nothing more. He sat at a loss for words.

LeRoi, forgetting the immediate danger of his circumstance, said to Dustin, “You saw it, didn’t you?”

“Saw what?” John Ross snapped.

LeRoi and Dustin might as well have been the only two people within a hundred miles; they only stared at each other. LeRoi prodded, “In the sky. You saw it.”

Dustin, his dust-covered goatee quivering, nodded.

John sheathed his knife and squinted. Something was not right. LeRoi continued, “Where?”

Finally, Dustin broke his lock with LeRoi and glanced at John Ross, wondering about the wisdom of talking too much.

John wiped his mouth with his arm, then lifted his chin up. “Alright. Let’s hear it.”

Over the next few minutes, John Ross heard an incredible explanation for the lost quarry that normally would have resulted in a boot to the face of Dustin. Yet, the fact that this LeRoi fellow independently corroborated the story, traveled across an ocean in pursuit of it, and the fact that John respected—without admiring—the man’s authoritative credibility, all combined to convince him that he stumbled across an opportunity he could not afford to squander.

Everyone remained silent for an extended time after Dustin’s explanation. The small creek marbled, a stiff breeze slapped against some trees and then slid to the ground. John Ross processed his thoughts in this void, and then came to a revelation.

My other plans are worthless now. If this is true, everything hinges on that island. In that moment, he and LeRoi found each other and shared a common realization. I need this man’s help. For now.

LeRoi ventured the next move. “Gentlemen, put down your weapons. I propose a temporary truce, and a plan.”


Laughing Flower watched the scene with interest from a tree on a hill to the south. She avoided white men when she could, and that gathering of despicable white men below only confirmed her instincts.

Interestingly, though, the one that appeared part Indian caused her to shudder more than any one else, more even than the elegant man with the cold heart and the fur on his lip, or more than the brooding man on the wagon who gripped a knife like part of him wished to throw it at someone and part of him wished to sink it into his own chest.

Laughing Flower could not say what it was about the older man with vaguely Indian features, yet dressed and speaking as a white man. Something about the man tugged at her memory, making her squirm inside. Whatever it was about him, it managed to toss her mind almost as far back as the time when her parents and older siblings were alive and she was just learning to talk, back to when she used to laugh all the time.

Now Laughing Flower never laughed, though she still had the oval face and wild beauty of a mountain flower. Still, No one changed her name to Solemn Flower after the devastating event with the soldiers, though that was what she had become.

After a while of watching the plotting men, she saw a portion of them break off and fly across the small creek to the north. Laughing Flower knew the region well enough to guess that they headed for the Devil’s Labyrinth. The part Indian, the brooding man, and three of the others all created dust trails on the path going northwest.

Laughing Flower regretted that. According to the tracks she followed, it appeared that they would move in a similar direction.

The Indian maiden knew that tradition held that if a boy left for his vision quest, he should depart alone and come back alone. But Laughing Flower had spent too many snows alone to risk her sister’s son, White Feather, to be the last of her relatives to go the way of all the earth.

Because of this, Laughing Flower stayed far enough behind White Feather’s tracks to not be noticed by him, but close enough that if in danger she could swoop in to help him as a mother might—the mother that neither she had known since she was three nor that White Feather had ever known since entering the world.

Now though, Laughing Flower would need to track in such a way as to not be noticed by both her sister’s son and the evil man’s band, but close enough to be able to help White Feather if he should unknowingly put himself in the path of these villains.

Without a hint of laughter in her face, Laughing Flower descended from the tree, mounted her painted pony, and set off on a path nearly parallel with the white man trail, following the half-day-old marks of White Feather’s passing.

As she moved, Laughing Flower hoped that the part Indian man would not be cunning enough to detect her sister’s son’s journeying beyond them … or her trailing them.


Daniel could not believe that he stood on a massive chunk of earth that floated thousands of feet in the air. He could not believe that this boy, a mere eleven-year-old who now stood before them, had been the cause of it. He could not believe this strange collection of birds casually acted as the crew. He could not believe that this man, the boy’s father who had been traumatically stunned since the landslide, had snapped out of it after weeks of being lost, just at Daniel’s arrival to the island. He certainly had a hard time believing that the translucent cords and glimmering acres of sails above them all managed to come from such a simple, small box.

And, after all the time he spent thinking he lost her, Daniel still could not believe that he was holding Karen’s hand.

When Alfred finished his explanation, his father gave him another hug, saying, “You were given too much responsibility. But you have been so brave. I’m proud of you,” he paused again, “I’m sure Mother would be proud of you.”

Alfred took a look at everyone standing on what he had dubbed the quarterdeck, and then his eyes drifted over to a solemn albatross perched on the stump. “I’ve been searching and searching ever since the landslide, and now I’ve found the fjords of America and Father has recovered. I’m not sure what to do next.”

Daniel felt Karen slightly tug at his hand as she shifted her feet. She did not say anything, but Alfred recognized the movement. “Of course,” Alfred said, “You probably want to go home.”

Karen finally spoke. “I plan on returning home, yes, but there is another issue.” Karen looked to Daniel. Daniel, guessing her thoughts, nodded and Karen continued, “Daniel’s traveling partner and the man who rescued me are still down in the Devil’s Labyrinth somewhere. After all they did to rescue me, I feel that I owe it to them to at least make sure they are safe, especially knowing that the man Dustin was pretty intent on capturing us.”

Alfred grinned. “That sounds like just the sort of thing that old man gave me a flying island for!”

They commenced searching immediately, even though the sun drifted low in the sky. As they started, Daniel realized that they faced a daunting task. The Devil’s Labyrinth spilled all across the northwestern horizon and in order to get a fair view of each ridge and down each canyon, they had to sail fairly low, in criss-crossing patterns, just to cover a relatively small amount of area.

While everyone occupied a separate edge of the quarterdeck, with eyes glued to the rippling granite terrain below them, Daniel spoke with Alfred. “LeRoi hoped to take you to Panama, did he?”

“Yes.” Alfred called for the sky sail to be lowered slightly. Remarkably, Daniel watched a few birds zip off to do the bidding. “How do you know the man, LeRoi?” Alfred asked after the action was completed.

“He was on the same ship as us when we discovered the …” Daniel stopped himself, “when the accident occurred.”

“Why did he want to go to Panama? Is that close to here? Snorre mentioned it being to the south, I think.”

Daniel smiled grimly, “Panama is about as far south of here as America is to Norway. It is the skinny land dividing the Atlantic Ocean from the Pacific Ocean. LeRoi hoped to finance a company that would dig a canal there.”

“So the ships could go through?” Alfred asked.

“Yes,” Daniel replied. “However, complications kept LeRoi’s company from ever being able to acquire the property or rights to do the digging. The people who originally gave him money started asking for their investment back. He couldn’t pay them, so he got other people who weren’t aware of the project’s failures to lend money to pay off his first investors. The man was desperate and without a plan … until he found out about this island.”

“But what is so important about this island?” Alfred asked. “What does it have to do with Panama?”

“Why go through all the trouble to dig a canal to transport boats across an isthmus, when this island could do that same thing quite easily without any of the cost?”

Alfred suddenly recognized what he implied, “I would just need to bring the island down on the Atlantic side …”

Daniel nodded and picked up where Alfred left off, “Then LeRoi could have a short channel dug to the island’s pond and deepen the pond a bit. The boats enter, the island goes up and over to the Pacific …”

“I land, and the boats go on their way.”

“I think you see the draw for him now: a way out of his financial woes and into untold wealth. For a man like LeRoi, no life is too precious to keep him from accomplishing such a goal. I would not be surprised if is still pursuing you.”

Alfred nodded. “He’ll have a difficult time if I stay in the sky.”

“Let’s hope so,” Daniel agreed.

Alfred now turned to his father, who stood with his hand on his son’s shoulder as he surveyed the land to the starboard side of the island. “Do you know why Snorre wanted to help LeRoi, Father?”

Alfred’s father remained quiet for a long moment. “I’m not quite sure.” He looked at his son. “I will say that Snorre feels very connected to this island, to …” he trailed off. “He does not have a kind opinion of me, Alfred. I’m afraid that he probably thought that you were me when you landed at the Statue of Liberty. He probably hoped to kill me.”

Alfred returned his father’s gaze, surprised. “Did Snorre and you have business together and something went wrong?”

“No,” Alfred’s father seemed thoughtful. “Not exactly, no.” Daniel watched Alfred patiently wait for his father to add more. He must have learned that patience after losing his father for weeks, Daniel thought. Alfred’s father continued, “I think I owe you a long explanation, Alfred. You have earned that. When we have settled our home, this island, and started our new life, I will sit you down and tell you some stories. I am not nearly as talented as your mother, but I will do my best.”

Not too long after this promise, night fell. They had seen no trace of the lost companions. Alfred continued to fly into the night, but soon it become black enough that further search proved hopeless. Alfred’s father recognized his son’s fatigue and called for a halt to the search until tomorrow. They all retired for the evening into the cabin, Karen taking Alfred’s parents’ room while the rest of them slept in the main room.

Early in the morning, with stars still burning their last shafts of light before twilight, Daniel awoke. After having come so far, he had miraculously found Karen, his dream. There was no denying that he never felt so right about something before in his life. Every minute he spent with her, getting to know her more, getting to see her, getting to watch her, only solidified this thought.

Yet Daniel felt restless. The reporter in him knew that the story was not yet over. Just as he knew that LeRoi would not give up his search, he knew that whatever the Old Finn had in mind when he sent Alfred and himself to America, there was more than this. Even if they found Owen Ross and Grandma Grizzly, Daniel sensed something remained undone. Part of the answer, he knew, lay in the envelope of the telegrams and reports that William Harper gave him in New York. The other part of the answer still lay somewhere out there, and Daniel could not be sure what it was.

Daniel sat up and saw Alfred’s father sitting in front of the fire, stirring some embers with a poker. Alfred’s father immediately noticed Daniel awake. He set the poker down, his hand trembling. “Walk with me,” he whispered.

They quietly exited the cabin, leaving a slumbering Alfred and Karen, taking a path out from the dense pines to the fields. As they walked, Alfred’s father spoke. “I have been shaken out of my trance,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean I have recovered.” Silence dominated the next stretch of trail, then, “I was selfish to withdraw. It was unfair to Alfred, but my heart still aches for another retreat.”

Alfred’s father wiped at some unblinking tears with his sleeve. “I was simply delivering a cargo of fish to a neighboring fjord. I was young, younger than you. She almost never came to that pier. Her family was a sheep herding family, up in the heights of the fjord. But she came that day. She wanted to sample the fish, and we spoke, and she smiled. She told me stories, and I knew that very day that my life would be incomplete without her.”

Alfred’s father suddenly stopped and doubled over, as if about to be sick. Daniel wrapped an arm around him for support, feeling the shoulders of this strong fisherman shivering with silent sobbing. After a long time, Alfred’s father regained his composure enough to murmur, “I was right, Daniel,” he looked up from his angled position. “My life is incomplete.”

Now, Alfred’s father took a deep breath and stood. “Savor every moment with Karen,” he concluded, placing one of his rough hands on Daniel’s shoulder. “I must live my life for my boy. I must finish my wife’s greatest story. But I will never stop mourning her; I can’t imagine the pain will ever go away. Daniel, that is the blessing and the curse of a magical match.”

Daniel nodded. Somehow, he felt he understood. He prayed to never have to experience it himself, but he at least sensed the bitter agony that Alfred’s father would feel for the rest of his life.

After a delay, the two continued to walk in silence, gathering thoughts just as the darkness gathered to the west, avoiding a gray tinge growing in the east. They passed Daniel and Karen’s horses, sleeping on their feet in the amber fields like monuments, and then they reached the black pebble shore leading out to the brisk, open air beyond.

Daniel peered down into the blackness below, seeing dark lines of deep canyons scribbled all over the region. It amazed him how vast the wilderness below seemed, how endless, how hopeless to dare to find two tiny individuals in its breadth.

The scene made Daniel think of how Alfred’s father must feel that same overwhelming sense of futility of ever finding hope again. Then something seemed to say to Daniel, “But you found Karen, didn’t you? Alfred found you.” And Daniel thought back on the reports in that envelope and wondered if the impossible just might be possible, again.

It was Alfred’s father who saw the pinprick of yellow light. It flickered, and blinked, but it was there on the shelf of a ridge—a campfire.

Alfred’s father immediately raced to the cabin and within a quarter of an hour, Alfred had been roused and the island set in motion. Karen joined Daniel on the starboard edge of the island, and as the stars faded, the island navigated closer and closer to the flickering light.

About three hundred yards from the edge of the ridge, the island stopped. Karen and Daniel peered through the lifting gloom and saw two figures standing in front of the fire, presumably staring right back at them. One of them moved and Daniel distinctly saw the flicking of what looked to be some kind of tail coming off a furry hat. “That’s them,” he said, excited.

Karen squinted, “You’re sure?”

Across the chasm a booming voice yelled in English, “Say, Cowboy, got room on that ride fer two more?!”

Daniel laughed. “Yes, Karen, I’m sure.”

Within minutes, they hailed Alfred up at the quarterdeck, and the island inched over to the edge of the ridge, coming alongside it like a ship might a dock. The ridge’s wide shelf served as a boarding point, almost perfectly matching the length of the island. The skilled crew edged the island delicately up to the shelf until the black shore of the island softly scraped against the gray granite.

Grandma Grizzly and Owen Ross led their horses onto the island and the small groups immediately embraced each other, much to the embarrassment of Owen Ross, who acted out of place.

Owen looked at Daniel, nodded, then turned to Karen. “Something tells me this is the man you were looking for.”

Karen smiled and ventured back into English. “I find him. Then I have to find you!”

“I’m happy for you, Karen, and much obliged.” Owen glanced behind them. “We were in a tight spot for a while when we got ambushed by Dusty’s men. But Grandma Grizzly here …” Owen nodded over to a Grandma Grizzly whose eyes sparkled more than Daniel had ever remembered, “… she’s a fierce fighter, and one heckuva shot. They retreated, and then we looked for you guys all along the ridges, since ole’ hawkeye here thought that was where she last seen you. About as the sun set, Dustin brung back reinforcements. They holed us up on this ridge, but couldn’t catch us, since we gave them something to think about. But they’re waiting for us at the neck of the ridge ‘bout two miles back. Dusty yelled something about us needing to come off the ridge eventually.”

Owen looked at the island again, as if to confirm they were really standing on it. “Well, he was right. But I don’t think he expected us to get off the ridge this way. Shoot, I know I never would have dreamed it. I reckon my father’s going to be mighty upset.”

As they all turned up the path to join Alfred and his father on the quarterdeck, Karen naturally let her hand slide into Daniel’s. Glancing to the side, Daniel noticed Owen Ross’s eyes zero in on the clasping hands, then quickly turn away, the torment in his eyes reverting to a hard glint.

What Daniel did not notice at that same time were the five forms on horses that slinked from the ridge onto the bow of the island. One of the forms, had Daniel noticed it, would have certainly been recognizable, seeing as how it held itself erect, with a protruding hat and something dangling from its side that had all the appearance of a cane.

©2012 by Marty Reeder

Once Upon a Fjord was funded, in part, through a Kickstarter campaign. This chapter has been sponsored by Randy and Nina Wahlquist:

“This chapter is dedicated to my beloved son-in-law, the author of this story, who treats my daughter with a love and respect that is a worthy successor of a parents’ tenderness. I also dedicate the chapter to my dear grandchildren, who fulfill my life and give me the opportunity to play my favorite role since motherhood: being a grandmother!”

Sponsor had no editorial control over the chapter content. The author maintains full responsibility for content.