Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Chapter Nine: Alfred's Downfall

Once Upon a Fjord was funded, in part, through a Kickstarter campaign. This chapter has been sponsored by Wayne Wahlquist: 
“Find joy in your posterity!”
Sponsor had no editorial control over the chapter content. The author maintains full responsibility for content.
©2012 by Marty Reeder

Chapter 9: Alfred’s Downfall

Laughing Flower did not often journey on the white man trail that travels along the northern line of mountainous region marking the Indian territory, especially since it prompted the memories of losing her parents. But the few times she had trekked near the trail, she never remembered it having as much traffic as it did now.

By Laughing Flower’s reckoning, somewhere along the trail moved her sister’s son, White Feather, the group of five ill-intentioned men, and herself. This was the arrangement for a whole night of rushed riding and most of the next day. Into the afternoon of that day, she saw someone else behind her to add to the list: a woman on a mule racing as fast as she could.

Laughing Flower fully intended on absconding behind a screen of trees to wait for the woman to pass. The large sentinel of cliff rock directly ahead signaled their arrival at a junction, and the Indian maiden thought she could let the woman reach that destination before sliding back onto the track of her sister’s son. Somehow, though, the woman sensed Laughing Flower’s presence. She brought the mule to a halt and made hand gestures beckoning Laughing Flower closer.

Laughing Flower could not say what it was about this woman that drew her in. The woman appeared spent, desperate even, her face edged with untold cares. But Laughing Flower recognized kindness and hope underlying these things. Perhaps against her better judgment, the young maiden approached the woman.

So entranced was she by the woman’s presence, and by the strange bundle on the mule behind her, that Laughing Flower did not realize that the shadow drifting across the patch of sunshine they stood in was not a cloud. It was a giant slab of moving rock in the sky.


Before the diverse party of Grandma Grizzly, Daniel, Karen and Owen made their way to the quarterdeck, the island came to a halt high up in the empty sky. Not too long afterwards, Alfred and his father met the group on the path. Introductions ensued, and Alfred’s father suggested that they eat breakfast in the cabin to discuss future plans. 

On the way to the cabin, Daniel made an effort to walk next to Owen. “Owen Ross, right?”

“Yep,” Owen replied, not seeming enthusiastic about chatting.

“I understand your father just became involved in a railroad deal,” Daniel noted.

Owen lifted his eyebrows. “I understand that my father just tried to have me killed. That’s about the limit of my knowledge on Father’s dealings.”

Daniel nodded, “So you didn’t know about the new railroad line?”

“I spend my time on the trail. Don’t much bother with business news. Pops just called me off the drive to marry this pretty lady here, but I didn’t even know the particulars about that. Something about her land. All due respect to the little woman, though, the land is dry as a bone, with little grazing and surrounded by cliffs n’ canyons. Not much good to a cattle man.”

“Well, I think this railroad deal helps it make more sense,” Daniel said. “You see, I read a report in the New York Observer about a proposed railway line, in which your father was the principal investor. It would connect Junction City with Wapiti Station up to the northwest.”

Owen chewed on this a moment. “That would put Karen’s land smack dab in the middle of the line.” He nodded to himself. “Which means any cattle owner for hundreds of miles to the west or south won’t drive it to Junction City anymore. Instead, they’ll go straight to the spot where Karen’s land is. Without that land, my father is at the mercy of whoever owns it. With it, he solidifies his monopoly on the cattle industry.”

Owen paused a moment, then readjusted his hat. “Well, well. I guess I can see why my father had a sudden interest in the land.” He looked over to Daniel. “And I can’t really blame him for usin’ me like he did. I suppose I’d do the same thing in his position.”

Daniel shook his head. “No, Owen. I don’t think you would. You saved Karen when you didn’t need to.”

Owen glanced over at Karen. “That’s ‘cause she’s a good woman. And I knew she deserved to find a good man. You don’t know what kind of man I am, but I can tell you it’s not a good one. That would be you.”

“How can you—” Daniel tried to say.

“I reckon you oughta sidle on over to the lady now. She spent a lot a time lookin’ for you.” With that, Owen moved to the edge of the trail, away from the others.

Daniel walked distractedly with Karen the rest of the way to the cabin. Not until they got there did he lose himself in her entrancing presence as they ate next to each other, exchanging words and looks. By the time most of the group finished breakfast, though, Alfred engaged Karen in conversation about the delicious fare, with Alfred explaining how Galley came to be with them and then provided meals. 

Alfred’s father, Daniel noticed, seemed to be gazing into the wall beyond them. Owen Ross excused himself, insinuating he would be back soon. This left Grandma Grizzly and Daniel a chance to catch up.

“Well, Cowboy, looks like you found watch ya were lookin’ fer,” Grandma Grizzly smiled graciously towards Karen. “She’s a hardy woman. Dern pretty, too. I approve! By yer looks, ‘pears you approve too.”

“Yes,” Daniel sighed as he watched Karen smile at Alfred’s energetic explanations. Then he looked to the countenance of his long time companion. “By your looks, you seem somehow more vibrant than ever. I think it’s got to be more than just the opportunity to fire your gun at some rascals.”

Grandma Grizzly’s smile almost jumped right off her face. Daniel smiled back and added, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think it has something to do with your real name.”

Grandma Grizzly, for possibly the first time since Daniel met her, seemed at a loss for words. Daniel said, “Madeleine Ross, it is a pleasure to finally meet you.”

Grandma Grizzly looked around the cabin but realized that she and Daniel were the only ones speaking English and the rest were already distracted or engaged in conversation. “How long have you known?” she asked, her normally rough accent somehow subdued.

“Since New York. Before we came to America, I sent out some telegrams to gather information. William Harper gave me the responses in that envelope he handed to me.” Daniel looked at his companion with empathy. “You’ve fooled many people with your wild west bravado, but I sensed something painful underneath there. I’m sorry about the passing of your husband in Europe. Sounds like he was a brave man, a great Indian warrior.”

Madeleine Ross, with moist eyes, nodded. “Chief Thunder Cloud was the best companion any wife could ask fer. He’s the one who suggested we leave our life in these mountains to join the American West tour. He said it’d keep a part of the West with us but removed us from the close mem’ry of our boy.”

Daniel sat for a moment before replying, “Yes, I guess having a successful boy is hardly consolation if he spurns his parents.”

“Worse than that,” Madeleine murmured. “John turned out to hate everyone. Hated everyone and even ended up killin’ some. Almost killed his own wife—left her blind in the attempt.”

Daniel shook his head. “I’d read something about his questionable war record, but I didn’t know about his wife.”

Madeleine nodded grimly. “She found us, she did. Halfway across the world, our blind daughter-in-law hunted us down. She told us about the grandson we never knew, and she begged forgiveness for leaving him with John fer all these years. She made us promise we’d find him. Made us promise to do what she didn’t, to make sure he didn’t turn out like John.” 

Madeleine Ross stiffened and quickly wiped at forming tears. “She didn’t last long. Consumption had been eatin’ at ‘er fer years. Not too long after, Thunder Cloud left me to complete the promise on my own when he got sick and passed away, thousands o’ miles away from his beloved homeland and the grandson he never got ta meet.”

Daniel let silence reign for a moment before saying, “And that’s when you left the show and ran into me—to come to America and find your grandson.” Madeleine nodded, still stunned by the memory.

Daniel continued, “Amazing coincidence, isn’t it? That we’re led right to him and Karen at the same time.”

Madeleine guffawed, a hint of Grandma Grizzly in her voice. “Cowboy, you call it a coincidence, and I’ll call it a miracle. Don’t much matter since the point is you got yer girl an I got ma boy.”

“And it shows on both of our faces,” Daniel agreed as Madeleine brightened once more. “But I haven’t seen the same on Owen’s face.” Daniel paused. “How come you haven’t told him?”

Madeleine Ross shook her head. “I’m too afraid. John spurned us as his parents. I don’t know if Owen is liable to do the same once he finds out I’m his grandparent. He seems to be a good kid who’s strugglin’ with who he is right now, and I don’t want ta give ‘im an excuse to push away like John did.” She tapped her finger on the table thoughtfully. “Naw, I’ll just enjoy bein’ his unknown, crazy companion fer now. Hard enough keepin’ him from bein’ like his father fer me to handicap ma’self by tellin’ him we’re related.”

Daniel nodded slowly. “I’m afraid that I made it harder on him.” He glanced over to Karen. “I think he felt that he might have had a chance with someone as wonderful as Karen, that he could be the type of person that belonged with someone like her. Then he saw Karen and me together, and it’s like he felt he deceived himself the whole time.”

Madeleine’s rough, wrinkled hands reached out and grabbed Daniel’s. “She’s not the right woman fer him, and it ain’t got nothin’ to do with you. He’s gotta find himself ‘fore he can find a life-long companion to match.” 

Madeleine looked towards the door. “Course, we may need ta find him first. Where’d Owen run off to?”

At the sound of Owen’s name, Karen turned towards the door as well. In English, she said with concern, “Owen gone long.”

Daniel looked to Madeleine Ross, “Maybe we should all go search for him. It’s just an island. He can’t go too far, right?”

Madeleine smiled weakly. Alfred picked up on the discussion and offered his services as a guide on the island paths. Alfred’s father jerked to attention with the movement in the cabin. Instead of joining the group forming in front of the door, he offered to stay in the cabin, in case the man returned while they were out. With that settled the group headed out the front door and Madeleine immediately noticed his tracks leading towards the bow of the island.

Just as the trail left the dense woods into the prairies, they found Owen. He casually held his hands up while being prodded forward by four other men, three of them with a pistol drawn.

“LeRoi,” Alfred said first.

“Owen,” Dustin Trampas chimed in, “Reckon you were a bit mistaken when you told us the others done left the island this mornin’.”

Before anyone else could say anything, Madeleine Ross had her pistol pointed directly at LeRoi. “Let the Ross boy go, LeeRaw, or I kill you now. If I’m feelin’ merciful, I’ll take requests on which organ you’d like shot first.” The men all trained their pistols on Madeleine, who coolly kept hers fixed on LeRoi. “You’ve seen me shoot before. Don’t doubt that I’ll do it again, with or without a pipe.”

With all attention on Madeleine, Owen, who moments before seemed indifferent to the whole scene, suddenly flipped around and had his gun out, this one aimed directly at Dustin. “Dusty, you think about shooting at that woman and it’ll be the last of the few thoughts you ever had.”

LeRoi did not often lose composure, but under the steady glare of Madeleine Ross, and knowing her unpredictable western showiness, he leaned back, away from the threatening menace of her weapon. “Madam, you do realize that both of you are outgunned. Don’t be foolish.”

“What’d be foolish is thinkin’ that three idiots is better shots than two pros,” Madeleine responded. “Besides, all I’ll need, LeeRaw, is one shot. And you can bet it’ll be at you.”

Owen, his eyes still staring down Dustin, glanced back at Karen, Daniel, and Alfred. “Why don’t ya’ll mosey on back to the cabin. Grandma Grizzly and I want to continue our discussion with these gentlemen here.”

LeRoi, still edgy of Madeleine’s pistol glued to his every movement, lifted a finger, “Before you go, I think it would be only fair to give our Norwegian residents an update on their family members. Mr. Rudiger, I’m hoping you’ll be kind enough to translate.”

“Alfred,” LeRoi stated, his head attempted to swivel in the boy’s direction, though awkwardly still angled away from Madeleine’s unwavering gun. “Your father has an unknown visitor at this moment. The fifth member of our party has been hiding outside your cabin since early this morning. I told him to wait until the others left, then the second he hears a gunshot, he is to enter the cabin and shoot the man muttering to himself and sitting in front of a fire.”

Alfred understood “father” and guessed the rest, since Daniel refused to translate. The mood sombered significantly until Madeleine stated belligerently, “Are you encouragin’ us to finish ya off with knives instead of guns before we go after the slinker at the cabin?”

LeRoi continued, “And in case you might be foolish enough to attempt just such a thing, there is the young woman’s father. Currently, John Ross and Snorre are taking three other men with them to the young woman’s home.” LeRoi forced an imaginary sigh, “John is a rash man and is likely to kill the girl’s father unless we can get there first and convince him otherwise.”

Karen gasped unintentionally, picking up just enough information to comprehend the threat. Daniel glowered. “Now,” LeRoi stated, feeling more confident, “With that information can I suggest we all put down our weapons and discuss options peacefully?”

“You first,” Madeleine grunted.

LeRoi, still eyeing Madeleine’s gun, motioned for Dustin and the other two to holster their pistols. Watching Owen obsessively, Dustin placed his gun back at his hip. The other men followed suit. 

Owen walked backwards until he stood shoulder to shoulder with Madeleine, and then they both lightly positioned their pistols in their holsters, though their hands remained resting on top of them.

“That’s much more reasonable,” LeRoi said, visibly relieved with Madeleine’s gun secured. “Now the way I see it, this turns out relatively easy.” LeRoi pointed towards Owen and Madeleine. “You two must hand over your weapons and join Alfred’s father in the cabin, where we will have Dustin and two of his men guarding you.”

Owen removed his gun again, but not to hand it over. LeRoi stepped back uneasily while Owen stated, “That would leave us with zero guns and you with six. If my math’s right, that equals zero chance we make it five minutes alive.”

“Fascinating equation,” LeRoi replied, “But it leaves us without a solution.”

“I’m not the mathematician here, so you’ll have to figure something out. Try again.”

LeRoi furrowed his eyebrows. “I think much better without a barrel pointed at me.” Owen holstered the gun, slowly. After a moment’s pondering LeRoi continued, “How about you keep your weapons, but we put you in a place where we can watch you from a safe distance?”

“Like where,” Madeleine retorted, “a thousand an’ six feet under?”

LeRoi spoke, “There is a raft on the shore of this island. I propose you two be placed on it in the middle of the pond where you can be watched from the shore by Dustin and another man. You keep your weapons, and you’re free to come to shore if there is a disturbance or once we arrive at our destination. Are those terms agreeable?”

“An’ how do we know the others’ll be safe without us?” Madeleine demanded.

“Simple,” LeRoi said, “I need each of them alive. Alfred, so I can learn to fly, this woman, so she can lead me to her home, and Mr. Rudiger to serve as translator.”

Madeleine and Owen remained silent. Daniel whispered, “I don’t know if we’ll get a better offer, Grandma Grizzly.” Madeleine reluctantly nodded.

“Excellent,” LeRoi said, twirling his cane before turning to the rest of the party. “If things go well, we’ll reach the young woman’s home before Mr. Ross. Then I’ll drop off anyone not interested in going to Panama, and I single-handedly change the world of finances and everyone lives happily ever after. That’s how fairy tales go, isn’t it?”

“Wrong,” the dissenting voice belonged to Dustin. “You’re forgetting my boss’s part in all this.”

“My dear fellow, what is your allegiance to John Ross? Why not come with me to the canal and make a fortune?”

Dustin finally felt his feet under him as he turned to face LeRoi. “First of all, there’s plenty of fortune to be made movin’ cattle, especially if you can bypass railroads an’ use a flyin’ island—plenty a room on here and lots o’ grazin’ material during the transport.”

Dustin now curled his lips together, “Second of all, the boss said ya might try an’ go turncoat on ‘im. An’ I guess you could say that I ain’t particularly attached to the old man, but he made a good point when he told me, ‘That LaRaw fellow might offer you the world, but before he takes off with ya on that island, just remember that he’s leavin’ his man Snorre in the process, an’ he’ll do the same to you first chance he gets.’ I think them’s wise words, LaRaw … don’t you?”

LeRoi smoldered for a moment before finally relenting, “I won’t accuse John Ross of being a dupe, and I will respect our original agreement together.”

Dustin nodded, self-satisfied. “Then I’m on board with the plans, ‘cept that I’ll be the one ta join you an the others instead a guardin’ Owen.”

“Very well,” LeRoi stated, seeming more and more disgruntled. “Now, shall we get moving? I’m tired of all this talking and pistol waving. The sooner I’m quit of present company, the better.”


Only minutes after the others left, Alfred’s father knew a man stood outside the cabin door. There was a limit to the type of animals on their island, and not many would have made so much noise getting into position behind the screen of bushes fifty feet out from the front door. A quick peek out the window confirmed a man’s presence. Not only that, it was clear that he was not a friend and that he had a rifle trained on the front door.

The Nordic fisherman briefly panicked, wondering what happened to the others. After a half an hour without the sound of gunshots, he consoled himself by concluding that no one had been killed, though possibly captured.

Minutes after that, Alfred’s father heard the tramping of a group passing by. He camped by the window, cracking it a bit, though still hidden by the curtains. Then, he strained his ears. 

In his younger days, Alfred’s father made several fishing excursions to the British coast. There, he picked up a trace amounts of English. While he could not understand the majority of what he heard, he still understood the general content.

The first thing he gathered was that someone gave orders for the others to continue while he spoke to the man outside the cabin.

With the other people cleared out, the same man gave the following instructions, which Alfred’s father did his best to decipher: “The two gun slingers are still armed, but we’ve managed to get them on a raft in the pond with two of your companions watching them. They’ll be out of range of pistol shots, both for us and for them.”

“That’s comforting at least,” the man grunted. “Those two ain’t greenhorns with the guns, that’s sure.”

The other man continued, “Now, I need the cooperation of the boy, the woman, and the reporter man to get to the rendezvous point with your boss, but once we get there, it would be better not to have witnesses. When I’ve figured out the mechanics of the island, and I can bring us down at the right spot, then we’ll move. You stay guarding the man in the cabin until you hear a gunshot, then you are to kill the man in the cabin and hurry to the pond before the two raft dwellers can get their pistols in range. Since you have a rifle and they’ll be in the open, you’ll have easy targets. Take them out and then join us up on the cliffs where we’ll finish the others off.”

From those instructions, Alfred’s father understood the horrifying fundamentals. When the man with the rifle hears a gunshot, he kills the man in the cabin, then Grandma Grizzly and Owen on the raft in the pond … then, Karen, the reporter, and … Alfred.

The man with the rifle grumbled assent, and the man giving instructions left to catch up to the others. Alfred’s father sunk back against the wall of the cabin in despair. First his wife, and then, when he finally recovered enough from that to appreciate his son, both found themselves at the receiving end of an impending, heartless massacre.

Part of him charged up in defiance. After all that had happened since the landslide—a flying island, Alfred’s strength in storms and loneliness, the miraculous rescues of strangers—he must not give in. He must fight. Yet, glancing through the curtains and seeing the man patiently waiting with the rifle fastened on the door, Alfred’s father became stunned. I’m trapped. Even if I wanted to do something, there is a net cast around me and it’s only a matter of time before it’s drawn out of the water.
The fisherman stood and stumbled towards the hearth of the room, desolate. Things were so much more simple when I was lost in the embers of the fire, Alfred’s father thought. There, I was always safe. There, I lived in a world without these concerns

These thoughts weighed heavily on his mind as the light coming from the back window of the cabin forced him to fixate on the fireplace’s iron poker, leaning against the mantle. Alfred’s father struggled to determine what, if anything, to do next.


The strong winds helped the island to make good time. For the full day, the wind rushed up from the south and drove the island and its passengers streaking across the Devil’s Labyrinth towards its very northwest corner, at the mouth of which lay Karen’s homesteading land.

LeRoi spent the whole time fascinated by the movements of the military-like crew of birds and the translucent sails, interrogating Alfred for details. Alfred imparted of his wisdom through Daniel without hesitation, though he seemed saddened by LeRoi’s callousness to the beauty and majesty of the flying. For the Frenchman, all he saw were the business possibilities.

By the late afternoon, LeRoi mastered most of the commands for flying the island with passable Norwegian. At about that point, Karen pointed to a large depression in the horizon, which showed the end of the Devil’s Labyrinth and the beginning of miles and miles of highlands reaching far to the west. To the south, the mountains lowered and met the plains like a broken coastline plunging into the rippling sea. When pressed further, Karen indicated to a gap formed at the convergence of several canyons at the edge of the Devil’s Labyrinth with the rolling foothills of the southern mountain ranges. “There,” she said, “in there is my land.”

LeRoi greedily eyed the spot as they came nearer and nearer. The lowering sun had already left the bottom of the depression in the shadows, but it did not stop LeRoi from scrutinizing its contents voraciously. Some minutes later, they drifted over a snaking path far below, the one which led from Junction City to the homestead land, and also served as the dividing line between the southern mountains and the Devil’s Labyrinth. His eyes followed the path until he saw it disappear behind a large cliff outcropping, which vanguarded the valley of their destination. They took some time to swing around and approach the valley from the western rim, where they could have more visibility in their descent. 

After drifting lower and lower, LeRoi finally nodded. “It is time,” he said out loud, mainly to himself. He nodded to Dustin. “The signal, please.” 

Dustin drew his pistol and fired straight up into the air and the crew of birds fluttered uneasily. Having watched this, LeRoi then turned to Alfred and said, “Thank you for your services, I will now be taking over as captain of this island.”  He shoved Alfred aside before demanding the large bird sitting in front of him to furl the main topsail. The bird, however, only swiveled his head so as to allow his good eye to look outwards and leave the bad eye facing LeRoi. Then he did nothing.

“I said,” LeRoi growled, irritably, “furl the main topsail!” 

The albatross only responded by keeping his bad eye lackadaisically facing LeRoi. If Daniel did not know any better, the bird seemed prepared to casually defend himself later by claiming, “I’m sorry, I really did not see a man at the wheel. Did he want something?”

LeRoi, incensed, raised his cane, about to strike, but Alfred jumped up and clamped onto the raising arm, prying it down. LeRoi struggled for a moment, but a single gunshot from below brought the skirmish to a halt.

LeRoi actually grinned. “Tell the boy that the sound he just heard was his father’s death, and unless this feathered sailor here starts following my orders, the bird will soon join the boy’s father.”

Alfred needed no translation after hearing the gunshot and the word “father.” He cried out and fell to his knees, shocked. Daniel could almost see the disbelief radiating from his innocent eleven-year-old face. LeRoi lifted his cane up again and gave a warning look to Alfred, “You are about to have a ball of feathers for a first mate, boy.”

Karen could take it no longer. Before Daniel could hold her back, she took a leap onto the unsuspecting Frenchman and began pounding him with her bare fists. LeRoi wilted before her commanding blows and was only saved by the crack of another gunshot that came from Dustin, once again firing into the air.

Karen instinctively flinched at the noise and LeRoi managed to extricate himself from her grip, standing up indignantly. “Kill her,” he spewed with contempt. “We don’t need her anymore.”

Daniel found himself about to pounce on Dustin, when he saw Dustin’s extended firing arm slowly descend to his side. Confused, Daniel’s eyes left the arm and went to Dustin’s face, which he found transfixed on a point beyond the bow of the island.

Daniel turned to look, joined by the others on the quarterdeck who also saw Dustin’s surprised face. It soon became clear what he observed. Rising out of the ring of cliffs surrounding Karen’s valley, a multi-colored globe of shiny fabric reflected the beaming orange rays of sun angling towards it from the western horizon.

Only LeRoi seemed fully aware of what they all witnessed, but even he expressed confusion as to why they were seeing it at this moment. Daniel heard LeRoi muttering something about Snorre in French, then the man switched to English and told Dustin that this better not be a trick of John Ross’s.

By the time the globe completely revealed itself, they all realized that they looked at a hot air balloon, elevating past the background of the earth below and dipping into the canvas of sky. Daniel had only seen these relatively new methods of air travel a few times while in the east, covering some flights in news reports before receiving his assignment to Norway. In the wilds of the west, however, he never would have imagined seeing anything like it.

Daniel noted that by the time they reached the balloon, with the island’s current velocity and considering the rate of the tremendous balloon’s ascension, it would be sailing high above them.

LeRoi must have realized the same, and he still seemed uncomfortable by the balloon’s sudden appearance, because he suddenly forgot his previous setback with Karen, Alfred, and the albatross. Instead he grabbed Alfred and threw him back at the wheel. “Fly the island underneath that balloon and force it to land.” LeRoi shot a glance towards Daniel to have him translate, and then added, seemingly to them both, “Do it now, or the girl gets shot.”

Daniel, encouraged by LeRoi’s discomfort, passed along the message. With Alfred now at the helm, the albatross instantly perked to attention, much to LeRoi’s annoyance. Orders transferred from Alfred to the albatross to the other birds in rapid succession, and the island soon found itself lifting on a converging course with the balloon. 

The precision in Alfred’s instructions succeeded in bringing them close enough to the migrant hot air balloon that they could see the seams in the silky fabric and the basket carriage suspended by thick ropes, dangling at the bottom. As far as Daniel could tell, if anyone perched in the carriage, they kept themselves out of sight from prying eyes, perhaps by ducking behind the large basket’s walls. The other possibility arose in Daniel’s mind that the balloon had simply been released by accident, without a passenger.

LeRoi must have wondered the same as he examined the floating globe. He turned to Daniel, “Do you know how the things work? Can it operate without anyone in it?”

“Isn’t the balloon yours?” Daniel asked.

“Yes,” LeRoi snapped, “after the Statue of Liberty incident, I realized that I was unlikely to get the boy to land again, so I purchased a hot air balloon on credit and brought it west, hoping to catch sight of the island and fly up to it. Fortunately, I never had to test the cumbersome thing out, because we ran into John Ross and I realized—after hearing their tale—that the boy would land again to pick up Grandma Grizzly and John’s boy. We just needed to force where that pick up would occur.”

Daniel tried not to smirk. “And now your balloon has rebelled.”

LeRoi’s face hardened. “If it is John Ross, I will personally toss that Indian off this island. We had a gentleman’s agreement.”

Daniel’s smirk broke through. “Yes, ‘gentleman.’ You’ve mentioned that word before. Yet you still seem surprised when you discover that there is no honor among thieves.”

LeRoi shot a withering glance over to Daniel, but the reporter interrupted anything the Frenchman hoped to say. “I will say this. It would be difficult for the balloon to be accidentally released from its anchor lines without those lines still suspended out of the basket.”

At this point the balloon now hovered only slightly above the island, and Daniel saw LeRoi note that the anchor lines were set inside the basket. LeRoi’s eyes narrowed as he considered the possibilities of Snorre or John Ross pulling a fast one on him. He gripped his cane tightly and rubbed his mustache irately with his finger.

Alfred conveyed careful instructions and soon the hundred-acre island closed the gap with the balloon, displaying all the delicacy of a hummingbird approaching a flower. Before too long, and to Alfred and the crew’s credit, the balloon’s carriage lightly touched down on a jumble of rocks just dozens of feet to the port side of the quarterdeck. 

Alfred quickly gave instructions for the crew to lower all sails except for the stay sail. Daniel thought he could see the albatross eyeing Alfred curiously about the order. Alfred quickly told the bird, “Yes, Skipper, not even the sky sail; the stay sail should anchor us momentarily. I just want the island held in place by a single sail.” Skipper did not need further explanation. In a moment, fluttering wings set out to complete the task. 

While this happened, LeRoi craned his neck to see inside the basket. From his angle on the quarterdeck, however, he saw nothing. Frustrated, he started forward, about to investigate, but then he stopped and looked back at the group. “Tell Alfred,” LeRoi said to Daniel, “that he is coming with me to secure the balloon.” Clearly, LeRoi felt uncomfortable with an adult accompanying him, especially after having experienced Karen’s ferocity first hand and probably suspecting Dustin’s dubious ties to the balloon’s arrival. 

Probably because of this, he next turned to Dustin and said, “Stay and keep your gun on the other two.” Dustin, unsuspecting of motives, nodded, his eyes still glued to the carriage of the balloon.

Daniel relayed the message to Alfred, whose eyes sparkled as he responded, “As soon as he gets in the basket, close the box.” Alfred nodded toward the ash box sitting on the stump of the island.

Daniel gave Alfred an unsure look. “What would that do?” he asked.

“I’m not certain,” Alfred admitted, “but it might just save us.” Alfred then followed up with, “Now, tell him that I don’t know how to anchor a balloon so he doesn’t suspect we’re planning anything.”

LeRoi was annoyed when Daniel passed along the fake rebuttal, but he was at least unwary of any deception. “Tell him that he’ll learn quickly.”

LeRoi and Alfred gingerly traversed the ridge to the balloon, which still swayed restlessly. Upon reaching it, LeRoi peered over the lip of the carriage, which stood almost as high as his chest, his cane poised to strike. Then his muscles relaxed.

“No one,” he said, mostly to himself. “Snorre must have filled it up and let it go. Idiot.”

LeRoi turned back to tell Alfred to wait while he reached inside to grab the anchor lines. In that moment Daniel blinked, thinking he registered a glistening something roll over the edge of the opposite end of the basket. Before Daniel could process it, however, LeRoi bent over to gather anchor lines. Then Alfred made his gamble.

The small eleven-year-old boy made a mad rush upon LeRoi’s back, using momentum to shove at the Frenchman with all his might. It was almost enough.

LeRoi teetered over the edge, but his flailing arms just succeeded in gripping the carriage’s top and prevented him from tipping in. Alfred did not give up. He pushed, kicked, and pounded at the Frenchman, but it was too late. In a moment, LeRoi had his feet on the ground again, and he powerfully snared Alfred’s hands in his own.

Daniel’s heart dropped, thinking this was the end of it and knowing LeRoi to be in a murderous mood. Then from out of nowhere a white streak slammed into LeRoi’s face, forcing him to release Alfred and defend his head. 

Daniel immediately recognized the albatross, the one Alfred called Skipper, viciously pecking at LeRoi, flapping wings and generally causing havoc. A moment later, Skipper was joined by a ferocious pelican, the one called Galley, adding to the white chaos around LeRoi’s head.

LeRoi desperately snatched at his cane, which had dropped upright against the carriage in the clash. Then with one hand he took a brutal swipe at Galley, forcing the bird to the ground and giving his cane-wielding hand room for a malicious swing at Skipper from close range. With a sickening crunch, the cane landed on the magnificent bird, which instantly collapsed in a frozen heap on the unsympathetic ground.

With LeRoi now off balance from his forceful swing, Alfred, in a rage, violently thrust LeRoi into the balloon’s basket and, before he could recover, cried out, “Now!”

For some reason, Daniel vacillated. Perhaps the shock of the cruel blow to the bird or the intense struggle between LeRoi and the boy threw him off. But Karen did not hesitate.

In a split second, Karen found the box and slammed the lid shut.

The opaque cords holding the stay sail immediately snapped upwards, sliced away from the box. In a moment of sheer terror, the entire island dropped. One hundred surface acres of rock plummeted away from the balloon, which poised awkwardly in the air, without its former resting spot to ground it.

Daniel, Karen, and Dustin threw themselves to the ground, gripping to the edges of the quarterdeck in hopes of not drifting away from the island during the free fall. All Daniel could see over the edge of the quarterdeck was the approaching horizon of the earth, the details of pitted land revealing more and more of itself with each second. Then, grasping hands and stumbling feet blurred past him, the creak of a lid sounded, followed by commands which prompted a vast fluttering of wings.

Daniel reached out and grabbed Karen’s hand, hoping to find comfort in it at the end, and then they braced for the inevitable crash. Instead, of a crash, however, Daniel felt the soft tug of gravity in relation to the island. Alfred called for more sails, and Daniel lifted his head to witness taught fields of sail above starting to tame the chaotic fall. Daniel wondered if it had come too late, as jagged mountain ridges grasped at them from below, swelling with their impending approach.

Alfred desperately cried for an upward adjustment of the jib sails. Birds scrambled to catch the speeding island, diving in the air as they gripped and jostled sails above them. Daniel’s muscles tightened as hope hinted a possible escape. Slower and slower the land below loomed, until finally, at what must have been only dozens of yards above the mountain ridges underneath them, the island achieved an equilibrium, and a minute after that, it glided at a reasonable elevation, away from the ridges below and the floating balloon above them.

At that point Daniel felt the audacity to squeeze Karen’s hand and declare breathlessly, “We made it!”

A second later the voice of a crazed Dustin, who had just finished standing up behind them, responded, “Ya’ll are nuts! I’ve had it with everyone on this blasted island. Now, land this thing in that valley an’ I don’t want no more stunts. An’ just so ya know I ain’t bluffin’, I’m shootin’ the girl.”

The next thing Daniel heard was the click of a pistol’s hammer being pulled back. Immediately Karen and Daniel stood up and turned, putting their hands up in the air. Their pivot revealed Dustin Trampas pointing his gun straight at Karen. Daniel noticed one curious thing, however: the hammer on Dustin’s gun was not cocked. Then he saw Dustin’s eyes widen. A voice called out.

“Nope, Dusty. You won’t be firing a single shot at that woman. How many times do I have to tell you? You don’t even know when you’s bluffin’ and when you ain’t.” Standing just twenty feet behind Dustin on the ridge below the quarterdeck stood Owen Ross, with a cocked gun and a look of contempt.

Dustin Trampas now turned around until he faced Owen, slowly elevating his hands and pistol with them. He looked at Owen for a moment before casting a glance over to the pond and seeing the raft no longer in the middle. “Owen, how in tarnation did you get here?”

“That’s the last talking I plan to hear from you. You’re finished, Dusty.” Owen straightened his firing arm, while Dustin Trampas stepped back in terror, seeing the look in Owen’s eyes intent on killing.

“Owen, ya … ya can’t just shoot me like this! That’s not you. You don’t got it in ya ta be a cold-blooded killer!” Dustin stuttered, not convinced of his own words himself.

Owen shook his head, trying to glance towards Karen but then resisting and saying, “That’s where you’re wrong. I’m John Ross’s boy, Dusty. I am just the kind of man that can kill another person and watch their eyes grasping for life until they die.”

Daniel could tell that, right at that point, Dustin knew he was dead. The aspiring foreman of John Ross’s cattle drive closed his eyes as he watched Owen start to flex his finger. 

Just then another voice interrupted. “No, Owen, you ain’t just John Ross’s boy, and that ain’t going to determine who you is. Because yer also Madeleine Ross’s grandson, and what you are about ta do is somethin’ she would never do.”

Madeleine Ross made her last efforts up the trail onto the ridge, keeping her eyes fixed on Owen. Owen held his weapon still aimed straight at Dustin, but his eyes faltered. “Madeleine … Ross? … That’s you, isn’t it, Grandma Grizzly?” Owen did not yet dare look behind him, but his voice had softened.

“Yessir,” Madeleine said, working her way slowly behind Owen.

“You married the Indian,” Owen said.

“The great Chief Thunder Cloud of the Shoshone people … for which John will never forgive me,” Madeleine responded. “But you … you are different, Owen. I seen it, and I’ve concluded that it’s just like yer mother told us before she died.”

Owen finally jerked his head backwards, “Mother?”

“She never gave up on you, even until the end. She always felt turrible ‘bout leavin’ you, but she made me promise that I’d come show you that ya ain’t yer father.”

Owen did not cry, but tears streamed down his face as Madeleine Ross placed her aging hand on his shoulder and he muttered, “Mother.” He slowly lowered his gun down until it hung limply to his side.

Dustin Trampas, sensing an opening, started to bring his hands down and grip his pistol a bit tighter, but before he could even put the gun in position, another weapon cocked loudly.

Due to the intensity of the previous scene, nobody noticed that Madeleine Ross carried a rifle in the hand not placed on her grandson’s shoulder. With Dustin Trampas’s movement, however, this fact became glaringly obvious as the weapon cocked and pointed straight at Dustin within the matter of a split second. “Now don’t misunderstand the Ross genes, Sonny,” Madeleine said with a hard edge in her voice, “That don’t mean we plan ta be took out by a cowardly varmint, just ‘cause we’re so sweet.” Dustin immediately flung his hands up again and Madeleine followed with, “Drop the gun, Sonny.” Seconds later a metallic smack confirmed the movement.

A surly Dustin could not help but remark, “Where’d ya get that rifle? That’s from one of ma men—the one positioned outside the cabin. Ain’t no how ya coulda taken yer raft ta get it from him without the other men discoverin’ ya.”

“We stayed on the raft like we was told,” Madeleine confirmed, “but we cain’t help it if the rifle is floatin’ past us on a log … I’ll tell ya, once we heard the gunshot fire up here, it only took one shot at those fellas on shore an’ they tossed their guns in the water with hands up.”

Owen grinned, in spite of himself, “Took the poor man’s hat clean off from a good two hundred and fifty yards.”

Dustin squinted. “Whaddya mean it was floatin’ past on a log? Did my man go turncoat and send it over to ya?”

Madeleine shook her head. “No sir. Yer man maybe went black and blue, but not turncoat. The rifle was sent to us by someone else.”

Dustin was about to object further, but he stopped when they all heard the shuffling of another person working up the ridge. A moment later, Alfred’s father finished his climb by turning toward the quarterdeck, using a fire poker as a walking staff.

“Father!” Alfred cried out.

Alfred’s father smiled softly as Alfred scrambled down the quarterdeck and jumped into his arms. “How did you get past that man with the rifle?”

“Well,” the fisherman replied, “I remembered how my son would often climb out our back windows when we tried to keep him in the house against his will. So I broke a little family rule and did the same. I found the man quite unsuspecting when I sneaked up behind him with this.” He held out the fire poker.

Alfred half laughed, half cried in relief, “When we heard the gunshot, I thought … well, I thought that after everything, after Mother, then I lost you too. And then to top it all off, I even lost—oh no! Skipper!”

With so many events following one after another, Alfred had not even had time to check on his stricken companion. Rushing past the quarterdeck to the other side, he saw something that brought him to an immediate halt. Daniel saw Alfred’s eyes falter in despair.

Lined up along the ridge, with heads bowed in solemn reverence, the entire crew gathered around the white lump where Skipper had fallen, with Galley crouching foremost. “No,” Alfred mumbled, shooting forward. Daniel could see that he meant to go cradle his dear friend’s body in his arms, but when the kittiwakes, puffins, and terns parted to let him in, all observers found Skipper already being cradled.

It was a strange sight. The arms of a person clearly held the bird, but the rest of the body became silhouetted at best behind what seemed to be a shimmering veil of nothing, a trick of the air.

Daniel watched Alfred approach now more slowly. Looking carefully at the glimmering wall in front of him, but not yet sure what it was. Finally, he came up to Skipper and knelt down. The arms shared the bird with Alfred’s open hands. Daniel distinctly heard a woman’s voice permeate the air, “I’m afraid he’s gone. But we must always reverence this albatross as the good omen that saved our lives from evil. And the man that killed it will be forever cursed … just like in the poem that I often recited to you, my storm child.”

“Mother!” Alfred whispered fiercely.

The glimmering form then straightened and the translucent barrier fell to the ground, revealing a woman whose face was already washed with tears, who reached out with her arms, and while Alfred buoyed Skipper she held him close, in only the way that a mother can, and whispered back, “Son.”

A strangled gasp came from behind Daniel, and he heard the clanking sound of a poker dropping to the ground while Alfred’s father lurched forward, stumbling through the crew and falling on his knees next to Alfred and his mother. While the family embraced, he could do nothing but sob. His convulsing body not allowing him to say anything beyond, “My wife, my wife,” over and over. After an eternity in each other’s arms, Alfred’s father finally gathered himself enough to mutter, “I am whole again.”

Alfred, however, seemed conflicted. “Why do I miraculously gain my family but lose my friend?”

Alfred’s mother gently caressed the albatross. “I don’t know, Alfred. I simply know that the greatest stories require sacrifice, and your friend sacrificed his life for you.”

Alfred wept while nodding, and his mother continued, “And he deserves a suitable farewell for his heroics. He should have a burial in the sky.” Alfred’s father nodded, somehow understanding, gathering up the lucid fabric surrounding his wife and laying it out on the rock as if spreading out his nets. Alfred’s mother then gently took Skipper and placed him in the middle of the fabric.

Alfred petted the lifeless bird one last time. “Farewell, Skipper, my great friend.” Then he tied the corners of the fabric together. Galley also seemed to understand, because he solemnly approached, sliding the knot on top of his beak and beating his wings. The load seemed unnaturally light, with Galley lifting off the ridge as if being thrust upwards.

Immediately, the puffins shot out in front of Galley, the kittiwakes charged in behind, and the arctic terns floated above and below as the feathered escort took Skipper high into the sky. Then, a stiff breeze ran up underneath Galley, lifting the folded fabric off his beak and allowing the package underneath to glide further up in the sky. 

The crew then swerved and returned to the island, where everyone stood on the ridge, watching the glimmering fabric dance and slide up and down through currents of air until they could track it no more. All eventually turned away, but Alfred last off all.

©2012 by Marty Reeder

Once Upon a Fjord was funded, in part, through a Kickstarter campaign. This chapter has been sponsored by Wayne Wahlquist: 
“Find joy in your posterity!”
Sponsor had no editorial control over the chapter content. The author maintains full responsibility for content.