All Stories, General Fiction

Two Fathoms Down by Tom Sheehan

“Though curious, be you kind to yourself, and leave here now, lest you ….”

Anton Chalkov thought he chased only a dream out of Siberia, a dream and nothing more. He boated across the Bering Strait, with divine intervention on few occasions, and into Alaskan waters. Once ashore in Alaska it was obvious he had not gone far enough and set out, overland for a portion of his journey and then back on coastal waters in the company of fishermen, for the New World of America. All this travel in pursuit of the dream. The dogs he bought for the overland portions of his trip were masterful, they too having good blood in them, born for the snow and the task. The dogs got him all the way through a few of Canada’s territories, before he swapped them for one horse in Montana territory of America, where he had been headed all the time.

He’d been a Cossack, now he wanted to be a cowboy.

In Montana, once again in the saddle, his blood began to rollick, ride and stride, the blood of a true horseman in the rhythm of the saddle, a Cossack on the move.

Though far from home, he was closer to his dream, even as he recalled the words of his grandfather: Wherever you go, look for messages in your own language. The words will direct you. People of your blood have gone where you dream of going, though many years ago. Their history lies along the way.

Chalkov was 22 years old, a Cossack with rebel Tatar blood in his veins, and all the men before him in his family were Cossack horsemen, of the Siberian Host. He wore the mark of a Cossack host or Cossack voisko (Казачье войско, kazachye voysko). In several villages, where the Host was quartered after battles, he heard tales about the American west, and the horses that the Spaniards had brought centuries ago from the other end of Europe. He could feel the ride in his seat. Animals like that could run with the wind, turn like a mountain goat out of the Urals or the Ukraine range, bear on one like a wave from the wild Pacific.

If any person of authority on the way asked him where he was from, he knew what he’d say. “I am descended from Mazepa and Petro, great Cossack leaders, and probably from the Tsar himself, for he too rode the horses of the steppes. The horsemen of the central Plains ran with fear as their frontal attack, setting opponents back on their heels.”

It was simple. “I am a Cossack,” he would be proud to say.

He passed down through Alaska, taking a year to complete the journey, fighting the cold one time and the huge mosquitoes another time. He lived with Eskimos for a while, fishing and hunting and sharing an igloo, learning much from them in the ways of survival.

Then he contended with a section of Canada, and eventually landed in a high Montana village, the mountains wild and savage in their looks. It was the dead of winter, but he had been through three harsh years in his journey, much of it under extreme winter conditions. The horses still called on him, the grasslands he had heard about, spring flowers bouncing across the grass as fast as rabbits. He could hardly wait for it to all come true … the cowboys and the Indians and the huge herds of cattle he had heard about. Also filtering through to him were stories of gunfights and duels in the main street of little towns and big cities, the shoot-outs among rival forces, like Cossacks loose in America.

In the village, an old Indian he befriended asked his pardon to make a suggestion. “The new land you have entered is a strange one. It is made up of people who came from elsewhere, all of them, and they look back with disdain at those who came also from distant places. My people were here before all of them, for centuries they were here. What I am saying to you is that before we came here, we were there, where you come from. We made the same voyage you did, but many centuries ago and made the journey by walking and not on boats or canoes.”

He looked back over his shoulder as if he was seeing all of it again, all the trials, all the troubles, all the history. “What else I am saying is to change your name, merge with the landscape, settle in as though you were born here, give no one an edge on you, or the chance to slight you.”

“I am Cossack,” Chalkov said, “a Cossack from the Siberian Host. Take me as I am. Take me as what I do. Take me as the man that I am. Why should I change my name?”

The old Indian, putting on the face of a god or a chieftain, said, “They call me John Bush now, even as I fail at holding onto life. It is the only reason I am the last of my tribe that lived here in this mountain range and can live here now. I was ‘Wind in the Bush’ before. I was saved by a mountain man, Tall John, who gave me a name and I should give you a name. You shall be called Andy Chalk from now on. It will save enough of your energy to go where you want to go and do what you want to do … ride the horses in the new land and find the dream that dances at your feet and in your eye. I will make the way clearer for you in the white man’s way.”

Came then a significant pause, things being measured, parceled out, and shared singly. “You will be granted a formidable gain,” John Bush said. “I only want to make the way to that gain as clear as I can. I am the last of my tribe. I am the keeper of secrets. I know that you come here among us as the new hope, for you come here with a new air about you, the freshness of a spring breeze the saplings have found, but more than all things measured, we share the same roots of the soul.”

“What is this gain I should be looking for? How will I find it?”

John Bush, ailing as he had for a long while, sat straight in his place. “It will find you. Be aware, for the line you follow comes from behind you. That is less mystery than you can imagine.”

Because Anton Chalkov deeply respected the old Indian, he became Andy Chalk and said his new name a hundred times before he went off to sleep that night. “Andy Chalk” sounded, at length, like a rider of horses might say his name to a friend, just a cowboy named Andy Chalk, but underneath a Cossack.

“Who has gathered all this information?” he had asked John Bush, who replied, “The Assiniboin of the Meadows, of the village of Pasquayah. My people cooked great meals over heated stones. Pasquayah was in the land of the Sioux, of whom we were brothers. They told the stories of the Great Crossing in past centuries.”

Andy Chalk, Cossack forever, but also now with a new name, was a good and patient listener, as John Bush continued what he knew of the history of his people and the new connection with Chalk. In truth, he felt his end was near, and he was bound to pass on the word of his people. It was his legacy.

“My people,” John Bush continued, “the Assiniboin, were not different from the other Sioux in the land. Men wore their hair in many ways; it was not cut very often, and when it got really long it was twirled in locks.  They often wore false hair to make the twirl longer. Sometimes it reached down to their feet, but usually wound up in a coil on top of their heads. Their customs were much like our Cree cousins of the Plains. Traders liked to visit them, for they made pemmican, a good barter for liquor and tobacco, among other goods, and, of course, for gunpowder, lead and knives, for warfare and for hunting. “

During much of the night he carried on with history, tales, legends all about his people who had made the same trip that Andy Chalk had, and Chalk waited for the specific information that John Bush was going to give him for a clear start in the new world. “You will need a hand in the new land,” he had said.

During much of his sleep, Chalk was visited by visions of his journey at every phase, including the times when his life was threatened or nearly taken away, when danger came from many sources, and signs of odd meanings were visible around him. Some he could read and some he could not.

In the morning John Bush was dead beside the dwindling campfire. In one hand he held a map laid out on a leather skin. It directed the seeker to a mountain tarn where fish birds dare not light. The tarn, according to the map, was not too distant from where Chalk was standing, the map in his hands. Landmarks on the map were obvious to him, and a legend at the bottom was in his own tongue … it said, “Хотя любопытно, не будьте Вами вид к вам непосредственно, и отпуску здесь теперь, чтобы Вы ,” which said in English, “Though curious, be you kind to yourself, and leave here now …  .” The statement, he understood for some vague reason, was incomplete.

Chalk knew that too was a sign … and a challenge.

On a magnificent red stallion, Chalk started his short journey as directed by the map. The destination, he figured, was about two days away in the mountains. The horse that he named Pavlo was stronger than an ox and climbed the hills as steady as a current. Chalk was happy and proud as he rode the stallion, a mingled sense of might and confidence filling him.

He carried a single revolver on his belt and a rifle sheathed on his saddle. But those were not his only arms. Back in Russia he had promised he’d not be without his sword in the new land, his Cossack sword. He now carried it also in the sheath with his rifle. Even if he did not say so, some people would know he was a Cossack by that sword.

Preparation, and readiness, had long been needed by him as a Cossack and he had heard many stories of the new land, of its robbers, brigands and road agents. It wasn’t that they did not have them in Russia, but in Russia such scum stayed clear of any Cossack, and the Host that Cossack could bring down on a new enemy. Chalk was rigid with that confidence.

He’d be prepared, he vowed as he set out. Steep, precipitous trails met him right at the start, as the first part of the route was a climbing one. He was but a few hours on the trail, on a very steep incline, when a robber on foot stepped in front of him with a rifle in his hands.

“Hold it right there, old pal,” the robber said. “All I want is the money you’re cartin’, your horse ‘ats bigger ‘n a mountain, and thet saddle you’re asittin’.”  He was young but bearded, carried a scar right across his nose as if he had been wounded in the war, and carried a pistol on his hip. Chalk had measured him from the outset.

The young, scarred youngster waved the rifle in a threat.

But that poor, lonely misguided road agent, that youngster at a new trade, raw as a colt in the business, had never faced off with a Cossack in the blood.

Chalk drove his spurs into the flanks of Pavlo with such a quick thrust that the huge animal leaped forward, knocking the robber on his backside, his rifle falling down the side of the mountain. Before he was aware of anything, he was under the sword hanging over his head, with a slant of sunlight shining off the sharpened edge.

“Take your side arm,” Chalk said, “and throw it over the side of the trail. Throw it downhill so it will take you time to get it, but don’t throw it so far you can’t recover it. You may need it up here. If I ever see you again, I will drop this sword across your neck. That is a promise as dear to me as life. Now go!”

Chalk simply twisted the sword so that the sunlight glanced off it clean as a mirror shot. The young road agent leaped away and ran downhill to retrieve his weapons.

Chalk, climbing uphill on Pavlo, went out of sight. The hoof beats went silent just as quickly.

John Bush had told him that obstacles would appear in the quest for his “clear gain” in the new world that he had promised would come to him. Chalk believed John Bush was a prophet of the new world. That belief was cemented firmly with Chalk for he faced three more robbers or brigands in his own quest. The next one came in a small village at a mountain crossroads, and in its usual saloon.

He entered, ordered a drink, and was assessed by another patron as a “complete stranger from a weird source”

“You ain’t from around here, are you, bud?”  Here was another young cowpoke stepping out beyond his territory. Of course, the arrogance came with the questions, the stance, the hard look fashioned under his sombrero brim. “You sure ain’t from around here, are you, bud? I saw a sword in your saddle out there. What the hell is that? Where are you from? You one o’ them strange foreigners keep comin’ in on top of us? You a Swede or a Brit or a Harp or a Russkie clammerin’ for new freedoms? You one o’ them German from thet far place? Them’s funny lookin’ boots you’re awearin’. Them dancin’ boots? You feel like dancin’ for us, mister?”

Everybody in the saloon thought the young bigmouth was about to draw his gun, but Chalk, fast as a loose pig, snapped a fist in the face of the young upstart. Blood spurted from his nose and he leaned over the bar wondering what had hit him so fast.

Chalk, alert to the whole room, said loud enough for all to hear him, “I am a Cossack. Nobody touches my sword. Nobody makes me dance when I don’t want to dance. I can ride better than anybody here. Shoot better than anybody here. Use that sword in a way that none of you can imagine. I am going on my way now and if anybody follows me, tries any tricks on me, the sword of this Cossack will fall on his neck.”

As he moved to the door, his eyes on the young bigmouth still bleeding on the bar, he said, “That is a vow of utmost honor I place on myself.” He went out the door, mounted Pavlo and rode out of the village.

A mile out on the trail he knew nobody from the saloon would follow him.

In two days he was as high in the mountains as he could get without giving up his horse. Up here in the rarified clime, the sweet air came at him as if he were in the Urals, and the quick turns it had as it whistled within winds off rock walls and pillars of stone and sharp corners. All the while he kept looking for the signs that John Bush said would come to him. Many things caught his eye, but nothing said more than what appeared to him.

And then, as he rode around a sudden tarn in a quick valley off the trail his eye caught signs on a sheer face of stone rising above the tarn. First he saw a fish cut into the stone, then he saw a horse and then a bow. A tipi was next on the rock face and a small boat, maybe a canoe.

John Bush’s voice came back, saying “It will find you.”

Chalk believed he had arrived at “the place of advantage” that John Bush had promised. He searched all over that wall, as high as he could scale and down to the edge of the tarn’s water. He saw nothing that said more. No message delivered.

As he was sitting on the trail, alone in all this mountainous world, him and his Pavlo, he noticed that there was no way to ride to the other side of the tarn. The water shone bright blue in the sunlight, and sat like a clear reflection of all light. When he cast a stone across the surface, skipping off the water a half dozen times, the ripples ran all the way to the other side … where he could not ride.

As he mused he believed that was the first sign of this place in the mountains. Clearly it said he had to go to the other side and check the steep wall over there.

He hid his weapons, including the sword, in a crevice, took off his clothes and swam to the other side. The water was cool but not cold, as if the sun warmed it with direct rays. He swam easily, quickly, and was at the other side in a short time.

A ledge appeared as a thin line and he climbed out of the water and up to the ledge, which ran for dozens of feet in each direction. At one point he saw the scratching on the wall, deep scratches as if an artist had made the cuts.

Chalk rubbed the words that seemed to appear. More words came visible, and then he saw words that he had seen before, and saw them to a conclusion … Хотя любопытно, будьте Вами вид к вам непосредственно, и отпуск здесь теперь, чтобы Вы не оказываетесь два, понимает вниз, which he translated to English as “Though curious, be you kind to yourself, and leave here now, lest you find yourself two fathoms down.”

Chalk felt the excitement leap up through his body, like finishing a ride on a horse never ridden before. He thought about lightning striking across the sky, or a big fish on the end of his fishing line or the first time he wore his Cossack uniform.

A mere 12 feet down he found a shelf and on the shelf a small crevice in which objects of gold came to his hand, a grand clutch of objects, enough for one man in this life, and much of them solid pieces that took him at least a dozen trips to bring to the surface. One tree stood on the other side, and with his sword he cut limbs from it to make a small, clumsy, but serviceable raft to move what he would take with him. On the second day, he had brought what he wanted to the other side, and left much in place. “If ever …” he said. “If ever.”

When Chalk left the tarn on Pavlo, his saddlebag sufficient for a start at ranching, for having his own herd and driving them on a long trail to market, he thought he was halfway to where he wanted to go.

He wondered what the other half would bring.


Tom Sheehan

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2 thoughts on “Two Fathoms Down by Tom Sheehan”

  1. Tom,

    A simply beautiful blend of fairy tale, quest, and dream–I was so happy that Chalk was able to be who he always was, even as he adapted and the outline of him on his horse climbing the mountain stays with me.



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