Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Land to the North -- Chapter Two

(Blogger’s Note: This whole book is being uploaded one chapter at a time and will therefore be in reverse order when completed. For those who have not yet read it, the earlier chapters and the Prologue follows this. I leave it that way so that those loyal readers who have been following the story won’t have to scroll down to find the newest chapter... Yes, it might be a pain, but that’s just the way it is.)
I spent weeks trying to find Eric Jansen. I wrote letters to the War Department but they were buried under requests from families of men lost during the Great War. I wrote letters to the newspapers in all the major cities from the east coast to the west. I tried to find Emerson, the man who wrote about Olaf Jansen and then I tried to locate Olaf. It seemed that Eric, along with everyone who knew anything about Olaf and his Smokey God had dropped from the face of the Earth.

Sara was beside herself. She tried to interest me in the theatre or vaudeville and even suggested that we spend some time watching the movies in the local movie house. They were interesting diversions, but couldn’t take my mind off the haunting stories told by Eric.

Then, out of the blue, the situation changed. There was a knock at my door one night and when I opened it, there stood Eric Jansen. He looked tired, pale, haggard. His blond hair was now quite long and he had grown a beard. His blue eyes had taken on a wild look. He had always been a tall man, but now he was thin as well. He didn’t look well, almost insane with the intensity of the fires that burned within him.

For a moment I stood there gaping at him, sure that he was an apparition conjured by my desire to find him.

"May I enter?" he asked, his voice low, quiet and a little raspy.

"Of course," I sputtered, stepping back and gesturing at the interior.

Jansen crossed the threshold, glancing around, and then fell into the only chair in my room. A thread bare, overstuffed chair next to a small table that held an electric lamp and one of the volumes I had been reading.

I shut the door and sat on the edge of the bed. I noticed that Eric’s clothes were old, patched and frayed, but they were clean. Although his boots were scuffed, there was no mud or snow on them. He carried an old satchel that he placed carefully at his feet, as if it held a great but fragile treasure.

"Did you mean it? He asked without preamble.

The question seemed to have nothing to do with the current situation, but I knew what he meant. After his stories on the ship and the books, magazines and the articles I had read, I was prepared for the question.

"Yes," I told him. "Yes. I meant it."

"Good!" he said, nodding. He gestured at the satchel and added, "I have had almost no luck. With Admiral Perry’s reports and the races to various poles, the scientific community laughed at my information. They claimed it was the delusions of a rather unstable mind."

I started to speak but he waved me to silence.

"Oh, they all said to come back if I found evidence. If I had real proof, but I knew they were laughing behind my back."

"Then the expedition is off," I guessed.

"No," he said tiredly. He closed his eyes as if resting, as I gathering strength. "No, I’m going north to look for the entrance. I’m going to make them eat those words."

"Then you have financing."

"I have," he told me, "a thousand dollars and no scientific backing. I have a truck, a camera, and a pistol. That is all that I have."

The disappointment I felt was overwhelming. I stood and moved to my window. Outside, on the street below me, I saw a few people. A horse drawn carriage rocked by. I turned and asked, "Then why are you here?"

"We don’t need much to get the expedition going. My thousand and my truck might be enough, but I can’t do it alone. There is too much, and when I succeed, I’m going to be in the same boat I’m in now. No one is going to believe one man."

"Two men might not be believed either."

"You are correct, of course," he said. "But two men, with different backgrounds who have documented their trip with photographs and artifacts, will have a better chance of convincing our learned friends. We’ll be able to gather enough raw data, I think, to convince them to finance a real expedition."

I turned from him and wandered around my room. I touched the low bookcase holding the volumes that I had yet to read. Books on a variety of subjects ranging from astronomy and anthropology to zoology. I had the layman’s interest in all the sciences and followed the latest discoveries. I knew that astronomers were searching for a mysterious ninth planet in our Solar System, that a few scientists were suggesting what was to be had on an atomic level, and that a theory suggesting that life evolved from lower orders into the higher were all the rage. But I wasn’t a scientist. I was a dabbler in science with no formal training. I said as much to Eric.

"Neither am I," he said. "But much of science has been explored by men such as ourselves. Men with vision. Men with a little information, who have the courage to follow their theories. You claimed to be such a man."

His statement was flattering. Me, a man of vision with the courage to follow that vision.

"If we have no backing," I said, "then how do you propose that we proceed?"

He grinned, but didn’t question my use of "we." Instead, he said, "It’s simple enough. I have mapped a route for us. Much of it is easy. We use the truck to drive north, into Canada, winding our way to the upper reaches of the continent. A small boat to take us to the icecap, and then we hike toward the opening that my father saw there."

"Your father said that he sailed into the opening."

"Ah," said Eric smiling, "you have been doing research yourself."

"Some," I said noncommittal.

"No matter," said Eric. "My father maintained there were land entrances as well. Caves that lead down and that one of them is in the arctic."

"It is my understanding," I said, "that the arctic icecap is just that, ice. There is no land under it. That it floats on the ocean."

"A theory," said Eric. "Who’s to say what lies under those tons of ice? I suggest that there is a volcanic island under a portion of the ice. A dead volcano with a shaft that will take us into the land that my father first explored."

That made sense, I had to admit. I nodded then and asked, "Do you have any idea where your island is?"

"A very good idea." He leaned forward, opened his satchel and pulled out a map. He opened it slowly, carefully, as if it was quite brittle, glanced at the table next to him and then stood but walked toward my bed. As he spread the map on the bed, he said, "My father gave me a few clues, and then researching the available literature, I picked up others. I believe that we can reach one of the caves. I have marked the search area on the map."

He had circled an area that was quite large. Parts of Alaska, Canada and the arctic ice cap were within the boundaries. It was literally hundreds of square miles.

"This is the best place," he said. "I think there may be an entrance in the mountains of Peru or Equador, but it would be disguised, hidden in the jungles and guarded by the Indians. If we managed to get close, I think the Indians would attack and prevent us from entering any of the caves."

"Just a very general idea," he responded. "But the jungle and the Indians make it a very undesirable portal."

"I’m not that keen on the arctic one," I said. "Especially in the winter."

"But it’s late February now. By the time we could get the expedition ready and travel north, it would be May. The best time of an arctic expedition to begin. We’ll have the whole summer in front of us."

I had to admit that it seemed that Eric had thought his way through the whole thing. He had arrived with his truck, his map, a little money, and his itinerary. I was reluctant to join him, only because I had become used to the luxuries of Kansas City. I liked the warmth of the steam heat, the convenience of the electricity, and the ease of restaurant meals.

"We’d want to be back by autumn," he said. "If we haven’t found anything by then, the weather would turn against us."

I sat on the edge of the bed and studied the map. As I looked at it, I realized that I had decided to go. I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment that I had made the decision, but I knew that there was no longer a question about it. I was going to go. I might have decided at the moment I opened the door and saw who it was, or it might have been when he pulled out the map. All I knew now was that I was in. I was going.

"An aerial search would help us eliminate a great deal of barren territory and open ocean."

"I thought of that, but I can’t afford to buy an airplane. Besides, I don’t know how to fly one."

"Neither can I, but I would imagine that we could find someone with both a plane and the experience who would help us with the search."

"We don’t have unlimited funds and there is a great deal of equipment and supplies that we still need."

The potential of the find was so great that a small investment could pay gigantic dividends. If nothing else, the story of the expedition would be worth something. An article, with suitable pictures for a scientific journal, the Saturday Evening Post or National Geographics certainly wasn’t impossible.

Eric looked at me and asked, quietly, "Then you’ll go?"

"Of course," I said. "Was there ever any doubt?"

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