From Benchmark (ISBN 0920066488) and Two O'Clock Creek (ISBN 978-0889822665)
1982 © Bruce Hunter
Reproduced here with the kind permission of the author


The Bighorn Stoneys
called him John-John
knew something we didn't
there was always two of him
the reality, five seven
steel pins in both knees
two fingers missing
hearing aid in one ear
like the Indians
wore his scars on the outside
but i'm not interested with the facts
we're dealing with legend here
the other, his best story
himself, in the telling

this is my language
his, crow speak
back country lumber camps
Cree song and radio talk

if he wasn't first
he was last
last ranger in the Forest Service
to use dog teams
tells of the day on the ice
of the Upper Saskatchewan
on the way to the Dolomite
dogs caught whiff of wild horse
took six miles to stop ’em
not a bad place to camp anyway
named it
(in a new district
you named everything
helped you know where you were)
Wildhorse Creek

family never sure
of him or the story
like the dog sled
ordered from H.B.C. Winnipeg
when it arrives
he measures, blueprints
sends it back unused
improvises with axehandles
and sleigh parts
this way he invented himself

on the barn wall, strange tools
hoof trimmers, adzes, scythes
come-alongs, slings, pack pumps
hot coals and horseshoe metal
John cranking the bellows
watches the sky
remembering similar coals
in the rock high above Pinto Lake
no soil no water
just dry sacks, shovels
stamping feet all night
watching cinders drift
onto the crowns of dry timber
in the valley below
no accident his curses
were words of prayer

did he make the other
the taller one
out of loneliness, of whimsy
one would tell the joke
the other sat back
were there two
or were there two times
twice as many
that makes him four
needed all the help
you could get

soft talking Cree
in a back country cook tent
up the Bighorn River
with Walking Buffalo
last of another kind
grey braids, in white doeskin
with John trading
in the language of cougar
hurrying birds, squirrel warnings
of early winter and spring flood

in the corral on horseback
with a string of packponies
packboxes diamond-hitched
carbine under saddlebag
Forest Service khaki
you could almost believe again
in uniforms, easier times

picking berries near dark
from the house his wife watches
John on one end of the bush
on the other, bear
moving towards each other unaware
Kathy runs out with the .303
bear heads for the river
John over the woodpile
he'll tell you he wasn't sure
who she was gonna shoot

the tale whispered
the telling one
of his favorite son who stayed home
(the others left
the living, with legend, hard)
let his father's colt into muskeg
remembering the temper
the snakeskin whip
hung at the back door by the rifles
took a rifle instead, two cartridges
one for the drowning horse
the other for himself

my brother in forestry camp
ten years later, hears the story
from outfitters and up-river trappers
the story retelling itself
around fires, in bar rooms
time he lost two fingers
off his right hand
drove the forestry truck
standard steering, manual shift
90 miles over washboard roads
into Rocky Mountain House
nurse found him out cold
on the front steps of the hospital
when he left told the doctor
he'd wanted the dead fingers
never threw anything away in the bush

at 75 retired to town
with five greenhouses
fifteen dogs and a horse
no one can ride
Indians come a hundred fifty miles
to talk, buy his flowers
he knows what they want
not live ones that die
and with them the spirit
but dried ones like those
that stand all winter
above the snow
like John