Prologue for my book Waking Paul Bunyan.
Recounted by James Jefferson Madison - as told by a dying man with guilt on his conscience. Year 1871.
Deep in a forest primeval against the canopy of murmuring pines bearded with moss, echoed the voices of maddened men indistinct in the twilight. A hundred arms carrying tar-tipped torches searched, their shadows grown large against the distant and jagged ancient rock. They raced to and fro, to and fro, past stubs of trees freshly hewn, over a dishevel of leaves and trunks and decaying bark.
"Over there!" a voice announced. "Up the mountain!"
The man pursued appeared in an open glade ahead of them. He seemed disproportionate to the landscape, the ancient trees at his back standing like saplings. Wearing a red and black checked lumberjack shirt tucked inside canvas overalls, he was thick-bearded and strong. The man held a wooden cask firmly under one arm. In his other arm, a double bit ax gleamed in the moonlight.
He shouted back towards the pursuing mob, his voice slurred from drink. "It was a fine night, men! Now go back to your camp and rest for Boil Up Day! Pick your blueberries and hone your iron in the morning! For there is not a man among you drunken bushworkers can keep up with the likes of Paul Bunyan! For I am the tallest of all tales"
The mob entered the glade like a small stream of angry ants, torch lights revealing the faces and clothes of scruffy lumberjacks armed with axes, picks, saws, cant hooks and ropes.
Their leader, Jack Scraggs, announced in a thick Scottish accent, "He's stolen his last drink, I tell you!"
The mob replied in chorus, "Hear, hear!"
"A lumberjack's whiskey is more important than his woman!" Scraggs added.
"Aye!" the mob cried.
The Mob stampeded into a frantic run across the glade towards the man, their torches sending off sprays of sparks into the crisp night air. As the field narrowed between pursued and pursuer, it became apparent that Paul Bunyan was no ordinary-sized man, but rather a giant. Leaning his long-handled axe against his side, he lifted the keg to his lips and took a long, steady drink.
"There you have it!" He laughed. "I saved a pint for the fastest man!"
He set the cask down gingerly, picked up his axe and raced into the forest, arms and shoulders breaking boughs as the forest engulfed him.
The mob reached the keg. Three men lifted it and shook it. "If he left us even a pint, then I'm the King of England!" one complained.
They dashed the empty keg to the ground, breaking its iron bands and reducing it to slabs of bent wood.
Scraggs twirled his rope like a lasso, mustering his men. "Keep up the pursuit! He is headed up the point towards the glacier! We'll have our way with him there!"
The mob rushed on into the thick of branches and bramble, over cool hard rocks, following the path the giant had made.
"Fan out left and right," Scraggs ordered. "He won't escape our noose! He's put himself on a rock ledge!"
They saw the giant ahead. He was paused at a cliff, considering his options.
The mob closed in. Loggers with ropes let them fly, snagging the giant's arms, his axe, head and legs. Men dropped their tools of the trade and joined them, tethering the giant from all sides. He pulled and pushed, but the ropes had taken well.
"You can't fend against a hundred men, Bunyan! There's a cliff behind you and a mile down beyond!"
Scraggs picked up a single-blade axe and approached the giant cautiously, poised to strike a leg.
"Stand down, Paul Bunyan or we'll cut you down to a proper man's size! Speak for yourself before we cast the first stone!"
"I am a man of unequalled appetites," Paul spoke drunkenly. "I do the work of forty men, but am given the share of only twenty. How is that fair?"
"The whiskey delivery was low this month. All of us are thirsty! You drank too many shares!"
"Then have at me and we'll make a night of it!" Paul Bunyan bellowed. His giant voice boomed and the men leaned back, frightened.
"Aye, Paul Bunyan! You have worked your last camp in these woods and mountains!" Scraggs turned to the mob. "Bind him up good and tight! We'll find a way to hang him from the tallest tree!"
The delirious mob took to the ropes, pulling the giant to the hard earth as he let out a long, loud whistle.
"Hurry now! Before his beast arrives or there will be no stopping them together!"
In the distance, in the direction of the open glade below, came the unearthly, deep-throated moans of an enormous animal. Its voice echoed in the woods like that of a demon.
Spooked loggers turned their torches and looked behind, nervously exploring the forbidding darkness.
"If we put out our fires..." suggested one.
"The beast can smell us," Scraggs shouted. "Hurry, men. Strike your blows upon him!"
Men raised their axes, hesitating to strike at the giant, for they were not killers of men, but slayers of wood.
Scraggs stepped towards the giant, ready to strike the first blow as the earth at his feet rattled and shook.
"His beast is upon us!" screamed the camp's cookie. "We're dead men now!"
Trees snapped and fell towards the frightened mob, sending them together in a tight circle as a rain of pinecones and needles showered down upon them. Men dropped their rope grips. Axes and saws shook from their moistened hands. Torches dropped. All fell silent, awaiting the inevitable.
The beast cleared the last rows of trees, revealing long horns on either side of its massive head. A broken yoke hung from its thick neck. It towered over the men, a steady drip of yellow snot steaming from its nostrils heavy with exercise, its thick blue body glistening with sweat
Paul Bunyan stood and ripped the ropes from his body. He reached inside his overalls and pulled out a large lump of sugar wrapped in paper.
"That's a good boy," smiled the giant. "Come, Babe. Come my little ox. Here is your treat."
Paul extended his hand with the sugar as Babe moved cautiously forward. She was a dumb animal, uncertain of the situation at hand. Slowly the heavyset beast emerged from the trees, its black untrusting eyes peering at the men one by one as it slowly passed towards its master on giant hoofed feet. Inch by inch, men stepped back away from the giant, the ox and cliff, ready to flee for their lives into the thicket at a moment's notice.
"Good ox," Paul said softly. "Steady now. There is no harm at hand."
The enormous ox shuffled a few more feet, the ground creaking beneath.
"Easy, Bunyan!" Scraggs announced. "We're on uncertain ground near this cliff!"
Babe took more steps and reached the giving hand, licking at the sweet mound, its eyes grateful.
Suddenly, the earth seemed to jar beneath them all. Cracks appeared all around, illuminated by the dropped torches.
"The land's giving way!" shrieked a logger.
"There's too much weight between them!" shouted the camp cookie.
The earth cracked and swelled again, creating a rift that separated the loggers from the giant and ox.
"Run for it, men!" shouted Scraggs. "Away from the cliff before she gives in!"
A hundred men scrambled into the safety of the woods.
The camp cookie looked back, seeing the sodden giant known as Paul Bunyan sway from uncertain footing as the giant blue ox stepped forward again, nudging his master with a massive head as it licked at his open hand again.
"No, Babe!" Paul said. "Whoa! Back up, Babe! Back..."
But the uncertain earth cried out again. Rocks screamed and the sinewed roots of trees snapped free from the edge of the primeval forest. Suddenly, the entire point of land gave in at once and heaved a broken sigh, sending the giant man, his beast and axe head over heels, backwards towards the long-sloping abyss beyond.
Men covered their ears, listening to the giant's final screams for salvation, the oxen's moan, as they tumbled, tumbled towards oblivion into the pit of the frozen glacier below.
As the ripped earth steadied beneath their feet, lumberjacks crawled towards the edged cut of land and peered into the glacier below.
The giant man and beast landed with a thunderous end, shaking snow and ice loose from above as the glacier groaned and drifted downwards, burying them forever in a white shroud.
Jack Scraggs stood up and blessed himself. One by one, other loggers found their footing and joined his side.
"Let us say a prayer for Paul Bunyan. There was never a better man with an axe." Scraggs heaved a long sigh. "We must have agreement between us," he said to the disheartened men. "There will be no more talk of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox or of this deed done tonight! In a generation from now, his name will fade from history! But we here shall never forget our own sins performed for the sake of the wicked spirit we call whiskey!"
The camp cookie looked at the freshly carved grave down below.
"He drank like no other."
"Poor Paul Bunyan," said Jack Scraggs. "Born too big to find his peace on this earth."
"Amen," said the assembled men solemnly.
After a moment of silence, torches, axes and ropes were found and the men made their way back towards their lumber camp deep in the forest. Tomorrow was Sunday. Boil Up Day. They would rest and whisper and remember the man they knew as Paul Bunyan.