He was squatting and staring out at me from the shadows of the lodgepole pines that stood on the edge of the half-circle clearing we had cut back from the lake shore. I might not have noticed him at all had I not seen his horse with its head down, grazing the goose grass along the shoreline. The sudden appearance of a saddled horse without its rider startled me. I looked back from the lake to the edge of the clearing, my eyes squinting to make out the shape of a man in the dense forest behind me. I spotted him, just as I’ve mentioned, staring at me from his squat position, as though he were the Sphinx. His hair, blonde like a white man’s, was parted in the middle and grown down to his shoulders. His skin was red, like an Indian. This was the first I had seen of him. I had only heard the stories in the beer parlors in Edmonton, stories of the man in the wilderness, and of his bringing an axe down on his own wrist out at the Macleod trading post near Solomon’s Flats. He was the half-breed, Tay John.
I thought I understood the Tay John of Legend. I thought if I ever met him we would understand each other because I, too, am a half-breed of sorts. My parents had come from Dublin. My mother, a devout Catholic, met my Protestant father on Dorset Street. They met secretly for many months afterward. My mother was desperate to hide her relationship from her family and from her priest, but this was not to be. Word of their relationship spread and, rather than face her parents and excommunication from the church, my mother fled with my father to the North Wall, a dock on the river Liffey where they caught the night boat to Liverpool; from Liverpool they booked passage in steerage on the Avalon, a steamer bound for New York City. When I was a small boy my father was hired on with the railway and we moved north into Canada. The work brought my family West and by the mid-eighties, we were living in Edmonton, which was still a frontier town at that time. My parents had become exiles, estranged from their faiths, their families and their homeland; and I was the product of their exile, not wholly Irish or Canadian, Protestant or Catholic. I have lived my life in the shadow of my parents’ sin.
The first time I saw the mountains rising up from the foothills they seemed an impenetrable wall of stone protecting the last of the unnamed country. But man is a hungry and driven creature, and when he can’t move a mountain he simply goes around it. In the spring of 1911, the railway had reached the shores of Yellowhead Lake. I had been hired on with the Grand Trunk Pacific the year before, eager to lend my hand to the ambitious project that would prove to be one of the Dominion’s crowning achievements. When I could I would make my way back to Edmonton, to the beer parlors and the bawdy houses. I’m not ashamed to say I sought comfort in these places. You might’ve too had you ever known the loneliness and isolation that can overcome a man during a two month stretch in the wilderness, and his urge to ease his flesh the first chance he gets. I first heard of Tay John in the bar of the Selkirk Hotel from a rugged little Irishman who drank there often. For a glass of whiskey, he would tell you about the places he had seen, the things he had done, and you could scarcely finish a round without him uttering the name, Tay John. Yes, I was familiar with the yellow-haired half-breed, the man who claimed no tribe — white or Indian, the man who had killed a grizzly with only his hands. I thought I knew him long before I had seen him squatting in the trees at the clearing’s edge. But what did I know? I’ve since learned a man is seldom the legend that surrounds him.
The spring of 1911 was warm and the heavy snow pack in the high country melted quickly. Torrents of melt-water spilled down the gullies on the mountain sides and into the bosom of the Miette River. The swollen muddy flow had washed out a trestle not far from Yellowhead Lake. This delayed supply shipments from Jasper and hindered our work. The stoppage had given me time to investigate a slightly less ambitious project not far down the tracks from the railway camp, on the other side of Yellowhead Lake. A rich American called Alf Dobble was financing the construction of a lodge and a series of cabins he dreamed would one day be known as “the Lucerne of the Rockies”. Rumour had it Dobble needed men, that he paid better than the railway and that his workers were well fed. I wasn’t certain he needed men, or if the pay was as high as people said, but as I approached Dobble’s property I can tell you that the moment I inhaled the lingering smells wafting from his cookhouse, I felt more nourishment than I had from an entire summer’s ration of tinned beans and salt pork in the railway camp. I spent the rest of the season clearing trees and building cabins for Dobble. That’s how I came to be in the lodge when that Indian kicked up such a fuss.
It wasn’t long after I had seen Tay John crouching at the edge of the clearing that I made up my mind about him. I hadn’t much of a chance to form an opinion of him before that — the man that is, not the legend. He had set his tee-pee roughly a mile from our bunkhouse, closer to Dobble’s guest — a dark-skinned woman from the East who Tay John was guiding: Miss Ardith Aeriola. I tell you, the man was a shadow. We hardly saw him, so I never gave him much thought. I never make another man’s business my own unnecessarily.
At the season’s end, Dobble hosted a gathering in the lodge. It was meant as a thank you to the men for our hard work and as a going away party for Miss Aeriola. It was an impressive sight, seeing men like the big Swede, Olafson, and the blacksmith, Pete Murphy, in pressed shirts and trousers, their hair neatly combed and their faces shaved closely. It seemed civilization had laid its claim in the wilderness. I was packing tobacco into my pipe and listening to one of the men play the accordion on the steps to Dobble’s office when the commotion started. It sounded like the crack of a billiard ball, Ardith’s open palm slapping Dobble’s face. It may be the case that Dobble acted inappropriately and he may have got what was coming to him from Miss Aeriola — I can’t say for sure. But I can say that whatever was going on, it was between Dobble and Miss Aeriola. Tay John had no business jumping in and assailing Dobble like he did.
We couldn’t stand idly by. The moment before we attacked we stood around him in a half-circle, twenty or so neatly dressed civilized men staring down that savage in the red chequered mackinaw, the savage who couldn’t mind his manners. We flew at him all at once, punching wildly towards Tay John and the wall that he had been backed against. I swung madly, hoping my fist would connect just once with the face of that Indian who forgot his place. But Tay John held his ground. Somehow the one-handed half-breed sent us reeling backwards one after another, wriggling from our grip time and again before vanishing out of doors and into the night.