Paul Bunyan and the Black Rocks

The Queen City, The Marquette Trilogy: Book Two

The winter storm we’ve been having the last few days reminds me of another storm just before the holidays that I had one of my characters, the logger Karl Bergmann, tell in the second book of my Marquette Trilogy, The Queen City, so I am posting it here for those of you who enjoy tall tales about Paul Bunyan.

For those interested in more Paul Bunyan stories, I will publish another in my novel Spirit of the North, which will be published in 2011 or early 2012. In the meantime, while many books have been published of Paul Bunyan stories, the two best I have found, that firmly plant him in Upper Michigan are Marquette author James Cloyd Bowman’s The Adventures of Paul Bunyan and Stan Newton’s Paul Bunyan of the Great Lakes. (We find out Paul was born in Marquette of all places, and despite Minnesota and Maine and even Saginaw, Michigan’s claims he is their native son.)


            “This happened many years ago,” Karl began, “when I first started out as a lumberjack and Ben and I had just become partners. Let me tell you, my pal Ben was about the best logger I ever saw. He had arms thick and strong as jackpines. You’d almost think he was a jackpine himself, he was so tall and sturdy. He could hack down more trees in a day than you would have time to count.”

            “Yes, he could,” Frank said. “I remember him.”

            “He wasn’t as strong as you though, was he, Uncle Karl?” asked Jeremy. Despite the good-natured ribbing of his uncle, Jeremy did not idolize any man as much as Uncle Karl, not even his own father.

            “Well, to be honest with you,” Karl said, “Ben’s the only man who ever laid me flat on my back. For years we wondered who was stronger, until one day we decided to arm wrestle; we strained for a good hour until Ben slammed my arm down, clear right through the table, knocking me clean on the ground. I never would have crossed him after that, not that I ever had reason to because he was the best tempered man I ever knew.”

            “But what about Paul Bunyan?” asked Michael.

            “Well, as I was saying, my friend Ben and I were the most successful loggers in the entire Upper Peninsula of Michigan save for Paul Bunyan. Sometimes we thought Paul would put us clean out of business, but when he realized what good folks Ben and I was, we all became friends, and he would give us hints on how to cut down trees all the faster.

            “Anyway, one year about Christmas time, Ben and I were coming up here to Marquette to visit. We were riding through the woods in our sleigh on the road from L’anse when who did we happen upon but Paul Bunyan and his Big Blue Ox, Babe. They were just walking along the road although the snow was already piled up in drifts. They thought nothing about a little snow. Paul Bunyan could step over the snowbanks as you and I would step over an ant mound. Paul said he was walking to Marquette all the way from Ontonagon, a walk he could usually do in two hours because his legs were so long and his strides so big. Well, Ben and I offered him a ride, only he said he’d never fit in the sleigh, he was so big, and we didn’t want to risk him breaking it, so we continued along the road and he walked beside us in his snowshoes, but even with our horses going at a swift trot, we could barely keep up with him.

            “Then, a fierce blizzard sprang up, and before we knew it, we were lost in that blustery storm. Even Paul Bunyan could not walk in that nasty weather. We couldn’t see an inch ahead of us, and pretty soon we didn’t know where the horses were pulling the sleigh, but we figured we were off the trail. Not all the forest trees could protect us from those chilling gusts. The wind was so loud we could barely yell over it, and when Paul claimed he could hear Lake Superior’s waves pounding, we got scared that we might walk plumb into the lake. Not wanting to risk the danger, we decided to stop for the night.

            “We found a sturdy clump of trees all sprung up together to break the wind for us. Then Paul took his ax, and in half a minute, he had half a dozen trees chopped down and split into boards to make a lean-to. If we’d had a few nails, we could have had ourselves a real comfortable little cabin.

            “So we went inside our little shelter, and tried to stay warm throughout the storm. Wasn’t too hard because Paul had on two flannel shirts, so he loaned one to me and Ben to use as a blanket–he was so big his shirts could have made a tent with room left over for a pair of curtains. We weren’t worried about no wild animals bothering us out in the wild ’cause Babe slept right there in the shelter with us, and that ox has a fierce temper when it’s angry. Even without Babe, we wouldn’t have had to worry because Paul snores just like a bear growls, only a might bit louder. But we’d had such a hard long ride from the Keweenaw in all that blinding snow that we napped right well that night, even with Paul and Babe snoring. I only remember waking up once that night, and then I peeked outside and saw nothing but sheer white. Since the storm was still raging, I cuddled back under Paul’s giant shirt and went back to sleep. The next time I woke was a full day later, and again I saw the snow still pouring down, and again I went back to sleep. And the next day, the snow was still raging, only that time I could hear the wind blowing fierce, so I didn’t even bother to look outside but just rolled over and kept my eyes closed.”

            “How’d you know how many days had passed?” asked Michael.

            “Shh,” Jeremy shushed his brother. “Don’t interrupt.”

            “Well, I lost track of how many days we were actually there. But when I finally did wake up and stayed awake, a crack of light was peering into our shelter, and the snow had piled up, foot after foot all around us. We were lucky the storm stopped when it did, or we might all have been buried under the snow and not been found until spring. Why half the trees were bent over to the ground from the weight of the snow, and the drifts were so thick and wet, it was impossible to walk through them.

            “‘It’ll be May before all this snow melts and we can travel again,’ Ben said.

            “‘Not even our sleigh could make it through this mess,’ I agreed.

            “But Paul just looked about him, thinking and thinking and not saying a word.

            “‘I’m starving,’ I said, and that’s how I knew we had been there for several days. I was so hungry I could have eaten an ox.

            “‘But we can’t stay here,’ said Ben. ‘We’ll starve to death if we do ’cause there’s nothing here to eat but snow.’

            “‘Not even a deer,’ I replied.

            “‘And if there was a deer,’ Ben said, ‘we ain’t got a gun to shoot it with.’

            “But Paul was still silent. He just thought and thought, and we stared at him until we thought maybe the cold had frozen him in place. Then we noticed a little tear starting down his cheek, and in a second, it turned into a footlong icicle.

            “‘He’s crying from fear of starvation,’ Ben whispered to me.

            “Neither of us could believe it. Paul Bunyan was the biggest, strongest, bravest, most courageous fellow anyone could ever meet, but here he was crying ’cause he feared starving.

            “‘It’s all right, Paul,’ I told him. ‘We’ll get by somehow.’

            “‘We can always eat the horses if we have to,’ said Ben.

            “But Paul just kept crying and letting those tears turn into icicles. He was such a big man he must have had a tremendous size heart, and a tender one too I guess. Maybe he pitied others who were weaker than him. I don’t know. He never would have killed a deer though, even though up here is big hunting country. We figured maybe he was crying now over having to slaughter our poor horses.

            “‘We gotta eat, Paul,’ Ben told him.

            “‘I know,’ Paul sighed.

            “‘Those horses are our only chance of surviving the winter,’ I said.

            “‘No, we won’t eat the horses,’ he said, wiping the icicles from his eyes. ‘We’ll eat Babe instead.’

            “‘BABE!!!’ Ben and I exclaimed together. Babe was Paul’s best friend. We could never consent to eating him. Paul’s heart would wither away and break if we were to do such a thing.

            “‘Not Babe,’ we told him. ‘We’d rather starve, Paul.’

            “But Paul was looking deep into Babe’s big blue eyes now, and Babe seemed to understand what he was thinking. Babe rolled his eyes sadly at Paul. Paul scratched his ears and rubbed Babe’s nose. I doubt I’ll ever again see such love between a man and his beast as there was between Paul and that Big Blue Ox.

            “‘Paul,’ Ben and I said, ‘you just can’t do it.’

            “‘It’s all right,’ he said, after blowing his nose. ‘I know a trick an Indian medicine man taught me. I saved this medicine man once from a grizzly bear, and in exchange, he enchanted Babe. See, Babe can be eaten once, and so long as we only eat the meat and don’t break the bones, then there won’t be no trouble. After we’re done eating, I can just say a spell and cast some snow over the bones and Babe will come back alive like new.’

            “‘But Paul,’ said I. ‘What if it don’t work? What if the medicine man lied to you?’

            “‘He wouldn’t have done that,’ Paul said. ‘He was grateful for my saving his life.’

            “‘But what if–’ Ben tried to protest, but Paul hushed us both, saying nothing else was to be done, and it would all go well. Babe didn’t look so sure, but he loved Paul so well, he gladly laid down his life for his friend.

            “‘Now I’ll do the deed,’ Paul said, ‘but you and Ben are going to have to cut down some trees and make a clearing where we can roast the meat.’

            “Ben and I willingly left the shelter. We cut down a few trees that were not in the path of the wind so they did not shelter us. Then we dug down with our bare hands about twenty or maybe it was thirty feet–the snow was that deep–until we came to real rocky ground to build a fire on. If we had not found rock, any fire we started would have melted all the snow beneath it and started a flood. Meanwhile, Paul said goodbye to Babe, and then he lifted his ax and did the deed. When he called us back inside the tent, Babe looked as if he were just sleeping peacefully. Our hearts were aching with trouble and worry, and the only thing that kept us from crying was not wanting to make Paul cry, but we helped Paul cut up that Big Blue Ox and roast the meat over the fire. We were careful all through the process to save and pile the bones where they would not be lost. Now you might think this would be hard, especially with something as small as a toe bone, but Babe’s toes were the size of a man’s leg, so you see, not much chance existed of us losing any bone because it was too small.

            “Now it takes a mighty long time to cook anything in the middle of winter, especially when it’s forty degrees below zero, and it takes even longer to cook a Big Blue Ox. We kept the extra meat stored up in the snowbanks, and we rationed it out over weeks and weeks as one horrible storm after another pounded around us. We started to think the snow had continued clear through summer and we were into the next winter. Then just as we were about to run out of meat, the snow finally started to melt. Soon the grass started to poke up through the ground, and then Paul said it was time we find our way back to civilization. I think Paul started to worry that if he didn’t bring Babe back to life pretty soon, there would be no bringing Babe back. During all that winter, we had tried to be good company to Paul, playing poker with him, and telling our lumberjack stories, but Paul sure had a fondness for that Ox, and we could see he was missing Babe sorely.

            “So Ben and I, we gathered up all Babe’s bones and hooked them back together. We had us quite a puzzle at times since we didn’t always know which bone went where, none of us being doctors of any sort, but Paul insisted we wouldn’t stop trying until we knew for certain every single piece was in the right place because he didn’t want no limping ox.

            “When we finally had all the pieces together, Paul sprinkled the snow over the bones and began to chant in the Ojibwa language. Suddenly a North wind sprung up, and then came a blinding flurry of snow. At first I thought it was another blizzard, and since we’d eaten all of Babe, I figured we would starve for sure this time. But then the snow stopped, and sun broke forth, and there stood Babe, big and blue as ever, and Paul threw his arms around Babe’s neck.

            “Even Ben and I shed a couple tears, and I ain’t ashamed to mention it.

            “‘Now, let’s find our way back to civilization,’ I said.

            “‘Look at that,’ Ben then exclaimed. ‘There’s water over there.’ And as we watched, we saw the snow melt down to ice, and then the ice break up and fall into Lake Superior. All that winter, we had been camped just a few feet from the lakeshore. We all felt lucky we hadn’t walked right into the lake when the first storm hit.

            “‘And look here,’ I said, pointing to the ground.

            “Where we had cooked ox meat all winter, the rocks had turned completely black.

            “So that’s how the Black Rocks came to be at Presque Isle, and they’ll always stand as a monument to an animal who loved a man enough to give his life for him.”


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