WHEN THAT BIG INDIAN hit me, I went down like heâ€™d whacked me with the butt-end of a spruce tree. Only thing is, I was never much good at staying on the ground, so I shook the exploding stars out of my eyes, got my feet under me and gave him a proper lesson on respect for his elders. He just happened to be my brother, and until ten minutes earlier, I hadnâ€™t even known I had one of those. Our introduction surely didnâ€™t engender any of that feel-good fuzzy stuff youâ€™re supposed to have in your heart for kinfolk.
Gus picked himself out of the dirt for the second time, and I stepped forward to see if he needed a few more welts.
He held up his hand and backed away. â€śEnough! Iâ€™m finished.â€ť
â€śWell, you shouldnâ€™t have ever started.â€ť I dropped my hands, my teeth still clenched with the roiling anger and distaste for this place. We glared at each other, and it was like I was looking over a high fence into a different worldâ€”a world I didnâ€™t want to see. Why had I come? It surely wasnâ€™t to pick a fight with some relative I had never seen.
Iâ€™d asked myself that question a hundred times since early this morning when Iâ€™d been driving north, heading to the Canadian Finals. It would be my last big rodeo for the year. My satellite radio, tuned to a country station was banging out that old Bon Jovi number, something about there being no reason you canâ€™t go home, so I at least partly blame them for my moment of derangement. My mouth twisted into a cynical smile. Just like the song, Iâ€™d spent a long time trying to run as far away as I could get from anything Indian. So why would I go back now?
At the last possible second, Iâ€™d cut off the car behind me and ducked into the left-hand turn lane. He honked at me and I gave him an apologetic wave. In the rearview mirror I could see his mouth moving, and I donâ€™t think he was blessing me with long life and good health.
Ever since an old cowboy at the Williams Lake rodeo had stopped me and told me heâ€™d known my mother up on the Rocky Point Reserve, the whole question of my heritage had bothered me. Who was she? Was she born thereâ€”buried there? Even if I had little use for that side of my ancestry, there was no other way to find answers to those nagging questions.
An hour later, Iâ€™d jabbed at the radio off-button and cocked an eyebrow at a four by eight sheet of bedraggled plywood. According to the sign, I was now on Indian land. Shortly thereafter, the first government-built house filled my windshield. I slowed to a crawl, grimacing at humpy, snow-crusted yards, litter-strewn vacant lots and rusty, trashed vehicles.
A log cabin stood alone on the far edge of town. An old man labored over a woodpile, his axe flashing into the dry pine blocks scattered around him. I pulled off the road and parked. His house and yard were neat, suspiciously free of clutter and derelict cars. The shake roof covered a full-length front veranda, empty except for a homebuilt willow rocker. The logs had been well cared for, recently sanded and oiled.
The old fellow who wielded the axe wore a plaid scotch cap with the earflaps tied up. Suspenders crossed over a brown and white checked jac-shirt. His dark wool pants covered most of a pair of high-top moccasins encased in rubber slip-on overshoes. He looked ancient enough to have known some of my people; perhaps even my mother. The only memory I carried of her was from a blurred photograph Iâ€™d had when I was a kid. Somewhere in one of my many social services-orchestrated moves, the picture had disappeared, along with my trust of anything Indian.
The old man straightened, leaned against the axe, and watched me walk up the freshly-shoveled path. Halfway to the woodpile, I spoke. â€śGood morning.â€ť
He nodded sagely. â€śHello, Lonnie. I knew you would come home someday.â€ť
My mouth fell open. â€śYou have the advantage on me, sir. I donâ€™t recall when we met?â€ť I kind of expected recognition anywhere rodeo was popular, but I didnâ€™t reckon this backwoods reservation qualified.
â€śYou think weâ€™re too far out in the bush to know a good bronc rider when we see one?â€ť He had a few missing teeth, but it didnâ€™t take away from his infectious grin.
â€śYeah, I guess I did.â€ť
His face turned serious again. â€śYou might be right, but there is another reason I recognized you. I have known you since you were a baby.â€ť
â€śOh-h?â€ť My eyebrows rose. Time to be cautious here.
The old man switched the axe to his other hand and shuffled his feet. â€śI am your grandfather.â€ť
I stuffed my thumbs in my pockets just to make sure there werenâ€™t any dollar bills hanging over the edges. It went with the buckle. When youâ€™re on top and you look like you have money, thereâ€™s a long-lost relative behind every stump. â€śOld-timer, I think you have the wrong guyâ€”but it was great visiting with you. You have a good day.â€ť I waved at the snow-covered woodpile. â€śBe careful with that axe.â€ť