A Backwoods Hero by Jacob A. Riis
I had started out to explore the Magnetawan River from our camp on
Lake Wahwaskesh toward the Georgian Bay, thirty miles south, but
speedily found my way blocked by the canal rapids. The river there
rushes through a deep and narrow cañon strewn with sharp rocks, a
perilous pass at all times for the most expert canoeist. We did not
attempt it, but, making a landing in Deep Bay, took the safer portage
around. At the end of a two-mile tramp we reached a clearing at the
foot of the cañon where the loggers had camped at one time. Black bass
and partridge go well together when a man is hungry, and there was
something so suggestive of birds about the place that I took a turn
around with my gun, while Aleck looked after the packs. Poking about on
the edge of the clearing, in the shadow of some big pines which the
lumbermen had spared, I came suddenly upon the most unlikely thing of
all in that wilderness, miles from any human habitationa
burying-ground! Two mounds, each with a weather-beaten board for a
headstone, were all it contained; just heaps of sand with a few
withered shrubs upon them. But a stout fence of cedar slabs, roughly
fashioned into pickets, to keep prowling animals away, hedged them
inevidence that some one had cared. Ormand Morden, I read upon one
of the boards, cut deep to last with a jack-knife. The other, nailed up
in the shape of a cross, bore the name M. McDonald. The date under
both names was the same: June 8, 1899.
What tragedy had happened here in the deep woods a year before? Even
while the question was shaping itself in my mind, it was answered by
another discovery. Slung on the fence at the foot of one grave was a
pair of spiked shoes; at the foot of the other the dead man's shoepacks
with sand and mud in them. Two river-drivers, then; drowned in the
rapids probably. I remembered the grave on Deadman's Island, hard by
the favorite haunt of the bass, which was still kept up after thirty
years, even as the memory of its lonely tenant lived on the lake where
another generation of woodsmen had replaced his. But what was the old
black brier-wood pipe doing on the head-rail between the two graves? I
looked about me with an involuntary start as I noticed that the ashes
of the last smoke were still in the bowl, expecting I hardly knew what
in the ghostly twilight of the forest.
Over our camp fire that evening Aleck set my fears at rest and told
me the story of the two graves, a tale of every-day heroism of the kind
of which life on the frontier has many to tell, to the credit of our
poor human nature. He was cadging supplies to the camp that winter
and was a witness at first hand of what happened.
Morden and Mike McDonald were bunkies in a gang of river-drivers
that had been cutting logs on the Deer River near its junction with the
Magnetawan. Morden was the older, and had a wife and children in the
settlements up north. He had been working his farm for a spell and
had gone back reluctantly to shantying because he needed the money in a
slack season. But he could see his way ahead now. When at night they
squatted by the fire in their log hut and took turns at the one pipe
they had between them, he spoke hopefully to his chum of the days that
were coming. Once this drive of logs was in, that was the end of it for
him. He would live like a man after that with the old woman and the
kids. Mike listened and smoked in silence. He was a man of few words.
But there was between them a strong bond of sympathy, despite the
disparity in their age and belief. McDonald was a Catholic and single.
Younger by ten years than the other, he was much the stronger and
abler, the athlete of a camp where there were no weaklings.
The water was low and the drive did not get through the lake until
spring was past and gone. It was a good week into June before the last
logs had gone over the canal rapids. The gang was preparing to follow,
to pitch camp on the spot where we were then sitting. Whether because
they didn't know the danger of it, or from a reckless determination to
take chances, the foreman with five of his men started to shoot the
rapids in the cook's punt. McDonald and Morden were of the venturesome
crew. They had not gone halfway before the punt was upset, and all six
were thrown out into the boiling waters. Five of them clung to the
slippery rocks and held on literally for life. Morden alone could not
swim. He went under, rose once, and floated head down past McDonald,
who was struggling to save himself. He put out a hand to grasp him, but
only tore the shirt from his back. The doomed man was whirled down to
Just beyond were the most dangerous rocks with a tortuous fall, in
which the strongest swimmer might hardly hope to live. Nothing was
said; no words were wasted. Looking around from his own perilous perch,
the foreman saw Mike let go his hold and make after his bunkie,
swimming free with powerful strokes. The next moment the fall swallowed
both up. They were seen no more.
Three days they camped in the clearing, searching for their dead. On
the fourth, just as dynamite was coming from the settlement to stir up
the river bottom with, they recovered the body of McDonald in Trout
Lake, some miles below. A team was sent to the nearest storehouse for
planks to make a coffin of. As they were hammering it together, the
body of his lost bunkie rose in the eddy just below the rapids, in
sight of the camp. So they made two boxes and buried them on the hill,
side by side. In death, as in life, they bunked together. Their
shoepacks they left at the foot of their graves, as I had found them,
and the pipe they smoked in common, to show that they were chums.
There was no priest and no time to fetch one. The rough woodsmen
stood around in silence, with the sunset glinting through the dark
pines on their bared heads. A swamp-robin in the brush made the
responses. The older men threw a handful of sand into each open grave.
The one Roman Catholic among them crossed himself devoutly: God rest
their souls. Amen! from a score of deep voices, and the service was
over. The men went back to their perilous work, harder by so much to
all of them because two were gone.
The shadows were deepening in the woods; the roar of the rapids came
up from the river like a distant chant of requiem as Aleck finished his
story. Except that the drivers sent Morden's wife his month's pay and
raised sixty dollars among themselves to put with it, there was nothing
more to tell. The two silent mounds under the pines told all the rest.
Come, I said, give me your knife; and I cut in the cross on
McDonald's grave the letters I. H. S.
What do they stand for? asked Aleck, looking on. I told him, and
wrote under the name, Greater love hath no man than this, that a man
lay down his life for his friends.
Aleck nodded. Ay! he said, that's him.