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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 habitation—a 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 in—evidence 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 sure death.

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.”

 
 
 

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