By Fannie Hardy Eckstorm
from Penobscot Man, Houghton Mifflin, 1904
This is a Penobscot story.
When the camp-fire is lighted, and the smoke draws straight up without baffling, and the branches overhead move only as the rising current of heat fans them, then if the talk veers round to stories of crack watermen, and the guides, speaking more to each other than to you, declare that it was Big Sebattis Mitchell who first ran the falls at Sowadnehunk, —though full twenty years before, John Ross himself had put a boat over and come out right side up, —do not, while they are debating whose is the credit of being first, let slip your chance to hear a better tale: bid them go on and tell you how Joe Attien, who was Thoreau's guide, and his men who followed after and who failed, were the ones who made that day memorable.
And if your guides are Penobscot men, they will tell it as Penobscot men should, as if there were no merit in the deed beyond what any man might attain to, as if the least a man should do was to throw away his life on a reckless dare, and count it well spent when so lavished. For so are these men made, and as it was in those days of the beginning, so is it yet even to the present among us.
You will have heard, no doubt, of Sebattis, he who from his bulk was called by the whites Big Sebat, and from his lazy shrewdness was nicknamed by his tribesmen Ahwassus, the Bear. Huge and round he was, like the beast he was named for, but strong and wise, and in his dark, flat face and small, twinkling eyes there were resources, ambitions, schemes.
Scores of you who read this will recollect the place. In memory you will again pass down the West Branch in your canoe, past Ripogenus, past Ambajemackomas, past the Horse Race, into the welcome deadwater above Nesowadnehunk. There, waiting in expectancy for that glorious revelation of Katahdin which bursts upon you above Abol, that marvelous picture of the giant towering in majestic isolation, with its white "slide" ascending like a ladder to the heavens, you forgot yourself, did not hear the tumult of falling waters, did not see the smooth lip of the fall sucking down, were unconscious that just before you were the falls of Sowadnehunk. Then, where the river veers sharply to the right, you felt the guide spring on his paddle as he made the carry by a margin, and you realized what it would have been to drift unguided over those falls.
So it has always been, —the sharp bend of the river to the right, blue, smooth, dazzling; the carry at the left, bare, broad, yellow-earthed. Crossing it forty rods, you cut off the river again, and see above you to the right the straight fall, both upper and lower pitches almost as sheer as milldams, and in front the angry boil of a swift current among great and thickset rocks. So it always stays in memory,—at one end the blue river, smooth and placid, and the yellow carry; at the other, the white hubbub of tossing rapids below perpendicular falls.
One May day long ago, two boats' crews came down to the carry and lugged across. They had lugged three miles on Ripogenus, and a half mile on Ambajemackomas, besides the shorter carry past Chesuncook Dam; they had begun to know what lugging a boat meant. The day was hot, —no breeze, no shade; it was getting along toward noon, and they had turned out, as usual, at three in the morning. They were tired, —tired, faint, hot; weary with the fatigue that stiffens the back and makes the feet hang heavy; weary, too, with the monotony of weeks of dangerous toil without a single day of rest, the weariness that gets upon the brain and makes the eyes go blurry; weary because they were just where they were, and that old river would keep flowing on to Doomsday, always drowning men and making them chafe their shoulders lugging heavy boats. There was not a man of them who could not show upon his shoulder a great red spot where the pole used in lugging boat, or the end of an oar on which barrels of pork or flour had been slung in carrying wangan, had bruised and abraded it. And now it was more lugging, and ahead were Abol and Pockwockamus and Debsconeag and Passangamet and Ambajejus and Fowler's and —there are, indeed, how many of them! The over-weary always add to present burdens that mountain of future toil.
So it was in silence that they took out the oars and seats, the paddles and peavies and pickaroons, drew the boats up and drained them of all water, then, resting a moment, straightened their backs, rubbed the sore shoulders that so soon must take up the burden again, and ran their fingers through their damp hair. One or two swore a little as relieving their minds, and when they bent to lift the boat, one spoke for all the others.
"By jinkey-boy!" said he, creating a new and fantastic oath, "but I do believe I'd rather be in hell to-day, with ninety devils around me, than sole-carting on this carry."
That was the way they all felt. It is mighty weary business to lug on carries. For a driving-boat is a heavy lady to carry. The great Maynards, wet, weigh eight to nine hundred pounds, and they put on twelve men, a double crew, to carry one. The old two-streakers (that is, boats with two boards to a side where the big Maynards had three) were not nearly so heavy, and on short carries like Sowadnehunk were lugged by their own crews, whether of four men or six; but diminishing the crew left each man with as great a burden. A short man at the bow, another at the stern, with the taller ones amidships under the curve of the gunwale if they were lugging without poles, or by twos fore, aft, and amidships for six men lugging with poles, was the usual way they carried their boats; and it was "Steady, boys, steady; now hoist her !"—" Easy, now, easy; hold hard!" for going downhill she overrode John and Jim at the bow, and going up a rise Jack and Joe at the stern felt her crushing their shoulders, and when the ground was uneven with rocks and cradleknolls, and she reeled and sagged, then the men at the sides caught the whole weight on one or the other of them. Nothing on the drive speaks so eloquently of hard work as the purple, sweat-stained cross on the backs of the men's red shirts, where the suspenders have made their mark; they get this in lugging boat on carries.
But they bent their backs to it, wriggled the boat up and forward to her place, each crew its own boat, and staggered on, feet bracing out, and spike-soled shoes ploughing the dirt and scratching on the rocks. They looked like huge hundredleggers, Brobdingnagian insects, that were crawling over that yellow carry with all their legs clawing uncertainly and bracing for a foothold. The head boat crowded Bill Halpin upon a rock so hard that he fell and barked his shins on the granite; that dropped the weight suddenly upon Jerry Durgan's shoulder, so that a good two inches of skin was rasped off clean where it had been blistered before; little Tomah Soc stumbled in a hole, and not letting go his grip, threw up the other gunwale so that it half broke his partner's jaw. Those boats took all the mean revenges wherewith a driving-boat on land settles scores for the rough treatment it receives in the water.
They were lugging that May morning only because no boat could run those falls with any reasonable expectation of coming out right side up. For up to that time they had chiefly used the Wallace boat, built low and straight in the gunwale, raking only moderately at the bow and low in the side. It is related that when the great high-bowed Maynard batteaus were first put on the river, short old Jack Mann, who was pensioned in his latter days by P. L. D., looked with high disfavor on the big, handsome craft, and then, rushing into the boat-shop, demanded an axe, an auger, and a handsaw.
[The Penobscot Log-Driving Association, known as P. L. D. to distinguish it from P. L. A., the Penobscot Lumbering Association. It is always called either "P. L. D." or "The Company." It owns all dams, booms, etc., and annually sells the drive at auction to the bidder contracting to take the logs down at the lowest rate per thousand.]
"What's that for?" asked the foreman, suspecting that it was but one of Jack's devices for unburdening his mind in some memorable saying.
"Want 'em to cut arm holes in that blasted boat," growled Jack, insinuating that the bows were above the head of a short man like himself. But the old boat,—you may yet sometimes see the bones of one of them bleaching about the shores of inland ponds, or lying sun-cracked in the back yards of country farms, —stable and serviceable as she was, was no match for this handsome lady of to-day. They run the Arches of Ripogenus now with all their boats, and have done it for years; but at the time when Sebattis came down to Sowadnehunk, such water no man ever dreamed of running. It is likely enough that Sebattis, just back from a sixteen years' residence at Quoddy, did not know that it had ever been run successfully.
Be that as it may, when Sebattis and his bowman came down, the last of three boats, and held their batteau at the takingout place a moment before they dragged her out and stripped her ready to lug, what Sebattis, as he sat in the stern with his paddle across his knees, said in Indian to his bowman was simply revolutionary.
"Huh?" grunted his dark-faced partner, turning in great surprise; "you t'ought you wanted run it dose e'er falls? Blenty rabbidge water dose e'er falls!"
The bowman had stated the case conservatively. That carry was there merely because men were not expected to run those falls and come out alive.
But the bowman's objection was not meant as a refusal: he knew Sebattis, that he was a good waterman, few better. A big, slow man, of tremendous momentum when once in motion, it was likely enough that all the years of his exile at Quoddy he had been planning just how he could run those falls, and if he spoke now, it was because this was the hour striking. In his own mind he had already performed the feat, and was receiving the congratulations of the crowd. It was no small advantage that he knew an audience of two boats' crews was waiting at the lower carry-end to testify, however grudgingly, to the authenticity of what he claimed to have done.
The bowman had faith in Sebattis; as he listened to the smooth stream of softcadenced Indian that cast silvery bonds about his reluctance and left him helpless to refuse (Sebattis being both an orator in a public and a powerful pleader in a private cause), the bowman caught the rhythm of the deed. It was all so easy to take their boat out into midstream, where the current favored them a little, to shoot her bow far out over the fall, and, as the crews ashore gaped in horrified amazement, to make her leap clear, as a horse leaps a hurdle. And then to fight their way through the smother of the whirlpool below, man against water, but such men as not every boat can put in bow and stern, such strong arms as do not hold every paddle, such great heads for management, such skill in water-craft as few attain.
This was the oration, with its Indian appeal to personal glory. It was, as Sebattis said, "Beeg t'ing," and he fired his bowman with the desire for glory. The Penobscot man, white man or Indian, dies with astonishing alacrity when he sees anything worth dying for. And the name of "crack waterman" is a shining mark to strive for.
Thus at the upper end of the carry Sebattis and his bowman talked over at their leisure the chances of dying within five minutes. At the other end the two boats' crews lay among the blueberry bushes in the shade of shivering birch saplings and waited for Sebattis. It did not worry them that he was long in coming; they knew the leisurely Indian ways, and how unwilling, though he weighed hard upon two hundred and sixty, and had strength to correspond, was Big Sebattis to lug an extra pound. They pictured him draining his boat and sopping out with a swab of bracken the last dispensable ounce of water, then tilting her to the sun for a few minutes to steam out a trifle more before he whooped to them to come across and help him. It did not worry them to wait, —it was all one in the end: there would be carries to lug on long after they were dead and gone.
So, looking at the logs ricked up along the shores and cross-piled on the ledges, looking at the others drifting past, wallowing and thrashing in the wicked boil below the falls, they lounged and chaffed one another. Jerry Durgan was surreptitiously laying cool birch leaves on his abraded shoulder, and Bill Halpin was attentively, though silently, regarding his shins: there had been none too much stocking between him and that "big gray." The Indians, stretched out on their backs, gazed at the sky; nothing fretted them much. On one side, an Indian and an Irishman were having a passage at wit; on the other, two or three were arguing the ins and outs of a big fight up at 'Suncook the winter before, and a Province man was colloguing with a Yankee on points of scriptural interpretation. It was such talk as might be overheard almost any time on the drive when men are resting at their ease.
"It was French Joe that nailed Billy; Billy he told me so," came from the group under the birches.
From among the Indians out in the sunlight arose a persuasive Irish voice. "Why is it, Tomah, that when your folks are good Catholics, and our folks are good Catholics, you don't ever name your children Patrick and Bridget?" And the reply came quick: "'Cause we hate it Irish so bad, you know!"
Off at the right they were wrangling about the construction of the Ark.
"And I'd just like to have seen that bo't when they got her done," said the Yankee; "just one door an' one winder, an' vent'lated like Harvey Doane's scho'l'ouse. They caught him nailin' of the winders down. 'How be ye goin' to vent'late? ' says they. 'Oh,' says he, 'fresh air's powerful circulatin' stuff; I callate they'll carry the old air out in their pockets, an' bring in enough fresh air in their caps to keep 'em goin';' an' that was all they ever did get's long's he was school agent. My scissors! three stories an' all full of live-stock, an' only one winder, an' that all battened down! Tell you what! I'd 'a' hated to be Mr. Noah's fambly an' had to stay in that ole Ark ten months an' a half before they took the cover off! Fact! I read it all up onct!"
Said another: "I don't seem to' member how she was built, 'ceptin' the way they run her seams. She must have ben a jimdickey house with the pitch all on the inside 's well as on the outside o' her. Seems to me a bo't ain't bettered none by a daub b' pitch where the' ain't none needed." "'T ain't the Ark as bothers me some," put in the Province man; "I reckon that flood business is pretty nigh straight, but I couldn't never cipher out about that Tower of Babel thing. Man ask for a hod o' mortar, an' like enough they'd send him up a barrel of gaspereau; that's " —
The religious discussion broke off abruptly.
"Holy Hell! —Look a-comin'!" gasped the Yankee.
Man! but that was a sight to see! They got up and devoured it with their eyes.
On the verge of the fall hovered the batteau about to leap. Big Sebat and his bowman crouched to help her, like a rider lifting his horse to a leap. And their eyes were set with fierce excitement, their hands cleaved to their paddle handles, they felt the thrill that ran through the boat as they shot her clear, and, flying out beyond the curtain of the fall, they landed her in the yeasty rapids below.
Both on their feet then! And how they bent their paddles and whipped them from side to side, as it was "In!" — "Out!" — "Right!" — "Left!" to avoid the logs caught on the ledges and the great rocks that lay beneath the boils and snapped at them with their ugly fangs as they went flying past. The spray was on them; the surges crested over their gunwales; they sheered from the rock, but cut the wave that covered it and carried it inboard. And always it was "Right!" — "Left!" — "In!" — "Out!" as the greater danger drove them to seek the less.
But finally they ran her out through the tail of the boil, and fetched her ashore in a cove below the carry-end, out of sight of the men. She was full of water, barely afloat.
Would Sebattis own to the boys who were hurrying down through the bushes that he had escaped with his life only by the greatest luck? Not Sebattis!
"Now you bale her out paddles," said he to his bowman, and they swept her with their paddles as one might with a broom.
"Now you drain her out," commanded Sebattis, when they could lift the remaining weight, and they raised the bow and let the water run out over the slanting stern, all but a few pailfuls. "Better you let dat stay," said the shrewd Sebattis.
It was quick work, but when the crew broke through the bushes, there stood Sebattis and his bowman leaning on their paddles like bronze caryatids, one on either side of the boat. They might have been standing thus since the days of the Pharaohs, they were so at ease.
"Well, boys, how did you make it?" queried the first to arrive on the spot. Sebattis smiled his simple, vacuous smile. "Oh, ver' good; she took in lil' water mebbe."
"By gee, that ain't much water! Did she strike anything?"
Sebattis helped to turn her over. She had not a scratch upon her.
Then the men all looked again at the boat that had been over Sowadnehunk, and they all trooped back to the carryend without saying much, two full batteau crews and Sebattis and his bowman. They did not talk. No man would have gained anything new by exchanging thoughts with his neighbor.
And when they came to the two boats drying in the sun, they looked one another in the eyes again. It was a foregone conclusion. Without a word they put their galled shoulders under the gunwales, lifted the heavy batteaus to their places, and started back across that carry forty rods to the end they had just come from.
What for? It was that in his own esteem a Penobscot man will not stand second to any other man. They would not have it said that Sebattis Mitchell was the only man of them who had tried to run Sowadnehunk Falls.
So they put in again, six men to a boat, full crews, and in the stern of one stood Joe Attien, who was Thoreau's guide, and in the bow Steve Stanislaus, his cousin. That sets the date, —that it was back in 1870, —for it became the occasion for another and a sadder tale. If only Steve Stanislaus had held that place for the rest of the drive, it is little likely that we should have to tell the story of the death of Thoreau's guide.
And they pushed out with their two boats and ran the falls.
But the luck that bore Sebattis safely through was not theirs. Both boats were swamped, battered on the rocks into kindling wood. Twelve men were thrown into the water, and pounded and swashed about among logs and rocks. Some by swimming, some by the aid of Sebattis and his boat, eleven of them got ashore, "a little damp," as no doubt the least exaggerative of them were willing to admit. The unlucky twelfth man they picked up later, quite undeniably drowned. And the boats were irretrievably smashed. Indeed, that was the part of the tale that rankled with Sebattis when he used to tell it.
"Berry much she blame it us" (that is, himself) "that time John Loss." (Always to the Indian mind John Ross, the head contractor of the drive, was the power that commanded wind, logs, and weather.) "She don' care so much 'cause drowned it man, 'cause she can get blenty of it men; but dose e'er boats she talk 'bout berry hard." That is how they look at such little deeds themselves. The man who led off gets the credit and the blame; he is the only one remembered. But to an outsider, what wins more than passing admiration is not the one man who succeeded, but the many who followed after and failed, who could not let well enough alone when there was a possible better to be achieved, but, on the welcome end of the carry, the end where all their troubles of galls and bruises and heavy burdens in the heat are over, pick up their boats without a word, not one man of them falling out, and lug them back a weary forty rods to fight another round with Death sooner than own themselves outdone.