Young Moll's Peevy

by C. A. Stephens

Villate’s “drive” of logs had jammed at the foot of Red Rapids in the very throat of the main “pitch,” where the Aux Lièvres falls over the ledges into the “glut-hole” fifty feet below. Named “glut-hole” by the river-men; for lumber falling in here will sometimes circle a month, unless poled out. The waters whirl and are drawn down with a peculiar sinuous motion. Bodies going over are long engulfed, and sometimes never reappear, for the basin is of great depth and there are caverns under water beneath the shelving ledges, such as the drivers call cachots d’enfer, and have invested with a superstitious character, as the abode of evil spirits of the flood—a thing not greatly to be wondered at; for a wilder locality could hardly be cited, its rugged cliffs of red sandstone, hung with enormous lichens, like sides of leather, and overhung from high above with shaggy black spruces.

There were seven and a-half million feet of lumber in Villate’s drive that spring. Every stick of it went into the great jam above the glut-hole. The rough fortunes of youth made me an eye-witness of the scene. A wilder spectacle I never saw throughout the lumbering region during a space of eight years. The gates of the dams at the foot of all the lakes were up; the volume of water was immense. Rocks, which in summer stand twenty feet out of the rapids, were now under water. The torrent came pouring down the long incline, black and swift as an arrow, and went over into the pool at one thunderous plunge, throwing up a vast column of mist. Two ledges only, situated in the very throat of the “pitch,” showed above water. These rocks the lumbering company had designed to blast out the previous autumn, but had been prevented by heavy rains. They then stood twenty-seven feet out of water. Now their crests are barely exposed, and the flood washes over them in its mighty rhythm-motion. In the rapids the whole stream is compressed to a width of a little more than seventy yards.

A light jam had formed that morning at a place the drivers called a tournant d’eau, about a mile above. This was broken by getting a haul on it from the shore with a dog-warp. Thereby several thousand logs were liberated at once, and went down together into the rapids. The older drivers exclaimed that it would make mischief when it started; but nothing could be done; it broke and went out with a rush. We, who were ahead, ran on down the ledges to see it go through the falls, and we had to run fast to keep up. The instant the logs entered the rapids they left us behind. We could see them going down, however, end over end, and hear them “boom” against the sunken rocks. Turtlotte and a Welshman named Finfrock were ahead. I heard Turtlotte call out in French that the logs were jamming, and saw the butt ends of great sticks fly up, glittering, out of the water. The logs had struck and hung on one of the centre rocks, and on the shelving ledges upon the east side. The ends of three large sticks, three or four feet across, stood out fifteen feet or more. We ran on, clambering from crag to crag, till we came to a point looking down on the glut, sixty feet beneath; and that was about near enough, for the ends of the logs flew up almost on a level with our eyes, as they went over, and the spray drenched our faces. The ledges under our feet trembled as if an earthquake were shaking them, and not a word could be heard, even when shouted in the ear. The combined noises were louder than thunder, heavier, deeper. It was a warm forenoon, and the sun shone into the rock dazzlingly bright, making a vivid rainbow. It was the hottest, maddest chasm that can well be imagined; and to see that brilliant rainbow hanging there so still and motionless amidst all that uproar, gave one a queer sensation.

Old man Villate himself, with his red cap over his ears, came puffing down, shouting at the top of his lungs. We could see his lips fly. The hitch was betwixt the shelving ledges on the east side and one of the mid-channel rocks. It was not one log that had caught, else the weight of the water would have broken it out. It appeared that two large sticks had come down with the ends lying across each other, and a third log, perhaps several logs, overlying these. When the current sucked them through the rapid, between the centre rock and the shore ledges, the outward ends of the crossed logs struck on both sides. Instantly the current and the momentum of the overlying logs thrust the submerged ends of the cross among the rocks on the bottom of the channel, and the momentarily increasing weight of logs held them there—this at least was the theory at the time. When first we got down there, however, there were more than a thousand logs in the glut; and the ends stood up like a porcupine’s quills, at every conceivable angle. The obstructing logs in the throat of the fall bore the pressure rather lengthwise than across the fibre. These sticks were of yellow spruce, fifty feet long, and fully three feet through. Such logs, when green, will bear an enormous strain. From the way the exposed ends sprang we knew they were buckling like steel rods, yet they held pertinaciously.

The river above was covered with logs. Scores came shooting down every minute, striking into the jam like arrows. The most of these stuck in it. Some few went clean over it, or through it, for the first ten minutes, into the hole below. Logs would glance from the slippery black rocks and go a hundred feet clear of the water, such was the strength of the rapid. I saw sticks of free pine—where they struck the rocks one half on—go in halves from end to end like split-beans—logs forty and fifty feet long; yet the owners never cease to wonder how the lumber gets so badly “broomed up;” for the ends of the logs resemble nothing so much as a paint-brush.

The warps were brought, and Villate called for volunteers to go down, or rather be let down, the ledges and prize off the shore ends of the jammed logs with “peevies.” There were plenty of bold fellows; but every man hesitated. Murmurs of “certaine mort,” “sur mort,” “porte du tombeau,” “porte d’enfer,” arose and were repeated.

“It’s a hard world, but I wants to tarry in it a spell longer, boss!” said one grizzled old Yankee from the Maine rivers, with a sage shake of his long head. We all knew that when the jam started it would go through like an avalanche. Whoever was down there would have to go with it—into the glut-hole.

In an hour the jam had grown enormously. For a hundred rods up the rapid the channel was full of lumber, “churning” and battering itself. The mass had swayed off to the west bank and was piling up against the ledges on the opposite side. The mighty pressure of the torrent kept rolling the logs, one over the other, till the top of the pile was in places thirty or forty feet out of the water. The bottom logs were wedged into the bed of the stream. The flood, thus dammed and held back, rose higher and higher, rushing through and among the mass with a strange hollow roar which changed the note of the fall. Where it hung in the throat of the pitch, the mass kept rising and falling with the peculiar rhythmic motion of the water. We expected each moment to see it break out and go down; but the tough spruce logs held.

By noon, all the crew had come up. The jam filled the whole river for a third of a mile back from the fall, so completely that during the afternoon the west bank gangs crossed on it to the east side. We lighted our fires on the ledges; and as the evening advanced it was a picturesque sight—a hundred and fifty red-shirted drivers camping there and sitting in messes about their coarse fare.

All the next day we worked with the warps. Nooses were dropped over the upright ends of the logs at the foot of the jam, and the whole gang was set to pull on them. Later in the day, a heavy capstan was rigged. The hawsers broke like twine. It was impossible to start a log, so tremendous was the weight of water and lumber combined.

Next day, the jam was mined with powder placed in water-tight molasses-casks and connected with fire at the top of the ledges by means of tarred fuses. The blasts blew out splinters freely, but failed to break or dislodge the large sticks. Villate fumed and sweated. Unless the drive went down to market, not a dollar would be paid to one of us; so he declared. “If you want your pay, break the jam,” was his constant exhortation, enforced by vigorous curses; and, indeed, we had been hired on these terms; wages to be paid when the drive reached Montreal—not before. This is a common rule, or used to be; the men have thus a strong interest in the driving.

A plan was mooted among the messes that following night, to cut out the front logs. The same scheme has been often put in execution. It was argued that by stretching a warping-line across the rapids, from cliff to cliff, directly over the foot of the jam, a man might be lowered on it, with his axe, and cut away the logs. A large “basket”—so it was talked—might be swung on the cable. By slackening the line the axe-man could be lowered to the logs; and the instant the sticks cracked under the strokes, he could leap to the “basket” and be pulled out of harm’s way, and let the jam go through under him. The idea gained favor. The following morning the end of one of the seven hundred foot lines was taken across on the jam to the ledges on the west bank. Fifty men went over with it, to handle it. With a hundred men there was no difficulty in lowering and raising it at will. When drawn taut, it hung sixty feet above the foot of the jam. One of the Indian drivers, named Lahmunt, had been at work weaving a “basket” of ash strip; and as soon as this novel carriage was finished and slung on the cable, the project was ready for trial. While the project was being talked over, several of the drivers had declared themselves willing to undertake the feat; but now that the basket was slung, and after seeing it drawn out over the abyss, they were less disposed to proffer their services. It needed strong nerves and a stout heart to gaze into that foaming gulf and not turn dizzy.

There was among us a youngster whom the old drivers called “Young Moll’s Peevy.” Young Moll was a half-breed (French and Indian) girl, or rather woman at this time, of thirty or thirty-three, and the mother of this boy. Some of the drivers said that his rightful patronymic was Skelly; but this was a rather obscure matter.

She lived at one of those little half-savage villages such as are only to be found in the backwoods of Canada; and her name was a far too commonly spoken one with the drivers, though not more so than many another. Society in these parts had not taken high orders. Nature had her own way pretty much; they deemed it little sin. Even the omnipresent Romish priest has somehow failed to get much control over the average river-driver, always too much a nomad to feel the continued influence of local sanctuaries.

The young woman realized the prevailing ideal of beauty; not a very refined one, perhaps; but the drivers deemed her fair.

“The Peevy,” as he was half-humorously christened, must have been nearly or quite nineteen. The name was said to have come to him one day in boyhood, when a “peevy” was dropped off a glut into ten or a dozen feet of water. Several of the drivers were trying to hook it up, but kept missing it. The boy, then eleven or twelve years old, had come along unobserved. Presently, and without saying a word, he dropped off the logs, brought up the peevy, and ran away, dripping. The men laughed, and not knowing his name, called him “the peevy-boy.” Afterward, when they had found out his mother, they named the urchin “Young Moll’s Peevy.” This sobriquet clung to him even after he had reached manhood and worked with the gang, particularly among the older men who remembered the circumstance. But his mother called him Lotte. A stranger would not easily have believed him the child of the fresh young person who had cared for him; for he was unusually stalwart and bronzed by exposure. Seen together, they rather resembled lad and lass. I thought so, at least, when first I saw her, coming to fetch him dry feeting and a clean shirt. She had walked twenty miles to bring them, through the woods, following our trail. And the way she kissed the young man, aside, was, or looked to be, rather lover-like than maternal. Afterward, on several similar occasions, I was much struck by the genre picture they made; the youth had the great black eyes and black curling hair of his mother. The drivers used to chaff the fellow unceasingly about Young Moll and the care she took of him, all of which he bore silently, with a troubled, resentful eye; though, otherwise, a great, noble-hearted boy, generous, and inclined to jollity. Really, the rough fellows thought the more of the young woman for this motherly affection and wealth of care for her boy. It was in their uncultured faces, all the while their tongues belied them.

The “basket” was slung and ready. The gang on the other side were gesticulating, with random tugs at the line. There was something whimsical in the way the proposers of the project shrank the one behind the other, with assumed bravado and covert glances at each other’s faces.

“I shall have to go myself!” Villate exclaimed, with his characteristic French oath, “I will go myself, fat as I am!” when, rather bashfully, as if afraid of giving offense, young Lotte said he would go “if no better man wanted the job.” There were at first muttered “non, nons” of dissuasion in the crowd, but nobody claimed the “job,” and Villate was but too glad to get a man to go. In a moment the young man had stripped to his shirt and red drawers, taken his axe and stepped to the basket, but it was found to be insecurely attached; and afterward several better modes of handling the line were suggested, in all causing a delay of an hour or two.

And now, as if the birds of spring, just flitting past, had carried the word, or some presentiment of evil had found its way to the Peevy’s mother, she inopportunely made her appearance. Rad Cates privately touched my elbow and nodded back, up the bank. I then saw young Moll standing partly in the cover of a shrub fir, a hundred yards off, intently watching the gang and the extended warp.

Several of the men saw her, but did not look or notice her after the first glance. “Parbleu! a pity she’s here!” one said, and they closed in about Lotte to prevent his seeing her. But the woman soon came nearer, going partly around the crowd, keeping aloof. She had a new plaid shawl, gayly colored, pinned closely about her neck, and her long, black, Indian-like curls showed beneath a beaded scarlet hood. There was an intently anxious look in her eyes; she appeared worn and tired.

“The Peevy” was much too tall a man to be shut up in the crowd. Presently he espied her, and his eye fell. After a time he casually, as it were, made his way back to her. None of us heard what was said. The most instinctively kept their eyes to themselves. The gang on the other side was staring across the chasm. Villate ripped out an oath, and I saw Lotte push the girl aside so roughly that she caught at a shrub to save herself. He walked straight to the brink of the cliff.

“Je suis ici,” said he. I never saw him look so manly. We knew his eye was quick and his hand sure. I had little doubt that he would cut the front logs and come up safe. We did not know what the danger was till afterward. He stood upright in the “basket,” with one hand on the hawser, to steady himself, and his axe in the other.

At a signal the gang on the west side straightened the line. We paid it out slowly. They drew him out from the brink of the ledge, till the basket was directly over the centre rock. Then gradually we slackened it, and let him down foot by foot, down under the rainbow, where the hot, mad mist flew up in fierce gusts, bearing the strong odor of crushed spruce fibre. He seemed to bear the deafening roar without confusion, and glanced about him quite coolly, as it looked.

Our attention was given closely to his signals and to our task, yet I saw Young Moll coming forward, step by step, as the “basket” went deeper and deeper into the gorge, her eyes riveted on it. She was very pale, and her hands were tightly clenched. The drivers cast ominous glances at her.

“I don’t half like the looks of the jade!” I heard muttered, and I think the sight of her filled every one with a sense of foreboding.

As soon as the basket was down to the logs we saw him step out upon them, and thence to the rock. From moment to moment the mist hid him, and transient jets of water, from betwixt the logs, squirted high over his head. Guardedly he planted one boot, shod with the sharp corks, upon one of the large front logs—the one he judged it best to cut away first; the other foot rested on the rock. The “basket” he had placed at his back. We were holding it steady from both banks, ready to pull it up when signaled. Before and beneath him raged the cataract. We saw him raise his axe and strike it into the log. The bright steel flashed in the narrow chasm. At the fourth stroke the great log cracked. He threw the axe and clutched the basket. A mighty crash rang up. The jam had started—was moving—going down—madly splintering—thundering into the glut-hole! The wet splinters all along the rapids went up a hundred feet in air. On both sides the gangs were running backward, hoisting the “basket.” It rose twenty feet a second! A hundred and fifty strong men pulled with might and main! As he rose he waved his hand to us.

Ah, God! we were too slow! It was all done in a trice. One great stick, ending over like a fagot, barely missed the basket. Another longer log, whirling up, struck the warp farther out, and hurled him down with it! The cable was torn from our hands! Gone like a flash, into the gulf below! From the one great rough human heart on either bank a groan of pity blended with the roar. “Too d——n bad!” they cried out, in all sincerity, and stood staring.

Then all eyes turned toward the poor fellow’s mother. She had thrown up her hands when the timber swept him down, as if to shut out the sight, then dropped them on a sudden, with a moan.

“Catch her!” someone shouted. Half-a-dozen standing nearest sprang forward—for she was standing on the very verge of the rocks. Her eyes had fallen on old man Villate. They were like the eyes of one in some mortal agony. The blotched and bloated old rum-butt turned his face aside and downward, and thrust out his hands as if to fight off flame. For their lives the men durst not lay hold of her. She seemed to waver in soul betwixt grief and fury.

A moment after, the men gave a loud shout! She was gone from where she had stood, and the echo of a smothered shriek—tribute of a woman’s heart to death—came to our ears. We sprang to look over. There was a glimpse of the bright shawl whirled amid the foam.

“Did she fall?” some one cried out.

“Throwed herself down!” said those who saw it.

We never found trace of either of them. But the jam went out, to the last log. Two hours later the gangs were following the drive down the stream—on to Montreal! But the men had turned sullen. Scarce a laugh or a cheery shout was heard for three days.