Joe Lambert's Ferry by George Cary
It was a thoroughly disagreeable March morning. The
wind blew in sharp gusts from every quarter of the
compass by turns. It seemed to take especial delight in
rushing suddenly around corners and taking away the
breath of anybody it could catch there coming from the opposite
direction. The dust, too, filled people's eyes and noses and
mouths, while the damp raw March air easily found its way
through the best clothing, and turned boys' skins into pimply
It was about as disagreeable a morning for going out as
can be imagined; and yet everybody in the little Western river
town who could get out went out and stayed out.
Men and women, boys and girls, and even little children,
ran to the river-bank: and, once there, they stayed, with no
thought, it seemed, of going back to their homes or their work.
The people of the town were wild with excitement, and
everybody told everybody else what had happened, although everybody
knew all about it already. Everybody, I mean, except Joe
Lambert, and he had been so busy ever since daylight, sawing
wood in Squire Grisard's woodshed, that he had neither seen nor
heard anything at all. Joe was the poorest person in the town.
He was the only boy there who really had no home and nobody
to care for him. Three or four years before this March morning,
Joe had been left an orphan, and being utterly destitute, he
should have been sent to the poorhouse, or "bound out" to some
person as a sort of servant. But Joe Lambert had refused to go
to the poorhouse or to become a bound boy. He had declared
his ability to take care of himself, and by working hard at odd
jobs, sawing wood, rolling barrels on the wharf, picking apples
or weeding onions as opportunity offered, he had managed to
support himself "after a manner," as the village people said.
That is to say, he generally got enough to eat, and some clothes
to wear. He slept in a warehouse shed, the owner having given
him leave to do so on condition that he would act as a sort of
watchman on the premises.
Joe Lambert alone of all the villagers knew nothing of
what had happened; and of course Joe Lambert did not count
for anything in the estimation of people who had houses to live
in. The only reason I have gone out of the way to make an exception
of so unimportant a person is, that I think Joe did count
for something on that particular March day at least.
When he finished the pile of wood that he had to saw, and
went to the house to get his money, he found nobody there.
Going down the street he found the town empty, and, looking
down a cross street, he saw the crowds that had gathered on the
river-bank, thus learning at last that something unusual had
occurred. Of course he ran to the river to learn what it was.
When he got there he learned that Noah Martin the fisherman
who was also the ferryman between the village and its
neighbor on the other side of the river, had been drowned during
the early morning in a foolish attempt to row his ferry skiff
across the stream. The ice which had blocked the river for two
months, had begun to move on the day before, and Martin with
his wife and baby—a child about a year old—were on the other
side of the river at the time. Early on that morning there had
been a temporary gorging of the ice about a mile above the town,
and, taking advantage of the comparatively free channel, Martin
had tried to cross with his wife and child, in his boat.
The gorge had broken up almost immediately, as the river
was rising rapidly, and Martin's boat had been caught and
crushed in the ice. Martin had been drowned, but his wife, with
her child in her arms, had clung to the wreck of the skiff, and
had been carried by the current to a little low-lying island just
in front of the town.
What had happened was of less importance, however, than
what people saw must happen. The poor woman and baby out
there on the island, drenched as they had been in the icy water,
must soon die with cold, and, moreover, the island was now
nearly under water, while the great stream was rising rapidly.
It was evident that within an hour or two the water would sweep
over the whole surface of the island, and the great fields of ice
would of course carry the woman and child to a terrible death.
Many wild suggestions were made for their rescue, but
none that gave the least hope of success. It was simply impossible
to launch a boat. The vast fields of ice, two or three feet
in thickness, and from twenty feet to a hundred yards in breadth,
were crushing and grinding down the river at the rate of four
or five miles an hour, turning and twisting about, sometimes
jamming their edges together with so great a force that one
would lap over another, and sometimes drifting apart and leaving
wide open spaces between for a moment or two. One might
as well go upon such a river in an egg shell as in the stoutest row-boat
The poor woman with her babe could be seen from the
shore, standing there alone on the rapidly narrowing strip of
island. Her voice could not reach the people on the bank, but
when she held her poor little baby toward them in mute appeal
for help, the mothers there understood her agony.
There was nothing to be done, however. Human sympathy
was given freely, but human help was out of the question. Everybody
on the river-shore was agreed in that opinion. Everybody,
that is to say, except Joe Lambert. He had been so long in the
habit of finding ways to help himself under difficulties, that he
did not easily make up his mind to think any case hopeless.
No sooner did Joe clearly understand how matters stood
than he ran away from the crowd, nobody paying any attention to
what he did. Half an hour later somebody cried out: "Look
there! Who's that, and what's he going to do?" pointing up the
Looking in that direction, the people saw some one three
quarters of a mile away standing on a floating field of ice in the
river. He had a large farm-basket strapped upon his shoulders,
while in his hands he held a plank.
As the ice-field upon which he stood neared another, the
youth ran forward, threw his plank down, making a bridge of it,
and crossed to the farther field. Then picking up his plank, he
waited for a chance to repeat the process.
As he thus drifted down the river, every eye was strained in
his direction. Presently some one cried out: "It's Joe Lambert;
and he's trying to cross to the island!"
There was a shout as the people understood the nature of
Joe's heroic attempt, and then a hush as its extreme danger became
Joe had laid his plans wisely and well, but it seemed impossible
that he could succeed. His purpose was, with the aid of
the plank to cross from one ice-field to another until he should
reach the island; but as that would require a good deal of time,
and the ice was moving down stream pretty rapidly, it was
necessary to start at a point above the town. Joe had gone about
a mile up the river before going on the ice, and when first seen
from the town he had already reached the channel.
After that first shout a whisper might have been heard in
the crowd on the bank. The heroism of the poor boy's attempt
awed the spectators, and the momentary expectation that he
would disappear forever amid the crushing ice-fields, made
them hold their breath in anxiety and terror.
His greatest danger was from the smaller cakes of ice.
When it became necessary for him to step upon one of these, his
weight was sufficient to make it tilt, and his footing was very
insecure. After awhile as he was nearing the island, he came
into a large collection of these smaller ice-cakes. For awhile he
waited, hoping that a larger field would drift near him; but
after a minute's delay he saw that he was rapidly floating past
the island, and that he must either trust himself to the treacherous
broken ice, or fail in his attempt to save the woman and
Choosing the best of the floes, he laid his plank and passed
across successfully. In the next passage, however, the cake tilted
up, and Joe Lambert went down into the water! A shudder
passed through the crowd on shore.
"Poor fellow!" exclaimed some tender-hearted spectator;
"it is all over with him now."
"No; look, look!" shouted another. "He's trying to climb
upon the ice. Hurrah! he's on his feet again!" With that the
whole company of spectators shouted for joy.
Joe had managed to regain his plank as well as to climb
upon a cake of ice before the fields around could crush him, and
now moving cautiously, he made his way, little by little toward
"Hurrah! Hurrah! he's there at last!" shouted the people
on the shore.
"But will he get back again?" was the question each one
asked himself a moment later.
Having reached the island, Joe very well knew that the
more difficult part of his task was still before him, for it was one
thing for an active boy to work his way over floating ice, and
quite another to carry a child and lead a woman upon a similar
But Joe Lambert was quick-witted and "long-headed," as
well as brave, and he meant to do all that he could to save these
poor creatures for whom he had risked his life so heroically.
Taking out his knife he made the woman cut her skirts off at the
knees, so that she might walk and leap more freely. Then placing
the baby in the basket which was strapped upon his back, he
cautioned the woman against giving way to fright, and instructed
her carefully about the method of crossing.
On the return journey Joe was able to avoid one great risk.
As it was not necessary to land at any particular point, time was
of little consequence, and hence when no large field of ice was
at hand, he could wait for one to approach, without attempting
to make use of the smaller ones. Leading the woman wherever
that was necessary, he slowly made his way toward shore, drifting
down the river, of course, while all the people of the town
marched along the bank.
When at last Joe leaped ashore in company with the woman,
and bearing her babe in the basket on his back, the people seemed
ready to trample upon each other in their eagerness to shake
hands with their hero.
Their hero was barely able to stand, however. Drenched
as he had been in the icy river, the sharp March wind had chilled
him to the marrow, and one of the village doctors speedily lifted
him into his carriage which he had brought for that purpose, and
drove rapidly away, while the other physician took charge of
Mrs. Martin and the baby.
Joe was a strong, healthy fellow, and under the doctor's
treatment of hot brandy and vigorous rubbing with coarse
towels, he soon warmed. Then he wanted to saw enough wood
for the doctor to pay for his treatment, and thereupon the doctor
threatened to poison him if he should ever venture to mention
pay to him again.
Naturally enough the village people talked of nothing but
Joe Lambert's heroic deed, and the feeling was general that they
had never done their duty toward the poor orphan boy. There
was an eager wish to help him now, and many offers were made
to him; but these all took the form of charity, and Joe would not
accept charity at all. Four years earlier, as I have already said,
he had refused to go to the poorhouse or to be "bound out,"
declaring that he could take care of himself; and when some
thoughtless person had said in his hearing that he would have to
live on charity, Joe's reply had been:
"I'll never eat a mouthful in this town that I haven't worked
for if I starve." And he had kept his word. Now that he was
fifteen years old he was not willing to begin receiving charity
even in the form of a reward for his good deed.
One day when some of the most prominent men of the village
were talking to him on the subject Joe said:
"I don't want anything except a chance to work, but I'll tell
you what you may do for me if you will. Now that poor Martin
is dead the ferry privilege will be to lease again, I'd like to
get it for a good long term. Maybe I can make something out of
it by being always ready to row people across, and I may even
be able to put on something better than a skiff after awhile. I'll
pay the village what Martin paid."
The gentlemen were glad enough of a chance to do Joe even
this small favor, and there was no difficulty in the way. The
authorities gladly granted Joe a lease of the ferry privilege for
twenty years, at twenty dollars a year rent, which was the rate
Martin had paid.
At first Joe rowed people back and forth, saving what
money he got very carefully. This was all that could be required
of him, but it occurred to Joe that if he had a ferry boat big
enough, a good many horses and cattle and a good deal of freight
would be sent across the river, for he was a "long-headed" fellow
as I have said.
One day a chance offered, and he bought for twenty-five
dollars a large old wood boat, which was simply a square barge
forty feet long and fifteen feet wide, with bevelled bow and
stern, made to hold cord wood for the steamboats. With his
own hands he laid a stout deck on this, and, with the assistance
of a man whom he hired for that purpose, he constructed a pair
of paddle wheels. By that time Joe was out of money, and work
on the boat was suspended for awhile. When he had accumulated
a little more money, he bought a horse power, and placed
it in the middle of his boat, connecting it with the shaft of his
wheels. Then he made a rudder and helm, and his horse-boat
was ready for use. It had cost him about a hundred dollars besides
his own labor upon it, but it would carry live stock and
freight as well as passengers, and so the business of the ferry
rapidly increased, and Joe began to put a little money away in
After awhile a railroad was built into the village, and then
a second one came. A year later another railroad was opened on
the other side of the river, and all the passengers who came to
one village by rail had to be ferried across the river in order to
continue their journey by the railroads there. The horse-boat
was too small and too slow for the business, and Joe Lambert
had to buy two steam ferry-boats to take its place. These cost
more money than he had, but, as the owner of the ferry privilege,
his credit was good, and the boats soon paid for themselves,
while Joe's bank account grew again.
Finally the railroad people determined to run through cars
for passengers and freight, and to carry them across the river on
large boats built for that purpose; but before they gave their
orders to their boat builders, they were waited upon by the attorneys
of Joe Lambert, who soon convinced them that his ferry
privilege gave him alone the right to run any kind of ferry-boats
between the two villages which had now grown to such size that
they called themselves cities. The result was that the railroads
made a contract with Joe to carry their cars across, and he had
some large boats built for that purpose.
All this occurred a good many years ago, and Joe Lambert
is not called Joe now, but Captain Lambert. He is one of the
most prosperous men in the little river city, and owns many large
river steamers besides his ferry-boats. Nobody is readier than he
to help a poor boy or a poor man; but he has his own way of
doing it. He will never toss so much as a cent to a beggar, but
he never refuses to give man or boy a chance to earn money by
work. He has an odd theory that money which comes without
work does more harm than good.