Evan Cogwell's Ice Fort by Irving L. Beman

In the early days of Northern Ohio, when settlers were few and far between, Evan Cogswell, a Welsh lad of sixteen years, found his way thither and began his career as a laborer, receiving at first but two dollars a month in addition to his board and "home-made" clothing. He possessed an intelligent, energetic mind in a sound and vigorous body, and had acquired in his native parish the elements of an education in both Welsh and English.

The story of his life, outlined in a curious old diary containing the records of sixty-two years, and an entry for more than twenty-two thousand days, would constitute a history of the region, and some of its passages would read like high-wrought romance.

His first term of service was with a border farmer on the banks of a stream called Grand River, in Ashtabula County. It was rather crude farming, however, consisting mostly of felling trees, cutting wood and saw-logs, burning brush, and digging out stumps, the axe and pick-axe finding more use than ordinary farm implements.

Seven miles down the river, and on the opposite bank, lived the nearest neighbors, among them a blacksmith who in his trade served the whole country for twenty miles around. One especial part of his business was the repairing of axes, called in that day "jumping," or "upsetting."

In midwinter Evan's employer left a couple of axes with the blacksmith for repairs, the job to be done within a week. At this time the weather was what is termed "settled," with deep snow, and good "slipping" along the few wildwood roads.

But three or four days later, there came a "January thaw." Rain and a warmer temperature melted away much of the snow, the little river was swelled to a great torrent, breaking up the ice and carrying it down stream, and the roads became almost impassable. When the week was up and the farmer wanted the axes, it was not possible for the horse to travel, and after waiting vainly for a day or two for a turn in the weather, Evan was posted off on foot to obtain the needed implements. Delighting in the change and excitement of such a trip, the boy started before noon, expecting to reach home again ere dark, as it was not considered quite safe to journey far by night on account of the wolves.

Three miles below, at a narrow place in the river, was the bridge, consisting of three very long tree-trunks reaching parallel from bank to bank, and covered with hewn plank. When Evan arrived here he found that this bridge had been swept away. But pushing on down stream among the thickets, about half a mile below, he came upon an immense ice-jam, stretching across the stream and piled many feet high. Upon this he at once resolved to make his way over to the road on the other side, for he was already wearied threading the underbrush. Grand River, which is a narrow but deep and violent stream, ran roaring and plunging beneath the masses of ice as if enraged at being so obstructed; but the lad picked his path in safety and soon stood on the opposite bank.

Away he hurried now to the blacksmith's, so as to complete his errand and return by this precarious crossing before dark.

But the smith had neglected his duty and Evan had to wait an hour or more for the axes. At length they were done, and with one tied at each end of a strong cord and this hung about his neck, he was off on the homeward trip. To aid his walking, he procured from the thicket a stout cane. He had hardly gone two miles when the duskiness gathering in the woods denoted the nearness of night; yet as the moon was riding high, he pushed on without fear.

(image)

HOMEWARD.     SAFELY INTRENCHED.

But as he was skirting a wind-fall of trees, he came suddenly upon two or three wolves apparently emerging from their daytime hiding place for a hunting expedition. Evan was considerably startled; but as they ran off into the woods as if afraid of him, he took courage in the hope that they would not molest him. In a few minutes, however, they set up that dismal howling by which they summon their mates and enlarge their numbers; and Evan discovered by the sounds that they were following him cautiously at no great distance.

Frequent responses were also heard from more distant points in the woods and from across the river. By this time it was becoming quite dark, the moonlight penetrating the forest only along the roadway and in occasional patches among the trees on either side. The rushing river was not far away, but above its roar arose every instant the threatening howl of a wolf. Finally, just as he reached the ice-bridge, the howling became still, a sign that their numbers emboldened them to enter in earnest on the pursuit. The species of wolf once so common in the central States, and making the early farmers so much trouble, were peculiar in this respect; they were great cowards singly, and would trail the heels of a traveler howling for recruits, and not daring to begin the attack until they had collected a force that insured success; then they became fierce and bold, and more to be dreaded than any other animal of the wilderness. And at this point, when they considered their numbers equal to the occasion, the howling ceased.

Evan had been told of this, and when the silence began, he knew its meaning, and his heart shuddered at the prospect. His only hope lay in the possibility that they might not dare to follow him across the ice-bridge. But this hope vanished as he approached the other shore, and saw by the moonlight several of the gaunt creatures awaiting him on that side. What should he do? No doubt they would soon muster boldness to follow him upon the ice, and then his fate would be sealed in a moment.

In the emergency he thought of the axes, and taking them from his neck, cut the cord, and thrust his walking-stick into one as a helve, resolved to defend himself to the last.

At this instant he espied among the thick, upheaved ice-cakes two great fragments leaning against each other in such a way as to form a roof with something like a small room underneath. Here he saw his only chance. Springing within, he used the axe to chip off other fragments with which to close up the entrance, and almost quicker than it can be told, had thus constructed a sort of fort, which he believed would withstand the attack of the wolves. At nightfall the weather had become colder, and he knew that in a few minutes the damp pieces of ice would be firmly cemented together.

Hardly had he lifted the last piece to its place, when the pack came rushing about him, snapping and snarling, but at first not testing the strength of his intrenchment. When soon they began to spring against it, and snap at the corners of ice, the frost had done its work, and they could not loosen his hastily built wall.

Through narrow crevices he could look out at them, and at one time counted sixteen grouped together in council. As the cold increased he had to keep in motion in order not to freeze, and any extra action on his part increased the fierceness of the wolves. At times they would gather in a circle around him, and after sniffing at him eagerly, set up a doleful howling, as if deploring the excellent supper they had lost.

Ere long one of them found an opening at a corner large enough to admit its head; but Evan was on the alert, and gave it such a blow with the axe as to cause its death. Soon another tried the same thing, and met with the same reception, withdrawing and whirling around several times, and then dropping dead with a broken skull.

One smaller than the rest attempting to enter, and receiving the fatal blow, crawled, in its dying agony, completely into the enclosure, and lay dead at Evan's feet. Of this he was not sorry, as his feet were bitterly cold, and the warm carcass of the animal served to relieve them.

In the course of the night six wolves were killed as they sought to creep into his fortress, and several others so seriously hacked as to send them to the woods again; and, however correct the notion that when on the hunt they devour their fallen comrades, in this case they did no such thing, as in the morning the six dead bodies lay about on the ice, and Evan had the profitable privilege of taking off their skins.

Of his thoughts during the night, a quotation from his diary is quaintly suggestive and characteristic.

"I bethought me of the wars of Glendower, which I have read about, and the battle of Grosmont Castle; and I said, 'I am Owen Glendower; this is my castle; the wolves are the army of Henry; but I will never surrender or yield as did Glendower.'"

Toward morning, as the change of weather continued, and the waters of the river began to diminish, there was suddenly a prodigious crack and crash of the ice-bridge, and the whole mass settled several inches. At this the wolves took alarm, and in an instant fled. Perhaps they might have returned had not the crackling of the ice been repeated frequently.

At length Evan became alarmed for his safety, lest the ice should break up in the current, and bringing his axe to bear, soon burst his way out and fled to the shore. But not seeing the ice crumble, he ventured back to obtain the other axe, and then hastened home to his employer.

During the day he skinned the wolves, and within a fortnight pocketed the bounty money, amounting in all to about one hundred and fifty dollars. With this money he made the first payment on a large farm, which he long lived to cultivate and enjoy, and under the sod of which he found a quiet grave.