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The Open River
The winter had broken early and the Scotch River was running ice-free and full from bank to bank. There was still snow in the woods, and with good sleighing and open rivers every day was golden to the lumbermen who had stuff to get down to the big water. A day gained now might save weeks at a chute farther down, where the rafts would crowd one another and strive for right of way.
Dan Murphy was mightily pleased with himself and with the bit of the world about him, for there lay his winter's cut of logs in the river below him snug and secure and held tight by a boom across the mouth, just where it flowed into the Nation. In a few days he would have his crib made, and his outfit ready to start for the Ottawa mills. He was sure to be ahead of the big timber rafts that took up so much space, and whose crews with unbearable effrontery considered themselves the aristocrats of the river.
Yes, it was a pleasant and satisfying sight, some three solid miles of logs boomed at the head of the big water. Suddenly Murphy turned his face up the river.
"What's that now, d'ye think, LeNware?" he asked.
LeNoir, or "LeNware," as they all called it in that country, was Dan Murphy's foreman, and as he himself said, "for haxe, for hit (eat), for fight de boss on de reever Hottawa! by Gar!" Louis LeNoir was a French-Canadian, handsome, active, hardy, and powerfully built. He had come from the New Brunswick woods some three years ago, and had wrought and fought his way, as he thought, against all rivals to the proud position of "boss on de reever," the topmost pinnacle of a lumberman's ambition. It was something to see LeNoir "run a log" across the river and back; that is, he would balance himself upon a floating log, and by spinning it round, would send it whither he would. At Murphy's question LeNoir stood listening with bent head and open mouth. Down the river came the sound of singing. "Don-no me! Ah oui! be dam! Das Macdonald gang for sure! De men from Glengarrie, les diables! Dey not hout de reever yet." His boss went off into a volley of oaths –
"They'll be wanting the river now, an' they're divils to fight."
"We give em de full belly, heh? Bon!" said LeNoir, throwing back his head. His only unconquered rival on the river was the boss of the Macdonald gang.
Ho ro, mo nighean donn bhoidheach,
Hi-ri, mo nighean donn bhoidheach,
Mo chaileag, laghach, bhoidheach,
Cha phosainn ach thu.
Down the river came the strong, clear chorus of men's voices, and soon a "pointer" pulled by six stalwart men with a lad in the stern swung round the bend into view. A single voice took up the song –
'S ann tha mo run's na beanntaibh,
Far bheil mo ribhinn ghreannar,
Mar ros am fasach shamhraidh
An gleann fad o shuil.
After the verse the full chorus broke forth again –
Ho ro, mo nighean, etc.
Swiftly the pointer shot down the current, the swaying bodies and swinging oars in perfect rhythm with the song that rose and fell with melancholy but musical cadence. The men on the high bank stood looking down upon the approaching singers. "You know dem fellers?" said LeNoir. Murphy nodded. "Ivery divil iv thim – Big Mack Cameron, Dannie Ross, Finlay Campbell – the redheaded one – the next I don't know, and yes! be dad! there's that blanked Yankee, Yankee Jim, they call him, an' bad luck till him. The divil will have to take the poker till him, for he'll bate him wid his fists, and so he will – and that big black divil is Black Hugh, the brother iv the boss Macdonald. He'll be up in the camp beyant, and a mighty lucky thing for you, LeNoir, he is."
"Bah!" spat LeNoir, "Dat beeg Macdonald I mak heem run like one leetle sheep, one tam at de long Sault, bah! No good!" LeNoir's contempt for Macdonald was genuine and complete. For two years he had tried to meet the boss Macdonald, but his rival had always avoided him.
Meantime, the pointer came swinging along. As it turned the point the boy uttered an exclamation – "Look there!" The song and the rowing stopped abruptly; the big, dark man stood up and gazed down the river, packed from bank to bank with the brown saw-logs; deep curses broke from him. Then he caught sight of the men on the bank. A word of command and the pointer shot into the shore, and the next moment Macdonald Dubh, or Black Hugh, as he was sometimes called, followed by his men, was climbing up the steep bank.
"What the blank, blank, do these logs mean, Murphy?" he demanded, without pause for salutation.
"Tis a foine avenin' Misther Macdonald," said Murphy, blandly offering his hand, "an' Hiven bliss ye."
Macdonald checked himself with an effort and reluctantly shook hands with Murphy and LeNoir, whom he slightly knew. "It is a fery goot evening, indeed," he said, in as quiet a voice as he could command, "but I am inquiring about these logs."
"Shure, an' it is a dhry night, and onpolite to kape yez talking here. Come in, wid yez," and much against his will Black Hugh followed Murphy to the tavern, the most pretentious of a group of log buildings – once a lumber camp – which stood back a little distance from the river, and about which Murphy's men, some sixty of them, were now camped.
The tavern was full of Murphy's gang, a motley crew, mostly French Canadians and Irish, just out of the woods and ready for any devilment that promised excitement. Most of them knew by sight, and all by reputation, Macdonald and his gang, for from the farthest reaches of the Ottawa down the St. Lawrence to Quebec the Macdonald gang of Glengarry men was famous. They came, most of them, from that strip of country running back from the St. Lawrence through Glengarry County, known as the Indian Lands – once an Indian reservation. They were sons of the men who had come from the highlands and islands of Scotland in the early years of the last century. Driven from homes in the land of their fathers, they had set themselves with indomitable faith and courage to hew from the solid forest homes for themselves and their children that none might take from them. These pioneers were bound together by ties of blood, but also by bonds stronger than those of blood. Their loneliness, their triumphs, their sorrows, born of their common life-long conflict with the forest and its fierce beasts, knit them in bonds close and enduring. The sons born to them and reared in the heart of the pine forests grew up to witness that heroic struggle with stern nature and to take their part in it. And mighty men they were. Their life bred in them hardiness of frame, alertness of sense, readiness of resource, endurance, superb self-reliance, a courage that grew with peril, and withal a certain wildness which at times deepened into ferocity. By their fathers the forest was dreaded and hated, but the sons, with rifles in hand, trod its pathless stretches without fear, and with their broadaxes they took toll of their ancient foe. For while in spring and summer they farmed their narrow fields, and rescued new lands from the brûlé; in winter they sought the forest, and back on their own farms or in "the shanties" they cut saw-logs, or made square timber, their only source of wealth. The shanty life of the early fifties of last century was not the luxurious thing of to-day. It was full of privation, for the men were poorly housed and fed, and of peril, for the making of the timber and the getting it down the smaller rivers to the big water was a work of hardship and danger. Remote from the restraints of law and of society, and living in wild surroundings and in hourly touch with danger, small wonder that often the shanty-men were wild and reckless. So that many a poor fellow in a single wild carouse in Quebec, or more frequently in some river town, would fling into the hands of sharks and harlots and tavern-keepers, with whom the bosses were sometimes in league, the earnings of his long winter's work, and would wake to find himself sick and penniless, far from home and broken in spirit.
Of all the shanty-men of the Ottawa the men of Glengarry, and of Glengarry men Macdonald's gang were easily first, and of the gang Donald Bhain Macdonald, or Macdonald More, or the Big Macdonald, for he was variously known, was not only the "boss" but best and chief. There was none like him. A giant in size and strength, a prince of broadaxe men, at home in the woods, sure-footed and daring on the water, free with his wages, and always ready to drink with friend or fight with foe, the whole river admired, feared, or hated him, while his own men followed him into the woods, on to a jam, or into a fight with equal joyousness and devotion. Fighting was like wine to him, when the fight was worth while, and he went into the fights his admirers were always arranging for him with the easiest good humor and with a smile on his face. But Macdonald Bhain's carousing, fighting days came to an abrupt stop about three years before the opening of this tale, for on one of his summer visits to his home, "The word of the Lord in the mouth of his servant Alexander Murray," as he was wont to say, "found him and he was a new man." He went into his new life with the same whole-souled joyousness as had marked the old, and he announced that with the shanty and the river he was "done for ever more." But after the summer's work was done, and the logging over, and when the snap of the first frost nipped the leaves from the trees, Macdonald became restless. He took down his broad-axe and spent hours polishing it and bringing it to an edge, then he put it in its wooden sheath and laid it away. But the fever was upon him, ten thousand voices from the forest were shouting for him. He went away troubled to his minister. In an hour he came back with the old good humor in his face, took down the broad-axe again, and retouched it, lovingly, humming the while the old river song of the Glengarry men –
Ho ro mo nighean, etc.
He was going back to the bush and to the biggest fight of his life. No wonder he was glad. Then his good little wife began to get ready his long, heavy stockings, his thick mitts, his homespun smock, and other gear, for she knew well that soon she would be alone for another winter. Before long the word went round that Macdonald Bhain was for the shanties again, and his men came to him for their orders.
But it was not to the old life that Macdonald was going, and he gravely told those that came to him that he would take no man who could not handle his axe and hand-spike, and who could not behave himself. "Behaving himself " meant taking no more whiskey than a man could carry, and refusing all invitations to fight unless "necessity was laid upon him." The only man to object was his own brother, Macdonald Dubh, whose temper was swift to blaze, and with whom the blow was quicker than the word. But after the second year of the new order even Black Hugh fell into line. Macdonald soon became famous on the Ottawa. He picked only the best men, he fed them well, paid them the highest wages, and cared for their comfort, but held them in strictest discipline. They would drink but kept sober, they would spend money but knew how much was coming to them. They feared no men even of "twice their own heavy and big," but would never fight except under necessity. Contracts began to come their way. They made money, and what was better, they brought it home. The best men sought to join them, but by rival gangs and by men rejected from their ranks they were hated with deepest heart hatred. But the men from Glengarry knew no fear and sought no favor. They asked only a good belt of pine and an open river. As a rule they got both, and it was peculiarly maddening to Black Hugh to find two or three miles of solid logs between his timber and the open water of the Nation. Black Hugh had a temper fierce and quick, and when in full flame he was a man to avoid, for from neither man nor devil would he turn. The only man who could hold him was his brother Macdonald Bhain, for strong man as he was, Black Hugh knew well that his brother could with a single swift grip bring him to his knees.
It was unfortunate that the command of the party this day should have been Macdonald Dubh's. Unfortunate, too, that it was Dan Murphy and his men that happened to be blocking the river mouth. For the Glengarry men, who handled only square timber, despised the Murphy gang as sawlog-men; "log-rollers" or "mushrats" they called them, and hated them as Irish "Papishes" and French "Crapeaux," while between Dan Murphy and Macdonald Dubh there was an ancient personal grudge, and to-day Murphy thought he had found his time. There were only six of the enemy, he had ten times the number with him, many of them eager to pay off old scores; and besides there was Louis LeNoir as the "Boss Bully" of the river. The Frenchman was not only a powerful man, active with hands and feet, but he was an adept in all kinds of fighting tricks. Since coming to the Ottawa he had heard of the big Macdonald, and he sought to meet him. But Macdonald avoided him once and again till LeNoir, having never known any one avoiding a fight for any reason other than fear, proclaimed Macdonald a coward, and himself "de boss on de reever." Now there was a chance of meeting his rival and of forcing a fight, for the Glengarry camp could not be far away where the big Macdonald himself would be. So Dan Murphy, backed up with numbers, and the boss bully LeNoir, determined that for these Macdonald men the day of settlement had come. But they were dangerous men, and it would be well to take all precautions, and hence his friendly invitation to the tavern for drinks.
Macdonald Dubh, scorning to show hesitation, though he suspected treachery, strode after Murphy to the tavern door and through the crowd of shanty-men filling the room. They were as ferocious looking a lot of men as could well be got together, even in that country and in those days – shaggy of hair and beard, dressed out in red and blue and green jerseys, with knitted sashes about their waists, and red and blue and green tuques on their heads. Drunken rows were their delight, and fights so fierce that many a man came out battered and bruised to death or to life-long decrepitude. They were sitting on the benches that ran round the room, or lounging against the bar singing, talking, blaspheming. At the sight of Macdonald Dubh and his men there fell a dead silence, and then growls of recognition, but Murphy was not yet ready, and roaring out "Dh-r-r-i-n-k-s," he seized a couple of his men leaning against the bar, and hurling them to right and left, cried, "Ma-a-ke room for yer betthers, be the powers! Sthand up, bhoys, and fill yirsilves!"
Black Hugh and his men lined up gravely to the bar and were straightway surrounded by the crowd yelling hideously. But if Murphy and his gang thought to intimidate those grave Highlanders with noise, they were greatly mistaken, for they stood quietly waiting for their glasses to be filled, alert, but with an air of perfect indifference. Some eight or ten glasses were set down and filled, when Murphy, snatching a couple of bottles from the shelf behind the bar, handed them out to his men, crying, "Here, ye bluddy thaves, lave the glasses to the gintlemen!"
There was no mistaking the insolence in his tone, and the chorus of derisive yells that answered him showed that his remark had gone to the spot.
Yankee Jim, who had kept close to Black Hugh, saw the veins in his neck beginning to swell, and face to grow dark. He was longing to be at Murphy's throat. "Speak him fair," he said, in a low tone, "there's rather a good string of 'em raound." Macdonald Dubh glanced about him. His eye fell on his boy, and for the first time his face became anxious. "Ranald," he said, angrily, "take yourself out of this. It is no place for you whatever." The boy, a slight lad of seventeen, but tall and wellknit, and with his father's fierce, wild, dark face, hesitated.
"Go," said his father, giving him a slight cuff.
"Here, boy!" yelled LeNoir, catching him by the arm and holding the bottle to his mouth, "drink." The boy took a gulp, choked, and spat it out. LeNoir and his men roared. "Dat good whiskey," he cried, still holding the boy. "You not lak dat, hey?"
"No," said the boy, "it is not good at all."
"Try heem some more," said LeNoir, thrusting the bottle at him again.
"I will not," said Ranald, looking at LeNoir straight and fearless.
"Ho-ho! mon brave enfant! But you have not de good mannere. Come, drink!" He caught the boy by the back of the neck, and made as if to pour the whiskey down his throat. Black Hugh, who had been kept back by Yankee Jim all this time, started forward, but before he could take a second step Ranald, squirming round like a cat, had sunk his teeth into LeNoir's wrist. With a cry of rage and pain LeNoir raised the bottle and was bringing it down on Ranald's head, when Black Hugh, with one hand, caught the falling blow, and with the other seized Ranald, and crying, "Get out of this!" he flung him towards the door. Then turning to LeNoir, he said, with surprising self-control, "It is myself that is sorry that a boy of mine should be guilty of biting like a dog."
"Sa-c-r-ré le chien!" yelled LeNoir, shaking off Macdonald Dubh; "he is one dog, and the son of a dog!" He turned and started for the boy. But Yankee Jim had got Ranald to the door and was whispering to him. "Run!" cried Yankee Jim, pushing him out of the door, and the boy was off like the wind. LeNoir pursued him a short way and returned raging.
Yankee Jim, or Yankee, as he was called for short, came back to Macdonald Dubh's side, and whispering to the other Highlanders, "Keep your backs clear," sat up coolly on the counter. The fight was sure to come and there were seven to one against them in the room. If he could only gain time. Every minute was precious. It would take the boy fifteen minutes to run the two miles to camp. It would be half an hour before the rest of the Glengarry men could arrive, and much fighting may be done in that time. He must avert attention from Macdonald Dubh, who was waiting to cram LeNoir's insult down his throat. Yankee Jim had not only all the cool courage but also the shrewd, calculating spirit of his race. He was ready to fight, and if need be against odds, but he preferred to fight on as even terms as possible.
Soon LeNoir came back, wild with fury, and yelling curses at the top of his voice. He hurled himself into the room, the crowd falling back from him on either hand.
"Hola!" he yelled, "Sacré bleu!" He took two quick steps, and springing up into the air he kicked the stovepipe that ran along some seven feet above the floor.
"Purty good kicking," called out Yankee, sliding down from his seat. "Used to kick some myself. Excuse me." He stood for a moment looking up at the stovepipe, then without apparent effort he sprang into the air, shot up his long legs, and knocked the stovepipe with a bang against the ceiling. There was a shout of admiration.
"My damages," he said to Pat Murphy, who stood behind the counter. "Good thing there ain't no fire. Thought it was higher. Wouldn't care to kick for the drinks, would ye?" he added to LeNoir.
LeNoir was too furious to enter into any contest so peace ful, but as he specially prided himself on his high kick, he paused a moment and was about to agree when Black Hugh broke in, harshly, spoiling all Yankee's plans.
"There is no time for such foolishness," he said, turning to Dan Murphy. "I want to know when we can get our timber out."
"Depinds intoirly on yirsilf," said Murphy.
"When will your logs be out of the way?"
"Indade an' that's a ha-r-r-d one," laughed Murphy.
"And will you tell me what right hev you to close up the river?" Black Hugh's wrath was rising.
"You wud think now it wuz yirsilf that owned the river. An' bedad it's the thought of yir mind, it is. An' it's not the river only, but the whole creation ye an' yir brother think is yours." Dan Murphy was close up to Macdonald Dubh by this time. "Yis, blank, blank, yir faces, an' ye'd like to turn better than yirsilves from aff the river, so ye wud, ye black-hearted thaves that ye are."
This, of course, was beyond all endurance. For answer Black Hugh smote him sudden and fierce on the mouth, and Murphy went down.
"Purty one," sang out Yankee, cheerily. "Now, boys, back to the wall."
Before Murphy could rise, sprang LeNoir over him and lit upon Macdonald like a cat, but Macdonald shook himself free and sprang back to the Glengarry line at the wall.
"Mac an' Diabhoil," he roared, "Glengarry forever!"
"Glengarry!" yelled the four Highlanders beside him, wild with the delight of battle. It was a plain necessity, and they went into it with free consciences and happy hearts.
"Let me at him," cried Murphy, struggling past LeNoir towards Macdonald.
"Non! He is to me!" yelled LeNoir, dancing in front of Macdonald.
"Here, Murphy," called out Yankee, obligingly, "help your self this way." Murphy dashed at him, but Yankee's long arm shot out to meet him, and Murphy again found the floor.
"Come on, boys," cried Pat Murphy, Dan's brother, and followed by half a dozen others, he flung himself at Yankee and the line of men standing up against the wall. But Yankee's arms flashed out once, twice, thrice, and Pat Murphy fell back over his brother; two others staggered across and checked the oncoming rush, while Dannie Ross and big Mack Cameron had each beaten back their man, and the Glengarry line stood unbroken. Man for man they were far more than a match for their opponents, and standing shoulder to shoulder, with their backs to the wall, they taunted Murphy and his gang with all the wealth of gibes and oaths at their command.
"Where's the rest of your outfit, Murphy?" drawled Yankee. "Don't seem's if you'd counted right."
"It is a cold day for the parley voos," laughed Big Mack Cameron. "Come up, lads, and take a taste of something hot."
Then the Murphy men, clearing away the fallen, rushed again. They strove to bring the Highlanders to a clinch, but Yankee's voice was high and clear in command.
"Keep the line, boys! Don't let 'em draw you!" And the Glengarry men waited till they could strike, and when they struck men went down and were pulled back by their friends.
"Intil them, bhoys!" yelled Dan Murphy, keeping out of range himself. "Intil the divils!" And again and again his men crowded down upon the line against the wall, but again and again they were beaten down or hurled back bruised and bleeding.
Meantime LeNoir was devoting himself to Black Hugh at one end of the line, dancing in upon him and away again, but without much result. Black Hugh refused to be drawn out, and fought warily on defense, knowing the odds were great and waiting his chance to deliver one good blow, which was all he asked.
The Glengarry men were enjoying themselves hugely, and when not shouting their battle-cry, "Glengarry forever!" or taunting their foes, they were joking each other on the fortunes of war. Big Mack Cameron, who held the center, drew most of the sallies. He was easy-tempered and good-natured, and took his knocks with the utmost good humor.
"That was a good one, Mack," said Dannie Ross, his special chum, as a sounding whack came in on Big Mack's face. "As true as death I will be telling it to Bella Peter." Bella, the daughter of Peter McGregor, was supposed to be dear to Big Mack's heart.
"What a peety she could not see him the now," said Finlay Campbell. "Man alive, she would say the word queeck!"
"'Tis more than she will do to you whatever, if you cannot keep off that crapeau yonder a little better," said Big Mack, reaching for a Frenchman who kept dodging in upon him with annoying persistence. Then Mack began to swear Gaelic oaths.
"'Tain't fair, Mack!" called out Yankee from his end of the line, "bad language in English is bad enough, but in Gaelic it must be uncommon rough." So they gibed each other. But the tactics of the enemy were exceedingly irritating, and were beginning to tell upon the tempers of the Highlanders.
"Come to me, ye cowardly little devil," roared Mack to his persisting assailant. "No one will hurt you! Come away, man! A-a-ah-ouch!" His cry of satisfaction at having grabbed his man ended in a howl of pain, for the Frenchman had got Mack's thumb between his teeth, and was chewing it vigorously.
"Ye would, would you, ye dog?" roared Big Mack. He closed his fingers into the Frenchman's gullet, and drew him up to strike, but on every side hands reached for him and stayed his blow. Then he lost himself. With a yell of rage he jambed his man back into the crowd, sinking his fingers deeper and deeper into his enemy's throat till his face grew black and his head fell over on one side. But it was a fatal move for Mack, and overcome by numbers that crowded upon him, he went down fighting wildly and bearing the Frenchman beneath him. The Glengarry line was broken. Black Hugh saw Mack's peril, and knew that it meant destruction to all. With a wilder cry than usual, "Glengarry! Glengarry!" he dashed straight into LeNoir, who gave back swiftly, caught two men who were beating Big Mack's life out, and hurled them aside, and grasping his friend's collar, hauled him to his feet, and threw him back against the wall and into the line again with his grip still upon his Frenchman's throat.
"Let dead men go, Mack," he cried, but even as he spoke LeNoir, seeing his opportunity, sprang at him and with a backward kick caught Macdonald fair in the face and lashed him hard against the wall. It was the terrible French lash and was one of LeNoir's special tricks. Black Hugh, stunned and dazed, leaned back against the wall, spreading out his hands weakly before his face. LeNoir, seeing victory within his grasp, rushed in to finish off his special foe. But Yankee Jim, who, while engaged in cheerfully knocking back the two Murphys and others who took their turn at him, had been keeping an eye on the line of battle, saw Macdonald's danger, and knowing that the crisis had come, dashed across the line, crying "Follow me, boys." His long arms swung round his head like the sails of a wind-mill, and men fell back from him as if they had been made of wood. As LeNoir sprang, Yankee shot fiercely at him, but the Frenchman, too quick for him, ducked and leaped upon Black Hugh, who was still swaying against the wall, bore him down and jumped with his heavy "corked" boots on his breast and face. Again the Glengarry line was broken. At once the crowd surged about the Glengarry men, who now stood back to back, beating off the men leaping at them from every side, as a stag beats off dogs, and still chanting high their dauntless cry, "Glengarry forever," to which Big Mack added at intervals, "To hell with the Papishes!" Yankee, failing to check LeNoir's attack upon Black Hugh, fought off the men crowding upon him, and made his way to the corner where the Frenchman was still engaged in kicking the prostrate Highlander to death.
"Take that, you blamed cuss," he said, catching LeNoir in the jaw and knocking his head with a thud against the wall. Before he could strike again he was thrown against his enemy, who clutched him and held like a vice.