Hell And High Water

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In a rough-and-tumble fight, the riverman was probably the best man with his hands in the world, and rivermen loved to fight. Like most outdoorsmen, they were, unless drunk or provoked, modest and soft-spoken, but their robust virtues were equalled by their robust vices. When they hit town, especially at the end of the drive, with the logs in the booms and their pay in their pockets, they figured it was their duty to take the place apart. The great and glorious bust might last three days to three weeks, while God-fearing citizens locked their doors and local police looked the other way. Then, having thrown away all their money, the men headed back to the timber, sore and sober.

The riverman fought with his fists, his head, and his spiked boots, but never with guns or knives. A favorite trick was to turn away from a foe as if abandoning the fight and then lash back at the man’s face with your calked shoe; or again, to hurl oneself through the air feet first toward an opponent, raking his face and chest with those terrible spikes. Bosse, greatest of all the log drivers in the Northeast, had a trick of coming at an enemy while turning a handspring. The other man, bemused at the sight of his charging foe suddenly putting both hands on the floor, usually hadn’t time to recover before Dan’s spiked boots had struck him in some sensitive spot.

The riverman was a hard man to lick. I never heard of one being killed in a fight, though he might lose an eye or have an ear chewed off. Albert Johnson, from Fryeburg, Maine, was known throughout all the North country as “Jigger.” For years he was a woods boss for the lumber company that owned all of northern New Hampshire, and one spring he had charge of the Connecticut River drive when it reached Beecher Falls, where New Hampshire, Vermont, and Canada come together. Here, astride the international boundary, stood the Line House, a notorious drinking place, called a hellhole by righteous citizens but highly favored by rivermen and lumberjacks.

Jigger profanely and explicitly told his crew of forty men to keep away from this bar while he went off to West Stewartstown, a mile below, to scare up more drivers. But it was dark and the men were cold. Heedless of Jigger’s orders, a good many of them dropped their pike poles and peavies and went down to the Line House to tank up. When Jigger came back and found them gone, he knew where to look.

Ever a believer in direct action, he stormed into the big barroom, grabbed the two men nearest the door, and ran them outside, telling them to get back to work. He went back inside, snatched from the wall a short length of peavey handle used by the bouncer in cases of emergency, and waded into the crowd, swinging with all his might. Men fell, men ran outside into the night. Out from a corner came the Line House bouncer, a huge Canuck named La Pointe, who fell onto Jigger, knocking him to the floor. Then La Pointe jumped up and began to kick him with his spiked boots.

Jigger gathered the stamping legs in a bear hug and upended the bouncer onto the barroom stove. Unable to get loose, the unhappy Canuck screamed like a banshee, and the spectators could smell rump steak frying. Paying no heed to La Pointe’s bilingual entreaties to let him go, Jigger held him there for a good minute. Then he jumped back. He reached up and grabbed hold of the big reflector lamp that hung from the ceiling and yanked it out, frame and all. With the whole rigging in his hands, Jigger jumped two feet off the floor and brought the frame down over La Pointe’s head, hanging it around his neck like a ruff. The kerosene started to leak out, and it flared up. Jigger picked up the peavey handle he’d dropped and started for the bouncer, chasing him out into the yard, where someone threw a blanket over the poor man to douse the fire. The pockmarks Jigger got from his opponent’s spiked boots, plus a good many others, he always referred to as “logger’s small-pox.”

The saw log was to the riverman what the horse was to the cowboy—except that the log would take him downstream but wouldn’t take him back up. Instead, long after dark, tired and cold, he had to walk back to camp—slogging his way through the mud and brush, and not infrequently falling into the deep and wide holes that had filled with water when the gates of a dam up above had been opened during the day for sluicing logs. Still in his wet and sodden clothing, he rolled into wet and sodden blankets and slept like a baby, untroubled by the melancholy howls of the wolves and the owls in the surrounding forest.

First of all, the riverman had to know how to ride a log, and that does not mean just standing on it without falling off, or being able to ride it in quiet water. As a matter of fact, riding a log in quiet water and riding it in fast water required two entirely different sets of muscles and reflexes. A journey downstream was a very simple matter: a man merely stepped onto a log, stuck his peavey into it, and leaned on the handle while the current swept him away. If the water was rough, he used the peavey as a balancing pole; and if another log came along to roll his under, he just stepped onto the new log and continued on his way.