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A short story by Gilbert Parker

At Bamber's Boom

Title:     At Bamber's Boom
Author: Gilbert Parker [More Titles by Parker]

His trouble came upon him when he was old. To the hour of its coming he had been of shrewd and humourous disposition. He had married late in life, and his wife had died, leaving him one child--a girl. She grew to womanhood, bringing him daily joy. She was beloved in the settlement; and there was no one at Bamber's Boom, in the valley of the Madawaska, but was startled and sorry when it turned out that Dugard, the river-boss, was married. He floated away down the river, with his rafts and drives of logs, leaving the girl sick and shamed. They knew she was sick at heart, because she grew pale and silent; they did not know for some months how shamed she was. Then it was that Mrs. Lauder, the sister of the Roman Catholic missionary, Father Halen, being a woman of notable character and kindness, visited her and begged her to tell all.

Though the girl--Nora--was a Protestant, Mrs. Lauder did this: but it brought sore grief to her. At first she could hardly bear to look at the girl's face, it was so hopeless, so numb to the world: it had the indifference of despair. Rumour now became hateful fact. When the old man was told, he gave one great cry, then sat down, his hands pressed hard between his knees, his body trembling, his eyes staring before him.

It was Father Halen who told him. He did it as man to man, and not as a priest, having travelled fifty miles for the purpose. "George Magor," said he, "it's bad, I know, but bear it--with the help of God. And be kind to the girl."

The old man answered nothing. "My friend," the priest continued, "I hope you'll forgive me for telling you. I thought 'twould be better from me, than to have it thrown at you in the settlement. We've been friends one way and another, and my heart aches for you, and my prayers go with you."

The old man raised his sunken eyes, all their keen humour gone, and spoke as though each word were dug from his heart. "Say no more, Father Halen." Then he reached out, caught the priest's hand in his gnarled fingers, and wrung it.

The father never spoke a harsh word to the girl. Otherwise he seemed to harden into stone. When the Protestant missionary came, he would not see him. The child was born before the river-drivers came along again the next year with their rafts and logs. There was a feeling abroad that it would be ill for Dugard if he chanced to camp at Bamber's Boom. The look of the old man's face was ominous, and he was known to have an iron will.

Dugard was a handsome man, half French, half Scotch, swarthy and admirably made. He was proud of his strength, and showily fearless in danger. For there were dangerous hours to the river life: when, for instance, a mass of logs became jammed at a rapids, and must be loosened; or a crib struck into the wrong channel, or, failing to enter a slide straight, came at a nasty angle to it, its timbers wrenched and tore apart, and its crew, with their great oars, were plumped into the busy current. He had been known to stand singly in some perilous spot when one log, the key to the jam, must be shifted to set free the great tumbled pile. He did everything with a dash. The handspike was waved and thrust into the best leverage, the long robust cry, "O-hee-hee-hoi!" rolled over the waters, there was a devil's jumble of logs, and he played a desperate game with them, tossing here, leaping there, balancing elsewhere, till, reaching the smooth rush of logs in the current, he ran across them to the shore as they spun beneath his feet.

His gang of river-drivers, with their big drives of logs, came sweeping down one beautiful day of early summer, red-shifted, shouting, good-tempered. It was about this time that Pierre came to know Magor.

It was the old man's duty to keep the booms of several great lumbering companies, and to watch the logs when the river-drivers were engaged elsewhere. Occasionally he took a place with the men, helping to make cribs and rafts. Dugard worked for one lumber company, Magor for others. Many in the settlement showed Dugard how much he was despised. Some warned him that Magor had said he would break him into pieces; it seemed possible that Dugard might have a bad hour with the people of Bamber's Boom. Dugard, though he swelled and strutted, showed by a furtive eye and a sinister watchfulness that he felt himself in an atmosphere of danger. But he spoke of his wickedness lightly as, "A slip--a little accident, mon ami."

Pierre said to him one day: "Bien, Dugard, you are a bold man to come here again. Or is it that you think old men are cowards?"

Dugard, blustering, laid his hand suddenly upon his case-knife.

Pierre laughed softly, contemptuously, came over, and throwing out his perfectly formed but not robust chest in the fashion of Dugard, added: "Ho, ho, monsieur the butcher, take your time at that. There is too much blood in your carcass. You have quarrels plenty on your hands without this. Come, don't be a fool and a scoundrel too."

Dugard grinned uneasily, and tried to turn the thing off as a joke, and Pierre, who laughed still a little more, said: "It would be amusing to see old Magor and Dugard fight. It would be--so equal." There was a keen edge to Pierre's tones, but Dugard dared not resent it.

One day Magor and Dugard must meet. The square-timber of the two companies had got tangled at a certain point, and gangs from both must set them loose. They were camped some distance from each other. There was rivalry between them, and it was hinted that if any trouble came from the meeting of Magor and Dugard the gangs would pay off old scores with each other. Pierre wished to prevent this. It seemed to him that the two men should stand alone in the affair. He said as much here and there to members of both camps, for he was free of both: a tribute to his genius at poker.

The girl, Nora, was apprehensive--for her father; she hated the other man now. Pierre was courteous to her, scrupulous in word and look, and fond of her child. He had always shown a gentleness to children, which seemed little compatible with his character; but for this young outlaw in the world he had something more. He even laboured carefully to turn the girl's father in its favour; but as yet to little purpose. He was thought ful of the girl too. He only went to the house when he knew her father was present, or when she was away. Once while he was there, Father Halen and his sister, Mrs. Lauder, came. They found Pierre with the child, rocking the cradle, and humming as he did so an old song of the coureurs de bois:

"Out of the hills comes a little white deer,
Poor little vaurien, o, ci, ci!
Come to my home, to my home down here,
Sister and brother and child o' me
Poor little, poor little vaurien!"

Pierre was alone, save for the old woman who had cared for the home since Nora's trouble came. The priest was anxious lest any harm should come from Dugard's presence at Bamber's Boom. He knew Pierre's doubtful reputation, but still he knew he could speak freely and would be answered honestly. "What will happen?" he abruptly asked.

"What neither you nor I should try to prevent, m'sieu'," was Pierre's reply.

"Magor will do the man injury?"

"What would you have? Put the matter on your own hearthstone, eh?... Pardon, if I say these things bluntly." Pierre still lightly rocked the cradle with one foot.

"But vengeance is in God's hands."

"M'sieu'," said the half-breed, "vengeance also is man's, else why did we ten men from Fort Cypress track down the Indians who murdered your brother, the good priest, and kill them one by one?"

Father Halen caught his sister as she swayed, and helped her to a chair, then turned a sad face on Pierre. "Were you--were you one of that ten?" he asked, overcome; and he held out his hand.

The two river-driving camps joined at Mud Cat Point, where was the crush of great timber. The two men did not at first come face to face, but it was noticed by Pierre, who smoked on the bank while the others worked, that the old man watched his enemy closely. The work of undoing the great twist of logs was exciting, and they fell on each other with a great sound as they were pried off, and went sliding, grinding, into the water. At one spot they were piled together, massive and high. These were left to the last.

It was here that the two met. Old Magor's face was quiet, if a little haggard; and his eyes looked out from under his shaggy brows piercingly. Dugard's manner was swaggering, and he swore horribly at his gang. Presently he stood at a point alone, working at an obstinate log. He was at the foot of an incline of timber, and he was not aware that Magor had suddenly appeared at the top of that incline. He heard his name called out sharply. Swinging round, he saw Magor thrusting a handspike under a huge timber, hanging at the top of the incline. He was standing in a hollow, a kind of trench. He was shaken with fear, for he saw the old man's design. He gave a cry and made as if to jump out of the way, but with a laugh Magor threw his whole weight on the handspike, the great timber slid swiftly down and crushed Dugard from his thighs to his feet, breaking his legs terribly. The old man called down at him: "A slip--a little accident, mon ami!" Then, shouldering his handspike, he made his way through the silent gangs to the shore, and so on homewards.

Magor had done what he wished. Dugard would be a cripple for life; his beauty was all spoiled and broken: there was much to do to save his life. II

Nora also about this time took to her bed with fever. Again and again Pierre rode thirty miles and back to get ice for her head. All were kind to her now. The vengeance upon Dugard seemed to have wiped out much of her shame in the eyes of Bamber's Boom. Such is the way of the world. He that has the last blow is in the eye of advantage. When Nora began to recover, the child fell ill also. In the sickness of the child the old man had a great temptation--far greater than that concerning Dugard. As the mother grew better the child became much worse. One night the doctor came, driving over from another settlement, and said that if the child got sleep till morning it would probably live, for the crisis had come. He left an opiate to procure the sleep, the same that had been given to the mother. If it did not sleep, it would die. Pierre was present at this time.

All through the child's illness the old man's mind had been tossed to and fro. If the child died, the living stigma would be gone; there would be no reminder of his daughter's shame in the eyes of the world. They could go away from Bamber's Boom, and begin life again somewhere. But, then, there was the child itself which had crept into his heart,--he knew not how, and would not be driven out. He had never, till it was taken ill, even touched it, nor spoken to it. To destroy its life!--Well, would it not be better for the child to go out of all possible shame, into peace, the peace of the grave?

This night he sat down beside the cradle, holding the bottle of medicine and a spoon in his hand. The hot, painful face of the child fascinated him. He looked from it to the bottle, and back, then again to the bottle. He started, and the sweat stood out on his forehead. For though the doctor had told him in words the proper dose, he had by mistake written on the label the same dose as for the mother! Here was the responsibility shifted in any case. More than once the old man uncorked the bottle, and once he dropped out the opiate in the spoon steadily; but the child opened its suffering eyes at him, its little wasted hand wandered over the coverlet, and he could not do it just then. But again the passion for its destruction came on him, because he heard his daughter moaning in the other room. He said to himself that she would be happier when it was gone. But as he stooped over the cradle, no longer hesitating, the door softly opened, and Pierre entered. The old man shuddered, and drew back from the cradle. Pierre saw the look of guilt in the old man's face, and his instinct told him what was happening. He took the bottle from the trembling hand, and looked at the label.

"What is the proper dose?" he asked, seeing that a mistake had been made by the doctor.

In a hoarse whisper Magor told him. "It may be too late," Pierre added. He knelt down, with light fingers opened the child's mouth, and poured the medicine in slowly. The old man stood for a time rigid, looking at them both. Then he came round to the other side of the cradle, and seated himself beside it, his eyes fixed on the child's face. For a long time they sat there. At last the old man said: "Will he die, Pierre?"

"I am afraid so," answered Pierre painfully. "But we shall see." Then early teaching came to him, never to be entirely obliterated, and he added: "Has the child been baptised?"

The old man shook his head. "'Will you do it?" asked Pierre hesitatingly.

"I can't--I can't," was the reply.

Pierre smiled a little ironically, as if at himself, got some water in a cup, came over, and said: "Remember, I'm a Papist!"

A motion of the hand answered him.

He dipped his fingers in the water, and dropped it ever so lightly on the child's forehead.

"George Magor,"--it was the old man's name,--"I baptise thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen." Then he drew the sign of the cross on the infant's forehead.

Sitting down, he watched beside the child. After a little he heard a long choking sigh. Looking up, he saw tears slowly dropping from Magor's eyes.

And to this day the child and the mother of the child are dear to the old man's heart.

[The end]
Gilbert Parker's short story: At Bamber's Boom