The Battle of the Long Sault, Ch. 11: Water Babies

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CHAPTER ELEVEN: DAY TWO: DANGEROUS IGNORANCE

Mid-April in New France brought either snowstorms, cold, hard rain, or sunny, warm days. April twenty-first, 1660, was warm.

The river was wrenching off its ice coat, but at night the temperature fell, and the ice-drifts, although hazardous, were not as capriciously ripped from the shore. Most of the drifts dodged were not more than a foot or two in width, but even these could damage a bark canoe if they struck at the right angle.

The larger drifts were dangerous. Occasionally a huge piece of ice would break free from some rocks near the shore and be carried into the river on the current. It could tip a canoe in a fraction of a second if they caught the canoeists off guard.

The general precaution was for the bowman to use his paddle to deflect small pieces of ice around the side of the canoe. The centerman would then use his paddle to push the drifting ice piece away from the middle of the craft. He caught the ice with the flat of the paddle, lowered the paddle to the side of the canoe and, using the gunwale as a fulcrum, pressed down on the paddle handle and shoved the ice away. For larger pieces of drift ice, the bowman called a warning and tried to get his paddle on the ice at arm’s length while the sternsman braked and countered the craft away from the ice. The centerman assisted in the movement pushing the canoe away from the ice and watched in case drifts, once pushed away from the bow of the canoe, should suddenly appear threateningly on the side. All of this in the dark while fighting the current going upstream meant a man didn’t stay a novice canoeist long in this country.

The portage was a fiasco. Had the Iroquois seen this band struggling through the forest carrying canoes and equipment they would have laughed and sent their women to fight them.

After the exhausting portage, they reached a navigable section of the river. Jurie approached Dollard.

“We have to stop now, Dollard,” he said, “the men are drained.”

“I’m tired too. All right.”

“Camp,” Jurie said to Christophe Augier.

“Thank God,” groaned Augier. “Camp!” he called to the others. The men dropped to the ground groaning.

“Hey Cognac, have you any brandy?” asked Robin.

“Didn’t you bring any?”

“It’s at the bottom of my bag. I figured you would pack yours near the top, close to the mouth, so to speak.”

“I marvel at you fellows giving me all that grief. You’re the first to ask for it.”

“All right, I apologize. Just give me a drink before I collapse.”

Cognac leaned across his pack and handed a bottle to Robin, and they sat on a cleared log and drank swift slugs.

“Ohhhh … that’s beautiful,” said Robin. The liquor rolled down his face and fell on his leather belt.

“Warms your gut, eh? I took plenty. Prud’homme doesn’t serve this far out,” said Cognac.

They drank, and the liquor flowed through their bodies, pushing a little of the tiredness away. They were there only a minute before Robert Jurie came by and said:

“All right, get off your rear end and let’s set up camp. It’s nearly dawn. We’ll have a good meal and get some sleep.”

Wearily, the men rose and began their chores; wood, tents, food, water. Jurie stationed four on watch with a promise of food. He moved the guards further away so that the noise of the camp would not interfere with listening for the enemy.

Jean Lecompte and several others prepared the meal. While the diet in Montreal was fairly varied, in the forests the French took their cues from the Indians and brought with them only the hardiest, simplest and most concentrated food, sagamité, or maize. At home, they would have eaten it roasted, mashed with game or fish. For traveling, it was dried, ground and made into a sort of pancake.

Louis Martin and Simon Grenet returned from the river triumphantly. “Heyl We have some fish … we have eight fish for the sagamité!” They yelled.”Quiet, you idiots!” said Jean Valets. “Do we deliberately travel at night, not use our guns, so that you cretins can shout our positions to the Iroquois?”

The two fishermen exchanged glances and lowered their heads. They had considered only that they would receive praise for adding some taste to the sagamité. Robert Jurie watched the dressing-down delivered by Jean Valets without smiling. He approached the two thoughtless men and said nothing, merely looked at them for a long moment. He shook his head and continued past.

Louis Martin and Simon Grenet shamefacedly handed the fish to Jean Lecompte, who ordered them to clean them. Unlike the Indians, the French did not put the head, bones, and entrails into the kettle if they could avoid it.

When the meal was ready, Lecompte announced it: “Nequarre.”

The men had not to be told twice. A few of them had taken ham or salt bacon for the first few days but as the fish was caught they saved their pork for another day. During the meal, the talk centered on the incident the day before on Nun’s Island. Forges and Roland Hebert towered above most of the others, even when sitting, and they spoke over the fire instead of through it like the rest. Brassier, who knew little about the Iroquois, was clearly worried.

‘What about the attack at Nun’s Island?” asked Brassier. “It doesn’t smell good.”

We found five Iroquois at Nun’s Island. They’re like rats, though…if you see one you know there are at least four or five…if you see five…”Forges shrugged.

“Ten to fifteen is an average-sized war party,” said Hebert. “For this kind of encounter an Iroquois just drives a hatchet into the war post. Anybody who wants to can go with him. The attacks this week were not abnormal in size.”

“A bit small,” said Forges. “Ten to twelve is normal.”

“And it’s not unusual to have several attacks at the three forts at the same time. They do it so we’ll all think there’s a major war, but it’s only a few skirmishes, and we react in a stupid way. On the other hand, when they want to organize on a large scale…that’s another matter,” said Hebert, tossing the watery dregs of his meal on the ground. “I’m going to sleep.”

Just before dark everyone was awakened by Robert Jurie and preparations for leaving began. The men caught more fish.

“We should stay here for the ambush,” said Jean Lecompte, who was doing some of the cooking. “We could eat well, eliminate the rest of these night trips and save ourselves a great deal of trouble.”

“The river is not right here for us. We’d need more men and bigger guns,” said Valets.

“I could go back and get a cannon,” offered Lecompte cheerfully.

The clearing they were resting in was a small one on the north side of the river. Behind them was a rock formation twenty feet high, then falling downstream, a series of rocks gradually diminishing in size that indicated the beginning of the rapid they had just climbed. On their right and front was a forest of evergreen pines, spruces and balsams. To their left was the river.

There was a slight extension of the clearing ahead of them which allowed the canoes to launch. Christophe Augier walked down to the river, flipped his canoe, and, instead of keeping only a portion of it in the water, he pushed it all in and began organizing it.

There was ice at the shore. His feet slipped; off balance, he fell forward into the canoe. A couple of the others saw, yelled and ran to him, but it was too late. The stern jerked away from the shore, got caught in the driving current at the head of a rapid.

Augier flailed and in an instant the canoe went over the rapid, the craft dipping and rising the over the rocks, white water, and spewing foam.

Jurie turned and ran down the portage path followed by Delestre and Tiblement. Augier, in the canoe, could do nothing. Near the bottom of the rapid, the canoe met higher swirling water, was tossed up, capsized, and Augier pitched into the icy water near the shore.

He struggled and managed to pull himself out, but the canoe swept by him. Jurie ran past the dripping man and, seeing the canoe lodged against an eddy held by a broken tree, caught up with it and with Delestre’s help, pulled it to shore.

Augier was taken up the hill to the fire to remove his clothing while Delestre and Tiblement were left to reportage the canoe. Augier’s woolen stockings and undergarments, worn because wool absorbed sweat and resisted cold, reducing chills, could be dried fairly quickly if held right at the fire. His boots would take longer.

“Well,” said Cognac to the shivering Augier, “I guess you don’t need to be reminded again about embarking too close to the rapid, do you? Come on, let’s get some of those clothes dry.” He paused and then said, “Idiot.”

Augier took his wet boots in the canoe. The others laughed at him, but some felt the incident was instructive and resolved not to make any stupid mistakes. It was dangerous enough out here without accidentally killing yourself.

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