Scaling Fences is the third in a series of my historical fiction/fantasies for early spring reading. It will be posted in three chapters. Here’s Part One. Oil paintings by Bill Long of Moss Moon Studio.Scaling Fences
To look at my humble home and me, you might think both of us had always been resting here along side Halifax harbor. A low stone cottage nestled into a grassy bank overlooking the water is a pretty sight, no doubt. And while I’d never be mistaken for pretty, with my warty nose and bristly jowls, I suspect my sitting out here under the eaves at the sparrow’s chirp, sipping at my pipe, lends a certain charm to the place. And that’s all well and good for those just passing by. But if you linger, I’ll just cough a bit to sharpen my voice and you’ll hear the tale of what’s here all round, or, more to the truth, what’s here no more. I may be in and out of ninety, but the years gone by are no less fresh in my head for their number.
As much as I may appear a fixture of this place, I’m no native born. My people were of Bristol, England coming to the American colonies by way of Boston. Canada is my adopted home, a land that’s twice plucked me from adversity, once from the sea and once from the forest. Though, strictly speaking, it was from fires that this fair shore saved me both times. Have a seat, why don’t you. Hear my story while I still have strength to tell it.
Take a look over your shoulder, there, above the doorway. You’ll spy the date ‘1752’ cut into the lintel stone. That was the year my roaming ended and my settled life began. Before then, the winds and the woods shifted me all about. As a lad in the navy, the winds blew me into the sea war with the French. Later, I earned my livelihood in the great north woods of New England, following the seasonal tide of timber cutting. I’m considered an “old salt” for my days spent on the open sea but it’s the deep, dark forest that calls most to my memory.
Throughout the snowy winters, in teams of four men each, we cut and drug fresh logs to the rivers edge. After the ice went out on the high waters of early spring, masses of timber were rafted down-stream, with us atop them, to a pound in a setback of the river. From there the sawmill hands took over and us boys continued down river all the way to the sea in the Province of Maine. At Portland most of the others crewed cargo ships for the summer, sailing under the English flag. They were happy to be out of the woods, plying the coastal waters. But me I’d seen enough seafaring in my tender youth as a conscripted sailor. I’d bought sense from it all. So I was well pleased to stay a dock hand until the crisp days of autumn arrived and it was time, once again, to tramp back to the woods.
I stumbled upon my first log camp by accident, back in the year of ’41. I had the tattered and soiled remnants of a British sailor’s uniform on my back. The camp was many miles inland but, in a manner of speaking, I came to it by way of a ship. The frigate I’d been sailoring on got chased up into the mouth of the Halifax River by French warships, just north of where we now sit. Our captain ordered the crew away to shore. “Better a good run than a bad standing,” he said. Then, to save the ship from enemy hands, he put down a fire. Such it was that fire first forced me onto this piece of ground, this place called Halifax Peninsula. But I didn’t tarry here, then. With the ship ablaze, we hightailed it overland, bound for the colonies, quick as our sailor shoes would take us.
In the woods we got separated. I trudged alone for weeks, unsure which way to turn my face, afraid of what lay in front of me as much as what might be coming up from behind. I had one foot in the grave and the other on its edge when, in the distance, I heard a soft “popping” sound repeating itself over and again. I stole up on the commotion and discovered two lads slinging their axe blades at the trunk of a tall, white pine. On seeing they were colonists I broke down and began sobbing uncontrollable like, so relieved was I. The tears cut tracks through the grime on my cheeks. First thing they did on spying my sorry self was shout “Savages!” and commence to run away. T’was a wonder the souls didn’t fall out of them. Until I called back to them in the King’s English they thought for sure I was an Iroquois with his face covered in war paint.
Questions rained down on me from the woodsmen as we headed to their encampment. The conversation shortened the way, but words do not fatten the friar. I started up like a cat called to its milk as we neared the mess hall where the smell of hot victuals filled the air. After a meal and some rest, I became myself again. The camp boss hired me on as sled tender, skidding logs down to the riverside.
We were “roughing it” in the deep woods, far from town comforts, but compared to my previous years cramped below deck, in service to his majesty King George, it was an improvement. I vowed I’d never leave. To a youth, every gob of work, be it agreeable or onerous, appears to be everlasting. When you become an old “daddo” like myself you understand, “However long the road, there comes a turning.”