The Long Crossing
An historical novel by Neva Powell
with illustrations by Eugene Powell
The Long Crossing is the story of an orphaned boy living with elderly tenant farmers at the beginning of the century -- a mixed-blood native American boy, in a decidedly inhospitable era and landscape. Virtually isolated, Johnny grows up, working from the time he is very small until by the time he is nine he works the farm like a man. The reader first meets him as he tentatively steps out onto the ice, leading a team of horses dragging a mountainous load of logs across a vast frozen lake.
We are committed. If the huge sled pauses, the heat from the friction of the runners could melt the surface ice enough so that it could lock in and the horses could heave and haul and it would be too heavy for a boy to pry loose with the curved point of the long iron cant hook. We'd never free it. I would have to work for years to pay for a load like this if I lost it. These horses have an instinctive distrust of water turned solid, and always rush to reach land again. I rein them in a bit so they don't get overheated or winded and so I can keep up with them and move ahead, leading instead of driving, watching the condition of the ice.
Looking back, the shoreline spreads sideways In the pale sunlight and the wide swath of snow, used to skid the logs down to camp, stretches up past the buildings and green pine forests on either side, up to the crest, blending again with the bleached noon sky.
The icy depths glow deep green, almost black, when I dig at the crust with my toe. Ice, as far as I can see, milky white, crust upon crust, building through the long Michigan winter, four or five feet thick, the men said. It's better not to think too much about the ice.
Anyway, this will be the last time before the end of winter that I have to cross the straits from Cecil Bay to the Levering railroad siding on the southern shore. Then back to get my pay. They say It's seven miles each way, but the time it takes, it seems even longer.
It will only be a few weeks now, before the spring break-up.
The warm steamy breath of the horses waiting behind me curls gently up around my neck, my ears. I tie an old moss-colored scarf over my cap, around my face, and lift my coat collar against the wind.
Turning back, I move between the horses, checking their traces, adjusting their cinches and buckles. The whiffletrees. The heavy timber runners of the sleigh are weighed down with a pyramid of logs taller than the huge old horses and towering over me. The horses stand patiently on the slight incline. Not the best team in camp. The outfit always sends horses they wouldn't miss too much out across the ice.
When I left the log bunkhouse was abandoned for the day, the crew working a mile back In the woods, the air so crisp and cold the sound carried and you could even hear the occasional call of "TIMBER!" and the resonant ring of an ax against hard wood. The cabin looked dismal in the trampled snow. Logging equipment was strewn around carelessly. Old Victor banged open the cookhouse door and heaved out a bucket of dirty water. He must have been peeling potatoes, I guess. Horses get fed better than the men in most camps.
I don't have anyone to say good-bye to.
The loggers, who never do this themselves, warned me to concentrate on nothing but driving the horses due south, the sun to my right shoulder, my shadow always on the left. If they have boys of their own they never let them take this job. Another boy, whose dad met with a mining accident up in Copper Harbor, hauled last year, and when it's his turn now, Billy sleeps restless, pulling the blankets in the bunk we share as though he's fending off the squalling winds that sweep easterly over Superior.
I snap the reins, "Gid-ep, boys!"
Today dark circles edge the logging road like so many black eyelets up a boot. Yesterday after church it had been an even stranger sight.
Rosy-faced girls, bundled up in scarves, hats, mittens, and long coats, so thickly layered you couldn't tell one from another, even by the way they moved, running up and down the hill. They were girls from town, tending fires they had laid on either side of the logging skid. They had brought scraps of wood from the camp to stoke fires, slogging back up the hill for more, laughing and calling back and forth, as they heated pails of water to make the run still more slippery. It was Sunday.
The last snow flakes still sparkled in the sun. I remember my breath caught in my throat at the beauty of the picture the girls made, high on the hill, silhouetted by the snow.
I watched curiously, then, suddenly, as mysteriously as they had dotted the hillside an hour ago, the girls and their gay chatter disappeared back into the tall pines, and their fires went out.
Billy had come ambling up. " It will freeze fast today."
I must have looked like I didn't understand.
"For sleighing after supper. we pull the big log sled part way down from the work site, then ride it down the hill outside. Come on!"
And we jogged back to the cookhouse, the snow crunching and squeaking under our boots.
Supper was nothing much, some hominy and stew bear meat, a bear someone had shot a day or two ago. I don't like it much. But since I'm always hungry it didn't matter.
As soon as we were done the younger men, and us boys, pushed back our plates and ran outside to get the big logging sleigh that took a team to pull. we dragged it around the cabin to the log slide, the path the girls had made earlier. They were back now. They had likely done the supper dishes, left the village and the nearby farms, and were once again lighting the fires along the hill. There were local boys, too, the ones that didn't work in the camp, but went to school together. They were all laughing, jostling, coming up the hill to where the young lumberjacks were waiting, and helped turn the sled around.
Dell, the strongest young man in Cecil Bay, sat in the center of the sleigh, legs stretched out and feet braced against the flexible front of the sled, the reins wrapped around his wrists. A scarlet scarf tied around his cap framed his handsome, daredevil face. The girls jumped onto the center of the sled. The boys ran along the sides, pushing and quick hopping on as they gained momentum for the wild ride down the icy path. Dell guided the sled, straining from one side to the other, careening around curves at a breakneck speed, to the high shrieks of the girls, as the boys laughed and hollered. They hung on, clinging to each other to keep from being thrown off.
At the bottom there was a big bank of soft snow that halted the sled, throwing the laughing young people off with a sudden jolt. To repeat the fun they all took hold and pulled the sled back up the hill. The girls threw sticks on the fires, replenishing them as they went.
And down once more, and again one last time. It was dark now. I pulled up the girl who had fallen off beside me, lifted her to her feet. She threw her arms around me in a quick hug, and disappeared in the darkness to find her friends. I had watched, surprised, as her plaid coat became part of the shadowy pattern of the trees.
I caught the reins for the final haul, straining and tired.
The deep blue sky was full of stars, seeming to reflect the dying embers of the bonfires. The heavy scented pine forest encircled them. I remember the girl's laughing eyes, and her cold cheek against mine, which was burning.
It was the first time anyone had ever embraced me.
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