Edward McDermott

Historical Fiction

Crossing the Lake

Attack on a galleon by Howard Pyle

Crossing the Lake

The failure of a rebellion left its leaders no choice but to flee.

The sound of their boots striking the stones and their hands grabbing the boat’s ropes woke me from a shivering sleep under the canvas cover that served as the fo’c’sle for the Marietta. The damp December night bit through my woollen coat, making me wish for a caribou parka. I felt a hand on her ropes again, so I rose, my clasp knife in one hand and a boat-hook in the other.

When I slipped from under the canvas, the wind crossing the marsh swept the last remnants of sleep from my eyes. On shore I saw the two of them, they with their great coats and beaver hats. Toffs, I thought. They noticed me and one spoke to the point with muffled tones.

"Lad, be this your boat?"

"Aye."

"We have need to rent it for a short trip. Quick now, here's a shilling for your efforts. Off with you."

I stood my ground. Few honest reasons for a gentleman to want a small boat like mine came to mind and fewer for him to want her in the middle of a cold December night. Lower Canada was in revolt. North of the city, farmers drilled with muskets. Rebellion was in the air.

"So I'm to let you sail off in me boat in the middle of night for a shilling? Best you gentlemen depart into the swamp before the soldiers from Fort York should arrive."

"A guinea then. More than the old scow is worth," said the taller of the two figures, tossing me the coin, which I caught, dropping the boat hook.

"Are either of you fine gentlemen familiar with boats? I'd expect you'd run her aground on Gibraltar Point before the night is through. Now, for another guinea, I'll sail you out of the harbour."

"Damn your black Irish heart. I'll whip you for your insolence."

"Stay your hand, William. He has the truth of it. We can't stay here arguing. Jarvis is sure to come, and if he finds you, he'll see you hang."

"You sent Jim riding to Niagara on my horse. That should have pulled his hounds off our tail."

"He had people watching your house. I'm sure of it."

"Damn Jarvis and his murdering family. I still have a charge in my pistol for him and any one of the Family Compact who crosses my sights."

"Good words a few hours ago. Now, lad. Ten shillings when we reach the American side of the lake. Let's be off and make lively."

I took him at his word and made ready to sail as they clambered aboard. I put them under the tarpaulin at the front of the boat so no one would see them. Their beaver hats would have even the dumbest soldiers asking some questions.

After I cast the lines free, I rocked the Marietta loose of the muddy shore. The old long boat, lost by some freighter in a storm, was all the home and opportunity I had. Made of seasoned English oak and with every seam freshly cocked then tarred on the outside, she rode cleanly on the water, dry as any house with a slate roof. Twenty feet of open boat, she still had the iron oarlocks on her. I had fashioned a mast and boom from spruce poles, added bracing to support the mast, rigged her tight with hemp and tarred my standing lines myself. Canvas stretched over boughs of ash at the front and the back kept out a heavy sea and kept me dry.

That summer I'd made good money ferrying picnic parties from the city to the Gibraltar point. The boat had a shallow draft that allowed me to carry people into the Don River Marshes for hunting. I hauled cargo from Toronto to Port Credit in one direction, and Frenchman's Bay in the other.

I raised the mainsail, hauling on the running line to lift it, one foot at a time. With each pull the boat spoke back to me, the wood creaked and the standing rigging hummed. A light breeze caught the sail and the boat slid through the water with a contented gurgle. We had the length of the harbour to sail before we reached the narrows opposite the fort.

The moon was down. The overlapping clouds covered the sky like slates on a roof. They walled out the stars and hinted we would see both snow and wind before the day broke. I chose the jib instead of the jenny, although I had some sense my cargo wanted fast passage this cold December night. Even under the canvas and away from the cut of the breeze I could hear them grouse about the cold.

The jib slipped up, giving the Marietta more bounce than seemed possible for its small area. We cleared the harbour mouth (which any fool could do, despite my dire predictions) and we set a course of 190 degrees, for Youngstown, where American and English forts glared at each other across the Niagara River.

As we sailed, I thought about the irony of war and rebellion. The same war that burnt Muddy York to the ground made it the seat of power for Upper Canada. Now rebellion had brought the first mayor of Toronto to my boat. I laughed at the idea of the son of an Irish rebel, a runaway apprentice aiding this Scottish firebrand's flight.

Once the guns of Fort York were behind us, the two slipped from under the canvas. Perhaps they had found my jug of moonshine or carried their own bottles aboard. I could smell the spirits in the fresh night air. They found the iron plate I used for a hearth and my kindling. Soon they toasted their hands on flames from the bottom of the boat as I grimly held onto the tiller and steered the course.

"How long to freedom?" Mackenzie asked.

"Well sir," says I, careful to hide my smile, "it is twelve hours to Youngstown and more than twenty to Rochester."

"A sharp answer."

"Let him be, William. He's not one of your reformers. Are you, lad?"

"Not as I know. I've no head for politics. It won't feed me belly or warm me hands."

"But lad, think of what we fight for. Why, with all the land about, should men not have a grant for the asking?"

"I've no love for farming. Even if I did and you gave away the land, where would I get the plough and the horses, the house and barn? No, farming is for a man with money. If I had the money, I wouldn't want to farm."

Disgusted with me, they turned to each other and argued about things that had happened, as if with words they could somehow change the picture. I knew the difference between rebellion and revolution. I slipped the guinea from my pocket and bit it for luck.

The wind veered from the North to the West, making the Marietta race over the waves as they built. I remembered sailors' tales of waterspouts and waves ten, fifteen, even twenty feet high on the lake. Ten foot high waves were more than I ever wanted to see.

As the trip grew rockier, I told the gentlemen to put out the fire. Reluctantly they used the iron plate as a foot warmer while they drank and talked. How those men could talk.

In the distance I could see the edge of the squall, so I steered further west to miss it and the rain it carried. Then I saw her sails in the distance.

"If you love your lives, gentlemen, keep silent," I hissed at them. "Over there is the British warship. Three rows of guns, larger than the Victory that carried Nelson at Trafalgar. She rules this lake. No American ship dares match her. If they see us, they can sink us at their whim."

"Canna you outrun her?" Mackenzie asked, the accent from Dundee, the city of his birth, returning in a moment of stress.

"Nothing on the lake can outrun her when she has the wind in her sails," I replied. I dropped the mainsail and then the jib. The rest of the boat, dark against the dark water would be invisible to all but the sharpest eyes. "Pray, gentlemen. Pray for strong wind and hard rain."

We crouched there as the ship sped towards us at twenty knots. They had the forgallants unfurled and she ran close to the wind, beating a course for Niagara, probably to blockade Youngstown. There must be other rebels racing for the border. I wondered if a sloop rig could cut closer to the wind than a square rigger. That would be a desperate measure, for, if they couldn't race us down, they still had cannons that could reach three miles through the air.

From one side the squall edged toward us, while the square-rigged ship of the line drove towards us with a white spray flashing off her prow with every wave. Could they see us? Were we the reason for her awful haste? I had seen a man hanged and the thought of the hemp rope about my throat seemed so real I could not swallow.

"Have they . . . ?"

"Quiet if you want to live. The sound carries over the water too well. Slip under the canvas, just in case."

I pulled out a fishing line and cast if over the side, as if I were here to fill my boat with trout. I didn't have a net, having no wish to earn a living that way, so I didn't think this ruse had much of a prospect for success.

Then I knew the worst of the situation. I saw the spray from her bow change, meaning she had changed course in our direction. I looked to the South. The squall line, even in the black of the night, was an ugly white cut across the surface of the lake. My fate would be a rebel’s death for the guinea in my pocket. I remembered how a solitary drummer had slowly marched the prisoner to the gallows. They put a bag over his head. He stumbled climbing the stairs. The executioner had to hold him upright as he drew the noose tight.

Raising the jib, I let it pull the Marietta around into the teeth of the squall. I had no time to raise the main sail or reef it properly. Suddenly, the wind blew the tops off the waves and the lake was a foamy white. The rain crashed down like a curtain, cutting me from the sight of the warship and I hoped my boat from their sight. The Marietta creaked in protest and bellowed like a drum as her prow smashed into the waves. The standing rigging began to keen in the wind and the gurgle from the tiller became a horrid sucking sound.

Starboard? Port? Was that the sound of a cannon shot or thunder? If I continued to fight the storm, it would batter my boat to pieces. I pulled the tiller, hoping we wouldn't be swamped by a large wave catching us broadside. We fled where the storm pushed us.

For the next half an hour, I clung to the tiller playing with the jib lines to keep the worst of the wind-whipped water out of the boat. Had I traded the executioner’s noose for a death by drowning? One glance at my passengers showed me they had retreated under the canvas, out of the way of the worst of the rain and spray. They were too ignorant to know they should be praying for their souls.

The Marietta raced before the waves, her mast visibly bending under the stress of the wind. I thanked St. Peter for not letting me raise more canvas. The waves built themselves until I could no longer look behind me, remembering the corpse of a drowned sailor I'd fished out of the lake that spring. (He'd only had three pennies and a sixpence in his pockets.) It was almost as horrible a fate as hanging.

Where had the English man o’war gone? I looked around but saw nothing except the rain and the night. I had lost her somewhere in the storm. We were safe from that death but the storm could still kill us.

Just after dawn, the wind eased but the weather turned colder. The rain turned to sleet and then to snow, that puffy full-bodied snow that makes great snowmen and snowballs. I couldn't see a hundred feet in any direction through the falling snow. Where was I? How far to that rocky American shore? The falling snow no longer melted when it touched the Marietta. Instead it clung and turned to ice. In a few minutes the ship looked like a glass blown object, painted in silver. Too much ice could sink my boat.

My compass told me my course. We had no hope for reaching Youngstown now. We couldn't fight our way west in the face of this gale. There wasn't a safe harbor to the South, so I turned us further eastward.

"Have we lost the warship?" Mackenzie asked.

"Could be. They could find us again if the snow stops."

"Aren't we in American waters?"

"To a British warship there are no American waters in this lake. If they catch us on the water, it's over," I replied after a second. Why had I ever taken this trip? The guinea in my pocket nudged me. I wondered if my life was only worth a guinea, and ten shillings when we reached an American post.

To know cold you must spend a blizzard on a lake in a small boat. There is nowhere to move. You can't walk for heat, only mark time in the same spot. The wind that moves the boat cuts the skin of your face like a whetted knife. The ice that coats everything makes every step an invitation to an accident.

Towards evening the snow thinned enough for me to see the bluffs that lined the shore-line. I followed them until we entered Rochester harbor.

No sooner had my boat touched the dock than Mackenzie jumped out of the boat with desperate energy. Already he had returned to his element, politics.

His companion, left behind in the charge of energy, turned to me and counted ten coins from his purse. I took them gladly with frozen fingers, wondering where my next would come from. As I watched them clamber off the dock and trudge into the town, I thought about the other rebels, the ones that didn't reach safety, waiting for the hangman's knot. I thought about my father when the trap door fell, how he grunted and how the rope jerked and then he swung back and forth, a dead thing. But I had a guinea in my pocket and ten shillings to keep it company.


Copyright 2006, 2014 Edward McDermott. A similar story was printed in Green's Magazine  in 2002  and The Deepening  in 2006. This story is also part of a Western Novel Call Back the Bullet.

Notes: This Story refers to the Upper Canada Rebellion of December 1837. The rebellion was short lived and its leaders escaped to the United States. One of the outcomes of the rebellion was the formation of Canada.  Mackenzie received amnesty in 1849 and returned to Canada and was elected to parliament in 1851. 

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