THE MATING OF SEBASTIAN
Child of the river and its master, Sebastian knew neither fear nor hesitation when foam, and, are en water called.
CHARLES LUGRIN SHAW
SEBASTIAN’S coming was almost as sudden and surprising as his going. He was just a child when he came to us. In those days logging was a new industry in the Snow River region and most of the revenue came from furs. Every spring the valley resounded with the songs of French trappers and their families as they came down the river in the fur barges.
These river tramps, as we called them, were a nuisance in a way, but we forgave them many offences for giving us Sebastian. I don’t think the lad was sure of his own origin, but he came down the river with the bargemen one year and, when they got drunk at the camp and went off without him, he stayed with us. He soon made friends with everyone, learned our language and made himself useful around the camp.
I never heard of boy or man taking to the log drive so naturally. It’s ticklish business, you know—riding logs, especially in fast-running water! But it never seemed to be difficult for Sebastian. He fell eventually, of course. At least we suppose be fell. No one is really sure.
He grew to manhood faster than we realized, grew to be a lion of a man with a gigantic head of jet black hair that fell almost to his shoulders and he was as strong as he looked. There is an old boatman at Snow River who could tell you a pretty story about Sebastian’s strength. Because Sebastian was only a kid, with a beard just sprouting on his chin like fine down and a child-like look in his eyes, the old boatman, whose name is Langtry, imagined he was fair game for teasing. Langtry, I may say, was the camp comedian and absolutely irrepressible. He meant no harm, of course, and there was some justification for his joking. Sebastian had appeared in camp with one of the most amazing woollen caps I ever saw—a terrible outrage of scarlet with purple trimmings. I can’t imagine where he bought it; but Sebastian thought it was a very fine cap. He could not understand Langtry’s jibes about it at all, but he said nothing, and, as silence was his custom, no one noticed the rising color in his cheeks or the fire in his eyes. But when Langtry, fairly overcome with laughter, ran towards Sebastian, lifted the offending cap from the big fellow’s head and flourished it in the air, Sebastian turned on the boatman and swung with his great right arm. Langtry’s laugh abruptly ceased. The boatman was unconscious for half an hour and Sebastian, bending over him with tears in his big black eyes, realized, for the first time, his tremendous power.
That was the last time anyone ventured to joke about Sebastian. The incident had another effect, for, after that, Sebastian was never known to show his temper or to use his great strength in a fight. He was afraid of it. He became afraid of his skill as a logdriver, too. There was really something, supernatural about him in that respect. He was quite unbeatable; every man on Snow River, and on the Pierre for that matter, will swear to that. There are no logdrivers to day like those of Sebastian’s time. The breed of giants who poled up and down the Snow and Pierre in those years has vanished. Like demons they used to ride whirling logs through smooth and white water. Until Sebastian appeared there had been no one who could compare with the yellow-haired Olsen, of the Pine Lake camp on the Pierre.
The old fellows will tell you that there was never staged, before or since, such a contest as the one that spring, when Olsen and Sebastian upheld the honor of the two camps for the log-driving championships of the two rivers—and of the world, for that matter. It was a battle of giants and, as it turned out, a battle to the death. Olsen, the pride of Pine Lake, four years supreme, came north with his backers, boasting in his tremendous voice. No one had ever beaten Olsen in riding logs. All his competitors he had worsted with ease, a crooked grin on his face as he listened to his fellow Swedes from Pine Lake cheer his triumph and howl at the vanquished.
In his last contest—the contest with Sebastian—Olsen finished with the crooked smile still on his face, but his face was a mask of death, and his followers from Pine Lake were silent, stupefied. For Olsen had fallen, had struck his head against a log and drowned while trying to attempt the impossible—beating Sebastian at the game Sebastian was born to play better than any man on earth.
SEBASTIAN would not ride a log after that. The mere ^sight of the timbers in the jam seemed to horrify him. He asked for a job that would keep him in the woods, away from the river. Old Dan Cosden, the foreman, after praising and cursing and promising him more money, finally gave up and let Sebastian have such a job. At first, we thought that Sebastian was bluffing, or that the lure of the river would get him before long. But instead of changing his mind he gave his hob-nailed boots away to the boatman, Langtry, saying that he hoped the boatman would like them better than his cap. Sebastian’s face was very red when he made the presentation and he did not wait for Langtry’s thanks, which were effusive.
He went off to the woods, joined number two camp, and proceeded to become one of the best buckers in the outfit. Dan Cosden said that he was almost as good a bucker as he was a log-driver, but personally I doubt it. Anyway, it seemed like sacrilege for him to say so. Sebastian stayed back in the woods until Bigelow came out on his inspection trip. Bigelow is president of the company; spends all his time in New York or Florida now. In those days he visited us quite frequently and on this particular occasion he brought his daughter along. Sally, he called her,
and so did everyone else, although I’ve heard her real name was longer—Priscilla or some such name as that. But Sally seemed to suit her. She was very pretty, with eyes that seemed to laugh at you, and there was a charm about her that was natural and unaffected. In fact, she was an exceptional girl. I don’t mind admitting that I fell for her; but I fell from such a distance that I don’t suppose she even heard the crash. But, everyone liked Sally, She was very popular, if that is the right word to use when describing the feelings of a horde of hard-boiled timber rats towards a veritable princess from another world.
She was an adventurous girl, Sally, forever wanting to explore the country, and while that was a natural whim for her, because the Snow River valley was very beautiful in those days, it was the last thing in the world that Bigelow, who even then weighed over two hundred, wanted to do. He much preferred spending his leisure moments sitting on a raft, in overalls, fishing.
Under those circumstances it was natural that Bigelow should look out for a suitable guide for his daughter and Sebastian, being dependable, was chosen. Dan Cosden made the choice and I secretly accused him of hitting upon this device as revenge for Sebastian’s desertion of the river crews. For, at first, Sebastian seemed to regard his job as guide with distinct disfavor. But he accepted his punishment, if such it was, without serious protest, and it was easy to persuade him that the choice of him as guide was logical. No one else in camp seemed to have the same appreciation for the beautiful. No one knew the byways of the forest so well as he. And then, of course, there was the most important consideration of all—his dependability. He was the last man in the world to take liberties with a woman.
Sebastian returned from the first trip carrying a bunch of orchids. “Miss Sally thinks they will live,” he explained in confusion. “See. I have left the roots and some
soil. Do you think they will grow?” Langtry took pity on the boy and promised to help him. As someone laughed, Sebastian looked about gravely, and said, “Oh, it is not my idea. It is Miss Sally’s. She asked me to bring them here. I do what I am told.”
He made an admirable guide. He was capable, knew all the interesting places and talked only when spoken to.
The episode with Langtry over the crazy woolen cap should have convinced the boys that Sebastian could not take a joke. His unfailing seriousness was unfortunate. I am quite sure that Sally had forgotten all about the orchids after the first trip, but Sebastian spent hours with them, coaxing them with new soil and water. It was a matter of duty with him and Sebastian was very dependable. Naturally his care of the languishing flowers justified some joshing. I think, though, that old Mose Wheeler was just talking to hear himself and to get a rise out of Sebastian when he said that Sally was very fond of her faithful escort.
“She likes you a whole lot, Frenchy,” said this thoughtless old logger, who had never been within fifty feet of the girl, much less talked with her. He winked at the others
Sebastian seemed highly pleased, his face reddened, and he said, “Oh, I think you are fooling me ”
“She’d make you a good wife, Frenchy,” said Mose, and Sebastian merely raised his eyebrows and said, “You think so?” His face grew redder still and he added: “Oh, I think you are fooling.”
I heard about the incident the next day and laughed with the rest. It seemed a good joke, if Sebastian took it that way, and I ignored the fact that Sebastian’s sense of humor was different from ours, if he had any. As a matter of fact, I gave it very little thought. It was all so ridiculous. With Sally such a sound, sensible girl and Sebastian so very dependable.
HE WAS absolutely the most courageously faithful fellow I ever knew, and when Sally took her life in her hands one day and attempted the reckless sort of thing that a high spirited girl will do sometimes, Sebastian unhesitatingly faced death to save her.
It happened to be Sally’s last day in camp, and for some reason best known to her she decided to end her vacation with an exhibition of log-driving. She picked out her log and poled it into the moving water. It is quite obvious that she intended to stay close to shore, but logpoling is no task for the novice. She lost control almost immediately, and in a moment the timber was rushing crazily towards the foam. No one knew what had happened until we heard her scream. Her father was the first to take it all in and his face went white as death. He knew as well as any of us the perils that lay in those wild waters that frothed and eddied in the path of the log. Old Cosden, evidently as panic-stricken as the rest, shouted for someone to bring the boat. It was a hundred yards away and therefore useless. One of the men made a half-hearted pretense of diving into the river, but realized his folly in time. We all seemed as helpless as Sally out there, riding towards what seemed certain death.
I heard someone yelling for Langtry and I wondered what he could do with his boat so far away. Then, I realized the voice was not calling for the boat, but for a pair of boots and it was Sebastian’s.
How the boy happened to be there at the time is a matter for speculation. His place was in the woods at Camp Two. But, whether by coincidence or design, he was down at the water’ edge now,, calling for Langtry.
“Quick, Langtry. My boots!”
The boatman, tremblingly, fumbled and tore at the laces. The shoes were exchanged and the crowd—for it was a crowd now—watched Sebastian, transfixed and agape.
We knew the terror that the log drive had held for him since his struggle with Olsen. He must have suffered torment as he stood there for a moment, noting the sweep of the current, the position of Sally’s log and the direction that he must follow. Bigelow, still ashen, with tears in his eyes, stood beside him, encouraging him. I don’t think Bigelow, or anyone else for that matter, sensed the agony in Sebastian’s soul just then, for, as he leaped on his chosen cedar log and shoved away he tried to hide his emotion with a smile that was tragic.
I never imagined that any human being could show such skill in handling a log in white water, and the performance was all the more remarkable because of Sebastian’s long absence from the log drive. But we were watching a super-man. Every ounce of his enormous strength must have been put into those terrific thrusts of the pole, for his body was bent double with every heave, and water frothed across the log as though it was propelled by some powerful motor. In less than ten seconds he was out where the water ran fastest in swirling leaping rapids. The log rolled under him, careened crazily, first in one direction and then in another, but always righted itself. Sebastian’s rapid stabs with the pole, now used as a paddle and now as a boat-hook, in swerving away from the treacherous rocks, guided the log as a top hand would wrestle with an unruly cayuse.
His skill defied our imagination, and in those days astounding things were imagined. When he leaped from his own log to the timber that supported the girl the feat seemed so certain of disaster that I unconsciously turned my head away.
I looked back when I heard the cheers of the crowd and added an absurdly weak shout of praise myself, for I knew that this was but a preliminary.
Sebastian knew that neither of the two logs would bear the weight of Sally and himself. So he had brought the two logs together and straddled them. A substantial juggernaut, too bulky to be devoured by even the hungry eddies of the Pierre, was the result, and after some clever manipulation Sebastian brought his precious cargo ashore.
WE NOTICED a transformation in Sebastian after that life-saving episode. When Bigelow and Sally went away he seemed lost, and I daresay it was quite natural, for those trips with Sally had become an established part of his existence, one of the regular features of his job while the girl was in camp; and when she had gone Sebastian seemed to have nothing to do but whittle sticks in the bunkhouse and spend hours nursing his orchids along. Old Cosden reported having once seen Sebastian writing a note, which he later destroyed. Cosden had no idea what the note was about, but as I look back now I can hazard a guess.
Sebastian regarded his heroic rescue as a matter of course—not worth the slightest discussion, although he accepted the thanks of Sally and Bigelow with modest race. It was after they had left that he egan to act differently. I referred to Sally’s rescue only once, and his comment was rather surprising. He said, “Well, sir, I could not bear to lose her.”
Lose her! What the devil could he mean? I suppose I was a blundering fool not to realize then what he meant and a worse one for not telling him then what I already knew. But it was natural, after all, that I shouldn’t suspect Sebastian, who was so sensible and dependable, of contemplating anything so impossible as marrying John J. Bigelow’s daughter. It was absurd!
SALLY came back two months afterwards with her father, and there was a third member of the party, a young man by the name of Craig, a very decent sort of fellow and one of the company’s promising executives. And the thing I knew, and which I suppose I should have told Sebastian, was that Craig and Sally were engaged.
Word got around the camp that the Bigelow party was arriving that morning. Sebastian asked for the morning off and' got it, and I smiled with the rest as he set out for the station, in the best clothes he had, and with a mysterious and bulky parcel under his arm. He was on the platform when the little logging engine pulled in with Bigelow’s special coach. It was no unusual thing for Sebastian to be there, for when the train came in nearly everyone in camp used to go down and get mail or papers and scrutinize the new arrivals—when there was no work to be done. But I was interested in the return of Sebastian’s good spirits. He was joshed about his clothes and the parcel under his arm, and even Langtry ventured, with safety, to hint that it was a gift for Sally, Sebastian took it all in good part and smiled at their jests.
When the train arrived, Sebastian lost himself in the crowd, as was natural, and I was surprised only when I heard Sally call out, “Where’s Sebastian?” and get no response. Sebastian had completely disappeared and when I noticed that Sally and Craig were arm in arm I guessed the reason. But I heard Sally say, “We’ll get Sebastian to take us up the mountain,” and I supposed, as the rest did, that Sebastian would turn up later.
But in the morning Sebastian was out with the early shift and Sally guided Craig over the mountain trail herself. I saw Sebastian when I went up to Camp
Two at the lunch hour and asked him what was the matter. He smiled indifferently and said: “I’m not much good for that any more, sir. I guess I have had enough of climbing mountains. I do not belong up there. I am a river man. I am good there.”
I agreed with him and I might have added truthfully that he was the best river man I ever knew. But old Cosden, in bis enthusiasm of the moment, did that for me.
“I’ve been having a talk with Sebastian and he’s going to drive logs for me again,” Cosden announced. I never saw the old foreman look so happy as he did then. “Watch us break production records now.”
Sebastian was down on the river next morning poling logs close to the skidway dump. He seemed pleased with himself and happy, a fact which pleased me, because, for a while, I had imagined that we would have to put up with a very morose and downhearted Sebastian. He must know the truth now, I thought, but after all he was very dependable and would be sensible about it.
Langtry came to me with a broad smile and said: “It is very funny this, about Sebastian. He is waiting for Miss Bigelow to come down so he can show off. He is very proud of himself, sir.”
When Sally appeared I watched Sebastian and, sure enough, there was a change in his behavior. He was showing a side of his character which I had not seen before. When he went plunging by on a big stick of fir, his crazy-colored can lifted aloft with a flourish, he looked for all the world like the lumberjack prototype of a knight of old prepared to do battle for the hand of his fair lady. He even waved in the direction of Sally and the girl waved back in return. So far as I know, that was bis first recognition of her since she returned to the camp.
“Where’s he going?” someone cried, as Sebastian headed straight for white water, and Langtry smiled and clapped his hands. “Remember what I told you, sir,” he said, and winked. “Sebastian is very proud.”
Evidently the old terror of the log drive had left Sebastian completely, and in its place had come an almost fierce bravado—an absolute disregard of danger. There was no need for taking such hazards. He could have stayed closer to shore and made his demonstration just as thrilling, but evidently he was out to show his supreme skill.
The log started to spin, and the other men working near the skidway paused to watch, fascinated. Sebastian’s heaviy shod feet danced and stamped on the bark. First this way. then that, the log spun. He threw aside his pole.
“That’s a reckless thing to do,” said Langtry with a trace of fear on his face, his smile entirely gone. “It would be suicide for any other man.”
We heard Sebastian give a shout—the same sort of shout that lumberjacks give when the logs come crashing down the skidway, and we knew that Sebastian wasn’t worrying. He was still in control. His feet danced faster as the log revolved in the green water foam. He waved his cap again and I saw Sally return the salute.
Sebastian had now reached the place where a few weeks ago he had saved Sally’s life. He gave another shout, a sort of cheer I suppose it was, although it sounded very faint where we stood because of the river’s roar. I turned away for a moment to speak to Langtry, to say that there never could be another river man just like Sebastian, and it was during that moment that it happened. A woman’s cry—it was Sally’s—made me look back to the river. After the cry came a hush like the soft murmur of the forest before the gale strikes it. Then panic.
Sebastian’s log was without a rider and it was smothered in a surge of leaping water.
We never saw him again. Next day his crazy cap was washed up on the beach a mile or two down the river and a little farther down they found the bundle that he had carried with him to the railway platform the day that Sully arrived. He had filled it up with wild flowers of some kind—orchids, I think they were.
Sebastian was very dependable. He knew to whom he belonged—the river.