From beneath his bunk, or his fir-bough pillow, he fished a pair of old cork boots, filed their inch-long spikes to gleaming points, and then, as he was lovingly greasing them, there would come an earthshaking tremor and a tremendous roar of cracking ice and leaping water from the river, to confirm his presentiment.
The next morning, before daylight, having consumed his usual breakfast of salt pork, baked beans, gingerbread, and molasses washed down with black tea "strong enough to float a half-inch nut," he traded his ax for a peavey and followed the foreman down to the stream and began to break out frozen rollways. He had become a riverman.
The riverman, like the cowboy, was a special breed of man called into existence by a special set of circumstances. Now that the circumstances no longer exist, he has gone out of business. The business has vanished, but the genus riverman is still to be found up on the head waters of the Connecticut, the Androscoggin, the Kennebec, and the Penobscot, where dwell in ever-decreasing numbers the old men who in their prime "took the drive down" to the screeching mills at Hartford, Holyoke, Lewiston, and Bangor.
All rivermen were lumberjacks, though by no means were all lumberjacks rivermen. Almost anybody can learn to handle an ax or a saw, but to work in ice water, often up to your navel, fourteen hours a day requires stamina. Log driving was a profession that was dangerous to life and limb, not just some of the time, but every minute.
From the moment he began to break out the frozen rollways till the day, sometimes six months later, that the drive was safe in the booms hundreds of miles downriver, the riverman was flirting with death a dozen times a day. The heavy, slippery logs that he had to roll, pry, and lift would fly back at him and knock him literally to kingdom come, or he himself would slip and a whole rollway would pass over him, leaving not enough to bury. On the Penobscot, rivermen buried their dead comrades where they found them, hanging their spiked boots on tree branches over their graves. At Mulliken's Pitch, at the foot of the Fifteen-Mile Falls on the Connecticut, they used to bury rivermen in empty pork barrels. When the New England Power Company built the great dam precisely at the Pitch in 1930, it excavated half a dozen of those makeshift coffins, the old spiked boots still intact.
Working from unstable bateaux or on treacherous jams, the riverman had to be as agile as a panther and surefooted as a mountain goat merely to survive. Small wonder that you could always spot a riverman among other workingmen. His stagged trousers marked him, to be sure; his little black felt hat and his red shirt, the plug of black B-L in his hip pocket, and of course his spiked boots, but most of all his walk, which had a little swagger in it, the devil-may-care swing to his shoulders, and the good-humored, challenging gleam in his steady eyes.