Downhome Magazine

The Runaway

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A "moose-boy" was a regular crew member on the old French vessels. He was a cook, galley-slave, errand boy, and general lackey combined. Being young at sea, he had very few friends. His only companions were the tough and ruthless older men who bullied him according to their whims. By them, he was slapped, cursed on, and kicked around again and again. He either broke completely under the strain, or turned hard and cruel like his tormentors, or else quietly endured their abuse. Many managed to escape, and little did they know that their quick dash across these beaches marked a special chapter in Newfoundland history.

The runaways were not all boys, but many were. From a familiar ship to an unknown country was a big step for a small boy to take. For once ashore, he became a hunted animal. The alarm from the ship, plus his new surroundings filled him with terror that dulled his very senses. Panic and desperation moved his feet. Instinct drove him further and further into the woods until the landscape gave him protection. There he hid until his pursuers gave up the search and his ship sailed away. With her went part of him - his home, his native tongue, his job and his boyhood. Behind her, the ship left a new and bewildered creature. For he was now neither man nor boy. A stranger even to himself, related to no one, belonged to nowhere and possessed nothing.

The French fleet to the Grand Banks were small schooners with crews of about thirty men. They operated a lot off Saint Pierre. Many French firms had permanent headquarters there, but transported their fishermen to and from France in passenger liners. Thousands of men would arrive in the spring, man the schooners and make ready for sea. Before going to the Banks they would d proceed to Newfoundland's west coast for bait. One of their main bait depots was Bay St. George. It was at Bay St. George that many youngsters ran away.

In the year 1880, Bay St. George saw fewer of those bait ships than before. Because of the new law they couldn't buy bait, so many attempted to steal it. One of those poaching schooners was called the Josephine. On that trip she was outsmarted by her moose-boy. He was 12 year old, Peter LeRoux.

Peter was born in Bourges, France, in 1876. Bourges was a little country village surrounded by large, isolated dairy farms and was the central marketplace for all their products. It was at Bourges that hundreds of men gathered every February to sign on for Saint Pierre and the Grand Banks. On the eve of their departure, their town declared a holiday. A special fair was organized, every home held open house, all strangers became friends. For a short while, music and laughter dulled the thoughts of long separations and festivities continued until the last wagonload of me left for Saint-Malo.

Peter's father, Jean Marie LeRoux, was a Saint Pierre fisherman. In his absence one year his wife died and his three sons were separated. On his return, Mr. LeRoux found his 5 year-old, Peter, working on a nearby farm for a cent a day. At the age of ten, he accompanied his father. They planned to go to Saint Pierre on the liner Propatrie - the father as a passenger, the son as a stowaway. Peter's first visit to a seaport was to Saint-Malo. Saint-Malo was one of the great harbours of France that for centuries had built and outfitted ships for the high seas. But what Peter saw that day was far from anything he had ever imagined. There were no ships gently swaying on anchor. No sails fluttering in the breeze. Instead, only a dense thickness of weird, crisscrossed shapes silhouetted against the sky. The whole scene looked like a forest recently devastated by fire and just as still. The bay itself looked like a forest floor. A continuous solid stretch of brown plank over which scurried in all directions figures like thousands of ants. Peter didn't know about the tides of Saint-Malo. Didn't know that at low tide the harbour is as dry as beaches, that the hulls of ships are sucked into mud. Couldn't see from the approaching roadside that the figures were men. Their backs bent under heavy burden, working against time, or the noisy echoes came from the clunkering and clobbering of thousands of sabold feet on bare wooden decks.

The tide rises in Saint-Malo harbour in the form of a bore about 20 feet high. The movement of those millions of tons of water creates a thunderous roar. Gives a danger signal that warns every living creature to take shelter. The mountainous wave strikes with lightening speed and gigantic force. That day it his Saint-Malo with the impact of an explosion. The solid wooden floor was broken into hundreds of pieces and tossed upon the water like bits of wreckage. Only when the wave spread itself out did the ships float peacefully at their moorings.

At high tide it was every man for himself. Peter was no exception. His father barely had time to point out their ship. From there on the lad was on his own. As ships weighed anchor, thousands of sails unfurled to the sun. Peter's last sight of France was a spectacle to remember. That barren forest suddenly burst into bloom and changed Saint-Malo harbour into a vast field of huge white flowers.

On board the Propatrie, Peter searched for his father but he searched in vain. The man was too late on that trip. The 1700 passengers who answered roll call were ordered to use their trunks for berths and make the best of it. The second meal out, nine hungry stowaways were rounded up and brought before the captain. After a stern lecture and threats of imprisonment they were given food in a pan. In customary French fashion, several people ate out of one dish. Onboard ship, the food-pan is a precious item. No pan, no food.

It took ten days to cross the Atlantic. One hundred miles off Saint Pierre, the Propatrie butted heavy ice in a raging storm. It was early March when the steamship reached the harbour. The passengers were taken ashore in schooners. In the blowing gale and mountainous waves ships were wrecked and men were drowned. That day, Peter got his first lashing from an angry sea. Beaten and bruised he crawled ashore at a place called Dog Island.

There were sixty families of fishermen living on Dog Island. To them, shipwrecks and stowaways were nothing new. They befriended Peter. Kept him busy and out of prison. For a year the lad delivered bread from home to home and from ship to ship. The next spring when the crews again returned from France, Peter found his father. They met by accident in the town of Saint Pierre. That brief visit was happy and heartbreaking at the same time. Both by then were serving hard masters and both were going separate ways. It was the last time Peter ever saw his father. He kept remembering the man's advice "go to Newfoundland if you can get there."

After two years of beating around, Peter got his chance. He sailed on the Josephine, a schooner notoriously cruel to her moose-boy. The minute the Josephine dropped anchor in Bay St. George, Peter made his plans to escape. As moose-boy he wasn't allowed ashore. When all hands left for the nets he was given strict orders. Have meals and coffee at moments notice. The French seamen drank their coffee mixed with brandy. One night Peter made an extra special brew. He stirred into the coffee lots of sugar and all the brandy he could find. When the men added their own ration to this they had a very potent drink. In no time, the whole crew was drunk. Peter was master of the ship. He quietly packed his cloth bag, sneaked over the side into a dory, and rowed ashore, leaving the men slumped in the galley and the Josephine like a ghost at her moorings.

The night was damp, cold and still and so dark that Peter had to feel his way along with his hands as well as his feet. He didn't know where to go or what to expect, and was so terrified that a harmless flock of sheep sent him scurrying up a tree. That's where he spent his first night in Newfoundland.

The next morning he came upon a man by the name of Gouldie. Mr. Gouldie took care of his belongings for him. By signs, warned him of approaching crew members and indicated where he should hide. Peter ran on and on. Finally, exhausted, he fell and crawled to the entrance of what he took to be a root cellar. He lost his balance and dropped into a deep hole.

In there, his only company was a small ray of light. When that deserted him, he attempted to climb out. The top was just beyond reach. Peter took his sabots off his feet, filled them with earth and made himself two solid stepping stones. Barefooted, he stood outside and gazed around. He was cold and hungry. But what he saw satisfied all his needs and filled him with a deep warmth. His ship was gone. He was free. The kind of freedom he had never known before. He could walk now, not run. There was time to explore his wonderful new world.

In the distance he saw several large buildings. Cautiously, he approached one and peeked through the open doorway. Inside there was a man and a woman, sitting at a small table. The woman whore a long black dress and on her head she wore a large white bonnet. "Ah," thought Peter, "a nun. But she must be a bad nun to be here in a store with a man." She spoke to Peter and realizing he was French, she sent for a neighbour. The neighbour spoke French alright, but she also stuttered. Between the stuttering and the signs, Peter finally understood. He was to go to the big house on the hill.

He followed the lady like a crackie. Took it for granted he was on his way to a convent. Inside, everything was newly papered and painted and spotlessly clean. The boy's bare, muddy feet on the tacky floor made klicking-kluck sounds and dirty marks every step he took. The lady was extremely kind. She washed his face, hands and feet, attended to his scratches and bruises. Prepared him a hot meal and gave him a bed. Young Peter marveled at his good fortune as he went off to sleep and kept thinking that the bad nun was a very kind person and that a convent was a wonderful heaven for a lonely boy.

To make a long story short, Peter was not at a convent. He was in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Butt. It was the bonnet that fooled him - Mrs. Butt was wearing a sun-bonnet. Large sun-bonnets, made of paper, were quite common at that time. They were worn by ladies who worked on the fish flakes.

The Butts were well known business people of St. Georges. They had no children, so they adopted Peter. Peter was not one to take something for nothing. There was little time to sit behind a school desk. He mastered English and the three "Rs" at a kitchen table. From there, he graduated to a shop desk, trader, fisherman, lobster packer, and much, much more. In time, he paid a debt to his foster parents and gave a gift to his adopted country. Over the years he developed his narrow, lonely trail into a wide road and paved it with respect. His only equipment was a deep love for his new found land.

On March 14, 1963, Peter LeRoux passed away and was buried March 17, 1963 at Deer Lake, Newfoundland.

- By Wayne LeRoux

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