The Game of Jackstraws




There was a roar of laughter at the old man's boast, but in a moment all was activity. The men ran hither and thither like ants, gathering their tools. There were some old-fashioned pickpoles, straight, heavy levers without any "dog," and there were modern pickpoles and peaveys, for every river has its favorite equipment in these things. There was no dynamite in those days to make the stubborn jams yield, and the dog-warp was in general use. Horses or oxen, sometimes a line of men, stood on the river-bank. A long rope was attached by means of a steel spike to one log after another, and it was dragged from the tangled mass. Sometimes, after unloading the top logs, those at the bottom would rise and make the task easier; sometimes the work would go on for hours with no perceptible progress, and Mr. Wiley would have opportunity to tell the bystanders of a "turrible jam" on the Kennebec that had cost the Lumber Company ten thousand dollars to break.

There would be great arguments on shore, among the villagers as well as among the experts, as to the particular log which might be a key to the position. The boss would study the problem from various standpoints, and the drivers themselves would pass from heated discussion into long consultations.

"They're paid by the day," Old Kennebec would philosophize to the doctor; "an' when they're consultin' they don't hev to be doggin', which is a turrible sight harder work."

Rose had created a small sensation, on one occasion, by pointing out to the under boss the key-log in a jam. She was past mistress of the pretty game of jackstraws, much in vogue at that time. The delicate little lengths of polished wood or bone were shaken together and emptied on the table. Each jackstraw had one of its ends fashioned in the shape of some sort of implement,-- a rake, hoe, spade, fork, or mallet. All the pieces were intertwined by the shaking process, and they lay as they fell, in a hopeless tangle. The task consisted in taking a tiny pickpole, scarcely bigger than a match, and with the bit of curved wire on the end lifting off the jackstraws one by one without stirring the pile or making it tremble. When this occurred, you gave place to your opponent, who relinquished his turn to you when ill fortune descended upon him, the game, which was a kind of river-driving and jam-picking in miniature, being decided by the number of pieces captured and their value. No wonder that the under boss asked Rose's advice as to the key-log. She had a fairy's hand, and her cunning at deciding the pieces to be moved, and her skill at extricating and lifting them from the heap, were looked upon in Edgewood as little less than supernatural. It was a favorite pastime; and although a man's hand is ill adapted to it, being over-large and heavy; the game has obvious advantages for a lover in bringing his head very close to that of his beloved adversary. The jackstraws have to be watched with a hawk's eagerness, since the "trembling" can be discerned only by a keen eye; but there were moments when Stephen was willing to risk the loss of a battle if he could watch Rose's drooping eyelashes, the delicate down on her pink cheek, and the feathery curls that broke away from her hair.

He was looking at her now from a distance, for she and Mite Shapley were assisting Jed Towle to pile up the tin plates and tie the tin dippers together. Next she peered into one of the bean-pots, and seemed pleased that there was still something in its depths; then she gathered the fragments neatly together in a basket, and, followed by her friend, clambered down the banks to a shady spot where the Boomshers, otherwise known as the Crambry family, were "lined up" expectantly.

It is not difficult to find a single fool in any community, however small; but a family of fools is fortunately somewhat rarer. Every county, however, can boast of one fool-family, and Itork County is always in the fashion, with fools as with everything else. The unique, much-quoted, and undesirable Boomshers could not be claimed as indigenous to the Saco valley, for this branch was an offshoot of a still larger tribe inhabiting a distant township. Its beginnings were shrouded in mystery. There was a French-Canadian ancestor somewhere, and a Gipsy or Indian grandmother. They had always intermarried from time immemorial. When one of the selectmen of their native place had been asked why the Boomshers always married cousins, and why the habit was not discouraged, he replied that he really didn't know; he s'posed they felt it would be kind of odd to go right out and marry a stranger.

Lest "Boomsher" seem an unusual surname, it must be explained that the actual name was French and could not be coped with by Edgewood or Pleasant River, being something quite as impossible to spell as to pronounce. As the family had lived for the last few years somewhere near the Killick Cranberry Meadows, they were called--and completely described in the calling--the Crambry fool-family. A talented and much traveled gentleman who once stayed over night at the Edgewood tavern, proclaimed it his opinion that Boomsher had been gradually corrupted from Beaumarchais. When he wrote the word on his visiting card and showed it to Mr. Wiley, Old Kennebec had replied, that in the judgment of a man who had lived in large places and seen a turrible lot o' life, such a name could never have been given either to a Christian or a heathen family,--that the way in which the letters was thrown together into it, and the way in which they was sounded when read out loud, was entirely ag'in reason. It was true, he said, that Beaumarchais, bein' such a fool name, might 'a' be'n invented a-purpose for a fool family, but he wouldn't hold even with callin' 'em Boomsher; Crambry was well enough for'em an' a sight easier to speak.

Stephen knew a good deal about the Crambrys, for he passed their so-called habitation in going to one of his wood-lots. It was only a month before that he had found them all sitting outside their broken-down fence, surrounded by decrepit chairs, sofas, tables, bedsteads, bits of carpet, and stoves.

"What's the matter?" he called out from his wagon.

"There ain't nothin' the matter," said Alcestis Crambry. "Father's dead, an we're dividin' up the furnerchure."

Alcestis was the pride of the Crambrys, and the list of his attainments used often to be on his proud father's lips. It was he who was the largest, "for his size," in the family; he who could tell his brothers Paul and Arcadus "by their looks;" he who knew a sour apple from a sweet one the minute he bit it; he who, at the early age of ten, was bright enough to point to the cupboard and say, "Puddin', dad!"

Alcestis had enjoyed, in consequence of his unusual intellectual powers, some educational privileges, and the Killick schoolmistress well remembered his first day at the village seat of learning. Reports of what took place in this classic temple from day to day may have been wafted to the dull ears of the boy, who was not thought ready for school until he had attained the ripe age of twelve. It may even have been that specific rumors of the signs, symbols, and hieroglyphics used in educational institutions had reached him in the obscurity of his cranberry meadows. At all events, when confronted by the alphabet chart, whose huge black capitals were intended to capture the wandering eyes of the infant class, Alcestis exhibited unusual, almost unnatural, excitement.

"That is 'A,' my boy," said the teacher genially, as she pointed to the first character on the chart.

"Good God, is that 'A'! " exclaimed Alcestis, sitting down heavily on the nearest bench. And neither teacher nor scholars could discover whether he was agreeably surprised or disappointed in the letter,--whether he had expected, if he ever encountered it, to find it writhing in coils on the floor of a cage, or whether it simply bore no resemblance to the ideal already established in his mind.

Mrs. Wiley had once tried to make something of Mercy, the oldest daughter of the family, but at the end of six weeks she announced that a girl who couldn't tell whether the clock was going "forrards or backwards," and who rubbed a pocket handkerchief as long as she did a sheet, would be no help in her household.

The Crambrys had daily walked the five or six miles from their home to the Edgewood bridge during the progress of the drive, not only for the social and intellectual advantages to be gained from the company present, but for the more solid compensation of a good meal. They all adored Rose, partly because she gave them food, and partly because she was sparkling and pretty and wore pink dresses that caught their dull eyes.

The afternoon proved a lively one. In the first place, one of the younger men slipped into the water between two logs, part of a lot chained together waiting to be let out of the boom. The weight of the mass higher up and the force of the current wedged him in rather tightly, and when he had been "pried" out he declared that he felt like an apple after it had been squeezed in the cider-mill, so he drove home, and Rufus Waterman took his place.

Two hours' hard work followed this incident, and at the end of that time the "bung" that reached from the shore to Waterman's Ledge (the rock where Pretty Quick met his fate) was broken up, and the logs that composed it were started down river. There remained now only the great side-jam at Gray Rock. This had been allowed to grow, gathering logs as they drifted past, thus making higher water and a stronger current on the other side of the rock, and allowing an easier passage for the logs at that point.

All was excitement now, for, this particular piece of work accomplished, the boom above the falls would be "turned out," and the river would once more be clear and clean at the Edgewood bridge.

Small boys, perching on the rocks with their heels hanging, hands and mouths full of red Astrakhan apples, cheered their favorites to the echo, while the drivers shouted to one another and watched the signs and signals of the boss, who could communicate with them only in that way, so great was the roar of the water.

The jam refused to yield to ordinary measures. It was a difficult problem, for the rocky river-bed held many a snare and pitfall. There was a certain ledge under the water, so artfully placed that every log striking under its projecting edges would wedge itself firmly there, attracting others by its evil example.

"That galoot-boss ought to hev shoved his crew down to that jam this mornin'," grumbled Old Kennebec to Alcestis Crambry, who was always his most loyal and attentive listener. "But he wouldn't take no advice, not if Pharaoh nor Boat nor Herod nor Nicodemus come right out o' the Bible an' give it to him. The logs air contrary to-day. Sometimes they'll go along as easy as an old shoe, an' other times they'll do nothin' but bung, bung, bung! There's a log nestlin' down in the middle o' that jam that I've be'n watchin' for a week. It's a cur'ous one, to begin with; an' then it has a mark on it that you can reco'nize it by. Did ye ever hear tell o' George the Third, King of England, Alcestis, or ain't he known over to the crambry medders? Well, once upon a time men used to go through the forests over here an' slash a mark on the trunks o' the biggest trees. That was the royal sign, as you might say, an' meant that the tree was to be taken over to England to make masts an' yard-arms for the King's ships. What made me think of it now is that the King's mark was an arrer, an' it's an arrer that's on that there log I'm showin' ye. Well, sir, I seen it fust at Milliken's Mills a Monday. It was in trouble then, an'it's be'n in trouble ever sence. That's allers the way; there'll be one pesky, crooked, contrary, consarn'ed log that can't go anywheres without gittin' into difficulties. You can yank it out an' set it afloat, an' before you hardly git your doggin' iron off of it, it'll be snarled up agin in some new place. From the time it's chopped down to the day it gets to Saco, it costs the Comp'ny 'bout ten times its pesky valler as lumber. Now they've sent over to Benson's for a team of horses, an' I bate ye they can't git'em. I wish I was the boss on this river, Alcestis."

"I wish I was," echoed the boy.

"Well, your head-fillin' ain't the right kind for a boss, Alcestis, an' you'd better stick to dry land. You set right down here while I go back a piece an' git the pipe out o' my coat pocket. I guess nothin' ain't goin' to happen for a few minutes."

The surmise about the horses, unlike most of Old Kennebec's, proved to be true. Benson's pair had gone to Portland with a load of hay; accordingly the tackle was brought, the rope was adjusted to a log, and five of the drivers, standing on the riverbank, attempted to drag it from its intrenched position. It refused to yield the fraction of an inch. Rufus and Stephen joined the five men, and the augmented crew of seven were putting all their strength on the rope when a cry went up from the watchers on the bridge. The "dog" had loosened suddenly, and the men were flung violently to the ground. For a second they were stunned both by the surprise and by the shock of the blow, but in the same moment the cry of the crowd swelled louder.

Alcestis Crambry had stolen, all unoticed, to the rope and had attempted to use his feeble powers for the common good. When then blow came he fell backward, and, making no effort to control the situation, slid over the bank and into the water.

The other Crambrys, not realizing the danger, laughed, audibly, but there was no jeering from the bridge.

Stephan had seen Alcestis slip, and in the fraction of a moment had taken off his boots and was coasting down the slippery rocks behind him in a twinkling he was in the water, almost as soon as the boy himself.

"Doggoned idjut!" exclaimed Old Kennebec, tearfully. "Wuth the hull fool family! If I hedn't 'a' be'n so old, I'd 'a' jumped in myself, for you can't drownd a Wiley, not without you tie nail-kegs to their head an' feet an' drop 'em in the falls."

Alcestis, who had neither brains, courage, nor experience, had, better still, the luck that follows the witless. He was carried swiftly down the current; but, only fifty feet away, a long, slender, log, wedged between two low rocks on the shore, jutted out over the water, almost touching its surface. The boy's clothes were admirably adapted to the situation, being full of enormous rents. In some way the end of the log caught in the rags of Alcestis's coat and held him just seconds enough to enable Stephen to swim to him, to seize him by the nape of the neck, to lift him on the log, and thence to the shore. It was a particularly bad place for a landing, and there was nothing to do but to lower ropes and drag the drenched men to the high ground above.

Alcestis came to his senses in ten or fifteen minutes, and seemed as bright as usual: with a kind of added swagger at being the central figure in a dramatic situation.

"I wonder you hedn't stove your brains out, when you landed so turrible suddent on that rock at the foot of the bank," said Mr. Wiley to him. "I should, but I took good care to light on my head," responded Alcestis; a cryptic remark which so puzzled Old Kennebec that he mused over it for some hours.



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