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Boyhood in Norway(2)

2006-09-07 22:12

  RAFTS II The Clash of Arms

  When the spring is late in Norway, and the heat comes with a sudden rush, the mountain streams plunge with a tremendous noise down into the valleys, and the air is filled far and near with the boom and roar of rushing waters. The glaciers groan, and send their milk-white torrents down toward the ocean. The snow-patches in the forest glens look gray and soiled, and the pines perspire a delicious resinous odor which cheers the soul with the conviction that spring has come.

  But the peasant looks anxiously at the sun and the river at such times, for he knows that there is danger of inundation. The lumber, which the spring floods set afloat in enormous quantities, is carried by the rivers to the cities by the sea; there it is sorted according to the mark it bears, showing the proprietor, and exported to foreign countries.

  In order to prevent log-jams, which are often attended with terrible disasters, men are stationed night and day at the narrows of the rivers. The boys, to whom all excitement is welcome, are apt to congregate in large numbers at such places, assisting or annoying the watchers, riding on the logs, or teasing the girls who stand up on the hillside, admiring the daring feats of the lumbermen.

  It was on such a spring day, when the air was pungent with the smell of sprouting birch and pine, that General Viggo and his trusty army had betaken themselves to the cataract to share in the sport. They were armed with their bows, as usual, knowing that they were always liable to be surprised by their vigilant enemy. Nor were they in this instance disappointed, for Halvor Reitan, with fifty or sixty followers, was presently visible on the east side, and it was a foregone conclusion that if they met there would be a battle.

  The river, to be sure, separated them, but the logs were at times so densely packed that it was possible for a daring lad to run far out into the river, shoot his arrow and return to shore, leaping from log to log. The Reitan party was the first to begin this sport, and an arrow hit General Viggo's hat before he gave orders to repel the assault.

  Cool and dignified as he was, he could not consent to skip and jump on the slippery logs, particularly as he had no experience in this difficult exercise, while the enemy apparently had much. Paying no heed to the jeers of the lumbermen, who supposed he was afraid, he drew his troops up in line and addressed them as follows:

  "Soldiers: You have on many previous occasions given me proof of your fidelity to duty and your brave and fearless spirit. I know that I can, now as always, trust you to shed glory upon our arms, and to maintain our noble fame and honorable traditions.

  "The enemy is before us. You have heard and seen his challenge. It behooves us to respond gallantly. To jump and skip like rabbits is unmilitary and unsoldierlike. I propose that each of us shall select two large logs, tie them together, procure, if possible, a boat-hook or an oar, and, sitting astride the logs, boldly push out into the river. If we can advance in a tolerably even line, which I think quite possible, we can send so deadly a charge into the ranks of our adversaries that they will be compelled to flee. Then we will land on the east side, occupy the heights, and rout our foe.

  "Now let each man do his duty. Forward, march!"

  The lumbermen, whose sympathies were with the East-Siders, found this performance highly diverting, but Viggo allowed himself in nowise to be disturbed by their laughter or jeers. He marched his troops down to the river-front, commanded "Rest arms!" and repeated once more his instructions; then, flinging off his coat and waistcoat, he seized a boat-hook and ran some hundred yards along the bank of the stream.

  The river-bed was here expanded to a wide basin, in which the logs floated lazily down to the cataract below. Trees and underbrush, which usually stood on dry land, were half-submerged in the yellow water, and the current gurgled slowly about their trunks with muddy foam and bubbles. Now and then a heap of lumber would get wedged in between the jutting rocks above the waterfall, and then the current slackened, only to be suddenly accelerated, when the exertions of the men had again removed the obstruction.

  It was an exciting spectacle to see these daring fellows leap from log to log, with birch-bark shoes on their feet. They would ride on a heap of lumber down to the very edge of the cataract, dexterously jump off at the critical moment, and after half a dozen narrow escapes, reach the shore, only to repeat the dangerous experiment, as soon as the next opportunity offered itself.

  It was the example of these hardy and agile lumbermen, trained from childhood to sport with danger, which inspired Viggo and his followers with a desire to show their mettle.

  "Sergeant Henning," said the General to his ever-faithful shadow, "take a squad of five men with you, and cut steering-poles for those for whom boat-hooks cannot be procured. You will be the last to leave shore. Report to me if any one fails to obey orders."

  "Shall be done, General," Marcus responded, with a deferential military salute.

  "The bows, you understand, will be slung by the straps across the backs of the men, while they steer and push with their poles."

  "Certainly, General," said Marcus, with another salute.

  "You may go."

  "All right, General," answered Marcus, with a third salute.

  And now began the battle. The East-Siders, fearing that a stratagem was intended, when they saw the enemy moving up the stream, made haste to follow their example, capturing on their way every stray log that came along. They sent ineffectual showers of arrows into the water, while the brave General Viggo, striding two big logs which he had tied together with a piece of rope, and with a boat-hook in his hand, pushed proudly at the head of his army into the middle of the wide basin.

  Halvor Reitan was clever enough to see what it meant, and he was not going to allow the West-Siders to gain the heights above him, and attack him in the rear. He meant to prevent the enemy from landing, or, still better, he would meet him half-way, and drive him back to his own shore.

  The latter, though not the wiser course, was the plan which Halvor Reitan adopted. To have a tussle with the high-nosed Viggo in the middle of the basin, to dislodge him from his raft——that seemed to Halvor a delightful project. He knew that Viggo was a good swimmer, so he feared no dangerous consequences; and even if he had, it would not have restrained him. He was so much stronger than Viggo, and here was his much-longed-for opportunity.

  With great despatch he made himself a raft of two logs, and seating himself astride them, with his legs in the water, put off from shore. He shouted to his men to follow him, and they needed no urging. Viggo was now near the middle of the basin, with twenty or thirty picked archers close behind him. They fired volley after volley of arrows against the enemy, and twice drove him back to the shore.

  But Halvor Reitan, shielding his face with a piece of bark which he had picked up, pushed forward in spite of their onslaught, though one arrow knocked off his red-peaked cap, and another scratched his ear. Now he was but a dozen feet from his foe. He cared little for his bow now; the boat-hook was a far more effectual weapon.

  Viggo saw at a glance that he meant to pull his raft toward him, and, relying upon his greater strength, fling him into the water.

  His first plan would therefore be to fence with his own boat- hook, so as to keep his antagonist at a distance.

  When Halvor made the first lunge at the nose of his raft, he foiled the attempt with his own weapon, and managed dexterously to give the hostile raft a downward push, which increased the distance between them.

  "Take care, General!" said a respectful voice close to Viggo's ear. "There is a small log jam down below, which is getting bigger every moment. When it is got afloat, it will be dangerous out here."

  "What are you doing here, Sergeant?" asked the General, severely. "Did I not tell you to be the last to leave the shore?"

  "You did, General," Marcus replied, meekly, "and I obeyed. But I have pushed to the front so as to be near you."

  "I don't need you, Sergeant," Viggo responded, "you may go to the rear."

  The booming of the cataract nearly drowned his voice and Marcus pretended not to hear it. A huge lumber mass was piling itself up among the rocks jutting out of the rapids, and a dozen men hanging like flies on the logs, sprang up and down with axes in their hands. They cut one log here and another there; shouted commands; and fell into the river amid the derisive jeers of the spectators; they scrambled out again and, dripping wet, set to work once more with a cheerful heart, to the mighty music of the cataract, whose thundering rhythm trembled and throbbed in the air.

  The boys who were steering their rafts against each other in the comparatively placid basin were too absorbed in their mimic battle to heed what was going on below. Halvor and Viggo were fighting desperately with their boat-hooks, the one attacking and the other defending himself with great dexterity. They scarcely perceived, in their excitement, that the current was dragging them slowly toward the cataract; nor did they note the warning cries of the men and women on the banks.

  Viggo's blood was hot, his temples throbbed, his eyes flashed. He would show this miserable clown who had dared to insult him, that the trained skill of a gentleman is worth more than the rude strength of a bully. With beautiful precision he foiled every attack; struck Halvor's boat-hook up and down, so that the water splashed about him, manoeuvring at the same time his own raft with admirable adroitness.

  Cheer upon cheer rent the air, after each of his successful sallies, and his comrades, selecting their antagonists from among the enemy, now pressed forward, all eager to bear their part in the fray.

  Splash! splash! splash! one East-Sider was dismounted, got an involuntary bath, but scrambled up on his raft again. The next time it was a West-Sider who got a ducking, but seemed none the worse for it. There was a yelling and a cheering, now from one side and now from the other, which made everyone forget that something was going on at that moment of greater importance than the mimic warfare of boys.

  All the interest of the contending parties was concentrated on the duel of their chieftains. It seemed now really that Halvor was getting the worst of it. He could not get close enough to use his brawny muscles; and in precision of aim and adroitness of movement he was not Viggo's match.

  Again and again he thrust his long-handled boat-hook angrily against the bottom (for the flooded parts of the banks were very shallow), to push the raft forward, but every time Viggo managed to turn it sideward, and Halvor had to exert all his presence of mind to keep his seat. Wild with rage he sprang up on his slender raft and made a vicious lunge at his opponent, who warded the blow with such force that the handle of the boat-hook broke, and Halvor lost his balance and fell into the water.

  At this same instant a tremendous crash was heard from below, followed by a long rumble as of mighty artillery. A scream of horror went up from the banks, as the great lumber mass rolled down into the cataract, making a sudden suction which it seemed impossible that the unhappy boys could resist.

  The majority of both sides, seeing their danger, beat, by means of their boat-hooks, a hasty retreat, and as they were in shallow water were hauled ashore by the lumbermen, who sprang into the river to save them.

  When the clouds of spray had cleared away, only three figures were visible. Viggo, still astride of his raft, was fighting, not for his own life, but for that of his enemy, Halvor, who was struggling helplessly in the white rapids. Close behind his commander stood little Marcus on his raft, holding on, with one hand to the boat-hook which he had hewn, with all his might, into Viggo's raft, and with the other grasping the branch of a half-submerged tree.

  "Save yourself, General!" he yelled, wildly. "Let go there. I can't hold on much longer."

  But Viggo did not heed. He saw nothing but the pale, frightened face of his antagonist, who might lose his life. With a desperate effort he flung his boat-hook toward him and succeeded this time in laying hold of the leather girdle about his waist. One hundred feet below yawned the foaming, weltering abyss, from which the white smoke ascended. If Marcus lost his grip, if the branch snapped no human power could save them; they were all dead men.

  By this time the people on the shore had discovered that three lives were hanging on the brink of eternity. Twenty men had waded waist-deep into the current and had flung a stout rope to the noble little fellow who was risking his own life for his friend.

  "Keep your hold, my brave lad!" they cried; "hold on another minute!"

  "Grab the rope!" screamed others.

  Marcus clinched his teeth, and his numb arms trembled, mist gathered in his eyes——his heart stood still. But with a clutch that seemed superhuman he held on. He had but one thought—— Viggo, his chief! Viggo, his idol! Viggo, his general! He must save him or die with him. One end of the rope was hanging on the branch and was within easy reach; but he did not venture to seize it, lest the wrench caused by his motion might detach his hold on Viggo's raft.

  Viggo, who just now was pulling Halvor out of the water, saw in an instant that he had by adding his weight to the raft, increased the chance of both being carried to their death. With quick resolution he plunged the beak of his own boat-hook into Marcus's raft, and shouted to Halvor to save himself. The latter, taking in the situation at a glance, laid hold of the handle of the boat-hook and together they pulled up alongside of Marcus and leaped aboard his raft, whereupon Viggo's raft drifted downward and vanished in a flash in the yellow torrent.

  At that very instant Marcus's strength gave out; he relaxed his grip on the branch, which slid out of his hand, and they would inevitably have darted over the brink of the cataract if Viggo had not, with great adroitness, snatched the rope from the branch of the half-submerged tree.

  A wild shout, half a cheer, half a cry of relief, went up from the banks, as the raft with the three lads was slowly hauled toward the shore by the lumbermen who had thrown the rope.

  Halvor Reitan was the first to step ashore. But no joyous welcome greeted him from those whose sympathies had, a little while ago, been all on his side. He hung around uneasily for some minutes, feeling perhaps that he ought to say something to Viggo who had saved his life, but as he could not think of anything which did not seem foolish, he skulked away unnoticed toward the edge of the forest.

  But when Viggo stepped ashore, carrying the unconscious Marcus in his arms, how the crowd rushed forward to gaze at him, to press his hands, to call down God's blessing upon him! He had never imagined that he was such a hero. It was Marcus, not he, to whom their ovation was due. But poor Marcus——it was well for him that he had fainted from over-exertion; for otherwise he would have fainted from embarrassment at the honors which would have been showered upon him.

  The West-Siders, marching two abreast, with their bows slung across their shoulders, escorted their general home, cheering and shouting as they went. When they were half-way up the hillside, Marcus opened his eyes, and finding himself so close to his beloved general, blushed crimson, scarlet, and purple, and all the other shades that an embarrassed blush is capable of assuming.

  "Please, General," he stammered, "don't bother about me."

  Viggo had thought of making a speech exalting the heroism of his faithful follower. But he saw at a glance that his praise would be more grateful to Marcus, if he received it in private.

  When, however, the boys gave him a parting cheer, in front of his father's mansion, he forgot his resolution, leaped up on the steps, and lifting the blushing Marcus above his head; called out:

  "Three cheers for the bravest boy in Norway!"

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