The astonishing innocence of Flats Jackson

HE'S not from Maine -- that congressman who wants to ban all guns that are indetectable. In Maine, if you can't see it, there ain't none, as witness the remarkable innocence of my trail crony, Flats Jackson, who was recently arrested for illegally dipping smelts. Everybody was astonished that Flats was innocent, as he isn't usually, but this time The Law stubbed its toe and, fortunately, the evidence was indetectable. Flats happens to own a twitching horse. You don't see too many twitching horses these days, but before tractors and skidders they were used to bring logs from the stump out to a roadway. A good twitching horse was worth money and took a lot of training. One of them can go two miles into the woods, and after his chain is attached to a log he will tug it out by himself; no need for a driver stumbling along behind. With a man at both ends, to hitch and unhitch, a twitching horse will go back and forth all day.

So Flats and his twitching horse, Charlie, were yarding logs for Perkins Company up on Hunger Hill one winter. Flats had a hauled-in camp just big enough for him, and Charlie had a hovel down by Topple Brook, handy by, and after a good hauling winter, spring began to promise reluctantly and it was time for the smelts to run, which they do every spring, coming up into Topple Brook from the lake.

Flats had a pleasant evening routine. Being far from anything, he got along without electricity except for a battery radio left over from long ago. It was a super-heterodyne Atwater-Kent with 17 tubes and a set of headphones. Every evening after supper Flats would listen to his radio until it drained down his storage battery. He had a wind charger, and the next day it would restore his battery for the next evening. When the battery went faint, Flats knew it was bedtime, so he would pull on his boots, get into his jacket, and go down to the hovel to say goodnight to Charlie.

He never took a flashlight or lantern; he didn't need light for this. He'd pat Charlie on the nose, give him a few oats to sweeten his hay, and with an 18-quart galvanized bucket he'd step to the brook and dip Charlie a drink of water. Then it was time to go to bed. And, as I say, it came time for the smelts to run.

So on this particular night Flats thought he was alone in about 60 square miles of the Maine woods, and he wasn't. When Flats started for the hovel, Charlie heard him coming and made a whinny, which caused Flats to call, ``All right, all right -- I'm coming!'' So he goes in, rubs Charlie's nose, tells him a few things he just heard on the radio, parcels out a double handful of oats, lays in the hay, and picks up the pail.

Just as he was about to dip the pail, a human figure rises in the dark before him and with a coarse shout rushes past and on into the distance. This astonishes Flats because he thought there was nobody around except Charlie, and he is even more astonished when, after the first human figure, a second one comes splashing out of the brook to lay a firm hand on Flats's shoulder and say, ``I arrest you in the name of the law!''

Now the answer to this tableau is easy. A gentleman was poaching smelts in the pool from which Flats dipped water for Charlie, and a couple of game wardens had come early in the evening to lurk secretly and see what might happen. The wardens were suspicious of Flats, and there are those who say with some reason, but on this occasion Flats was not after smelts.

However, a person unknown, and still unknown, had come up to that pool with a net and had stumbled into the ambush meant for Flats. And just as Flats stepped to the brook to dip a drink for Charlie, this person unknown realized a game warden was about to nab him. He thereupon dumped his netful of smelts into Flats's pail and took off.

Of the two wardens, the one who grabbed Flats and arrested him was young and eager. The other was a veteran, and he sized up the situation. As to the evidence of a pailful of smelts in Flats's hand, this second one said, ``I don't see no smelts.''

``Neither do I,'' said Flats, and the younger warden nodded his head. Inde-tectable smelts are not the best evidence.

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