Life On The Mississippi, Part 1.
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)

Produced by David Widger



Part 1.


BUT the basin of the Mississippi is the BODY OF THE NATION. All the
other parts are but members, important in themselves, yet more important
in their relations to this. Exclusive of the Lake basin and of 300,000
square miles in Texas and New Mexico, which in many aspects form a part
of it, this basin contains about 1,250,000 square miles. In extent it
is the second great valley of the world, being exceeded only by that of
the Amazon. The valley of the frozen Obi approaches it in extent; that
of La Plata comes next in space, and probably in habitable capacity,
having about eight-ninths of its area; then comes that of the Yenisei,
with about seven-ninths; the Lena, Amoor, Hoang-ho, Yang-tse-kiang, and
Nile, five-ninths; the Ganges, less than one-half; the Indus, less than
one-third; the Euphrates, one-fifth; the Rhine, one-fifteenth. It
exceeds in extent the whole of Europe, exclusive of Russia, Norway, and
Conceptions formed from the river-basins of Western Europe are rudely
shocked when we consider the extent of the valley of the Mississippi;
nor are those formed from the sterile basins of the great rivers of
Siberia, the lofty plateaus of Central Asia, or the mighty sweep of the
swampy Amazon more adequate. Latitude, elevation, and rainfall all
combine to render every part of the Mississippi Valley capable of
supporting a dense population. AS A DWELLING-PLACE FOR CIVILIZED MAN IT


Chapter 1 The River and Its History

THE Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace
river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. Considering the
Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world--four
thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the
crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses
up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the
crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three
times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as
the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the
Thames. No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water
supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the
Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on
the Pacific slope--a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude. The
Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four
subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some
hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its
drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales,
Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and
Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi
valley, proper, is exceptionally so.

It is a remarkable river in this: that instead of widening toward its
mouth, it grows narrower; grows narrower and deeper. From the junction
of the Ohio to a point half way down to the sea, the width averages a
mile in high water: thence to the sea the width steadily diminishes,
until, at the 'Passes,' above the mouth, it is but little over half a
mile. At the junction of the Ohio the Mississippi's depth is eighty-
seven feet; the depth increases gradually, reaching one hundred and
twenty-nine just above the mouth.

The difference in rise and fall is also remarkable--not in the upper,
but in the lower river. The rise is tolerably uniform down to Natchez
(three hundred and sixty miles above the mouth)--about fifty feet. But
at Bayou La Fourche the river rises only twenty-four feet; at New
Orleans only fifteen, and just above the mouth only two and one half.

An article in the New Orleans 'Times-Democrat,' based upon reports of
able engineers, states that the river annually empties four hundred and
six million tons of mud into the Gulf of Mexico--which brings to mind
Captain Marryat's rude name for the Mississippi--'the Great Sewer.' This
mud, solidified, would make a mass a mile square and two hundred and
forty-one feet high.

The mud deposit gradually extends the land--but only gradually; it has
extended it not quite a third of a mile in the two hundred years which
have elapsed since the river took its place in history. The belief of
the scientific people is, that the mouth used to be at Baton Rouge,
where the hills cease, and that the two hundred miles of land between
there and the Gulf was built by the river. This gives us the age of that
piece of country, without any trouble at all--one hundred and twenty
thousand years. Yet it is much the youthfullest batch of country that
lies around there anywhere.

The Mississippi is remarkable in still another way--its disposition to
make prodigious jumps by cutting through narrow necks of land, and thus
straightening and shortening itself. More than once it has shortened
itself thirty miles at a single jump! These cut-offs have had curious
effects: they have thrown several river towns out into the rural
districts, and built up sand bars and forests in front of them. The town
of Delta used to be three miles below Vicksburg: a recent cutoff has
radically changed the position, and Delta is now TWO MILES ABOVE

Both of these river towns have been retired to the country by that cut-
off. A cut-off plays havoc with boundary lines and jurisdictions: for
instance, a man is living in the State of Mississippi to-day, a cut-off
occurs to-night, and to-morrow the man finds himself and his land over
on the other side of the river, within the boundaries and subject to the
laws of the State of Louisiana! Such a thing, happening in the upper
river in the old times, could have transferred a slave from Missouri to
Illinois and made a free man of him.

The Mississippi does not alter its locality by cut-offs alone: it is
always changing its habitat BODILY--is always moving bodily SIDEWISE. At
Hard Times, La., the river is two miles west of the region it used to
occupy. As a result, the original SITE of that settlement is not now in
Louisiana at all, but on the other side of the river, in the State of
right of it, in places, and to the left of it in other places.

Although the Mississippi's mud builds land but slowly, down at the
mouth, where the Gulfs billows interfere with its work, it builds fast
enough in better protected regions higher up: for instance, Prophet's
Island contained one thousand five hundred acres of land thirty years
ago; since then the river has added seven hundred acres to it.

But enough of these examples of the mighty stream's eccentricities for
the present--I will give a few more of them further along in the book.

Let us drop the Mississippi's physical history, and say a word about its
historical history--so to speak. We can glance briefly at its slumbrous
first epoch in a couple of short chapters; at its second and wider-awake
epoch in a couple more; at its flushest and widest-awake epoch in a good
many succeeding chapters; and then talk about its comparatively tranquil
present epoch in what shall be left of the book.

The world and the books are so accustomed to use, and over-use, the word
'new' in connection with our country, that we early get and permanently
retain the impression that there is nothing old about it. We do of
course know that there are several comparatively old dates in American
history, but the mere figures convey to our minds no just idea, no
distinct realization, of the stretch of time which they represent. To
say that De Soto, the first white man who ever saw the Mississippi
River, saw it in 1542, is a remark which states a fact without
interpreting it: it is something like giving the dimensions of a sunset
by astronomical measurements, and cataloguing the colors by their
scientific names;--as a result, you get the bald fact of the sunset, but
you don't see the sunset. It would have been better to paint a picture
of it.

The date 1542, standing by itself, means little or nothing to us; but
when one groups a few neighboring historical dates and facts around it,
he adds perspective and color, and then realizes that this is one of the
American dates which is quite respectable for age.

For instance, when the Mississippi was first seen by a white man, less
than a quarter of a century had elapsed since Francis I.'s defeat at
Pavia; the death of Raphael; the death of Bayard, SANS PEUR ET SANS
REPROCHE; the driving out of the Knights-Hospitallers from Rhodes by the
Turks; and the placarding of the Ninety-Five Propositions,--the act
which began the Reformation. When De Soto took his glimpse of the
river, Ignatius Loyola was an obscure name; the order of the Jesuits was
not yet a year old; Michael Angelo's paint was not yet dry on the Last
Judgment in the Sistine Chapel; Mary Queen of Scots was not yet born,
but would be before the year closed. Catherine de Medici was a child;
Elizabeth of England was not yet in her teens; Calvin, Benvenuto
Cellini, and the Emperor Charles V. were at the top of their fame, and
each was manufacturing history after his own peculiar fashion; Margaret
of Navarre was writing the 'Heptameron' and some religious books,--the
first survives, the others are forgotten, wit and indelicacy being
sometimes better literature preservers than holiness; lax court morals
and the absurd chivalry business were in full feather, and the joust and
the tournament were the frequent pastime of titled fine gentlemen who
could fight better than they could spell, while religion was the passion
of their ladies, and classifying their offspring into children of full
rank and children by brevet their pastime. In fact, all around, religion
was in a peculiarly blooming condition: the Council of Trent was being
called; the Spanish Inquisition was roasting, and racking, and burning,
with a free hand; elsewhere on the continent the nations were being
persuaded to holy living by the sword and fire; in England, Henry VIII.
had suppressed the monasteries, burnt Fisher and another bishop or two,
and was getting his English reformation and his harem effectively
started. When De Soto stood on the banks of the Mississippi, it was
still two years before Luther's death; eleven years before the burning
of Servetus; thirty years before the St. Bartholomew slaughter; Rabelais
was not yet published; 'Don Quixote' was not yet written; Shakespeare
was not yet born; a hundred long years must still elapse before
Englishmen would hear the name of Oliver Cromwell.

Unquestionably the discovery of the Mississippi is a datable fact which
considerably mellows and modifies the shiny newness of our country, and
gives her a most respectable outside-aspect of rustiness and antiquity.

De Soto merely glimpsed the river, then died and was buried in it by his
priests and soldiers. One would expect the priests and the soldiers to
multiply the river's dimensions by ten--the Spanish custom of the day--
and thus move other adventurers to go at once and explore it. On the
contrary, their narratives when they reached home, did not excite that
amount of curiosity. The Mississippi was left unvisited by whites during
a term of years which seems incredible in our energetic days. One may
'sense' the interval to his mind, after a fashion, by dividing it up in
this way: After De Soto glimpsed the river, a fraction short of a
quarter of a century elapsed, and then Shakespeare was born; lived a
trifle more than half a century, then died; and when he had been in his
grave considerably more than half a century, the SECOND white man saw
the Mississippi. In our day we don't allow a hundred and thirty years to
elapse between glimpses of a marvel. If somebody should discover a
creek in the county next to the one that the North Pole is in, Europe
and America would start fifteen costly expeditions thither: one to
explore the creek, and the other fourteen to hunt for each other.

For more than a hundred and fifty years there had been white settlements
on our Atlantic coasts. These people were in intimate communication
with the Indians: in the south the Spaniards were robbing,
slaughtering, enslaving and converting them; higher up, the English were
trading beads and blankets to them for a consideration, and throwing in
civilization and whiskey, 'for lagniappe;' and in Canada the French were
schooling them in a rudimentary way, missionarying among them, and
drawing whole populations of them at a time to Quebec, and later to
Montreal, to buy furs of them. Necessarily, then, these various
clusters of whites must have heard of the great river of the far west;
and indeed, they did hear of it vaguely,--so vaguely and indefinitely,
that its course, proportions, and locality were hardly even guessable.
The mere mysteriousness of the matter ought to have fired curiosity and
compelled exploration; but this did not occur. Apparently nobody
happened to want such a river, nobody needed it, nobody was curious
about it; so, for a century and a half the Mississippi remained out of
the market and undisturbed. When De Soto found it, he was not hunting
for a river, and had no present occasion for one; consequently he did
not value it or even take any particular notice of it.

But at last La Salle the Frenchman conceived the idea of seeking out
that river and exploring it. It always happens that when a man seizes
upon a neglected and important idea, people inflamed with the same
notion crop up all around. It happened so in this instance.

Naturally the question suggests itself, Why did these people want the
river now when nobody had wanted it in the five preceding generations?
Apparently it was because at this late day they thought they had
discovered a way to make it useful; for it had come to be believed that
the Mississippi emptied into the Gulf of California, and therefore
afforded a short cut from Canada to China. Previously the supposition
had been that it emptied into the Atlantic, or Sea of Virginia.

Chapter 2 The River and Its Explorers

LA SALLE himself sued for certain high privileges, and they were
graciously accorded him by Louis XIV of inflated memory. Chief among
them was the privilege to explore, far and wide, and build forts, and
stake out continents, and hand the same over to the king, and pay the
expenses himself; receiving, in return, some little advantages of one
sort or another; among them the monopoly of buffalo hides. He spent
several years and about all of his money, in making perilous and painful
trips between Montreal and a fort which he had built on the Illinois,
before he at last succeeded in getting his expedition in such a shape
that he could strike for the Mississippi.

And meantime other parties had had better fortune. In 1673 Joliet the
merchant, and Marquette the priest, crossed the country and reached the
banks of the Mississippi. They went by way of the Great Lakes; and from
Green Bay, in canoes, by way of Fox River and the Wisconsin. Marquette
had solemnly contracted, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, that
if the Virgin would permit him to discover the great river, he would
name it Conception, in her honor. He kept his word. In that day, all
explorers traveled with an outfit of priests. De Soto had twenty-four
with him. La Salle had several, also. The expeditions were often out of
meat, and scant of clothes, but they always had the furniture and other
requisites for the mass; they were always prepared, as one of the quaint
chroniclers of the time phrased it, to 'explain hell to the savages.'

On the 17th of June, 1673, the canoes of Joliet and Marquette and their
five subordinates reached the junction of the Wisconsin with the
Mississippi. Mr. Parkman says: 'Before them a wide and rapid current
coursed athwart their way, by the foot of lofty heights wrapped thick in
forests.' He continues: 'Turning southward, they paddled down the
stream, through a solitude unrelieved by the faintest trace of man.'

A big cat-fish collided with Marquette's canoe, and startled him; and
reasonably enough, for he had been warned by the Indians that he was on
a foolhardy journey, and even a fatal one, for the river contained a
demon 'whose roar could be heard at a great distance, and who would
engulf them in the abyss where he dwelt.' I have seen a Mississippi cat-
fish that was more than six feet long, and weighed two hundred and fifty
pounds; and if Marquette's fish was the fellow to that one, he had a
fair right to think the river's roaring demon was come.

'At length the buffalo began to appear, grazing in herds on the great
prairies which then bordered the river; and Marquette describes the
fierce and stupid look of the old bulls as they stared at the intruders
through the tangled mane which nearly blinded them.'

The voyagers moved cautiously: 'Landed at night and made a fire to cook
their evening meal; then extinguished it, embarked again, paddled some
way farther, and anchored in the stream, keeping a man on the watch till

They did this day after day and night after night; and at the end of two
weeks they had not seen a human being. The river was an awful solitude,
then. And it is now, over most of its stretch.

But at the close of the fortnight they one day came upon the footprints
of men in the mud of the western bank--a Robinson Crusoe experience
which carries an electric shiver with it yet, when one stumbles on it in
print. They had been warned that the river Indians were as ferocious
and pitiless as the river demon, and destroyed all comers without
waiting for provocation; but no matter, Joliet and Marquette struck into
the country to hunt up the proprietors of the tracks. They found them,
by and by, and were hospitably received and well treated--if to be
received by an Indian chief who has taken off his last rag in order to
appear at his level best is to be received hospitably; and if to be
treated abundantly to fish, porridge, and other game, including dog, and
have these things forked into one's mouth by the ungloved fingers of
Indians is to be well treated. In the morning the chief and six hundred
of his tribesmen escorted the Frenchmen to the river and bade them a
friendly farewell.

On the rocks above the present city of Alton they found some rude and
fantastic Indian paintings, which they describe. A short distance below
'a torrent of yellow mud rushed furiously athwart the calm blue current
of the Mississippi, boiling and surging and sweeping in its course logs,
branches, and uprooted trees.' This was the mouth of the Missouri, 'that
savage river,' which 'descending from its mad career through a vast
unknown of barbarism, poured its turbid floods into the bosom of its
gentle sister.'

By and by they passed the mouth of the Ohio; they passed cane-brakes;
they fought mosquitoes; they floated along, day after day, through the
deep silence and loneliness of the river, drowsing in the scant shade of
makeshift awnings, and broiling with the heat; they encountered and
exchanged civilities with another party of Indians; and at last they
reached the mouth of the Arkansas (about a month out from their
starting-point), where a tribe of war-whooping savages swarmed out to
meet and murder them; but they appealed to the Virgin for help; so in
place of a fight there was a feast, and plenty of pleasant palaver and

They had proved to their satisfaction, that the Mississippi did not
empty into the Gulf of California, or into the Atlantic. They believed
it emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. They turned back, now, and carried
their great news to Canada.

But belief is not proof. It was reserved for La Salle to furnish the
proof. He was provokingly delayed, by one misfortune after another, but
at last got his expedition under way at the end of the year 1681. In
the dead of winter he and Henri de Tonty, son of Lorenzo Tonty, who
invented the tontine, his lieutenant, started down the Illinois, with a
following of eighteen Indians brought from New England, and twenty-three
Frenchmen. They moved in procession down the surface of the frozen
river, on foot, and dragging their canoes after them on sledges.

At Peoria Lake they struck open water, and paddled thence to the
Mississippi and turned their prows southward. They plowed through the
fields of floating ice, past the mouth of the Missouri; past the mouth
of the Ohio, by-and-by; 'and, gliding by the wastes of bordering swamp,
landed on the 24th of February near the Third Chickasaw Bluffs,' where
they halted and built Fort Prudhomme.

'Again,' says Mr. Parkman, 'they embarked; and with every stage of their
adventurous progress, the mystery of this vast new world was more and
more unveiled. More and more they entered the realms of spring. The
hazy sunlight, the warm and drowsy air, the tender foliage, the opening
flowers, betokened the reviving life of nature.'

Day by day they floated down the great bends, in the shadow of the dense
forests, and in time arrived at the mouth of the Arkansas. First, they
were greeted by the natives of this locality as Marquette had before
been greeted by them--with the booming of the war drum and the flourish
of arms. The Virgin composed the difficulty in Marquette's case; the
pipe of peace did the same office for La Salle. The white man and the
red man struck hands and entertained each other during three days.
Then, to the admiration of the savages, La Salle set up a cross with the
arms of France on it, and took possession of the whole country for the
king--the cool fashion of the time--while the priest piously consecrated
the robbery with a hymn. The priest explained the mysteries of the faith
'by signs,' for the saving of the savages; thus compensating them with
possible possessions in Heaven for the certain ones on earth which they
had just been robbed of. And also, by signs, La Salle drew from these
simple children of the forest acknowledgments of fealty to Louis the
Putrid, over the water. Nobody smiled at these colossal ironies.

These performances took place on the site of the future town of
Napoleon, Arkansas, and there the first confiscation-cross was raised on
the banks of the great river. Marquette's and Joliet's voyage of
discovery ended at the same spot--the site of the future town of
Napoleon. When De Soto took his fleeting glimpse of the river, away back
in the dim early days, he took it from that same spot--the site of the
future town of Napoleon, Arkansas. Therefore, three out of the four
memorable events connected with the discovery and exploration of the
mighty river, occurred, by accident, in one and the same place. It is a
most curious distinction, when one comes to look at it and think about
it. France stole that vast country on that spot, the future Napoleon;
and by and by Napoleon himself was to give the country back again!--make
restitution, not to the owners, but to their white American heirs.

The voyagers journeyed on, touching here and there; 'passed the sites,
since become historic, of Vicksburg and Grand Gulf,' and visited an
imposing Indian monarch in the Teche country, whose capital city was a
substantial one of sun-baked bricks mixed with straw--better houses than
many that exist there now. The chiefs house contained an audience room
forty feet square; and there he received Tonty in State, surrounded by
sixty old men clothed in white cloaks. There was a temple in the town,
with a mud wall about it ornamented with skulls of enemies sacrificed to
the sun.

The voyagers visited the Natchez Indians, near the site of the present
city of that name, where they found a 'religious and political
despotism, a privileged class descended from the sun, a temple and a
sacred fire.' It must have been like getting home again; it was home
with an advantage, in fact, for it lacked Louis XIV.

A few more days swept swiftly by, and La Salle stood in the shadow of
his confiscating cross, at the meeting of the waters from Delaware, and
from Itaska, and from the mountain ranges close upon the Pacific, with
the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, his task finished, his prodigy
achieved. Mr. Parkman, in closing his fascinating narrative, thus sums

'On that day, the realm of France received on parchment a stupendous
accession. The fertile plains of Texas; the vast basin of the
Mississippi, from its frozen northern springs to the sultry borders of
the Gulf; from the woody ridges of the Alleghanies to the bare peaks of
the Rocky Mountains--a region of savannas and forests, sun-cracked
deserts and grassy prairies, watered by a thousand rivers, ranged by a
thousand warlike tribes, passed beneath the scepter of the Sultan of
Versailles; and all by virtue of a feeble human voice, inaudible at half
a mile.'

Chapter 3 Frescoes from the Past

APPARENTLY the river was ready for business, now. But no, the
distribution of a population along its banks was as calm and deliberate
and time-devouring a process as the discovery and exploration had been.

Seventy years elapsed, after the exploration, before the river's borders
had a white population worth considering; and nearly fifty more before
the river had a commerce. Between La Salle's opening of the river and
the time when it may be said to have become the vehicle of anything like
a regular and active commerce, seven sovereigns had occupied the throne
of England, America had become an independent nation, Louis XIV. and
Louis XV. had rotted and died, the French monarchy had gone down in the
red tempest of the revolution, and Napoleon was a name that was
beginning to be talked about. Truly, there were snails in those days.

The river's earliest commerce was in great barges--keelboats,
broadhorns. They floated and sailed from the upper rivers to New
Orleans, changed cargoes there, and were tediously warped and poled back
by hand. A voyage down and back sometimes occupied nine months. In time
this commerce increased until it gave employment to hordes of rough and
hardy men; rude, uneducated, brave, suffering terrific hardships with
sailor-like stoicism; heavy drinkers, coarse frolickers in moral sties
like the Natchez-under-the-hill of that day, heavy fighters, reckless
fellows, every one, elephantinely jolly, foul-witted, profane; prodigal
of their money, bankrupt at the end of the trip, fond of barbaric
finery, prodigious braggarts; yet, in the main, honest, trustworthy,
faithful to promises and duty, and often picturesquely magnanimous.

By and by the steamboat intruded. Then for fifteen or twenty years,
these men continued to run their keelboats down-stream, and the steamers
did all of the upstream business, the keelboatmen selling their boats in
New Orleans, and returning home as deck passengers in the steamers.

But after a while the steamboats so increased in number and in speed
that they were able to absorb the entire commerce; and then keelboating
died a permanent death. The keelboatman became a deck hand, or a mate,
or a pilot on the steamer; and when steamer-berths were not open to him,
he took a berth on a Pittsburgh coal-flat, or on a pine-raft constructed
in the forests up toward the sources of the Mississippi.

In the heyday of the steamboating prosperity, the river from end to end
was flaked with coal-fleets and timber rafts, all managed by hand, and
employing hosts of the rough characters whom I have been trying to
describe. I remember the annual processions of mighty rafts that used
to glide by Hannibal when I was a boy,--an acre or so of white, sweet-
smelling boards in each raft, a crew of two dozen men or more, three or
four wigwams scattered about the raft's vast level space for storm-
quarters,--and I remember the rude ways and the tremendous talk of their
big crews, the ex-keelboatmen and their admiringly patterning
successors; for we used to swim out a quarter or third of a mile and get
on these rafts and have a ride.

By way of illustrating keelboat talk and manners, and that now-departed
and hardly-remembered raft-life, I will throw in, in this place, a
chapter from a book which I have been working at, by fits and starts,
during the past five or six years, and may possibly finish in the course
of five or six more. The book is a story which details some passages in
the life of an ignorant village boy, Huck Finn, son of the town drunkard
of my time out west, there. He has run away from his persecuting
father, and from a persecuting good widow who wishes to make a nice,
truth-telling, respectable boy of him; and with him a slave of the
widow's has also escaped. They have found a fragment of a lumber raft
(it is high water and dead summer time), and are floating down the river
by night, and hiding in the willows by day,--bound for Cairo,--whence
the negro will seek freedom in the heart of the free States. But in a
fog, they pass Cairo without knowing it. By and by they begin to suspect
the truth, and Huck Finn is persuaded to end the dismal suspense by
swimming down to a huge raft which they have seen in the distance ahead
of them, creeping aboard under cover of the darkness, and gathering the
needed information by eavesdropping:--

But you know a young person can't wait very well when he is impatient to
find a thing out. We talked it over, and by and by Jim said it was such
a black night, now, that it wouldn't be no risk to swim down to the big
raft and crawl aboard and listen--they would talk about Cairo, because
they would be calculating to go ashore there for a spree, maybe, or
anyway they would send boats ashore to buy whiskey or fresh meat or
something. Jim had a wonderful level head, for a nigger: he could most
always start a good plan when you wanted one.

I stood up and shook my rags off and jumped into the river, and struck
out for the raft's light. By and by, when I got down nearly to her, I
eased up and went slow and cautious. But everything was all right--
nobody at the sweeps. So I swum down along the raft till I was most
abreast the camp fire in the middle, then I crawled aboard and inched
along and got in amongst some bundles of shingles on the weather side of
the fire. There was thirteen men there--they was the watch on deck of
course. And a mighty rough-looking lot, too. They had a jug, and tin
cups, and they kept the jug moving. One man was singing--roaring, you
may say; and it wasn't a nice song--for a parlor anyway. He roared
through his nose, and strung out the last word of every line very long.
When he was done they all fetched a kind of Injun war-whoop, and then
another was sung. It begun:--

'There was a woman in our towdn, In our towdn did dwed'l (dwell,) She
loved her husband dear-i-lee, But another man twyste as wed'l.

Singing too, riloo, riloo, riloo, Ri-too, riloo, rilay - - - e, She
loved her husband dear-i-lee, But another man twyste as wed'l.

And so on--fourteen verses. It was kind of poor, and when he was going
to start on the next verse one of them said it was the tune the old cow
died on; and another one said, 'Oh, give us a rest.' And another one
told him to take a walk. They made fun of him till he got mad and
jumped up and begun to cuss the crowd, and said he could lame any thief
in the lot.

They was all about to make a break for him, but the biggest man there
jumped up and says--

'Set whar you are, gentlemen. Leave him to me; he's my meat.'

Then he jumped up in the air three times and cracked his heels together
every time. He flung off a buckskin coat that was all hung with
fringes, and says, 'You lay thar tell the chawin-up's done;' and flung
his hat down, which was all over ribbons, and says, 'You lay thar tell
his sufferin's is over.'

Then he jumped up in the air and cracked his heels together again and
shouted out--

'Whoo-oop! I'm the old original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-
bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansaw!--Look at me! I'm the
man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation! Sired by a hurricane,
dam'd by an earthquake, half-brother to the cholera, nearly related to
the small-pox on the mother's side! Look at me! I take nineteen
alligators and a bar'l of whiskey for breakfast when I'm in robust
health, and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when I'm ailing! I
split the everlasting rocks with my glance, and I squench the thunder
when I speak! Whoo-oop! Stand back and give me room according to my
strength! Blood's my natural drink, and the wails of the dying is music
to my ear! Cast your eye on me, gentlemen!--and lay low and hold your
breath, for I'm bout to turn myself loose!'

All the time he was getting this off, he was shaking his head and
looking fierce, and kind of swelling around in a little circle, tucking
up his wrist-bands, and now and then straightening up and beating his
breast with his fist, saying, 'Look at me, gentlemen!' When he got
through, he jumped up and cracked his heels together three times, and
let off a roaring 'Whoo-oop! I'm the bloodiest son of a wildcat that

Then the man that had started the row tilted his old slouch hat down
over his right eye; then he bent stooping forward, with his back sagged
and his south end sticking out far, and his fists a-shoving out and
drawing in in front of him, and so went around in a little circle about
three times, swelling himself up and breathing hard. Then he
straightened, and jumped up and cracked his heels together three times,
before he lit again (that made them cheer), and he begun to shout like

'Whoo-oop! bow your neck and spread, for the kingdom of sorrow's a-
coming! Hold me down to the earth, for I feel my powers a-working! whoo-
oop! I'm a child of sin, don't let me get a start! Smoked glass, here,
for all! Don't attempt to look at me with the naked eye, gentlemen!
When I'm playful I use the meridians of longitude and parallels of
latitude for a seine, and drag the Atlantic Ocean for whales! I scratch
my head with the lightning, and purr myself to sleep with the thunder!
When I'm cold, I bile the Gulf of Mexico and bathe in it; when I'm hot I
fan myself with an equinoctial storm; when I'm thirsty I reach up and
suck a cloud dry like a sponge; when I range the earth hungry, famine
follows in my tracks! Whoo-oop! Bow your neck and spread! I put my hand
on the sun's face and make it night in the earth; I bite a piece out of
the moon and hurry the seasons; I shake myself and crumble the
mountains! Contemplate me through leather--don't use the naked eye! I'm
the man with a petrified heart and biler-iron bowels! The massacre of
isolated communities is the pastime of my idle moments, the destruction
of nationalities the serious business of my life! The boundless vastness
of the great American desert is my enclosed property, and I bury my dead
on my own premises!' He jumped up and cracked his heels together three
times before he lit (they cheered him again), and as he come down he
shouted out: 'Whoo-oop! bow your neck and spread, for the pet child of
calamity's a-coming! '

Then the other one went to swelling around and blowing again--the first
one--the one they called Bob; next, the Child of Calamity chipped in
again, bigger than ever; then they both got at it at the same time,
swelling round and round each other and punching their fists most into
each other's faces, and whooping and jawing like Injuns; then Bob called
the Child names, and the Child called him names back again: next, Bob
called him a heap rougher names and the Child come back at him with the
very worst kind of language; next, Bob knocked the Child's hat off, and
the Child picked it up and kicked Bob's ribbony hat about six foot; Bob
went and got it and said never mind, this warn't going to be the last of
this thing, because he was a man that never forgot and never forgive,
and so the Child better look out, for there was a time a-coming, just as
sure as he was a living man, that he would have to answer to him with
the best blood in his body. The Child said no man was willinger than he
was for that time to come, and he would give Bob fair warning, now,
never to cross his path again, for he could never rest till he had waded
in his blood, for such was his nature, though he was sparing him now on
account of his family, if he had one.

Both of them was edging away in different directions, growling and
shaking their heads and going on about what they was going to do; but a
little black-whiskered chap skipped up and says--

'Come back here, you couple of chicken-livered cowards, and I'll thrash
the two of ye!'

And he done it, too. He snatched them, he jerked them this way and
that, he booted them around, he knocked them sprawling faster than they
could get up. Why, it warn't two minutes till they begged like dogs--
and how the other lot did yell and laugh and clap their hands all the
way through, and shout 'Sail in, Corpse-Maker!' 'Hi! at him again, Child
of Calamity!' 'Bully for you, little Davy!' Well, it was a perfect pow-
wow for a while. Bob and the Child had red noses and black eyes when
they got through. Little Davy made them own up that they were sneaks and
cowards and not fit to eat with a dog or drink with a nigger; then Bob
and the Child shook hands with each other, very solemn, and said they
had always respected each other and was willing to let bygones be
bygones. So then they washed their faces in the river; and just then
there was a loud order to stand by for a crossing, and some of them went
forward to man the sweeps there, and the rest went aft to handle the

I laid still and waited for fifteen minutes, and had a smoke out of a
pipe that one of them left in reach; then the crossing was finished, and
they stumped back and had a drink around and went to talking and singing
again. Next they got out an old fiddle, and one played and another
patted juba, and the rest turned themselves loose on a regular old-
fashioned keel-boat break-down. They couldn't keep that up very long
without getting winded, so by and by they settled around the jug again.

They sung 'jolly, jolly raftman's the life for me,' with a musing
chorus, and then they got to talking about differences betwixt hogs, and
their different kind of habits; and next about women and their different
ways: and next about the best ways to put out houses that was afire;
and next about what ought to be done with the Injuns; and next about
what a king had to do, and how much he got; and next about how to make
cats fight; and next about what to do when a man has fits; and next
about differences betwixt clear-water rivers and muddy-water ones. The
man they called Ed said the muddy Mississippi water was wholesomer to
drink than the clear water of the Ohio; he said if you let a pint of
this yaller Mississippi water settle, you would have about a half to
three-quarters of an inch of mud in the bottom, according to the stage
of the river, and then it warn't no better than Ohio water--what you
wanted to do was to keep it stirred up--and when the river was low, keep
mud on hand to put in and thicken the water up the way it ought to be.

The Child of Calamity said that was so; he said there was nutritiousness
in the mud, and a man that drunk Mississippi water could grow corn in
his stomach if he wanted to. He says--

'You look at the graveyards; that tells the tale. Trees won't grow
worth chucks in a Cincinnati graveyard, but in a Sent Louis graveyard
they grow upwards of eight hundred foot high. It's all on account of the
water the people drunk before they laid up. A Cincinnati corpse don't
richen a soil any.'

And they talked about how Ohio water didn't like to mix with Mississippi
water. Ed said if you take the Mississippi on a rise when the Ohio is
low, you'll find a wide band of clear water all the way down the east
side of the Mississippi for a hundred mile or more, and the minute you
get out a quarter of a mile from shore and pass the line, it is all
thick and yaller the rest of the way across. Then they talked about how
to keep tobacco from getting moldy, and from that they went into ghosts
and told about a lot that other folks had seen; but Ed says--

'Why don't you tell something that you've seen yourselves? Now let me
have a say. Five years ago I was on a raft as big as this, and right
along here it was a bright moonshiny night, and I was on watch and boss
of the stabboard oar forrard, and one of my pards was a man named Dick
Allbright, and he come along to where I was sitting, forrard--gaping and
stretching, he was--and stooped down on the edge of the raft and washed
his face in the river, and come and set down by me and got out his pipe,
and had just got it filled, when he looks up and says--

'"Why looky-here," he says, "ain't that Buck Miller's place, over yander
in the bend."

'"Yes," says I, "it is--why." He laid his pipe down and leant his head
on his hand, and says--

'"I thought we'd be furder down." I says--

'"I thought it too, when I went off watch"--we was standing six hours on
and six off--"but the boys told me," I says, "that the raft didn't seem
to hardly move, for the last hour," says I, "though she's a slipping
along all right, now," says I. He give a kind of a groan, and says--

'"I've seed a raft act so before, along here," he says, "'pears to me
the current has most quit above the head of this bend durin' the last
two years," he says.

'Well, he raised up two or three times, and looked away off and around
on the water. That started me at it, too. A body is always doing what
he sees somebody else doing, though there mayn't be no sense in it.
Pretty soon I see a black something floating on the water away off to
stabboard and quartering behind us. I see he was looking at it, too. I

'"What's that?" He says, sort of pettish,--

'"Tain't nothing but an old empty bar'l."

'"An empty bar'l!" says I, "why," says I, "a spy-glass is a fool to your
eyes. How can you tell it's an empty bar'l?" He says--

'"I don't know; I reckon it ain't a bar'l, but I thought it might be,"
says he.

'"Yes," I says, "so it might be, and it might be anything else, too; a
body can't tell nothing about it, such a distance as that," I says.

'We hadn't nothing else to do, so we kept on watching it. By and by I

'"Why looky-here, Dick Allbright, that thing's a-gaining on us, I

'He never said nothing. The thing gained and gained, and I judged it
must be a dog that was about tired out. Well, we swung down into the
crossing, and the thing floated across the bright streak of the
moonshine, and, by George, it was bar'l. Says I--

'"Dick Allbright, what made you think that thing was a bar'l, when it
was a half a mile off," says I. Says he--

'"I don't know." Says I--

'"You tell me, Dick Allbright." He says--

'"Well, I knowed it was a bar'l; I've seen it before; lots has seen it;
they says it's a haunted bar'l."

'I called the rest of the watch, and they come and stood there, and I
told them what Dick said. It floated right along abreast, now, and
didn't gain any more. It was about twenty foot off. Some was for having
it aboard, but the rest didn't want to. Dick Allbright said rafts that
had fooled with it had got bad luck by it. The captain of the watch
said he didn't believe in it. He said he reckoned the bar'l gained on us
because it was in a little better current than what we was. He said it
would leave by and by.

'So then we went to talking about other things, and we had a song, and
then a breakdown; and after that the captain of the watch called for
another song; but it was clouding up, now, and the bar'l stuck right
thar in the same place, and the song didn't seem to have much warm-up to
it, somehow, and so they didn't finish it, and there warn't any cheers,
but it sort of dropped flat, and nobody said anything for a minute. Then
everybody tried to talk at once, and one chap got off a joke, but it
warn't no use, they didn't laugh, and even the chap that made the joke
didn't laugh at it, which ain't usual. We all just settled down glum,
and watched the bar'l, and was oneasy and oncomfortable. Well, sir, it
shut down black and still, and then the wind begin to moan around, and
next the lightning begin to play and the thunder to grumble. And pretty
soon there was a regular storm, and in the middle of it a man that was
running aft stumbled and fell and sprained his ankle so that he had to
lay up. This made the boys shake their heads. And every time the
lightning come, there was that bar'l with the blue lights winking around
it. We was always on the look-out for it. But by and by, towards dawn,
she was gone. When the day come we couldn't see her anywhere, and we
warn't sorry, neither.

'But next night about half-past nine, when there was songs and high
jinks going on, here she comes again, and took her old roost on the
stabboard side. There warn't no more high jinks. Everybody got solemn;
nobody talked; you couldn't get anybody to do anything but set around
moody and look at the bar'l. It begun to cloud up again. When the watch
changed, the off watch stayed up, 'stead of turning in. The storm ripped
and roared around all night, and in the middle of it another man tripped
and sprained his ankle, and had to knock off. The bar'l left towards
day, and nobody see it go.

'Everybody was sober and down in the mouth all day. I don't mean the
kind of sober that comes of leaving liquor alone--not that. They was
quiet, but they all drunk more than usual--not together--but each man
sidled off and took it private, by himself.

'After dark the off watch didn't turn in; nobody sung, nobody talked;
the boys didn't scatter around, neither; they sort of huddled together,
forrard; and for two hours they set there, perfectly still, looking
steady in the one direction, and heaving a sigh once in a while. And
then, here comes the bar'l again. She took up her old place. She staid
there all night; nobody turned in. The storm come on again, after
midnight. It got awful dark; the rain poured down; hail, too; the
thunder boomed and roared and bellowed; the wind blowed a hurricane; and
the lightning spread over everything in big sheets of glare, and showed
the whole raft as plain as day; and the river lashed up white as milk as
far as you could see for miles, and there was that bar'l jiggering
along, same as ever. The captain ordered the watch to man the after
sweeps for a crossing, and nobody would go--no more sprained ankles for
them, they said. They wouldn't even walk aft. Well then, just then the
sky split wide open, with a crash, and the lightning killed two men of
the after watch, and crippled two more. Crippled them how, says you?
Why, sprained their ankles!

'The bar'l left in the dark betwixt lightnings, towards dawn. Well, not
a body eat a bite at breakfast that morning. After that the men loafed
around, in twos and threes, and talked low together. But none of them
herded with Dick Allbright. They all give him the cold shake. If he
come around where any of the men was, they split up and sidled away.
They wouldn't man the sweeps with him. The captain had all the skiffs
hauled up on the raft, alongside of his wigwam, and wouldn't let the
dead men be took ashore to be planted; he didn't believe a man that got
ashore would come back; and he was right.

'After night come, you could see pretty plain that there was going to be
trouble if that bar'l come again; there was such a muttering going on. A
good many wanted to kill Dick Allbright, because he'd seen the bar'l on
other trips, and that had an ugly look. Some wanted to put him ashore.
Some said, let's all go ashore in a pile, if the bar'l comes again.

'This kind of whispers was still going on, the men being bunched
together forrard watching for the bar'l, when, lo and behold you, here
she comes again. Down she comes, slow and steady, and settles into her
old tracks. You could a heard a pin drop. Then up comes the captain,
and says:--

'"Boys, don't be a pack of children and fools; I don't want this bar'l
to be dogging us all the way to Orleans, and YOU don't; well, then,
how's the best way to stop it? Burn it up,--that's the way. I'm going
to fetch it aboard," he says. And before anybody could say a word, in he

'He swum to it, and as he come pushing it to the raft, the men spread to
one side. But the old man got it aboard and busted in the head, and
there was a baby in it! Yes, sir, a stark naked baby. It was Dick
Allbright's baby; he owned up and said so.

'"Yes," he says, a-leaning over it, "yes, it is my own lamented darling,
my poor lost Charles William Allbright deceased," says he,--for he could
curl his tongue around the bulliest words in the language when he was a
mind to, and lay them before you without a jint started, anywheres.
Yes, he said he used to live up at the head of this bend, and one night
he choked his child, which was crying, not intending to kill it,--which
was prob'ly a lie,--and then he was scared, and buried it in a bar'l,
before his wife got home, and off he went, and struck the northern trail
and went to rafting; and this was the third year that the bar'l had
chased him. He said the bad luck always begun light, and lasted till
four men was killed, and then the bar'l didn't come any more after that.
He said if the men would stand it one more night,--and was a-going on
like that,--but the men had got enough. They started to get out a boat
to take him ashore and lynch him, but he grabbed the little child all of
a sudden and jumped overboard with it hugged up to his breast and
shedding tears, and we never see him again in this life, poor old
suffering soul, nor Charles William neither.'

'WHO was shedding tears?' says Bob; 'was it Allbright or the baby?'

'Why, Allbright, of course; didn't I tell you the baby was dead. Been
dead three years--how could it cry?'

'Well, never mind how it could cry--how could it KEEP all that time?'
says Davy. 'You answer me that.'

'I don't know how it done it,' says Ed. 'It done it though--that's all
I know about it.'

'Say--what did they do with the bar'l?' says the Child of Calamity.

'Why, they hove it overboard, and it sunk like a chunk of lead.'

'Edward, did the child look like it was choked?' says one.

'Did it have its hair parted?' says another.

'What was the brand on that bar'l, Eddy?' says a fellow they called

'Have you got the papers for them statistics, Edmund?' says Jimmy.

'Say, Edwin, was you one of the men that was killed by the lightning.'
says Davy.

'Him? O, no, he was both of 'em,' says Bob. Then they all haw-hawed.

'Say, Edward, don't you reckon you'd better take a pill? You look bad--
don't you feel pale?' says the Child of Calamity.

'O, come, now, Eddy,' says Jimmy, 'show up; you must a kept part of that
bar'l to prove the thing by. Show us the bunghole--do--and we'll all
believe you.'

'Say, boys,' says Bill, 'less divide it up. Thar's thirteen of us. I
can swaller a thirteenth of the yarn, if you can worry down the rest.'

Ed got up mad and said they could all go to some place which he ripped
out pretty savage, and then walked off aft cussing to himself, and they
yelling and jeering at him, and roaring and laughing so you could hear
them a mile.

'Boys, we'll split a watermelon on that,' says the Child of Calamity;
and he come rummaging around in the dark amongst the shingle bundles
where I was, and put his hand on me. I was warm and soft and naked; so
he says 'Ouch!' and jumped back.

'Fetch a lantern or a chunk of fire here, boys--there's a snake here as
big as a cow!'

So they run there with a lantern and crowded up and looked in on me.

'Come out of that, you beggar!' says one.

'Who are you?' says another.

'What are you after here? Speak up prompt, or overboard you go.

'Snake him out, boys. Snatch him out by the heels.'

I began to beg, and crept out amongst them trembling. They looked me
over, wondering, and the Child of Calamity says--

'A cussed thief! Lend a hand and less heave him overboard!'

'No,' says Big Bob, 'less get out the paint-pot and paint him a sky blue
all over from head to heel, and then heave him over!'

'Good, that 's it. Go for the paint, Jimmy.'

When the paint come, and Bob took the brush and was just going to begin,
the others laughing and rubbing their hands, I begun to cry, and that
sort of worked on Davy, and he says--

''Vast there! He 's nothing but a cub. 'I'll paint the man that
tetches him!'

So I looked around on them, and some of them grumbled and growled, and
Bob put down the paint, and the others didn't take it up.

'Come here to the fire, and less see what you're up to here,' says Davy.
'Now set down there and give an account of yourself. How long have you
been aboard here?'

'Not over a quarter of a minute, sir,' says I.

'How did you get dry so quick?'

'I don't know, sir. I'm always that way, mostly.'

'Oh, you are, are you. What's your name?'

I warn't going to tell my name. I didn't know what to say, so I just

'Charles William Allbright, sir.'

Then they roared--the whole crowd; and I was mighty glad I said that,
because maybe laughing would get them in a better humor.

When they got done laughing, Davy says--

'It won't hardly do, Charles William. You couldn't have growed this
much in five year, and you was a baby when you come out of the bar'l,
you know, and dead at that. Come, now, tell a straight story, and
nobody'll hurt you, if you ain't up to anything wrong. What IS your

'Aleck Hopkins, sir. Aleck James Hopkins.'

'Well, Aleck, where did you come from, here?'

'From a trading scow. She lays up the bend yonder. I was born on her.
Pap has traded up and down here all his life; and he told me to swim off
here, because when you went by he said he would like to get some of you
to speak to a Mr. Jonas Turner, in Cairo, and tell him--'

'Oh, come!'

'Yes, sir; it's as true as the world; Pap he says--'

'Oh, your grandmother!'

They all laughed, and I tried again to talk, but they broke in on me and
stopped me.

'Now, looky-here,' says Davy; 'you're scared, and so you talk wild.
Honest, now, do you live in a scow, or is it a lie?'

'Yes, sir, in a trading scow. She lays up at the head of the bend. But
I warn't born in her. It's our first trip.'

'Now you're talking! What did you come aboard here, for? To steal?'

'No, sir, I didn't.--It was only to get a ride on the raft. All boys
does that.'

'Well, I know that. But what did you hide for?'

'Sometimes they drive the boys off.'

'So they do. They might steal. Looky-here; if we let you off this
time, will you keep out of these kind of scrapes hereafter?'

''Deed I will, boss. You try me.'

'All right, then. You ain't but little ways from shore. Overboard with
you, and don't you make a fool of yourself another time this way.--Blast
it, boy, some raftsmen would rawhide you till you were black and blue!'

I didn't wait to kiss good-bye, but went overboard and broke for shore.
When Jim come along by and by, the big raft was away out of sight around
the point. I swum out and got aboard, and was mighty glad to see home

The boy did not get the information he was after, but his adventure has
furnished the glimpse of the departed raftsman and keelboatman which I
desire to offer in this place.

I now come to a phase of the Mississippi River life of the flush times
of steamboating, which seems to me to warrant full examination--the
marvelous science of piloting, as displayed there. I believe there has
been nothing like it elsewhere in the world.

Chapter 4 The Boys' Ambition

WHEN I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades
in our village{footnote [1. Hannibal, Missouri]} on the west bank of the
Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman. We had transient
ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient. When a circus
came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first negro
minstrel show that came to our section left us all suffering to try that
kind of life; now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good,
God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in
its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained.

Once a day a cheap, gaudy packet arrived upward from St. Louis, and
another downward from Keokuk. Before these events, the day was glorious
with expectancy; after them, the day was a dead and empty thing. Not
only the boys, but the whole village, felt this. After all these years I
can picture that old time to myself now, just as it was then: the white
town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer's morning; the streets empty,
or pretty nearly so; one or two clerks sitting in front of the Water
Street stores, with their splint-bottomed chairs tilted back against the
wall, chins on breasts, hats slouched over their faces, asleep--with
shingle-shavings enough around to show what broke them down; a sow and a
litter of pigs loafing along the sidewalk, doing a good business in
watermelon rinds and seeds; two or three lonely little freight piles
scattered about the 'levee;' a pile of 'skids' on the slope of the
stone-paved wharf, and the fragrant town drunkard asleep in the shadow
of them; two or three wood flats at the head of the wharf, but nobody to
listen to the peaceful lapping of the wavelets against them; the great
Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi, rolling its
mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun; the dense forest away on the
other side; the 'point' above the town, and the 'point' below, bounding
the river-glimpse and turning it into a sort of sea, and withal a very
still and brilliant and lonely one. Presently a film of dark smoke
appears above one of those remote 'points;' instantly a negro drayman,
famous for his quick eye and prodigious voice, lifts up the cry, 'S-t-e-
a-m-boat a-comin'!' and the scene changes! The town drunkard stirs, the
clerks wake up, a furious clatter of drays follows, every house and
store pours out a human contribution, and all in a twinkling the dead
town is alive and moving. Drays, carts, men, boys, all go hurrying from
many quarters to a common center, the wharf. Assembled there, the people
fasten their eyes upon the coming boat as upon a wonder they are seeing
for the first time. And the boat IS rather a handsome sight, too. She
is long and sharp and trim and pretty; she has two tall, fancy-topped
chimneys, with a gilded device of some kind swung between them; a
fanciful pilot-house, a glass and 'gingerbread', perched on top of the
'texas' deck behind them; the paddle-boxes are gorgeous with a picture
or with gilded rays above the boat's name; the boiler deck, the
hurricane deck, and the texas deck are fenced and ornamented with clean
white railings; there is a flag gallantly flying from the jack-staff;
the furnace doors are open and the fires glaring bravely; the upper
decks are black with passengers; the captain stands by the big bell,
calm, imposing, the envy of all; great volumes of the blackest smoke are
rolling and tumbling out of the chimneys--a husbanded grandeur created
with a bit of pitch pine just before arriving at a town; the crew are
grouped on the forecastle; the broad stage is run far out over the port
bow, and an envied deckhand stands picturesquely on the end of it with a
coil of rope in his hand; the pent steam is screaming through the gauge-
cocks, the captain lifts his hand, a bell rings, the wheels stop; then
they turn back, churning the water to foam, and the steamer is at rest.
Then such a scramble as there is to get aboard, and to get ashore, and
to take in freight and to discharge freight, all at one and the same
time; and such a yelling and cursing as the mates facilitate it all
with! Ten minutes later the steamer is under way again, with no flag on
the jack-staff and no black smoke issuing from the chimneys. After ten
more minutes the town is dead again, and the town drunkard asleep by the
skids once more.

My father was a justice of the peace, and I supposed he possessed the
power of life and death over all men and could hang anybody that
offended him. This was distinction enough for me as a general thing;
but the desire to be a steamboatman kept intruding, nevertheless. I
first wanted to be a cabin-boy, so that I could come out with a white
apron on and shake a tablecloth over the side, where all my old comrades
could see me; later I thought I would rather be the deckhand who stood
on the end of the stage-plank with the coil of rope in his hand, because
he was particularly conspicuous. But these were only day-dreams,--they
were too heavenly to be contemplated as real possibilities. By and by
one of our boys went away. He was not heard of for a long time. At last
he turned up as apprentice engineer or 'striker' on a steamboat. This
thing shook the bottom out of all my Sunday-school teachings. That boy
had been notoriously worldly, and I just the reverse; yet he was exalted
to this eminence, and I left in obscurity and misery. There was nothing
generous about this fellow in his greatness. He would always manage to
have a rusty bolt to scrub while his boat tarried at our town, and he
would sit on the inside guard and scrub it, where we could all see him
and envy him and loathe him. And whenever his boat was laid up he would
come home and swell around the town in his blackest and greasiest
clothes, so that nobody could help remembering that he was a
steamboatman; and he used all sorts of steamboat technicalities in his
talk, as if he were so used to them that he forgot common people could
not understand them. He would speak of the 'labboard' side of a horse in
an easy, natural way that would make one wish he was dead. And he was
always talking about 'St. Looy' like an old citizen; he would refer
casually to occasions when he 'was coming down Fourth Street,' or when
he was 'passing by the Planter's House,' or when there was a fire and he
took a turn on the brakes of 'the old Big Missouri;' and then he would
go on and lie about how many towns the size of ours were burned down
there that day. Two or three of the boys had long been persons of
consideration among us because they had been to St. Louis once and had a
vague general knowledge of its wonders, but the day of their glory was
over now. They lapsed into a humble silence, and learned to disappear
when the ruthless 'cub'-engineer approached. This fellow had money,
too, and hair oil. Also an ignorant silver watch and a showy brass watch
chain. He wore a leather belt and used no suspenders. If ever a youth
was cordially admired and hated by his comrades, this one was. No girl
could withstand his charms. He 'cut out' every boy in the village. When
his boat blew up at last, it diffused a tranquil contentment among us
such as we had not known for months. But when he came home the next
week, alive, renowned, and appeared in church all battered up and
bandaged, a shining hero, stared at and wondered over by everybody, it
seemed to us that the partiality of Providence for an undeserving
reptile had reached a point where it was open to criticism.

This creature's career could produce but one result, and it speedily
followed. Boy after boy managed to get on the river. The minister's son
became an engineer. The doctor's and the post-master's sons became 'mud
clerks;' the wholesale liquor dealer's son became a barkeeper on a boat;
four sons of the chief merchant, and two sons of the county judge,
became pilots. Pilot was the grandest position of all. The pilot, even
in those days of trivial wages, had a princely salary--from a hundred
and fifty to two hundred and fifty dollars a month, and no board to pay.
Two months of his wages would pay a preacher's salary for a year. Now
some of us were left disconsolate. We could not get on the river--at
least our parents would not let us.

So by and by I ran away. I said I never would come home again till I
was a pilot and could come in glory. But somehow I could not manage it.
I went meekly aboard a few of the boats that lay packed together like
sardines at the long St. Louis wharf, and very humbly inquired for the
pilots, but got only a cold shoulder and short words from mates and
clerks. I had to make the best of this sort of treatment for the time
being, but I had comforting daydreams of a future when I should be a
great and honored pilot, with plenty of money, and could kill some of
these mates and clerks and pay for them.

Chapter 5 I Want to be a Cub-pilot

MONTHS afterward the hope within me struggled to a reluctant death, and
I found myself without an ambition. But I was ashamed to go home. I was
in Cincinnati, and I set to work to map out a new career. I had been
reading about the recent exploration of the river Amazon by an
expedition sent out by our government. It was said that the expedition,
owing to difficulties, had not thoroughly explored a part of the country
lying about the head-waters, some four thousand miles from the mouth of
the river. It was only about fifteen hundred miles from Cincinnati to
New Orleans, where I could doubtless get a ship. I had thirty dollars
left; I would go and complete the exploration of the Amazon. This was
all the thought I gave to the subject. I never was great in matters of
detail. I packed my valise, and took passage on an ancient tub called
the 'Paul Jones,' for New Orleans. For the sum of sixteen dollars I had
the scarred and tarnished splendors of 'her' main saloon principally to
myself, for she was not a creature to attract the eye of wiser

When we presently got under way and went poking down the broad Ohio, I
became a new being, and the subject of my own admiration. I was a
traveler! A word never had tasted so good in my mouth before. I had an
exultant sense of being bound for mysterious lands and distant climes
which I never have felt in so uplifting a degree since. I was in such a
glorified condition that all ignoble feelings departed out of me, and I
was able to look down and pity the untraveled with a compassion that had
hardly a trace of contempt in it. Still, when we stopped at villages and
wood-yards, I could not help lolling carelessly upon the railings of the
boiler deck to enjoy the envy of the country boys on the bank. If they
did not seem to discover me, I presently sneezed to attract their
attention, or moved to a position where they could not help seeing me.
And as soon as I knew they saw me I gaped and stretched, and gave other
signs of being mightily bored with traveling.

I kept my hat off all the time, and stayed where the wind and the sun
could strike me, because I wanted to get the bronzed and weather-beaten
look of an old traveler. Before the second day was half gone I
experienced a joy which filled me with the purest gratitude; for I saw
that the skin had begun to blister and peel off my face and neck. I
wished that the boys and girls at home could see me now.

We reached Louisville in time--at least the neighborhood of it. We stuck
hard and fast on the rocks in the middle of the river, and lay there
four days. I was now beginning to feel a strong sense of being a part
of the boat's family, a sort of infant son to the captain and younger
brother to the officers. There is no estimating the pride I took in this
grandeur, or the affection that began to swell and grow in me for those
people. I could not know how the lordly steamboatman scorns that sort
of presumption in a mere landsman. I particularly longed to acquire the
least trifle of notice from the big stormy mate, and I was on the alert
for an opportunity to do him a service to that end. It came at last.
The riotous powwow of setting a spar was going on down on the
forecastle, and I went down there and stood around in the way--or mostly
skipping out of it--till the mate suddenly roared a general order for
somebody to bring him a capstan bar. I sprang to his side and said:
'Tell me where it is--I'll fetch it!'

If a rag-picker had offered to do a diplomatic service for the Emperor
of Russia, the monarch could not have been more astounded than the mate
was. He even stopped swearing. He stood and stared down at me. It took
him ten seconds to scrape his disjointed remains together again. Then he
said impressively: 'Well, if this don't beat hell!' and turned to his
work with the air of a man who had been confronted with a problem too
abstruse for solution.

I crept away, and courted solitude for the rest of the day. I did not go
to dinner; I stayed away from supper until everybody else had finished.
I did not feel so much like a member of the boat's family now as before.
However, my spirits returned, in installments, as we pursued our way
down the river. I was sorry I hated the mate so, because it was not in
(young) human nature not to admire him. He was huge and muscular, his
face was bearded and whiskered all over; he had a red woman and a blue
woman tattooed on his right arm,--one on each side of a blue anchor with
a red rope to it; and in the matter of profanity he was sublime. When
he was getting out cargo at a landing, I was always where I could see
and hear. He felt all the majesty of his great position, and made the
world feel it, too. When he gave even the simplest order, he discharged
it like a blast of lightning, and sent a long, reverberating peal of
profanity thundering after it. I could not help contrasting the way in
which the average landsman would give an order, with the mate's way of
doing it. If the landsman should wish the gang-plank moved a foot
farther forward, he would probably say: 'James, or William, one of you
push that plank forward, please;' but put the mate in his place and he
would roar out: 'Here, now, start that gang-plank for'ard! Lively, now!
WHAT're you about! Snatch it! SNATCH it! There! there! Aft again! aft
again! don't you hear me. Dash it to dash! are you going to SLEEP over
it! 'VAST heaving. 'Vast heaving, I tell you! Going to heave it clear
astern? WHERE're you going with that barrel! FOR'ARD with it 'fore I
make you swallow it, you dash-dash-dash-DASHED split between a tired
mud-turtle and a crippled hearse-horse!'

I wished I could talk like that.

When the soreness of my adventure with the mate had somewhat worn off, I
began timidly to make up to the humblest official connected with the
boat--the night watchman. He snubbed my advances at first, but I
presently ventured to offer him a new chalk pipe; and that softened him.
So he allowed me to sit with him by the big bell on the hurricane deck,
and in time he melted into conversation. He could not well have helped
it, I hung with such homage on his words and so plainly showed that I
felt honored by his notice. He told me the names of dim capes and
shadowy islands as we glided by them in the solemnity of the night,
under the winking stars, and by and by got to talking about himself. He
seemed over-sentimental for a man whose salary was six dollars a week--
or rather he might have seemed so to an older person than I. But I drank
in his words hungrily, and with a faith that might have moved mountains
if it had been applied judiciously. What was it to me that he was soiled
and seedy and fragrant with gin? What was it to me that his grammar was
bad, his construction worse, and his profanity so void of art that it
was an element of weakness rather than strength in his conversation? He
was a wronged man, a man who had seen trouble, and that was enough for
me. As he mellowed into his plaintive history his tears dripped upon the
lantern in his lap, and I cried, too, from sympathy. He said he was the
son of an English nobleman--either an earl or an alderman, he could not
remember which, but believed was both; his father, the nobleman, loved
him, but his mother hated him from the cradle; and so while he was still
a little boy he was sent to 'one of them old, ancient colleges'--he
couldn't remember which; and by and by his father died and his mother
seized the property and 'shook' him as he phrased it. After his mother
shook him, members of the nobility with whom he was acquainted used
their influence to get him the position of 'loblolly-boy in a ship;' and
from that point my watchman threw off all trammels of date and locality
and branched out into a narrative that bristled all along with
incredible adventures; a narrative that was so reeking with bloodshed
and so crammed with hair-breadth escapes and the most engaging and
unconscious personal villainies, that I sat speechless, enjoying,
shuddering, wondering, worshipping.

It was a sore blight to find out afterwards that he was a low, vulgar,
ignorant, sentimental, half-witted humbug, an untraveled native of the
wilds of Illinois, who had absorbed wildcat literature and appropriated
its marvels, until in time he had woven odds and ends of the mess into
this yarn, and then gone on telling it to fledglings like me, until he
had come to believe it himself.


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