Life on the Mississippi/Chapter 24
AFTER a close study of the face of the pilot on watch, I was satisfied that I had never seen him before; so I went up there. The pilot inspected me; I re-inspected the pilot. These customary preliminaries over, I sat down on the high bench, and he faced about and went on with his work. Every detail of the pilot-house was familiar to me, with one exception,--a large-mouthed tube under the breast-board. I puzzled over that thing a considerable time; then gave up and asked what it was for.
'To hear the engine-bells through.'
It was another good contrivance which ought to have been invented half a century sooner. So I was thinking, when the pilot asked--
'Do you know what this rope is for?'
I managed to get around this question, without committing myself.
'Is this the first time you were ever in a pilot-house?'
I crept under that one.
'Where are you from?'
'First time you have ever been West?'
I climbed over this one.
'If you take an interest in such things, I can tell you what all these things are for.'
I said I should like it.
'This,' putting his hand on a backing-bell rope, 'is to sound the fire-alarm; this,' putting his hand on a go-ahead bell, 'is to call the texas-tender; this one,' indicating the whistle-lever, 'is to call the captain'--and so he went on, touching one object after another, and reeling off his tranquil spool of lies.
I had never felt so like a passenger before. I thanked him, with emotion, for each new fact, and wrote it down in my note-book. The pilot warmed to his opportunity, and proceeded to load me up in the good old-fashioned way. At times I was afraid he was going to rupture his invention; but it always stood the strain, and he pulled through all right. He drifted, by easy stages, into revealments of the river's marvelous eccentricities of one sort and another, and backed them up with some pretty gigantic illustrations. For instance--
'Do you see that little boulder sticking out of the water yonder? well, when I first came on the river, that was a solid ridge of rock, over sixty feet high and two miles long. All washed away but that.' [This with a sigh.]
I had a mighty impulse to destroy him, but it seemed to me that killing, in any ordinary way, would be too good for him.
Once, when an odd-looking craft, with a vast coal-scuttle slanting aloft on the end of a beam, was steaming by in the distance, he indifferently drew attention to it, as one might to an object grown wearisome through familiarity, and observed that it was an 'alligator boat.'
'An alligator boat? What's it for?'
'To dredge out alligators with.'
'Are they so thick as to be troublesome?'
'Well, not now, because the Government keeps them down. But they used to be. Not everywhere; but in favorite places, here and there, where the river is wide and shoal-like Plum Point, and Stack Island, and so on--places they call alligator beds.'
'Did they actually impede navigation?'
'Years ago, yes, in very low water; there was hardly a trip, then, that we didn't get aground on alligators.'
It seemed to me that I should certainly have to get out my tomahawk. However, I restrained myself and said--
'It must have been dreadful.'
'Yes, it was one of the main difficulties about piloting. It was so hard to tell anything about the water; the damned things shift around so--never lie still five minutes at a time. You can tell a wind-reef, straight off, by the look of it; you can tell a break; you can tell a sand-reef--that's all easy; but an alligator reef doesn't show up, worth anything. Nine times in ten you can't tell where the water is; and when you do see where it is, like as not it ain't there when YOU get there, the devils have swapped around so, meantime. Of course there were some few pilots that could judge of alligator water nearly as well as they could of any other kind, but they had to have natural talent for it; it wasn't a thing a body could learn, you had to be born with it. Let me see: there was Ben Thornburg, and Beck Jolly, and Squire Bell, and Horace Bixby, and Major Downing, and John Stevenson, and Billy Gordon, and Jim Brady, and George Ealer, and Billy Youngblood--all A 1 alligator pilots. THEY could tell alligator water as far as another Christian could tell whiskey. Read it?--Ah, COULDN'T they, though! I only wish I had as many dollars as they could read alligator water a mile and a half off. Yes, and it paid them to do it, too. A good alligator pilot could always get fifteen hundred dollars a month. Nights, other people had to lay up for alligators, but those fellows never laid up for alligators; they never laid up for anything but fog. They could SMELL the best alligator water it was said; I don't know whether it was so or not, and I think a body's got his hands full enough if he sticks to just what he knows himself, without going around backing up other people's say-so's, though there's a plenty that ain't backward about doing it, as long as they can roust out something wonderful to tell. Which is not the style of Robert Styles, by as much as three fathom--maybe quarter-LESS.'
[My! Was this Rob Styles?--This mustached and stately figure?-A slim enough cub, in my time. How he has improved in comeliness in five-and-twenty year and in the noble art of inflating his facts.] After these musings, I said aloud--
'I should think that dredging out the alligators wouldn't have done much good, because they could come back again right away.'
'If you had had as much experience of alligators as I have, you wouldn't talk like that. You dredge an alligator once and he's CONVINCED. It's the last you hear of HIM. He wouldn't come back for pie. If there's one thing that an alligator is more down on than another, it's being dredged. Besides, they were not simply shoved out of the way; the most of the scoopful were scooped aboard; they emptied them into the hold; and when they had got a trip, they took them to Orleans to the Government works.'
'Why, to make soldier-shoes out of their hides. All the Government shoes are made of alligator hide. It makes the best shoes in the world. They last five years, and they won't absorb water. The alligator fishery is a Government monopoly. All the alligators are Government property--just like the live-oaks. You cut down a live-oak, and Government fines you fifty dollars; you kill an alligator, and up you go for misprision of treason--lucky duck if they don't hang you, too. And they will, if you're a Democrat. The buzzard is the sacred bird of the South, and you can't touch him; the alligator is the sacred bird of the Government, and you've got to let him alone.'
'Do you ever get aground on the alligators now?'
'Oh, no! it hasn't happened for years.'
'Well, then, why do they still keep the alligator boats in service?'
'Just for police duty--nothing more. They merely go up and down now and then. The present generation of alligators know them as easy as a burglar knows a roundsman; when they see one coming, they break camp and go for the woods.'
After rounding-out and finishing-up and polishing-off the alligator business, he dropped easily and comfortably into the historical vein, and told of some tremendous feats of half-a-dozen old-time steamboats of his acquaintance, dwelling at special length upon a certain extraordinary performance of his chief favorite among this distinguished fleet--and then adding--
'That boat was the "Cyclone,"--last trip she ever made--she sunk, that very trip--captain was Tom Ballou, the most immortal liar that ever I struck. He couldn't ever seem to tell the truth, in any kind of weather. Why, he would make you fairly shudder. He WAS the most scandalous liar! I left him, finally; I couldn't stand it. The proverb says, "like master, like man;" and if you stay with that kind of a man, you'll come under suspicion by and by, just as sure as you live. He paid first-class wages; but said I, What's wages when your reputation's in danger? So I let the wages go, and froze to my reputation. And I've never regretted it. Reputation's worth everything, ain't it? That's the way I look at it. He had more selfish organs than any seven men in the world--all packed in the stern-sheets of his skull, of course, where they belonged. They weighed down the back of his head so that it made his nose tilt up in the air. People thought it was vanity, but it wasn't, it was malice. If you only saw his foot, you'd take him to be nineteen feet high, but he wasn't; it was because his foot was out of drawing. He was intended to be nineteen feet high, no doubt, if his foot was made first, but he didn't get there; he was only five feet ten. That's what he was, and that's what he is. You take the lies out of him, and he'll shrink to the size of your hat; you take the malice out of him, and he'll disappear. That "Cyclone" was a rattler to go, and the sweetest thing to steer that ever walked the waters. Set her amidships, in a big river, and just let her go; it was all you had to do. She would hold herself on a star all night, if you let her alone. You couldn't ever feel her rudder. It wasn't any more labor to steer her than it is to count the Republican vote in a South Carolina election. One morning, just at daybreak, the last trip she ever made, they took her rudder aboard to mend it; I didn't know anything about it; I backed her out from the wood-yard and went a-weaving down the river all serene. When I had gone about twenty-three miles, and made four horribly crooked crossings--'
'Without any rudder?'
'Yes--old Capt. Tom appeared on the roof and began to find fault with me for running such a dark night--'
'Such a DARK NIGHT ?--Why, you said--'
'Never mind what I said,--'twas as dark as Egypt now, though pretty soon the moon began to rise, and--'
'You mean the SUN--because you started out just at break of--look here! Was this BEFORE you quitted the captain on account of his lying, or--'
'It was before--oh, a long time before. And as I was saying, he--'
'But was this the trip she sunk, or was--'
'Oh, no!--months afterward. And so the old man, he--'
'Then she made TWO last trips, because you said--'
He stepped back from the wheel, swabbing away his perspiration, and said--
'Here!' (calling me by name), 'YOU take her and lie a while--you're handier at it than I am. Trying to play yourself for a stranger and an innocent!--why, I knew you before you had spoken seven words; and I made up my mind to find out what was your little game. It was to DRAW ME OUT. Well, I let you, didn't I? Now take the wheel and finish the watch; and next time play fair, and you won't have to work your passage.'
Thus ended the fictitious-name business. And not six hours out from St. Louis! but I had gained a privilege, any way, for I had been itching to get my hands on the wheel, from the beginning. I seemed to have forgotten the river, but I hadn't forgotten how to steer a steamboat, nor how to enjoy it, either.