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Mark Twain > Life On The Mississippi > Chapter 11

Life On The Mississippi

Chapter 11

                             The River Rises

DURING this big rise these small-fry craft were an intolerable nuisance.
We were running chute after chute,--a new world to me,--and if there was
a particularly cramped place in a chute, we would be pretty sure to meet
a broad-horn there; and if he failed to be there, we would find him in a
still worse locality, namely, the head of the chute, on the shoal water.
And then there would be no end of profane cordialities exchanged.

Sometimes, in the big river, when we would be feeling our way
cautiously along through a fog, the deep hush would suddenly
be broken by yells and a clamor of tin pans, and all in instant
a log raft would appear vaguely through the webby veil,
close upon us; and then we did not wait to swap knives,
but snatched our engine bells out by the roots and piled
on all the steam we had, to scramble out of the way!
One doesn't hit a rock or a solid log craft with a steamboat
when he can get excused.

You will hardly believe it, but many steamboat clerks always
carried a large assortment of religious tracts with them
in those old departed steamboating days. Indeed they did.
Twenty times a day we would be cramping up around a bar,
while a string of these small-fry rascals were drifting down into
the head of the bend away above and beyond us a couple of miles.
Now a skiff would dart away from one of them, and come fighting
its laborious way across the desert of water. It would 'ease all,'
in the shadow of our forecastle, and the panting oarsmen would shout,
'Gimme a pa-a-per!' as the skiff drifted swiftly astern.
The clerk would throw over a file of New Orleans journals.
If these were picked up without comment, you might notice that now a dozen
other skiffs had been drifting down upon us without saying anything.
You understand, they had been waiting to see how No. 1 was going to fare.
No. 1 making no comment, all the rest would bend to their oars
and come on, now; and as fast as they came the clerk would
heave over neat bundles of religious tracts, tied to shingles.
The amount of hard swearing which twelve packages of religious literature
will command when impartially divided up among twelve raftsmen's crews,
who have pulled a heavy skiff two miles on a hot day to get them,
is simply incredible.

As I have said, the big rise brought a new world under my vision.
By the time the river was over its banks we had forsaken our old paths and
were hourly climbing over bars that had stood ten feet out of water before;
we were shaving stumpy shores, like that at the foot of Madrid Bend, which I
had always seen avoided before; we were clattering through chutes like that
of 82, where the opening at the foot was an unbroken wall of timber till our
nose was almost at the very spot. Some of these chutes were utter solitudes.
The dense, untouched forest overhung both banks of the crooked little crack,
and one could believe that human creatures had never intruded there before.
The swinging grape-vines, the grassy nooks and vistas glimpsed as we swept by,
the flowering creepers waving their red blossoms from the tops of dead trunks,
and all the spendthrift richness of the forest foliage, were wasted and thrown
away there. The chutes were lovely places to steer in; they were deep,
except at the head; the current was gentle; under the 'points' the water
was absolutely dead, and the invisible banks so bluff that where the tender
willow thickets projected you could bury your boat's broadside in them as you
tore along, and then you seemed fairly to fly.

Behind other islands we found wretched little farms, and wretcheder
little log-cabins; there were crazy rail fences sticking a foot
or two above the water, with one or two jeans-clad, chills-racked,
yellow-faced male miserables roosting on the top-rail, elbows
on knees, jaws in hands, grinding tobacco and discharging
the result at floating chips through crevices left by lost teeth;
while the rest of the family and the few farm-animals were huddled
together in an empty wood-flat riding at her moorings close at hand.
In this flat-boat the family would have to cook and eat
and sleep for a lesser or greater number of days (or possibly
weeks), until the river should fall two or three feet and let
them get back to their log-cabin and their chills again--
chills being a merciful provision of an all-wise Providence
to enable them to take exercise without exertion.
And this sort of watery camping out was a thing which these people
were rather liable to be treated to a couple of times a year:
by the December rise out of the Ohio, and the June rise out
of the Mississippi. And yet these were kindly dispensations,
for they at least enabled the poor things to rise from the dead
now and then, and look upon life when a steamboat went by.
They appreciated the blessing, too, for they spread their mouths
and eyes wide open and made the most of these occasions.
Now what could these banished creatures find to do to keep from dying
of the blues during the low-water season!'

Once, in one of these lovely island chutes, we found
our course completely bridged by a great fallen tree.
This will serve to show how narrow some of the chutes were.
The passengers had an hour's recreation in a virgin wilderness,
while the boat-hands chopped the bridge away; for there was no such
thing as turning back, you comprehend.

From Cairo to Baton Rouge, when the river is over its banks, you have
no particular trouble in the night, for the thousand-mile wall of dense
forest that guards the two banks all the way is only gapped with a farm
or wood-yard opening at intervals, and so you can't 'get out of the river'
much easier than you could get out of a fenced lane; but from Baton
Rouge to New Orleans it is a different matter. The river is more than
a mile wide, and very deep--as much as two hundred feet, in places.
Both banks, for a good deal over a hundred miles, are shorn of their timber
and bordered by continuous sugar plantations, with only here and there
a scattering sapling or row of ornamental China-trees. The timber is
shorn off clear to the rear of the plantations, from two to four miles.
When the first frost threatens to come, the planters snatch off
their crops in a hurry. When they have finished grinding the cane,
they form the refuse of the stalks (which they call BAGASSE)
into great piles and set fire to them, though in other sugar countries
the bagasse is used for fuel in the furnaces of the sugar mills.
Now the piles of damp bagasse burn slowly, and smoke like Satan's own kitchen.

An embankment ten or fifteen feet high guards both banks of the Mississippi
all the way down that lower end of the river, and this embankment is set
back from the edge of the shore from ten to perhaps a hundred feet,
according to circumstances; say thirty or forty feet, as a general thing.
Fill that whole region with an impenetrable gloom of smoke from a hundred
miles of burning bagasse piles, when the river is over the banks, and turn
a steamboat loose along there at midnight and see how she will feel.
And see how you will feel, too! You find yourself away out in the midst
of a vague dim sea that is shoreless, that fades out and loses itself
in the murky distances; for you cannot discern the thin rib of embankment,
and you are always imagining you see a straggling tree when you don't. The
plantations themselves are transformed by the smoke, and look like a part
of the sea. All through your watch you are tortured with the exquisite misery
of uncertainty. You hope you are keeping in the river, but you do not know.
All that you are sure about is that you are likely to be within six feet of
the bank and destruction, when you think you are a good half-mile from shore.
And you are sure, also, that if you chance suddenly to fetch up against
the embankment and topple your chimneys overboard, you will have the small
comfort of knowing that it is about what you were expecting to do.
One of the great Vicksburg packets darted out into a sugar plantation
one night, at such a time, and had to stay there a week. But there was no
novelty about it; it had often been done before.

I thought I had finished this chapter, but I wish
to add a curious thing, while it is in my mind.
It is only relevant in that it is connected with piloting.
There used to be an excellent pilot on the river, a Mr. X.,
who was a somnambulist. It was said that if his mind was
troubled about a bad piece of river, he was pretty sure
to get up and walk in his sleep and do strange things.
He was once fellow-pilot for a trip or two with George Ealer,
on a great New Orleans passenger packet. During a considerable
part of the first trip George was uneasy, but got over it
by and by, as X. seemed content to stay in his bed when asleep.
Late one night the boat was approaching Helena, Arkansas; the water
was low, and the crossing above the town in a very blind and
tangled condition. X. had seen the crossing since Ealer had,
and as the night was particularly drizzly, sullen, and dark,
Ealer was considering whether he had not better have X. called to
assist in running the place, when the door opened and X. walked in.
Now on very dark nights, light is a deadly enemy to piloting;
you are aware that if you stand in a lighted room, on such
a night, you cannot see things in the street to any purpose;
but if you put out the lights and stand in the gloom you can make
out objects in the street pretty well. So, on very dark nights,
pilots do not smoke; they allow no fire in the pilot-house
stove if there is a crack which can allow the least ray
to escape; they order the furnaces to be curtained with huge
tarpaulins and the sky-lights to be closely blinded.
Then no light whatever issues from the boat. The undefinable
shape that now entered the pilot-house had Mr. X.'s voice.
This said--

Let me take her, George; I've seen this place since you have,
and it is so crooked that I reckon I can run it myself easier
than I could tell you how to do it.'

'It is kind of you, and I swear I am willing.
I haven't got another drop of perspiration left in me.
I have been spinning around and around the wheel like a squirrel.
It is so dark I can't tell which way she is swinging till she is
coming around like a whirligig.'

So Ealer took a seat on the bench, panting and breathless.
The black phantom assumed the wheel without saying anything,
steadied the waltzing steamer with a turn or two, and then stood
at ease, coaxing her a little to this side and then to that,
as gently and as sweetly as if the time had been noonday.
When Ealer observed this marvel of steering, he wished he had
not confessed! He stared, and wondered, and finally said--'

Well, I thought I knew how to steer a steamboat, but that was
another mistake of mine.'

X. said nothing, but went serenely on with his work. He rang for the leads;
he rang to slow down the steam; he worked the boat carefully and neatly
into invisible marks, then stood at the center of the wheel and peered
blandly out into the blackness, fore and aft, to verify his position;
as the leads shoaled more and more, he stopped the engines entirely,
and the dead silence and suspense of 'drifting' followed when the shoalest
water was struck, he cracked on the steam, carried her handsomely over,
and then began to work her warily into the next system of shoal marks;
the same patient, heedful use of leads and engines followed, the boat
slipped through without touching bottom, and entered upon the third and
last intricacy of the crossing; imperceptibly she moved through the gloom,
crept by inches into her marks, drifted tediously till the shoalest water
was cried, and then, under a tremendous head of steam, went swinging over
the reef and away into deep water and safety!

Ealer let his long-pent breath pour out in a great, relieving sigh, and said--

'That's the sweetest piece of piloting that was ever done on
the Mississippi River! I wouldn't believed it could be done,
if I hadn't seen it.'

There was no reply, and he added--

'Just hold her five minutes longer, partner, and let me run down and get
a cup of coffee.'

A minute later Ealer was biting into a pie, down in the 'texas,'
and comforting himself with coffee. Just then the night watchman
happened in, and was about to happen out again, when he noticed
Ealer and exclaimed--

'Who is at the wheel, sir?'


'Dart for the pilot-house, quicker than lightning!'

The next moment both men were flying up the pilot-house companion way,
three steps at a jump! Nobody there! The great steamer was
whistling down the middle of the river at her own sweet will!
The watchman shot out of the place again; Ealer seized the wheel,
set an engine back with power, and held his breath while the boat
reluctantly swung away from a 'towhead' which she was about to knock
into the middle of the Gulf of Mexico!

By and by the watchman came back and said--

'Didn't that lunatic tell you he was asleep, when he first came up here?'


'Well, he was. I found him walking along on top of the railings
just as unconcerned as another man would walk a pavement;
and I put him to bed; now just this minute there he was again,
away astern, going through that sort of tight-rope deviltry
the same as before.'

'Well, I think I'll stay by, next time he has one of those fits.
But I hope he'll have them often. You just ought to have seen him take
this boat through Helena crossing. I never saw anything so gaudy before.
And if he can do such gold-leaf, kid-glove, diamond-breastpin piloting
when he is sound asleep, what COULDN'T he do if he was dead!'

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