A Story of Steamboat Life on the Mississippi
Does any one remember the Caravan? She was what would now be considered a slow boat—then (1827) she was regularly advertised as the “fast running,” etc. Her regular trips from New Orleans to Natchez were usually made in from six to eight days; a trip made by her in five days was considered remarkable. A voyage from New Orleans to Vicksburg and back, including stoppages, generally entitled the officers and crew to a month’s wages. Whether the Caravan ever achieved the feat of a voyage to the Falls (Louisville) I have never learned; if she did, she must have “had a time of it!”
It was my fate to take passage in this boat. The Captain was a good-natured, easy-going man, careful of the comfort of his passengers, and exceedingly fond of the game of brag. We had been out a little more than five days, and we were in hopes of seeing the bluffs of Natchez on the next day. Our wood was getting low, and night coming on. The pilot on duty above (the other pilot held three aces at the time, and was just calling out the Captain, who “went it strong” on three kings) sent down word that the mate had reported the stock of wood reduced to half a cord. The worthy Captain excused himself to the pilot whose watch was below and the two passengers who made up the party, and hurried to the deck, where he soon discovered by the landmarks that we were about half a mile from a woodyard, which he said was situated “right round yonder point.” “But,” muttered the Captain, “I don’t much like to take wood of the yellow-faced old scoundrel who owns it—he always charges a quarter of a dollar more than any one else; however, there’s no other chance.” The boat was pushed to her utmost, and in a little less than an hour, when our fuel was about giving out, we made the point, and our cables were out and fastened to trees alongside of a good-sized wood pile.
“Hallo, Colonel! How d’ye sell your wood this time?”
A yellow-faced old gentleman, with a two weeks’ beard, strings over his shoulders holding up to his armpits a pair of copperas-colored linsey-woolsey pants, the legs of which reached a very little below the knee; shoes without stockings; a faded, broad-brimmed hat, which had once been black, and a pipe in his mouth—casting a glance at the empty guards of our boat and uttering a grunt as he rose from fastening our “spring line,” answered:
“Why, Capting, we must charge you three and a quarter this time.”
“The d—l!” replied the Captain—(captains did swear a little in those days); “what’s the odd quarter for, I should like to know? You only charged me three as I went down.”
“Why, Capting,” drawled out the wood merchant, with a sort of leer on his yellow countenance, which clearly indicated that his wood was as good as sold, “wood’s riz since you went down two weeks ago; besides, you are awar that you very seldom stop going down—when you’re going up you’re sometimes obleeged to give me a call, becaze the current’s aginst you, and there’s no other woodyard for nine miles ahead; and if you happen to be nearly out of fooel, why—”
“Well, well,” interrupted the Captain, “we’ll take a few cords, under the circumstances,” and he returned to his game of brag.
In about half an hour we felt the Caravan commence paddling again. Supper was over, and I retired to my upper berth, situated alongside and overlooking the brag-table, where the Captain was deeply engaged, having now the other pilot as his principal opponent. We jogged on quietly—and seemed to be going at a good rate.
“How does that wood burn?” inquired the Captain of the mate, who was looking on at the game.
“‘Tisn’t of much account, I reckon,” answered the mate; “it’s cottonwood, and most of it green at that.”
“Well, Thompson—(Three aces again, stranger—I’ll take that X and the small change, if you please. It’s your deal)—Thompson, I say, we’d better take three or four cords at the next woodyard—it can’t be more than six miles from here—(Two aces and a bragger, with the age! Hand over those V’s.).”
The game went on, and the paddles kept moving. At eleven o’clock it was reported to the Captain that we were nearing the woodyard, the light being distinctly seen by the pilot on duty.
“Head her in shore, then, and take in six cords if it’s good—see to it, Thompson; I can’t very well leave the game now—it’s getting right warm! This pilot’s beating us all to smash.”
The wooding completed, we paddled on again. The Captain seemed somewhat vexed when the mate informed him that the price was the same as at the last woodyard—three and a quarter; but soon again became interested in the game.
From my upper berth (there were no staterooms then) I could observe the movements of the players. All the contention appeared to be between the Captain and the pilots (the latter personages took it turn and turn about, steering and playing brag), one of them almost invariably winning, while the two passengers merely went through the ceremony of dealing, cutting, and paying up their “anties.” They were anxious to learn the game—and they did learn it! Once in a while, indeed, seeing they had two aces and a bragger, they would venture a bet of five or ten dollars, but they were always compelled to back out before the tremendous bragging of the Captain or pilot—or if they did venture to “call out” on “two bullits and a bragger,” they had the mortification to find one of the officers had the same kind of a hand, and were more venerable! Still, with all these disadvantages, they continued playing—they wanted to learn the game.
At two o’clock the Captain asked the mate how we were getting on.
“Oh, pretty glibly, sir,” replied the mate; “we can scarcely tell what headway we are making, for we are obliged to keep the middle of the river, and there is the shadow of a fog rising. This wood seems rather better than that we took in at Yellow-Face’s, but we’re nearly out again, and must be looking out for more. I saw a light just ahead on the right—shall we hail?”
“Yes, yes,” replied the Captain; “ring the bell and ask ’em what’s the price of wood up here. (I’ve got you again; here’s double kings.)”
I heard the bell and the pilot’s hail, “What’s your price for wood?”
A youthful voice on the shore answered, “Three and a quarter!”
“D—nèt!” ejaculated the Captain, who had just lost the price of two cords to the pilot—the strangers suffering some at the same time—”three and a quarter again! Are we never to get to a cheaper country? (Deal, sir, if you please; better luck next time.)”
The other pilot’s voice was again heard on deck:
“How much have you?”
“Only about ten cords, sir,” was the reply of the youthful salesman.
The Captain here told Thompson to take six cords, which would last till daylight—and again turned his attention to the game.
The pilots here changed places. When did they sleep?
Wood taken in, the Caravan again took her place in the middle of the stream, paddling on as usual.
Day at length dawned. The brag-party broke up and settlements were being made, during which operation the Captain’s bragging propensities were exercised in cracking up the speed of his boat, which, by his reckoning, must have made at least sixty miles, and would have made many more if he could have procured good wood. It appears the two passengers, in their first lesson, had incidentally lost one hundred and twenty dollars. The Captain, as he rose to see about taking in some good wood, which he felt sure of obtaining now that he had got above the level country, winked at his opponent, the pilot, with whom he had been on very bad terms during the progress of the game, and said, in an undertone, “Forty apiece for you and I and James (the other pilot) is not bad for one night.”
I had risen and went out with the Captain, to enjoy a view of the bluffs. There was just fog enough to prevent the vision taking in more than sixty yards—so I was disappointed in my expectation. We were nearing the shore, for the purpose of looking for wood, the banks being invisible from the middle of the river.
“There it is!” exclaimed the Captain; “stop her!” Ding—ding—ding! went the big bell, and the Captain hailed:
“Hallo! the woodyard!”
“Hallo yourself!” answered a squeaking female voice, which came from a woman with a petticoat over her shoulders in place of a shawl.
“What’s the price of wood?”
“I think you ought to know the price by this time,” answered the old lady in the petticoat; “it’s three and a qua-a-rter! and now you know it.”
“Three and the d—l!” broke in the Captain. “What, have you raised on your wood, too? I’ll give you three, and not a cent more.”
“Well,” replied the petticoat, “here comes the old man—he’ll talk to you.”
And, sure enough, out crept from the cottage the veritable faded hat, copperas-colored pants, yellow countenance and two weeks’ beard we had seen the night before, and the same voice we had heard regulating the price of cottonwood squeaked out the following sentence, accompanied by the same leer of the same yellow countenance:
“Why, darn it all, Capting, there is but three or four cords left, and since it’s you, I don’t care if I do let you have it for three—as you’re a good customer!”
After a quick glance at the landmarks around, the Captain bolted, and turned in to take some rest.
The fact became apparent—the reader will probably have discovered it some time since—that we had been wooding all night at the same woodyard!