The River Prophet
by Raymond S. Spears
[Illustration: She snatched the automatic pistol from her bosom
and ... fired. The man stumbled back with a cry.]
THE RIVER PROPHET
Raymond S. Spears
Ralph Pallen Coleman
Garden City New York
Doubleday, Page &Company
COPYRIGHT, 1918, 1920, BY DOUBLEDAY, PAGE &COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION INTO FOREIGN
LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
THE RIVER PROPHET
Elijah Rasba lived alone in a log cabin on Temple Run. He was a
long, lank, blue-eyed young man, with curly brown hair and a pale,
almost livid complexion. His eye-brows were heavy and dark brown, and
the blue steel of his gaze was fixed unwaveringly upon any object that
Two generations before, Old Abe Rasba had built a church on a little
brook, a tributary of Jackson River, away up in the mountains. The
church was laid up of flat stones, gathered in fields, from ledges of
rock and up the wooded mountain side. It was large enough to hold all
the people for miles around, and the roof was supported by massive hewn
timbers, and some few attempts had been made to decorate the structure.
Old Abe had called his church The Temple, had preached from a big
hollow oak stump, and laid down the Law of the Bible, which he had
memorized by heart, and expounded from experience. Elijah Rasba,
grandson of Old Abe, thus came honestly by reverence and religion, but
the strange glory which had surrounded the old Temple had departed from
the ruin, and of all the congregation, only Elijah remained.
Land-slips had ruined a score of farms cleared on too-steep hills;
lightning had destroyed the overshot grist mill, and the two big stones
had been cracked in the hot flames; a feud had opened graves before the
allotted time of the victims. It seemed to Elijah, sitting there in his
cabin, as though damnation had visited the faithful, and that death was
the reward of belief.
The ruins of the old Temple stood melancholy where the heavy stone
wall, built by a man who believed in broad, firm foundations, had split
an avalanche, but without avail, for the walls had given way and let
the roof beams drop in. No less certain had been the fate of the
congregation; they, too, were scattered or dead. There remained but one
dwelling in the little valley, with a lone occupant, who was wrestling
with his soul, trying to understand, for he knew in his heart that he
must read the truth and discover the meaning of all this trouble,
privation, disaster, and death.
He was quite practical about it. He had a field of corn, and a
little garden full of truck; over his fireplace hung a 32-20 repeating
rifle, and in one corner were a number of steel traps, copper and brass
wire for snares, and a home-made mattock with which a rabbit could be
extricated from a burrow, or a skunk-skin from its den.
An Almanac, a Bible, and a Resources of Tennessee comprised the
library on the shelf. The Almanac had come by mail from away off
yonder, about a hundred miles, perhapsanyhow, from New York. The
Resources of Tennessee had come down with a spring freshet in Jackson
River, and was rather stained with mountain clays. The Bible was, of
course, an inheritance.
It was a very small article, apparently, to create all the
disturbances that seemed to have followed its interpretations there on
Temple Run. Elijah would hold it out at arms length and stare at it
with those sharp eyes of his, wondering in his soul how it could be
that the fate of nations, the future of humanity, the very salvation of
every soul rested within the compass of that leather-covered,
gilt-edged parcel of thin paper which weighed rather less than half as
much as a box of cartridges.
Elijah did not spare himself in the least. He toiled at whatever
task appeared for him to do. As he required for his own wants fifty
bushels of corn for a year, he planted enough to shuck a hundred
bushels. Once, in the fervour of the hope that he was called upon to
raise corn for humanity, he raised five hundred bushels, only to give
it all away to poor white trash who had not raised enough for
Again he felt the call to preach, and he went forth with all the
eagerness of a man who had at last discovered his life's calling. He
went on foot, through storms, over mountains, and into a hundred
schoolhouses and churches, showing his little leather-skinned Bible and
warning sinners to repent, Christians to keep faith, and Baal to lower
his loathly head.
He had returned from his five months' pilgrimage with the feeling
that his utmost efforts had been futile, and that for all his good
will, it had not been vouchsafed him to leave behind one thought in
fertile soil. The matter had been brought home to him by an incident of
the last meeting he had addressed, over on Clinch.
In the Painted Church he had volunteered a sermon, and no sermons
had been preached there in years. Feuds, inextricably tangled, had
involved five different families, and members of all those families
were in the church, answering to his challenge.
They sat there with rifles or shotguns between their knees, with
their pistols on their hips, and eternal vigilance in their eyes. While
listening to his sermon they kept their gaze fastened upon one another,
lest an unwary moment bring upon them the alert shot of an enemy.
As he had stood there, gaunt in frame, famished of soul, driven by
the torments of an ambition to see the right, to do it, it seemed to
him as though the final burden had been heaped upon him, and that he
must break under the weight on his mind.
What can I say to you all? he burst out with sudden passion. Theh
yo' set with guns in yo' hands an' murder in yo' soulsto listen to
the word of God! How do yo' expect the Prince of Peace to come to yo'
if yo' set there thataway?
His indignation rose as he saw them, and his scorn unbridled his
tongue, so that in a few minutes the congregation watched one another
less, the preacher more, and all settled back, to listen and blink
under his accusations and his declarations. It really seemed, for the
time, as though he had caught and engaged their attention. But when the
sermon ended and he had taken his departure, before he was a hundred
yards down the road he heard loud words, angry shouts, and then the
scream of a woman.
The next instant there came a salvo of gun and pistol shots and in
all directions up and down the cross-roads people fled on horseback.
Three men had been killed, five wounded and a dozen become fugitives
from justice at the end of the church service.
Elijah Rasba fled homeward, his will and hopes broken, and sank
dejectedly into a slough of despondency. All his good intentions, all
the inspiration of his endeavour, his very spiritual exaltation had
terminated in a tragedy, as inexplicable as it was depressing.
His conscience would neither let him rest nor work. He looked at his
Bible, inside and out, the very fibres of his brain struggling by
reason, by effort, by main strength, to discover what his duty was. No
answer soothed his waking hours or gave him rest from his dreams. On
him rested a kind of superstitious scorn and fear, and he began to
believe the whisperings of his neighbours which reached his ears. They
To his own freighted mind the statement seemed to be true. He did
not know what new sin he had committed, nor could he look back on long
years of his youth and young manhood and discover any sin which he had
not already expiated, over and over again. He had obeyed the scriptural
injunctions to the best of his knowledge, and the reward was this daily
and nightly torment, the scorn of his fellows, and the questioning of
his own soul.
Worst of all, constructively, he had given feud fighters the chance
to do murder upon one another. Under the guise of preaching for them
for the good of their souls, he had enabled them to meet in antagonism,
watch in wrath, and kill without mercy. Too late he realized that he
should have foreseen the tragedy, and that he should have provided
against it by going first to each faction, preaching to each family,
and then, when he had brought them to their knees, united them in the
common cause of religion.
On me is Thy wrath! he cried out in the anguish of his soul. Give
thy tortured slave something good to do, ere I go down!
There was no reply, immediate or audible; he was near the limits of
his endurance; he drew his arm back to throw the Bible into the flames
of his fireplace, but that he could not do. He tossed it upon the
shelf, drew his hat down upon his ears and at the approach of night
started over the ridges to the Kalbean stillhouse.
He stalked down a ridge into that split-board shack of infamy. He
found five or six men in the hot, sour-smelling place. They started to
their feet when they saw the mountain preacher among them.
Gimme some! he told Old Kalbean. I'm a fool! I'm damned. I'll go
with the rest of ye to Hell! Gimme some!
WhaWhat? Old Kalbean choked with horror. Yo' gwine to drink,
Suttinly! Rasba cried. Hit ain' no ust for me to preach! I
preach, an' the congregation murders one anotheh! Ef I don't preach, I
cayn't live peaceable! They say hit makes a man happyI ain' be'n
happy, not in ten, not in twenty yeahs!
He caught up the jug that rested on the floor, threw the tin cup to
one side, up-ended the receptacle, and the moonshiner and his customers
Theh! Rasba grunted, when he had to take the jug down for breath.
He reached into his pocket, drew out a silver dollar, and handed it to
the amazed mountain man.
Theh! he repeated, defiantly. I've shore gone to Hell, now, an' I
don't give a damn, nuther. S'long, boys! D'rectly, yo'l heah me jes' a
whoopin', yas suh! Jes' a whoopin'!
He left them abruptly and he went up into the darkness of the
laurels. They heard him crashing away into the night. When he was gone
the men looked at one another:
Yo' 'low he'll bring the revenuers? one asked, nervously.
Bring nothin'! another grinned. No man eveh lived could drink
fifteen big gulps, like he done, an' git furder'n a stuck hog, no,
They listened for the promised whoops; they strained their ears for
the cries of jubilation; but none came.
Co'rse, the stiller explained, as though an explanation were
needed, Parson Rasba ain' used to hit; he could carry more, an' hit'll
take him longer to get lit up. But, law me, when hit begins to act!
That's three yeah old, boys, mild, but no mewl yo' eveh saw has the
kick that's got, apple an' berry cider, stilled down from the ferment!
Virtue had not been rewarded. This much was clear and plain to the
consciousness of Nelia Carline. Looking at herself in the glass
disclosed no special reason why she should be unhappy and suffering.
She was a pretty girl; everybody said that, and envy said she was too
pretty. It seemed that poor folks had no right to be good-looking,
If poor folks weren't good-looking, then wealthy young men, with
nothing better to do, wouldn't go around looking among poor folks for
pretty girls. Augustus Carline had, apparently, done that. Carline had
a fortune that had been increased during three generations, and now he
didn't have to work. That was bad in Gage, Illinois. It had never done
any one any good, that kind of living. One of the fruits of the matter
was when Nelia Crele's pretty face attracted his attention. She lived
in a shack up the Bottoms near St. Genevieve, and he tried to flirt
with her, but she wouldn't flirt.
In some surprise, startled by his rebuff, he withdrew from the scene
with a memory that would not forget. The scene was a wheat field near
the Turkey bayou, where he was hunting wild ducks with a shotgun. She
had been gathering forty pounds of hickory nuts to eke out a meagre
Poor she might be; ill clad was her strong young figure; her face
showed the strain of years of effort; her eyes had the fire of
experience in suffering; and she stood, a supple girl of heightened
beauty while the hunter, sure of his welcome, walked up to her, and, as
both her hands held the awkward bushel basket, ventured to tickle her
under the chin.
She dropped the basket and before it reached the ground she caught
the rash youth broad-handed from cheek to back of the ear, and he
stumbled over a pile of wheat sheaves and fell headlong. As he had
dropped his shotgun, she picked it up and with her thumb on the safety,
her finger on the trigger, and her left hand on the breech, showed him
how a $125 shotgun looks in the hands of one who could and would use it
on any further provocation.
He took his departure, and she carried the gun and hickory nuts home
with her. Thus began the inauspicious acquaintance of Nelia Crele and
Augustus Carline. The shotgun was very useful to the young woman. She
killed gray and fox squirrels, wild turkeys, geese and ducks, several
saleable fur-bearers, and other game in her neighbourhood. She told no
one how she obtained the weapon, merely saying she had found it; and
Augustus Carline did not pass any remarks on the subject.
By and by, however, when the tang of the slap and the passion of the
moment had left him, he knew that he had been foolish and cowardly. He
had some good parts, and he was sorry that he had been precipitate in
his attentions. After that encounter, he found the girls he met at
dances lacked a certain appearance, a kindling of the eye, a
complexion, and, a figure.
He ventured again into the river bottoms across from St. Genevieve
and fortune favoured him while tricking her. He apologized and gave his
Nelia was poor, abjectly poor. Her father was no 'count, and her
mother was abject in suffering. One brother had gone West, a whisky
criminal; a sister had gone wrong, with the inheritance of moral
obliquity. Nelia had, somehow, become possessed with a hate and horror
of wrong. She had pictured to herself a home, happiness, and a life of
plenty, but she held herself at the highest price a woman demands.
That price Augustus Carline was only too willing to pay. He had
found a girl of high spirits, of great good looks, of a most amusing
quickness of wit and vigour of mentality. He married her, to the
scandal of everybody, and carried her from her poverty to the fine old
French-days mansion in Gage.
There he installed her with everything he thought she needed,
andpursued his usual futile life. Too late she learned that he was
weak, insignificant, and, like her own father, no 'count. Augustus
Carline was a brute, a creature of appetites and desires, who by no
chance rose to the heights of his wife's mental demands.
Nelia Carline regarded the tragedy of her life with impatience. She
studied the looking glass to see wherein she had failed to measure up
to her duty; she ransacked her mind, and compared it with all the women
she met by virtue of her place as Gus Carline's wife. Those women had
not proved to be what she had expected grand dames of society to be.
I want to talk learning, she told herself, and they talk hairpins
and dirty dishes and Bill-don't-behave!
Now one of those women, a kind of a grass widow, Mrs. Plosell, had
attracted Gus Carline, and when he came home from her house, he was
always drunk. When Nelia remonstrated, he was ugly. He had thrown her
down and gone back to the grass widow's the night before. Nelia
considered that grim fact, and, having made up her mind, acted.
In her years of poverty she had learned many things, and now she put
into service certain practical ideas. She had certain rights, under the
law, since she had taken the name of Augustus Carline. There were, too,
moral rights, and she preferred to exercise her moral rights.
Part of the Carline fortune was in unregistered stocks and bonds,
and when Gus Carline returned from the widow's one day he found that
Nelia was in great good humour, more attractive than he had ever known
her, and so very pleasant during the two days of his headache that he
was willing to do anything she asked.
She asked him to have a good time with her, and put down on the
table before him a filled punch bowl and two glasses. He had never
known the refinements of intoxicating liquors. Now he found them in his
own home, and for a while forgot all else.
He sang, danced, laughed and, in due course, signed a number of
papers, receipts, bills and checks to settle up some accounts. These
were sort of hit-or-miss, between-the-acts affairs, to which he paid
To Nelia, however, they represented a rite as valid as any solemn
court procedure could be, for to her river-trained instinct there was
no moral question as to the justice of her claim upon a part of
Carline's fortune. Her later experience, her reading, had taught her
that society and the law also held with the principle, if not the
manner of her primitive method, for obtaining her rights to separate
When Carline awakened, Nelia was gone. Nelia had departed that
morning, one of the servants said. The girl did not know where she had
gone. She had taken a box of books, two trunks, two suitcases and was
dressed up, departing in the automobile, which she drove herself.
He had a feeling of alarm, which he banished as unworthy. Finally
toward night he went down to the post office where he found several
letters. One seared his consciousness;
Don't bother to look for me. I'm gone, and I'm going to stay gone.
You have shown yourself to be a mere soak, a creature of appetite
and vice, and with no redeeming mental traits whatever. I hate
and worse yet, I despise you. Get a divorce get another
widow is about your calibre. But, I give you fair warning, leave
alone. I'm sick of men.
Elijah Rasba stalked homeward from the still in the dark, grimly and
expectantly erect. Now he was going to have that period of happiness
which he knew was the chief reason for people drinking moonshine
whiskey. He looked forward to the sensation of exuberant joy very much
as a man would look forward to five hours of happiness, to be followed
by hanging by the neck, till dead.
The stars were shining, and the over-ridge trail which he followed
was familiar enough under his feet, once he had struck into it from the
immediate vicinity of the lawbreakers. He saw the bare-limbed oak trees
against the sky, and he heard rabbits and other night runners scurrying
away in the dead leaves. The stars fluttering in the sky were stern
eyes whose gaze he avoided with determined wickedness and unrepentance.
Arriving at his own cabin, he stirred up the big pine-root log, and
drew his most comfortable rocking chair up before the leaping flames.
He sat there, and waited for the happiness of mind which was the
characteristic of his idea of intoxication.
He waited for it, all ready to welcome it. If it had come into his
cabin, all dressed up like some image of temptation or allurement, he
would not have been in the least surprised. He rather expected a real
and tangible manifestation, a vision of delight, clothed in some fair
figure. He sat there, rigidly, watching for the least symptom of unholy
pleasure. He had no clock by which to tell the time, and his watch was
Again and again he poked up the fire. He was surprised, at last, to
hear a far-away gobble, the welcome of a wild turkey for the first
false dawn. By and by he became conscious of the light which was
crowding the fire flare into a subordinate place.
Day had arrived, and as yet, the delight which everybody said was in
moonshine whiskey had failed to touch him. However, he knew that he was
not properly in a receptive mood for happiness. His soul was still
stubborn against the allurements of sin. He stirred from his chair,
fried a rabbit in a pan, and baked a batch of hot-bread in a dutch
oven, brewing strong coffee and bringing out the jug of sorghum
He ate breakfast. He was conscious of a certain rigidity of action,
a certain precision of motion, ascribing them to the stern
determination which he had that when he should at last discover the
whiskey-happiness in his soul, he would let go with a whoop.
Some hit makes happy, and some hit makes fightin' mad! Rasba
suddenly thought, with much concern, S'posen hit'd make me fightin'
A fluttering trepidation clutched his heart. The bells ringing in
his ears fairly clanged the alarm. He hadn't looked for anything else
but joy from being drunk, and now suppose he should be stricken with a
mad desire to fightto kill someone!
No deadlier fear ever clutched a man's heart than the one that
seized Elijah Rasba. Suppose that when the deferred hilarity arrived,
he was made fighting drunk instead of joyous? The thought seized his
soul and he looked about himself wondering how he could chain his hands
and save his soul from murder, violence, fighting, and similar crimes!
No feasible way appeared to his frightened mind.
He dropped on his knees and began to pray for happiness, instead of
for violence, when the drink that he had had should seize him in its
embrace. He prayed with a voice that roared like thunder and which made
the charcoal fall from the log in the fireplace, and which alarmed the
jays and inquisitive mockingbirds about the little clearing.
He prayed while his voice grew huskier and huskier, and his head
bowed lower and lower as he wrestled with this peril which he had not
foreseen. All he asked was that when the moonshine began to operate, it
make him laugh instead of mad, but terrible doubts smote him. A glance
at his rifle on the wall made him fairly grovel on the floor, and he
knew that in his hands the andirons, the axe, the very hot-bread
rolling pin would be deadly weapons.
He hoped that he would not be able to shoot straight, but this hope
was instantly blasted, for a flock of wild turkeys came down into the
cornfield about ninety yards from his cabin, and although he seldom
shot anything in his own clearing, he now tried a shot at the turkey
gobbler and shot it dead where it strutted. If he should be stricken
with anger instead of with joy, no worse man could possibly live! There
was no telling what he would do if the liquor would work wrong on
him. He could kill men at two hundred yards!
He determined that he would see no human beings that day. Few people
ever visited him in his cabin, but he took no chances. He crept up the
mountain and skulking through the woods found an immense patch of
laurels. He crawled into it, and sat down there for hours and hours, so
that no one should have an opportunity to speak to him and stir the
latent devil of violence.
He returned to his cabin long after dark, and raking some hot coals
out of the ashes, whittled splinters and started a blaze. He was
assailed by hunger, and he baked corn pones and dry-salted pork, then
added a great flapjack of delicious sage sausage to the meal. He
brought out cans of fruit, whose juice assuaged his increasing thirst.
Having eaten heartily he resumed his vigil before the fireplace, and
then he noticed that some one had tied something on the stock of his
It was a letter which a passer-by had brought up from the Ford Post
Office, and when he opened it and looked at the writing, remorse
Ever senct you preched here I ben sufrin count of my boy JocK. You
know Him for he set right thar, frade of no man, not the Tobblys,
nor the Crents. When tha drawed DOWN to shoot, he stud right thar
shot back shoot fer shoot, an now he has goned awa down the
an I am worited abot his soul because he is a gud boy an neveh
no whars in all his borned days an an i hear now he is gettin bad
down thataway on Misipy riveh where thas all Bad Peple an i wisht
yud prey fer him so's he wont get bad. Mrs. drones panted church
Rasba read the letter for the words at first. Then he went back
after the meaning, and the meaning struck him like a blow in the heart.
Me pray fo' any man again, he gasped. Lawse! Lawse!
He didn't feel fit to pray for himself, let alone for any other
sinner, but there came to his memory a picture of Mrs. Drones, a
motherly little woman who had taken him home to a dinner at which seven
kinds of preserved fruit were on the table, and where the family
laughed around the fireplaceonly to see Jock a fugitive the next
night, and the terrors of a feud war upon them.
And Jock's getting bad down the Mississippi River! Rasba repeated
to himself, striving to grapple with that fact. He could not think
clearly or coherently. The widow's voice, however, was as clearly
speaking in his thoughts as though she stood there, instead of merely
having written to him. He took to walking up and down the floor, back
and forth, on one plank.
He had forgotten that there was such a thing for humans as sleep.
The incongruity of his having been wide awake for two days and two
nights did not occur to him till suddenly his eyes turned to the bed in
the corner of the room and its purpose was recalled to his mind. He
blinked at it. His eyes opened with difficulty. He threw chunks on the
fire and went toward the bed, but as he stood by it the world grew
black before his eyes and clutching about him, he sank to the floor.
Nelia Carline would not return to that miserable little river-bottom
cabin where she had grown up in unhappy privation. She had other plans.
She drove the little automobile down to Chester, put it in the Star
Garage, then walked to the river bank and gave the eddy a critical
For years she had lived between the floods of the river and the
poverty of the uplands. Her life had often crossed that of river
people, and although she had never been on the river, she had
frequently gone visiting shanty-boaters who had landed in for a night
or a week at the bank opposite her own shack home. She knew river men,
and she had no illusions about river women. Best of all now, in her
great emergency, she knew shanty-boats, and as she gazed at the eddy
and saw the fleet of houseboats there her heart leaped exultantly.
No less than a score of boats were landed along the eddy bank, and
instantly her eyes fell upon first one and then another that would
serve her purpose. She walked down to the uppermost of the boats, and
hailed from the bank:
A lank, stoop-shouldered woman emerged from the craft and fixed the
well-favoured young woman with keen, bright eyes.
You-all know if there's a shanty-boat here for salecheap? Nelia
asked, without eagerness.
The woman looked at the bank, reflectively.
I expect, she admitted at last. This un yaint, but theh's two
spo'ts down b'low, that's quittin' the riveh, that blue boat theh, but
I 'lowed they mout be, Nelia dropped into her childhood vernacular
as she looked down the bank, Likely yo' mout he'p me bargain, er
I 'low I could! the river woman replied. Me an' my ole man he'ped
a feller up to St. Louis, awhile back, who was green on the river, but
he let us kind of p'int out what he'd need fo' a skift trip down this
away. Real friendly feller, kind of city-like, an' sort of out'n the
country, too. 'Lowed he was a writin' feller, fer magazines an' books
an' histries an' them kind of things. Lawsy! He could ask questions,
four hundred kinds of questions, an' writin' hit all down into a
writin' machine onto paper. We shore told him a heap an' a passel, an'
he writes mornin' an' nights. Lots of curius fellers on Ole Mississip'.
We'll sort of look aroun'. Co'se, yo' got a man to go 'long?
Wha-a-t! Yo' ain' goin' to trip down alone?
I might's well.
But, goodness, gracious sake, you're pretty, pretty as a picture! I
'lowed yo' had a man scoutin' aroun'. Why somethin' mout happen to a
lady, if she didn't have a man or know how to take cyar of herse'f.
Nelia shrugged her shoulders. Mrs. Tons, the river woman, gazed for
a minute at the pretty, partly averted face. It was almost desperate,
quite reckless, and by the expression, the river woman understood. She
thought in silence, for a minute, and then looked down the eddy at a
boat some distance away.
Theh's a boat. Like the looks of it?
It's a fine boat, I 'low, Nelia said. Fresh painted.
Hit's new, the woman said.
Is it for sale?
We'll jes walk down thataway, the river woman suggested. Two
ladies is mostly safe down thisaway.
My name's Nelia Crele. We used to live up by Gage, on the
Sho! Co'se I know Ole Jim Crele, an' his woman. My name's Mrs.
Tons. We stopped in thah 'bout six weeks ago. I hearn say yo'dyo'd
married right well!
Umph! Nelia shrugged her shoulders, Liquor spoils many a home!
Yo' maw said he was a drinkin' man, an' I said to myse'f, from my
own 'sperience.... Yo' set inside yeah, Nelia. I'll go down theh an'
talk myse'f. We come near buyin' that bo't yistehd'y. Leave hit to me!
Nelia sat down in the shanty-boat, and waited. She had not long to
wait. A tall, rather burly man returned with the woman, who introduced
Mis' Crele, this is Frank Commer. His bo't's fo' sale, an' he'll
take $75 cash, for everything, ropes, anchor, stoves, a brass bedstead,
an' everything and I said hit's reasonable. Hit's a pine boat, built
last fall, and the hull's sound, with oak framing. Co'se, hit's small,
22 foot long an' 7 foot wide, but hit's cheap.
I'll take it, then, Nelia nodded.
You can come look it over, the man declared. Tight hull and tight
roof. We built it ourselves. But we're sick of the river, and we'll
sell cheap, right here.
The three went down to the boat, and Nelia handed him seventy-five
dollars in bills. He and his partner, who came down from the town a few
minutes later, packed up their personal property in two trunks. They
left the dishes and other outfit, including several blankets.
The four talked as the two packed up. One of them suddenly looked
sharply at Nelia:
You dropping down alone?
She hesitated, and then laughed:
It's none of my business, the man said, doubtfully, but it's a
mean old river, some ways. A lady alone might get into trouble. River
pirates, you know.
It was a challenge. He was a clear-eyed, honest man, hardly
twenty-five years of age, and not an evil type at all. What he had to
suggest he did boldly, sure of his right at such a time, under such
circumstances, to do. He was entirely likeable. In spite of herself,
Nelia wavered for a moment. She knew river people; the woman by her
side would have said she would be safer with him than without his
protection. There was only one reason why Nelia could not accept that
I'll have to take care of myself, she shook her head, without
rebuke to the youth. You see, I'm running away from a mean scoundrel.
Hit's so, the river woman approved, and the men took their
departure without further comment.
The two women, disapproving the men's housekeeping, scrubbed the
boat and washed all the bedding. Nelia brought down her automobile and
the two carried her own outfit on board. Then Nelia took the car back
to the garage, and said that she would call for it in the morning.
All right, Mrs. Carline, the garage man replied, without
Back at the landing, Nelia bade the river woman good-bye.
I got to be going, she said, likely there'll be a whole pack
after me directly
Got a gun? the woman asked.
Two, Nelia smiled. Bill gave me a goose rifle and Frank let me
have thishe said it's the Law down Old Mississip'!
The Law was a 32-calibre automatic pistol in perfect condition.
Them boys thought a heap of yo', gal! The river woman shook her
head. Frank'd sure made you a good man!
Oh, I know it, replied Nelia, but I'm sick of menI hate men!
I'm going to go droppin' along, same's the rest.
Don't let go of that pistol. Theh's mean, bad men down thisaway,
Nelia laughed, but harshly. I don't give a damn for anything now; I
tell you that!
Don't forget it. Shoot any man that comes.
Nelia, who could row a skiff with any one, set her shanty-boat
sweeps on their pins, coiled up the two bow lines by which the boat was
moored to the bank, and which the river woman untied, then rowed out of
the eddy and into the main current.
It's good floating right down, Mrs. Tons called after her, till
yo' git to Grand Tower Rockthirty mile!
The river rapidly widened below Chester, and the little houseboat
swung out into mid-stream. Nelia knew the river a little from having
been down on a steamer, and the misery she left behind was in contrast
to the sense of freedom and independence which she now had.
Stillness, peace, the sense of vast motion in the river torrent
comforted her. The moment of embarking alone on the river had been full
of nervous tenseness and anxiety, but now those feelings were left
behind and she could breathe deeply and confront the future with a calm
spirit. The veil that the blue mist of distance left behind her was
penetrable by memory, but the future was hidden from her gaze, as it
was hidden from her imagination.
The determination to dwell in the immediate present caught up her
soul with its grim, cold bonds, and as the sun was setting against the
sky beyond the long, sky-line of limestone ledges, she entered the
cabin, and looked about her with a feeling of home such as she had
never had before.
I'll stand at the breech of my rifle, to defend it, she whispered
to herself. Men are mean! I hate men!
She found a flat book on a shelf which held a half hundred
magazines. The book was bound in blue boards, and backed with yellow
leather. When she opened it, out of curiosity, she discovered that it
was full of maps.
Those dear boys! she whispered, almost regretfully. They left
this map book for me, because they knew I'd need it; knew everybody
down thisaway needs a map!
They had done more than that; they had left the equally
indispensable List of Post Lights, and when dusk fell and she saw a
pale yellow light revealed against a bank the little book named it
Wilkinson Island. She pulled toward the east bank into the deadwater
below Lacours Island, cast over her anchor, and came to rest in the
dark of a starless night.
In mid-afternoon, the man who had so desperately and as a last
resource tested the efficiency of moonshine whiskey as a palliative for
mental misery awaked gradually, in confusion of mind and aching of
body. Noises filled his ears, and streaking lights blurred the keenness
of his eyes. Reason had but little to do with his first thoughts, and
feelings had nearly everything. There did not seem to be any possible
atonement for him to make. Too late, as it seemed, he realized the
enormity of his offence and the bitterness of inevitable punishment.
There remained but one thing for him to do, and that was go away
down the rivers and find the fugitive Jock Drones, whose mother feared
for him. No other usefulness of purpose remained in his reach. If he
stood up, now, before any congregation, the imps of Satan, the patrons
of moonshiners, would leer up at him in his pulpit, reminding him that
he, too, was one of them.
He went over to the corner of his cabin, raised some planks there
and dug down into the earth till he found a jug. He dragged the jug
into the cabin and out of it poured the Rasba patrimony, a hidden
treasure of gold, which he put into a leather money belt and strapped
on. There was not much in the cabin worth taking away, but he packed
that little up and made ready for his departure.
It was but a few miles over to Tug River, and he readily engaged a
wagon to carry him that far. On the wooded river bank he built a
flatboat with his own hands, and covered one end of it with a
poplar-wood cabin, purchased at a near-by sawmill. He floated out of
the eddy in his shack-boat and began his journey down the rivers to the
Mississippi, where he would perform the one task that remained for him
to do in the service of God. He would find Jock, give him his mother's
message, and after that expiate his own sins in the deserved misery of
an exiled penitent.
Tug River was in flood, a heavy storm having cast nearly two inches
of rainfall upon part of the watershed. On the crest of the flood it
was fast running and there was no delay, no stopping between dawn and
dusk. Standing all day at the sweeps Rasba cleared the shore in sharp
bends, avoided the obstacles in mid stream, and outran the wave crests
and the racing drift, entering the Big Sandy and emerging into the
unimaginable breadths of the Ohio.
He had no time to waste on the Ohio. The object of his search was on
the Mississippi, hundreds of miles farther down, and he could not go
fast enough to suit him. But at that, pulling nervously at his sweeps
and riding down the channel line, he gain-speeded, till his eyes were
smarting with the fury of the changing shores, and his arms were aching
with the pulling and pushing of his great oars, and he neither
recognized the miles that he floated nor the repeated days that ensued.
Long since he had escaped from his own mountain environment. The
trees no longer overhung his course; railroad trains screamed along
endless shores, bridges overhung his path like menacing deadfalls, and
the rolling thunder of summer storms was mingled with the black smoke
of ten thousand undreamed-of industries. The simplicity of the mountain
cornfields of his youth had become a mystery of production, of
activity, of passing phenomena which he neither knew nor understood. In
his thoughts there was but one beacon.
His purpose was to reach the Mississippi, take the young man in
hand, and redeem him from the evils into which he had fallen. His
object was no more than that, nor any less. From the confusion of his
experiences, efforts, and humiliations, he held fast to one fact: the
necessity of finding Jock Drones. All things else had melted into that.
The river banks fell apart along his course; the river ridges
withdrew to wide distances, even blue at times; mere V-gullies or
U-gorges, widened into vast corn fields. A post-office store-house at a
rippling ford gave way to smoking cities, rumbling bridges, paved
streets, and hurrying throngs. The lone fisherman in an 18-foot dugout
had changed insensibly to darting motorboats and to huge, red-wheeled,
white-castled monsters, whose passage in the midst of vast waters was
attended by the sighs of toiling engines and the tossing of troubled
Except for that one sure demand upon him, Elijah Rasba long since
would have been lost in the confusion and doubts of his transition from
narrow wooded ridges and trembling streamlets to this succession of
visions. But his soul retained its composure, his eyes their quickness
to seize the essential detail, and he rode the Tug River freshet into
the Ohio flood tide bent upon his mission of redeeming one mountain
youth who had strayed down into this far land, of which the shores were
washed by the unimaginable sea of a river.
When at the end of a day he arrived in a way-side eddy and moored
his poplar-bottom craft against a steep bank and the last twilight had
faded from his vision, he would eat some simple thing for supper, and
then, by lamp-light, try to read his exotic life into the Bible which
accompanied him on his travels. He knew the Book by heart, almost; he
knew all the rivers told about in it; he knew the storms of the various
biblical seas; he knew the Jordan, in imagination, and the Nile, the
Euphrates, the Jabbok, and the Brook of Egypt, but they did not conform
in his imagination with this living tide which was carrying him down
its course, over shoal, around bend and from vale to vale of a size and
grandeur beyond expression.
Elijah was speechless with amazement; the spies who had gone into
Canaan, holding their tongues, and befriended by women whose character
Elijah Rasba could not identify, were less surprised by the riches
which they discovered than Rasba by the panorama which he saw rolled
out for his inspection day by day.
Other shanty-boaters were dropping down before the approach of
winter. Sometimes one or another would drift near to Rasba's boat and
there would be an exchange of commonplaces.
How fur mout hit be, strangeh? he would ask each man. 'Low hit's
a hundred mile yet to the Mississippi?
A hundred miles! They could not understand that this term in the
mountain man's mind meant a long ways, if need be a thousand or ten
thousand miles. When one answered that the Mississippi was 670 miles,
and another said it was a month's floating, their replies were
equally without meaning to his mind. Rasba could not understand them
when they talked of reaches, crossings, wing dams, government works,
and chutes and islands, but he would not offend any of them by showing
that he did not in the least understand what they were talking about.
He must never again hurt the feelings of any man or woman, and he must
perform the one service which the Deity had left for him to perform.
Little by little he began to understand that he was approaching the
Mississippi River. He saw the Cumberland one day, and two hours later,
he was witness to the Tennessee, and that long, wonderful bridge which
a railroad has flung from shore to shore of the great river. The
current carried him down to it, and his face turned up and up till he
was swept beneath that monument to man's inspiration and the industry
of countless hands.
Rasba had seen cities and railroads and steamboats, but all in a
kind of confusion and tumult. They had meant but incidents down the
river; this bridge, however, a structure of huge proportions, was
clearly one piece, one great idea fixed in steel and stone.
How big was the man who built that bridge? he asked himself.
While yet the question echoed in his expanding soul he hailed a
Strangeh! How fur now is it to the Mississippi River?
Theh 'tis! the man cried, pointing down the current. Down by that
air willer point!
Those first free days on the Mississippi River revealed to Nelia
Crele a woman she had never known before. Daring, fearless, making no
reckoning, she despised the past and tripped eagerly into the future.
It was no business of any one what she did. She had married a man who
had turned out to be a scoundrel, and when fate treated her so, she
owed nothing to any one or to anything. Even the fortune which she had
easily seized through the alcoholic imbecility of her semblance of a
man brought no gratitude to her. The money simply insured her against
poverty and her first concern was to put that money where it would be
safe from raiders and sure to bring her an income. This, watchfulness
and alertness of mind had informed her, was the function of money.
She dropped into Cape Girardeau, and sought a man whom she had met
at her husband's house. This was Duneau Menard, who had little interest
in the Carlines, but who would be a safe counsellor for Nelia Crele. He
greeted her with astonishment, and smiles, and told her what she needed
I was just thinking of you, Nelia, he said, Carline's sure
raising a ruction trying to find you. He 'lows you are with some man
who needs slow killing. He telephoned to me, and he's notified a
hundred sheriffs, but, shucks! he's a mean scoundrel, and I'm glad to
I want to have you help me invest some money, she said. It's
mine, and he signed every paper, for me. Here's one of them.
He took the sheet and read:
I want my wife to share up with me all my fortune, and I hereby
convey to her stocks, bonds, and cash, according to enclosed
How come hit? the man asked.
He was right friendly, then, she replied, grimly. For what
you-all said about the daughter of my mother I come here to claim your
help. You know about money, about interest and dividends. I want it so
I can have money, regular, like Gus did
I shall be glad to fix that, he said, wiping his glasses. What
you wish is a diversified set of investments. How much is there?
She stacked up before him wads, rolls, briquettes, and bundles. He
counted it, slip by slip and when he had completed the tally and
reckoned some figures on the back of an envelope, he nodded his
I expect that this will bring you around twelve or fifteen hundred
dollars a year, safe, and a leetle besides, on speculation.
That'll do, she said, approvingly.
No one in town connected her with the sensation up around Gage. She
was just one of those shanty-boat girls who come down the Mississippi
every once in a while, especially below St. Louis. In a hundred cities
and towns people were looking for Mrs. Augustus Carline, supposed to be
cutting a dashing figure, and probably in company with a certain Dick
Asunder, who had been seen in Chester, with his big black automobile on
the same day that Mrs. Carline abandoned her husband's automobile
Of course, the shanty-boaters did not tell, if they knew; the River
tells no tales. Certainly, of all the women in the world this casual
visitor at Attorney Menard's need not attract attention. Menard always
did have strange clients, and it was nothing new to see a shanty-boat
land in and some man or woman walk up to his corner office and sit down
to tell him in legal confidences things more interesting to know than
any one not of his curiosity and sympathy would ever dream.
Attorney Menard kept faith with river wastrels, floating nomads who
are akin to gypsies, but who are of all bloodstramps of the running
floods. He listened to narratives stranger than any other attorney; in
his safe he had documents of interest to sweethearts and wives, to
husbands and sons, to fugitives and hunters. Letters came to him from
all parts of the great basin, giving him directions, or notifying him
of the termination of lives whose passing had a significance or a
Nelia's mother knew him, and Nelia herself recalled his
good-humoured smile, his weathered face, his appeal to a girl for her
confidence, and the certainty that her confidence would be respected.
She had gone to him as naturally as she would have gone to a decent
father or a wise mother. She took from him his neatly written receipt,
but with the feeling that it was superfluous. In a little while she
returned to the shanty-boat and dropped out of the eddy on her way down
the river. She floated under the big Thebes Bridge, and landed against
the west bank before dark, there to have the luck to shoot a wild
goose. The maps showed that she was approaching the Lower Mississippi.
When she had left Cape Girardeau, she had noticed a little brick-red
shanty-boat which landed in just below her own. Without looking up, she
discovered that a man leaned against the roof of his low cabin whose
eyes did not cease to watch her every motion while she cast off, coiled
her ropes, and leaned to the light sweeps.
When she was a safe distance down the river, she ventured to look up
stream, and saw that the little red shanty-boat had left its mooring,
and that the man was coming down the current astern of her. It was a
free river; any one could go whither he pleased, but the certainty that
she had attracted the man's attention revealed to her the necessity of
considering her position there alone and dependent on her own
She remembered the two market hunters, and their warnings. The man
astern was a patient, lurking, menacing brute, who might suspect her of
having property enough to make a river piracy worth while; or he might
have other designs, since she was unfortunately good-looking and
attractive. Night would surely be his opportunity and the test of her
She could have landed at Commerce, where there were several
shanty-boats and temporary safety; she could have floated on down at
night and slipped into the shore in the dark, her lights out; she could
have tried flight down the river hoping to lose the brick-red boat; she
decided against all these.
Boldly she pulled into an eddy just before sunset, and had made fast
to a snag and a live root when the little boat came dropping down in
the edge of the current hardly forty feet distant, with the man leaning
on his sweeps, watching her every motion, especially fastening his gaze
upon her trim figure.
As he came opposite she turned and faced him; her jaws set.
Hello, girlie! he called, leaning upon his sweeps to carry his
skiff-like boat into the same eddy.
On the instant she snatched the automatic pistol from her bosom and,
dropping the muzzle, fired. The man stumbled back with a cry. He stood
grabbing at his shoulder, his florid face turning white, his eyes
starting with terror and pain. She saw him reel and fall through the
open hatch of his cabin and his boat go drifting on into the crossing
below. It occurred to her numbed brain that she was delivered from that
peril, but as dusk fell she hated the misery of her loneliness.
The Ohio had the Mississippi eddied. The rains that had fallen over
the valleys of Kentucky and southern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois had
brought a tide down the big branch and as there was not much water
running out of the Missouri and Upper Mississippi, the flood had backed
up the Mississippi for a little while, stopping the current almost
Elijah Rasba, running full tilt in the mid Ohio current, looked
ahead that afternoon, and he had a full view of the thing to which he
had come, seeking the wandering son of Mrs. Drones.
He arrived at the moment when the Mississippi, having been banked up
long enough, began to feel the restraint of the Ohio and resent it. The
gathered waters moved down against the Ohio flood and pressed them back
against the Kentucky side. Once more the Mississippi River resumed its
sway. On the loosed waters was a little cigar-box of a shanty-boat, and
Rasba rowed toward it across the saucer-like sucks and depressions
where the two currents of different speeds dragged by each other.
He pulled alongside, hailed, and, for answer, heard a groan, a weak
He carried a line across to the stranger's deck and made it fast.
Then he saw, stretched upon the floor, a stricken man, from whose side
a pool of blood had run. Working rapidly, Elijah discovered the wound
and as gunshot injuries were only too familiar in his mountain
experience he well knew what he should do. Examination showed that it
was a painful and dangerous shoulder shot. He cleared away the stains,
washed the hole, plucked the threads of cloth out of it, turned the man
on his face and, with two quick slashes of a razor, cut out the missile
which had done the injury.
Healing liniment, the inevitable concoction of a mountaineer's
cabin, soothed while it dressed the wound. Pads of cotton, and a
bandage supplied the final need, and Rasba stretched his patient upon
the cabin-boat bunk, then looked out upon the world to which he had
It was still a vast river, coming from the unknown and departing
into the unknown. He knew it must be the Mississippi, but he
acknowledged it with difficulty.
He did not ask the man about the bullet. Born and bred in the
mountains, he knew that that would be an unpardonable breach of
etiquette. But the wounded man was uneasy, and when he was eased of his
pain, he began to talk:
I wa'nt doin' nothing! he explained, I were jes' drappin' down,
up above Buffalo Island, an' b'low Commerce, an' a lady shot mebang!
Ho law! She jes' shot me thataway. No 'count for hit at all.
A lady you knowed? Rasba asked.
No suh! But she's onto the riveh, into a shanty-boat, purty, too,
an' jes' drappin' down, like she wa'nt goin' no wheres, an' like she
mout of be'n jes' moseyin'. I jes 'lowed I'd drap in, an' say howdy
like, an' she drawed down an' shotbang!
Was she frightened?
Hit were a lonesome reach, along of Powerses Island, the man
admitted, whining and reluctant. She didn't own that there riveh.
Hain't a man no right to land in anywheres? She shot me jes' like I was
a dawg, an' she hadn't no feelin's nohow. Jes' like a dawg!
Did you know her?
No, suh. We'd be'n drappin' down, an' drappin' downcome down
below Chester, an' sometimes she'd be ahead, an' sometimes me, an'
how'd I know she wouldn't be friendly? Ain't riveh women always
friendly? An' theh she ups an' shoots me like a dawg. She's mean, that
woman, mean an' pretty, too, like some women is!
Rasba wondered. He had been long enough on the Ohio to get the
feeling of a great river. He saw the specious pleading of the wounded
wretch, and his quick imagination pictured the woman alone in a vast,
wild wood, at the edge of that running mile-wide flood.
Of co'rse! he said, half aloud, of co'rse!
Co'rse what? the man demanded, querulously.
Co'rse she shot, Rasba answered, tartly. Sometimes a lady jes'
naturaly has to shoot, fearin' of men.
Rasba landed the two boats in at the foot of a sandbar, and made
them fast to old stakes driven into the top of the low reef. He brought
his patient some hot soup, and after they had eaten supper, he sat down
to talk to him, keeping the man company in his pain, and leading him on
to talk about the river, and the river people.
In that first adventure at the Ohio's forks Rasba had discovered his
own misconceptions, and the truth of the Mississippi had been partly
revealed to him. What the Tug was to the Big Sandy, what the Big Sandy
was to the Ohio, the Ohio was to the Mississippi. What he had looked to
as the end was but the beginning, and Rasba was lost in the immensity
of the river that was a mile wide, thousands of miles long, and unlike
anything the mountain preacher had ever dreamed of. If this was the
Mississippi, what must the Jordan be?
My name's Prebol, the man said, Jest Prebol. I live on Old
Mississip'! I live anywhere, down by N'Orleans, Vicksburgeverywhere!
I'm a grafter, I am
A grafter? Rasba repeated the strange word.
Yas, suh, cyards, an' tradin' slum, barberin' mebby, an' mebby some
otheh things. I can sell patent medicine to a doctor, I can! I clean
cisterns, an' anything.
You gamble? Rasba demanded, grasping one fact.
Sho! Prebol grinned. Who all mout yo' be?
Elijah Rasba, was the reply. I am seeking a soul lost from the
sheepfold of God. I ask but the strength to find him.
A parson? Prebol asked, doubtfully, his eyes resting a little in
their uneasy flickerings. One of them missionaries?
No, suh. Rasba shook his head, humbly. Jes' a mountang parson,
lookin' for one po'r man, low enough fo' me to he'p, maybe.
Prebol made no reply or comment. His mind was grappling with a fact
and a condition. He could not tell what he thought. He remembered with
some worriment, that he had cursed under the pain of the dressing of
the wound. He knew that it never brought any man good luck to swear
within ear-range of any parson.
He could think of nothing to do, just then, so he pretended
weariness, which was not all pretense, at that. Rasba left him to go to
sleep on his cot, and went over to his own boat, where, after an
audible session on his knees, he went to bed, and fell into a sound and
In the morning, when the parson awakened, his first thought was of
his patient, and he started out to look after the man. He looked at the
face of the sandbar reef against which the little red shanty-boat had
been moored. The boat was gone!
Rasba, studying the hard sand, soon found the prints of bare feet,
and he knew that Prebol had taken his departure precipitately, but the
reason why was not so apparent to the man who had read many a wild
turkey track, deer runway, and trails of other game.
From sun-up till nearly noon, while he made and ate his breakfast,
and while he turned to the Scriptures for some hint as to this river
man's mind, his thoughts turned again and again to the pictures which
Prebol's tales, boastings, whinings, and condition had inspired.
He felt his own isolation, strangeness, and ignorance. He could not
understand the man who had fled from assistance and succour; at the
same time the liveliness of his fancy reverted again and again to the
woman living alone in such a desolation, shooting whoever menaced.
That type was not new to him. Up in his own country he had known of
women who had stood at their rifles, returning shot for shot of feud
raiders. The pathetic courage of the woman who had shot Prebol appealed
The wounded man, wicked beyond measure, and the woman assailed, he
realized, were like hundreds of other men and women whose shanty-boats
he had seen down the Ohio River, and which lurked in bends and reaches
on both sides of the Mississippi.
Give thyself no rest! he read, and he obeyed. He believed that he
had a black sin to expiate, and he dared not begin what his soul was
hungering to do, because knowing wickedness, he had deliberately
Alternately, he read his Bible and prayed. Late in the day he
dropped out of the eddy and floated on down.
I 'low I can keep on huntin' for Jock Drones, he told himself. I
shore can do that, yes, indeed!
Having rid herself of the leering river rat, Nelia Crele trembled
for a time in weak dismay, the reaction from her tense and fiery
determination to protect herself at all costs. But she quickly gathered
her strength and, having brewed a pot of strong coffee, thrown together
a light supper, and settled back in her small, but ample, rocking
chair, she reviewed the incidents of her adventure; the flight from her
worthless husband and her assumption of the right to protect herself.
After all, shooting a man was less than running away from her
husband. She could regard the matter with a rather calm spirit and even
a laughing scorn of the man who had thought to impose himself on her,
against her own will.
That's it! she said, half aloud, I needn't to allow any man to be
mean to me!
She had given her future but little thought; now she wondered, and
she pondered. She was free, she was independent, and she was assured of
her living. She had even been more shrewd than old Attorney Menard had
suspected; the money she had left with him was hardly half of her
resources. She had another plan, by which she would escape the remote
possibility of Menard's proving faithless to his trust, as attorneys
with his opportunities sometimes have proved.
Nelia Crele could not possibly be regarded as an ordinary woman, as
a mere commonplace, shack-bred, pretty girl. Down through the years had
come a strain of effectiveness which she inherited in its full
strength; she was as inexplicable as Abraham Lincoln. Her stress of
mind relieved, she regarded the shooting of the man with increasing
satisfaction, since by such things a woman could be assured of respect.
Gaiety had never been a part of her childhood or girlhood; she had
withstood the insidious attacks and menaces that threatened her down to
the day when Gus Carline had come to her. Courted by him, married, and
then living in the clammy splendour of the house of a back-country rich
man, she had found no happiness, but merely a kind of animal comfort.
She had had the Carline library to read, and she had brought with her
the handy pocket volumes which had been her own and her delight. She
was glad of the foresight which enabled her to put into a set of book
shelves the companions which had, alone, been her comfort and
inspiration during the few years of her wedded misery.
Now, on the Mississippi, in the shanty-boat, she need consult only
her own fancy and whim. Mistress of her own affairs, as she supposed,
she could read or she could think.
I do what I please! she thought, a little defiantly. It's
nobody's business what I do now; what'd Mrs. Plosell care what people
said about her? I'll read, if I want to, and I'll flirt if I want
toand I'll do anything I want to
She reckoned without the Mississippi. Everybody does, at first. Her
money was but a means to an end. She knew its use, its value, and the
perfect freedom which it gave her; its protection was not
At the same time, sloth was no sin of hers. Living on the river
insured physical activity; her books insured her mental engagement.
She had lived so many years in combat with grim necessity that the
lesson of thrift of all her resources had been brought home to her.
Having been waylaid by circumstance so often, she took grim care now to
count the costs, and to insure her getting what she was seeking. The
trouble was she could not disassociate her feelings from her ideas.
They were inextricably interwoven. The brief years of her wedlock had
been in one way a disillusionment, in another a revelation.
She had found her own hunger for learning, her own strength and
weakness, and while she had lost to the Widow Plosell, she had clearly
seen that it was not her fault but Gus Carline's meagreness of mind and
shallowness of soul. Instead of losing her confidence, she had found
her own ability.
For hours she debated there by her pretty lamp, with the curtains
down, and the comforting and reassuring weight of the automatic pistol
in her lap. She knew that she must never have that weapon at arm's
length from her, but as she remembered where it had come from she
wondered to think that she had so easily refused the suggestion of
Frank, the market hunter.
It's all right, though, she shrugged her shoulders, I can take
care of myself, and being alone, I can think things out!
In mid-morning she cut loose from the bank and floated away down
stream. The river was very wide, and covered with crossing-ripples. She
looked down what the map showed was the chute of Hacker Tow Head, and
then the current carried her almost to the bank at the head of Buffalo
Here there was a stretch of caving bank; the earth, undercut by the
river current, was lumping off in chunks and slices. Her boat bobbed
and danced in the waves from the cave-ins, and the rocking pleased her
The names along this bit of river awakened her interest; Blackbird
Island was clearly described: Buffalo Island harked back many years
into tradition; Dogtooth Island was a matter of river shape; but
Saladin, Tow Head and Orient Field stirred her imagination, for they
might reveal the scene of steamboat disasters or some surveyor's memory
of the Arabian Nights. Below Dogtooth Island, under Brooks Point, were
a number of golden sandbars and farther down, in the lower curve of the
famous S-bends she read the name Greenleaf, which was pretty and
She was living! Every minute called upon some resource of her brain.
She had read in old books things which gave even the name Cairo, at the
foot of the long, last reach of the Upper Mississippi, a significance
of far lands and Egyptian mysteries. Gratefully she understood that the
Mississippi was summoning ideals which ought to have been called upon
long since when in the longings of her girlhood she had been
circumspect and patient, keeping her soul satisfied with dreams of
fairies playing among the petals of hill-side flowers, or gnomes
wandering among the stalks of toll-yielding cornfields.
Mature, now; fearlessand, as the word romped through her mind in
all its changes, freefree!she played with her thoughts. But below
Greenleaf Bend, as another day was lost in waning evening, she early
sought a sandbar mooring at the foot of Missouri Sister Island, where
there were two other shanty-boats, one of them with two children on the
sand. She need not dread a boat where children were found. Possibly she
would be able to talk to another woman, which would be a welcome
change, having had so much of her own thoughts!
This other woman was Mrs. Disbon, out of the Missouri. She and her
husband had been five years coming down from the Yellowstone, and they
had fished, trapped, and enjoyed themselves in their 35-foot cabin-boat
home. Of course, taking care of two children on a shanty-boat was a
good deal of work and some worry, for one or the other was always
falling overboard, but since they had learned to swim it hadn't been so
bad, and they could take care of themselves.
You all alone? Mrs. Disbon asked.
I'm alone, Nelia admitted, having told her name as Nelia Crele.
Well, I don't know as I blame you, Mrs. Disbon declared, looking
at her husband doubtfully. Seems to me that on the average, men are
more of a nuisance than they're worth. It's which and t'other about
them. I see you've had experience?
Nelia looked down at her wedding ring.
Yes, I've had experience, she nodded.
Going clear down?
Why, I hadn't thought much about it.
The Lower River's pretty bad. Disbon looked up from cleaning his
repeating shotgun. My first trip was out of the Ohio and down to
N'Orleans. I wouldn't recommend to no woman that she go down thataway,
not alone. Theh's junker-pirates use up from N'Orleans, and, course,
there's always more or less meanness below Cairo. Above St. Louis it
ain't so bad, but mean men draps down from Little Klondike.
I haven't made up my mind, Nelia said, adding, with a touch of
bitterness, I don't reckon it makes so much difference!
Lots that comes down feel thataway, Mrs. Disbon nodded, with
sympathy, Seems like some has more'n their share, and some
Nelia remained there three days, for there was good company, and a
two-day rain had set in between midnight and dawn on the following
morning. There was no hurry, and she was going nowhere. She had the
whole family over to supper the second night, and she ate two meals or
so with them.
The other shanty-boat, about a hundred yards down stream, was an old
man's. He had a soldier's pension, and he lived in serene restfulness,
reading General Grant's memoirs, and poring over the documents of the
Rebellion, discovering points of military interest and renewing his own
memories of his part in thirty-odd battles with Grant before Vicksburg
and down the line with the Army of the Potomac.
Nelia could have remained there indefinitely, but restlessness was
in her mind, as long as she had so much money on board her little
shanty-boat. Disbon knew so many tales of river piracy that she saw the
wisdom of settling her possessions, either at Cairo or Memphis,
whichever should prove best.
Landing against the bank just above the ferry, she walked over to
Cairo and sought for a man who had hired her father to help him hunt
for wild turkeys. He was a banker, and would certainly be the right
kind of a man to help her, if he would.
Mr. Brankeau, she addressed him in his office, I don't know if
you remember me, but you came hunting to the River Bottoms below St.
Genevieve, one time, and you and Father went over into Missouri,
Remember you? he exclaimed. Whyyouof course! Mrs.
She met his questioning gaze unflinchingly.
I know I can trust you, she said, simply. If you'd known Gus
I knew his father, Brankeau said. I reckon as faithless a
scoundrel as ever lived. Old man Carline left his first wife and two
babies up in IndianaI know all about that family! I saw by the
I want some railroad stocks, so I can have interest on my money,
she said by way of nature of her presence there. When we separated, he
let me have this paper, showing he wanted me to share his fortune
He was white as that? Brankeau exclaimed, astonished at the paper
Carline had signed.
He was that white, she replied, her eyes narrowing. Brankeau from
the wideness of his experience, laughed. She, an instant later,
So you settled the question between you? he suggested, I thought
from the newspapers he hadn't suspicionedthis paperum-m!
It's not a forgery, Mr. Brankeau, she assured him. He was one of
those gay sports, you know, and, for a change, he sported around with
me, once. I came away between days. You know his failing.
Several of them, especially drink, the man nodded It's in cash?
Every dollar, taken through his own banks, on his own orders.
And you want?
Railroads, and some good industrial or two. Here's the amount
She handed him a neatly written note. He took out a little green
covered book, showing lists of stocks, range of prices, condition of
companies, and, together, they made out a list. When they had finished
it, he read it into the telephone.
Within an hour the stocks had been purchased, and a week later, he
handed her the certificates. She rented a safe deposit box and put them
into it, subject only to her own use and purposes.
Thank you, Mr. Brankeau, she said, and turned to leave.
Where are you stopping? he asked.
I'm a shanty-boater.
You mean it? Not alone?
Yes, she admitted.
I wish I were twenty years younger, he mourned.
Do you, why? she looked at him, and, turning, fled.
He caught up his top-coat and hat, but he went to the Ohio River,
instead of to the Mississippi, where Nelia stood doubtfully staring
down at her boat from the top of the big city levee.
At last, she cast off her lines and dropped on down into The Forks.
She sat on the bow deck of her boat, looking at the place where the
pale, greenish Ohio waters mingled with the tawny Missouri flood.
A gleam of gold drew her attention, as she glanced downward and she
was startled to see her wedding ring, with its guard ring, still on her
left hand; it had never been off since the day her husband placed it
For a minute she looked at it, and then deliberately, with sustained
calmness, removed the thin guard, and slipped the ring from its place.
She put it upon the same finger of her right hand, where it was snug
and the guard was not necessary.
A whisper, that became a rumour, which became a report, reached Gage
and found the ears of Augustus Carline, whose wife had disappeared
sometime previously. After two wild days of drinking Carline suddenly
sobered up when the fact became assured that Nelia had gone and really
meant to remain away, perhaps forever.
The thing that startled him into certainty was the paper which he
found signed by himself, at the bank. He had forgotten all about
signing the papers that night when Nelia had shown herself to be the
gayest sport of them all. Now he found that he had signed away his
stocks and bonds, and that he had given over his cash account.
The amount was startling enough, but it did not include his real
estate, of which about two thirds of his fortune had been composed. If
it had been all stocks and bonds, he thought he would have been left
with nothing. He considered himself at once fortunate and unlucky.
I never knew the old girl was as lively as that! he told himself,
and having tasted a feast, he could not regard the Widow Plosell as
more than a lunch, and a light lunch, at that.
Nelia had been easily traced to Chester. Beyond Chester the trail
seemed to indicate that Dick Asunder had eloped with her, but ten days
later Asunder returned home with a bride whom he had married in St.
Beyond Chester Nelia had left no trace, and there was nothing even
to indicate whether she had taken the river steamer, the railroad
train, or gone into flight with someone who was unknown and
unsuspected. When Carline, sobered and regretful, began to make
searching inquiries, he learned that there were a score, or half a
hundred men for whom Old Crele had acted as a hunter's and fisher's
guide. These sportsmen had come from far and wide during many years,
and both Crele and her wistful mother admitted that many of them had
shown signs of interest and even indications of affection for the girl
as a child and as a pretty maid, daughter of a poor old ne'er-do-well.
But she was good, Carline cried. Didn't she tell you she was
goingor where she'd go?
Never a word! the two denied.
But where would she go? the frantic husband demanded. Did she
never talk about going anywhere?
Well-l, Old Crele meditated, peahs like she used to go down an'
watch Ole Mississip' a heap. What'd she use to say, Old Woman? I
disremember, I 'clar I do.
Why, she was always wishing she knowed where all that river come
from an' where all it'd be goin' to, Mrs. Crele at last recollected.
But she wouldn't dareShe wouldn't go alone? Carline choked.
Prob'ly not, a gal favoured like her, Old Crele admitted, without
shame. I 'low if she was a-picking, she'd 'a' had the pick.
Cold rage alternated with hot fear in the mind of Gus Carline. If
she had gone alone, he might yet overtake her; on the other hand, if
she had gone with some man, he was in honour bound to kill that man. He
was sensitive, now, on points of honour. The Widow Plosell, having
succeeded in creating a favourable condition, from her viewpoint,
sought to take advantage of it. She was, however, obliged to go seeking
her recent admirer, only to discover that he blamed heras men dofor
his trouble. She consulted a lawyer to see if she could not obtain
financial redress for her unhappy position, only to learn of her own
financial danger should Mrs. Carline determine upon legal revenge.
Carline, between trying to convince himself that he was the victim
of fate and the innocent sufferer from a domestic tragedy brought upon
himself by events over which he had no control, fell to hating liquor
as the chief cause of his discomfiture.
Then a whisper that became a rumour, which at last seemed to be a
fact, said that Nelia Carline was somewhere down Old Mississip'.
Someone who knew her by sight was reported to have seen her in Cape
Girardeau, and the husband raced down there in his automobile to see if
he could not learn something about the missing woman, whose absence now
proved what a place she had filled in his heart.
There was no doubt of it. Nelia had been there, but no one had
happened to think to tell Carline about it. She had landed in a pretty
shanty-boat, the wharf-master said, and had pulled out just before a
river man in a brick-red cabin-boat of small size had left the eddy.
The river man had dropped in just behind her, and, according to the
I shore kept my eyes on that man, for he was a riveh rat!
The thought was sickening to Carline. His wife floating down the
river with a river rat close behind presented but two explanations: she
was being followed for crime, or the two were just flirting on the
He bought a pretty 28-foot motorboat, 22-inch draft with a 7-foot
beam and a raised deck cabin. Having stocked up with supplies, he
started down the Ohio to find his woman.
He could not tell what his intention was, not even to himself; his
mind, long weakened and depraved by liquor, lacked clarity of thought
and distinctiveness of purpose. One hour he raged with anger, and
murder blackened his heart; another minute, his shattered nerves left
him in a panic of fears and remorse, and he hoped for nothing better
than to beg his wife and sweetheart for forgiveness. At all times dread
of what he might find at the end of the trail tormented him from terror
His anguish overcame all his other sensations. It even overcame his
lust for liquor. He grew sturdier under his affliction, so that when he
arrived at Cairo, and swung his craft smartly up to the wharf-boat, his
eyes were clear and his skin was honestly coloured by sunshine and pure
winds. Here fortune favoured him with more news of his wife. The
engineer of the Cairo-Missouri ferryboat had seen a young and pretty
woman moored at the bank some distance from the landing. She had
remained there upward of a week, having no visitors, and making daily
visits over the levee into the little city.
One day she stood there, I bet half an hour, looking back, like she
was waiting, the engineer said. I seen her onto the levee top. Then
she come down, jumped aboard with her lines, an' pulled out to go on
trippin' down. I wondered then wouldn't some man be following of her.
When Carline passed below the sandbar point, at which the Ohio and
Mississippi mingle their waters, and the human flotsam from ten
thousand towns is caught by swirling eddies, he found himself subdued
by a shadow that fell athwart his course, dulling the fire of his own
spirit with a doubt and an awe which he had never before known.
His wife had gone past the Jumping Off Place; he had heard a
thousand jests about that fork of the rivers, without comprehending its
deeper meaning, till in his own experience he, too, was flung down the
tide by forces now beyond his control, though he himself had set them
in motion. His suffering was no less acute, his mind was no less
active, but it dawned slowly on him that, after all, the acute pain
which was in his heart was no greater than the sorrow, the suffering,
the poisoned deliriums of the thousands who had given themselves to
this mighty flood, which was so vast and powerful that it dwarfed the
senses of mortals to a feeling of the proper proportion of their
affairs in the workings of the universe.
Insensibly, but surely, his pride began to fade and his selfishness
began to give way to better understanding and kindlier counsels. That
much the River Spirit had done for him. He would not give up the
search, but rather would he increase its thoroughness, and redouble his
efforts. But he would never again be quite without sympathy, quite
without understanding of sensations and experiences which were not of
his own heart and soul.
The river was a mile wide; its current surged from the deeps; it
flowed down the bend and along the reach with a noiselessness, a
resistlessness, a magnitude that seemed to carry him out of his whole
previous existenceand so it did carry him. Still human, still finite,
prone to error and lack of comprehension, nevertheless Augustus Carline
entered for the moment upon a new life recklessly and willingly.
For a minute Elijah Rasba, as the Mississippi revealed itself to
him, contemplated a greater field for service than he had ever dreamed
of. Then, humbled in his pride at the thought of great success, he felt
that it could not be; for such an opportunity an Apostle was needed,
and Rasba's cheeks warmed with shame at the realization of the vanity
in his momentary thought.
He was grateful for the privilege of seeing the panorama that
unrolled and unfolded before his eyes with the same slow dignity with
which the great storm clouds boiled up from the long backs of the
mountains of his own homeland. He missed the elevations, the clustered
wildernesses, and ledges of stone against a limited sky, but in their
places he saw the pale heavens in a dome that was uninterrupted from
horizon to horizon. There seemed to be hardly any earth commensurate
with the sky, and the river seemed to be flowing between bounds so low
and insignificant that he felt as though it might break through one
side or the other and fall into the chaos beyond the brim of the world.
Instinctively he removed his hat in this Cathedral. Familiar from
childhood with mountains and deep valleys, the sense of power and
motion in the river appealed to him as the ocean might have done. He
looked about him with curiosity and inquiry. He felt as though there
must be some special meaning for him in that immediate moment, and it
was a long time before he could quite believe that this thing which he
witnessed had continued far back beyond the memory of men, and would
continue into the unquestionable future.
He floated down stream from bend to bend, carried along as easily as
in the full run of time. He looked over vast reaches, and hardly
recognized other houseboats, tucked in holes along the banks, as craft
like his own. The clusters of houses on points of low ridges did net
strike him as veritable villages, but places akin to those of
All the rest of the day he dropped on down, not knowing which side
he should land against, and filled with doubts as to where his duty
lay. Once he caught up his big oars and began to row toward a number of
little shanty-boats moored against a sandbar, close down to a wooded
bank, only to find that the river current carried him away despite his
most muscular endeavours, so he accepted it as a sign that he should
not land there.
For a time Rasba thought that perhaps he had better just let the
river carry him whither it would, but upon reflection he remembered
what an old raftsman, who had run strands of logs down Clinch and
Holston, told him about the nature of rivers:
Come a falling tide, an' she drags along the banks and all that's
afloat keeps in the middle; but come a fresh an' a risin' tide, an' the
hoist of the water is in the mid-stream, and what's runnin' rolls off
to one side or the other, an' jams up into the drift piles.
The philosophy of that was, for this occasion, that if Old
Mississip' was falling, Elijah Rasba might never get ashore, not in all
the rest of his born days, unless he stirred his boots. So catching up
his sweep handles he began to push a long stroke toward the west bank,
and his boat began to move on the river surface. Under the two corners
of his square bow appeared little swirls and tiny ripples as he
approached the bank and drifted down in the edge of the current looking
for a place to land.
Before he knew it, a big patch of woods grew up behind him, and when
he felt the current under the boat slacken he discovered that he had
run out of the Mississippi River and was in a narrow waterway no larger
than Tug Fork.
Where all mout I be? he gasped, in wonderment.
He saw three houseboats just below him, moored against a sandbar,
with hoop nets drying near by, blue smoke curling out of tin pipes, and
two or three people standing by to look at the stranger.
He rowed ashore and carried out a big roped stone, which he used as
anchor; then he walked down the bar toward the man who watched his
approach with interest.
I am Elijah Rasba, he greeted him. I come down out of Tug River;
I am looking for Jock Drones; he's down thisaway, somewheres; can yo'
all tell me whichaway is the Mississippi River?
I don't know him, the fisherman shook his head. But this yeah is
Wolf Island Chute; the current caught you off of Columbus bluffs, and
you drifted in yeah; jes' keep a-floatin' an' d'rectly you'll see Old
Mississip' down thataway.
It's near night, Rasba remarked, looking at the sun through the
trees. I'm a stranger down thisaway; mout I get to stay theh?
Yo' can land anywhere's, the man said. No man can stop you all!
But a woman mout! Rasba exclaimed, with sudden humour. Yistehd'y
evenin', up yonway, by the Ohio River, I found a man shot through into
his shanty-boat. He said he 'lowed to land along of the same eddy with
a woman, an' she shot him almost daid!
Ho law! the fisherman cried, and another man and three or four
women drew near to hear the rest of the narrative. How come hit?
Rasba stood there talking to them, a speaker to an audience. He told
of his floating down into the Mississippi, and of his surprise at
finding the river so large, so without end. He said he kind of wanted
to ask the way of a shanty-boat, for a poor sinner must needs inquire
of those he finds in the wilderness, and he heard a groan and a weak
cry for help.
I cyard for him, and he thanked me kindly; he said a woman had shot
him when he was trying to be friendly; a pretty woman, young and alone.
Co'rse, I washed his wound and I linimented it, and I cut the bullet
out of his back; law me, but that man swore! Come night, an' he heard
say I was a parson, he apologized because he cursed, and this mo'nin'
he'd done lit out, yas, suh! Neveh no good-bye. Scairt, likely, hearin'
me pray theh because I needed he'p, an' 'count of me being glad of the
chanct to he'p any man in trouble.
Sho! Who all mout that man be, Parson?
He said his name were Jest Prebol
Ho law! Somebody done plugged Jest Prebol! one of the women cried
out, laughing. That scoundrel's be'n layin' off to git shot this long
time, an' so he's got hit. I bet he won't think he's so winnin' of
purty women no more! He's bad, that man, gamblin' an' shootin' craps
an' workin' the banks. Served him right, yes, indeedy. But he'd shore
hate to know a parson hearn him cussin' an' swearin' around. Hit don't
bring a gambler any luck, bein' heard swearin', no.
Nor if any one else hears him; not if he thinks swearin' in hisn's
heart! Rasba shook his head gravely. How come hit yo' know that man?
He's used down this riveh ten-fifteen years; besides, he married my
sister what's Mrs. Dollis now. Hit were a long time ago, though, 'fore
anybody knowed he wa'n't no good. I bet we hearn yo' was comin',
Parson. Whiskey Williams said they was a Hallelujah Singer comin' down
the Ohiosaid he could hear him a mile. I bet yo' sing out loud
Hit's so, Rasba admitted. I sung right smart comin' down the
Ohio. Seems like I jest wanted to sing, like birds in the posey time.
Prebol shore should git to a doctor, shot up thataway. He didn't
say which lady shot him, Parson? a woman asked.
No; jes' a lady into an eddy into a lonesome bend. Rasba shook his
head. A purty woman, livin' alone on this riveh. Do many do that?
Riveh ladies all do, sometimes. I tripped from Cairo to Vicksburg
into a skift once, a tall, angular woman said. My man that use to be
had stoled the shanty-boat what I'd bought an' paid for with my own
money. I went up the bank at Columbus Hickories, gettin' nuts; I come
back, an' my boat was gone. Wa'n't I tearin' an' rearin'! Well, I
hoofed hit down to Columbus, an' I bought me a skift, count of me
always havin' some money saved up.
I bet Vicksburg's a hundred mile! Rasba mused.
A hundred mile! the woman said with a guffaw. Hit's six hundred
an' sixty-three miles from Cairo to Vicksburg, yes, indeed. A hundred
mile! I made hit in ten days, stoppin' along. I ketched it theh.
You found yo' man?
Shucks! Hit wa'n't the man I wanted, hit were my boata nice,
reg'lar pine an' oak-frame boat. I bet me I chucked him ovehbo'd, an'
towed back up to Memphis. Hit were a good $300 bo't, sports built, an'
hits on the riveh yetDart Mitto's got hit, junkin'. You'll see him
down by Arkansaw Old Mouth if yo's trippin' right down.
I expect to, Rasba replied, doubtfully. Never in his life before
had he talked in terms of hundreds of miles, cities, and far rivers,
Yo'll know that boat; he's went an' painted hit a sickly yeller,
like a railroad station. I hate yeller! Gimme a nice light blue or a
right bright green.
Hyar comes anotheh bo't! one of the men remarked, and all turned
to look up the chute, where a little cabin-boat had drifted into sight.
No one was on deck, and it was apparent that the Columbus banks had
shunted the craft clear across the river and down the chute, just as
Rasba himself had been carried. The shadow of the trees on the west
side of the chute fell across the boat and immediately brought the
tripper out of the cabin.
A shadow is a warning on wide rivers. It tells of the nearness of a
bank, or towhead, or even of a steamboat. In mid-stream there is little
need for apprehension, but when the current carries one down into a
caving bend and close to overhanging trees or along the edges of short,
boiling eddies, it is time to get out and look for snags and
Seeing the group of people on the sandbar, the journeyer, who was a
woman, took the sweeps of her boat and began to work over to them.
Hit handles nice, that bo't! one of the fishermen said. Pulls
jes' like a skift. Wonder who that woman is?
I've seen her some'rs, the powerful, angular woman, Mrs. Cooke,
said after a time. Them's swell clothes she's got on. She's all alone,
too, an' what a lady travels alone down yeah for I don't know. She's
purty enough to have a husband, I bet, if she wants one.
Looks like one of them Pittsburgh er Cincinnati women, Jim Caope
No. Mrs. Caope shook her head. She's off'n the riveh. Leastwise,
she handles that bo't reg'lar. I cayn't git to see her face, but I seen
her some'rs, I bet. I can tell a man by hisns walk half a mile.
In surprise she stared at the boat as it came nearer, and then
walked down to the edge of the bar to greet the newcomer.
Why, I jes' knowed I'd seen yo' somers! How's yer maw? she
greeted. Ho law! An' yo's come tripping down Ole Mississip'! I 'clare,
now, I'd seen yo', an' I knowed hit, an' hyar yo' be, Nelia Crele. Did
yo' git shut of that up-the-bank feller yo' married, Nelia?
I'm alone, the girl laughed, her gaze turning to look at the
others, who stood watching.
If yo' git a good man, Mrs. Caope philosophized, hang on to him.
Don't let him git away. But if yo' git somebody that's shif'less an' no
'count, chuck him ovehbo'd. That's what I b'lieve in. Well, I declare!
Hand me that line an' I'll tie yo' to them stakes. Betteh throw the
stern anchor over, fo' this yeah's a shallows, an' the riveh's eddyin',
an' if hit don't go up hit'll go down, an'
Theh's a head rise coming out the Ohio, someone said. Yo' won't
need no anchor over the stern!
Sho! I'm glad to see yo'! Mrs. Caope cried, wrapping her arms
around the young woman as she stepped down to the sand, and kissing
her. How is yo' maw?
Very well, indeed! Nelia laughed, clinging to the big river
woman's hand. I'm so glad to find someone I know!
You'll know us all d'rectly. Hyar's my man, Mr. Caopereal nice
feller, too, if I do say hitan' hyar's Mrs. Dobstan an' her two
darters, an' this is Mr. Falteau, who's French and married May, there,
an' this fellersay, mister, what is yo' name?
Rasba, Elijah Rasba.
Mr. Rasba, he's a parson, out'n the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy,
comin' down. Miss Nelia Crele, suh. I disremember the name of that
feller yo' married, Nelia.
It doesn't matter, Nelia turned to the mountain man, her face
flushing. A preacher down this river?
I'm looking for a man, Rasba replied, gazing at her, the son of a
widow woman, and she's afraid for him. She's afraid he'll go wrong.
And you came clear down here to look for hima thousand, two
thousand miles? she continued, quickly.
I had nothing else to dobut that! he shook his head. You see,
missy, I'm a sinner myse'f!
He turned and walked away with bowed head. They all watched him with
quick comprehension and real sympathy.
Jest Prebol, sore and sick with his bullet wound, but more alarmed
on account of having sworn so much while a parson was dressing his
injury, could not sleep, and as he thought it over he determined at
last to cut loose and drop on down the river and land in somewhere
among friends, or where he could find a doctor. But the practised hand
of Rasba had apparently left little to do, and it was superstitious
dread that worried Prebol.
So the river rat crept out on the sandbar, cast off the lines, and
with a pole in one hand, succeeded in pushing out into the eddy where
the shanty-boat drifted into the main current. Prebol, faint and weary
with his exertions, fell upon his bunk. There in anguish, delirious at
intervals, and weak with misery, he floated down reach, crossing, and
bend, without light or signal. In olden days that would have been
suicide. Now the river was deserted and no steamers passed him up or
down. His cabin-boat, but a rectangular shade amidst the river shadows,
drifted like a leaf or chip, with no sound except when a coiling jet
from the bottom suckled around the corners or rippled along the sides.
The current carried him nearly six miles an hour, but two or three
times his boat ran out of the channel and circled around in an eddy,
and then dropped on down again. Morning found him in mid-stream,
between two wooded banks, as wild as primeval wilderness, apparently.
The sun, which rose in a white mist, struck through at last, and the
soft light poured in first on one side then on the other as the boat
swirled around. Once the squirrels barking in near-by trees awakened
the man's dim consciousness, but a few minutes later he was in
mid-stream, making a crossing where the river was miles wide.
He passed Hickman just before dawn, and toward noon he dropped by
New Madrid, and the slumping of high, caving banks pounded in his ears
down three miles of changing channel. Then the boat crossed to the
other side and he lay there with eyes seared and staring. He discovered
a grave stone poised upon the river bank, but he could not tell whether
it was fancy or fact that the ominous thing bent toward him and fell
with a splash into the river, while a wave tossed his boat on its way.
He heard a quavering whine that grew louder until it became a shriek,
and then fell away into silence, but his senses were slow in connecting
it with one of the Tiptonville cotton gins. He heard a voice, curiously
human, and having forgotten the old hay-burner river ferry, worried to
think that he should imagine someone was driving a mule team on the
Mississippi. For a long time he was in acute terror, because he thought
he was blind, and could not see, but to his amazed relief he saw a
river light and knew that another night had fallen upon him, so he went
to sleep once more.
Voices awakened him. He opened his eyes, and the surroundings were
familiar. He smelled iodine, and saw a man looking over a doctor's
case. Leaning against the wall of the cabin-boat was a tall, slender
young man with arms folded.
How's he comin' Doc'? the young man was saying.
He'll be all right. How long has he been this way?
Don't know, Doc; he come down the riveh an' drifted into this eddy.
I see his lips movin', so I jes' towed 'im in an' sent fo' yo'!
Just as well, for that wound sure needed dressing. I 'low a horse
doctor fixed hit first time, the physician declared. He'll need some
care now, but he's comin' along.
Oh, we'll look afteh him, Doc! Friend of ourn.
I'll come in to-morrow. It's written down what to do, and about
that medicine. You can read?
Howdy, Prebol muttered, feebly.
He's a comin' back, Doc! the young man cried, starting up with
Well, old sport, looks like you'd got mussed up some? the doctor
Yas, suh, Prebol grinned, feebly, his senses curiously clear. Hit
don't pay none to mind a lady's business fo' her, no suh!
A lady shot you, eh?
Yas, suh, Prebol grinned. 'Peahs like I be'n floatin' about two
mile high like a flock o' ducks. Where all mout I be?
Little Prairie Bend.
Into that bar eddy theh?
Yas, suhthe short eddy.
Much obliged, Doc. Co'se I'll pay yo'
Your friend's paid!
Yas, suh, Prebol whispered, sleepily, tired by the exertion and
Sleep'll do him good, the doctor said, and returned to his little
The young man went on board his own boat which was moored just below
Prebol's. As he entered the cabin, a burly, whiskered man looked up and
How's he coming, Slip?
Doc says he's all right. Jest said a woman shot him for tryin' to
mind her business, kind-a laughed about hit.
Theh! I always knowed a man that'd chase women the way he done'd
git what's comin'. A woman'll make trouble quicker'n anything else on
Gawd's earth, she will.
Sho! Buck, yo's soured!
Hit's so 'bout them women! Buck protested.
If a man'd mind his business, an' not try to mind their business,
women'd be plumb amusin', Slip laughed.
Wait'll yo've had experience, Buck retorted.
Shucks! Ain't I had experience?
Eveh have a lady sic' yo' onto some'n bigger'n yo' is?
No-o; reckon I pick my own people to scrap.
Theh! That shows how much yo' don't know about women. Never had no
woman yo' 'lowed to marry?
Huh! Catch me gittin' marriedco'se not.
Sonny, lemme tell yo'; hit ain't yo'll do the catchin', an' hit
won't be yo' who'll be decidin' will yo' git married. An' hit won't be
yo' who'll decide how long yo'll stay married, no, indeed.
Peah's like yo' got an awful grouch ag'in women, Buck.
Why shouldn't I have? Buck started up from shuffling and throwing
a book of cards. Look't me. If Jest Prebol's shot most daid by a
woman, look't me. Do you know mewhere I come from, where the hell I'm
goin'? Yo' bet you don't. I've been shanty-boatin' fifteen years, but I
ain't always been a shanty-boater, no, I haven't. Talk to me about
women. When I think what I've took from one womanSho!
He stared at the floor, his teeth clenched and his strong face set.
Slip stared. His pal had disclosed a new phase of character.
Buck turned and glared into Slip's eyes.
I'll tell you, Slip, you're helpless when it comes to women.
They've played the game for ten thousand years, practised it every day,
wearing down men's minds and men never knew it. Read history, as I've
done. Study psychology, as I have. Go down into the fundamentals of
human experience and human activities, and learn the lesson. Fifteen
years I've been up and down these rivers, from Fort Benton to the
Passes, from the foothills of the Rockies to the headwaters of Clinch
and Holston in the Appalachians. Why? Because one woman sang her way
into my heart, and because she tied my soul to her little finger, and
when she found that I could not escapewhen she hadwhen she
hadWhat do you know about women?
Slip stared at him. His pal, partner in river enterprises, an old
river man, who talked little and who played the slickest games in the
slickest way, had suddenly emerged like a turtle's head, and spoken in
terms of science, education, breedingregular quality folks'
talkunder stress of an argument about women. And they had argued the
subject before with jest and humour and without personal feeling.
Buck turned away, bent and shivering.
I 'low I'll roast up them squirrels fo' dinner? Slip suggested.
They'll shore go good! Buck assented. I'll mux around some
hot-bread, an' some gravy.
I got to make some meat soup for that feller, too.
Huh! Jest Prebol's one of them damned fools what tried to forget a
woman among women, Buck sneered.
At intervals during the day Slip went over and gave Prebol his
medicine, or fed him on squirrel meat broth; toward night they floated
their 35-foot shanty-boat out into the eddy, and anchored it a hundred
yards from the bank, where the sheriff of Lake County, Tennessee, no
longer had jurisdiction. In the late evening Slip lighted a big carbide
light and turned it toward the town on the opposite bank.
Pretty soon they heard the impatient dip of skiff oars, a river
fisherman came aboard, and stood for a minute over the heater stove,
warming his fingers. He soon went to the long, green-topped crap table
in the end of the room, and Slip stood opposite, to throw bones against
him. A tiny motorboat crossed a little later; and three men, two heavy
set and one a slim youth, entered, to sit down at one of the little
round tables and play a game.
One by one other patrons appeared, and soon there were fourteen or
fifteen. Slip and Buck glided about among them quietly, their eyes
alert, their hats drawn down over their eyes, taking a hand here,
throwing bones there, poking up the coal fire, putting on coffee,
making sandwiches, every moment on the qui vive, communicating
with each other by jerks of the hand, lifting of shoulders, or the
faintest of whisperings.
A jar against the side of the boat sent one or other of the two out
to look, to greet a newcomer or to fend off a drift log. A low whistle
from the stern took Buck through the aisle between the staterooms to
the kitchen where a rat-eyed little man waited him on the stern deck,
Lo, Buck! I'm drappin' down in a hurry; I learn yo' was heah.
Theh's a feller drapping down out the Ohio; he's lookin' fo' a feller
name of Jock Dronesdidn't hear what for. Yo' know 'im?
Nope, but I'll pass the word around.
Jock Droneshuh! Buck repeated, turning into the lamp-lit kitchen
where Slip was sniffing the coffee pot.
Friend of mine just stopped, Buck whispered. There's a detective
coming down out of the Ohio. Told me to pass the word around. He's
after somebody by the name of Drones, Dock or Jock Drones.
Slip started, turned white, and his jaws parted. Buck's eyes opened
a little wider.
S'all right, Slip! Keep your money in your belt, to be ready to run
or swim. It's a long river.
Slip could not trust himself to speak. Buck, patting him on the
shoulder, went on into the card room and closed the kitchen door behind
him, drawing the aisle curtains shut, too, so that no one would go back
until Slip had recovered his equilibrium.
Augustus Carline instinctively slowed down his motorboat and took to
looking at the wide river, its quivering, palpitating surface; its
vistas at which he had to look twice to see the end, as the river man
says with whimsical accuracy.
Negligent and thoughtless, he could now feel some things which had
never occurred to him before: his loneliness, his doubts, his very
helplessness and indecision. His wife had been like an island around
which he sailed and cruised, sure in his consciousness that he could
return at any time to that safe mooring. He had returned to find the
island gone, himself adrift on a boundless ocean, and he did not know
which way to turn. The cays and islets, the interesting rocks and the
questionable coral reefs supplied him with not the slightest semblance
of shelter, support, or safety.
He did not even know which side of the river to go to, nor where to
begin his search. He was wistful for human companionship, but as he
looked at the distant shanty-boats, and passed a river town or two, he
found himself diffident and shamed.
He saw a woman in a blue mother-hubbard dress leaning against the
cabin of her low, yellow shanty-boat, a cap a-rake on her head, one
elbow resting on her palm, and in the other a long-stemmed Missouri
meerschaum. Her face was as hard as a man's, her eyes were as blue and
level as a deputy sheriff's in the Bad Lands, and her lips were
straight and thin. How could a man ask her if she had seen his wife
going down that way?
He stopped his motor and let his boat drift. He wondered what he
could or would say when he overtook Nelia. There struck across his
imagination the figure of a man, the Unknown who had, perhaps, promised
her the care he had never given her, the affection which she had almost
never had from him. Having won her, this Unknown would likely defy him
down there in that awful openness and carelessness of the river.
He found a feeling of insignificance making its way into his mind.
He had been vain of his looks, but what did looks amount to down there?
He had been proud of his money, but what privilege did money give him
on that flood? He had rejoiced in his popularity and the attention
women paid him, but the indifferent gaze of that smoking Amazon chilled
his self-satisfaction. He cringed as he seemed to see Nelia's pretty
eyes glancing at him, her puzzled face as she apparently tried to
remember where she had seen him. The river wilted the crumpling flower
of his pride.
As his boat turned like a compass needle in the surface eddies he
saw a speck far up stream. He brought out his binoculars and looked at
it, thinking that it was some toy boat, but to his astonishment it
turned out to be a man in a skiff.
It occurred to Carline that he wished he could talk to someone, to
any one, about anything. He had no resources of his own to draw on. He
had always been obliged to be with people, talk to people, enjoy
people; the silences of his wife's tongue had been more difficult for
him to bear than her edged words. The skiff traveller, leisurely
floating in that block of river, drew him irresistibly. He kicked over
the flywheel and steered up stream, but only enough partly to overcome
the speed of the current. The sensation of being carried down in spite
of the motor power, complicated with the rapid approach of the stranger
in his skiff, was novel and amusing. When he stopped the motor, the
rowboat was within a hundred feet of him, and the two men regarded each
other with interest and caution.
The traveller was unusual, in a way. On his lap was a portable
typewriter, in the stern of the boat a bundle of brown canvas; a brass
oil stove was on the bottom at the man's feet; behind him in the bow
were a number of tins, cans, and boxes.
Neither spoke for some time, and then Carline hailed:
Nice, pretty day on the river!
Fine! the other replied. Out the Ohio?
Nowell, yesI started at Evansville, where I bought this boat,
but I live up the Mississippi, at KaskaskiaGage, they call it now.
Yes? I stopped at Menard's on my way down from St Louis.
When was that?
About ten days agotell you in a minuteMonday a week! A big
quarto loose-leaf notebook had revealed the day and date.
Well, sayI? Carline's one question leaped to his lips but
remained unasked. For the minute he could not ask it. The thing that
had been his rage, and then his wonder, suddenly drew back into his
heart as a secret sorrow.
Won't you come over? Carline asked, it'd be company!
Yes, it'll be company, the other admitted, and with a pull of his
oars brought the skiff alongside. He climbed aboard, painter in hand,
and making the light line fast to one of the cleats, sat down on the
locker across from his host.
My name's Carline.
Mine's Lester Terabon; a newspaper let me come down the river to
write stories about it; it's the biggest thing I ever saw!
It's an awful size! Carline admitted, looking around over his
shoulder, and Terabon watched the face.
Are you a river man? the visitor asked.
No. My father was a big farmer, and he made some money when they
put a railroad through one of his places.
Just tripping down to see the river?
No-owell Carline hesitated, looking overside at the water.
That must be Wolf Island over there? the reporter suggested.
Carline looked at the island. He looked down the main river and over
toward the chute toward which the Columbus bluffs had shunted them.
Then he started the motor and steered into the main channel to escape
the rippling shoals which flickered in the sunshine ahead of them, past
an island sandbar.
I don't know if it's Wolf Island. Carline shook his head. I'm
looking for somebodysomebody who came down this way.
The traveller waited. He looked across the current to the bluffs now
passing up stream, Columbus and all.
I don't suppose you find very much to write about, coming down?
Carline changed his mind.
For answer Terabon drew his skiff alongside and reached for his
typewriter. As he began to write, he said: I write everything
downbig or little. A man can't remember everything, you know.
Make good money writing for the newspapers?
Enough to live on, Terabon replied, and, of course, it's living,
coming down Old Mississip'!
You like it travelling in that skiff? Where do you sleep?
I stretch that canvas between the gunwales in those staples; I put
those hoops up, and draw a canvas over the whole length of the boat. I
can sleep like a baby in its cradle.
Well, that's one way, Carline replied, doubtfully. If I owned
this old river, you could buy it for two cents.
Terabon laughed, and after a minute Carline joined in, but he had
told the truth. He hated the river, and he was cowed by it; yet he
could not escape its clutches.
I fancy it hasn't always treated you right, Terabon remarked.
Treated me right! Carline doubled his fists and stiffened where he
He could not speak for his emotion, but his little pointed chin
trembled a minute later as he relaxed and looked over his shoulder
again. The typewriter clicked along for minutes, Terabon's fingers
dancing over the keys as he put down, word for word, and motion for
motion, the man who was afraid of the river and yet was tripping down
it. It seemed as though the man afraid must have some kind of courage,
too, because he was going in spite of his fears.
It's passing noon, and I think I'll get something to eat, Terabon
suggested; I'll get up my
I forgot to eat! Carline said. I've got everything, and that knob
there is a three-burner oil stove. We'll eat on board. Never mind your
stuff, I've got so much it'll spoilbut I ain't much of a cook!
I'm the original cook the Cæsars wanted to buy for gold! Terabon
boasted. I got some squirrels, there, I killed up on Buffalo Island,
and we'll fry them.
Nor did he fail to make his boast good, for he soon had hot-bread,
gravy browned in the pan, boiled sweet potatoes, and canned corn ready
for the table. When they sat down to eat, Carline confessed that he
hadn't had a real meal for a week except one he ate in a Cairo
I could have got a kind of a meal, he admitted, but you see I was
worried a good deal. Did you stop at Stillhouse Island?
Just above Gage, kind of across from St. Genevieve.
Let's seeoh, yes. There was an old fellow there, what's his name?
He told me if I happened to see his daughter I should tell her to write
him, for her mother wanted to hear.
He said that! And youit was Crele, Darien Crele said that?
That's the nameNelia, his daughter.
Yes, sir. I know. I guess I know! She's my wifeshe wasIt's
You're looking for?
Yes, sir; she ran away and left me. She came down here.
Kind of a careless girl, I imagine?
Careless! God, no! The finest woman you ever saw. It was meI was
to blame. I never knew, I never knew!
For a minute he held up his arms, looking tensely at the sky,
struggling to overcome the emotion that long had been boiling up in his
heart, rending the self-complacency of his mind. Then he broke
downbroke down abjectly, and fell upon the cabin floor, crying aloud
in his agony, while the newspaper man sitting there whispered to
Poor devil, here's a story! He's sure getting his. I don't want to
forget this; got to put this down. Poor devil!
And he says he's a sinner himself, Nelia repeated, when she
returned on board her cabin-boat in the sheltering safety of Wolf
Island chute, with Mamie Caope, Parson Rasba, and the other
shanty-boaters within a stone's toss of her.
Till she was among them, among friends she trusted, she had not
noticed the incessant strain which she endured down those long, grim
river miles. Now she could give way, in the privacy of her boat, to
feminine tears and bitterness. Courage she had in plenty, but she had
more sensitiveness than courage. She was not yet tuned to the river
Something in Rasba's words, or it was in his voice, or in the quick,
full-flood of his glance, touched her senses.
You see, missy, I'm a sinner myse'f!
What had he meant? If he had meant that she, too, was a sinner, was
that any of his business? Of course, being a parsonshe shrugged her
shoulders. Her thoughts ran swiftly back to her home that used-to-be.
She laughed as she recalled the deprecatory little man who had preached
in the church she had occasionally attended. She compared the trim,
bird-like perspicuity and wing-flap gestures of Rev. Mr. Beeve with the
slow, huge turn and stand-fast of Parson Rasba.
She was glad to escape the Mississippi down this little chute; she
was glad to have a phrase to puzzle over instead of the ever-present
problem of her own future and her own fate; she was glad that she had
drifted in on Mrs. Mame Caope and Jim and Mr. Falteau and Mrs. Dobstan
and Parson Rasba, instead of falling among those other kinds of people.
Mrs. Caope was an old acquaintance of her mother who had lived all
her life on the rivers. She was a better boatman than most, and could
pilot a stern-wheel whiskey boat or set hoop nets for fish.
If I get a man, and he's mean, Mrs. Caope had said often, I shift
him. I 'low a lady needs protection up the bank er down the riveh, but
I 'low if my cookin' don't pay my board, an' if fish I take out'n my
nets ain't my own, and the boat I live in ain't minewell, I've
drapped two men off'n the stern of my boat to prove hit!
Mrs. Caope had not changed at all, not in the years Nelia could
recall, except to change her name. It was the custom, to ask, perfectly
respectfully, what name she might be having now, and Mrs. Mame never
took offence, being good natured, and understanding how hard it was to
keep track of her matrimonial adventures, episodes of sentiment but
without any nonsense.
Sho! Mrs. Caope had said once, I disremember if I couldn't stand
him er he couldn't stand me!
Nelia, adrift in her own life, and sure now that she never had
really cared very much for Gus Carline, admitted to herself that her
husband had been only a step up out of the poverty and misery of her
You see, missy, I'm a sinner myse'f!
Her ears had caught the depths of the pathos of his regret and
sorrow, and she pitied him. At the same time her own thoughts were
ominous, and her face, regular, bright, vivacious, showed a hardness
which was alien to it.
Nelia went over to Mrs. Caope's for supper, and Parson Rasba was
there, having brought in a wild goose which he had shot on Wolf Island
while going about his meditations that afternoon. Mrs. Caope had the
goose sizzling in the big oven of her coal rangecoal from Pittsburgh
barges wrecked along the river on barsand the big supper was sweeter
smelling than Rasba ever remembered having waited for.
Mrs. Caope told him to ask one of them blessin's if yo' want,
Parson! and the four bowed their heads.
Jim Caope then fell upon the bird, neck, wings, and legs, and while
he carved Mrs. Caope scooped out the dressing, piled up the fluffy
biscuits, and handed around the soup tureen full of gravy. Then she
chased the sauce with glass jars full of quivering jellies, reaching
with one hand to take hot biscuits from the oven while she caught up
the six-quart coffee pot with the other.
I ain't got no patience with them women that don't feed their men!
she declared. About all men want's a full stomach, anyhow, an' if you
could only git one that wa'n't lazy, an' didn't drink, an' wasn't
impedent, an' knowed anything, besides, you'd have something. Ain't
that so, Nelia?
Oh, indeed yes, Nelia cried, from the fullness of her experience,
which was far less than that of the hostess.
After they had eaten, they went from the kitchen into the sitting
room, where Rasba turned to Nelia.
You came down the river alone? he asked.
Yes, she admitted.
I wonder you wouldn't be scairt up of itnights, and those
It's better than some other things. Nelia shook her head.
Besides, you've come alone down the Ohio yourself.
He looked at her, and Mrs. Caope chuckled.
Butbut you're a woman! Rasba exclaimed.
Suppose a mean man came aboard your boat, andand tried to rob
you, Nelia asked, level voiced, what would you do?
Why, course, I'dI'd likely stop him.
You'd throw him overboard?
Wellif hit were clost to the bank an' he could swim, I mout.
Nelia and the Caopes laughed aloud, and Rasba joined in the
merriment. When the laughter had subsided, Rasba said:
The reason I was asking, as I came by the River Forks I found a
little red boat there with a man on the cabin floor shot through
Dead? Nelia gasped.
No, just kind of pricked up a bit, into one shoulder. He said a
lady shot him because he 'lowed to land into the same eddy with her.
Butwhere? Nelia half-whispered. Where did he go?
Hit were Jest Prebol, Mrs. Caope said. You was tellin' of him,
Hit were Prebol, Rasba nodded, an' he shore needed shooting!
Yas, suh. That kind has to be shot some to make 'em behave
theirselves, Mrs Caope exclaimed, sharply. If it wa'n't fer ladies
shootin' men onct in awhile, down Old Mississip', why, ladies couldn't
git to live here a-tall!
And women, sometimes, don't do men any good, Rasba mused, aloud,
I've wondered right smart about hit. You see, a parson circuit rides
around, an' he sees a sight more'n he tells. Lawse, he shore do!
The two women glared at him, but he was studying his huge hands,
first the backs and then the calloused palms. He was really wondering,
so the two women glanced at each other, laughing. The idea that
probably some men needed protection from women could not help but amuse
while it exasperated them.
Prebol said, Rasba continued, hit were a pretty woman, young an'
alone. 'How'd I know?' he asked. 'How'd I know she were a spit-fire an'
mean, theh all alone into a lonesome bend? How'd I know?'
I 'low he shore found out, Mrs. Caope spoke up, tartly, and Nelia
looked at her gratefully. Hit takes a bullet to learn fellers like
Jest Prebolan' him thinkin' he's so smart an' such a lady killer. I
bet he knows theh's some ladies that's men killers, too, now. Next time
he meets a lady he'll wait to be invited 'fore he lands into the same
eddy with her, even if hit's a three-mile eddy.
Theh's Mrs. Minah, Jim Caope suggested.
Mrs. Minah! Mrs. Caope exclaimed. Talk about riveh ladiestheh's
one. She owns Mozart Bend. Seventeen mile of Mississippi River's her'n,
an' nobody but knows hit, if not to start with, then by the end. She
stands theh, at the breech of her rifle, and, ho law, cayn't she shoot!
She's real respectable, too, cyarful an' 'cordin' to law. She's had
seven husbands, four's daid an' two's divorced, an' one she's got yet,
'cordin' to the last I hearn say about it. I tell you, if a lady's got
any self-respect, she'll git a divorce, an' she'll git married ag'in.
That's what I say, with divorces reasonable, like they be, an' costin'
on'y $17.50 to Mendova, or Memphis, er mos' anywheres.
How longhow long does it take? Nelia asked, eagerly.
Why, hardly no time at all. You jes' go theh, an' the lawyer he
takes all he wants to know, an' he says come ag'in, an' next day, er
the next trip, why, theh's yo' papers, an' all for $17.50. Seems like
they's got special reg'lations for us shanty-boaters.
I'm glad to know about that, Nelia said. I thoughtI never knew
much aboutabout divorces. I thought there was a lot ofof rigmarole
and testimony and court business.
Nope! I tell yo', some of them Mendova lawyers is slick an'
'commodatin'. Why, one time I was in an awful hurry, landin' in 'long
of the upper ferry, an' I went up town, an' seen the lawyer, an' told
him right how I was fixed. Les' see, that waum-mOh, I 'member
now, Jasper Hill. I'd married him up the line, I disrememberanyhow,
'fore I'd drapped down to Cairo, I knowed he'd neveh do, nohow, so I
left him up the bank between Columbus an' Hickmanlaw me, how he
squawked! Down by Tiptonville, where I'd landed, they was a real nice
feller, Mr. Dickman. Well, we kind of co'ted along down, one place an
anotheh, an' he wanted to git married. I told how hit was, that I
wasn't 'vorced, an' so on, but if he meant business, we'd drap into
Mendova, which we done. He wanted to pay for the divorce, but I'm
independent thataway. I think a lady ought to pay for her own 'vorces,
so I done hit, an' I was divorced at 3 o'clock, married right next door
into the Justice's, an' we drapped out an' down the riveh onto our
honeymoon. Mr. Dickman was a real gentleman, but, somehow, he couldn't
stand the riveh. It sort of give him the malary, an' he got to thinking
about salmon fishin' so he went to the Columbia. We parted real good
friends, but the Mississippi's good 'nough for me, yes, indeed. I kind
of feel zif I knowed hit, an' hit's real homelike.
It is lovely down here, Nelia remarked. Everything is so kind
ofkind of free and easy. But wasn't it dreadfulI mean the first
timethe first divorce, Mamie?
Course, yes, course, Mrs. Caope admitted, slowly, with a frown, I
neveh will forget mine. I'd shifted my man, an' I was right down to
cornmeal an' bacon. Then a real nice feller come along, Mr. Darlet. I
had to take my choice between a divorce an' a new weddin' dress, an' I
tell you hit were real solemocholy fer me decidin' between an' betwixt.
You know how young gals are, settin' a lot by dresses an' how they
look, an' so on. Young gals ain' got much but looks, anyhow. Time a
lady gits experience, she don't set so much store by looks, an' she
don't have to, nohow. Well, theh I was, with a nice man, an' if I
didn't divorce that first scoundrel where'd I be? So I let the dress
go, an' mebby you'll b'lieve hit, an' mebby yo' won't, but I had
$18.97, an' I paid my $17.50 real reg'lar, an' I had jest what was
left, $1.47, an' me ready to bust out crying, feelin' so mean about
marryin' into an old walking skirt.
I was all alone, an' I had a good notion to run down the back way,
an' trip off down the riveh without no man, I felt so 'shamed. An'
theh, right on the sidewalk, was a wad of bills, $99 to a penny. My
lan'! I wropped my hand around hit, an' yo' should of seen Mr. Darlet
when he seen me come walking down, new hat, new dress, new shoes, new
silk stockingsthe whole business new. I wa'n't such a bad-lookin'
gal, afteh all. That taught me a lesson. I've always be'n real savin'
sinct then, an' I ain't be'n ketched sinct with the choice to make of a
'vorce er a weddin' dress. No, indeed, not me!
Parson Rasba looked at her, and Nelia, her eyes twinkling, looked at
the Parson. Nelia could understand the feelings in all their minds. She
had her own viewpoint, too, which was exceedingly different from those
of the others. The strain of weeks of questioning, weeks of mental
suffering, was relieved by the river woman's serious statement and
Parson Rasba's look of bewilderment at the kaleidoscopic matrimonial
adventuring. At the same time, his wonder and Mrs. Caope's unconscious
statement stirred up in her thoughts a new questioning.
When Nelia returned on board her boat, and sat in its cabin, a freed
woman, she very calmly reckoned up the advantages of Mrs. Caope's
standards. Then seeing that it was after midnight, and that only the
stars shone in that narrow, wooded chute, she felt she wanted to go out
into the wide river again, to go where she was not shut in. She cast
off her lines and noiselessly floated out and down the slow current.
She saw Parson Rasba's boat move out into the current behind her and
drift along in the soft, autumn night. Her first thought was one of
indignation, but when a little later they emerged into the broad river
current and she felt the solitude of the interminable surface, her mood
What the big, quizzical mountain parson had in mind she did not
know. It was possible that he was a very bad man, indeed. She could not
help but laugh under her breath at his bewilderment regarding Mrs.
Caope, which she felt was a genuine expression of his real feelings. At
the same time, whatever his motive in following her, whether it was to
protect herwhich she could almost believeor to court her, which was
not at all unlikely, or whether he had a baser design, she did not
know, but she felt neither worry nor fear.
I don't care, she shook her head, defiantly, I like him!
Carline recovered his equilibrium after a time. His nerves, long on
the ragged edge, had given way, and he was ashamed of his display of
Seems as though some things are about all a man can stand, he said
to Terabon, the newspaper man. You know how it is!
Oh, yes! I've had my troubles, too, Terabon admitted.
It isn't fair! Carline exclaimed. Why can't a man enjoy himself
and have a good time, and notand not
Have a headache the next day? Terabon finished the sentence with a
That's it. I'm not what you'd call a hard drinker; I like to take a
cocktail, or a whiskey, the same as any man. I like to go out around
and see folks, talk to 'em, danceyou know, have a good time!
Everybody does, Terabon admitted.
And my wife, she wouldn't go around and she wasshe was
Jealous because you wanted to use your talents to entertain?
That's it, that's it. You understand! I'm a good fellow; I like to
joke around and have a good time. Take a man that don't go around, and
he's a dead one. It ain't as though she couldn't be a good sportLord!
Why, I'd just found out she was the best sport that ever lived. I
thought everything was all right. Next day she was gonetricky as the
devil! Why, she got me to sign up a lot of papers, got all my spare
cash, stocks, bondseverything handy. Oh, she's slick! Bright,
toobright's anybody. Why, she could talk about books, or flowers, or
birdsabout anything. I never took much interest in them.
And brought up in that shack on Distiller's Island?
Stillhouse Island, yes, sir. What do you know about that?
A remarkable woman!
Yes, sirII've got some photographs, and Carline turned to a
writing desk built into the motorboat. He brought out fifteen or twenty
photographs. Terabon looked at them eagerly. He could not associate the
girl of the pictures with the island shack, with this weakling man, nor
yet with the Mississippi Riverat least not at that moment.
She's beautiful, he exclaimed, sincerely.
Yes, sir. Carline packed the pictures away.
He started the motor, straightened the boat out and steered into
mid-stream, looking uncertainly from side to side.
There's no telling, he said, not about anything.
On the river no one can tell much about anything! Terabon
You're just coming down, I suppose, looking for hist'ries to
That's about it. I just sit in the skiff, there, and I write what I
see, on the machine: A big sandbar, a flock of geese, a big oak tree
just on the brink of the bank half the roots exposed and going to fall
in a minute or a dayeverything like that!
I bet some of these shanty-boaters could tell you histories,
Carline said. I tell you, some of them are bad. Why, they'd murder a
man for ten dollarsthose river pirates would.
No doubt about it!
But they wouldn't talk, 'course. It must be awful hard to make up
them stories in the magazines.
Oh, if a man gets an idea, he can work it up into a story. It takes
work, of course, and time.
I don't see how anybody can do it. Carline shook his head.
There's a man up to Gage. He wants to write a book, but he ain't never
been able to find anything to write about. You see, Gage ain't much but
a little landing, you might say.
Chester, and the big penitentiary is just below there, isn't it?
I'd think there might be at least one story for him to write
Oh, he don't want to write about crooks; he wants to write about
nice people, society people, and that kind, and big cities. He says
it's awful hard to find anybody to write about.
You've got to look to find heroes, Terabon admitted. I came more
than a thousand miles to see a shanty-boat.
You di-i-d? Just to see a shanty-boat! Carline stared at Terabon
In spite of Terabon being such a queer duck he made a good
companion. He was a good cook, for one thing, and when they landed in
below Hickman Bend, he went ashore and killed three squirrels and two
black ducks in the woods and marsh beyond the new levee.
When he returned, he found a skiff landed near by on the sandbar.
Carline was talking to the man, who had just handed over a gallon jug.
The man pulled away swiftly and disappeared down the chute. Carline
He's a whiskey pedlar; a man always needs to have whiskey on board;
malaria is bad down here, and a fellow might catch cold. You see how it
is if a man don't have some whiskey on board.
I understand, Terabon admitted.
After supper Carline decided that there was a lot of night air
around, and that a man couldn't take too many precautions against that
deadly river miasma whose insidious menace so many people have ignored
to their great cost. As for himself, Carline didn't propose to be taken
bad when he had so universal a specific, to take or leave alone, just
as he wanted.
Terabon, having put up the hoops of his skiff and stretched the
canvas over them, retired to his own boat and spent two hours writing.
In the morning, when he stirred out, he found Carline lying in the
engine pit, oblivious to the night air that had fallen upon him,
protected as he was by his absorption of the sure preventive of night
air getting him first. The jug was on the floor, and Terabon, after a
little thought, poured out about two and a half quarts which he
replaced with distilled water from the motorboat's drinking bottle.
Then he dropped down the chute into the main river to resume his search
for really interesting histories.
The river had never been more glorious than that morning. The sun
shone from a white, misty sky. It was warm, with the slight tang of
autumn, and the yellow leaves were fluttering down; squirrels were
barking, and a flock of geese, so high in the air that they sparkled,
in the sunshine, were gossiping, and the music of their voices rained
upon the river surface as upon a sounding board.
Terabon was approaching Donaldson's Point, Winchester Chute, Island
No. 10, and New Madrid. An asterisk on his map showed that Slough Neck
was interesting, and sure enough, he found a 60-foot boat just above
Upper Slough Landing, anchored off the sandbar. This was a notorious
whiskey boat, and just below it was a flight of steps up the steep
bank. No plantation darky ever used those steps. He would rather
scramble in the loose silt and risk his neck than climb that easy
Terabon, drifting by, close at hand, gazed at the scene. From that
craft Negroes had gone forth to commit crime; white men had gone out to
do murder, and one of them had rolled down those steps, shot dead. On
the other side of Slough Neck, just outside of Tiptonville, there was a
tree on which seven men had been lynched.
He pulled across to the foot of Island No. 10 sandbar, to walk up
over that historic ground, and to visit the remnants of Winchester
Chute where General Grant had moored barges carrying huge mortars with
which to drop shells into the Confederate works on Island No. 10.
He hailed a shanty-boat just below where he landed, and as the
window opened and he saw someone within, he asked:
Will you kindly watch my skiff? I'm going up over the island.
Yes, glad to!
Thank you. He bowed, and went upon his exploration.
It was hard to believe that this sandbar, grown to switch willows
which increased to poles six or seven inches in diameter, had once been
a big island covered with stalwart trees, with earthworks, cannon, and
desperate soldiers. Its serene quiet, undulating sands and casual
weed-trees, showing the stain of floods that had filled the bark with
sediment, proved the indifference of the river to fleeting human
affairsthe trifling work of human hands had been washed away in a
spring tide or two, and Island No. 10 was half way to the Gulf by this
Terabon returned to his skiff three or four hours later, and taking
up his typewriter, began to write down what he had seen, elaborating
the pencil notes which he had made. As he wrote he became conscious of
an observer, and of the approach of someone who was diffident and
curiousa familiar enough sensation of late.
He looked up, started, and reached for his hat. It was a woman, a
young woman, with bright eyes, grace, dignityand much curiosity.
I didn't mean to disturb you, she apologized. I was just
wondering what on earth you could be doing!
Oh, I'm writingmaking notes
I'm a newspaper writer, he made his familiar statement. My name
is Lester Terabon. I'm from New York. I came down here from St. Louis
to see the Mississippi.
You write for newspapers? she repeated.
She came and sat down on the bow deck of his skiff, frankly curious
My name's Nelia Crele, she smiled. I'm a shanty-boater. That's my
I'm sure I'm glad to meet you, he bowed, Mrs. Crele.
You find lots to write about?
I can't write fast enough, he replied, enthusiastically, I've
been coming six weeksfrom St. Louis. I've made more than 60,000 words
in notes already, and the more I make the more I despair of getting it
all down. Why, right hereNew Madrid, Island 10, andand
And me? she asked. Did you stop at Gage?
At Stillhouse Island, he admitted, circumspectly. Mr. Crele there
said I should be sure and tell his daughter, if I happened to meet her,
that her mother wanted her to be sure and write and let her know how
she is getting along.
Oh, I'll do that, she assured him. I was just writing home when
you landed in. Isn't it strange how everybody knows everybody down
here, and how you keep meeting people you knowthat you've heard
about? You knew me when you saw me!
YesI'd seen your pictures.
Mammy hadn't but one picture of me! She stared at him.
That's so, he thought, unused to such quick thought.
Isn't it beautiful? she asked him, looking around her. Do you try
to write all that, tooI mean this sandbar, and those willows, and
that woods down there, andthe caving bank?
Everything, he admitted. See?
He handed her the page which he had just written. Holding it in one
handthere was hardly a breath of air stirringshe read it word for
Yes, that's it! She nodded her head. How do you do it? I've just
been readinglet me see, '... the best romance becomes dangerous if by
its excitement it renders the ordinary course of life uninteresting,
andand' I've forgotten the rest of it. Could anything make this
life down hereanything written, I meanseem uninteresting?
He looked at her without answering. What was this she was saying?
What was this shanty-boat woman, this runaway wife, talking about? He
was dazed at being transported so suddenly from his observations to
That's right, he replied, inanely. I remember reading
You've read Ruskin? she cried. Really, have you?
Sesame and Liliesthere's where it was!
Oh, you know? she exclaimed, looking at him. He caught the full
flash of her delight, as well as surprise, at finding someone who had
read what she quoted, and could place the phrase.
The sun's bright, she continued. Won't you come down on my boat
in the shade? I've lots of books, and I'm hungryI'm starving to talk
to somebody about them!
It was a pretty little boat, sweet and clean; the sitting room was
draped with curtains along the walls, and there was a bookcase against
the partition. She drew a rocking chair up for him, drew her own little
sewing chair up before the shelves, and began to take out books.
He had but to sit there and show his sympathy with her excitement
over those books. He could not help but remember where he had first
heard her name, seen the depressed woman who was her mother. And the
bent old hunter who was her father. It was useless for him to try to
Just that morning, too, he had left Nelia Crele's husband in an
alcoholic stupora man almost incredibly stupid!
I know you don't mind listening to me prattle! she laughed,
archly. You're used to it. You're amused, too, and you're thinking
what a story I will make, aren't you, now?
Ifif a man could only write you! he said, with such sincerity
that she laughed aloud with glee.
Oh, I've read books! she declared. I knowI've been miserable,
and I've been unhappy, but I've turned to the books, and they've told
me. They kept me alivethey kept me above those horrid little things
which a womanwhich I have. You've never been in jail, I suppose?
Whatin jail? I've been there, but not a prisoner. To see
You couldn't know, then, the way prisoners feel. I know. I reckon
most women know. But now I'm out of jail. I'm free.
He could not answer; her eyes flashed as they narrowed, and she
fairly glared at him in the intensity of her declaration.
Oh, you couldn't know, she laughed, but that's the way I feel.
I'm free! Isn't the river beautiful to-day? I'm like the river
Which is kept between two banks? he suggested.
I was wrong, she shook her head. I'm a bird
I can well admit that, he laughed.
Oh, she cried, in mock rebuke, the idea!
It's your ownand a very brilliant one, he retorted, and they
There was no resisting the gale of Nelia Crete's effervescent
spirits. It was clear that she had burst through bonds of restraint
that had imprisoned her soul for years. Terabon was too acute an
observer to frighten the sensitive exhilaration. It would passhe was
only too sure of that. What would follow?
The sandbar was miles long, miles wide; six or seven miles of caving
bend was visible below them, part of it over another sandbar that
extended out into the river. There was not a boat, house, human being,
or even fence in sight in any direction. Across the river there was a
cotton field, but so far away it was that the stalks were but a purple
haze under the afternoon sun.
You think I'm queer? she suddenly demanded.
No, but I would be if
If I didn't think you were the dandiest river tripper in the
world, he exclaimed.
You're a dear boy, she laughed. You don't know how much good
you've done me already. Now we'll get supper.
I've two black ducks, he said. I'll bet they'll make a good
Roast, she took his word. I'll show you I'm a dandy cook, too!
The Mississippi River brings people from the most distant places to
close proximity; Pittsburg and even Salamanca meet Fort Benton and St.
Paul at the Forks of the Ohio. On the other hand, with uncanny
certainty, those most eager to meet are kept apart and thrown to the
ends of the world.
Parson Rasba saw Nelia Crele's boat drift out into the current and
drop down the Chute of Wolf Island, and impelled by solitude and
imagination he followed her. She had awakened sensations in his heart
which he had never before known, so he acted with primitive directness
and moved out into the Mississippi.
The river carried him swiftly toward a town whose electric lights
sparkled on a high bluff, Hickman, and he saw the cabin-boat of the
young and venturesome woman clearly outlined between him and the town.
For nearly an hour he was conscious of the assistance of the river in
carrying him along at an even pace, permitting him to remain as
guardian of the woman. He felt that she needed him, that he must help
her, and there grew in his heart an emotion which strangely made him
desire to sing and to shout.
He watched the cabin-boat drift down right into the pathway of
reflections that fell from the lights on Hickman bluffs. His eyes were
apparently fixed upon the boat, and he could not lose sight of it. The
river carried him right into the same glare, and for a few minutes he
looked up at the arcs, and shaded his eyes to get some view of the town
whose sounds consisted of the mournful howling of a dog.
Rasba looked back at the town, and felt the awe which a sleeping
village inspires in the thoughts of a passer-by. He thought perhaps he
would never again see that town. He wondered if there was a lost soul
there whose slumberings he could disturb and bring it to salvation. He
looked down the river, and the next instant his boat was seized as by a
strong hand and whirled around and around, and flung far from its
course. He remembered the phenomenon at the Forks of the Ohio, and
again at Columbus bluff's. With difficulty he found his bearings.
He looked around and saw to his surprise that he was drifting up
stream. He looked about him in amazement. He searched the blackness of
the river, and stared at the blinding lights of the town. He began to
row with his sweeps, and look down stream whither had disappeared the
cabin-boat whose occupant he had felt called upon to guard and protect.
That boat was gone. In the few minutes it had disappeared from his
view. He surmised, at last, that he had been thrust into an eddy, for
the current was carrying him up stream, and he rowed against it in
vain. Only when he had floated hundreds of yards in the leisurely
reverse current below the great bar of Island No. 6 and had drifted out
into the main current again, almost under the Hickman lights once more,
was he able in his ignorance to escape from the time-trap into which he
Standing at his oars, and rowing down stream, he tried to overtake
the young woman whose good looks, bright eyes, sympathetic
understanding, and need of his spiritual tutoring had caught his mind
and made it captive.
Dawn, following false dawn, saw him passing New Madrid, still rowing
impatiently, his eyes staring down the wild current, past a graveyard
poised ready to plunge on the left bank, and then down the baffling
crossing at Point Pleasant and through the sunny breadths up to
Tiptonville, half sunk in the river, only to fall away toward Little
Cypressand still no sight of the lost cabin-boat.
In mid-afternoon, weary and worn by sleeplessness and expectancy, he
pulled his boat into the deadwater at the foot of an eddy and having
thrown over his stone anchor, sadly entered his cabin and, without
prayer, subsided into sleep.
If he dreamed he was not awakened to consciousness by his visions.
He slept on in the deep weariness which followed the wakefulness that
had continued through a night of undiminished anxiety into a day of
doubt and increasing despair. It had not occurred to him, in his
simplicity, that the young woman would escape from him. The shadow and
the gloom next to the bank on either side had not suggested his passing
by the object of his intention. His thought was that she must have gone
right on down stream, though he might have divined from his own
condition that she, too, long since must have been weary.
He awakened some time in the morning, after twelve hours or so of
uninterrupted slumber. He turned out into the fascinating darkness of
early morning on the Mississippi. A gust of chill wind swept down out
of the sky, rippling the surface and roaring through the woods up the
bank. The gust was followed by a raw calm and further blanketing of the
few stars that penetrated the veil of mist.
He had in mind the further pursuit of Nelia, and hauling in his
anchor he pulled out into mid-current and then by lamp-light prepared
his breakfast. While he worked, he discovered that dawn was near, and
at lengthening intervals he went out to look ahead, hoping to see the
object of his pursuit. Perhaps he would have gone on down to New
Orleans, only it is not written in Mississippi weather prophecies that
the tenor of one's way shall be even.
He heard wind blowing, and felt his boat bobbing about inexplicably.
He went out to look about him, and in the morning twilight he
discovered that the whole aspect of the Mississippi had changed. With
the invisible sunrise had come an awe-inspiring spectacle which excited
in his mind forebodings and dismay.
First, there was the cold wind which penetrated his clothes and
shrivelled the very meat of his bones. The river's surface, which he
had come to regard as a shimmering, polished floor, was now rumpled and
broken into lumpy waves, like mud on a road, and the waves broke into
dull yellow foam caps. There was not a light gleam on the whole
surface, and dark shadows seemed to crawl and twist about in the very
substance of the heavy and turgid waters.
Rasba stared. Born and trained in mountains, where he remembered
clear streams of pale, beautiful green, catching reflections of white
clouds and clean foliage, with only occasional patches of sullen
clay-bank wash, he refused to acknowledge the great tawny Mississippi
at its best, as a relation of the streams he knew. Certainly this
menacing dawn reminded him of nothing he had ever witnessed. Waves
slapped against his boat, waves which did not conceal, but rather
accentuated, the sullen and relentless rush of the vast body of the
water. While the surface leaped and struggled, wind-racked, the deeps
moved steadily on. Elijah saw that his boat was being driven into a
river chute, and seizing his sweeps, he began to row toward a sandbar
which promised shoal water and a landing.
He managed to strike the foot of the bar, and threw out his anchor
rock. He let go enough line to let the boat swing, and went in to
breakfast. While he was eating, he noticed that the table turned gray
and that a yellowish tinge settled upon everything. When he went out to
look around, he found that the air was full of a cloud that filled his
eyes with dust, and that a little drift of sand had already formed on
the deck of his boat, gritting under his feet. The cloud was so thick
that he could hardly see the river shores; a gale was blowing, and a
whole sandbar, miles long, was coming down upon him from the air. The
sandbar, when he looked at it, seemed fairly to be running, like water.
Parson Rasba remembered the storms of biblical times, and better
understood the wrath that was visited upon the Children of Israel.
He dwelt in that storm all that day. He shut the door to keep the
sand out, but it spurted through the cracks. He could see the puffing
gusts as they burst through the keyhole, and he could hear the heavier
grains rattling upon the thin, painted boards of his roof. His clothes
grayed, his hands gritted, his teeth crunched fine stone; he pondered
upon the question of what sin he had committed to bring on him this
For a long time his finite mind was without inspiration, without
understanding, and then he choked with terror and regret. He had
beguiled himself into believing that it was his duty to take care of
Nelia Crele, the fair woman of the river. He had believed only too
readily that his duty lay where his heart's desire had been most eager.
He sat there in dumb horror at the sin which had blinded him.
I come down yeah to find Jock Drones for his mother! He reminded
himself by speaking his mission aloud, adding, And hyar I've be'n
floating down looking for a woman, looking for a pretty woman!
And because he could remember her shoes, the smooth leather over
those exquisite ankles, Parson Rasba knew that his sin was mortal, and
that no other son of man had ever strayed so far as he.
No wonder he was caught in a desert blizzard where no one had ever
said there was a desert!
Lord God, he cried out, he'p this yeah po'r sinner! He'p! He'p!
Jock, alias Slip, Drones, was discovering how small the
world really is. Like many another man, he had figured that no one
would know him, no one could possibly find him, down the Mississippi
River, more than a thousand miles from home. Having killed, or at least
fought his man in a deadly feud war, he had escaped into the far
places. His many months of isolation had given him confidence and taken
the natural uneasiness of flight from his mind.
Now someone was coming down the Mississippi inquiring for Jock
Drones! A detective, as relentless, as sure as a bullet in the heart,
was coming. He might even then be lurking in the brush up the bank,
waiting to get a sure drop. He might be dropping down that very night.
He might step in among the players, unnoticed, unseen, and wait there
for the moment of surprise and action.
Slip's mind ransacked the far places of which he had heard:
Oklahoma, the Missouri River, California, the Mexican border, Texas.
Far havens seemed safest, but against their lure he felt the balance of
Caruthersville had a sporting crowd with money, lots of money. The
people there were liberal spenders, and they liked a square game better
than any other sport in the world. The boat was making good money, big
money. The two partners had only to break even in their own play to
make a big living out of the kitty in the poker tables, and there was
always a big percentage in favour of the boat, because Buck and Slip
understood each other so well. Slip's share often amounted to more in a
week than he had earned in two years up there in the mountains felling
trees, rafting them in eddies, and tripping them down painfully to the
sawmills. These never did pay the price they were advertised to pay for
timber, and one had to watch the sealers to see that they didn't short
the measure in the under water and goose-egg good logs.
He remembered Jest Prebol, who was lying shot through in the boat
alongside, and he went over to the boat, lighted the lamp, and sat down
by the wounded man. Prebol was a little delirious, and Slip went over
on his own boat, and called Buck out.
We got a sick man on our hands, he whispered. Ain't Doc Grell
come oveh yet?
Come the last boat, Buck said, and called the doctor out.
Say, Doc, that sick feller out here, will you look't him?
Doctor Grell went over to the boat. He looked at the wounded man,
and frowned as he took the limp wrist. He tried the temperature, too,
and then shook his head.
He's a sick man, Slip, he said. Thought he was coming all right
last night. Now
He looked at the wound, and gazed at the great, blue plate around
the bullet hole.
He's bad? Slip said, in alarm. Poison's workin', Doc?
There was nothing for it. Doctor Grell's night of pleasure had
turned into one of life-saving and effort. He sent Slip over to drag
away one of the young men from his game, and they rigged up two square
trunks and a waterproof tarpaulin into an operating table. Then, as
Slip was faint and sick, the two drove him back to the gambling boat,
while they, the graduate and the student, entered upon a gamble with a
human life the stake.
Of that night's efforts, fighting the poison with the few sharp
weapons at their commandlater reinforced by a hasty trip across the
river to get othersthe two need never tell. While they worked, they
could hear at intervals the shout of a winner in the other boat. In
moments of perfect quiet they heard the quick rustling of shuffled
cards; they heard the rattling of dice in hard, muffled boxes; they
heard, at intervals, the rattling of stove lids and smelt the soft-coal
smoke which blew down on them from the kitchen chimney. Slip, not
forgetful of them, brought over pots of black coffee and inquired after
the patient. He found the two men paler on each visit, and stripped
down more and more, till they were merely in their sweaty undershirts.
Toward morning the wind began to blow; it began to grow cold. The
noises on the neighbouring boat grew fainter in the low rumble of a
stormy wind out of the northwest, and the shanty-boat lifted at
intervals on a wave that rolled out of the main current and across the
eddy, making their operating room even more unstable.
Under their onslaught the death which was taking hold of Jest Prebol
was checked, and the river rat whose life had been forfeited for his
sly crimes became the object of a doctor's sentiment and belief in his
Long after midnight, when some few of the patrons of the games had
already taken their departure, the doors opened oftener and oftener,
letting the geometrical shaft of the yellow light flare out across the
waters, and the grotesque shadows of those who departed stood out
against the night and waters as the men shivered in the wind and bent
to feel their way into the boats.
After dawn Doctor Grell and his assistant, peaked and white, limp
with their tremendous effort, and shivering with exhaustion of mind and
body, walked out of the little shanty-boat, up to the big one, sat down
with Buck and Slip to breakfast, and then took their own course across
the ruffled and tumble-surfaced river.
I 'low he'll pull through, Doctor Grell admitted, almost
reluctantly. He's in bad shape, though, with the things the bullet
carried into him, but we sure swabbed him out. How'd the game go
Purty good. Buck shook his head. Tammer sure had luck his
waywon a seventy-dollar pot onct.
I sure wanted to play, Grell shook his head, but in my profession
you aren't your own, and you cayn't quit.
We owe you for it, Buck said. He's our friend
And he's ourn, too, Grell declared, so we'll split the
difference. I expect it was worth a hundred dollars what we two did
to-night. That'll be fifty, boys, if it's all right.
Yes, suh, Slip said, handing over five ten-dollar bills, and Grell
handed two of them to his companion, who shook his head, saying:
Nope, Doc! Ten only to-night. My first fee!
And you'll never have a more interesting case, Grell declared.
No, indeed! You'll see cases, come you go to college, but none more
interesting, and if we've pulled him through, you'll never have better
reason for satisfaction.
The two got into a little motorboat and went bounding and rocking in
the wind and waves toward the town behind the levee on the far bank.
The two gamblers watched the little boat rocking along till it was but
a black fleck in the midst of the weltering brown waters.
I don't reckon any one'll drap down to-day, Slip muttered, looking
up the river.
We'll keep our eyes open, Buck replied. You needn't to worry,
you're plumb worn out, Slip. Git to bed, now, an' I'll slick up
It was a cold, dry gale. From sharp gusts with near calms between
the wind grew till it was a steady, driving storm that flattened
against the shanty-boat sides, and whistled and roared through the
trees up the bank. And instead of dying down at dusk, it increased so
much that the big acetylene light was not hung out, and if any one came
down to the opposite shore he saw that there would be no game that
Buck went in and sat down by the wounded man's bed, giving him the
medicines Doctor Grell had left. For the attentions Prebol, in lucid
intervals, showed wondering looks of gratitude, like an ugly dog which
has been trapped and then set free. What he had suffered during the
night even he could hardly recall in the enfeebled condition of his
mind, but the spoonfuls of broth, the medicine that thrilled his body,
the man's very companionship, lending strength, took away the feeling
of despair which a man in the extremities of anguish and alone in the
world finds hardest to resist.
Buck, sitting there, gazed at the wan countenance, studying it.
Prebol had forgotten, but when Buck first arrived on the river, the
pirate, a much younger man then, had carelessly and perhaps for display
told the stranger and softpaw many things about the river which were
useful. It occurred to Buck that he was now paying back a debt of
Something boiled up in his thoughts, and he swore to himself that he
owed nothing, that the world owed him, and he bridged the years of his
disappointment and desolation back to the hour when he had stormed out
of the life he had known, to come down the Mississippi to be a gambler.
Prebol, in his lapses into delirium, called a woman's name,
Sadiealways Sadie! And if he would have cursed that name in his
consciousness, out of the depths of his soul it came with softness and
gentleness of affection.
Buck wondered what Jest Prebol had done to Sadie that she had driven
him down there, and he cursed with his own lips, while he stifled in
the depths of his own soul another name. His years, his life, had been
wasted, just as this man Prebol's life was wasted, just as Slip's life
was being wasted. Buck gave himself over to the exquisite torture of
memories and reflections. He wondered what had become of the woman for
love of whom he had let go all holds and degenerated to this heartless
occupation of common gambler?
True to Slip, he had watched the river for the stranger whose
inquiries had been carried down in fair warning to all the river
peopleand Buck, suddenly conscious of his own part in that river
system, laughed in surprise.
Why, he said to himself, humans are faithful to one another! It's
what they live for, to be faithful to one another!
It was an incredible, but undeniable theory. In spite of his own
wilful disbelief in the faith of mankind, here he was sitting by one
poor devil's bed while he kept his weather eye out upon the rough river
in the interests of anothera murderer! He pondered on the question of
whether any one kept faith with him. His mind cried out angrily, No!
but on second thought, in spite of himself, he realized distinctly that
he had let one person's faithlessness overcome his trust of all others.
No day on the Mississippi is longer than the cold, bleak monotone of
a dry gale out of the north. There is an undertone to the voices which
depresses the soul as the rank wind shrivels the body. On whistling
wings great flocks of wild fowl come driving down before the wintry
gales, or they turn back from the prospect of an early spring.
Steamboats are driven into the refuge of landing or eddy, and if the
power craft cannot stand the buffetings, much less are the exposed
little houseboats, toys of current and breeze, able to escape the
resistless blasts. So the wind possesses itself of the whole river
breadth and living creatures are driven to shelter.
Prebol, shot through and conscious of the reward of his manner of
living; Slip, a fugitive under the menace of a murderer's fate; and
Buck, given over to melancholy, were but types on the lengths and
tributaries of the indifferent flood.
Nothing happened, nothing could happen. The arrival of Slip from his
restless bunk relieved Buck of his vigil, and he went to bed and slept
into the dawn of another daya day like the previous one, and fit to
drive him up the bank, into the woods, and among the fallen branches of
rotten trees seeking in physical activity to check the mourning and
tauntings of a mind over which he found, as often before, that he had
And yet, when the storm suddenly blew itself out with a light puff
and a sudden flood of sunshine, just as the sun went down, Prebol's
condition took a sudden turn for the better, Slip forgot his fears, and
Buck burst into a gay little whistled tune, which he could never
whistle except when he was absurdly and inexplicably merry.
Terabon's notebooks held tens of thousands of words describing the
Mississippi River and the people he had met. He had drifted down long,
lonely bends, and he had surprised a flock of wild geese under a little
bluff on an island sandbar just above Kaskaskia, in the big cut-off
there. Until this day the Mississippi had been growing more and more
into his consciousness; not people, not industries, not corn, wheat, or
cotton had become interesting and important, but the yellow flood
His thought had been, when he left St. Louis, to stop in towns and
gather those things which minds not of the newspaper profession lump
under the term of histories, but now, after his hundreds of miles of
association with the river, his thought took but brief note of those
trifling and inconspicuous appearances known as river towns. He had
passed by many places with hardly a glance, so entrancing had been the
prospect of endless miles of earth-bound flood!bound but wearing away
Now, in one of the most picturesque of all the scenes he had
witnessed, in the historic double bend above New Madrid, he found
himself with a young and attractive woman. He realized that, in some
way, the Mississippi River spiritas he always quoted it in his calm
and dispassionate remarks and dissertations and descriptionshad
encompassed him about, and, without giving him any choice, had tied him
down to what in all the societies he had ever known would have been
called a compromising position.
That morning he had left the husband of this pretty girl lying in a
drunken stupor, and now in the late evening the fugitive wife was
taking it for granted that he would dine with her on her boatand he
had himself entered upon a partnership with her for that meal which
could not by any possibility be called prosaic or commonplace. He had a
vivid recollection of having visited a girl back homehe thought the
phrase with difficultyand he remembered the word chaperon as from a
foreign language, or at least from an obsolete and forgotten age.
His familiarity with newspaper work did not relieve him of a feeling
of uncertainty. In fact, it emphasized the questionableness of the
occasion. I'll show you I'm a dandy cook, she had said, and while he
followed her on board the boat, with the two big black ducks to help
prepare, he wondered and remembered and, in spite of his life-long
avoidance of all appearance of evil, submitted to this irresistible
circumstance, wherever it might lead.
So he built the fire in her kitchen stove. She mixed up dressing and
seasoned the birds, made biscuit batter for hot-bread, brought out
stacks and stores of things to eat, or to eat with, and they set the
table, ground the coffee, and got the oven hot for the roasting and
One thing took the curse off their position: They had to have all
the windows and doors wide open so that they seemed fairly to be
cooking on an open sandbar at the edge of the river. Terabon took an
inward satisfaction in that fact. It is not possible to feel
exceedingly wicked or depraved when there is a mile-wide Mississippi on
the one hand and a mile-wide sandbar on the other side, and the sun is
shining calmly upon the bright and innocent waters.
As the ducks were young and tender, their cooking took but an hour,
or a little more, and the interim was occupied in the countless things
that must be done to prepare even a shanty-boat feast. He stirred some
cranberry sauce, and she had to baste the ducks, get the flour stirred
with water, and condensed cream for gravy, besides setting the table
and raising the biscuits, to have them ready for the ducks. She must
needs wonder if she'd forgotten the salt, and for ten minutes she was
almost in a panic at the thought, while he watched her in breathless
wonderment, and took covert glances up the Mississippi River, fearful
of, and yet almost wishing to see, that pursuing motorboat come into
When at last the smoking viands were on the ample table and they sat
with their knees under it, and he began to carve the ducks and dish out
the unblessed meal, he glanced up stream through the cabin window on
his right. He caught a glimpse of a window pane flashing miles distant
in the light of the setting sunthe whiskey boat without doubt. He saw
a flock of ducks coming like a great serpent just above the river
surface, then a shadow lifted as out of the river, swept up the trees
in the lost section of Kentucky opposite, and from spattering gold the
scene turned to blue which rapidly became purple, darkening visibly.
Through the open doors and windows swept the chill of twilight, and
while she lighted the big lamp he did her bidding and closed the doors
and windows. Those shelves of books, classics and famous, time-tried
fiction, leered at him from their racks. The gold of titles, the blues
and reds and greens of covers fairly mocked him, and he saw himself
struggling with the menace of sin; he saw an honourable career and
carefully nurtured ambition fading from view, for did not all those
master minds warn the young against evil?
But they talked over the ducks of what a pity it was that all towns
could not engage themselves in thought the way Athens used to do, and
they wondered to each other when the hurrying passion of greed and its
varying phenomena would become reconciled to a modest competence and
the simplicity which they, for example, were enjoying down the
When he looked up from his meat sometimes he caught her eyes looking
at him. He recognized her superiority of experience and position; she
made him feel like a boy, but a boy of whom she was really quite fond,
or at least in whom she was interested. For that feeling he was
grateful, though there was something in her smile which led him to
doubt his own success in veiling or hiding the doubts or qualms which
had, unbidden, risen in his thoughts at the equivocal nature of their
Having dined on the best meal he had had since leaving home, they
talked a little while over the remains of the sumptuous repast. But
their mood grew silent, and they kept up the conversation with
I think I'd better put up my canvas top, he blurted out, and she
And then you must come back and help me wash this awful pile of
dishes, she added.
Oh, of course! he exclaimed.
I'll help with the canvas, she said, and he dared not look at her.
By the light of his lantern they put up the canvas to protect the
boat from dew. Then they looked around at the night; stars overhead,
the strange haze from the countless grains of sand which wavered over
the bar, and the river in the dark, running by.
They looked at the river together, and they felt its majesty, its
power, its resistlessness.
It's overwhelming, he whispered. When you can't see it you hear
it, or you feel it!
And it makes everything else seem so small, so unimportant, so
perfectly negligible, she added, consciously, and then with vivacity:
I'll not make you wipe those dishes, after all. But you must take me
for a walk up this sandbar!
Gladly, he laughed, but I'll help with the dishes as well!
She put on a jacket, pinned on a cap, and together, in merry mood,
they romped up the sandbar. It was all sand; there was not a log of
timber, not a drift barrel, not a stick of wood anywhere as far as they
could see. But as they walked along every foot of the sandbar was
different, wind-rifts, covering long, water-shaped reefs; or rising
knolls, like hills, and long depressions which held shadows darker by
far than the gloom of the night. They walked along, sometimes yards
apart, sometimes side by side. They forgot Ruskin and Carlylethey
remembered Thoreau's Cape Cod and talked of the musical sands which
they could hear now under their own feet. In the silence they heard
river voices; murmurings and tones and rhythms and harmonies; and
Terabon, who had accumulated a vast store of information from the
shanty-boaters, told her some of the simple superstitions with which
the river people beguile themselves and add to the interest and
difficulties of their lives.
An old river man can look at the river and tell when a headrise is
coming, he told her. He knows by the looks of the water when the
river is due to fall again. When he dreams, he says he knows what is
going to happen, and where to find buried treasure, and if there is
going to be an earthquake or a bad storm.
They get queer living alone! she said, thoughtfully. Lots of them
used to stop in at our slough on Kaw River. I was afraid of them!
You afraid of anything! he exclaimed. Of any one!
Oh, that was a long time agoages ago! She laughed, and then gave
voice to that most tragic riverside thought. But nownothing at all
She said it with an intonation which was almost relief and laughing,
that Terabon, whose mind had grappled for years with one of Ruskin's
most touching phrases, understood how it could be that the heart of a
human being could become so used to sorrows that no misery could bring
He knew in that very moment, as by revelation, that he had caught
from her lips one of the bitterest phrases which the human mind is
capable of forming. He was glad of the favour which fate had bestowed
upon him, and he thrilled, while he regretted, that in that hour he
could not forget that he was a seeker of facts, a gatherer of
To match her mood was beyond his own power. By a simple statement of
fact she had given herself a place in his thought comparable tohe
went at making ideas again, despite himselfcomparable to one of those
wonderful widows which are the delight, while they rend to tatters the
ambitions of delvers into the mysteries of Olympian lore. This bright,
pretty, vivacious young woman had suffered till she had arrived at a
Helen's recklessnessnothing mattered!
There was a pause.
I think you are in a fair way to become unforgetable in connection
with the Mississippi River, he suggested, with even voice.
What do you mean? she demanded, quickly.
Well, I'll tell you, with the semblance of perfect frankness.
I've been wondering which one of the Grecian goddesses you would have
been if you had lived, say, in Homer's time.
Which one of them I resemble? she asked, amused.
Exactly that, he declared.
Oh, that's such a pretty compliment, she cried. It fits so well
into the things I've been thinking. The river grows and grows on me,
and I feel as though I grew with it! You don't knowyou could never
knowyou're a manmasculine! For the first time in my life I'm
freeandand I don'tI don't care a damn!
But the future! he protested, feebly.
That's it! she retorted. For a river goddess there is no future.
It's all in the present for her, because she is eternal.
They had walked clear up to the southernmost tip of the sandbar
point. They could hear someone, perhaps a chorus of voices, singing on
the whiskey boat at the Upper Landing. They could see the light of the
boat's windows. There they turned and started back down the sandbar,
reaching the two boats moored side by side in the deadwater.
Shall I help with those dishes to-night? he asked.
No, we'll do them in the morning, she replied without emphasis and
as a matter of course, which left him unassisted in his obvious
Well, he drawled, after a time, it's about midnight. I must say a
river goddess isis beyond my most vivid dreams. I wonder
What do you wonder?
If you'll let me kiss you good-night now?
Yes, she answered.
The stars twinkled as he put his arm around her and took the kiss
which her lips gavesmiling.
I'll help with those dishes in the morning, he said, helping her
up the gang plank of her boat. Good-night!
Good-night, she answered, and entered the cabin, the dim light of
her turned-down lamp flashing across the sandbar and revealing his face
for a moment. Then the door closed between them.
He went to his skiff, raised the cover, and crawled into his canvas
hammock which was swung from both sides of his boat. Before going to
sleep he looked under the canvas at the river, at the stars, at the
dark cabin-boat forty feet distant in the eddy.
At the same moment he saw a face against a window pane in the cabin.
What does it mean? he asked himself, but there was no answer. The
river, when asked, seldom answers. Just as he was about to go to sleep,
he started up, wide awake.
For the first time on the river, he had forgotten to post up his
notes. He felt that he had come that day, as never before, to the forks
in the roadwhen he must choose between the present and the future. He
lighted his lantern, sat up in his cot, and reached for his typewriter.
He wrote steadily, at full speed, for an hour. When he had those
wonderful and fleeting thoughts and observations nailed down and safe,
he again put out his lantern, and turned in once more.
Then he heard a light, gay laugh, clear and distinct-a river voice
beyond questionfull of raillery, and yet beneath the mocking note was
something else which he could neither identify nor analyze, which he
hoped was not scorn or mere derision, which he wished might be
understanding and sympathytill he thought of his making those notes.
Then he despised himself, which was really good for his soul. His
conscience, instead of rejoicing, rebuked him as a cad. He swore under
Augustus Carline was a long time recovering even his consciousness.
A thousand dreams, a thousand nightmares tormented his thoughts while
the mangling grip of unnumbered vises and ropes sank deep into his
flesh; ploughs and harrows dragged through his twisted muscles.
Yet he did rise at last out of his pit and, leaning against the
cabin of his boat, look about him to see what hell he had escaped into.
The sun was shining somewhere, blinding his eyes, which were already
seared. A river coiled by, every ripple a blistering white flame. He
heard birds and other music which sounded like an anvil chorus
performing in the narrow confines of a head as large as a cabin.
He remembered something. It was even worse than what he was
undergoing, but he could not quite call the horror to the surface of
the weltering sea of his feelings; he did not even know his name, nor
his place, nor any detail except the present painand he didn't want
to know. He fought against knowing, till the thing pressed exuberantly
forward, and then he knew that the beautiful girl, the woman he loved
and to whom he was married, had left him. That was the exquisite
calamity of his soul, and he flinched from the fact as from a blow. He
was always flinching, he remembered. He was always turning from the
uncomfortable and the bothering to seek what was easy and unengaging.
Now, for the moment, he could not undertake any relief from his present
Acres and lakes of water were flowing by, but his thirst was worse
than oceans could quench. He wanted to drink, but the thought of
drinking disgusted him beyond measure. It seemed to him that a drop of
water would flame up in his throat like gasolene on a bed of coals, and
at that moment his eyes fell upon the jug which stood by the misty
engine against the intangible locker. The jug was a monument of comfort
At the odour which filled the air when he had taken out the cork his
very soul was filled with horror.
But I got to drink it! he whimpered. It's the only thing that'll
cure me, the only thing I can stand. If I don't I'll die!
Not to drink was suicide, and to drink was living death! He could
not choose between the suggestions; he never had been trained to face
fate manfully. His years' long dissipation had unfitted him for every
squarely made decision, and now with horror on one side and terror on
the other, he could not procrastinate and wonder what folly had brought
him to this state.
Why couldn't it smell good! he choked. The taste'll kill me!
Taste he must, or perish! The taste was all that he had anticipated,
and melted iron could hardly have been more painful than that first
torture of cold, fusil acid. Gulping it down, he was willing to
congratulate himself on his endurance and wisdom, his very heroism in
undertaking that deadly specific.
After it was over with, however, the raw chill, which the heat of
the sun did not help, began to yield to a glow of warmth. He
straightened his twisted muscles and after a hasty look around
retreated into his cabin and flung himself on his bunk.
What length of time he spent in his recovery from the attacks of his
enemy, or rather enemies of a misspent youth, he could not surmise. He
did at last stir from his place and look with subdued melancholy into a
world of woe. He recalled the visitor, the man who wrote for
newspapers, and in a panic he searched for his money.
The money was gone; $250, at least, had disappeared from his
pockets. An empty wallet on the cabin floor showed with what
contemptuous calm the funds had been abstracted from his pockets. He
turned, however, to a cunning little hiding place, and found there his
main supply of currencya thousand dollars or more.
No man likes to be robbed, and Carline, fixing upon his visitor
Terabon as his assailant, worked himself into a fine frenzy of
indignation. The fellow had purposely encouraged him to drink
immoderatelyCarline's memory was clear and unmistaken on that
pointand then, taking advantage of his unconsciousness, the pseudo
writer had committed piracy.
I'd ought to be glad he didn't kill me! Carline sneered to
himself, looking around to conjure up the things that might have been.
The prospect was far from pleasing. The sky was dark, although it
was clearly sometime near the middle of a daywhat day, he could but
guess. The wind was raw and penetrating, howling through the trees, and
skipping down the chute with a quick rustling of low, breaking waves.
The birds and animals which he had heard were gone with the sunshine.
When Carline took another look over his boat, he found that it had
been looted of many things, including a good blanket, his shot gun and
rifle, ammunition, and most of his food supplythough he could not
recall that he had had much food on board.
He lighted the coal-oil heater to warm the cabin, for he was chilled
to the bone. He threw the jug overboard, bound now never again to touch
another drop of liquor as long as he livedthat is, unless he happened
to want a drink.
Wearily he set about cleaning up his boat. He was naturally rather
inclined to neatness and orderliness. He picked up, folded, swept out,
and put into shape. He appeased his delicate appetite with odds and
ends of things from a locker full of canned goods which had escaped the
As long as he could, Carline had not engaged his thoughts with the
subject of his runaway wife. Now, his mind clearing and his body numb,
his soul took up the burden again, and he felt his helplessness thrice
confounded. He did not mind anything now compared to the one fact that
he had lost and deserved to lose the respect of the pretty girl who had
become his wife. He took out the photographs which he had of her, and
looked at them, one by one. What a fool he had been, and what a
scoundrel he was!
He could not give over the pursuit, however; he felt that he must
save her from herself; he must seek and rescue her. He hoisted in his
anchor and starting the motor, turned into the chute and ran down
before the wind into the river. Never had he seen the Mississippi in
such a dark and repellent mood.
When he had cleared the partial shelter of Island No. 8, he felt the
wind and current at the stern of his boat, driving it first one way
then the other. Steering was difficult, and fear began to clutch at his
heart. He felt his helplessness and the hopelessness of his search down
that wide river with its hundred thousand hiding places. He knew
nothing of the gossiping river people except that he despised them. He
could not dream that his ignorance of things five or ten miles from his
home was not typical of the shanty-boaters; he could not know that
where he was a stranger in the next township to his own home, a
shanty-boater would know the landing place of his friends a thousand
miles or so down stream.
Without maps, without knowledge, without instinct, he might almost
as well have been blind. His careless, ignorant glance swept the eight
or nine miles of shoreline of sandbar from above Island No. 10 clear
down to the fresh sloughing above Hotchkiss's Landing, opposite the dry
Winchester Chutein which deep-draft gun-barges had been moored fifty
years or so before. He did not even know it was Island No. 10,
Donaldson's Point; he didn't know that he was leaving Kentucky to skirt
Tennessee; much less did he dream that he was passing Kentucky again.
He looked at a shanty-boat moored at the foot of a mile-long sandbar;
saw, without observing, a skiff against the bar just above the cabined
scow. His gaze discovered smoke, houses, signs of settlement miles
below, and he quickened the beat of his motor to get down there.
He longed for people, for humanity, for towns and cities; and that
was a big sawmill and cotton-gin town ahead of him, silhouetted along
the top of a high bank. He headed straight for it, and found his boat
inexplicably slowed up and rebuffed. Strangers on the river always do
find themselves baffled by the big New Madrid eddy, which even power
boats engage with difficulty of management. He landed at last against a
floating dock, and found that it was a fish market.
Having made fast, he went up town and spent hours, till long after
dark, buying supplies, talking to people, getting the lonesomeness out
of his system, and making veiled inquiries to learn if anything had
been heard about a woman coming down the Mississippi. He succeeded in
giving the impression that he was a detective. In the restaurant he
talked with a cocky little bald-headed man all spruced up and dandyish.
I'm from Pittsburgh, the man said. My name's Doss, Ronald Doss;
I'm a sportsman, but every winter I drop down here, hunting and
fishing; sometimes on the river, sometimes back in the bottoms. I
suppose, Mr. Carline, that you're a stranger on the river?
Why, yes-s, down this way; I live near it, up at Gage.
I see, your first trip down. Got a nice gasolene boat, though!
Oh, yes! You're stopping here?
Just arrived this morning; trying to make up my mind whether I'll
go over on St. Francis, turkey-and deer-hunting, or get a boat and drop
down the Mississippi. Been wondering about that.
Well, say, nowwhy can't you drop down with me?
Oh, I'd be in the way
Not a bit
Costs a lot to run a motorboat, and I'd have to
No, you wouldn't! Not a cent! Your experience and my boat
Well, of course, if you put it that way. If it'd be any
accommodation to you to have an old river manI mean I've always
tripped the river, off and on, for sport.
It'd be an education for me, a great help!
Yes, I expect it would be an education, if you don't know the
river. Doss smiled.
They walked over to the river bank. An arc light cast its rays upon
the end of the street, down the sloping bank, and in a light circle
upon the rocking, muddy waters where the fish dock and several
shanty-boats rested against the bank.
Doss whistled a little tune as he rested on his cane.
The front door of the third houseboat up the eddy opened and closed.
A man climbed the bank and passed the two with a basket on his arm.
Come on down, Carline urged.
Not to-night, Doss said. I've got my room up at the hotel, and
I'll have to get my stuff out of the railroad baggage room. But I'll
come down about 10 or 11 o'clock in the morning. Then we'll fit up and
drop down the river. Good-night!
Doss watched Carline go down to the dock and on to his boat. Then he
went up the street and held earnest confab with a man who had a basket
on his arm. They whispered ten minutes or so, then the man with the
basket returned to his shanty-boat, and within half an hour was back up
town, carrying two suitcases, a gun case, and a duffle bag.
Doss went to the smaller hotel with these things and registered. He
walked down to the river in the morning and noticed that the third
shanty-boat had dropped out into the river during the night, in spite
of the storm that was blowing up. He went down and ate breakfast with
Carline, and the two went up and got Doss's outfit at the hotel. They
returned to the motorboat, and, having laid in a supply of groceries,
cast off their lines and steered away down the river.
Yes, sir, we'll find that girl if it takes all winter! the
fish-market man heard Doss tell Carline in a loud voice.
That afternoon a man in a skiff came down the river and turned into
the dock. As he landed, the fish-market man said to him:
If you see any lady coming down, tell her a detector is below,
lookin' fo' her. He's a cheap skate, into a motorboatbut I don't
expect he'll be into hit long, 'count of some river fellers bein' with
him. But he mout be bad, that detector. If you should see a nice lady,
You bet! the skiff man, who was Lester Terabon, exclaimed.
For long hours Parson Rasba endured the drifting sand and the biting
wind which penetrated the weather-cracks in his poplar shanty-boat. It
was not until near nightfall that it dawned on him that he need not
remain there, that it was the simplest thing in the world to let go his
hold and blow before the wind till he was clear of the sandblast.
He did haul in his anchor and float away. As he rode the waves and
danced before the wind the clouds of sand were flung swiftly down upon
the water, where the surface was covered with a film and a sheet of
Standing at his sweeps, he saw that he was approaching the head of
another sandbar, and as he felt the water shoaling under the boat he
cast over the anchor and rode in clear air again. He was not quite
without a sense of humour.
Shaking the dust out of his long hair and combing it out of his
whiskers, he laughed at his ignorance and lack of resource. He swept
the decks and floor of his cabin, and scooped the sand up with an ash
shovel to throw overboard. A lesson learned on the Mississippi is part
of the education of the futureif there is anything in the pupil's
head to hold a memory of a fact or experience.
Even though he knew it was his own ignorance that had kept him a
prisoner in that storm, Parson Rasba did not fail to realize that his
ignorance had been sin, and that his punishment was due to his
absorption in the fate of a pretty woman.
Certainly after such a sharp rebuke he could not fail to return to
his original task, imposed upon him because of his fault in bringing
the feud fighters of his home mountains together, untrained and
unrepentant, to hear the voice of his pride declare the Word for the
edification of sinners. Parson Rasba did not mince his words as he
contemplated the joy he had felt in being eloquent and a power of a
speaker from the pulpits of the mountain churches. The murdering by the
feud fighters had taught him what he would never forget, and his frank
acknowledgment of each rebuke gave him greater understanding.
While the gale lasted he watched the river and the sky. The wild
fowl flying low, and dropping into woods behind him led to forays
seeking game, and in a bayou a mile distant he drew down with deadly
aim on one of a flock of geese. He killed that bird, and then as its
startled and lumbering mates sought flight, he got two more of them,
missing another shot or two in the excitement.
The three great birds made a load for him, and he returned to his
boat with a heart lighter than he had known in many a day because it
seemed to him a sign that he need not hate himself overmuch. The
river consoled him, and its constancy and integrity were an example
which he could not help but take to heart.
Gales might blow, fair weather might tempt, islands might interpose
themselves in its way, banks and sandbars might stand against the
flood, but come what might, the river poured on through its destined
course like a human life.
He entertained the whimsical fancy, as his smallest goose was
roasting, that perhaps the Mississippi might sin. In so many ways the
river reminded him of humankind. He had stood beside a branch of the
Mississippi which was so small and narrow that he could dam it with his
ample foot, or scoop it up with a bucketand yet here it was a mile
wide! In its youth it was subject to the control of trifling things, a
stone or a log, or the careless handiwork of a man. Down here all the
little threads of its being had united in a full tide of life still
subject to the influences of its normal course, but wearing and tearing
along beyond any power to stop till its appointed course was run.
Insensibly Parson Rasba felt the resources of his own mind flocking
to help him. Just being there beside that mighty torrent helped him to
get a perspective on things. Tiny things seemed so useless in the front
of that overwhelming power. What were the big things of his own life?
What were the important affairs of his existence?
He could not tell. He had always meant to do the right thing. He
could see now, looking back on his life, that his good intentions had
not prevented his ignorance from precipitating a feud fight.
I should have taken them, family by family, and brought them to
their own knees fustest, he thought, grimly. Then I could have helt
'em all together in mutual repentance!
Having arrived at that idea, he shrugged his shoulders almost
self-contemptuously. I'm a learnin'. That's one consolation, I'm a
And then Rasba heard the Call!
It was Old Mississip's voice; the river was heaping duties upon him
more and more. So far, he had been rather looking out for himself, now
he recalled the houseboats which he had seen moored down the reaches
and in the bends. Those river people, dropping down incessantly with
the river current, must sometimes need help, comfort, and perhaps
advice. His humility would not permit him to think that he could preach
to them or exhort them.
Man to man, likely I could he'p some po'r sinner see as much as I
can see. If I could kind of get 'em to see what this big, old riveh is
like! Hit's carryin' a leaf er a duck, an' steamboats an' shanty-bo'ts;
hit carries the livin' an' hit carries the daid; hit begrudges no man
it's he'p if he comes to it to float down a log raft er a million
bushels of coal. If Ole Mississip'll do that fo' anybody, suttin'ly
hit's clear an' plain that God won't deny a sinner His he'p! Yas, suh!
Now I've shore found a handle to keep hold of my religion!
Peace of mind had come to him, but not the peace of indolence and
neglect. Far from that! He saw years of endless endeavour opening
before him, but not with multitudes looking up to him as he stood,
grand and noble, in the bright light of a thousand pulpits, circuit
riding the earth. Instead, he would go to a sinning man here, a
sorrowing woman there, and perhaps sit down with a little child, to
give it comfort and instruction.
People were too scattered down the Mississippi to think of
congregations. All days were Sunday, and for him there could be no day
of rest. If he could not do big work, at least he could meet men and
women, and he could get to know little children, to understand their
needs. He knew it was a good thought, and when he looked across the
Mississippi, he saw night coming on, but between him and the dark was
The cold white glare changed to brilliant colours; clouds whose
gray-blue had oppressed the soul of the mountain man flashed red and
purple, growing thinner and thinner, and when he had gazed for a minute
at the glow of a fixed government light he was astonished by the
darkness of nightonly the night was filled with stars.
Thus the river, the weather, the climate, the sky, the sandbars, and
the wooded banks revealed themselves in changing moods and varying
lights to the mountain man whose life had always been pent in and
narrowed, without viewpoint or a sense of the future. The monster size
of the river dwarfed the little affairs of his own life and humbled the
pride which had so often been humbled before. At last he began to look
down on himself, seeing something of the true relation of his
importance to the immeasurable efforts of thousands and millions of
The sand clouds carried by the north wind must ever remain an epoch
in his experience. Definitely he was rid of a great deal of nonsense,
ignorance, and pride; at the same time it seemed, somehow, to have
grounded him on something much firmer and broader than the vanities of
His eyes searched the river in the dark for some place to begin his
work, and as they did so, he discovered a bright, glaring light a few
miles below him across the sandbar at the head of which he had
anchored. He saw other lights down that way, a regular settlement of
lights across the river, and several darting firefly gleams in the
middle of the stream which he recognized were boats, probably small
In forty minutes he was dipping his sweep blades to work his way
into the eddy where several small passenger craft were on line-ends
from a large, substantial craft which was brightly lighted by lanterns
and a big carbide light. Its windows were aglow with cheeriness, and
the occupants engaged in strange pastimes.
Come, now, come on, now! someone was crying in a sing-song. Come
along like I said! Come along, nowSevenSevenSeven!
Parson Rasba's oar pins needed wetting, for the strain he put on the
sweeps made them squeak. The splash of oars down the current was heard
by people on board and several walked out on the deck.
Whoe-e-e! one hailed. Who all mout yo' be?
Rasba! the newcomer replied. Parson Elijah Rasba, suh. Out of the
Hi-i-i! a listener cried out, gleefully, hyar comes the Riveh
Prophet after yo sinners. Hi-i-i!
There was a laugh through the crowd. Others strolled out to see the
phenomenon. A man who had been playing with fortune at one of the poker
tables swore aloud.
I cayn't neveh git started, I don't shift down on my luck! he
whined. Las' time, jes' when I was coming home, I see a piebald mewl,
an' now hyar comes a parson. Dad drat this yeah ole riveh! I'm goin' to
quit. I'm gwine to go to Hot Springs!
These casual asides were as nothing, however, to the tumult that
stirred in the soul of Jock Drones, who had been cutting bread to make
boiled-ham sandwiches for their patrons that night. His acute hearing
had picked up the sound of the coming shanty-boat, and he had felt the
menace of a stranger dropping in after dark. Few men not on mischief
bent, or determined to run all night, run into shanty-boat eddies.
He even turned down the light a little, and looked toward the door
to see if the way was clear. The hail relieved the tension of his mind
strain, but only for a minute. Then he heard that answer.
Rasba! he heard. Parson Elijah Rasba, suh. Out of the Ohio!
In a flash he knew the truth! Old Rasba, whose preaching he had
listened to that bloody night away up in the mountains, had come down
the rivers. A parson, none else, was camping on the mountain fugitive's
trail. That meant tribulation, that meant the inescapableness of sin's
punishmentnot in jails, not in trial courts, not on the gallows, but
worse than that!
Come abo'd, Parson! someone shouted, and the boats bumped. There
was a scramble to make a line fast, and then the trampling of many
feet, as the Prophet was introduced to that particular river hell, amid
stifled cries of expectancy and murmurs of warning. Next to being
raided by the sheriff of an adjacent county, having a river prophet
come on board is the greatest excitement and the smartest amusement of
the bravados down the river.
Hyar's the Prophet! a voice shouted. Now git ready fo' yo'
eternal damnation. See 'im gather hisse'f!
Rasba gathering himself! Jock could not help but take a peep. It was
Rasba, gaunt, tall, his head up close to the shanty-boat roof and his
shoulders nearly a head higher than the collars of most of those men
who stood by with insolence and doubtful good humour.
Which'd yo' rather git to play, Parson? someone asked, slyly.
Cyards er bones er pull-sticks?
I've a friend down yeah, gentlemen. The Prophet ignored the
insult. His mother wants him. She's afeared likely he mout forget,
since he was jes' a boy friendly and needing friends. He's no runt, no
triflin' no-'count, puppy man, like this thing, in the direction
whence the invitation had come, but tall an' square, an' honourable,
near six foot, an' likely 160 pounds. Not like this little runt thing
yeah, but a real man!
There was a yell of approval and delight.
Who all mout yo' friend be? Buck asked, respectfully, seeing that
this was not a raid, but a visit.
Jock, suh, Jock Drones, his mammy wants him, suh!
Buck eyed the visitor keenly for a minute. Someone said they never
had heard of him. Buck, who saw that the visitor was in mind to turn
Won't yo' have a cup of coffee, suh? Hit's raw outside to-night,
fresh and mean. Give him a chair, boys! I'm friendly with any man who
takes a message from a mother to her wandering son.
A dozen chairs were snatched out to the stove, and when Parson Rasba
had accepted one, Buck stepped into the kitchen. He found Slip,
alias Jock Drones, standing with beads of sweat on his forehead. No
need to ask the first question; Buck poured out a cup of coffee and
What'll I tell him, Slip?
I cayn't go back, Buck! Slip whimpered. Hit's a hanging crime!
Something may have changed, Buck suggested.
No, suh, I've heard. Hit were my bulletI've heard. Hit's a trial,
an' hit'shit's hanging!
Sh-h! Not so loud! Buck warned. If it's lawyer money you need?
I got 'leven hundred, an' a trial lawyer'll cost only a thousand,
Buck! Yo's a friendLawse! I'd shore like to talk to him. He's no
detector, Parson Rasba yain't. Why, he's be'n right into a stillhouse,
drunk the moonshinean' no revenue hearn of hit, the way some feared.
My sister wrote me. I want to talk to him, Buck, butbut not let them
I'll fix it, Buck promised, carrying out steaming coffee, a plate
of sandwiches, and two big oranges for the parson.
He returned, filled up the trays for the others, and took them out.
Soon the crowd were sitting around, or leaning against the heavy crap
table, talking and listening.
Yo' come way down from the mountangs to find a mammy's boy?
someone asked, his tone showing better than his words how well he
understood the sacrifice of that journey.
Hit's seo, Rasba nodded. I'm partly to blame, myse'f, for his
coming down. I was a mountain preacher, exhorter, and I 'lowed I knowed
hit all. One candlelight I had a congregation an' I hit 'er up loud
that night, an' I 'lowed I'd done right smart with those people's
souls. Butbut hit were no such thing. This boy, Jock, he runned away
that night, 'count of my foolishness, an' we know he's down thisaway;
if I could git to find him, his mammy'd shore be comforted. She's a
heap more faith in me'n I have, but I come down yeah. Likely I couldn't
do much for that boy, but I kin show I'd like to.
Trippin' a thousand miles shows some intrust! somebody said.
I lived all my life up theh in the mountangs, an' hit's God's
country, gem'men! This yeah he glanced around him till his glance
fell upon the card cabinet on the wall between two windows, full of
decks of cards and packets of dice and shaker boxesthis yeah, sho!
Hit ain't God's country, gem'men! Hit's shore the Devil's, an' he's
shore ketched a right smart haul to-night! But I live yeah now!
Buck, who had been coming and going, had stopped at the parson's
voice. He did not laugh, he did not even smile. The point was not
missed, however. Far from it! He went out, bowed by the truth of it,
and in the kitchen he looked at Slip, who was sitting in black and
silent consideration of that cry, carried far in the echoes.
You're one of us, Parson! a voice exclaimed in disbelief.
Yas, suh, Rasba smiled as he looked into the man's eyes, I'm one
of you. I 'low we uns'll git thar together, 'cordin' as we die. Look!
This gem'men gives me bread an' meat; he quenches my thirst, too. An' I
take hit out'n his hands. 'Peahs like he owns this boat!
Yas, suh, someone affirmed.
Then I shall not shake hit's dust off my feet when I go, Rasba
declared, sharply. Buck stared; Rasba did not look at even his shoes;
Buck caught his breath. Whatever Rasba meant, whatever the other
listeners understood, Buck felt and broke beneath those statements
which brought to him things that he never had known before.
He'll not shake the dust of this gambling dive from his feet! Buck
choked under his breath. And this is how far down I've got!
Rasba, conscious only of his own shortcomings, had no idea that he
had fired shot after shot, let alone landed shell after shell. He knew
only that the men sat in respectful, drawn-faced silence. He wondered
if they were not sorry for him, a preacher, who had fallen so far from
his circuit riding and feastings and meetings in churches. It did not
occur to him that these men knew they were wicked, and that they were
suffering from his unintentional but overwhelming rebuke.
They turned away impatiently, and went in their boats to the village
landing across the river; a night's sport spoiled for them by the
coming of a luck-breaking parson. Others waited to hear more of what
they knew they needed, partly in amusement, partly in curiosity, and
partly because they liked the whiskery fellow who was so interesting.
At the same time, what he said was stinging however inoffensive.
Game's closed for the night! Buck announced, and the gamesters
took their departure. They made no protest, for it was not feasible to
continue gambling when everyone knows a parson brings bad luck to a
The outside lights were extinguished, and Buck brought Slip from the
kitchen inside to Rasba.
This is Slip, Buck explained, and the two shook hands, the
fugitive staring anxiously at the other's face, expecting recognition.
Don't yo' know me, Parson? Slip exclaimed. Jock Drones. Don't yo'
Jock Drones? Rasba cried, staring. Why, Sho! Hit is! Lawsean' I
found yo' right yeahthisaway!
Yassuh, Jock turned away under that bright gaze, but I'm goin'
back, Parson! I'm goin' back to stand trial, suh! I neveh knowed any
man, not a blood relation would think so much of me, as to come way
down yeah to tell me my mammy, my good ole mammy, wanted me to be
An' good, Jock! Rasba cried.
An' good, suh, the young man added, obediently.
I'd better go over and see our sick man, Buck turned to Slip.
A sick man? Rasba asked. Where mout he be?
In that other shanty-boat, that little boat, Slip exclaimed.
We'll all go!
When they entered the little boat, which sagged under their combined
weights, Slip held the light so it would shine on the cot.
Sho! Rasba exclaimed. Hyar's my friend who got shot by a lady!
Yes, suh, Parson! Prebol grinned, feebly. Seems like I cayn't get
shut of yo' nohow, but I'm shore glad to see yo'. These yeah boys have
took cyar of me great. Same's you done, Parson, but I wa'nt your kind,
swearin' around, so I pulled out. Yo' cayn't he'p me much, but
likelylikely theh's some yo' kin.
I'd shore like to find them, Rasba declared, smoothing the man's
pillow. But there's not so many I can he'p. Yo' boys are tired; I'll
give him his medicine till to'd mornin'. Yo'd jes' soon, Prebol?
Hit'd be friendly, Prebol admitted. Yo' needn't to sit right
I 'low I shall, Rasba nodded. I got some readin' to do. I'll git
my book, an' come back an' set yeah!
He brought his Bible, and looking up to bid the two good-night, he
Hit's considerable wrestle, readin' this yeah Book! I neveh did git
to understand hit, but likely I can git to know some more now. I've had
right smart of experiences, lately, to he'p me git to know.
Terabon possessed a newspaper man's feeling of aloofness and
detachment. When he went afloat on the Mississippi at St. Louis he had
no intention of becoming a part of the river phenomena, and it did not
occur to his mind that his position might become that of a participator
rather than an observer.
The great river was interesting. It had come to his attention
several years before, when he read Parkman's La Salle, and a little
later he had read almost a column account of a flood down the
Mississippi. The A. P. had collected items from St. Louis, Cincinnati,
Memphis, Cairo, Natchez, Vicksburg, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans, and
fired them into the aloof East. New York, Boston, Bangor, Utica,
Albany, and other important centres had learned for the first time that
a leveewhatever that might behad suffered a cravasse; a steamboat
and some towbarges had been wrecked, that Cairo was registering 63.3 on
the gauge; that some Negroes had been drowned; that cattle thieves were
operating in the Overflow, and so on and so forth.
The combination of La Salle's last adventure and the Mississippi
flood caught the fancy of the newspaper man.
Shall I ever get out there? Terabon asked himself.
His dream was not of reporting wars, not of exploring Africa, not of
interviewing kings and making presidents in a national convention. Far
from it! His mind caught at the suggestion of singing birds in their
native trees, and he could without regret think of spending days with a
magnifying glass, considering the ant, or worshipping at the stalk of
the flowering lily.
He was astonished, one day, to discover that he had several hundred
dollars in the Chambers Street Savings Bank. It happened that the city
editor called him to the desk a few minutes later and said:
Go see about this conference.
You go to hell! the reporter replied, smilingly, gently replacing
the slip on the greenish desk.
T-t-t-t-t Mr. Dekod sputtered. There is something new
under the sun!
Lester Terabon strolled forth with easy nonchalance, and three days
later he was in the office of the secretary of the Mississippi River
Commission, at St. Louis, calmly inquiring into the duties and
performance thereof, involving the efforts of 100,000 Negroes, 40,000
mules, 500 contractors, 10,000 government officials, a few hundred
pieces of floating plant, and sundry other things which Terabon had
conceived were of importance.
He had approached the Mississippi River from the human angle. He
knew of no other way of approach. His first view of the river, as he
crossed the Merchants Bridge, had not disturbed his equilibrium in the
least, and he had floated out of an eddy in a 16-foot skiff still with
the human-viewpoint approach.
Then had begun a combat in his mind between all his preconceived
ideas and information and the river realities. Faithfully, in the
notebooks which he carried, he put down the details of his mental
By the time he reached Island No. 10 sandbar he had about resigned
himself to the whimsicalities of river living. He had, however,
preserved his attitude of aloofness and extraneousness. He regarded
himself as a visiting observer who would record the events in which
others had a part. It still pleased his fancy to say that he was
interviewing the Mississippi River as he might interview the President
of the United States.
But as Lester Terabon rowed his skiff back up the eddy above New
Madrid, and breasted the current in the sweep of the reach to that
little cabin-boat half a mile above the Island No. 10 light, his
attitude was undergoing a conscious change. While he had been reporting
the Mississippi River in its varying moods something had encircled him
and grasped him, and was holding him.
For some time he had felt the change in his position; glimmerings of
its importance had appeared in his notes; his mind had fought against
it as a corruption, lest it ruin the career which he had mapped out for
When the New Madrid fish-dock man told him to carry the warning that
a detector was hunting for a certain woman, and that the detective
had gone on down with some river fellows, his place as a river man was
assured. River folks trusted and used him as they used themselves.
Moreover, he was possessed of a vital river secret.
Nelia Crele, alias Nelia Carline, was the woman, and they
were both stopping over at the Island No. 10 sandbar. He knew, what the
fish-dock man probably did not know, that the pursuer was the woman's
What'll I tell her? Terabon asked himself.
With that question he uncovered an unsuspected depth to his
feelings. It was a dark, dull day. The waves rolled and fell back,
sometimes the wind seeming the stronger and then the current asserting
its weight. With the wind's help over the stern, Terabon swiftly passed
the caving bend and landed in the lee above the young woman's boat.
He carried some things he had bought for her into the kitchen and
they sat in the cabin to read newspapers and magazines which he had
I heard some news, too, he told her.
Yes? What news?
The fish-dock man at New Madrid told me to tell the people along
that a detective has gone on down, looking for a woman.
A detective looking for a woman? she repeated.
A man the name of Carline
Oh! she shrugged her shoulders. Why didn't you tell me!
He flushed. Almost an hour had elapsed since he had returned. He had
found it difficult to mention the subject.
I did not tell you either, he apologized, that I happened to meet
Mr. Carline up at Island No. 8, when I had no idea the good fortune
would come to me of meeting you, whosewhose pictures he showed me. I
could notI sawThere was
And you didn't tell me, she accused him.
It seemed to me none of my affair. I'm a newspaper manI
And did that excuse you from letting me know of hisof that
pursuit of me?
His newspaper impartiality had failed him, and he hung his head in
doubt and shame. She claimed, and she deserved, his friendship; the
last vestige of his pretence of mere observation was torn from him. He
was a human among humansand he had a fervid if unexpected thought
about the influence and exasperation of the river out yonder.
I could not tell you! he cried. I didn't thinkit seemed
You know, then, you saw why I had left him?
Liquor! he grasped at the excuse. Oh, that was plain enough.
Perhaps a woman could forgive liquor, she suggested, thoughtfully,
but notnot stupidity and indifference. He never disturbed the dust
on any of the books of his library. Oh, what they meant my books mean
She turned and stared at her book shelves.
Suppose you hadn't found books? he asked, glad of the opportunity
for a diversion.
I'd be dead, I think, she surmised, and one day, I did
How was that?
Get your notebook! she jeered. I thought if he was going to rely
on the specious joys of liquor I would, and tried it. It was a blizzard
day last winter. He had gone over to see the widow, and there was a
bottle of rum in the cupboard. I took some hot milk, nutmeg, sugar, and
rum. I've never felt so happy in my life, except
With what exception? he asked.
Yesterday, she answered, laughing, and last night and to-day! You
see, I'm free now. I say and do what I please. I don't care any more.
I'm perfectly brazen. I don't love you, but I like you very much.
You're good company. I hope I am, too
You aresplendid! he cried, almost involuntarily, and she
Let's go walking again, will you? she said. I want to get out in
the wind; I want to have the sky overhead, a sandbar under my feet, and
all outdoors at my command. You don't mind, you'd like to go?
To the earth's end! he replied, recklessly, and her gay laugh
showed how well he had pleased her mood.
They kept close up to the north side of the bar because down the
wind the sand was lifting and rolling up in yellow clouds. They went to
Winchester Chute, and followed its winding course through the wood
patch. There was a slough of green water, with a flock of ducks which
left precipitately on their approach. They returned down to the
sandbar, and pressed their way through the thick clump of small willows
into the switch willows and along the edge of the unbroken desert of
sand. They could see the very surface of the bar rolling along before
the wind, and as they walked along they found their feet submerged in
But when they arrived at the boat night was near at hand, and the
enveloping cold became more biting and the gloom more depressing.
Just when they had eaten their supper together, and had seated
themselves before the fire, and when the whirl and whistle of the wind
was heard in the mad music of a river storm, a motorboat with its
cut-out open ploughed up the river through the dead eddy and stopped to
Jim Talum, a fisherman whose line of hoop nets filled the reach of
Island No. 9 for eight or ten miles, was on his way to his tent which
he had pitched at the head of Winchester Chute.
He tramped aboard, and welcomed a seat by the fire.
'Lowed I'd drap in a minute, he declared. Powerful lonesome up on
the chute where I got my tent. Be'n runnin' my traps down the bank,
yeah, an' along of the chute, gettin' rats. Yo' trappin'?
No, just tripping, Terabon replied. I was down to New Madrid this
I'm just up from there. Ho law! Theh's one man I'd hate to be down
below. I expect yo've hearn tell of them Despard riveh pirates? No!
Well, they've come drappin' down ag'in, an' they landed into New Madrid
yestehd'y evenin'. Likely they 'lowed to raid some commissary down
b'lowcayn't tell what they did 'low to do. But they picked good
pickin's down theh! Feller come down lookin' fo' a woman, hisn's I
expect. Anyhow, he's a strangeh on the riveh. He's got a nice power
boat, an' likely he's got money. If he has, good-bye! Them Despards'd
kill a man for $10. One of 'em, Hilt Despard's onto the bo't with him,
pretendin' to be a sport, an' they've drapped out. The rest the gang's
jes' waitin' fo' the wind to lay, down b'low, an' down by Plum P'int,
some'rs, Mr. Man'll sudden come daid.
The fisherman had been alone so much that the pent-up conversation
of weeks flowed uninterruptedly. He told details; he described the
motorboat; he laughed at the astonishment the man would feel when the
pirates disclosed their intentions with a bullet or knife; and he
expected, by and by, to hear the story of the tragedy through the
medium of some whiskey boater, some river gossip coming up in a power
For an hour he babbled and then, as precipitately as he had arrived,
he took his departure. When he was gone, Nelia Crele turned to Terabon
with helpless dismay. Augustus Carline was worthless; he had been
faithless to her; he had inflicted sufferings beyond her power of
punishment or forgiveness.
But he's looking for me! she recapitulated, and he doesn't know.
He's a fool, and they'll kill him like a rat! What can I do?
Obviously there was nothing that she could do, but Lester Terabon
I'd better drop down and see if I can't help himdo something. I
know that crew.
You'll do that for me! her voice lifted in a cry of thankfulness.
Oh, if you would, if you would. I couldn't think of his beinghis
being killed, trying to find me. Get him; send him home!
I'd better start right down, Terabon said, it's sixty or seventy
miles, anyhow. They'll not hurry. They can't, for the gang's in a
She walked up to him with her arms raised.
How can I thank you? she demanded. You do this for mea
Why not, if I can help? he asked.
Where shall I see you again?
He brought in his book of river maps, and together they looked down
the tortuous stream; he rested the tip of his pencil on Yankee Bar
below Plum Point.
It's a famous pirate resort, this twenty miles of river! he said.
I'll wait at Fort Pillow Landing. Or if you are ahead?
We'll meet there! she cried. I'll surely find you there. Or at
Mendovasurely at Mendova.
She followed him out on the bow deck.
Just a minute, she whispered, while I get used to the thought of
being alone again. I did not know there were men like you who would
rather do a favour than ask for kisses.
It isn't that we don't like them! he blurted out. It'sit's just
that we'd rather deserve them and not have them than have them and not
She laughed. Good-byeand don't forget, Fort Pillow!
Does a man forget his meals? he demanded, lightly, and with his
duffle packed low in his skiff he rowed out into the gray river and the
Having found a lee along the caving bank above New Madrid he
gain-speeded down the current behind the sandbar, but when he turned
the New Madrid bend he pulled out into mid-river and with current and
wind both behind him, followed the government lights that showed the
He had expected to linger long down this historic stretch of river
with its Sunk Lands of the New Madrid earthquakes, with its first
glimpse of the cotton country, and with its countless river phenomena.
But Old Mississip' has other ideas, he said to himself, and miles
below he was wondering if and when he would meet the girl of Island No.
Pirates have infested the Mississippi from the earliest days. The
stranger on the river cannot possibly know a pirate when he sees one,
and even shanty-boaters of long experience and sharp eyes penetrate
their disguises with difficulty. How could Gus Carline suspect the
loquacious, ingratiating, and helpful Renald Doss?
Lonely; pursued by doubts, ignorance, and a lurking timidity,
Carline was only too glad to take on a companion who discoursed about
all the river towns, called river commissioners by their first names,
knew all the makes of motors, and called the depth of the water in
Point Pleasant crossing by reading the New Madrid gauge.
He relinquished the wheel of his boat to the dapper little man, and
fed the motor more gas, or slowed down to half speed, while he listened
to volumes of river lore.
You've been landing along down? Doss asked.
All along, Carline replied, everywhere.
I should say so; there was a fellow come down pretending to be a
reporter. He stopped over with me, got me full's a tick, and then
Ehhe robbed you?
Yes, sir! He got me to drinking heavy. I like my stew a little, but
he fixed me. Then he just went through me, but he didn't get all I had,
This was rich!
Lucky he didn't hit you on the head, and take the boat, too! Doss
I suppose so.
Yes, sir! Lots of mean men on this river, they play any old game.
They say they're preachers, or umbrella menders, or anything. Every
once in a while some feller comes down, saying he's off'n some
magazine. They come down in skiffs, mostly. It's a great game they
play. Everybody tells 'em everything. If I was going to be a crook, I
bet I'd say I was a hist'ry writer. I'd snoop around, and then I'd
landsame's that feller landed on you. Get much?
Twothree hundred dollars!
The little man laughed in his throat. He handled the boat like a
river pilot. His eyes turned to the banks, swept the sandbars, gazed
into the coiling waters alongside, and he whispered names of places as
he passed themlandings, bars, crossings, bends, and even the
plantations and log cuttings. He named the three cotton gins in
Tiptonville, and stared at the ferry below town with a sidelong leer.
Carline would have been the most astonished man on the Mississippi
had he known that nearly all his money was in the pockets of his guest.
He babbled on, and before he knew it, he was telling all about his wife
running away down the Mississippi.
What kind of a boat's she in? Doss asked.
I don't know.
How do you expect to find her if you don't know the boat?
Whywhy, somebody might know her; a woman alone!
Whyyes, sir. I heard so.
Without a word Carline handed the fellow a photograph. Doss made no
sign. For two minutes he stared at that fine face.
I bet she's got an awful temper, he half whispered.
She's quick, Carline admitted, fervently.
She'd just soon shoot a man as look at him, Doss added, with a
touch of asperity.
Whyshe Carline hesitated. He recalled a day in his own
experience when she took his own shot gun from him, and stood a fury,
flaming with anger.
Yes, sir, she would, Doss declared, with finality.
Doss had seen her. By that time a thousand shanty-boaters had heard
about that girl's one shot of deadly accuracy. The woman folks on a
thousand miles of reach and bend had had a bad example set before them.
Doss himself felt an anger which was impotent against the woman who had
shot Jest Prebold down. Probably other women would take to shooting,
right off the bat, the same way. He despised that idea.
Carline, doubtful as to whether his wife was being insulted,
congratulated, or described, gazed at the photograph. The more he
looked, the more exasperated he felt. She was a womanwhat right had
she to run away and leave him with his honour impugned? He felt as
though he hadn't taught her her place. At the same time, when he looked
at the picture, he discovered a remembrance of his feeling that she was
a very difficult person to teach anything to. Her learning always had
insulted his own meagreness of information and aptness in repartee.
Next to not finding her, his big worry had become finding her.
They steered down the river without great haste. Doss studied the
shanty-boats which he saw moored in the various eddies, large and
small. Some he spoke of casually, as store-boats, fishermen, market
hunters, or, as they passed between Caruthersville and the opposite
shore, a gambling boat. Even the river pirate, gloating over his prey,
and puzzled only as to the method of making the most of his victim,
could not penetrate the veil which it happened the Mississippi River
interposed between them and the river gambling denfor the moment.
There is no use seeking the method of the river, nor endeavouring to
discover the processes by which the lives of thousands who go afloat
down the Mississippi are woven as woof and warp in the fabric of river
life and river mysteries. The more faithful an effort to select one of
the commonest and simplest of river complications, the more improbable
and fanciful it must seem.
Doss, in intervals when he was not consciously registering the smile
of good humour, the generosity of an experienced man toward the chance
visitor, and the willingness to defer to the gentleman from Up the
Bank, brought his expression unconsciously to the cold, rough
woodenness of blank insensitivenessthe malignance of a snapping
turtle, to mention a medium reptilian face. A whim, and the necessity
of delay, led Doss to suggest that they take a look up the Obion River
as a likely hiding place. Of course, Doss knew best, and they quit the
tumbling Mississippi for the quiet wooded aisle of the little river.
When they emerged, two days later, Augustus Carline could well thank
his stars, though he did not know it, that he was still on the boat.
All unconscious of the real nature and habits of river rats he had
given the little wretch a thousand opportunities to commit one of the
many crimes he had in mind. But he developed a reluctance to choose the
easiest one, when from hint after hint he understood that a mere river
piracy and murder would be folly in view of the opportunity for a more
profitable stake which a man of means offered.
As he steered by the government boat which was surveying Plum Point
bars, Doss showed his teeth like an indignant cat. Five or six miles
below he offered the supine and helpless Carline the information:
There's Yankee Bar. We'll swing wide and land in below, so's not to
scare up any geese or ducks that may be roosting there.
Eagerly Doss searched through the switch willows for a glimpse of
the setback of the water beyond the bar. Away down in the old eddy he
discovered a shanty-boat, and to cover his involuntary exclamation of
satisfaction he said:
Shucks! There's somebody theh. I hoped we'd have it to ourselves
but they may be sports, too. If they are, we'll sure have a good time.
Some of these shanty-boaters are great sports. We'll soon find out!
He steered into the eddy and the two men stepped out on the flat
boat's deck to greet them.
Seems like I've seen them before, Doss said in a low voice; I
believe they're old timers. Hello, boys! Hunting?
Yes, suh! Lots of game. Sho, ain' yo' Doss, Ren Doss?
You bet. I knew you! I told Mr. Carline, here, that I knew you,
that I'd seen you before! I'm glad to see you boys again. Catch a line
No doubt about it, they were old friends. In a minute they were
shaking hands all around, then went into the shanty-boat, and they sat
down in assorted chairs, and Doss, Jet, and Cope exchanged the gossip
of a river year.
Carline's eyes searched about him with interest, and the three men
watched him more and more openly. When he walked toward the bow of the
boat, where the slope of the yellow sand led up to the woods of Flower
Island, one of them casually left his seat and followed.
Carline looked at the stand of guns in the cabin corner and started
with surprise. He reached and picked up one of them to look at it.
Why, he shouted, this is my shot gu
No more. His light went out on the instant and he felt that he was
suspended in mid-air, poised between the abyss and the heavens.
Fortune, or rather the Father of Waters, had favoured Parson Elijah
Rasba in the accomplishment of his errand. It might not have happened
in a decade that he locate a fugitive within a hundred miles of Cairo,
where the Forks of the Ohio is the jumping-off place of the stream of
people from a million square miles.
Rasba knew it. The fervour of the prophets was in his heart, and the
light of understanding was brightening in his mind. Something seemed to
have caught the doors of his intelligence and thrown them wide open.
In the pent-up valleys of the mountains, with their little streams,
their little trails, their dull and hopeless inhabitants, their wars
begun in disputes over pigs and abandoned peach orchards, their
moonshine and hate of government revenues, there had been no chance for
Parson Rasba to get things together in his mind.
The days and nights on the rivers had opened his eyes. When he asked
himself: If this is the Mississippi, what must the Jordan be? he
found a perspective.
Sitting there beside the wounded Jest Prebol, by the light of a big
table lamp, he wrestled with his Bible the obscurities of which had
long tormented his ignorance and baffled his mental bondage.
The noises of the witches' hours were in the air. Wavelets splashed
along the side and under the bow of the Prebol shanty-boat. The mooring
ropes stretched audibly, and the timber heads to which they were
fastened squeaked and strained; the wind slapped and hissed and whined
on all sides, crackling through the heavy timber up the bank. The great
river pouring by seemed to have a low, deep growl while the wind in the
skies rumbled among the clouds.
No wonder Rasba could understand! He could imagine anything if he
did not hold fast to that great Book which rested on his knees, but
holding fast to it, the whisperings and chucklings and hissings which
filled the river wilderness, and the deep tone of the flood, the hollow
roar of the passing storm, were but signs of the necessity of faith in
the presence of the mysteries.
So Rasba wrestled; so he grappled with the things he must know, in
the light of the things he did know. And a kind of understanding which
was also peace comforted him. He closed the Book at last, and let his
mind drift whither it would.
Panoramas of the river, like pictures, unfolded before his eyes; he
remembered flashes taken of men, women, and children; he dwelt for a
time on the ruin of the church up there in the valley, standing vainly
against a mountain slide; his face warmed, his eyes moistened. His mind
seized eagerly upon a vision of the memory, the pretty woman, whose
pistol had shot down the deluded and now stricken wretch there in the
The anomaly of the fact that he was caring for her victim was not
lost on his shrewd understanding. He was gathering up and helping patch
the wreckage she was making. It was a curious conceit, and Elijah
Rasba, while he smiled at the humour of it, was at the same time
conscious of its sad truth.
Her presence on the river meant no good for any one; Prebol was but
one of her victims; perhaps he was the least unfortunate of them all!
Others might perish through her, while it was not too much to hope that
Prebol, through his sufferings, might be willing to profit by their
lesson. Rasba was glad that he had not overtaken her that night of
inexplicable pursuit. Her brightness, her prettiness, her appeal had
been irresistible to him, and he could but acknowledge, while he
trembled at the fact, that for the time he had been possessed by her
Thus he meditated and puzzled about the things which, in his words,
had come to pass. Before he knew it, daylight had arrived, and Jock
Drones came over to greet him with Good mo'nin', Parson! Prebol was
sleeping and there was colour in his cheeks, enough to make them look
more natural. When Doctor Grell arrived, just as the three sat down to
breakfast, he cheered them with the information that Prebol was coming
through though the shadow had rested close to him.
None of them admitted, even to himself, the strain the wounded man
had been and was on their nerves. Under his seeming indifference Buck
was near the breaking point; Jock, victim of a thousand worries, was
bent under his burdens. Grell, having fought the all-night fight for a
human life, was still weak with weariness from the effort. Rasba, a
newcomer, brought welcome reserves of endurance, assistance, and
Yo' men shore have done yo' duty by a man in need, he told them,
and none of them could understand why that truthful statement should
make them feel so very comfortable.
They left the sick man to go on board the gaming boat, and they sat
on the stern deck, where they looked across the river and the levee to
the roofs of Caruthersville. If they looked at the horizon, their
attention was attracted and their gaze held by the swirling of the
river current. Their eyes could not be drawn away from that tremendous
motion, the rush of a thousand acres of surface; the senses were
appalled by the magnitude of its suggestion.
Going to play to-night? Grell asked, uneasily.
No, Buck replied, instantly.
So! the doctor exclaimed.
Slip's going up on the steamboat.
So'm I! Buck continued, breathlessly; I'm quitting the riveh,
too! I've been down here a good many years. I've been thinking. I'm
going back. I'm going up the bank again.
What'll you do with the boat? Grell continued.
Slip and I've been talking it all over. We're through with it. We
guessed the Prophet, here, could use it. We're going to give it to
Going to give hit to me! Rasba started up and stared at the man.
Yes, Parson; that poplar boat of yours isn't what you need down
here. Buck smiled. This big pine boat's better; you could preach in
Tears started in Rasba's eyes and dripped through his dark whiskers.
Buck and Jock had acted with the impulsiveness of gambling men.
Something in the fact that Rasba had come down those strange miles had
touched them, had given Drones courage to go back and face the music,
and to Buck the desire to return into his old life.
We're going up on the Kate to-morrow morning, Buck
explained. Slip'd better show you how to run the gasolene boat if you
don't know how, Parson!
Dazed by the access of fortune, Rasba spent the mid-afternoon
learning to run the 28-foot gasolene launch which was used to tow the
big houseboat which would make such a wonderful floating church. It was
a big boat only a little more than two years old. Buck had made it
himself, on the Upper Mississippi, for a gambling boat. The frame was
light, and the cabin was built with double boards, with building paper
between, to keep out the cold wintry winds.
Gentlemen, Rasba choked, looking at the two donors of the gift,
I'm going to be the best kind of a man I know how
It's your job to be a parson, Buck laughed. If it wasn't for men
like us, that need reforming, you'd be up against it for something to
look out for. You aren't much used to the river, and I'll suggest that
when you drop down you land in eddies sheltered from the west and south
winds. They sure do tear things up sometimes. I've had the roof tore
off a boat I was in, and I saw sixty-three boats sunk at Cairo's
Kentucky shanty-boat town one morning after a big wind.
I'll keep a-lookin', Rasba assured him, but I've kind-a lost the
which-way down heah. One day I had the sun ahead, behind, and both
There's maps in that pile of stuff in the corner, Buck said, going
to the duffle. You're on Sheet 4 now. Here's Caruthersville.
Yas, suh. Those red lines?
The new survey. You see, that sandbar up in Little Prairie Bend has
cut loose from Island No. 15, and moved down three miles, and we're at
the foot of this bar, here. That's moved down, too, and that big bar
down there was made between the surveys. You see, they had to move the
levee back, and Caruthersville moved over the new levee
Sho! Rasba gasped. What ails this old riveh?
She jes' wriggles, same's water into a muddy road downhill, Kippy
laughed. Up there in Little Prairie Bend hit's caved right through the
old levee, and they had to loop around. Now they've reveted it.
They've woven a willow mattress and weighted it down with broken
rock from up the rivermore than a mile of it, now, and they'll have
to put down another mile before they can head the river off there.
Put a carpet down. How wide?
Four hundred feet probably
An' a mile long! Rasba whispered, awed. Every thing's big on the
Yes, sirthat's itbig! Buck laughed.
Thus the four gossiped, and when Doctor Grell had taken his
departure the three talked together about the river and its wonders. At
intervals they went over to look after Prebol whose chief requirement
was quiet, meat broths, and his medicines.
As night drew down Drones turned to Buck:
It's goin' to be hard leaving the riveh! I neveh will forget, Buck.
If I'm sent to jail for all my life, I'll have something to remember.
If they hang me, I shore will come back to walk with those that walk in
the middle of the river.
What's that? Rasba turned and demanded.
Riveh folks believe that thousands of people who died down
thisaway, sunk in snagged steamers, caught in burned-up boats, blown to
kingdom come in boiler explosions, those that have been murdered, and
who died along the banks, keep a-goin' up and down.
Sho! Rasba exclaimed. Yo' b'lieve that?
A man believes a heap more after he's tripped the riveh once or
twice, than he ever believed in all his borned days, eh, Buck?
It's so! Buck cried out. Last night I was thinking that I'd
wasted my life down here; years and years I've been a shanty-boater,
drifter, fisherman, trapper, market hunter, and late years, I've
gambled. I've been getting in bad, worse all the while. The Prophet
here, coming along, seemed to wake me upthe man I used to beI mean.
It wasn't so much what you said, Parson, but your being here. Then I've
been thinking all over again. I've an idea, boys, that when I go back
up to-morrow I won't be so sorry for what I've been, as glad that I
didn't grow worse than I did. It won't be easy, boysgoing back. I'm
taking the old river with me, though. I've framed its bends and
islands, its chutes and reaches, like pictures in my mind. Old Parson
here, too, coming in on us the way he did, saying that this was hell,
but he'd come here to live in it. That's what waked me up, Parson! I
could see how you felt. You'd never seen such a place before, but you
said in your heart and your eyes showed it, Parson, that you would
leave God's country to help us poor devils. It's just a point of view,
though. I'm going right up to my particular hell, and I'll look back
here to this thousand miles of river as heaven. Yes, sir! But my job is
up therein that hell!
So they talked, and always their thoughts were on the river channel,
and their minds groping into the future.
When the Kate whistled way down at Bell's Landing, Rasba took
the two across to Caruthersville and bade them good-bye at the landing.
The Kate pulled out and Parson Rasba crossed to the three
houseboats, two of them his own. He went in to see Prebol, who was
lonesome and wanted to talk a little.
What you going to do, Parson? Prebol asked.
I'd kind-a like to get to see shanty-boaters, and talk to them,
the man answered. I wonder couldn't yo' sort of he'p me; tell me where
I mout begin and where it'd he'p the most, an' hurt people's feelin's
the least? I'd jes' kind-a like to be useful. Course, I got to get you
cured up an' took cyar of first.
I cayn't say much about being pious on Old Mississip', Prebol
grinned, but theh's two ways of findin' trouble. One's to set still
long enough, and then, again, you can go lookin' fo' hit. Course, yo'
know me! I've hunted trouble pretty fresh, an' I've found hit, an' I've
lived onto hit. I cayn't he'p much about doin' good, an' missionaryin',
an' River Prophetin'.
When Prebol's voice showed the strain of talking Rasba bade him
rest. Then he went over to the big boat, a gift that would have sold
for $1,000. He looked at the crap table, the little poker tables with
the brass-slot kitties; he stared at the cabinet of cards and dice.
All mine! he said.
He walked out on the deck where he could commune with the river,
using his eyes, his ears, and the feeling that the warm afternoon gave
him. The sun shone upon him, and made a narrow pathway across the
rushing torrent. The sky was blue and cloudless. Of the cold, the wind,
the sea of liquid mud, not one trace remained.
He looked down and up the river, and his eyes caught a flicker which
became a flutter, like the agitation of a duck preening its feathers on
a smooth surface.
He watched it for a long time. He did not know what it was. As a
river man, his curiosity was excited, but there was something more than
mere curiosity; the river instinct that the inexplicable and unknown
should be watched and inquired into moved him almost unconsciously to
watch that distant agitation which became a dot afloat in a mirage of
light. A little later a sudden flash along the river surface disclosed
that the thing was a shanty-boat turning in the coiling currents at the
The sun drew nearer the tree tops. The little cabin-boat was seeking
a place to land or anchor for the night. If it was an old river man,
the boat would drop into some little eddy at Caruthersville or down
below; but a stranger on the river would likely shoot across into the
gamblers' eddy tempted, perhaps, by the three boats already there.
The boat drew swiftly near, and as it ran down, the navigator rowed
to make the shanty-boat eddy. Parson Rasba discovered that it was a
woman at the sweeps, and a few strokes later he knew that it was a
slim, young woman. When she coasted down outside the eddy, to swing in
at the foot, and arrived opposite him, he recognized her.
God he'p me! he choked, hit's Missy Nelia. Hit's Missy Nelia! An'
she's a runned away married womanan' theh's the man she shot!
Hello-o, Parson! she hailed him, did you see a skiff with a
reporter man drop by?
No, missy! he shook his head, his heart giving a painful thump
I'm a-landing in, Parson! she cried. I want to talk with you!
With that she leaned forward, drove the sweeps deep, and her boat
started in like a skiff. It seemed to Parson Rasba that he had never
seen a more beautiful picture in all his days.
Lester Terabon rowed down the rolling river waters in the dark
night. He had, of course, looked out into the Mississippi shades from
the security of landing, anchorage, and sandbar; he knew the looks of
the night but not the activities of currents and bends when a gale is
sweeping by and the air is, by turns, penetrated by the hissing of
darting whitecaps and the roar of the blustering winds.
He would not from choice have selected a night of gale for a pull
down the Mississippi, and his first sensation as he sought a storm wave
stroke was one of doubt. What dangers might engulf him was not plain,
not the waves, for his skiff bobbed and rocked over them; not river
pirates bent on plunder, for they could not see him; perhaps a snag in
the shallows of a crossing; perhaps the leap of a sawyer, a great tree
trunk with branches fast in the mud and the roots bounding up and down
in the current; perhaps a collision with some other craft.
He had salt-water rowlocks on his boat, open-topped U sockets, and
the oars he used were cased with a foot of black leather and collars of
leather strips; the tips were covered with copper sheets which gave
them weight and balance. At first he pulled awkwardly, catching crabs
in the hollows and backing into the heft of the waves, but after a time
he felt the waves as they came, and the oars feathered and caught.
While he watched ahead and searched the black horizon for the distant
sparkle of government lights, he fell into the swing of his stroke
before he knew it, and he was interested and surprised to observe that
he swayed to the side-wash while he pulled to the rhythm of the waves.
The government lights guided him. He had not paid much attention to
them before; he had seen their white post standards as he dropped down,
day after day, but his skiff, drawing only five inches of water, passed
over the shallowest crossings and along the most gradually sloping
sandbars. Now he must keep to the deep water, follow the majestic
curves and sweeps of the meandering channel, lest he collide with a
boiling eddy, ram the shore line of sunken trees, or climb the point of
It was all a new experience, and its novelty compelled him at times
to pause in his efforts to jot down a few hasty words by light of a
little electric flash to preserve in his memory the sequence of the
constantly varying features of the night, beginning with the curtain of
the shanty-boat which flicked its good luck after him, passing the
bright, clear lights of New Madrid. After leaving far behind their glow
against the thin haze in the night he made the scattered shoals of
Point Pleasant, and hugged down vanishing Ruddles Point, taking a
glimpse of Tiptonvillewhich withdraws year by year from the fatal
caving brink of its sitewishing as he passed that he might return to
that strange place and visit Reelfoot Lake three or four miles beyond,
where the New Madrid earthquakes drowned a forest whose dead stubs rise
as monuments to the tragedy.
In Little Cypress Bend, twenty-five miles below where he had left
the young woman, he heard the splash and thud of a caving bank, and
felt the big rollers from the falling earth twisting and tumbling him
about for a third of a mile.
It was after 1 o'clock when he looked at his watch. He was beginning
to feel the pull on his shoulders, and the crick which constantly
looking over his shoulder to see the lights ahead caused him. The
dulness of his vision, due to inevitable fatigue, compelled him
constantly to sit more alert and dash away the fine spray which whipped
up from the waves. A feeling of listlessness overpowered him. He could
not row on forever, without resting at all. Taking advantage of a
moment of calm in the wind, he pulled the bow around and drifted down
He had lost track of his position; he had not counted the lights,
and now for many miles there was no town distinguishable. He had felt
the loneliness of a mile-breadth; now he wondered whether he was in
Missouri or Arkansas, whether he had come forty miles or eighty, and
after a little he began to worry for fear he might have gone more than
With the wind astern or nearly astern, he knew that he had pulled
four or five miles an hour, and he did not know how fast the current of
the river ran; it might be four miles or eight miles. In ten hours he
might leave more than a hundred miles of river bank behind him.
A new sensation began to possess him: the feeling that he was not
alone. He looked around, while he rested trying to find what proximity
thus affected him. The wind? Those dull banks, seemingly so distant?
Perhaps some fellow traveller? It was none of those things.
It was the river! The feel of the flood was that of a person. He
could not shake off the sensation, which seemed absurd. He shook his
head resolutely and then searched through the gloom to discover what
eyes might be shining in it. He saw the inevitable government lights
between which was deep water and a safe channel. He had but to keep on
the line between the lights, cutting across when he spied another one
far ahead. The lights but accentuated the certainty that on all sides,
but a little way from him, a host of invisible beings speculated on his
presence and influenced his course.
A newspaper man of much experience could not help but protest in his
practical mind against such a determination of the invisible and the
unknown to give him such nonsensical ideas. He had in play, in
intellectual persiflage, and with some show of traditional
reasonableness, called Nelia Crele a river goddess. She was very well
placed in his minda reckless woman, pretty, with a fine character for
a masterpiece of fiction (should he ever get to the story-writing
stage) and a delight to think about; commanding, too, mysterious and
exacting; and now he thought it might be the laughter of her voice that
carried in the wind, not a mocking laugh, nor a jeering one, but one of
sweet encouragement which neither distance nor circumstances could
dismiss from a distressed and reluctant heart, let alone a heart so
willing to receive as his.
Lester Terabon accepted the possibility of river lore and proclaimed
beliefs. Fishermen, store-boaters, trippers, pirates, and all sorts of
the shanty-boaters whom he had interviewed on his way down had solemnly
assured him that there were spirits who promenaded down mid-stream, and
who sometimes could be seen.
Terabon was sorry when his cool, calculating mind refused to believe
his eyes, which saw shapes; his flesh, which felt creeps; his ears,
which heard voices; and his nostrils, which caught a whiff of a faint,
sweet perfume more exquisite than any which he remembered. He knew that
when he had kissed the river goddess whose eyes were blue, whose flesh
was fair, whose grace was lovely, he had tasted that nectar and sniffed
that ambrosia. He wondered if she were near him, watching to see
whether he performed well the task which she had set for him, the
rescue of the husband who had forfeited her love, and yet who still was
under her protection since in his indignant sorrow he had supposed
himself capable of finding and retaining her.
Terabon would have liked nothing better than to believe what the
Grecians used to believe, that goddesses and gods do come down to the
earth to mingle among mankind. He fought the impossibility with his
reason, and night winds laughed at him, while the voices of the waves
chuckled at his predicament. They assailed him with their presence like
living things, and then roared away to give room to new voices and new
Anyhow, Terabon laughed, in spite of himself, you're good
company, Old Mississip'!
Yet he felt the chilling and depressing possibility that he might
never again see that woman who would remain as a river goddess in his
imagination. He had been heart-free, a bystander in the world's
affairs. Now he knew what it was to see the memory of a woman rise
unbidden to disturb his calculations; more than that, too, he was a
part of the affairs of the River People.
As a reporter back home he had never been able quite to reconcile
himself to his constant position as a spectator, a neutral observer,
obliged to write news without feeling and impartially. A politician
could look him in the eye and tell him any smooth lie, and he could
not, with white heat, deny the statement. He could not rise with his
own strength to champion the cause of what he knew to be right against
wrong; he could not elaborate on the details of things that he felt
most interested in, but must consult the fancies of a not-particularly
discriminating public, whose average intelligence, according to some
learned students, must be placed at seventeen-years plus. As he was
twenty-four plus, Terabon was immensely discouraged with the public
when he had set forth down the Mississippi.
Now he was on the way from a river goddess to interfere with the
infamous plans of river pirates, through a dry gale out of the north,
on the winding course of the Mississippi, a transition which troubled
the self-possession while it awakened the spirit of the young man.
Dawn broke on the troubled river, and the prospect was enchanting to
the heroic in the mind of the skiff-tripper. He could not be sure which
was east or west, for the gray light appeared on all sides, in spots
and patches of varying size. No gleam reflected from the yellow clay of
the tumbling and tortured waters. As far as he could see there was
light, but not a bright light. Dull purples, muddy waters, gray tree
trunks, black limbs against dark clouds; Terabon felt the weariness of
a desert, the melancholy of a wet, dripping-tree wilderness, and of a
tumbling waste of waters; and yet never had the solid body of the
stream been so awe-inspiring as in that hour of creeping and
He ran out into the main river again, and a wonderful prospect
opened before his eyes. Sandbars spread out for miles across the river
and lengthwise of the river; the bulk of the stream seemed broken up
into channels and chutes and wandering waterways. He saw column after
column of lines of spiles, like black teeth, through which the water
broke with protesting foam.
When he thought to reckon up, as he passed Osceola Bar, he found
that he had come ninety-five miles. Yankee Bar was only five or six
miles below him, and he eagerly pulled down to inspect the long
beaches, the chutes and channels, which the river pirates had used for
not less than 150 years; where they still had their rendezvous.
Wild ducks and geese were there in many flocks. There were waters
sheltered from the wind by willow patches. The woods of Plum Point
Peninsula were heavy and dark. The river main current slashed down the
miles upon miles of Craighead Point, and shot across to impinge upon
Chickasaw Bluffs No. 1, where a made dirt bank was silhouetted against
Not until his binoculars rested upon the bar at the foot of Fort
Pillow Bluff did Terabon's eyes discover any human beings, and then he
saw a white houseboat with a red hull. He headed toward it to ask the
familiar river question.
No, suh! the lank, sharp-eyed fisherman shook his head. Theh's no
motorboat landed up theh, not this week. Who all mout you be?
Lester Terabon; I'm a newspaper writer; I live in New York; I came
down the Mississippi looking for things to tell about in the
newspapers. You see, lots of people hardly know there's a Mississippi
River, and it's the most interesting place I ever heard of.
Terabon? I expect you all's the feller Whiskey Williams was tellin'
about; yo'n a feller name of Carline was up by No. 8. He said yo' had
one of them writin' machines right into a skift. Sho! An' yo' have! The
woman an' me'd jes' love to see yo' all use hit.
You'll see me, Terabon laughed, if you'll let me sit by your
stove. I've some writing I could do. Here's a goose for dinner, too.
Sho! The woman shore will love to cook that goose! I'm a fisherman
but no hunter. 'Tain't of'en we git a roast bird!
So Terabon sat by the stove, writing. He wrote for more than an
houreverything he could remember, with the aid of his pencilled
midnight notes, about that long run down. With his maps before him he
recognized the bends and reaches, the sandbars and islands which had
loomed up in the dark. Of all the parts of the river, the hundred miles
from Island No. 10 down to Fort Pillow became the most familiar to his
thoughts, black though the night had been. Even each government light
began to have characteristics, and the sky-line of levee, wilderness,
sandbar, and caving bank grew more and more defined.
Having written his notes, and Jeff Slamey having fingered the nine
loose-leaf sheets with exclamatory interest and delight, Terabon said
he must go rest awhile.
Yas, suh, the fisherman cried, when a man's pulled a hundred mile
he shore needs sleep. When the woman's got that goose cooked, I bet
yo'll be ready to eat, too.
So Terabon turned in to sleep. He was awakened at last by the
sizzling of a goose getting its final basting. He started up, and
Hit's ready. I bet yo' feel betteh, now; six hours asleep!
It didn't seem like six minutes of dreamless recreation.
With night the wind fell. The flood of sunset brilliance spread down
the radiant sandbars and the bright waterways. The trees were plated
with silver and gold, and the sweep of the caving bend was a dark
shadow against which the river current swept with ceaseless attack.
For hours that night Terabon amused his host with his adventures,
except that he made but most casual mention of the woman whom Carline
was seeking. He was cautious, too, about the motorboat and the
companion who had taken Carline down the river, till Slamey burst out:
I know that feller. He's a bad man; he's a river rat. If he don't
kill Gus Carline, I don't know these yeah riveh fellers. They use down
thisaway every winter. I know; I know them all. I leave them alone, an'
they leave me alone. I knew they was comin'. They got three four boats
now. One feller, name of Prebolhe's bad, toowas shot by a lady
above Cairo. He's with a coupla gamblers to Caruthersville now.
Everybody stops yeah; I know everybody; everybody knows me.
The next day was calm all day long, and Terabon went up the bank to
shoot squirrels or other woods game; he went almost up to the Plum
Point, killed several head of game, and rejoiced in the bayous and
sloughs and chutes of a changing land.
The following morning he was hailed by Slamey:
Hii, Terabon! Theh's a shanty-boat up the head of Flower Island
Bar jes' drappin' in. They've floated down all night!
Through his glasses Terabon saw two men walking a shanty-boat across
the dead water below Yankee Lower Bar to the mainland.
They were too far away for him to distinguish their personalities,
but one was a tall, active man, the other obviously chunky, and when
they ran their lines out and made fast to half-buried snags, it was
with the quick decision of men used to work against currents and to
unison of effort. There was something suggestive in their bearing,
their scrutiny up and down the river, their standing close to each
other as they talked. If Terabon had not suspected them of being
pirates, their attitude and actions would have betrayed them.
Terabon, after a little while, pulled up the eddy toward them; he
was willing to take a long chance. Few men resent a newspaper man's
presence. The worst of them like to put themselves, their ideas, right
with the world. Terabon risked their knavery to win their approbation.
Come what might, he would seek to save Augustus Carline from the
consequences of his ignorance, money, folly, and remorse.
The flow of the Mississippi River is down streama perfectly absurd
and trite statement at first thought. On second thought, one reverts to
the people who are always trying to fight their way up that adverse
current, with the thrust of two miles perpendicular descent and the
body of a thousand storms in its rush.
There are steamers which endeavour to stem the current, but they
make scant headway; sometimes a fugitive afraid of the rails will pull
up stream; the birds do fly with the spring winds against the retreat
of winter; but all these things are trifles, and merely accentuate the
fact that everything goes down.
The sandbars are not fixed, they are literally rivers of sand
flowing down, tormenting the current, and keeping human beings
speculating on their probable course and the effect, when after a few
years on a point, they disappear under the water. Later they will lunge
up and out into the wind again, gallumphing along, some coarse gravel
bars, some yellow sand, some white sand, some fine quicksand, some
gritty mud, and others of mud almost fit to use in polishing silver.
Thousands of people in shanty-boats, skiff's, fancy little yachts,
and jon-boats, rag-shacks on rafts, and serviceable cruisers drift down
with the flood, and are a part of it.
Autumn was passing; most of the birds had speeded south when the
wild geese brought the alarm that a cold norther was coming. When the
storm had gone by, shanty-boaters, having shivered with the cold,
determined not to be caught again. The sunshine of the evening, when
the wind died, saw boats drifting out for the all-night run. Dawn, calm
and serene, found boats moving out into mid-channel more or less in
So they floated down, sometimes within a few hundred feet of other
boats, sometimes in merry fleets tied together by ropes and common
joyousness, sometimes alone in the midst of the vacant waters. The
migration of the shanty-boaters was watched with mingled hate, envy,
and admiration by Up-the-Bank folks, who pretend to despise those who
live as they please.
And Nelia Carline pulled out into the current and followed her river
friend, Lester Terabon, who had gone on ahead to save her husband from
the river pirates. She despised her husband more as she let her mind
dwell on the man who had shown no common frailties while he did enjoy a
comradeship which included the charm of a pretty woman, recognizing her
equality, and not permitting her to forget for a moment that he knew
she was lovely, as well as intelligent.
She had not noticed that fact so much at the time, as afterward,
when she subjected him to the merciless scrutiny of a woman who has
heretofore discovered in men only depravity, ignorance, selfishness, or
brutality. Her first thought had been to use Terabon, play with him,
and, if she could, hurt him. She knew that there were men who go about
plaguing women, and as she subjected herself to grim analysis, she
realized that in her disappointment and humiliation she would have
hurt, while she hated, men.
The long hours down the river, in pleasant sunshine, with only an
occasional stroke of the oar to set the boat around broadside to the
current, enabled her to sit on the bow of her boat and have it out with
herself. She had never had time to think. Things crowded her
Up-the-Bank. Now she had all the time in the world, and she used that
time. She brought out her familiar books and compared the masters with
her own mind. She could do itthere.
Ruskin, Carlyle, Old Mississip', Plato, Plutarch, Thoreau, the
Bible, Shelley, Byron, and I, all together, dropping down, she
chuckled, catching her breath. I'm tripping down in that company. And
there's Terabon. He's a good sport, too, and he'll be better when
I'vewhen I've caught him.
Terabon was just a raw young man as regards women. He might flatter
himself that he knew her sex, and that he could maintain a pose of
writing her into his notebooks, but she knew. She had seen stunned and
helpless youth as she brought into play those subtle arts which had
wrenched from his reluctant and fearful soul the kiss which he thought
he had asked for, and the phrase of the river goddess, which he thought
he had invented. She laughed, for she had realized, as she acted, that
he would put into words the subtle name for which she had played.
It all seemed so easy now that she considered the sequence of her
inspired moves. Drifting near another shanty-boat, she passed the time
of day with a runaway couple who had come down the Ohio. They had
dinner together on their boat. A solitaire and an unscarred wedding
ring attested to the respectability of the association.
Larry's a river drifter, the girl explained, and Daddy's one of
those set old fellows who hate the river. But Mamma knew it was all
right. Larry's saved $7,000 in three years. He'd never tell me that
till I married him, but I knew. We're going clear down to N'Orleans.
And all alonearen't you afraid?
Oh, I'll be all right, won't I? She looked at the stern-featured
If you can shoot and don't care, Larry replied without a smile.
I can shoot, Nelia said, showing her pistol.
That's river Law! Larry cried, smiling. That's Law. You came out
the Upper River?
Yes, she nodded.
Then I bet the girl-wife started to speak, but stopped,
Yes, Nelia smiled a hard smile. I'm the woman who shot Prebol
above Buffalo IslandI had to.
You did right; men always respect a lady if she don't care who she
shoots, Larry cried, enthusiastically. Wish you'd get my wife to
learn how to shoot. She's gun shy!
So Nelia coaxed the little wife to shoot, first the 22-calibre
repeating rifle and then the pistol. When Nelia had to go down they
parted good friends and Larry thanked her, saying that probably they
would meet down below somewhere.
You'll make Caruthersville, Larry told her. There's a good eddy
on the east side across from the town. There's likely some boats in
there. They'll know, perhaps, if the folks you are looking for are
around. There's an old river man there now, name of Buck. He's a
gambler, but he's all right, and he'll treat you all right. He's from
up in our country, on the Ohio. Hardly anybody knows about him. He was
always a dandy fellow, but he married a woman that wasn't fit to drink
his coffee. She bothered the life out of him, andwell, he squared up.
He gave her to the other fellow with a double-barrelled shotgun.
When Nelia ran down to the gambling boat and found Parson Rasba
there, she enjoyed the idea. Certainly the River Prophet and the river
gambler were an interesting combination. She was not prepared to find
that Buck had taken his departure and that Parson Rasba was converting
the gambling hell into a mission boat. Least of all was she prepared
when Parson Rasba said with an unsteady voice:
Theh's a man sick in that other boat, and likely he'd like to see
Oh, if there's anything I can do! she exclaimed, as a woman does.
He led the way to the brick-red little boat, the like of which could
be found in a thousand river eddies. She followed him on board and over
to the bed. There she looked into the wan countenance and startled eyes
of Jest Prebol.
Hit's Mister Prebol, Rasba said. I know you have no hard feelings
against him, and I know he has none against you, Missy Carline!
An introduction to a contrite river pirate, whom she had shot, for
the moment rendered the young woman speechless. Prebol was less at loss
I'm glad to git to see yo', he said, feebly. If I'd knowed yo', I
shore would have minded my own business. I'm bad, Missy Carline, but I
ain' meannot much. Leastwise, not about women. I reckon the boys
shore will let yo' be now. I made a mistake, an' I 'low to 'pologise to
I wasI was scairt to death, she cried, sitting in a chair. I
was all alone. I was afraidthe river was so big that night. I was so
far away. I should have given you fair warning. I'm sorry, too, Jest.
Lawse! Prebol choked. Say hit thataway ag'in
I'm sorry, too, Jest!
I cayn't thank yo' all enough, the man-whispered. I've got
friends along down the riveh. I'll send word along to them, they'll
shore treat yo' nice. Treat friends of yourn nice, too. Huh!
'Pologizin' to me afteh what I 'lowed to do!
We'll be good friends, Jest. The Prophet here and I are good
friends, too. Aren't we, Parson?
I hearn say, Missy, the Prophet said, slowly, picking his words,
I hearn say you've a power and a heap of book learning! Books on yo'
boat, all kinds. What favoured yo' thataway?
Oh, I read lots! she exclaimed, surprised by the sudden shift of
thought. Somehow, I've read lots!
In my house I had a Bible, an almanac, and the 'Resources of
Tennessee,' Yo' have that many books?
Why, I've a hundredmore than a hundred books! she answered.
Would you mind, Missy, comin' on board this boat to-night, an'
tellin' us about these books you have? I'm not educated; my daddy an' I
read the Bible, an' tried to understand hit. Seems like we neveh did
git to know the biggest and bestest of the words.
You had a dictionary?
A dictionary, a book that explains the meaning of all the words!
Ho law! A book that tells what words mean, Missy. Where all kin a
man git to find one of them books?
Why, I've gotI'm hungry, Mr. Rasba, I must get something to
eat. After supper we'll bring some books over here and talk about
My supper is all ready, keeping warm in the oven, Rasba said. I
always cook enough for one more than there is. Yo' know, a vacant chair
at the table for the Stranger.
And I came? she laughed.
An' yo' came, Missy! he replied.
Parson, Prebol pleaded, I'm alone mos' the time. Mout yo' two eat
hyar on my bo't? The tablehit'd be comp'ny.
Certainly we'll come, Nelia promised, if he'd just soon.
I'd rather, Rasba assented, and at his tone Nelia felt a curious
sensation of pity and mischievousness. At the same time, she recovered
her self-possession. She demanded that Rasba let her help him bring
over the supper, add a feminine relish, and set the table with a
daintiness which was an addition to the fascination of her presence.
Gaily she fed Prebol the delicate things which he was permitted to eat,
then sat down with Rasba, her face to the light, and Prebol could watch
her bantering, teasing, teaching Parson Rasba things he had never known
After supper she brought over a basket full of books, twenty
volumes. She dumped them onto the table, leather, cloth, and board
covers, of red, blue, gray, brown, and other gay colours. Parson Rasba
had seen government documents and even some magazines with picture
covers, but in the mountains where he had ridden his Big Circuit with
such a disastrous end he had never seen such books. He hesitated to
touch one; he cried out when three or four slipped off the pile onto
Missy, won't they git muddied up!
They're to read! she told him. Listen, and she began to
readpoetry, prose at random.
The Prophet did not know, he had never been trained to knowas few
men ever are trainedhow to combat feminine malice and spoiled power.
He listened, but not with averted eyes. Prebol, himself a spectator at
a scene different from any he had ever witnessed, was still enough more
sophisticated to know what she was doing, and he was delighted.
By and by the injured man drifted into slumber, but Rasba gave no
sign of flagging interest, no traces of a mind astray from the subject
at hand. He felt that he must make the most of this revelation, which
came after the countless revelations which he had had since arriving
down the river. There was a fear clutching at his heart that it might
end; that in a moment this woman might depart and leave him
unenlightened, and unable ever to find for himself the unimaginable
world of words which she plucked out of those books and pinned into the
great vacant spaces of his mind which he had kept empty all these
yearsnot knowing that he was waiting for this night, when he should
have the Mississippi bring into his eddy, alongside his own mission
boat, what he most needed.
He sat there, a great, pathetic figure, shaggy, his heart thumping,
taking from this trim, neat, beautiful woman the riches which she so
casually, almost wantonly, threw to him in passing.
The corridors of his mind echoed to the tread of hosts; he heard the
rumblings of history, the songs of poets whose words are pitched to the
music of the skies, and he hung word pictures which Ruskin had painted
in his imagination.
Fate had waited long to give him this night. It had waited till the
man was ready, then with a lavish hand the storehouses of the master
intellects of the world were opened to him, for him to help himself.
Nelia suddenly started up from her chair and looked around, herself the
victim of her own raillery, which had grown to be an understanding of
the pathetic hunger of the man for these things.
It was daylight, and the flood of the sunrise was at hand.
Parson, she said, do you like these thingsthese books?
Missy, he whispered, I could near repeat, word for word, all
those things you've said and read to me to-night.
There are lots more, she laughed. I want to do something for your
mission boat, will you let me?
Lawse! Yo've he'ped me now more'n yo' know!
She smiled the smile that women have had from all the ages, for she
knew a thousand times more than even the Prophet.
I'll give you a set of all these books! she said; all the books
that I have. Not these, my old palsyes, these books, Mr. Rasba. If
you'll take them? I'll get another lot down below.
Lawd God! Give me yo' books!
Oh, they're not expensivethey're
They're yours. Cayn't yo' see? It's your own books, an' hit's fo'
my work. I neveh knowed how good men could be, an' they give me that
boat fo' a mission boat. NownowmissyI cayn't tell yo'I've no
And with gratitude, with the simplicity of a mountain parson, he
dropped on his knees and thanked God. As he told his humility, Prebol
wakened from a deep and restful sleep to listen in amazement.
When at last Rasba looked up Nelia was gone. The books were on the
table and he found another stack heaped up on the deck of the mission
boat. But the woman was gone, and when he looked down the river he saw
something flicker and vanish in the distance.
He stared, hurt; he choked, for a minute, in protest, then carried
that immeasurable treasure into his cabin.
Renn Doss, the false friend, saw the danger of the recognition of
the firearms by Carline. The savage swing of a half pound of fine shot
braided up in a rawhide bag, and a good aim, reduced Carline to an
inert figure of a man. Renn Doss was Hilt Despard, pirate captain,
whose instantaneous action always had served him well in moments of
The three men carried Carline to a bunk and dropped him on it. They
covered him up and emptied a cupful of whiskey on his pillow and
clothes. They even poured a few spoonfuls down his throat. They thus
changed him to what might be called a natural condition.
Then, sitting around the stove, they whispered among themselves,
discussing what they had better do. Half a hundred possibilities
occurred to their fertile fancies and replete memories. Men and women
who have always led sheltered lives can little understand or know what
a pirate must understand and know even to live let alone be successful.
What's Terabon up to? Despard demanded. Here he is, drappin' down
by Fort Pillow Landing, running around. Where's that girl he had up
above New Madrid? What's his game? Coming up here and talking to us?
Asking us all about the river and thingswritin' it for the
That woman's this Carline's wife! Jet sneered.
Sure! An' here's Terabon an' here's Carline. Terabon don't talk
none about that womannor about Carline, Dock grumbled.
I bet Terabon would be sorry none if Carline hyar dropped out. Y'
know she's Old Crele's gal, Jet said. Crele's a good feller. Sent
word down to have us take cyar of her, an' Prebol, the fool, didn't
know 'er, hadn't heard. Look what she give him, bang in the shoulder!
That old Prophet'll take cyar of him, course. See how hit works out.
She shined up to Terabon, all right.
I 'low I better talk to him, Despard suggested. Terabon's a good
sport. He said, you' know, that graftin' and whiskey boatin', an'
robbin' the bank wa'n't none of his business. He said, course, he could
write it down in his notes, but without names, 'count of somebody might
read somethin' in them an' get some good friend of his in Dutch. He
said it wouldn't be right for him to know about somebody robbin' a
commissary, or a bank, or killin' somebody, because if somebody like a
sheriff or detective got onto it, they might blame him, or somethin'.
I like that Terabon! Jet declared. Y'see how he is. He says he's
satisfied, makin' a fair living, gettin' notes so's he can write them
magazine stories, an' if he was to try to rob the banks, he'd have to
learn how, same's writin' for newspapers. An' probably he wouldn't have
the nerve to do it really, 'count of his maw and paw bein' the kind
they was. He told me hisself that they made him go to Sunday school
when he was a kid, an' things like that spoil a man for graftin'.
Stands to reason, all right, the way he talks. I like him; he knows
enough to mind his own business.
He's comin' up to-night to go after geese on the bar. We'll talk to
him. He'll look that business over, level-headed. That motorboat any
Nothin' extra. He's got ready money, though, I forgot that,
Despard grinned, walking over to the hapless victim of his black-jack
The three divided nearly thirteen hundred dollars among them. The
money made them good humoured and they had some compassion for their
prisoner. One of them noticed that a skiff was coming up from Fort
Pillow Landing, and fifteen minutes later Terabon was talking to
Despard on the snag to one prong of which was fastened the line of
I was wondering where I'd see you again, Terabon said. Didn't
have a chance at New Madrid, saw you was in business, so I didn't
follow up none.
I was wondering if you had a line on that, Despard said,
doubtfully. Y'know that woman you was staying with up on Island Ten
Bar? Well, we got her man in here full's a fish. Lookin' for his woman,
an' he's no good. Fell off the cabin, hit a spark in the back of the
head when the water sucked when that steamboat went by this morning.
He'd ought to go down to Memphis hospital, butWell, we can't take
'im. You know how that is.
Be glad to help you boys out any way I can, Terabon said. I'll
run him down.
Say, would you? We don't want him on our hands, the pirate
explained. We'd get to see you down b'low some'rs.
Sure, I would, Terabon exclaimed. Fact is, the woman said it'd be
a favour to her, too, if I'd get him home. She'll be dropping down
likely. Darn nice girl, but quick tempered.
That's right; quick ain't no name for it. She plugged a friend of
mine up by Buffalo Island
Prebol? I heard about him. She was scairt.
She needn't be, never again! Despard grinned. When a lady can
handle a river Law like she does, us bad uns are real nice!
Terabon laughed, and the two went into the cabin-boat where Carline
lay on the bunk. Terabon ran his hand around the man's head and neck,
found the lump near the base of the skull, found that the neck wasn't
broken, and made sure that the heart was beatingthings a reporter
naturally learns to do in police-station and hospital experience.
Jet brought the motorboat down to the stern of the cabin-boat, and
the four carried Carline on board. They put him in his bunk, and
Terabon, his skiff towing astern, steered out into the main current and
soon faded down by Craighead Point Bar.
I knowed he'd be all right, Despard declared. He'll take him down
to Memphis, and out of our way. I'd 'a' hated to kill him; it ain't no
use killin' a man less'n it's necessary. We got what we was after.
Course, if we'd rewarded him, likely we'd got a lot, but it ain't safe,
holdin' a man for rewards ain't.
That boat'd been a good one to travel in, Jet suggested.
Everybody'd knowed it was Carline's, an' it wa'n't worth fixing
over. Hull not much good, and the motor's been abused some. We'll do
They had rid themselves of an incumbrance. They had made an
acquaintance who was making himself useful. They were considerably
richer than they had been for some time.
I'd like to drap into Mendova, Jet mused. We ain't had what you'd
call a time
Let's kill some birds first, Gaspard suggested. I got a hunch
that Yankee Bar's a good bet for us for a little while. We dassn't look
into Memphis, 'count of last trip down. Mendova's all right, but
wait'll we've hunted Yankee Bar.
The money burned in their pockets, but as they stood looking out at
the long, beautiful Yankee Bar its appeal went home. For more than a
hundred years generations of pirates had used there, and no one knows
how many tragedies have left their stain in the great band around from
Gold Dust Landing to Chickasaw Bluffs No. 1.
After dark they rowed over to the point and put out their decoys,
dug their pits, screened them, and brushed over their tracks in the
sand. Then they played cards till midnight, turned in for a little
sleep, and turned out again in the black morning to go to their places
with repeating shotguns and cripple-killer rifles in their hands.
When they were in their places, and the river silence prevailed,
they saw the stars overhead, the reflections on sand and water around
them, and the quivering change as air currents moved in the darkthe
things that walk in the night. They heard, at intervals, many voices.
Some they knew as the fluent music of migrant geese flying over on long
laps of their fall flight, but some they did not know, except that they
were river voices.
Ducks flew by no higher than the tops of the willow trees up the
bar, their wings whistling and their voices eager in the dark. The
lurkers saw these birds darting by like black streaks, tempting vain
shots, but they were old hunters, and knew they wanted at least a
little light. Over on the mainland they heard the noises of wilderness
animals, and away off yonder a mule's he-haw reverberated through the
bottoms and over bars and river.
For these things, if the pirates had only known it, they found the
world endurable. Each in his own pit, given over to his own thoughts,
they thrilled to the joy of living. All they wanted, really, was this
kind of thing; hunting in fall and winter, fishing in the summer, and
occasional visits to town for another kind of thrill, another sort of
excitement. But their boyhood had been passed in privation, their youth
amid temptations of appetite and vice, and now they were hopelessly
mixed as to what they liked, what they didn't like, what the world
would do for them, and what they would do to the world. Weaklings,
uneducated, without balance; habit-ridden, yet with all that miserable
inheritance from the world, they waited there rigid, motionless, their
hearts thrilling to the increasing music of the march of dawn across
the bottoms of the Mississippi.
False dawn flushed and faded almost like a deliberate lightning
flash. Then dawn appeared, marking down the gray lines of the
wilderness trees with one stroke, sweeping out all the stars with
another brush, revealing the flocks of birds glistening against the sky
while yet the earth was in shade. The watchers spied a score of birds,
great geese far to the northward, coming right in line with them. They
waited for a few secondsages long. Then one of the men cried:
They're stoopin', boys! They're comin'!
The wild geese, coming down a magnificent slant from a mile height,
headed straight for Yankee Bar. Will birds never learn? They ploughed
down with their wings folding, and poised. Their voices grew louder and
louder as they approached.
With a hissing roar of their wings they pounded down out of the
great, safe heights and circled around and inward. With a shout the
three men started up through their masks and with levelled guns opened
Too late the old gander at the point of the V began to climb; too
late the older birds in the point screamed and gathered their strength.
The river men turned their black muzzles against the necks of the young
tail birds of the feathered procession and brought them tumbling down
out of the line to the ground, where on the hard sand two of them split
their breasts and exposed thick layers of fat dripping with oil.
The cries of the fleeing birds, the echoes of the barking guns, died
away. The men shouted their joy in their success, gathered up their
victims, scurried pack to cover, brushing over their tracks, and
crouched down again, to await another flock.
Hunger drove them to their cabin-boat within an hour. They had
thought they wanted to get some more birds, but in fact they knew they
had enough. They went over to their boat, cooked up a big breakfast,
and sat around the fire smoking and talking it over. They chattered
like boys. They were gleeful, innocent, harmless! But only for a time.
Then the hunted feeling returned to them. Once more they had a back
track to watch and ambushes to be wary of. They wanted to go to
Mendova, but again they didn't want to go there. They didn't know but
what Mendova might be watching for them, the same as Memphis was.
Certainly, they determined, they must go to Mendova after dark, and see
a friend who would put them wise to actual conditions around town.
They took catnaps, having had too little sleep, and yet they could
not sleep deeply. They watched the shanty-boats which dropped down the
river at intervals, most of them in the main current close to the far
bank, and often hardly visible against the mottled background of caving
earth, fallen trees, and flickering mirage. Their restlessness was
silent, morose, and one of them was always on the lookout.
Despard himself was on watch in the afternoon. He sat just inside
the kitchen door, out of the sunshine, in a comfortable rocking chair.
Two windows and the stern door gave him a wide view of the river,
sandbars and eddy. It seemed but a minute, but he had fallen into a
doze, when the splash of a shanty-boat sweeps awakened all the crew
with a sudden, frightened start. Whispers, hardly audible, hailed in
alarm. The three, crouching in involuntary doubt and dismay, glared at
It was a woman drifting in. Apparently she intended to land there,
and the three men stared at her.
His wife! Despard said with soundless lips. The others nodded
Mrs. Carline had run into the great dead eddy at the foot of Yankee
Lower Bar, turned up in the slow reverse eddy of the chute, and was
coming by their boat at the slowest possible speed.
Despard pulled his soft shirt collar, straightened his tie, hitched
his suspenders, put on his coat, walked out on the stern deck, and,
after a glance around, seemed suddenly to discover the stranger.
Howdy! he nodded, touching his cap respectfully, and gazing with
flickering eyes at the woman whose marksmanship entitled her to the
Howdy! she nodded, scrutinizing him with level eyes. Where am I?
Yankee Bar. Them's Chickasaw Bluffs No. 1.
Do you know Jest Prebol?
Yessum. Despard's head bobbed in alarmed, unwilling assent.
I thought perhaps you'd like to know that he's getting along all
I bet he learnt his lesson, Despard grimaced.
What? I don't just understand.
About bein' impudent to a lady that can shootstraight!
A flicker moved the woman's countenance, and she smiled, oddly.
Oh, any one is likely to make mistakes!
Darn fools is, Miss Crele. And you Old Crele's girl! He might of
The other two stepped out to help enjoy the conversation and the
You know me? she demanded.
Yessum, we shore do. My name's DespardJet here and Cope.
She acknowledged the introductions.
I've friends down here, she said, with a little catch of her
breath. I was wondering if youany of you gentlemen had seen them?
Your man, Gus Carline an' that writin' feller, Terabon? Jet asked,
without delicacy. Her cheeks flamed.
Yes! she whispered.
Terabon took him down to Mendova or Memphis, Despard said.
Carline waswas on the cabin and the boat lurched when the steamboat
passing drawed. He drapped over and hit a spark plug on the head!
Was he badly hurt?
Not muchkind of a lump, that's all.
She looked down at Fort Pillow Bluff. The pirates awaited her
pleasure, staring at her to their heart's content. They envied her
husband and Terabon; they felt the strangeness of the situation. She
was following those two men down. She was part of the river tide,
drifting by; she had shot Prebol, their pal, and had cleverly
ascertained their knowledge of him while insuring that they had fair
Her boat drifted down till it was opposite them, and then, with
quick decision, she caught up a handy line, and said:
I'm going to tie in a little while. I've been alone clear down from
Caruthersville; I want to talk to somebody!
She threw the rope, and they caught and made it fast. They swung her
boat in, ran a plank from stern to bow, and Despard gave her his hand.
She came on board, and they sat on the stern deck to talk. Only one
kind of woman could have done that with safety, but she was that kind.
She had shot a man down for a look.
The three pirates took one of the fat young geese, plucked and
dressed it, and baked it in a hot oven, with dressing, sweet potatoes,
hot-bread, and a pudding which she mixed up herself.
For three hours they gossiped, and before she knew it, she had told
them about Prebol, about Parson Rasba introducing them. The pirates
shouted when she told of Jest's apology. With river frankness, they
said they thought a heap of Terabon, who minded his own business so
I like him, too, she admitted. I was afraid you boys might make
trouble for Carline, though. He don't know much about people, treating
He's one of those ignorant Up-the-Bankers, Despard said.
Oh, I know him. She shrugged her shoulders a little bitterly.
As they ate the goose in camaraderie, the pirates took to warning
and advising her about the Lower River; they told her who would treat
her right, and who wouldn't. They especially warned her against
stopping anywhere near Island 37.
They're bad thereand mean. Despard shook his head, gravely.
I won't stop in there, Nelia promised. River folks anybody can
get along with, but those Up-the-Bankers!
Hit's seo, Jet cried. They don't have no feelings for nobody.
You'll be dropping on down? Nelia asked.
D'rectly! Cope admitted. We 'lowed we'd stop into Mendova. You
stop in there an' see Palura; he'll treat you right. He was in the
riveh hisse'f once. You talk to him
What did Terabon and Mr. Carline go on in? What kind of a boat?
A gasolene cruiser.
Did he say where he'd be?
Terabon? No. Ask into Mendova or into Memphis. They can likely
Thank you, boys! I'm awful glad you've no hard feelings on account
of my shooting your partner; I couldn't know what good fellows you are.
We'll see you later.
Her smile bewitched them; she went aboard her boat, pulled over into
the main current, and floated away in the sunsether favourite river
After hours of argument, debate, doubts, they, too, pulled out and
floated past Fort Pillow.
Parson Rasba piled the books on the crap table in his cabin and
stood them in rows with their lettered backs up. He read their titles,
which were fascinating: Arabian Nights, Representative Men,
Plutarch's Lives, Modern Painters, Romany Ryea name that made
him shudder, for it meant some terrible kind of whiskey to his
mindLavengro, a foreign thing, Thesaurus of English Words and
Phrases, The Stem Dictionary, Working Principles of Rhetoriche
wondered what rhetoric meantThe Fur Buyers' Guide, Stones of
Venice, The French Revolution, Sartor Resartus, Poe's Works,
Balzac's Tales, and scores of other titles.
All at once the Mississippi had brought down to him these treasures
and a fair woman with blue eyes and a smile of understanding and
sympathy, who had handed them to him, saying:
I want to do something for your mission boat; will you let me?
No fairyland, no enchantment, no translation from poverty and sorrow
to a realm of wealth and happiness could have caught the soul of the
Prophet Rasba as this revelation of unimagined, undreamed-of riches as
he plucked the fruits of learning and enjoyed their luxuries. He had
descended in his humility to the last, least task for which he felt
himself worthy. He had humbly been grateful for even that one thing
left for him to do: find Jock Drones for his mother.
He had found Jock, and there had been no wrestling with an obdurate
spirit to send him back home, like a man, to face the law and accept
the penalty. There had been nothing to it. Jock had seen the light
instantly, and with relief. His partner had also turned back after a
decade of doubt and misery, to live a man's part back home. The two
of them had handed him a floating Bethel, turning their gambling hell
over to him as though it were a night's lodging, or a snack, or a
handful of hickory nuts. The temple of his fathers had been no better
for its purpose than this beautiful, floating boat.
Then a woman had come floating down, a beautiful strange woman whose
voice had clutched at his heart, whose smile had deprived him of
reason, whose eyes had searched his soul. With tears on her lashes she
had flung to him that treasure-store of learning, and gone on her way,
leaving him strength and consolation.
He left his treasure and went out to look at the river. Everybody
leaves everything to look at the river! There is nothing in the world
that will prevent it. He saw, in the bright morning, that Prebol had
raised his curtain, and was looking at the river, too, though the
effort must have caused excruciating pain in his wounded shoulder. Day
was growing; from end to end of that vast, flowing sheet of water
thousands upon thousands of old river people were taking a look at the
Rasba carried a good broth over to Prebol for breakfast, and then
returned to his cabin, having made Prebol comfortable and put a dozen
of the wonderful books within his reach. Then the River Prophet sat
down to read his treasures, any and all of them, his lap piled up,
three or four books in one hand and trying to turn the pages of another
in his other hand by unskilful manipulation of his thumb. He was
literally starving for the contents of those books.
He was afraid that his treasure would escape from him; he kept
glancing from his printed page to the serried ranks on the crap table,
and his hands unconsciously felt around to make sure that the weight on
his lap and in his grasp was substantial and real, and not a dream or
vision of delight.
He forgot to eat; he forgot that he had not slept; he sat oblivious
of time and river, the past or the future; he grappled with pages of
print, with broadsides of pictures, with new and thrilling words, with
sentences like hammer blows, with paragraphs that marched like music,
with thoughts that had the gay abandon of a bird in song. And the
things he learned!
When night fell he was dismayed by his weariness, and could not
understand it. For a little while he ransacked his dulled wits to find
the explanation, and when he had fixed Prebol for the night, with
medicine, water, and a lamp handy to matches, he told the patient:
Seems like the gimp's kind of took out of me. My eyes are sore, an'
I doubt am I quite well.
Likely yo' didn't sleep well, Prebol suggested. A man cayn't
sleep days if he ain't used to hit.
Sleep days? Rasba looked wildly about him.
Sho! When did I git to sleep, why, I ain't sleptILawse!
Prebol laughed aloud.
Yo' see, Parson, yo' all cayn't set up all night with a pretty gal
an' not sleep hit off. Yo' shore'll git tired, sportin' aroun'.
Sho! Rasba snapped, and then a smile broke across his countenance.
He cried out with laughter, and admitted: Hit's seo, Prebol! I neveh
set up with a gal befo' I come down the riveh. Lawse! I plumb forgot.
I don't wonder, Prebol replied, gravely. She'd make any man
forget. She sung me to sleep, an' I slept like I neveh slept befo'.
Rasba went on board his boat and, after a light supper, turned in.
For a minute he saw in retrospect the most wonderful day in his life, a
day which a kindly Providence had drawn through thirty or forty hours
of unforgettable exaltation. Then he settled into the blank, deep sleep
of a soul at peace and at rest.
When in the full tide of the sunshine he awakened, he went about his
menial tasks, attending Prebol, cleaning out the boats, shaking up the
beds, hanging the bedclothes to air in the sun, and getting breakfast.
On Prebol's suggestion he moved the fleet of boats out into the eddy,
for the river was falling and they might ground. He went over to
Caruthersville and bought some supplies, brought Doctor Grell over to
examine the patient to make sure all was well, killed several squirrels
and three ducks back in the brakes, and, all the while, thought what
duties he should enter upon.
Doctor Grell advised that Prebol go down to Memphis, to the
hospital, so as to have an X-ray examination, and any special treatment
which might be necessary. The wound was healing nicely, but it would be
better to make sure.
Rasba took counsel of Prebol. The river man knew the needs of the
occasion, and he agreed that he had better drop down to Memphis or
Mendova, preferring the latter place, for he knew people there. He told
Rasba to line the two small shanty-boats beside the big mission boat,
and fend them off with wood chunks. The skiffs could float on lines
alongside or at the stern. The power boat could tow the fleet out into
the current, and hold it off sandbars or flank the bends.
Rasba did as he was bid, and lashed the boats together with mooring
lines, pin-head to towing bits, and side to side. Then he floated the
boats all on one anchor line, and ran the launch up to the bow. He
hoisted in the anchor, rowed in a skiff out to the motorboat, and swung
wide in the eddy to run out to the river current. There was a good deal
of work to the task, and it was afternoon before the fleet reached the
Then Rasba cast off his tow lines, ran the launch back to the fleet,
and made it fast to the port bow of the big boat, so that it was part
of the fleet, with its power available to shove ahead or astern. A big
oar on the mission boat's bow and another one out from Prebol's boat
insured a short turn if it should be necessary to swing the boats
around either way.
Rasba carried Prebol on his cot up to the bow of the big boat, and
put him down where he could help watch the river, and they cast off.
Prebol knew the bends and reaches, and named most of the landings; they
gossiped about the people and the places. Prebol told how river rats
sometimes stole hogs or cattle for food, and Rasba learned for the
first time of organized piracy, of river men who were banded together
for stealing what they could, raiding river towns, attacking sports,
tripping the river, and even more desperate enterprises.
While he talked, Prebol slyly watched his listener and thought for a
long time that Rasba was merely dumbfounded by the atrocities, but at
last the Prophet grinned:
An' yo's a riveh rat. Ho law!
Why, I didn't say Prebol began, but his words faltered.
Yo' know right smart about such things, Rasba reminded him. I
'low hit were about time somebody shot yo' easy, so's to give yo'
repentance a chance to catch up with yo' wickedness. Don't yo'?
Prebol glared at the accusation, but Rasba pretended not to notice.
Yo' see, Prebol, this world is jes' the hounds a-chasin' the
rabbits, er the rabbits a-gittin' out the way. The good that's into a
man keeps a-runnin', to git shut of the sin that's in him, an' theh's a
heap of wrestlin' when one an' tother catches holt an' fights.
Hit's seo! Prebol admitted, reluctantly. He didn't have much use
for religious arguments. I wisht yo'd read them books to me, Parson. I
ain't neveh had much eddycation. I'll watch the riveh, an' warn ye,
'gin we make the crossin's.
Nothing suited them better. Rasba read aloud, stabbing each word
with his finger while he sought the range and rhythm of the sentences,
and, as they happened to strike a book of fables, their minds could
grasp the stories and the morals at least sufficiently to entertain and
hold their attention.
Prebol said, warningly, after a time:
Betteh hit that sweep a lick, Parson, she's a-swingin' in onto that
A few leisurely strokes, the boats drifted away into deep water, and
Rasba expressed his admiration.
Sho, Prebol! Yo' seen that bar a mile up. We'd run down onto hit.
Yas, suh, the wounded man grinned. Three-four licks on the oars
up theh, and down yeah yo' save pullin' yo' livin' daylights out, to
keep from goin' onto a sandbar or into a dryin'-up chute.
How's that? Rasba cocked his ear. Say hit ovehslow!
Why, if yo's into the set of the current up theh, hit ain't strong;
yo' jes' give two-three licks an' yo' send out clear. Down theh on the
bar she draws yo' right into shallow water, an' yo' hang up.
Rasba looked up the river; he looked down at the nearing sandbar,
and as they passed the rippling head in safety he turned a grave face
toward the pilot.
Up theh, theh wasn't much suck to hit, but down yeah, afteh yo've
drawed into the current, theh's a strong drag an' bad shoals?
Hit's easy to git shut of sin, away long in the beginnin', Rasba
bit his words out, but when yo' git a long ways down into hitHo
Prebol started, caught by surprise. Then both laughed together. They
could understand each other better and if Prebol felt himself being
drawn in spite of his own reluctance by a new current in his life,
Rasba did not fail to gratify the river man's pride by turning always
to him for advice about the river, its currents and its jeopardies.
I've tripped down with all kinds, Prebol grinned as he spoke, but
this yeah's the firstest time I eveh did get to pilot a mission boat.
If you take it through in safety, do yo' reckon God will forget?
Rasba asked, and Prebol's jaw dropped. He didn't want to be reformed;
he had no use for religion. He was very well satisfied with his own way
of living. He objected to being prayed over and the good of his soul
inquired intobut this Parson Rasba was making the idea interesting.
They anchored for the night in the eddy at the head of Needham's
Cut-Off Bar, and Prebol was soon asleep, but Rasba sat under the big
lamp and read. He could read with continuity now; dread that the dream
would vanish no longer afflicted him. He could read a book without
having more than two or three other books in his lap.
Sometimes it was almost as though Nelia were speaking the very words
he read; sometimes he seemed to catch her frown of disapproval. The
books, more precious than any other treasure could have been, seemed
living things because she had owned them, because her pencil had marked
them, and because she had given them all to his service, to fill the
barren and hungry places in the long-empty halls of his mind.
He would stop his reading to think, and thinking, he would take up a
book to discover better how to think. He found that his reading and
thinking worked together for his own information.
He was musing, his mind enjoying the novelty of so many different
images and ideas and facts, when something trickled among his senses
and stirred his consciousness into alert expectancy. For a little he
was curious, and then touched by dismay, for it was music which had
roused himmusic out of the black river night. People about to die
sometimes hear music, and Parson Rasba unconsciously braced himself for
It grew louder, however, more distinct, and the sound was too gay
and lively to fit in with his dreams of a heavenly choir. He caught the
shout of a human voice and he knew that dancers were somewhere, perhaps
dancers damned to eternal mirth. He went out on the deck and closed the
door on the light behind him; at first he could see nothing but black
night. A little later he discovered boats coming down the river, eight
or nine gleaming windows, and a swinging light hung on a flag staff or
As they drew nearer, someone shouted across the night:
Goo-o-o-d wa-a-a-ter thar?
Ya-s-su-uh! Rasba called back.
Where'll we come in?
Anywhere's b'low me fo' a hundred yards!
Three or four sweeps began to beat the water, and a whole fleet of
shanty-boats drifted in slowly. They began to turn like a wheel as part
of them ran into the eddy while the current carried the others down,
but old river men were at the sweeps, and one of them called the
Raunch 'er, boys! Raunch 'er! Raunchin's what she needs!
They floated out of the current into the slow reverse eddy, and
coming up close to Rasba's fleet, talked back and forth with him till a
gleam of light through a window struck him clearly out of the dark.
Hue-e-e! a shrill woman's voice laughed. Hit's Rasba, the Riveh
Prophet Rasba! Did yo' all git to catch Nelia Crele, Parson?
Did I git to catch Missy Crele! he repeated, dazed.
When yo' drapped out'n Wolf Island Chute, Parson, that night she
pulled out alone?
No'm; I lost her down by the Sucks, but she drapped in by
Caruthersville an' give me books an' booksall fo' my mission boat!
That big boat yourn?
Where all was hit built?
I don' remembeh, but Buck done give hit to me, him an' Jock
Hi-i-i! Yo' all found the man yo' come a-lookin' fo'. Ho law!
Hit's the Riveh Prophet, someone replied to a hail from within,
the dance ending.
A crowd came tumbling out onto the deck of the big boat of the dance
hall, everyone talking, laughing, catching their breaths.
Hi-i! Likely he'll preach to-morrow, a woman cried. To-morrow's
Sunday? Rasba gasped. SundayI plumb lost track of the days.
You'll preach, won't yo', Parson? I yain't hearn a sermon in a hell
of a while, a man jeered, facetiously.
Suttingly. An' when hit's through, yo'll think of hell jes' as
long, Rasba retorted, with asperity, and his wit turned the laugh into
The fleet anchored a hundred yards up the eddy, and Rasba heard a
woman say it was after midnight and she'd be blanked if she ever did or
would dance on Sunday. The dance broke up, the noise of voices
lessened, one by one the lights went out, and the eddy was still again.
But the feeling of loneliness was changed.
Lord God, what'll I preach to them about? Rasba whispered. I
neveh 'lowed I'd be called to preach ag'in. Lawse! Lawse! What'll I
Carline ascended into the world again. It was a painful ascent, and
when he looked around him, he recognized the interior of his motorboat
cabin, heard and felt the throbbing of his motor, and discovered aches
and pains that made his extremities tingle. He sat up, but the
blackness that seemed to rise around him caused him to fall hastily
back upon the stateroom bunk.
He remembered his discovery of his own firearms on the shanty-boat,
and fear assailed him. He remembered his folly in crying out that those
were his guns. He might have known he had fallen among thieves. He
cursed himself, and dread of what might yet follow his indiscretion
made him whimper with terror. A most disgusting odour of whiskey was in
his nostrils, and his throat was like a corrugated iron pipe partly
filled with soot.
The door of the tiny stateroom was closed, but the two ports were
open to let the air in. It occurred to him that he might be a captive,
and would be held for ransom. Perhaps the pirates would bleed him for
$50,000; perhaps they would take all his fortune! He began to cry and
sob. They might cut his throat, and not give him any chance of escape.
He had heard of men having had their throats cut down the river.
He tried to sit up again, and succeeded without undue faintness. He
could not wait, but must know his fate immediately. He found the door
was unlocked, and when he slipped out into the cabin, he found that
there was only one man on board, the steersman, who was sitting in the
engine pit, and steering with the rail wheel instead of the bow-cabin
He peered out, and found that it was Terabon, who discovered him and
hailed him, cheerily:
How are you feeling?
You're lucky to be alive! Terabon said. You got in with a crew of
river pirates, but they let me have you. Did they leave you anything?
Leave me anything! Carline repeated, feeling in his pockets. I've
got my watch, and here's
He opened up his change pocketbook. There were six or seven dollars
in change and two or three wadded bills. When he looked for his main
supply, however, there was a difference. The money was all gone. He was
stripped to the last dollar in his money belt and of his hidden
They did me! he choked. They got all I had!
They didn't kill you, Terabon said. You're lucky. How did they
bang you and knock you out?
Why, I found they had my guns on board
And you accused them?
No! I just said they were mine, I was surprised!
My light went out.
When did they get your guns?
I woke up, up there, and you were gone. My guns and pocket money
were gone, too. I thought
You thought I'd robbed you?
YeWell, I didn't know!
This is a devil of a river, old man! said Terabon. I guess you
travelled with the real thing out of New Madrid
Doss, Renald Doss. He said he was a sportsman
Oh, he is, all right, he's a familiar type here on the river. He's
the kind of a sport who hunts men, Up-the-Bankers and game of that
kind. He's a very successful hunter, too
He said we'd hunt wild geese. We went up Obion River, and had lots
of fun, and he said he'd helphe'd help
Find your wife?
Carline was abject. Terabon, however, was caught wordless. This man
was the husband of the woman for whose sake he had ventured among the
desperate river rats, and now he realized that he had succeeded in the
task she had set him. Looking back, he was surprised at the ease of its
accomplishment, but he was under no illusions regarding the jeopardy he
had run. He had trusted to his aloofness, his place as a newspaper man,
and his frankness, to rescue Carline, and he had brought him away.
You're all righ now, Terabon suggested. I guess you've had your
A whole book full of them! Carline cried. I owe you somethingan
apology, and my thanks! Where are we going?
I was taking you down to a Memphis hospital, or to Mendova
I don't need any hospital. I'm broke; I must get some money. We'll
go to Mendova. I know some people there. I've heard it was a great old
town, too! I always wanted to see it.
Terabon looked at him; Carline had learned nothing. For a minute
remorse and comprehension had flickered in his mind, now he looked
ahead to a good time in Mendova, to sight-seeing, sporting around,
genial friends, and all the rest. Argument would do no good, and
Terabon retreated from his position as friend and helper to that of an
observer and a recorder of facts. Whatever pity he might feel, he could
not help but perceive that there was no use trying to help fools.
It was just dusk when they ran into Mendova. The city lights
sparkled as they turned in the eddy and ran up to the shanty-boat town.
They dropped an anchor into the deep water and held the boat off the
bank by the stern while they ran a line up to a six-inch willow to keep
the bow to the bank. The springy, ten-foot gangplank bridged the gap to
More than thirty shanty-boats and gasolene cruisers were moored
along that bank, and from nearly every one peered sharp eyes, taking a
look at the newcomers.
Hello, Terabon! someone hailed, and the newspaper man turned,
surprised. One never does get over that feeling of astonishment when,
fifteen hundred miles or so from home, a familiar voice calls one's
name in greeting.
Hello! Terabon replied, heartily, and then shook hands with a
market hunter he had met for an hour's gossip in the eddy at St. Louis.
Any luck, Bill? How's Frank?
Averaging fine, was the answer. Frank's up town. Going clear down
after all, eh?
Any birds on Yankee Bar?
I saw some geese therehunters stopped in, too. How is the
We're near the tail of it; mostly they've all gone down. We're
going to drive for it, and put out our decoys down around Big Island
Then I'll likely see you down there.
Sure thing; here's Frank.
Terabon shook hands with the two, introduced Carline, and then the
hunters cast off and steered away down the stream. They had come more
than a thousand miles with the migrating ducks and geese, intercepting
them at resting or feeding places. That touch and go impressed Terabon
as much as anything he had ever experienced.
He went up town with Carline, who found a cotton broker, a timber
merchant, and others who knew him. It was easy to draw a check, have it
cashed, and Carline once more had ready money. Nothing would do but
they must go around to Palura's to see Mendova's great attraction for
Palura supplied entertainment and excitement for the whole
community, and this happened to be one of his nights of special effort.
Personally, Palura was in a temper. Captain Dalkard, of the Mendova
Police, had been caught between the Citizens' Committee and Palura's
frequenters. There were 100 citizens in the committee, and Palura's
frequenters were unnamed, but familiar enough in local affairs.
The cotton broker thought it was a good joke, and he explained the
whole situation to Terabon and Carline for their entertainment.
Dalkard called in Policeman Laddam and told him to stand in front
of Palura's, and tell people to watch out. You see, there's been a lot
of complaints about people being short changed, having their pockets
picked, and getting doped there, and some people think it doesn't do
the town any good. Some think we got to have Palura's for the sake of
the town's business. I'm neutral, but I like to watch the fun. We'll go
down there and look in to-night.
They had dinner, and about 9 o'clock they went around to Palura's.
It was an old market building made over into a pleasure resort, and it
filled 300 feet front on Jimpson Street and 160 feet on the flanking
side streets. A bright electric sign covered the front with a flare of
yellow lights and there was one entrance, under the sign.
As Terabon, Carline, and the cotton broker came along, they saw a
tall, broad-shouldered, smooth-shaven policeman in uniform standing
where the lights showed him up.
Watch your pocketbooks! the policeman called softly to the
patrons. Watch your change; pickpockets, short-changers, and
card-stackers work the unwary here! Keep soberlook out for knock-out
He said it over and over again, in a purring, jeering tone, and
Terabon noticed that he was poised and tense. In the shadows on both
sides of the policeman Terabon detected figures lurking and he was
thrilled by the evident fact that one brave policeman had been sent
alone into that deadly peril to confront a desperate gang of crooks,
and that the lone policeman gloried to be there.
The cotton broker, neutral that he was, whispered as they
disregarded the warnings: Laddam cleaned up Front Street in six
months; the mob has all come up here, and this is their last stand.
It'll hurt business if they close this joint up, because the town'll be
dead, but I wish Palura'd kind of ease down a bit. He's getting rough.
Little hallways and corridors led into dark recesses on either side
of the building, and faint lights of different colours showed the way
to certain things. Terabon saw a wonderfully beautiful woman, in furs,
with sparkling diamonds, and of inimitable grace waiting in a little
half-curtained cubby hole; he heard a man ask for Pete, and caught
the word game twice. The sounds were muffled, and a sense of
repression and expectancy permeated the whole establishment.
They entered a reception room, with little tables around the sides,
music blaring and blatant, a wide dancing floor, and a scurrying
throng. All kinds were there: spectators who were sight-seeing;
participants who were sporting around; men, women, and scoundrels;
thugs and their prospective victims; people of supposed allurement; and
sports of insipid, silly pose and tricked-up conspicuousness.
Terabon's gaze swept the throng. Noise and merriment were
increasing. Liquor was working on the patrons. The life of Mendova was
stirring to blaring music. The big hall was bare, rough, and gaunt.
Dusty flags and cobwebs dangled from the rafters and hog-chain braces.
A few hard, white lights cast a blinding glare straight down on the
heads of the dancers and drinkers and onlookers.
Business was brisk, and shouts of Want the waiter! indicated the
insistence with which trade was encouraged and even insisted upon. No
sooner had Terabon and his companions seated themselves than a burly
flat-face with a stained white apron came and inflicted his determined
gaze upon them. He sniffed when Terabon ordered plain soda.
We got a man's drink.
I'm on the water wagon for awhile, Terabon smiled, and the waiter
nodded, sympathetically. A tip of a quarter mollified his air of surly
expectancy completely, and as he put the glasses down he said:
The Boss is sick the way he's bein' treated. They ain't goin' to
git away wit' stickin' a bull in front of his door like he was a
Terabon heard a woman at a near-by table making her protest against
the policeman out in front. No other topic was more than mentioned, and
the buzz and burr of voices vied with the sound of the band till it
ended. Then there was a hush.
Palura! a whisper rippled in all directions.
Terabon saw a man about 5 feet 10 inches tall, compactly built,
square shouldered, and just a trifle pursy at the waist line,
approaching along the dancing floor. He was light on his small feet,
his shoulders worked with feline grace, but his face was a face as hard
as limestone and of about the same colourbluish gray. His eyes were
the colour of ice, with a greenish tinge. Smooth-shaven cheeks,
close-cropped hair, wing-like ears, and a little round head were
details of a figure that might have been heroicfor his jaw was
square, his nose large, and his forehead straight and broad.
Everyone knew he was going out to throw the policeman, Laddam, into
the street. The policeman had not hurt business a pennyworth as yet,
but Palura felt the insult. Palura knew the consequences of failing to
meet the challenge.
Give 'im hell! someone called.
Palura turned and nodded, and a little yelping cheer went up, which
ceased instantly. Terabon, observing details, saw that Palura's coat
sagged on the near sidein the shape of an automatic pistol. He saw,
too, that the man's left sleeve sagged round and harda slingshot or
There was no delay; Palura went straight through to his purpose. He
disappeared in the dark and narrow entrance way and not a sound was
audible except the scuffling of feet.
Palura's killed four men, the cotton broker whispered to Terabon,
under his breath.
What seemed an age passed. The lights flickered. Terabon looked
about in alarm lest that gang
A crash outside brought all to their feet, and the whole crowd fell
back against the walls. Out of the corridor surged a mass of men, and
among them stalked a stalwart giant of a man draped with the remnants
of a policeman's uniform. He had in his right hand a club which he was
swinging about him, and every six feet a man dropped upon the floor.
Terabon saw Palura writhing, twisting, and working his way among the
fighting mass. He heard a sharp bark:
Four or five men stumbled back and two rolled out of the way of the
feet of the policeman. It flashed to Terabon what had been done. They
had succeeded in getting the policeman into the huge den of vice, where
he could not legally be without a warrant, where Palura could kill him
and escape once more on the specious plea of self-defence. Terabon saw
the grin of perfect hate on Palura's face as both his hands came up
with automatics in thema two-handed gunman with his prey.
This would teach the policemen of Mendova to mind their own
business! Suddenly Policeman Laddam threw his night stick backhanded at
the infamous scoundrel, and Palura dodged, but not quite quickly nor
quite far enough. The club whacked noisily against his right elbow and
Palura uttered a cry of pain as one pistol fell to the floor.
Then Laddam snatched out his own automatic, a 45-calibre gun, three
pounds or more in weight, and began to shoot, calmly, deliberately, and
with the artistic appreciation of doing a good job thoroughly.
His first bullet drove Palura straight up, erect; his next carried
the bully back three steps; his next whirled him around in a sagging
spiral, and the fourth dropped the dive keeper like a bag of loose
Laddam looked around curiously. He had never been there before.
Lined up on all sides of him were the waiters, bouncers, men of prey,
their faces ghastly, and three or four of them sick. The silent throng
around the walls stared at the scene from the partial shadows; no one
seemed even to be breathing. Then Palura made a horrible gulping sound,
and writhed as he gave up his last gasp of life.
Now then! Laddam looked about him, and his voice was the low roar
of a man at his kill. You men pick them up, pack them outside there,
and up to headquarters. March!
As one man, the men who had been Palura's marched. They gathered up
the remains of Palura and the men with broken skulls, and carried them
out into the street. The crowd followed, men and women both. But
outside, the hundreds scurried away in all directions, men afraid and
women choking with horror. Terabon's friend the cotton broker fled with
the rest, Carline disappeared, but Terabon went to headquarters,
writing in his pocket notebook the details of this rare and wonderful
Policeman Laddam had single-handed charged and captured the last
citadel of Mendova vice, and the other policemen, when they looked at
him, wore expressions of wonder and bewilderment. They knew the
Committee of 100 would make him their next chief and a man under whom
it would be a credit to be a cop.
Terabon, just before dawn, returned toward Mousa Slough. As he did
so, from a dull corner a whisper greeted him:
Say, Terabon, is it straight, Palura killed up?
Then Mendova's sure gone to hell! Hilt Despard the river pirate
cried. Say, Terabon, there's a lady down by the slough wants to get to
talk to you.
She just dropped in to-night, Nelia Crele! She's into her boat down
at the head of the sandbar, facing the switch willows. There's a little
gasolene sternwheeler next below her boat.
She's dropped in? All right, boys, much obliged!
But when Terabon searched along the slough for Nelia's boat he did
not find it, and to his amazed anger he found that the gasolene boat in
which he had arrived was also gone, as well as his own skiff and all
Darn this river! he choked. But that's a great story I sent of
the killing of Palura!
Nelia Crele had laughed in her heart at Elijah Rasba as he sat there
listening to her reading. She knew what she was doing to the mountain
parson! She played with his feelings, touched strings of his heart that
had never been touched before, teased his eyes with a picture of
feminine grace, stirred his mind with the sense of a woman who was
bright and who knew so much that he had never known. At the same time,
there was no malice in itjust the delight in making a strong man
discover a strength beyond his own, and in humbling a masculine pride
by the sheer superiority of a woman who had neglected no opportunity to
satisfy a hunger to know.
She knew the power of a single impression and a clear, quick
getaway. She left him dazed by the fortune which heaped upon him
literary classics in a dozen formsfiction, essays, history, poetry,
short stories, criticism, fable, and the like; she laughed at her own
quick liking for the serious-minded, self-deprecatory, old-young man
whose big innocent eyes displayed a soul enamoured by the spirited
intelligence of an experienced and rather disillusioned young woman who
had fled from him partly because she did know what a sting it would
So with light heart and singing tongue she floated away on the
river, not without a qualm at leaving those books with Rasba; she loved
them too much, but the sacrifice was so necessaryfor his work! The
river needed him as a missionary. He could help ease the way of the old
sinners, and perhaps by and by he would reform her, and paint her again
with goodness where she was weather-beaten.
It is easy to go wrong on the Mississippijust as easy, or easier,
than elsewhere in the world. The student of astronomy, gazing into the
vast spaces of the skies, feels his own insignificance increasing,
while the magnitude of the constellations grows upon him. What can it
matter what such a trifling thing, such a mere atom, as himself does
when he is to the worlds of less size than the smallest of living
organisms in a drop of water?
Nelia Crele looked around as she left the eddy and saw that her
houseboat was but a trifle upon a surface containing hundreds of square
miles. A human being opposite her on the bank was less in proportion
than a fly on the cabin window pane. Then what could it matter what she
did? Why shouldn't she be reckless, abandoned, and live in the gaiety
She had read thousands of pages of all kinds with no guide posts or
moral landmarks. A picture of dangerous delights had come into her
imagination. Having read and understood so much, she had not failed to
discover the inevitable Nemesis on the trail of wrongdoing, as well as
the inevitableness of reward for steadfastness in virtuesbut she
wondered doubtfully what virtue really was, whether she was not
absolved from many rigid commandments by the failure of the world to
keep faith with her and reward her for her own patience and atone for
her own sufferings.
It was easy, only too easy, on the surface to feel that if she
wanted to be gay and wanton, living for the hour, it was no one's
affair but her own. She fought the question out in her mind. She fixed
her determination on the young and, in one sense, inexperienced
newspaper man whose ambitions pleased her fancy and whose innocence
delighted her own mood.
He was down the river somewhere, and when she landed in at Mendova
in the late twilight she saw his skiff swinging from the stern of a
motorboat. Having made fast near it, she quickly learned that he had
gone up town, and that someone had heard him say that he was going to
Palura's! Nelia had heard the fascination of that den's ill-fame.
She laughed to herself when she thought that Terabon would excuse his
going there on the ground of its being right in his line of work, that
he must see that place because otherwise he would not know how to
If I can catch him there! she thought to herself.
She went to Palura's, and Old Mississippi seemed to favour her. She
found another woman who knew the ropes there and who was glad to help
her play the game. From a distance Nelia Crele discovered that Terabon
was with Carline, her own husband. She dismissed him with a shrug of
her shoulders, and told her companion to take care of him.
Nelia, having plagued the soul of the River Prophet, Rasba, now with
equal zest turned to seize Terabon, careless of where the game ended if
only she could begin it and carry it on to her own music and in her own
They had it all determined: Carline was to be wedged away with his
friend, a cotton broker that DaisyNelia's newfound accompliceknew,
and Terabon was to be tempted to do the Palace, and he was to be
caught unaware, by Nelia, who wanted to dance with him, dine with him
under bright lights, and drink dangerous drinks with him. She knew him
sober and industrious, good and faithful, a decent, reputable working
manshe wanted to see him waked up and boisterous, careless for her
sake and because of her desires.
She just felt wicked, wanted to be wicked, and didn't care how
wicked she might be. She counted, however, without the bonds which the
Mississippi River seems at times to cast around its favouritesthe
Spirit of the river which looks after his own.
She had not even seen Policeman Laddam standing at the main entrance
of the notorious resort, for Daisy had taken her through another door.
She went to the exclusive Third, and from there emerged onto the
dancing floor just as Palura ostentatiously went forth to drive Laddam
away, or to kill him.
Daisy checked her, for the minute or two of suspense, and then the
whole scene, the tragedy, was enacted before her gaze. She was not
frightened; she was not even excited; the thing was so astonishing that
she did not quite grasp its full import till she saw Palura stumbling
back, shot again and again. Daisy caught her arm and clutched it in
dumb panic, and when the policeman calmly bent the cohorts of the dead
man to his will and carried away his victims, Daisy dragged Nelia away.
Then Daisy disappeared and Nelia was left to her own devices.
She was vexed and disappointed. She knew nothing of the war in
Mendova. Politics had never engaged her attention, and the significance
of the artistic killing of Palura did not appear to her mind. She was
simply possessed by an indignant feminine impatience to think that
Terabon had escaped, and she was angry when she had only that glimpse
of him, as with his notebook in hand he raced his pencil across the
blank pages, jotting down the details and the hasty, essential
impressions as he caught them.
She heard the exodus. She heard women sobbing and men gasping as
they swore and fled. She gathered up her own cloak and left with
She realized that she had arrived there just one day too late to
do Palura's. The fugitives, as they scurried by, reminded her of some
description which she had read of the Sack of Rome; or was it the Fall
of Babylon? Their sins were being visited upon the wicked, and Nelia
Crele, since she had not sinned, could not thrill with quite the same
terror and despair of the wretches who had sinned in spite of their
consciences, instead of through ignorance or wantonness. She took her
departure not quite able to understand why there had been so much
furore because one man had been killed.
She was among the last to leave the accursed place, and she saw the
flight of the ones who had delayed, perhaps to loot, perhaps having
just awakened to the fact of the tragedy. She turned toward Mousa
Slough, and her little shanty-boat seemed very cool and bare that late
evening. The bookshelves were all empty, and she was just a little too
tired to sleep, just a little too stung by reaction to be happy, and
rather too much out of temper to be able to think straight and clearly
on the disappointment.
Mendova had been familiar in her ears since childhood; she had heard
stories of its wildness, its gayeties, its recklessness. Impression had
been made upon impression, so that when she had found herself nearing
the place of her dreams, she was in the mood to enter into its wildest
and gayest activities; she had expected to, and she had known in her
own mind that when she met Terabon she would be irresistible.
At last she shuddered. She seemed to hear a voice, the river's
voice, declare that this thing had happened to prevent her seeking to
betray herself and Terabon, not to mention that other matter which did
not affect her thought in the least, her husband's honour.
The idea of her husband's honour made the thing absurd to her. There
was no such thing as that honour. She had plotted to get Carline out of
the way now that she heard he was clear of the pirates. On second
thought, she was sorry that she had been so hasty in returning to the
boat, wishing that she had followed up Terabon.
She walked out onto the bow deck, and standing in the dark, with her
door closed, looked up and down the slough. A dozen boats were in
sight. She heard a number of men and women talking in near-by boats,
and the few words she heard indicated that the river people had a
pretty morsel of gossip in the killing of Palura.
She heard men rustling through the weeds and switch willows of the
boatmen's pathway, and she hailed; she was now a true river woman,
though she did not know it.
Say, boys, do you know if Terabon and Carline landed here
We just landed in, one answered. I don't know.
Going up town?
I want to know about them
Hit's Nelia Crele! one exclaimed.
That's right. Hello, boysDespardJetCope!
Sure! When'd you land?
Late this evening; I was up to Palura's when
That ain't no place fo' a lady.
She laughed aloud, as she added, I was there when Palura was killed
by the policeman.
Palura killed a policeman! Despard said. He's killed
No, Palura was killed by a policeman. Shot him dead right on the
The pirates choked. The thing was unbelievable. They came down to
the boat and she described the affair briefly, and they demanded
They felt that it would vitally affect Mendova. They whispered among
themselves as to what it meant. They learned that a policeman had been
stationed in front of the notorious resort and that that policeman had
done the shooting during a fight with waiters and bouncers and with
We hadn't better get to go up town, Jet whimpered. Hit don't
They argued and debated, and finally went on their way, having
promised Nelia that they would see and tell Terabon, on the quiet, that
she had come into the slough, and that she wanted to see him.
She waited for some time, hoping that Terabon would come, but
finally went to sleep. She was tired, and excitement had deserted her.
She slept more soundly than in some time.
Once she partly awakened, and thought that some drift log had bumped
into her boat; then she felt a gentle undulation, as of the waves of a
passing steamer, but she was too sleepy to contemplate that phenomenon
in a rather narrow water channel around a bend from the main current.
It was not till she had slept long and well that she began to dream
vividly. She was impatient with dreams; they were always full of
Daylight came, and sunshine penetrated the window under which she
slept. The bright rays fell upon her closed eyes and stung her cheeks.
She awakened with difficulty, and looked around wonderingly. She saw
the sunlight move along the wall and then drift back again. She felt
the boat teetering and swaggering. She looked out of the window and saw
a distant wood across the familiar, glassy yellow surface of the
Mississippi. With a low whisper of dismay she started out to look
around, and found that she was really adrift in mid-river.
On the opposite side of the boat she saw the blank side of a boat
against her cabin window. As she stood there, she heard or felt a
motion on the boat alongside. Someone stepped, or rather jumped
heavily, onto the bow deck of her boat and flung the cabin door open.
She sprang to get her pistol, and stood ready, as the figure of a
man stumbled drunkenly into her presence.
Parson Elijah Rasba, the River Prophet, could not think what he
would say to these river people who had determined to have a sermon for
their Sabbath entertainment. Neither his Bible nor his hurried glances
from book to book which Nelia Crele had given him brought any
suggestion which seemed feasible. His father had always declared that a
sermon, to be effective, must have one bullet fired straight.
What bullet would reach the souls of these river people who sang
ribald songs, danced to lively music, and lived clear of all laws
except the one they called The Law, a deadly, large-calibre revolver
or automatic pistol?
I 'low I just got to talk to them like folks, he decided at last,
and with that comforting decision went to sleep.
The first thing, after dawn, when he looked out upon the river in
all the glory of sunshine and soft atmosphere and young birds, he heard
Eh, Prophet! What time yo' all goin' to hold the meeting?
Round 10 or 11 o'clock, he replied.
Rasba went to one of the boats for breakfast, and he was surprised
when Mamie Caope asked him to invoke a blessing on their humble meal of
hot-bread, sorghum, fried pork chops, oatmeal, fried spuds, percolator
coffee, condensed cream, nine-inch perch caught that morning, and some
odds and ends of what she called leavings.
Then the women all went over on his big mission boat and cleaned
things up, declaring that men folks didn't know how to keep their own
faces clean, let alone houseboats. They scrubbed and mopped and
re-arranged, and every time Rasba appeared they splashed so much that
he was obliged to escape.
When at last he was allowed to return he found the boat all cleaned
up like a honey-comb. He found that the gambling apparatus had been
taken away, except the heavy crap table, which was made over into a
pulpit, and that chairs and benches had been arranged into seats for a
congregation. A store-boat man climbed to the boat's roof at 10:30,
with a Texas steer's horn nearly three feet long, and began to blow.
The blast reverberated across the river, and echoed back from the
shore opposite; it rolled through the woods and along the sandbars; and
the Prophet, listening, recalled the tales of trumpets which he had
read in the Bible. At intervals of ten minutes old Jodun filled his
great lungs, pursed his lips, and swelled his cheeks to wind his great
horn, and the summons carried for miles. People appeared up the bank,
swamp angels from the timber brakes who strolled over to see what the
river people were up to, and skiffs sculled over to bring them to the
river meeting. The long bend opposite, and up and down stream, where no
sign of life had been, suddenly disgorged skiffs and little motorboats
of people whose floating homes were hidden in tiny bays, or covered by
neutral colours against their backgrounds.
The women hid Rasba away, like a bridegroom, to wait the moment of
his appearance, and when at last he was permitted to walk out into the
pulpit he nearly broke down with emotion. There were more than a
hundred men and women, with a few children, waiting eagerly for him. He
was a good old fellow; he meant all right; he'd taken care of Jest
Prebol, who had deserved to be shot; he was pretty ignorant of river
ways, but he wanted to learn about them; he hadn't hurt their feelings,
for he minded his own business, saying not a word about their good
times, even if he wouldn't dance himself. They could do no better than
let him know that they hadn't any hard feelings against him, even if he
was a parson, for he didn't let on that they were sinners. Anyway, they
wanted to hear him hit it up!
I came down here to find a son whose mother was worrited about
him, Rasba began at the beginning. I 'lowed likely if I could find
Jock it'd please his mammy, an' perhaps make her a little happier. And
Jock 'lowed he'd better go back, and stand trial, even if it was a
You see, I didn't expect you'd get to learn very much from me, and
I haven't been disappointed. I'm the one that's learning, and when I
think what you've done for me, and when I see what Old Mississip' does,
friendlying for all of us, tripping us along
They understood. He looked at the boat, at them, and through the
wide-open windows at the sun-rippled water.
Now for religion. Seems like I'm impudent, telling you kindly souls
about being good to one another, having no hard, mean feelings against
anybody, and living like you ought to live. We're all sinners! Time and
again hit's ag'in the grain to do what's right, and if we taste a taste
of white liquor, or if hit's stained with burnt sugar to make hit red,
Sho! someone grinned. Parson Rasba knows!
The preacher joined the laughter.
Yas, suh! he admitted, more gravely, I know. I 'lowed, one time,
that I'd git to know this yeah happiness that comes of liquor, an' I
shore took one awful gulp. Three nights an' three days I neveh slept a
wink, an' me settin' theh by the fireplace, waitin' to be lit up an'
jubulutin', but hit didn't come. I've be'n happier, jes' a-settin' an'
lookin' at that old riveh, hearin' the wild geese flocking by!
That old rivehLawse! If the Mississippi brings you fish and game;
if it gives you sheltered eddies to anchor in, and good banks or
sandbars to tie against; if this great river out here does all that for
you, what do you reckon the Father of that river, of all the world, of
all the skies would do, He being so much friendlier and powerfuller?
Hit's easy to forget the good that's done to you. Lots an' lots of
times, I bet you've not even thought of the good you've had from the
river, from the sunshine, from the winds, plenty to eat and warm of
nights on your boats and in your cabins. It's easy to remember the
little evil things, the punishments that are visited upon us for our
sins or because we're ignorant and don't know; but reckon up the
happiness you have, the times you are blessed with riches of comfort
and pleasure, and you'll find yourself so much happier than you are sad
that you'll know how well you are cared for.
I cayn't preach no reg'lar sermon, with text-tes and singing and
all that. Seems like I jes' want to talk along rambling like, and tell
you how happy you are all, for I don't reckon you're much wickeder than
you are friendly on the average. I keep a-hearing about murdering and
stealing and whiskey boating and such things. They're signs of the
world's sinfulness. We talk a heap about such things; they're real, of
course, and we cayn't escape them. At the same time, look at me!
I came down here, sorry with myse'f, and you make me glad, not
asking if I'd done meanness or if I'd betrayed my friends. You 'lowed I
was jes' a man, same's you. I couldn't tell you how to be good, because
I wasn't no great shakes myse'f, and the worse I was the better you
got. Buck an' Jock gives me this boat for a mission boat; I'm ignorant,
an' a woman gives me
He choked up. What the woman had given him was too immeasurable and
too wonderful for mere words to express his gratitude.
I'm just one of those shoutin', ignorant mountain parsons. I could
out-whoop most of them up yonder. But down yeah, Old Mississip' don't
let a man shout out. When yo' play dance music, hit's softer and
sweeter than some of those awful mountain hymns in which we condemn
lost souls to the fire. Course, the wicked goes to hell, but somehow I
cayn't git up much enthusiasm about that down yeah. What makes my heart
rejoice is that there's so much goodness around that I bet 'most
anybody's got a right smart chanct to get shut of slippin' down the
claybanks into hell.
Jest Prebol? someone asked, seeing Prebol's face in the window of
the little red shanty-boat moored close by, where he, too, could
Jest Prebol's been my guide down the riveh, the Prophet retorted.
I can say that I only wish I could be as good a pilot for poor souls
and sinners toward heaven as Jest is a river pilot for a wandering old
mountain parson on the Mississippi
Hi-i-i! a score of voices laughed, and someone shouted, So row me
down the Jordan!
They all knew the old religious song which fitted so nicely into the
conditions on the Mississippi. Somebody called to someone else, and the
musicians in the congregation slipped away to return with their
violins, banjos, accordions, guitars, and other familiar instruments.
Before the preacher knew it, he had more music in the church than he
had ever heard in a church beforeand they knew what to play and what
The sermon became a jubilee, and he would talk along awhile till
something he said struck a tuneful suggestion, and the singing would
begin again; and when at last he brought the service to an end, he was
astonished to find that he had preached and they had sung for more than
Then there was scurrying about, and from all sides the calm airs of
the sunny Sabbath were permeated with the odours of roasts and fried
things, coffee and sauces. A score wanted Rasba to dine out, but Mrs.
Caope claimed first and personal acquaintance, and her claim was
acknowledged. The people from far boats and tents returned to their own
homes. Two or three boats of the fleet, in a hurry to make some place
down stream, dropped out in mid-afternoon, and the little shanty-boat
town was already breaking up, having lasted but a day, but one which
would long be remembered and talked about. It was more interesting than
murder, for murders were common, and the circumstances and place were
so remarkable that even a burning steamboat would have had less
attention and discussion.
The following morning Mrs. Caope offered Rasba $55 for his old
poplar boat, and he accepted it gladly. She said she had a speculation
in mind, and before nightfall she had sold it for $75 to two men who
were going pearling up the St. Francis, and who thought that a boat a
parson had tripped down in would bring them good luck.
The dancers of Saturday night, the congregation of Sunday, on Monday
afternoon were scattered. Mrs. Caope's and another boat dropped off the
river to visit friends, and mid-afternoon found Parson Rasba and Prebol
alone again, drawing down toward Mendova.
Prebol knew that town, and he told Rasba about it. He promised that
they would see something of it, but they could not make it that
evening, so they landed in Sandbar Reach for the night. Just after
dawn, while the rising sun was flashing through the tree tops from east
to west, a motorboat driving up stream hailed as it passed.
Ai-i-i, Prebol! Palura's killed up!
Prebol shouted out for details, and the passer-by, slowing down,
gave a few more:
Had trouble with the police, an' they shot him daid into his own
dance floorand Mendova's no good no more!
Now what the boys goin' to do when they make a haul? Prebol
demanded in great disgust of Parson Rasba. Fust the planters shot up
whiskey boats; then the towns went dry, an' now they closed up Palura's
an' shot him daid. Wouldn't hit make yo' sick, Parson! They ain't no
fun left nowheres for good sports.
Rasba could not make any comment. He was far from sure of his
understanding. He felt as though his own life had been sheltered,
remote from these wild doings of murders and shanty-boat-fleet dances
and a congregation assembling in a gambling boat handed to him for a
mission! He could not quite get his bearings, but the books blessed him
with their viewpoints, as numerous as the points of the compass. He
could not turn a page or a chapter without finding something that gave
him a different outlook or a novel idea.
They landed in late on Monday at Mendova bar, just above the wharf.
Up the slough were many shanty-boats, and gaunt dogs and floppy
buzzards fed along the bar and down the wharf.
Groups of men and women were scattered along both the slough and the
river banks, talking earnestly and seriously. Rasba, bound up town to
buy supplies, heard the name of Palura on many lips; the policemen on
their beats waltzed their heavy sticks about in debonair skilfulness;
and stooped, rat-like men passing by, touched their hats nervously to
the august bluecoats.
When Rasba returned to the boat, he found a man waiting for him.
My name is Lester Terabon, the man said. I landed in Saturday,
and went up town. When I returned, my skiff and outfit were all
gonesomebody stole them.
Sho! Rasba exclaimed. I've heard of you. You write for
Yes, sir, and I'm some chump, being caught that way.
They meant to rob you? Rasba asked.
Why, ofI don't know! Terabon saw a new outlook on the
Did they go down?
Yes, sir, I heard so. I don't care about my boat, typewriter, and
duffle; what bothers me is my notebooks. Months of work are in them. If
I could get them back!
What can I do for you?
I don't knowI'm going down stream; it's down below, somewhere.
I need someone to help me, Rasba said. I've a wounded man here
who has a doctor with him. If he goes up to the hospital or stays with
us, I'll be glad to have you for your help and company.
I'm in luck. Terabon laughed with relief.
Just that way the Mississippi River's narrow channel brought the
River Prophet and the river reporter together. Terabon went up town and
bought some clothes, some writing paper, a big blank notebook, and a
bottle of fountain-pen ink. With that outfit he returned on board, and
a delivery car brought down his share of things to eat.
The doctor said Prebol ought to go into the hospital for at least a
week, and Terabon found Prebol's pirate friends, hidden up the slough
on their boat, not venturing to go out except at night. They took the
little red shanty-boat up the slough, and Prebol went to the hospital.
Rasba, frankly curious about the man who wrote for newspapers for a
living, listened to accounts of an odd and entertaining occupation. He
asked about the Palura shooting which everyone was talking about, and
when Terabon described it as he had witnessed it, Rasba shook his head.
Now they'll close up that big market of sin? he asked. They've
all scattered around.
Yes, and they scattered with my skiff, too, and probably robbed
Carline of his boat
Carline! You know him?
I came down with him from Yankee Bar, and we went up to Palura's
together. I lost him in the shuffle, when the big cop killed Palura.
And Mrs. Carline, Nelia Crele? Rasba demanded.
WhyIthey said she'd landed in. She's gone, too
You know her?
So do I. Those books, he waved his hand toward the loaded shelves,
she gave them all to me for my mission boat!
Terabon stared. He went to the shelves and looked at the volumes. In
each one he found the little bookmark which she had used in cataloguing
A Loved Book.
A jealous pang seized him, in spite of his reportorial knowledge
that jealousy is vanity for a literary person.
I 'low we mout 's well drop out, Rasba suggested. Missy Crele's
down below some'rs. Her boat floated out to'd mornin', one of the boys
Carline had discovered his wife in the excitement at Palura's, and
with the cunning of a drunken man had shadowed her. He followed her
down to Mousa Bayou, and saw her go on board her cabin-boat. He
watched, with more cunning, to see for whom she was waiting. He had in
his pocket a heavy automatic pistol with which to do murder.
He had seen killing done, and the thing was fascinating; some
consciousness that the policeman had done the right thing seemed now to
justify his own intention of killing a man, or somebody.
Disappointment lingered in his mind when the lights went out on
board Nelia's boat, and for a long time he meditated as to what he
should do. He saw skiffs, motorboats, shanty-boats pulling hastily down
the slough into the Mississippi. It was the Exodus of Sin. Mendova's
rectitude had asserted its strength and power, and now the exits of the
city were flickering with the shadows of departing hordes of the night
and of the dark, all of whom had two fears: one of daylight, the other
of sudden death.
Their departure before his eyes, with darkened boats, gave Carline
an idea at last. He wanted to get away off somewhere, where he could be
alone, without any interruption. Bitter anger surged in his breast
because his wife had shamed him, left him, led him this
any-thing-but-merry chase down the Mississippi. A proud Carline had no
call to be treated thataway by any woman, especially by the daughter of
an old ne'er-do-well whom he had condescended to marry.
He had always been a hunter and outdoor man, and it was no
particular trick for him to cast off the lines of Nelia's boat and push
it out into the sluggish current, and it was as easy for him to take
his own boat and drop down into the river. He brought the two boats
quietly together and lashed them fast with rope fenders to prevent
rubbing and bumpingdid it with surprising skill.
The Mississippi carried them down the reach into the crossing, and
around a bend out of sight of even the glow of the Mendova lights. Here
was one of those lonesome stretches of the winding Mississippi, with
wooded bank, sandbar, sky-high and river-deep loneliness.
Carline, with alcoholic persistency, held to his scheme. He drank
the liquor which he had salvaged in the riotous night. He thought he
knew how to bring people to time, especially women. He had seen a big
policeman set the pace, and the sound of the club breaking skull bones
was still a shock in his brain, oft repeated.
The sudden dawn caught him by surprise, and he stared rather
nonplussed by the sunrise, but when he looked around and saw that he
was in mid-stream and miles from anywhere and from any one, he knew
that there was no better place in the world for taming one's wife, and
extorting from her the apologies which seemed to Carline appropriate,
all things considered, for the occasion.
The time had arrived for action. He rose with dignity and buttoned
up his waistcoat; he pulled down his coat and gave his cravat a hitch;
he rubbed a tentative hand on the lump where the pirates had bumped
him; he scrambled over the side onto the cabin-boat deck, and entered
upon the scene of his conquest.
He found himself confronted by Nelia in a white-faced, low-voiced
fury instead of in the mood he had expected. She wasn't sorry; she
wasn't apologetic; she wasn't even amiable or conciliatory.
Gus Carline! Drunk, as usual. What do you mean by this?
S'all right! he assured her, flapping his hands. Y're m'wife; I'm
your husban'! S'all right!
She drew her pistol and fired a bullet past him.
Go! she cried.
Before he knew what had happened he had backed out upon the bow
deck, and she bundled him up onto his own craft. She cast off the bow
line and ran to the stern to cast off the line there. As she did so,
she discovered Terabon's skiff around at the far side where Carline
could not see it.
Her husband was still shaking his fist in her direction, but the two
boats were well apart as she rowed away with her sweeps. He stood
there, undecided. He had not expected the sudden and effective
resistance. Before he knew it, she was lost in a whole fleet of little
houseboats which were, to his eyes, both in the sky, underwater, and
scattered all over the tip-tilting surfaces.
The current, under the impulse of her rowing, carried Nelia into an
eddy and she saw the cruiser rocking down a crossing into the mirage of
the distance. She sat on the bow deck while her boat made a long swing
in the eddy. Things did not happen down the river as she planned or
expected. She regarded the previous night's entertainment with less
indifference now; something about the calm of that broad river affected
her. She realized that watching the killing of Palura had given her a
shock so deep that now she was trembling with the weakness of horror.
She had seen Gus Carline stumble into her cabin, and with angry
defiance she had acted with the intention of doing to him what she had
done to Prebolbut she had missed deliberately when she shot. When she
recalled the matter, she saw that for weeks she had been living in a
false frame of mind; that she was desperate, and not contented; that
she was afraidand that she hated fear.
Her pistol was sign of her bravado, and her shots were the
indication of her desperation. The memory of the wan face of Prebol
brought down by her bullet was now an accusation, not a pride.
Old Mississip' had received her gently in her most furious mood, but
now that immense, active calm of vast power was working on the untamed
soul which she owned. The river swept along, and its majesty no longer
gave her the feeling that nothing mattered. Far from it! Though she
rebelled against the idea, her mind knew that she was in rebellion,
that she was going against the current. And the river's mood was
dangerous, now, to the wanton feelings to which she had desperately
yielded but unsuccessfully.
The old, familiar, sharp division between right and wrong was
presented to her gaze as if the river itself were calling her attention
to it. She could not escape the necessity of a choice, with evil so
persuasive and delightful and virtue so depressing and necessary.
She investigated Terabon's outfit with curiosity and questioning.
His typewriter, his maps, his few books, his stack of notes neatly
compiled in loose-leaf files, were the materials which caught and held
her fancy. She took them on board her shanty-boat and read the record
which he had made, from day to day, from his inspection of Commission
records at St. Louis to the purchase of his boat in shanty-boat town,
and his departure down the river.
His words were intimate and revealing:
Oct. 5; In mid-stream among a lot of islands; rafts of ducks; a
dull, blue day, still those great limestone hills, with hollows
through which the wind comes when oppositecoolies?; in the
distance a rowboat. On the Missouri side, the hills; on the other
the flats, with landing sheds. Ducks in great flockslook like
serpents when flying close to the water; like islands on itwary
That was above the part of the river which she knew; she turned to
Kaskaskia, and read facts familiar to her:
I met Crele, an old hunter-trapper, in a slough below St.
He was talkative, and said he had the prettiest girl on a hundred
miles of river. She had married a man of the name of Carline,
rich and a big bug. But my gal's got the looks, yes, indeed! If
find her, I must be sure and tell her to write to her
Nelia's face warmed as she read those phrases as well it might. She
wondered what other things he had written in his book of notes, and her
eye caught a page:
House boatmen are a bad lot. Once a young man came to work for a
farmer back on the hills. He'd been there a month, when one night
disappeared; a set of double harness went with him. Another man
around a week, and raided a grocery store, filling washtubs with
groceries, cloth, and shoeswent away in a skiff.
She turned to where he travelled down the Mississippi with her
husband and read the description of Gus Carline's whiskey skiff man,
his purchase of a gallon of whiskey; the result, which her imagination
needed but few words to visualize; then Terabon's drifting away down
stream, leaving the sot to his own insensibilities.
Breathlessly she read his snatching sentences from bend to shoal,
from reach to reach, until he described her red-hull, white cabin-boat,
described the young river woman who occupied it; and then, page after
page of memoranda, telling almost her own words, and his own words, as
he had remembered them. What he wrote here had not been intended for
She's dropping down this river all alone; pirates nor scoundrels
river storms nor jeopardies seem to disturb her in the least. She
even welcomes me, as an interesting sort of intellectual
who can talk about books and birds and a multitude of things. She
may well rest assured that none of us river rats have any
whatever, on a lady who shoots quick, shoots straight, and
Prebol at thirty yards off-hand with an automatic!
She read the paragraph with interest and then with care; she did not
know whether to be pleased or not by that brutally frank statement that
he was afraid of hersuppose he hadn't been afraid? Then, of what was
he really afraidnot of her pistol! She read on through the pages of
notes. The description of the walk with her up the sandbar and back,
there at Island No. 10, thrilled her, for it told the apparently
trifling detailsthe different kinds of sands, the sounds, the night
gloom, the quick sense of the river presence, the glow of distant New
Madrid. He had lived it, and he wrote it in terms that she realized
were the words she might have used to describe her own observations and
She searched through his notes in vain for any suggestion of the
emotions which she had felt. She shrugged her shoulders, because he had
not written anything to indicate that he had discovered her allurement.
He had written in bald words the fact of her sending him on the errand
of rescue, to save her husbandand she was obliged to digest in her
mind the bare but significant phrase:
And, because she has sent me, I am glad to go!
His notes made her understand him better, but they did not reveal
all his own feelings. He wrote her down as an object of curiosity, as
he spoke of the sour face and similitude of good humour in the whiskey
boater's expression. In the same painstaking way he described her own
friendliness for a passing skiff boater. The impersonality of his
remarks about himself surprised while it perplexed her.
The mass of material which he had gathered for making articles and
stories amazed her. The stack of pages, closely typewritten, was more
than two inches thick. A few pages disclosed consecutive paragraphs
with subjects, predicates, and complete sense, but other pages showed
only disjointed phrases, words, and flashes of ideas.
The changing notes, the questioning, the observations, the minute
recording were fascinating to her. It revealed a phase of writers'
lives of which she had known nothingthe gathering of myriads of
details, in order to free the mind for accurate rendering of pictures
and conditions. She wished she could see some of the finished product
of Terabon's use of these notes, and the wish revealed a chasm, an
abyss that confronted her. She felt deserted, as though she had need of
Terabon to give her a view of his own life, that she might be diverted
into something not sordid, and decidedly not according to Augustus
After a time, seeing that Carline's boat had disappeared down river,
she threw over her anchor, and rested in the eddy. It was on the west
side, with a chute entrance through a sandbar and willow-grown island
points opposite. She brought out her map book to see if she could learn
where she was anchored, but the printed map, with the bright red lines
of recent surveys, helped her not at all. She turned from sheet to
sheet down to Memphis, without finding what she wanted to know.
She saw some shanty-boats down the river; she saw some up the river;
but there was none near her till just before dark a motor skiff came
down in the day's gray gloom, and passed within a few yards of her.
When she looked at the two men in the boats she learned to know what
fear isriver terrorhorror of mankind in its last extremities of
depravity and heartlessness.
She saw men stooped and slinking, whose glance was sidelong and
whose expression was venomous, casting covert looks toward her as they
passed by into the gray mist of falling night. They entered a narrow
waterway among the sandbars, and left behind the feeling that along
that waterway was the abiding place of lost souls. She wanted to take
up the anchor and flee out onto the river, but when she looked into the
darkening breadths, she felt the menace of the miles, of the mists, of
the wooded shores. Foreboding was in her tired soul.
She examined her pistol, to make sure that it was ready to use; she
locked the stern door, and drew the curtains; she went to the bow and
looked carefully at the anchor-line fastenings. With no light on board
to blind her gaze, she scrutinized all the surroundings, to make sure
of her locality. In that blank gloom she was dubious but brave. Not a
thing visible, not a sound audible, nothing but her remote and little
understood sensation of premonitory dread explained her perturbation.
She entered the cabin, locked the door, set the window catches and
sticks, lighted the lamp, and sat down tothink. Her bookshelves were
empty, and she was glad that she had emptied them in a good cause. It
occurred to her that she ought to make up another list for her own
service, and with pencil and paper she began that most fascinating
work, the compilation of one's own library. As she made her selections,
she forgot the menace which she had observed.
In the stillness she thought her own ears were ringing and paid no
attention to the humming that increased in volume moment by moment. It
was a flash of lightning without thunder that stirred her senses. She
looked up from her absorption.
She heard a distant rumble, a near-by stirring. The wavelets along
the side of the boat were noisy; they rattled like paper. Something
fell clattering on the roof of the cabin, and a tearing, ripping,
crashing struck the boat and fairly tossed it skipping along the
surface of the water. The lamp blew out as a window pane broke, and the
woman was thrown to the floor in a confusion of chairs, table, and
other loose objects. Happily, the stove was screwed fast to the floor.
The anchor line broke with a loud twang, and the black confusion was
lighted with flares and flashes of gray-blue glaring.
The river had made Nelia Crele believe that she was in jeopardy from
man; but it was a little hurricane, or, as the river people call them,
cyclones, that menaced. Dire as was the confusion and imminent as was
the peril, Nelia felt a sense of relief from what would have been
harder to bearan attack by men. She had searched the map for
information, but it was the river which inspired her to understand that
the hurricane was her deliverance rather than her assailant.
She did not know whether she would live or die during those seconds
when the gale crashed like maul blows and wind and rain poured and
whistled in at the broken window pane. She laughed at her predicament,
tumbling in dishevelment around the bouncing cabin floor, and when the
suck and send of the storm crater passed by, leaving a driving wind,
she stepped out on the bows, and caught up her sweeps to ride the waves
and face the gale that set steadily in from the north.
It was gray, impenetrable blackthat night. She could see nothing,
neither the waves nor the sky nor the river banks; but singing aloud,
she steadied the boat, bow to the wind, holding it to the gale by
dipping the sweeps deep and strong.
Beaten steadily back, unable to know how far or in what direction,
she found her soul, serenely above the mere physical danger, loving
that vast torrent more than ever.
The Mississippi trains its own to be brave.
Parson Rasba and Terabon floated out into the main river current and
ran with the stream. They were passing through the famous, changeable
channels among the great sandbars from Island No. 34 down to Hopefield
Bend. They rounded Dean Island Bend in the darkness, for they had
floated all day and far into the night, driven by an anxiety which was
They wanted to be going; they felt an urge which they commented
upon; it was a voice in their hearts, and not audible in their ears.
Yet when they stood nervously at the great sweeps of the mission boat,
to pull the occasional strokes necessary to clear a bar or flank a
bend, they could almost declare that the river was talking.
They strained their ears in vain, trying to distinguish the meanings
of the distant murmurings. Terabon, now well familiar with the river,
could easily believe that he was listening to the River Spirit, and his
feelings were melancholy.
For months he had strained every power of his mind to record the
exact facts about the Mississippi, and he put down tens of thousands of
words describing and stating what he saw, heard, and knew. With one
stroke he had been separated from his work, and he feared that he had
lost his precious notes for all time.
Either Carline or river pirates had carried them away. He hoped, he
believed, that he would find them, but there was an uncertainty. He
shivered apprehensively when he recalled with what frankness he had put
down details, names, acts, rumours, reportsall the countless things
which go to make up the histories of a voyage down from St. Louis in
skiff, shanty-boat, and launch. What would they say if they read his
He had notepaper, blank books, and ink, and he set about the weary
task of keeping up his records, and putting down all that he could
recall of the contents of his lost loose-leaf system. It was a
In one record he wrote the habitual hour-to-hour description,
comment, talk, and fact; in his memory journal he put down all the
things he could recall about the contents of his lost record. He had
written the things down to save him the difficulty of trying to
remember, but now he discovered that he had remembered. A thousand
times faster than he could write the countless scenes and things he had
witnessed flocked back into the consciousness of his mind, pressing for
recognition and another chance to go down in black and white.
As he wrote, Parson Rasba, in the intervals of navigating the big
mission boat, would stand by gazing at the furious energy of his
companion. Rasba had seized upon a few great facts of life, and dwelt
in silent contemplation of them, until a young woman with a library
disturbed the echoing halls of his mind, and brought into them the
bric-à-brac of the thought of the ages. Now, from that brief
experience, he could gaze with nearer understanding at this young man
who regarded the pathway of the moon reflecting in a narrow line across
a sandbar and in a wide dancing of cold blue flames upon the waters, as
an important thing to remember; who recorded the wavering flight of the
nigger geese, or cormorants, as compared to the magnificent V-figure,
straight drive of the Canadians and the other huge water fowl; who
paused to seize such simple terms as jump line, dough-bait, snag
line, reef line, as though his life might depend on his verbal
The Prophet pondered. The Mississippi had taught him many lessons.
He was beginning to look for the lesson in casual phenomena, and when
he said so to Terabon, the writer stared at him with open mouth.
Whythat explains! Terabon gasped.
The heathen who was awed by the myriad impressions of Nature, and
who learned, by hard experience, that he must not neglect even the
apparently trivial things lest he suffer disaster.
Then Terabon fell to writing even more furiously in his day-by-day
journal, for that was something of this moment, although he has just
jotted down the renewed impression of coming into the bottoms at Cape
Girardeau. Rasba took up the pages of the notes which Terabon was
rewriting. Happily, Terabon's writing was like copper-plate script,
however fast he wrote, and the mountain man read:
Big hickory tree groveColumbus HickoriesLargest cane in some
bend down below HelenaSpanish Moss bendfamous river
bendFisherman at Brickey's Mill told of hoop nets, trammels,
seines (stillwater bayous), jump, hand, snag, reef,
for catfish down the crossings, half pound pork, or meat, for
also called blocking for catfish.
What will you do with all this? Rasba asked.
Why, I'll Terabon hesitated, and then continued: It's like
building a house. I gather all this material: lumber, stone, logs,
cement, shingles, lathes, quick-lime, bricks, and everything. I store
it all up in this notebook; that's my lumber yard. Then when I dig the
foundation, I'll come in here and I'll find the things I need to build
my house, or mansion. Of course, to start with, I'll just build little
shacks and cabins. See what I mean? I am going to write articles first
and they're kind of like barns and shacks, and even mere fences. But by
and by I'll write fiction stories, and they will be like the mansions,
and the material will all fit in: all about a fisherman, all about a
market hunter, all about a drifter, all about a river
All about a river woman? Rasba asked, as he hesitated.
I wasn't thinking that. Terabon shook his head, his colour coming
a little. I had in mind, all about a River Prophet!
Sho! Rasba exclaimed. What could you all find to write about a
Terabon looked at the stern, kindly, friendly, picturesque
mountaineer who had come so far to find one man, for that man's mother,
and he rejoiced in his heart to think that the parson did not know,
could never know, because of the honest simplicity of his heart, how
extraordinarily interesting he was.
So they drifted with the current, absorbed in their immediate
present. It seemed as though they found their comprehension expanding
and widening till it encompassed the answers to a thousand questions.
Rasba, dazed by his own accretion of new interests, discovery of
undreamed-of powers, seizure of opportunities never known before, could
but gaze with awe and thankfulness at the evidences of his great good
fortune, the blessings that were his in spite of his wondering why one
of so little desert had received such bountiful favour. Terabon,
remembering what he feared was irrevocably lost, knew that he had
escaped disaster, and that the pile of notes which he had made only to
be deprived of them were after all of less importance than that he
should have suffered the deep emotion of seeing so much of his toil and
Here it was againRasba might well wonder at that gathering and
hoarding of trifles. They were not the important things, those minute
words and facts and points; no, indeed.
At last Terabon knew that most important fact of all that it was the
emotions that counted. As a mere spectator, he could never hope to know
the Mississippi, to describe and write it truly; the river had forced
him into the activities of the river life, and had done him by that act
its finest service.
He was in the fervour of his most recent discovery when Rasba went
out on the bow deck and looked into the night. He called Terabon a
minute later, and the two looked at a phenomenon. The west was aglow,
like a sunset, but with flarings and flashings instead of slowly
changing lights and hues. The light under the clouds at the horizon
extended through 90 degrees of the compass, and in the centre of the
bright greenish flare there was a compact, black, apparently solid mass
from which streaks of lightning constantly exuded on all sides.
For a minute Terabon stared, cold chills goose-pimpling his flesh.
Then he cried:
Cyclone, Parson! Get ready!
They were opposite the head of a long bend near the end of a big
sandbar, and skirting the edge of an eddy, near its foot. Terabon
sprang into the gasolene launch, started the motor, and steered for the
shelter of the west bank. In the quiet he and Rasba told each other
what to do.
Rasba ran out two big anchors with big mooring lines tied to them.
He closed the bow door but opened all the windows and other doors.
Then, as they heard the storm coming, they covered the launch with the
heavy canvas, heaved over the anchors into a fathom of water, let out
long lines, and played the launch out over the stern on a heavy line
fast to towing bits.
A sweep of hail and rain was followed by a moment of calm. Then a
blast of wind, which scraped over the cabin roof, was succeeded by the
suck of the tornado, which swept, a waterspout, across the river a
quarter of a mile down stream, struck a sandbar, and carried up a
golden yellow cloud of dust, which disappeared in the gray blackness of
a terrific downpour of rain.
They stretched out on their anchor lines till the whole fabric of
the cabin hummed and crackled with the strain, but the lines held, and
the windows being open, prevented the semi-vacuum created by the
storm's passing from exploding the boat, and tearing off the cabin,
or the roof.
After the varying gusts and blasts the wind settled down, colder by
forty degrees, and with the steady white of a norther. It meant days
and nights of waiting while the storm blew itself out. And when the
danger had passed and the boats were safe against the lines, the two
men turned in to sleep, more tired after their adventures than they
remembered ever being before.
In the morning rain was falling intermittently with some sleet, but
toward afternoon there was just a cold wind. They built hot fires in
their heater, burning coal with which the gamblers had filled bow and
stern bins from coal barges somewhere up the river. Having plenty to
eat on board, there was nothing to worry them.
Terabon, his fountain pen racing, wrote for his own distant Sunday
Editor a narrative which excited the compiler of the Magazine
Supplement to deep oaths of admiration for the fertile, prolific
imagination of the wandering writerfor who would believe in a romance
The night of the big wind was followed by a day and a night of gusts
of wind and sleety rain; then followed a day and a night of rising
clouds, then a day when the clouds were scattered and the sun was cold.
That day the sunset was grim, white, and freezing cold.
In the morning there was a bright, warm sunrise, a breath of sweet,
soft air, and unimaginable brightness and buoyancy, birds singing,
squirrels barking, and all the dismal pangs banished.
Shanty-boats shot out into the gay river and dotted the wide surface
up and down the current for miles. The ears of the parson and the
writer, keener with the acuteness of distant sounds, could hear music
from a boat so far away that they could not see it, a wonderfully
They, too, ran out into the flood of sunshine to float down with the
At the foot of Brandywine Bar a little cabin-boat suddenly rowed out
into the current and signalled them; somebody recognized and wanted to
speak to the mission boat. They were rapidly sucking down the swift
chute current, but Terabon turned over the motor, and flanked the big
houseboat across the current so that the hail could be answered.
The little cabin-boat, almost lost to view astern, rapidly gained,
and as they ran down Beef Island chute, where the current is slow, they
Sho! Parson Rasba cried aloud, hit's Missy Carline, Missy Nelia,
shore as I'm borned!
Terabon had known it for half an hour. He had been noticing river
details, and he could not fail to recognize that little boat. His hands
trembled as he steered the launch to take advantage of slack current
and dead water, and his throat choked with an emotion which he
controlled with difficulty. He looked fearfully at the gaunt River
Prophet whose own cheeks were staining with warm blood, and whose eyes
gazed so keenly at the young woman who was coming, leaning to her
sweeps with Viking grace and abandon.
She was coming to them, with the fatalistic certainty that is
so astonishing to the student observer. Carried away by her sottish
husband; threatened by the tornado; rescued, perhaps, by the storm from
worse jeopardy, caught in safety under an island sandbar; her eyes,
sweeping the lonesome breadths of the flowing river-sea, had seen and
recognized her friend's boat, the floating mission, and pulled to join
She rowed up, with her eyes on the Prophet. He stood there in his
majesty while Terabon stooped unnoticed in the engine pit of the
motorboat. Not till she had run down near enough to throw a line did
she take her eyes off the mountain parson, and then she turned and
looked into the eyes, dumb with misery, of the other man, Terabon.
Her cheeks, red with her exertions, turned white. Three days she had
read that heap of notes in loose-leaf file which Terabon had written.
She had read the lines and between the lines, facts and ideas,
descriptions and reminiscence, dialogue and history, statistics and
appreciation of a thousand river things, all viewpoints, including her
She knew, now, how wicked she was. She knew, now, the wilfulness of
her sins, and the merciful interposition of the river's inviolable
strength. Her sight of the mission boat had awakened in her soul the
knowledge that she must go out and talk to the good man on board,
confess her naughtiness, and beg the Prophet for instruction.
Woman-like, she knew what the outcome would be.
He would take her, protect her, and there would be some way out of
the predicament in which they both found themselves. But again she
reckoned without the river. How could she know that Terabon and he had
come down the Mississippi together?
But there he was, chauffeuring for the Prophet!
She threw the line, Rasba caught it, drew the two boats together and
made them fast. He welcomed her as a father might have welcomed a
favourite child. He threw over the anchor, and Terabon dropped the
launch back to the stern, and hung it there on a light line.
When he entered the big cabin Nelia was sitting beside a table, and
Rasba was leaning against the shelves which he had put up for the
books. Nelia, dumbfounded, had said little or nothing. When she glanced
up at Terabon, she looked away again, quickly, flushing.
She was lost now. That was her feeling. Her defiance and her courage
seemed to have utterly left her, and in those bitter days of cold wind
and clammy rain, sleet and discomfort had changed the outlook of
Married, without a husband; capable of great love, and yet sure that
she must never love; two lovers and an unhappy marriage between her and
happiness; a mind made up to sin, wantonly, and a soul that taunted her
with a life-time of struggle against sordidness. The two men saw her
burst into tears and cry out in an agony of spirit.
Dumbly they stood there, man-like, not knowing what to do, or what
thought was in the woman's mind. The Prophet Rasba, his face full of
compassion, turned from her and went aft through the alley into the
kitchen, closing the doors behind him. He knew, and with knowledge he
accepted the river fate.
Terabon went to her, and gave her comfort. He talked to her as a
lover should when his sweetheart is in misery, her heart breaking. And
she accepted his gentleness, and sobbed out the impossibility of
everything, while she clung to him.
Within the hour they had plighted troth, regardless. She confessed
to her lover, instead of to the Prophet. He said he didn't care, and
she said she didn't care, eitherwhich was mutually satisfactory.
When they went out to Parson Rasba, they found him calmly reading
one of the books which she had given him. He looked up at their red
faces and smiled with indulgence. They would never know what went on
inside his heart, what was in his mind behind that kindly smile. That
he knew and understood everything was clear to them, but they did not
and would not have believed that he had, for a minute, hated Terabon as
standing between him and happiness.
What are we going to do? Terabon cried, when he had told the
Parson that they loved each other, that they would complete the voyage
down the river together, that her husband still lived, and that they
could get a $17.50 divorce at Memphis.
Hit wouldn't be no 'count, that divorce. The Prophet shrugged his
shoulders, and the two hung their heads. They knew it, and yet they had
been willing to plead ignorance as an excuse for sin.
He seemed to close the incident by suggesting that it was time to
eat something, and the three turned to getting a square meal. They
cooked a bountiful dinner, and sat down to it, the Prophet asking a
blessing that seared the hearts of the two because of its fervour.
Rasba asked her to read to them after they had cleared up the
dishes, and she took down the familiar volumes and read. Rasba sat with
his eyes closed, listening. Terabon watched her face. She seemed to
choose the pages at random, and read haphazardly, but it was all
delight and all poetry.
She was reading, which was strange, the Humphrey-Abbott book about
the Mississippi River levees, the classic report on river facts, all
fascinating to the mind that grasps with pleasure any river fact. When
Rasba looked up and smiled, the two were absorbed in their occupations,
one reading, the other watching her read. She stopped in conscious
Yas, suh! he smiled aloud. I 'low we uns can leave hit to Old
Mississip', these yeah things that trouble us: I, my triflin' doubts,
and you children yo' own don't-know-yets.
What made him say that, if he wasn't a River Prophet? Who told him,
what voice informed him, at that moment? Who can say?
The following morning the big mission boat and Missy Nelia's boat
landed in at Memphis wharf, and the three went up town to buy
groceries, newspapers and magazines to read, and to help Nelia choose
another set of books from the shelves of local book stores. Old Rasba
had never been in a book store before, and he stared at the hundreds of
feet of shelves, with books of all sizes, kinds, and makes.
Sho! he cried aloud, and then, again, Sho! Sho!
It was fairyland for him, a land of enchantment, of impossible
satisfaction and glory-be! Terabon and Nelia saw that they had given
him another pleasure, and Rasba was happy to know that he would always
be able to visit such places, and add to his own store of literature,
when he had read the books which he had, as he would do, page by page,
and word by word, his dictionary at hand.
Magazines and newspapers had little interest for him. Nelia and
Terabon could not help but wish to keep closer in touch with the world.
They picked up a copy of the Trade-Appealer, and then a copy of
the Evening Battle Ax, just out.
They read one headline:
UNKNOWN DROWNS IN CRUISER
It was a brutally frank description of a motorboat cruiser which had
floated down Hopefield Bend, awash and waterlogged, but held afloat by
In the cabin was the body of a man, apparently about 30 years of
age, with a whiskey jug clasped in one hand by the handle. He was
face downward, and had been dead two or three days. It is
he was caught in the heavy wind-storm of Wednesday night and
The river had planned again. The river had acted again. They went to
look at the boat, which was pumped out and in Ash Slough. It was
Carline's cruiser. Then they went to the morgue, and it was Carline's
Nelia broke down and cried. After all, one's husband is one's
husband. She did the right thing. She owned him, now, and she carried
his remains back home to Gage, and there she buried him, and wept on
She put on widow's weeds for him, and though she might have claimed
his property, she ignored the will which left her all of it, and gave
to his relatives and to her own poor people what was theirs. She gave
Parson Rasba, whom she had brought home with her to bury her husband,
$5,000 for his services.
Then, after the estate was all settled up, she returned to Memphis,
and Terabon met her at the Union Station, dutifully, as she had told
him to do. Together they went to the City Clerk's and obtained a
marriage license, and the River Prophet, Rasba, with firm voice and
unflinching gaze, united them in wedlock.
They went aboard their own little shanty-boat, and while the rice
and old shoes of a host of river people rattled and clattered on their
cabin, they drifted out into the current and rapidly slipped away
toward President's Island. Parson Rasba, as they drifted clear, said to
I 'lowed we uns could leave hit to Old Mississip'!
THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS GARDEN CITY, N. Y.