Chapter 4 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

The Rival Boats.

The part of the “Levee” under my eyes was that known as the “Steamboat Landing.” Some twenty or thirty boats lay along a series of wooden wharves that projected slightly into the river. Some had just arrived from up-river towns, and were discharging their freight and passengers, at this season a scanty list. Others, surrounded by a bustling swarm, were getting up steam; while still others appeared to be abandoned by both officers and crew—who were no doubt at the time enjoying themselves in the brilliant cafés and restaurants. Occasionally might be seen a jauntily-dressed clerk, with blue cottonade trowsers, white linen coat, costly Panama hat, shirt with cambric ruffles, and diamond studs. This stylish gentleman would appear for a few minutes by one of the deserted boats—perhaps transact a little business with some one—and then hurry off again to his more pleasant haunts in the city.

There were two points upon the Levee where the bustle of active life was more especially observable. These were the spaces in front of two large boats. One was that on which I had taken passage. The other, as I could read upon her wheel-house, was the “Magnolia.” The latter was also upon the eve of starting, as I could tell by the movements of her people, by the red fires seen in her furnaces, and the hissing of steam, that every now and then screamed sharply from the direction of her boilers.

On the Levee directly in front of her “drays” were depositing their last loads, passengers were hurrying forward hat-box in hand, in fear they might be too late; trunks, boxes, bags, and barrels were being rudely pushed or rolled over the staging-planks; the gaily-dressed clerks, armed with book and pencil, were checking them off; and everything denoted the intention of a speedy departure. A scene exactly similar was being enacted in front of the “Belle of the West.”

I had not been regarding these movements very long, before I observed that there was something unusual “in the wind.” The boats lay at no great distance from each other, and their crews, by a slight elevation of voice, could converse. This they were freely doing; and from some expressions that reached me, coupled with a certain tone of defiance in which they were uttered, I could perceive that the “Magnolia” and the “Belle of the West” were “rival boats.” I soon gathered the further information, that they were about to start at the same time, and that a “race” was in contemplation!

I knew that this was no unusual occurrence among what are termed “crack” boats, and both the “Belle” and her rival came under that category. Both were of the first-class in size and magnificence of fitting; both ran in the same “trade,” that is, from New Orleans to Saint Louis; and both were commanded by well-known and popular river “captains.” They could not be otherwise than rivals; and this feeling was shared in by the crews of both, from captain to cabin-slave.

As regards the owners and officers in such cases, there is a substantial money motive at the bottom of this rivalry. The boat that “whips” in one of these races, wins also the future patronage of the public. The “fast boat” becomes the fashionable boat, and is ever afterwards sure of a strong list of passengers at a high rate of fare—for there is this peculiarity among Americans: many of them will spend their last dollar to be able to say at the end of his journey that he came upon the fashionable boat, just as in England you find many people desirous of making it known that they travelled “first-class.” Snobbery is peculiar to no country—it appears to be universal.

With regard to the contemplated trial of speed between the “Belle of the West” and the “Magnolia,” the feeling of rivalry pervaded not only the crews of both boats, but I soon discovered that the passengers were affected with it. Most of these seemed as eager for the race as an English blackleg for the Derby. Some no doubt looked forward to the sport and excitement, but I soon perceived that the greater number were betting upon the result!

“The Belle’s boun’ to win!” cried a gold-studded vulgar-looking fellow at my shoulder. “I’ll go twenty dollars on the Belle. Will you bet, stranger?”

“No,” I replied, somewhat angrily, as the fellow had taken a liberty by laying his hand on my shoulder.

“Well,” retorted he, “jest as you like ’bout that;” and addressing himself to some one else he continued, “the Belle’s the conquering boat for twenty dollars! Twenty dollars on the Belle!”

I confess I had no very pleasant reflections at that moment. It was my first trip upon an American steamboat, and my memory was brimful of stories of “boiler burstings,” “snaggings,” “blowings up,” and boats on fire. I had heard that these races not infrequently resulted in one or other of the above-named catastrophes, and I had reason to know that my information was correct.

Many of the passengers—the more sober and respectable ones—shared my feelings; and some talked of appealing to the Captain not to allow the race. But they knew they were in the minority, and held their peace.

I had made up my mind at least to ask the Captain “his intentions.” I was prompted rather by curiosity than by any other motive.

I left my seat, therefore, and having crossed the staging, walked toward the top of the wharf, where this gentleman was standing.