Chapter 10 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

A New Mode of raising the Steam.

It was near sunset—the fiery disc was going down behind the dark outline of cypress forest that belted the western horizon, and a yellow light fell upon the river. Promenading back and forward upon the canvas-covered roof, I was gazing upon the scene, wrapt in admiration of its glowing beauty.

My reverie was interrupted. On looking down the river I saw that a large boat was in our wake, and coming rapidly after us. The volume of smoke rolling up out of her tall funnels, and the red glowing of her fires, showed that she was moving under a full head of steam. Her size, as well as the loud reports of her ’scape-pipe, told that she was a boat of the first-class. She was the “Magnolia.” She was moving with great velocity, and I had not watched her long, before I perceived that she was fast gaining upon us.

At this moment my ears were assailed by a variety of sounds coming from below. Loud voices in earnest tones, the stamping and pattering of feet, as of men rushing over the wooden decks and along the guard-ways. The voices of women, too, were mingled in the medley.

I surmised what all this meant. The approach of the rival boat was the cause of the excitement.

Up to this time the boat-race seemed to have been nearly forgotten. It had got abroad among both “hands” and passengers that the Captain did not intend to “run;” and although this backing-out had been loudly censured at first, the feeling of disappointment had partially subsided. The crew had been busy at their work of stowage—the firemen with their huge billets of cord-wood—the gamblers with their cards—and the passengers, in general, with their portmanteaus, or the journal of the day. The other boat not starting at the same time, had been out of sight until now, and the feeling of rivalry almost “out of mind.”

The appearance of the rival produced a sudden change. The gamblers flung down the half-dealt pack, in hopes of having something more exciting to bet upon; the readers hastily closed their books, and tossed aside their newspapers; the rummagers of trunks banged down the lids; the fair occupants of rocking-chairs suddenly sprang to their feet; and all ran out of the cabins, and pressed towards the after-part of the boat.

My position on the hurricane-deck was the best possible for a good view of the rival boat, and I was soon joined by a number of my fellow-passengers. I wished, however, to witness the scene on the cabin-deck, and went below.

On reaching the main saloon, I found it quite forsaken. All the passengers, both male and female, had gone out upon the guard-way; and leaning against the guards were anxiously watching the approach of the Magnolia.

I found the Captain under the front-cabin awning. He was surrounded by a crowd of gentlemen-passengers, all of whom appeared to be in a high state of excitement. One after the other was proffering speech to him. They were urging him to “raise the steam.”

The Captain, evidently wishing to escape from these importunities, kept passing from place to place. It was to no purpose. Wherever he went he was met or followed by a knot of individuals, all with the same request in their mouths—some even begging him for “God’s sake” not to let the Magnolia pass him!

“Wal, Cap!” cried one, “if the Belle don’t run, I guess she’ll never be heerd of on these waters agin, she won’t.”

“You’re right!” added another. “For my part the next trip I make I’ll try the Magnolia.”

“She’s a fast boat that ’ere Magnolia!” remarked a third.

“She ain’t anything else,” rejoined the first speaker: “she’s got her steam on a few, I reckon.”

I walked out on the guard-way in the direction of the ladies’ cabin. The inmates of the latter were clustered along the guards, and seemingly as much interested in the boat-race as the men. I could hear several of them expressing their wishes aloud that the boats would run. All idea of risk or fear of consequences had departed; and I believe that if the company had been “polled” at the moment in favour of the race, there would not have been three dissentient voices. I confess that I, myself, would have voted for running,—I had caught the infection, and no longer thought of “snags,” “sawyers,” or bursting boilers.

As the Magnolia drew near the excitement increased. It was evident that in a few minutes more she would be alongside, and then pass us. The idea was unsupportable to some of the passengers; and loud words could be heard, now and then interspersed with an angry oath. The poor Captain had to bear all this—for it was known that the rest of the officers were well disposed for a trial of speed. It was the Captain only who “showed the white feather.”

The Magnolia was close in our wake; her head bearing a little to one side. She was evidently preparing to pass us!

Her officers and crew were moving actively about; both pilots were seen above at the wheel-house; the firemen were all at work upon the deck; the furnace-doors were glowing red-hot; and the bright blaze stood several feet above the tops of her tall funnels! One might have fancied she was on fire!

“They are burning bacon hams!” shouted a voice.

“They are by—!” exclaimed another. “See, yonder’s a pile of them in front of the furnace!”

I turned my eyes in that direction. It was quite true. A pyramidal-shaped mass of dark-brown objects lay upon the deck in front of the fires. Their size, shape, and colour told what they were—dried hams of bacon. The firemen were seen taking them from the pile, and thrusting them one after another up the red tunnels of the furnace!

The Magnolia was still gaining upon us. Already her head was even with the wheel-house of the Belle. On the latter boat the excitement increased, and the noise along with it. An occasional taunt from the passengers of the rival boat added fuel to the flame; and the Captain was once more abjured to run. Men almost threatened him with violence!

The Magnolia continued to advance. She was now head for head with us. Another minute passed—a minute of deep silence—the crews and passengers of both boats watched their progress with hearts too full for utterance. Another minute, and the Magnolia had shot ahead!

A triumphant cheer rang along her decks, mingled with taunting shouts and expressions of insult.

“Throw us a line, and we’ll tow you!” cried one.

“Whar’s yer old ark now?” shouted another.

“Hurraw for the Magnolia! Three groans for the Belle of the West! Three groans for the old dugout!” vociferated a third, amidst jeers and shouts of laughter.

I can hardly describe the mortification felt by those on board the Belle. It was not confined to the officers and crew. The passengers, one and all, seemed to partake of the feeling. I shared it myself, more than I could have believed to be possible.

One dislikes to be among the conquered, even on any terms of association. Besides, one involuntarily catches the impulse of the moment. The sentiment that surrounds you—perhaps by physical laws which you cannot resist—for the moment becomes your own; and even when you know the object of exultation to be worthless or absurd, you are controlled by the electric current to join in the enthusiasm. I remember once being thus carried away, and mingled my voice with the rude throats that cheered the passing cortege of royalty. The moment it was past, however, my heart fell, abashed at its own meanness and wickedness.

Both his crew and passengers seemed to think our Captain imprudent in his prudence: and a general clamour, mingled with cries of “Shame!” was heard all over the boat.

The poor Captain! I had my eyes upon him all this while. I really pitied him. I was perhaps the only passenger on board, beside the fair Creole, who knew his secret; and I could not help admiring the chivalric fortitude with which he kept it to himself. I saw his cheek glow, and his eye sparkle with vexation; and I felt satisfied, that had he been called upon to make that promise then, he would not have done so for the privilege of carrying all the freight upon the river.

Just then, as if to escape the importunities that beset him, I saw him steal back and pass through the ladies’ cabin. There he was at once recognised, and a general onset was made upon him by his fair passengers, who were almost as noisy in their petitions as the men. Several threatened him, laughingly, that they would never travel by his boat again; while others accused him of a want of gallantry. Surely it was impossible to resist such banterings; and I watched the Captain closely, expecting a crisis one way or the other. The crisis was at hand.

Drawing himself up in the midst of a knot of these importunates, he thus addressed them:—

“Ladies! Nothing would give me more pleasure than to gratify you, but before leaving New Orleans I gave my promise—in fact, passed my word of honour to a lady—” Here the gallant speech was interrupted by a young lady, who, rushing up from another part of the boat, cried out—

“Oh, Capitaine! cher Capitaine! do not let that wicked boat get ahead of us! do put on more steam, and pass her—that is a dear Captain!”

“Why, Mademoiselle!” replied the Captain, in astonishment, “it was to you I gave the promise not to run—it was—”

“Pardieu!” exclaimed Mademoiselle Besançon, for it was she. “So you did. I had quite forgotten it. Oh, cher Capitaine, I release you from that promise. Hélas! I hope it is not too late. For Heaven’s sake, try to pass her! Écoutez! les polissons! how they taunt us!”

The Captain’s face brightened up for a moment, and then suddenly resumed its vexed expression. He replied—

“Mademoiselle, although grateful to you, I regret to say that under the circumstances I cannot hope to run successfully against the Magnolia. We are not on equal terms. She is burning bacon hams, of which she has a large supply. I should have had the same, but after promising you not to run, I, of course, did not take any on board. It would be useless to attempt a race with only common cord-wood—unless indeed the Belle be much the faster boat, which we do not yet know, as we have never tried her speed.”

Here appeared to be a dilemma, and some of the ladies regarded Mademoiselle Besançon with looks of displeasure.

“Bacon hams!” she exclaimed; “bacon hams did you say, cher Capitaine? How many would be enough? Would two hundred be enough?”

“Oh! less than that,” replied the Captain.

“Here! Antoine! Antoine!” continued she, calling to the old steward. “How many bacon hams have you on board?”

“Ten barrels of them, Mademoiselle,” answered the steward, bowing respectfully.

“Ten barrels! that will do, I suppose? Cher Capitaine, they are at your service!”

“Mademoiselle, I shall pay you for them,” said the Captain, brightening up, and becoming imbued with the general enthusiasm.

“No—no—no! Let the expense be mine. I have hindered you. They were for my plantation people, but they are not in want. We shall send down for more. Go, Antoine! go to the firemen. Knock in the heads of the barrels! Use them as you please, but do not let us be beaten by that wicked Magnolia! Hark! how they cheer! Ha! we shall pass them yet.”

So saying, the fiery Creole rushed back to the guard-way, followed by a group of admirers.

The Captain’s “dander” was now fairly up; and the story of the bacon hams soon spreading over the boat, still further heightened the enthusiasm of both passengers and crew. Three loud cheers were given for the young lady, which seemed to mystify the Magnolians, who had now been for some time in the enjoyment of their triumph, and had forged a considerable distance ahead.

All hands went to work with a will—the barrels were rolled-up, their heads knocked in, and part of their contents “chucked” up the blazing furnace. The iron walls soon grew red—the steam rose—the boat trembled under the increased action of the engine—the bells of the engineers tinkled their signals—the wheels revolved more rapidly, and an increase of velocity was soon perceptible.

Hope had stifled clamour—comparative silence was restored. There was heard only an occasional utterance—the expression of an opinion upon the speed of the rival boats—the fixing the conditions of a bet—and now and then some allusion to the story of the bacon hams.

At intervals, all eyes were bent upon the water eagerly glancing along the line that separated the rival steamers.