Chapter 11 - Adventures in the Far West by Mayne Reid

A Boat-Race upon the Mississippi.

It had now become quite dark. There was no moon in the sky—not a speck of a star. A clear heaven over the lower region of the Mississippi, at night, is rather rare than otherwise. The film of the swamp too often obscures it.

There was light enough for the race. The yellow water shone clear. It was easily distinguishable from the land. The track was a wide one; and the pilots of both boats—old hands—knew every “shute” and sand-bar of the river.

The rival steamers were quite visible to one another. No lamps needed to be hung out, although the gaff over the bow of each boat carried its coloured signal. The cabin windows of both were full of light, and the blaze of the bacon fires flung a vermilion glare far over the water.

Upon each boat the spectators could be seen from the other in their state-room windows, or leaning against the guards, in attitudes that betokened their interest.

By the time the Belle had fairly got up steam, the Magnolia was a full half-mile in advance of her. This distance, though nothing where there is a large difference of speed, is not so easily overtaken where the swiftness of the boats approximates to anything like an equality. It was a long while, therefore, before the people of the Belle could be certain as to whether she was gaining upon her rival; for it is somewhat difficult to tell this when one vessel is running in the wake of the other. Questions were put by passengers to the various officials and to one another, and “guesses” were continually being made on this interesting point.

At length an assurance was derived from the Captain, that several hundred yards had been already taken up. This produced general joy, though not universal; for there were some “unpatriotic” individuals on board the Belle who had risked their dollars on the Magnolia.

In another hour, however, it was clear to all that our boat was fast gaining upon the Magnolia, as she was now within less than a quarter of a mile of her. A quarter of a mile on smooth water appears but a short distance, and the people of the two boats could hold converse at will. The opportunity was not neglected by those of the Belle to pay back the boasts of the Magnolians. Shouts of banter reached their ears, and their former taunts were now returned with interest.

“Have you any message for Saint Louis? We’re going up there, and will be happy to carry it for you,” shouted one from the Belle.

“Hurraw for the bully-boat Belle!” vociferated another.

“How are you off for bacon hams?” asked a third. “We can lend you a few, if you’re out.”

“Where shall we say we left you?” inquired a fourth. “In Shirt-tail Bend?” And loud peals of laughter followed this joking allusion to a point in the river well-known to the boatmen.

It had now approached the hour of midnight, and not a soul on either boat had thought of retiring to rest. The interest in the race precluded the idea of sleep, and both men and women stood outside the cabins, or glided out and in at short intervals to note the progress. The excitement had led to drinking, and I noticed that several of the passengers were already half intoxicated. The officers, too, led on by those, were indulging too freely, and even the Captain showed symptoms of a similar condition. No one thought of censure—prudence had fled from the boat.

It is near midnight, and amidst the growling and grinding of the machinery, the boats are moving on! There is deep darkness upon the water, but this is no impediment. The red fires glow; the blaze stands high above the tall funnels; steam booms from the iron pipes; the huge paddles lash the water into foam; the timbers creak and tremble under the fierce pressure, and the boats move on!

It is near midnight. A space of two hundred yards alone separates the steamers—the Belle is bounding upon the waves of the Magnolia. In less than ten minutes her head will overlap the stern of her rival. In less than twenty, and the cheer of victory rising from her deck will peal from shore to shore!

I was standing by the Captain of our boat, regarding him not without a feeling of solicitude. I regretted to see him pass so often to the “bar.” He was drinking deeply.

He had returned to his station by the wheel-house, and was gazing ahead. Some straggling lights were gleaming on the right bank of the river, a mile farther up. The sight of these caused him to start, and utter a wild exclamation:—

“By Heavens! it is Bringiers!”

“Ye-e-s,” drawled the pilot at his elbow. “We’ve reached it in quick time, I reckon.”

“Great God! I must lose the race!”

“How?” said the other, not comprehending him; “what has that got to do with it?”

“I must land there. I must—I must—the lady who gave us the hams—I must land her!”

“Oh! that,” replied the phlegmatic pilot; “a darned pity it is,” he added; “but if you must, you must. Darn the luck! We’d a-beat them into shucks in another quarter, I reckon. Darn the luck!”

“We must give it up,” said the Captain. “Turn her head in.”

Saying this, he hurried below; and, observing his excited manner, I followed him.

A group of ladies stood upon the guard-way where the Captain descended over the wheel-house. The Creole was among them.

“Mademoiselle,” said the Captain, addressing himself to this lady, “we must lose the race after all.”

“Why?” asked she in surprise; “are there not enough? Antoine! have you delivered them all?”

“No, Mademoiselle,” replied the Captain, “it is not that, thanks to your generosity. You see those lights?”


“That is Bringiers.”

“Oh! it is, is it?”

“Yes;—and of course you must be landed there.”

“And that would lose you the race?”


“Then, of course, I must not be landed there. What care I for a day? I am not so old but that I can spare one. Ha! ha! ha! You shall not lose your race, and the reputation of your fine boat, on my account. Think not of landing, cher Capitaine! Take me on to Baton Rouge. I can get back in the morning!”

A cheer rose from the auditory; and the Captain, rushing back to the pilot, countermanded his late order.

The Belle again stands in the wake of the Magnolia, and again scarce two hundred yards of the river lie between. The rumbling of their machinery—the booming of their steam—the plashing of their paddles—the creaking of their planks—the shouts of those on board, mingle in rude concert.

Up forges the Belle—up—up—gaining in spite of the throes of her antagonist. Up, nearer still—nearer, till her head laps upon the stern, then the wheel-house, then the foredeck of the Magnolia! Now the lights of both cross each other—their fires glow together upon the water—they are head and head!

Another foot is gained—the Captain waves his hat—and the cheer of triumph peals forth!

That cheer was never finished. Its first notes had scarce broke upon the midnight air, when it was interrupted by an explosion like the bursting of some vast magazine—an explosion that shook the air, the earth, and the water! Timbers crashed and flew upward—men shouted as their bodies were projected to the heavens—smoke and vapour filled the air—and one wild cry of agony arose upon the night!