Read CHAPTER XII - THE WRECK ON THE RIVER of The Way of a Man, free online book, by Emerson Hough, on ReadCentral.com.

I made friends with many of these strange travelers, and was attracted especially by one, a reticent man of perhaps sixty odd years, in Western garb, full of beard and with long hair reaching to his shoulders.  He had the face of an old Teuton war chief I had once seen depicted in a canvas showing a raid in some European forest in years long before a Christian civilization was known ­a face fierce and eager, aquiline in nose, blue of eye; a figure stalwart, muscular, whose every movement spoke courage and self-confidence.  Auberry was his name, and as I talked with him he told me of days passed with my heroes ­Fremont, Carson, Ashley, Bill Williams, Jim Bridger, even the negro ruffian Beckwourth ­all men of the border of whose deeds I had read.  Auberry had trapped from the St. Mary’s to the sources of the Red, and his tales, told in simple and matter-of-fact terms, set my very blood atingle.  He was bound, as he informed me, for Laramie; always provided that the Sioux, now grown exceedingly restless over the many wagon-trains pushing up the Platte to all the swiftly-opening West, had not by this time swooped down and closed all the trails entirely.  I wished nothing then so much as that occasion might permit me to join him in a journey across the Plains.

Among all these west-bound travelers the savage and the half-civilized seemed to me to preponderate; this not to say that they were so much coarse and crude as they were fierce, absorbed, self-centered.  Each man depended upon himself and needed to do so.  The crew on the decks were relics from keel-boat days, surly and ugly of temper.  The captain was an ex-pilot of the lower river, taciturn and surly of disposition.  Our pilot had been drunk for a week at the levee of St. Louis and I misdoubt that all snags and sandbars looked alike to him.

Among the skin-clad trappers, hunters and long-haired plainsmen, I saw but one woman, and she certainly was fit to bear them company.  I should say that she was at least sixty years of age, and nearly six feet in height, thin, angular, wrinkled and sinewy.  She wore a sunbonnet of enormous projection, dipped snuff vigorously each few moments, and never allowed from her hands the long squirrel rifle which made a part of her equipage.  She was accompanied by her son, a tall, thin, ague-smitten youth of perhaps seventeen years and of a height about as great as her own.  Of the two the mother was evidently the controlling spirit, and in her case all motherly love seemed to have been replaced by a vast contempt for the inefficiency and general lack of male qualities in her offspring.  When I first saw them she was driving her son before her to a spot where an opening offered near the bow of the boat, in full sight of all the passengers, of whose attention she was quite oblivious.

“Git up, there, Andy Jackson!” she said.  “Stan’ up!”

The boy, his long legs braiding under him, and his peaked face still more pale, did as he was bid.  He had no sooner taken his position than to my surprise I saw his mother cover him with the long barrel of a dragoon revolver.

“Pull your gun, you low-down coward,” she commanded, in tones that might have been heard half the length of the boat.  Reluctantly the boy complied, his own revolver trembling in his unready hand.

“Now, whut’d you do if a man was to kivver you like I’m a-doin’ now?” demanded his mother.

“G-g-g-Gawd, Maw, I dunno!  I think I’d j-j-j-jump off in the river,” confessed the boy.

“Shore you would, and good luck if you’d git plumb drownded, you white-livered son of misery.  Whatever in Gawd A’mighty’s world you was borned for certainly is more’n I can tell ­and I your Maw at that, that orto know if anybody could.”

“Madam,” I interrupted, astonished at this discourse, “what do you mean by such talk to your son ­for I presume he is your son.  Why do you abuse him in this way?” I was sorry for the shivering wretch whom she had made the object of her wrath.

“Shut up, and mind yore own business,” answered the virago, swiftly turning the barrel of her weapon upon me.  “Whut business is this here of yores?”

“None, madam,” I bowed, “but I was only curious.”

“You keep your own cur’osity to yourself ef you’r goin’ to travel in these parts.  That’s a mighty good thing for you to learn.”

“Very true, madam,” said I, gently disengaging the revolver barrel from the line of my waist, “but won’t you tell me why you do these things with your son?”

“It’s none of your damned business,” she answered, “but I don’t mind tellin’ you.  I’m tryin’ to make a man out’n him.”

“Ah, and this is part of the drill?”

“Part of it.  You, Andrew Jackson, stick yore pistol up agin your head the way I tol’ you.  Now snap it, damn you!  Keep on a-snappin’!  Quit that jumpin’, I tell you!  Snap, it till you git through bein’ scared of it.  Do it now, or by Gawd, I’ll chase you over the side of the boat and feed you to the catfish, you low-down imertation of a he-thing.  Mister,” she turned to me again, “will you please tell me how come me to be the mother of a thing like this ­me, a woman of olé Missoury; and me a cousin of olé Simon Kenton of Kentucky beside?”

“My good woman,” said I, somewhat amused by her methods of action and speech, “do you mind telling me what is your name?”

“Name’s Mandy McGovern; and I come from Pike,” she answered, almost before the words were out of my mouth.  “I’ve been merried three times and my first two husbands died a-fightin, like gentlemen, in diffikilties with friends.  Then along come this Danny Calkins, that taken up some land nigh to me in the bottoms ­low-downest coward of a, man that ever disgraced the sile of yearth ­and then I merried him.”

“Is he dead, too, my dear woman?” I asked.

“Don’t you ‘dear woman’ me ­I ain’t free to merry agin yit,” said she.  “Naw, he ain’t dead, and I ain’t deevorced either.  I just done left him.  Why, every man in Pike has whupped Danny Calkins one time or other.  When a man couldn’t git no reputation any other way, he’d come erlong and whupped my husband.  I got right tired of it.”

“I should think you might.”

“Yes, and me the wife of two real men befo’ then.  If ever a woman had hard luck the same is me,” she went on.  “I had eight chillen by my two husbands that was real men, and every one of them died, or got killed like a man, or went West like a man ­exceptin’ this thing here, the son of that there Danny Calkins.  Why, he’s afraid to go coon huntin’ at night for fear the cats’ll get him.  He don’t like to melk a keow for fear she’ll kick him.  He’s afraid to court a gal.  He kaint shoot, he kaint chop, he kaint do nothin’.  I’m takin’ him out West to begin over again where the plowin’s easier; and whiles we go along, I’m givin’ him a ‘casional dose of immanuel trainin’, to see if I can’t make him part way intoe a man.  I dunno!” Mrs. McGovern dipped snuff vigorously.

Thereafter she looked at me carefully.  “Say, mister,” said she, “how tall are you?”

“About six feet, I think.”

“Hum!  That’s just about how tall my first husband was.  You look some like him in the face, too.  Say, he was the fightin’est man in Pike.  How come him to get killed was a diffikilty with his brother-in-law, a Dutchman that kept a saloon and couldn’t talk English.  Jim, he went in there to get a bite to eat and asked this Dutchman what he could set up.  Paul ­that was the Dutchman’s name ­he says, ’Well, we got dawg ­mallard dawg, and red head dawg, and canvas back dawg ­what’s the kind of dawg you like, Chim?’

“My husband thought he was pokin’ fun at him, talkin’ about eatin’ dawg ­not knowin’ the Dutchman was tryin’ to say ‘duck,’ and couldn’t.  ‘I might have a piece of duck,’ said Jim, ‘bit I ain’t eatin’ no dawg.’

“‘I said dawg,’ says Paul, still a-tryin’ to say ‘duck.’

“‘I know you did,’ says Jim, and then they clinched.  Jim He broke his knife off, and the Dutchman soaked him with a beer mallet.  ‘But Mandy,’ says Jim to me, jest before he shet his eyes, ’I die content.  That there fellow was the sweetest cuttin’ man I ever did cut in all my life ­he was jest like a ripe pumpkin.’  Say, there was a man for you, was Jim ­you look some like him.”  She dipped snuff again vigorously.

“You compliment me very much, Mrs. McGovern,” I said.

“Say,” she responded, “I got two thousand head o’ hawgs runnin’ around in the timber down there in Pike.”

At the moment I did not see the veiled tenderness of this speech, but thought of nothing better than to tell her that I was going no further up the river than Fort Leavenworth.

“Um-hum!” she said.  “Say, mister, mebbe that’s yore wife back there in the kebbin in the middle of the boat?”

“No, indeed.  In fact I did not know there was any other lady on the boat besides yourself.  I am not much interested in young ladies, as it happens.”

“You lie,” said Mrs. McGovern promptly, “there ain’t nothin’ in the whole world you are ez much interested in as young wimmin.  I’m a merried woman, and I know the signs.  If I had a deevorce I might be a leetle jealous o’ that gal in there.  She’s the best lookin’ gal I ever did see in all my time.  If I was merried to you I dunno but I’d be a leetle bit jealous o’ you.  Say, I may be a widder almost any day now.  Somebody’ll shore kill Danny Calkins ’fore long.”

“And, according to you, I may be a married man almost any day,” I replied, smiling.

“But you ain’t merried yit.”

“No, not yet,” I answered.

“Well, if you git a chanct you take a look at that gal back there in the kebbin.”

Opportunity did not offer, however, to accept Mrs. McGovern’s kindly counsel, and, occupied with my own somewhat unhappy reflections, I resigned myself to the monotony of the voyage up the Missouri River.  We plowed along steadily, although laboriously, all night, all the next day and the next night, passing through regions rich in forest growth, marked here and there by the many clearings of the advancing settlers.  We were by this time far above the junction of the Missouri River with the Mississippi ­a point traceable by a long line of discolored water stained with the erosion of the mountains and plains far up the Missouri.  As the boat advanced, hour after hour, finally approaching the prairie country beyond the Missouri forests, I found little in the surroundings to occupy my mind; and so far as my communings with myself were concerned, they offered little satisfaction.  A sort of shuddering self-reproach overcame me.  I wondered whether or not I was less coarse, less a thing polygamous than these crowding Mormons hurrying out to their sodden temples in the West, because now (since I have volunteered in these pages to tell the truth regarding one man’s heart), I must admit that in the hours of dusk I found myself dreaming not of my fiancee back in old Virginia, but of other women seen more recently.  As to the girl of the masked ball, I admitted that she was becoming a fading memory; but this young girl who had thrust through the crowd and broken up our proceedings the other day ­the girl with the white lawn gown and the silver gray veil and the tear-stained eyes ­in some way, as I was angrily obliged to admit, her face seemed annoyingly to thrust itself again into my consciousness.  I sat near a deck lamp.  Grace Sheraton’s letter was in my pocket.  I did not draw it out to read it and re-read it.  I contented myself with watching the masked shadows on the shores.  I contented myself with dreams, dreams which I stigmatized as unwarranted and wrong.

We were running that night in the dark, before the rising of the moon, a thing which cautious steamboat men would not have ventured, although our pilot was confident that no harm could come to him.  Against assurance such as this the dangerous Missouri with its bars and snags purposed a present revenge.  Our whistle awakened the echoes along the shores as we plowed on up the yellow flood, hour after hour.  Then, some time toward midnight, while most of the passengers were attempting some sort of rest, wrapped in their blankets along the deck, there came a slight shock, a grating slide, and a rasping crash of wood.  With a forward churning of her paddles which sent water high along the rail, the River Belle shuddered and lay still, her engines throbbing and groaning.

In an instant every one on the boat was on his feet and running to the side.  I joined the rush to the bows, and leaning over, saw that we were hard aground at the lower end of a sand bar.  Imbedded in this bar was a long white snag, a tree trunk whose naked arms, thrusting far down stream, had literally impaled us.  The upper woodwork of the boat was pierced quite through; and for all that one could tell at the moment, the hull below the line was in all likelihood similarly crushed.  We hung and gently swung, apparently at the mercy of the tawny flood of old Missouri.