The Steamboat Race

The season, which had been a highly prosperous one for the War Eagle, at last drew to a close, and when, late in October, we left St. Louis on our last trip, travel had ceased, and we were without passengers of any kind save a few emigrants for Keokuk and the towns thereabouts. Nor did we have any freight to speak of, but were promised a load on the down run, and this it was that had induced the captain to make the venture so late in the year. Of the cabin boys only Devlin and I remained, and like reductions had been made elsewhere throughout the crew. Thus lightened of men and merchandise, our good boat skimmed the water like the seagull she was.
The War Eagle was the pride of the upper river, excelling all others in beauty of outline and speed, so that the most ill-natured did not venture to question her supremacy. As the season was closing, however, whispers crept about the landings that the new boat, the Northern Light, was the better of the two. These insinuations our people did not regard, for if this were so, why did she always leave ahead of us, or lag behind when we pulled into the stream? Other signs there were of fear, too plain not to be seen of all men. Still the whispers went on, till at last there had come to be a settled belief on the part of many that the Northern Light was the faster boat. This was mere boasting, it was plain, for now we were making our last trip without having once heard the roar of her wheels or the boom of her exhaust alongside the War Eagle. Surely there could be no better proof than this, if proof were needed. Thus matters stood when one crisp afternoon, just as the sun was setting, we turned into the Appletop landing, and this happily, we thought, for there lay the Northern Light with steam up, as if awaiting our coming. Pert and trim she was, too, we could not help but own, riding the water like a wood-duck ready for flight. Looking her over from out the corner of his eye, Captain McGonnigle discharged the little business we had, and taking all the wood aboard we could carry, signaled the mate to cast off. This in such haste, too, that I had scarce time to say good by to Constance, who, with Setti, had awaited our coming.
As we backed into the stream, the Northern Light preceded us, and reaching the channel, took the opposite side, and doing so slowed down her engines. Surely invitation was never more plainly or courteously given! Now at last they were going to see which was the better boat, and fairly, as such things should be. Mounting to the top of the pilot-house, a thing most unusual with him, Captain McGonnigle signaled to put on all steam; and even as he gave the order great clouds of black smoke, changing soon to gray, belched forth from the towering stacks of the War Eagle. Nor was it long before the heightened roar of the exhaust told him his summons had been effective, and that the Northern Light would not find us lagging in the race. Thus in a few moments we found ourselves in the channel, the Northern Light, with her wheels slowly turning, awaiting our coming, as if not desiring advantage of any kind. Seeing this, Captain McGonnigle smiled and raised his cap to the other captain in graceful recognition of his fairness. With this friendly act, however, all intercourse between them ceased, for it was not a question of courtesy now, but of supremacy, in which the good name of the War Eagle hung trembling in the balance. Squaring himself and looking forward, Captain McGonnigle became from this time on lost to everything save the windings of the channel and the movements of the two boats. Straightway as they shot ahead a stillness as of death took possession of all on board, for in the hearts of the most hopeful there could not but be a doubt as to which would prove the faster now that the struggle was fairly on. As the vessels gained in speed, the water, already tipped with white-caps, flew high above their prows, spraying the decks and those who stood watching as with a falling shower. Behind, it tossed and foamed, white and glistening, like an angry cataract, as far as the eye could see in the gathering night. High above the swash of the wheels and the noise of the escaping steam, and as if in emphasis, the sharp clang of the bells could be plainly heard as the captains called for sharper fires. Scarce would one cease to vibrate than the other would take it up, and this with angry vehemence, as if the previous summons had been neglected or only half fulfilled.
Thus the challenge rang back and forth as we stood watching and listening, doing nothing, nor able to do anything. In this way night came on, and the stars flared out in the peaceful sky, but without any one regarding them, or, indeed, knowing that the day had set. Now lights began to blaze forth from the cabins of the struggling boats, and at every prescribed place, fore and aft, and amidships, the signals of the river gave forth their warning. About the furnaces, red with heat, the glare of the fires threw a lurid light over the gurgling waters and the toiling stokers as they bent over their work, stripped to the waist and streaming with sweat. Till now no gain had been made by either boat; or, if in the windings of the channel, which the sharp prows followed as bloodhounds do their quarry, the inner circle, shortening the distance, gave some advantage, it was quickly lost in the next turning, where the circle was reversed. Thus, amid the cheering, first of one crew and then the other, the boats flew onward, the water beside their prows sparkling as if the river were aflame from the friction of the flying vessels.
Increasing her speed by greater skill in firing, or some cunning device held in reserve for such emergencies, the War Eagle stretched away as a greyhound will when its prey is full in view, yet without gaining any advantage, however small. Nay, the other presently bringing into play a trick not before employed, began to forge ahead. This for no reason that we could see, until at last, the flash of her fires lighting up the interior of the vessel, discovered her crew pouring oil on the fuel, and at intervals flinging great balls steeped in the liquid substance into the roaring furnaces. At the sight Captain McGonnigle threw up his hands, crying out: “God save us!” as if astonished beyond measure at the recklessness of the thing. Regaining himself after a moment, his brow darkened, and bending over he ordered the engineer to push the fires as the other was doing. With his speaking, and as if action had only awaited his command, the War Eagle responded to the added force, and so regained after a while the few feet it had lost. Now great flames burst from the tops of the heated smokestacks, rising high in the air, and falling, left streams of fire to slowly sink into the glistening river far behind. Such flames, indeed, we had seen bursting from the Northern Light, but, simple-minded, we ascribed them to their greater skill in firing. In this way the War Eagle plowed her way through the darkness, passing one after another the little towns at which we had thought to stop, but now giving them no attention whatever. Making no gain, Captain McGonnigle at last looked about as if to discover some way by which he might increase the speed of his vessel, but without result. Seeing this, I approached him, and plucking his sleeve, cried at the top of my voice, so as to make myself heard:
11“Wouldn’t it help the boat, sir, if we lifted the yawl that’s dragging at the stern?”
This weight he seemed not to have thought of, and was on the point of directing me to have the boat hoisted, when, reflecting, he shook his head, saying:
“Go and see if their boat is dragging, and if it is, leave ours.”
This practice will seem strange to you, but at the time of which I speak was common enough. The landing-places were then far apart, you must know, so that it was the custom to take on passengers or put them ashore at intermediate points; and to save time in such emergencies, a yawl or light boat was allowed to drag ready for use, except that the oars were removed to prevent their being stolen.
Upon receiving the captain’s order I hastened to the lower deck, where I found our yawl dragging in the water, as I have said. Turning to the Northern Light, I clearly made out its boat tied in like manner, and in the stern one of the crew resting at his ease. Envying him his seat, and reasoning that we ought not to enjoy any unfair advantage, as the captain himself had thought, I slipped into our boat, and untying the rope, let it run out through the ring that held it, until in this way I had dropped back a yard or more. Thus master of the situation, I could at will come close under the deck of the War Eagle or remain away, as I might wish. Reclining in the stern of the boat, wearied with the excitement of the evening, I was soothed and rested by the swash of the water as it tossed the light craft in which I lay this way and that. Yet without in any way losing interest in the race, for now a new view presented itself, and this more picturesque, I thought, than the other. Above my head clouds of fire and escaping steam flew across the reddened sky, while about me the air was filled with spray, which, falling on my upturned face, wet it as with a refreshing dew. Before me the War Eagle groaned and creaked, and a little way off the other vessel, not less strenuous, put forth her every effort to gain some slight advantage, but unsuccessfully, as one could plainly see.
After a while, beginning to tire, as we will of every form of excess, I was meditating a return to the War Eagle, when flames, higher and fiercer than before, burst from her stacks, lighting up the heavens with a deeper and wider glow. Thinking some new device was being tried, I sat still, and doing so, felt the increased power of the boat, and this as if she had before been held by some restraining hand. Seeing how it was, our crew raised a cheer, but alas! For as our stern tipped the prow of the Northern Light and victory seemed clearly ours, there came a sickening roar, all too plain, from the hull of the War Eagle. With the sound, and sooner than I can tell, the sky was aflame with fire and steam, and about me, and on my body and upturned face, particles of wood and iron fell in showers, as if dropped from heaven. Following the sound, and without any interlude whatever, the flying vessel, her body burst asunder, began to settle in the boiling water. Seeing this, and aroused by the sight, I sprang to my feet, and letting go the rope, the fierce current quickly drew it through the ring, and I was freed from the sinking boat. NORFLOXACIN
Now I bethought me to aid the others, but alas! on looking about, there was not so much as a stick by which to hold or guide the craft in which I stood. In this way, and in agony of grief, and crying out at the top of my voice, I floated away into the gathering darkness as the War Eagle sank beneath the troubled waters. This, as I say, without being able to so much as lift a hand to help my friends. Not so those on board the Northern Light, for immediately the explosion occurred she reversed her engines, and in a moment her boats were dancing on the water and hastening, amid the cries of her crew, to the aid of our stricken people. This much I saw, but only partly and from afar off, so quickly did the current carry me away and out of sight. Standing up and straining my eyes to the utmost, the lights one by one faded out, until I was alone and helpless on the silent river; but of this I neither thought nor cared, for my heart was filled to bursting at the unhappy fate of my late companions. Gladly in my grief would I have stayed to share their death, but instead I was each moment being carried farther away, helpless as driftwood to aid either them or myself. Thus I stood for hours, looking back and mourning till the night was far spent and the moon arose over the distant hills of Illinois. At this, and in a measure soothed by the sight, I know not why, I threw myself down in the bottom of the boat, and so, after a while, fell into a troubled sleep.
Awakening at dawn, I stood up and scanned the shore on either side to see if I could make out some familiar object. In vain, however; and thus an hour or more passed without my seeing any one or being able to tell my whereabouts. Despondent and chilled by the sharp air, I began to search the boat anew, to see if I could not devise some way to reach the shore. While thus busied a voice hailed me, and looking up I was gladdened by finding myself abreast of Mr. Hayward’s ferry, where Constance and I had passed so many happy days. Calling to Mr. Hayward—for it was he—to come to my aid, he loosened the skiff that lay fastened at hand, and pushing into the stream, soon neared the spot where I lay drifting with the current.
“Hello, Gilbert; is that you?” he cried, in surprise, on discovering who it was.
“Yes, sir.”
“What’s the matter? Where do you come from?” he asked, resting on his oars as if too much astonished to proceed.
“From the War Eagle, sir.”
“Why in this shape?” he exclaimed.
“It’s all that’s left of her, I fear.”
“All that’s left of her! Why, what do you mean?”
“She blew up last night.”
“God bless us! blew up! and the passengers and crew?”
“There were no passengers, but about the crew, oh, Lord! I don’t know,” I answered, sorrow-stricken.
“How did you get off?” he asked, after a while.
“I was dragging at the stern.”
“Well, that was lucky, anyway.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” I answered, not elated as I should have been over my escape, so great was my sorrow for those who were lost.
“What was the matter? Were you racing?”
“Well, there was a boat alongside of us.”
“That’s it,” he answered, his temper rising, as men’s will sometimes after a great shock; “our river men will never learn anything, and now this new accident!”
“Yes, sir; but it couldn’t be helped. No one was to blame.”
“No, of course not. It was Providence,” he answered. “That is where we lay the blame for all the foolish things we do. What a spinal column Providence must have,” he went on, “to carry so great a burden! But while we are talking, the current is taking us to the gulf”; and starting up, he soon reached my boat, and fastening it to the one he was in, put forth all his strength, and so brought us quickly to the landing a few steps from his home.