My father was a most kind and lovable man, and while he owned and cultivated a farm, he was a trader, and nothing else. The farm was a dream of my mother’s, a vision of her girlhood, never fulfilled. He bought and sold cattle, and it was said could tell the weight of an ox by merely looking at it, so that his judgment in such matters was accepted everywhere without question by buyer and seller alike. One year, I remember, because of a great murrain breaking out among the cattle in the West, he turned his attention to swine, buying all there were in the country, and this to the great discomfiture of other dealers, who would not pay the price he offered. Afterward he drove them to market, where they were sold at a considerable advance, to the great benefit of all concerned. This venture was much thought of by those who profited by the enterprise, and added to the high esteem in which he was already held by the community generally. He did not, however, pursue the matter further, but returned the next year to his former occupation, to the great regret of his late patrons and the no less great satisfaction of those who made a business of buying and selling hogs. Winter and summer, in sunshine and storm, he traversed the country far and near, buying and selling cattle. On occasion, however, if opportunity offered, he traded in other things; but such dealings were aside and in the nature of perquisites, which he lavished on my mother or gave to the poor, of whom there were great numbers in the new country. When, from time to time; he had exhausted his money and credit and the market was right, he was in the habit of collecting his herds at some central place and driving them across the country, usually to St. Louis, that city being then as now a market of importance and noted, as it is to-day, for the enterprise and high character of its merchants.
The life my father led was one of hardship and constant danger, the newness of the country and the lawlessness that prevailed making travel dangerous and life insecure. Such things, however, did not deter him; and by repeating his venture many times successfully, it came about at last that he was thought to be among the richest men in the country. This glimpse of fortune, so alluring, proved not to be lasting, and later appeared to have visited us merely that the reverse of the picture might be the more forbidding. Esteemed a harbinger of greater things in store, it vanished in a moment to return no more.
In the autumn that I reached my tenth year my father’s purchases were greater than ever before, embracing all his own resources and those of his neighbors and friends. For these last ever pressed upon him in this way, that they might share in his good fortune—and willingly enough upon his part, for he was in all things a most considerate and generous man. At last, collecting all his herds, he drove them by easy stages across the country to St. Louis, where he found a market favorable for their sale, as he had thought. This venture consummated the access of fortune he looked forward to, and assured him thereafter ease and quietude of life and the lasting comfort of those who were dear to him. The goal so many seek, and oftentimes fruitlessly, he had thus early in life fairly and honorably attained. Closing up his affairs with all haste, he collected the proceeds of his venture, and with his little army of retainers set out on his return home. My mother, as had often been the case before, was one of the party, and this that she might be with her husband, his prolonged absences from home being the one source of unhappiness in her married life. For they were in all things lovers, as at first; and starting out on our homeward journey no premonition of coming misfortune disturbed their happiness or clouded the bright hopes they had of the future.
Pursuing our way leisurely northward—for through my mother’s indulgent love I had been permitted to accompany her—we came, after a wide detour which my father’s affairs caused him to make, to the ferry where we were to cross the Great River into Illinois. This spot was one not easily forgotten, its beauty and solitude being such as to awaken to the full one’s love of the romantic and picturesque in country life. On the western shore a fringe of graceful trees hung far over the margin of the river, and on the other side wild flowers and verdant grasses covered the valley that sloped back to the hills upon which a forest loomed. Nature, ever dainty in her handicraft, had encompassed the picture, as she never fails to do, with a graceful and appropriate setting. Some distance below the crossing, and as if to add piquancy to the scene, we could plainly discern the foam of the great rapids that there interrupted the flow of the river, but far away, and purposely, to avoid the danger of travelers being drawn into its turbulent waters. In other respects my father thought the ferry unwisely placed, because of the contracted channel and swift-running current. No accident, however, had ever occurred; and while the water was high at the time of which I speak, the prospect as we stood waiting on the shore was thought to be exhilarating rather than dangerous.
Looking forward to the passage as a pleasant diversion, the party rode onto the boat, commenting with cheerful gayety on the river and the wide expanse of the other shore, with its background of trees and projecting clouds. These last added greatly to the beauty and grandeur of the scene, and that they foretold danger in any way we did not dream. Such delusions, however, ever form a part of the destiny of men. The things that menace us we willfully disregard in the soft pleasure of idle talk, or lose sight of in the desultory fancies of the moment.
When the boat upon which we were embarked had left the shore, it was discovered, all too late, that the man in charge was far gone in drink and altogether stupid, so as not to be able to perform his duties except in a merely mechanical way. However, to turn about was impossible, the cumbrous craft being scarcely able to go forward in the turbulent current. Moreover, the difficulties of the situation appeared not to be great, and the necessity of skill on the part of the attendant a matter of little or no account; and so it would have been in most cases, but not now, as it appeared afterward.
Our craft was quaint of build in the extreme, and one not to be forgotten. In length it was some forty feet and in width perhaps a third as much. On either side a wheel projected beyond the boat, and on the inner axle a house perched in which a horse was hidden. From a distance the little craft resembled a crippled waterfowl, which, with half-closed wings, sought to rise above the stream, but at best was only able to agitate the waters in its struggle to get on. Our progress was slow and at times doubtful, the lurching of the boat oftentimes lifting the wheels clear of the water. Of this, however, we thought little, as it was in no wise attended with danger of any kind. Such was the prospect at the moment, and in the long years that have since intervened no detail of the little group as it stood huddled together looking out on the dark river has faded from my memory, or ever will.
As we neared the middle of the stream, the storm which had shown above the hills, and which we had so little regarded, burst upon us with the force of a tornado. At once all was confusion and uproar, the affrighted animals rushing hither and thither, tipping the boat this way and that as if it were a mere eggshell. Still we might have come safely to land, had not the boatman, bewildered by the uproar, lost even the semblance of habit, and failing to keep the bow resolutely to the wind, allowed it to drift hopelessly to one side. At this, and with scarcely an interval in which to cry “God help us!” the wind and waves, acting together, lifted the little craft high in the air, and holding it aloft for a moment as if in mockery, turned it bottom side up.
Before this, and as the storm arose, my father and mother stood at the bow of the boat, and happily for me I had not dismounted, but pushing to a place beside them, awaited, childlike, the coming shore. When the hurricane struck us I remember to have laughed, for storms have ever had an attraction for me, and to this day nothing gives me greater pleasure than to listen to the wind as it sweeps through the trees or spends its strength on whatever object impedes its course. I had no thought of danger, else why this great boat which seemed capable of withstanding any strain? My mother’s fears and my father’s anxious face, however, quickly conveyed to me some sense of the peril that threatened us. Nevertheless, the music of the tempest and the fitful gusts of rain and spray that beat in my face would have drowned all thought of danger, had not my mother’s shrill cry, rising above the roar of the storm and calling my name, have startled me out of myself; and now, although half a century has come and gone, I see her, as then, standing by my father’s side, holding her habit with one hand and clinging to him with the other, her paleface directed toward mine in an agony of supplication and fear. As I looked, her lips moved in prayer, as if in this way she would avert the danger that threatened those she loved. The sight brought me to my senses, and rising in my saddle, I waved my hand, and with a look sought to allay or lessen her fears. At this her face relaxed and tears darkened her eyes, as if some part of her prayer was already answered. Oh, blessed, fitful vision of a being and form divine! a glance only, but everyway sufficient for life’s brief span!
As the storm increased in violence, the wind and waves tossed our boat here and there as if it were but a feather’s weight. At last, when it was plain that the vessel was about to take its final plunge, I saw my father grasp my mother’s hand and drag her to the edge of the boat, crying: “Quick, Margaret, for your life!” Calling to me to cling to my horse and give him free rein, he lifted the great whip he carried and gave the animal a mighty stroke across the back. At this the horse, startled out of himself, sprang forward, clearing the vessel’s side at a bound, and thus in a second I found myself submerged in the angry waters. Coming to the surface, I saw my father a few feet away, supporting my mother, and now, strange sight! she seemed to have no fear whatever—at least her face gave no sign of it; but this was not out of the ordinary, for she was always trusting and womanlike, believing that in his company no harm could come to her. So that now, when the fierce waters swept over her, she clung about his neck with the same confidence, I must believe, that she had felt when he led her to the altar. For a moment we stayed together, but not longer; and as my pony straightened out in the struggle to reach the shore, I called back:
“I’m all right, pap; hold onto mother, and I’ll soon bring you help!”
Oh, hopeful, evanescent spirit of youth! To you naught is impossible or beyond God’s power to help. Of our companions who struggled with despairing cries in vain effort to free themselves from the dreadful wreck, what shall I say except to pray God that I may be spared from ever seeing or hearing anything so pitiful again.