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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 56. Eight Years After
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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 56. Eight Years After Post by :mkproductions Category :Long Stories Author :George Washington Cable Date :May 2012 Read :936

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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 56. Eight Years After

CHAPTER LVI. EIGHT YEARS AFTER

"A hundred months," says the love-song that beguiled so many thousands of hearts throughout the Mississippi Valley in those old "Lily Dale," "Nellie Gray," "What is Home Without a Mother?" days, when the lugubrious was so blithely enjoyed at the piano. Its first wails date nearly or quite back to October, 1860.

"A hundred months had passed" since that first up-stream voyage of the _Votaress_, or, to be punctilious, something under a hundred and two. It was the opening week of that mid-autumn month in which it became evident that Abraham Lincoln would be the next president. Another new boat, new pride of the great river, the fairest yet, still in the hands of her contractors, and on her trial trip from Louisville to New Orleans, was rounding, one after another, now far in the east, now as far in the west, the bends nearest below Memphis: Cow Island, Cat Island, St. Francis, Delta--so on.

The river was low. You would hardly have known a reach, a cut-off, a point of it by any aspect remembered from that journey of April, '52. Scantness of waters appeared to contract distances. "Paddy's Hen and Chickens," just above Memphis, were all out on dry sands and seemed closer under the "Devil's Elbow" than eight years before. Every towhead and bar and hundreds of snags were above water and as ugly as mud, age, sun bleach, and turkey-buzzards could make them. Many a chute comfortably run by the _Votaress was now "closed for repairs," said one of the pilots of the _Enchantress_. He was the whilom steersman we knew as Watson's cub; a very capable-looking man now. At the moment, he was off watch and had come out from the bar to the boiler deck with a trim, supple man of forty, whose shirt of fine white flannel was open at the throat, where a soft neckerchief of red silk matched the sash at his waist: "California," eight years older and out of the West again despite his "never" to Hayle's twins.

"I like to change my mind sometimes," he explained. "It shows me I've got one."

A towering, massive, grizzly man several years older than the Californian, with a short, stiff, throat-latch beard and a great bush of dense, short curls, stood by the forward guards, a picture of rude force and high efficiency. At every moment, from some direction among the deck's loungers a light scrutiny ventured to rest on him, to which he seemed habituated, and the lightest was enough to reveal in him a striking union of traits coarse and fine. He wore a big cluster diamond pin, a sort of hen-and-chickens of his own, secured by a minute guard-chain on a ruffled shirt-front of snowiest linen, where clung dry crumbs of the "fine-cut" which puffed the lower side pockets of his gray alpaca sack coat. His gold-headed cane was almost a bludgeon. He had come aboard at Memphis, having reached that city but a few hours earlier by rail-way train from White Sulphur Springs, Va., where he had had the good fortune to find great relief from rheumatism. The young lady in his company, now back in the ladies' cabin, was his daughter, they said, beautiful and all of twenty-two, yet unmarried! This man the pilot and the Californian approached and waited for his attention. When he gave it the pilot spoke.

"Commodore," he said, "welcome back to the river."

The big man grew bigger and his shaggy brows more severe.

"I feel welcome," he said. "Only place under God's canopy where I can breathe down into my boots."

"And you want the roof for it here, don't you? I do. Roof or wheel. Commodore Hayle, my friend Mr. So-and-so, from California. He's your brand; Kentuck' born and raised."

The two shook hands, scanning each other's countenances. The eyes of both were equally blue, equally intrepid.

"Are you the man--?" Hayle began to ask with grim humor.

"I think so."

"Well, my boy, I've been wanting to see you for better than eight years." The speaker glanced around for privacy.

"Come up," said the pilot; "I'm just going on watch." They followed him. On the roof he continued:

"Seen Captain Hugh yet, commodore? He's sure enough captain now, you know; youngest on the river. He was looking for you a bit ago. This is a beautiful boat he's going to have, eh?"

"Humph, yes. _Votaress over again." The critic gave her a fresh scrutiny from cutwater to stern rail, from freight guards to the oak-leaf crown on either chimney-top.

"Why, commodore, she knocks the hindsights off the old _Votaress every way. You'll see that mighty quick."

"Humph, yes; best yet, of the Courteney type. Ridiculous, how they hang to that. I'll build a boat to beat her inside a year if old Abe ain't elected. If he is, we'll just build gunboats and raise particular hell." On the skylight the speaker amiably declined to climb any higher.

"No, us two Kentuck's will try it here." The pair found seats together, and soon the Californian was making the best of an opportunity he, no less than Gideon Hayle, had coveted for eight years. It interested him keenly, as affording a glimpse into the famous boatman's character, that the latter showed a grasp of the dreadful voyage's story as vivid and clear in each of its two versions--the mother and daughter's and the twins'--as though the intervening months had been one instead of a hundred--and two.

They rehearsed together the arrival of the _Votaress at Louisville in the dead of night; confessed the folly of any "outsider" seeking the grief-burdened Gideon's ear in that first hour of reunion with his family, and the equal unwisdom of his pressing, in such an hour, an acute personal question upon Hugh and his grandfather who, at Paducah, had just buried John Courteney.

"And you've never pressed it sence?" asked "California."

"Mm-no."

"Nor let either o' them press it?"

"No!"--a sturdy oath--"nor you nor anybody alive. Go on with your story."

The gold hunter went on unruffled; told it as he had seen it occur; recounted, among other things, how, on the final landing of the immigrants, at Cairo, Marburg and not a few besides had covered Madame Hayle's hands with kisses and tears and would have done Hugh Courteney's so could they have got at him. His hearer frowned and set his big jaw, but the narrative flowed on, describing how, like Marburg, many had waved affectionate farewells to Hugh and to Ramsey which she could guess no reason for in her case except her own wet eyes, but which "California" saw was because, through himself and Phyllis, the immigrants had found her out as another who believed in letting the oppressed go free and come free. He told even those irrelevant things about himself which had made him ludicrous. They imparted a needed lightness and kindled the big commodore's smile.

"They never found out," said "California," "that the fellow who played 'Bounding Billow' and 'A Life on the Ocean Wave' was me--I--myself."

He told all as honestly, fearlessly as we might know he would. When his huge listener tried to say off-handedly that every man who knew anything knew that women and men never see things alike and that different witnesses could, quite honestly, give irreconcilable accounts of the same thing, the Californian serenely waved away all such gloss and with the seated giant hanging over him like a thunder-cloud said that the twins could never see anything straight enough to tell the truth about it if they wanted to and that just as certainly they often didn't want to. Pausing there and getting no retort, he ventured another step. Said he:

"And there you've hung the case up for eight years."

"That's my business!" Gideon smote the arm of his chair.

"California" laughed a moment like a girl, with drooping head. Then--oh, the twins had their good points, yes. One was the way they stuck to each other. And their biggest virtue, their "best holt," the one their worst enemy couldn't help liking them for, was their invincible sand.

"The devil couldn't scare 'em with his tail red-hot."

At that the father laughed gratefully.

"They'd ought to be in some trade where pluck," the Californian went on, "is the whole show. They'd ought to be soldiers. As plain up-and-down fighters for fight'n's sake, commodore, they'd hit it off as sweet as blackstrap!"

The truth smote hard but the parent feigned a jovial inappreciation. If that was so they had made a "most damnable misdeal," he laughed, having settled down in Natchez together, "too soft on each other to marry and as tame as parrakeets"; Julian as county sheriff, his brother a physician.

The Californian silently doubted the tameness. Abruptly, though in tones of worship, he inquired after Madame Hayle.

Madame just then was at home, on the plantation at Natchez. Yes, she and Ramsey often made trips with Gideon on that _Paragon which they had gone up the river to come down on, in '52. The _Paragon_, wonderfully preserved, was still in the "Vicksburg and Bends" trade and happened then to be some forty-eight hours ahead of the _Enchantress and nearing New Orleans. Madame and her daughter now and then spent part of the social season in the great river's great seaport, which was--"bound to be the greatest in the world, my boy," said Gideon. But Ramsey----

When Ramsey became the topic, even "California," while the father boasted, had to hold on, as he would have said, with his teeth to keep from being blown away. Her "one and only love" was the river! She "knew it like a pilot" and loved it and the whole life on it not merely for its excitements, variety, and outlook on the big world.

"That is to say----for its poetry," prompted "California."

"Yes, not for that only but just as much for its prose, by Mike! Why, my boy, that's all that's kept her single!"

"Except!" said the Californian softly, but Gideon pressed on. "And single, now, I reckon, she'll always be. Why, sir, not a day breaks but she knows, within an hour's run, the whereabouts of every Hayle boat alive."

"Some Courteney boats too, hmm?"

"Why, eh"--a stare--"I shouldn't wonder. Yes. Humph! 'youngest captain on the river'--fact is, that's _her_. Lady as she is, and lovely as she is, she's a better steamboatman to-day than--than many a first-class one. She's nearer being my business partner than any man I ever hired."

"Partner's share of the swag?"

"No," laughed the giant, "but I'm leaving her the boats."

"Well," said "California," "all that's good preparation."

The huge man shot him a glance and the two pairs of blue eyes held each other. Then "California" smiled his winsomest and said: "Did you ever notice how much easier you can see through the ends of an iron pipe than through its sides?"

Gideon stared. "Humph! Any fool that wants to see through me may see and be--joyful. What do you think you see?"

"Oh, things you'd ought to thought of and never have."

"Why, you in'--Well, I'll be damned."

"Shouldn't wonder a bit," said "California" so amiably that the big man laughed.

"Maybe you'll tell me my oversights!"

"No, but you'll be told, shortly, if the man I think I know is the man I--think I know. Let's pass that now, commodore. Oh, I wish you'd been with us on the _Votaress_. How different things might 'a' turned out. You know? I don't believe any other trip on all this big river, barring the first steamboat's first, ever made so big a turning-point in so many lives. Why, jest two or three things in it, things and people, made me another man."

"One not so need'n' to be hanged?"

"Yes, and not so hungry to hang other fellers. I hadn't ever met up with such aristocratic stock as I did then but I tchuned right up to 'em and I've mighty nigh held their pitch ever sence. Fo'most of all was this Hugh Courteney. Fo'most because, he being a man, I wa'n't afraid of him. But a close second was yo' daughter; second because, she being a woman, I was afraid of her. Why, even Phyllis, that's now chambermaid on this boat----"

"By Jupiter!" Gideon Hayle half started from his seat. "On this boat? our Phyllis? that Ramsey set free?"

"Yes. Captain Hugh's nurse that was."

"Look here, my boy, is that why you're aboard?"

"No, sir-ee! Don't you fret. That trip, I tell you, made another man of me. It lifted; why, commodore, it made me a poet."

"Made you a--Oh, go 'long off!"

"Yes, sir. Writ poetry ever sence. Dropped prose; too easy. It's real poetry, commodore; rhymes as slick as grease. Show you some of it later."

"George! if you do I'll jump into the river."

"Agreed! I've got some that'll make you do that."

"You haven't got any that wouldn't."

Neither smiled, neither frowned. Obviously each knew how to like an adversary and when "California" rose and the two, glancing aft, saw another two approaching from the pilot-house, one of whom was Watson, Hayle touched the poet detainingly and said:

"Don't go 'way, I want some more of your prose."

"Want to know why I'm here? Not countin' the fun o' seein' Captain Hugh, half the reason's that gentleman yonder comin' with Mr. Watson, and the other half's his lady, down below a-powwowin' with yo' daughter. Fact is I'd struck it rich again out West and got restless and come East, and at Saint Louis I see by a newspaper that them two was allowin' to go down to Orleans on this boat this trip, and ree-collect-in' the pinch they got into of old on the _Votaress_, s'I to myself,'me too!'"

Here the other men drew near and, while "California" ran on, silently pressed the big hand offered sidewise by Hayle.

"And with that I set down and writ a poem--took me a whole night--to the best half dozen o' them that was on the other trip, invitin' 'em, at my expense, to jump on when we come by--at New Carthage--Milliken's Bend--Vicksburg--and trustin' to luck and fresh post stamps to find 'em. But little did we dream o' seein' you walk aboard, at Memphis, and still less yo' daughter and her old Joy; did we, Mr. Gilmore?"

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