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Thus to some aged man shall say;
“ A poet of the land was he,
- WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT.
LXIX. A NIGHT ON THE MISSISSIPPI
1. I was nearly sixteen years old when I made my first trip down the Mississippi River. Father had a good crop of early spring vegetables, and my elder brother James and I were eager to carry them to market. Father owned a large raft, which he and James had made with their own hands, and we were sure that we could take care of ourselves and the produce too.
2. So at last father gave his consent. He built a cabin near one end of the raft, where we could stay when it rained or when the sun was too hot. The floor of the cabin was six or seven inches above the deck of the raft, and here we could keep our clothes and blankets and the food for our journey. At one side of the cabin we made a layer of dirt about five or six inches deep, with a frame around it to hold it in place. Then with some bricks and clay we built a small fireplace. Here we could have a fire if the weather were wet or chilly.
3. James made some extra steering oars, for it was easy to break one, if the raft went over a snag; and we rigged up a forked stick, on which we hung our lantern. We had to carry a light, of course, or the steamboats on the river would have run us down.
4. The river was still high after the June rise, and the lowest banks were a little under water.
5. “ There won't be much danger from the upstream boats,” said father, when he came down to see us off. “They'll make for the smooth water alongshore. But keep your eyes and your ears open for the boats that are going your way. Goodby, boys, and good luck!”
6. I stood up and waved to him as long as I could see him, but a curve in the river soon hid him from sight. The current was running more than four miles an hour, and I was astonished to see how the familiar shores slipped away from us. In a big bend on the Illinois side there was an island where we had often gone for picnics and good times. The sand bar at its head was quite under water, and the tree trunks stood up out of the river, straight and black, as if they, too, were floating downstream on a voyage of discovery.
7. I am sure that Columbus sailing out into the trackless sea was not more convinced of the greatness of his task than was I, as I took my turn at the steering oar to let James eat his dinner. The unwieldy raft yielded itself to my guidance, and for the mere fun of it I kept its course a winding one for the next half hour.
8. The river was full of driftwood coming down, and all sorts of queer things might be seen. A straw bed with an old tin coffee pot upon it came floating along beside us. Once a hungry rabbit ran across a broken tree trunk to the raft, and I gave him a handful of lettuce as I would have fed a pet lamb. As soon as he had eaten it, all his shyness came back to him, and he raced off again to the farther end of his log, where he sat and watched us for a long time.
9. As the shadows grew longer I began to feel drowsy. The soft air fanned me gently, and the lap of the water against the timbers of the raft was very soothing. Before I knew it I was fast asleep. When I woke I had, at first, no idea where I was. The moon was shining and the river looked as if it were miles wide. We were near the Illinois shore, in the quiet water under the bank, and across the gleaming sheet of silver I could see the high bluffs on the Missouri side.
10. I heard a sound of voices and saw that James was talking to a man in hunting costume, who had come aboard to share our supper and to tell us the news. The raft was made fast to a tow-head — a sand bar covered with cottonwood trees -and the stranger's skiff lay alongside. On the black hillsides behind us I could see a few gleaming lights, but there was stillness everywhere, except for an occasional “kerchug” from some wakeful bullfrog. We seemed to have the whole river to ourselves.
II. The hunter was telling stories of his life in the wilderness, then not very far away from us, and I listened with infinite wonder and delight. Occasionally we saw a steamboat going up or down the river. Now and then she would send up a shower of sparks, which rained down into the river again and made the moonlight look pale. Then a bend of the stream would shut out her lights, and after a long time her waves would reach us, rocking the raft up and down in the most delightful fashion.
12. I was no longer sleepy, and the charm of a new experience kept me awake for the greater part of the night. The people on shore went to bed, the lights winked out, our new friend and James were presently sound asleep; but I lay and watched for the coming of the early dawn.
13. First, looking away over the water, I could
see a dull, dark line : that was the wooded shore of the other side. The birds twittered softly in the trees close at hand. Then there came a faint, pale light in the sky; then the river softened from black to gray, and far out I could see small, dusky spots drifting along
14. Sometimes there was a long, black line, and I knew it to be a raft like ours, only much larger and heavier. Once and again I heard voices and a sweep creaking. Then a streak on the water showed where a snag lay hidden beneath, ready to catch and snap some luckless oar. By and by the mist drew itself up from the river in fleecy twists and swirls, the east began to redden, a breeze sprang up, and lines of smoke rose from the hillside behind us. At last the full day broke, and everything smiled in the sunshine.
15. Far off a raft glided by. A man on it was chopping wood. I lay on a pile of blankets, my head pillowed on my arm, watching the ax flash and come down. An instant later it would be lifted for another stroke — still no sound — and then, as the ax was poised above the man's head, the ring of the first stroke would reach my listening ears. As I watched, my eyelids grew heavier and heavier.
16. “Come, come, lad!” said James, shaking me good-humoredly. “ The bacon is ready to eat, and