After finding my finances to be rather, well, less interesting than I would like them, and too interesting to my creditors I decided I’d wander west a ways to see what all the fuss was about. I had a horse, a few bags, and lots of advice from folks who hoard good ideas without ever getting around to using any themselves.
They asked where I was going and I said, “West” and left it at that mostly because that’s all I had so far. Well, in fact I had a couple of plans in mind, even if not a destination. One was to take a ride on one of the Mississippi paddle wheel steamboats my cousin Henry Ladro kept going on and on about.
“Like riding a smoking castle,” he’d say, any chance he’d get. I never quite got what was so appealing about a castle that’s smoking, but anyhow it did bite me somewhere deep so I made that part of my plans.
I don’t remember much from the first part of the trip except dust and sweat. I rode in dust and worked up a sweat, seeing nothing new and making me wonder why people ever left home. By the time I got to the fine town of Hannibal, Missouri I was ready to put the dust behind me.
A selection of boats were in port, so I went to the agent and asked, “Give me a ticket for one man and a horse to St. Louis on the finest ship you’ve got.” He smiled and sold me a ticket for The Empyrean Tincture.
When I got myself halfway settled, long after the ship was hustling downriver, I wandered up to the pilot house. I wanted to discover the kind of man manages a beast such as this.
The pilot was an older man, with a long white beard and a crisp white uniform. He shook my hand and welcomed me aboard, inviting me to stick around after I expressed my sincere appreciation for the fine shape of his vessel and his skill in handling her.
“Now some of the other captains, they’ll tell you they own this river,” the pilot said to me. “I would never say that, not for a second. Sure, I may borrow it for a little while. I might even take advantage of it. But own it? No, sir, I respectfully decline the honor and refuse the responsibility.”
“I suppose,” I said, “they are expressing their mastery of the depths and dangers, saying, 'this river isn’t going to catch me unawares.'”
“That’s what they’re saying, and I could say the same thing as them, maybe better at that, sir. But, we’d all be plumb fools for the saying of it, and no one has ever accused Captain William Sampson Beveridge of being a fool, not while sober leastways. I know every turn, every twist, every rock, every shallow, every current, every dog, trader and ne’er-do-well on this river, and I’m nothing compared to the mighty Miss herself. No, she lets me borrow her a little bit. As long as I stay in her good graces she’s kind. But she’s been at her work for a long while before me, and she’ll be at it a long while after ol’ Captain Beveridge is forgotten.”
“Such is life, I suppose,” I said.
“Well there’s life and then there’s life, and I’m telling you this here is a living river. She goes where she will and how she will. Folks say this is the Mississippi and likely a hundred years from now they’ll call it the same. Only it’s not the same. I remember when I was young and followed twists that are now straight, and how I ate good meals in fine river towns which are now 20 miles in the country. No, this river goes where it will, biding its time but never satisfied. A good pilot never stops watching and never stops learning and keeps his wits about him from the time he’s old enough to strap on his boots to the time the undertaker takes them off. No, sir. If you hear a pilot say they own this river, you decline their services and swim the rest of the way. For your health and safety, sir. Now then, pardon me. Here we are.”
We arrived in St. Louis, where I disembarked, soon back in the dust but never forgetting what the pilot said during my little trip down the river.
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