The Worlds Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906. Vols. IV: American
A Bully Boat and a Brag Captain
By Sol Smith (18011869)
A Story of Steamboat Life on the Mississippi
DOES any one remember the Caravan? She was what would now be considered a slow boat; then (1827) she was regularly advertised as the fast-running, etc. Her regular trips from New Orleans to Natchez were usually made in from six to eight days; a trip made by her in five days was considered remarkable. A voyage from New Orleans to Vicksburg and back, including stoppages, generally entitled the officers and crew to a months wages. Whether the Caravan ever achieved the feat of a voyage to the Falls (Louisville) I have never learned. If she did, she must have had a time of it!
It was my fate to take passage in this boat. The captain was a good-natured, easy-going man, careful of the comfort of his passengers, and exceedingly fond of the game of brag. We had been out a little more than five days, and were in hopes of seeing the bluffs of Natchez on the next day. Our wood was getting low, and night coming on. The pilot on duty above (the other pilot held three aces at the time, and was just calling out the captain, who went it strong on three kings) sent down word that the mate had reported the stock of wood reduced to half a cord. The worthy captain excused himself to the pilot whose watch was below and the two passengers who made up the party, and hurried to the deck, where he soon discovered by the landmarks that we were about half a mile from a wood-yard, which he said was situated right round yonder point. But, muttered the captain, I dont much like to take wood of the yellow-faced old scoundrel who owns it; he always charges a quarter of a dollar more than any one else. However, theres no other chance. The boat was pushed to her utmost, and in a little less than an hour, when our fuel was about giving out, we made the point, and our cables were out and fastened to trees alongside of a good-sized wood-pile.
A yellow-faced old gentleman with a two weeks beard; strings over his shoulders holding up to his armpits a pair of copperas-colored linsey-woolsey pants, the legs of which reached a very little below the knee; shoes without stockings; a faded, broad-brimmed hat, which had once been black, and a pipe in his mouthcasting a glance at the empty guards of our boat, and uttering a grunt as he rose from fastening our spring line, answered:
Why, capting, drawled out the wood merchant, with a sort of leer on his yellow countenance, which clearly indicated that his wood was as good as sold, woods riz since you went down, two weeks ago. Besides, you are awar that you very seldom stop, going down. When youre going up youre sometimes obleeged to give me a call, becaze the currents aginst you, and theres no other wood-yard for nine miles ahead; and if you happen to be nearly out of fooel, why
In about half an hour we felt the Caravan commence paddling again. Supper was over, and I retired to my upper berth, situated alongside and overlooking the brag-table, where the captain was deeply engaged, having now the other pilot as his principal opponent. We jogged on quietly, and seemed to be going at a good rate.
Well, Thompson (Three aces again, strangerIll take that X and the small change, if you please. Its your deal.)Thompson, I say, wed better take three or four cords at the next wood-yard; it cant be more than six miles from here. (Two aces and a bragger, with the age! Hand over those Vs.)
The wooding completed, we paddled on again. The captain seemed somewhat vexed when the mate informed him that the price was the same as at the last wood-yardthree and a quarterbut soon again became interested in the game.
From my upper berth (there were no staterooms then) I could observe the movements of the players. All the contention appeared to be between the captain and the pilots (the latter personages took it turn and turn about, steering and playing brag), one of them almost invariably winning, while the two passengers merely went through the ceremony of dealing, cutting, and paying up their antes. They were anxious to learn the gameand they did learn it! Once in a while, indeed, seeing they had two aces and a bragger, they would venture a bet of five or ten dollars, but they were always compelled to back out before the tremendous bragging of the captain or pilot; or, if they did venture to call out on two bullits and a bragger, they had the mortification to find one of the officers had the same kind of a hand, and was more venerable! Still, with all these disadvantages, they continued playing; they wanted to learn the game.
Oh, pretty glibly, sir, replied the mate; we can scarcely tell what headway we are making, for we are obliged to keep the middle of the river, and there is the shadow of a fog rising. This wood seems rather better than that we took in at Yellow-Faces, but were nearly out again, and must be looking out for more. I saw a light just ahead on the right. Shall we hail?
Dn it! ejaculated the captain, who had just lost the price of two cords to the pilotthe strangers suffering some at the same timethree and a quarter again! Are we never to get to a cheaper country? (Deal, sir, if you please; better luck next time.)
Day at length dawned. The brag-party broke up and settlements were being made, during which operations the captains bragging propensities were exercised in cracking up the speed of his boat, which, by his reckoning, must have made at least sixty miles, and would have made many more if he could have procured good wood. It appears the two passengers, in their first lesson, had incidentally lost one hundred and twenty dollars. The captain, as he rose to see about taking in some good wood, which he felt sure of obtaining now that he had got above the level country, winked at his opponent, the pilot, with whom he had been on very bad terms during the progress of the game, and said, in an undertone, Forty apiece for you and I and James [the other pilot] is not bad for one night.
I had risen, and went out with the captain, to enjoy a view of the bluffs. There was just fog enough to prevent the vision taking in more than sixty yards; so I was disappointed in my expectation. We were nearing the shore for the purpose of looking for wood, the banks being invisible from the middle of the river.
And, sure enough, out crept from the cottage the veritable faded hat, copperas-colored pants, yellow countenance and two weeks beard we had seen the night before, and the same voice we had heard regulating the price of cottonwood squeaked out the following sentence, accompanied by the same leer of the same yellow countenance: