“Where are we now, Skipper?” asked Will, an old prospector on his way back to the gold rush in the West. Right then he felt like talking to someone and was glad to see the boat’s skipper standing alone on deck.
“See those two piles of stones up on the hillside and the big cross beside them?” Skipper pointed toward the left riverbank. “They mark a cemetery and when we see those, we’re close to the Louisiana border. Have you never been down the Mississippi before?”
“Nope. Grew up in Ohio and headed west by wagon train. Gold fever hit me somewhere along the way and I’ve spent most of my life panning the small streams in the Sierra mountains. Now that I’ve spent the winter visiting my family in St Louis, I’m headed back to California. Thought I’d try going by Panama this time but I likely won’t ever see these waters again.”
“Had much success gold panning?” Skipper asked. He glanced at another passenger who wandered by right then and paused to lean against the railing nearby. Will glanced at him, too; the fellow seemed to be studying the swirling waters.
Then he turned back to the skipper and looked him in the eye. “I’ve found my share of gold – and spent most of it, too. I still have enough with me to pay my fare and buy another stake when I get to California. I hope to find a lot more yet before I die. From what I gather a lot of the fellows here are in the same straits: enough left to pay their fare home, maybe enough to buy provisions when they arrive. And big dreams.”
Skipper tugged at his ear. “Well, I wish you all luck. It’s good for the shipping business if this gold rush pays off.”
His eyes twinkled as he added, “Sometimes I get a touch of gold fever myself. But my wife threatens to dose me good and proper with sulphur and molasses whenever I bring up the subject. You know how a woman is: feet planted in her own garden. My Pearl won’t be parted from her home and family to sit for months in a lonely log cabin somewhere.”
Will contemplated the drifting clouds overhead, thinking of the family he was leaving behind, faces he may never see again. “Well, you know, that’s not such a bad thing, neither. Being near your kinfolk is worth something – maybe worth even more than gold.” He watched a pair of gulls swoop down over the water. “To each his own, I guess.”
Skipper laughed heartily and slapped Will on the back. “You’re right there. Now I’d better go join our pilot in the wheelhouse. Sun’s going down now; the mist is starting to rise on the river. There are a few rocks and a wreck or two lurking in the waters ahead and we want to miss ’em all.” The Skipper turned and headed across the deck.
Will was going to say a few words to the fellow nearby, but he had slipped away, too. Will had taken note of him before and wondered why the man wasn’t more sociable – but then, some folks weren’t. And that was their privilege. To each his own. Will sat down on the deck, his back propped against a wall, to ponder life, love, and this mad pursuit of gold.
Fifteen minutes later there was a jolt and some scraping. A splintering sound came from the bowels of the boat. The paddle-wheeler had struck something. The ship’s horn sounded an alert and men poured out onto the deck from every quarter.
As Will jumped to his feet he felt the boat list to one side. She seemed to settle lower in the water. Crew members dashed over to the lifeboats and started lowering them. Well, I’ll be hog-tied, he thought. Now we’re in hot water.
A booming voice came over the bullhorn. “This is your Skipper. We’ve hit a wreck and it’s torn a hole in our hull. Into the life boats, all those who can’t swim. Those who can, dive in and swim for shore. Leave everything behind but your skin or you won’t make it.”
To be concluded tomorrow
(This tale is based on an actual riverboat incident.)