Is the river rising or falling?'
'No it ain't.'
'I guess I am right, sir. Yonder is some drift-wood floating down the stream.'
'A rise starts the drift-wood, but then it keeps on floating a while after the river is done rising. Now the bank will tell you about this. Wait till you come to a place where it shelves a little. Now here; do you see this narrow belt of fine sediment That was deposited while the water was higher. You see the driftwood begins to strand, too. The bank helps in other ways. Do you see that stump on the false point?'
'Ay, ay, sir.'
'Well, the water is just up to the roots of it. You must make a note of that.'
'Because that means that there's seven feet in the chute of 103.'
'But 103 is a long way up the river yet.'
'That's where the benefit of the bank comes in. There is water enough in 103 NOW, yet there may not be by the time we get there; but the bank will keep us posted all along. You don't run close chutes on a falling river, up-stream, and there are precious few of them that you are allowed to run at all down-stream. There's a law of the United States against it. The river may be rising by the time we get to 103, and in that case we'll run it. We are drawing--how much?'
'Six feet aft,--six and a half forward.'
'Well, you do seem to know something.'
'But what I particularly want to know is, if I have got to keep up an everlasting measuring of the banks of this river, twelve hundred miles, month in and month out?'
My emotions were too deep for words for a while. Presently I said--'
And how about these chutes. Are there many of them?'
'I should say so. I fancy we shan't run any of the river this trip as you've ever seen it run before--so to speak. If the river begins to rise again, we'll go up behind bars that you've always seen standing out of the river, high and dry like the roof of a house; we'll cut across low places that you've never noticed at all, right through the middle of bars that cover three hundred acres of river; we'll creep through cracks where you've always thought was solid land; we'll dart through the woods and leave twenty-five miles of river off to one side; we'll see the hind-side of every island between New Orleans and Cairo.'
'Then I've got to go to work and learn just as much more river as I already know.'
'Just about twice as much more, as near as you can come at it.'
'Well, one lives to find out. I think I was a fool when I went into this business.'
'Yes, that is true. And you are yet. But you'll not be when you've learned it.'
'Ah, I never can learn it.'
'I will see that you DO.'
By and by I ventured again--
'Have I got to learn all this thing just as I know the rest of the river-- shapes and all--and so I can run it at night?'
'Yes. And you've got to have good fair marks from one end of the river to the other, that will help the bank tell you when there is water enough in each of these countless places-- like that stump, you know. When the river first begins to rise, you can run half a dozen of the deepest of them; when it rises a foot more you can run another dozen; the next foot will add a couple of dozen, and so on: so you see you have to know your banks and marks to a dead moral certainty, and never get them mixed; for when you start through one of those cracks, there's no backing out again, as there is in the big river; you've got to go through, or stay there six months if you get caught on a falling river. There are about fifty of these cracks which you can't run at all except when the river is brim full and over the banks.'
'This new lesson is a cheerful prospect.'
'Cheerful enough. And mind what I've just told you; when you start into one of those places you've got to go through. They are too narrow to turn around in, too crooked to back out of, and the shoal water is always up at the head; never elsewhere. And the head of them is always likely to be filling up, little by little, so that the marks you reckon their depth by, this season, may not answer for next.'
'Learn a new set, then, every year?'