I'll be back before you close up on the next point.'
But he wasn't. He was still below when I rounded it and entered upon a piece of river which I had some misgivings about. I did not know that he was hiding behind a chimney to see how I would perform. I went gaily along, getting prouder and prouder, for he had never left the boat in my sole charge such a length of time before. I even got to 'setting' her and letting the wheel go, entirely, while I vaingloriously turned my back and inspected the stem marks and hummed a tune, a sort of easy indifference which I had prodigiously admired in Bixby and other great pilots. Once I inspected rather long, and when I faced to the front again my heart flew into my mouth so suddenly that if I hadn't clapped my teeth together I should have lost it. One of those frightful bluff reefs was stretching its deadly length right across our bows! My head was gone in a moment; I did not know which end I stood on; I gasped and could not get my breath; I spun the wheel down with such rapidity that it wove itself together like a spider's web; the boat answered and turned square away from the reef, but the reef followed her! I fled, and still it followed, still it kept--right across my bows! I never looked to see where I was going, I only fled. The awful crash was imminent--why didn't that villain come! If I committed the crime of ringing a bell, I might get thrown overboard. But better that than kill the boat. So in blind desperation I started such a rattling 'shivaree' down below as never had astounded an engineer in this world before, I fancy. Amidst the frenzy of the bells the engines began to back and fill in a furious way, and my reason forsook its throne-- we were about to crash into the woods on the other side of the river. Just then Mr. Bixby stepped calmly into view on the hurricane deck. My soul went out to him in gratitude. My distress vanished; I would have felt safe on the brink of Niagara, with Mr. Bixby on the hurricane deck. He blandly and sweetly took his tooth-pick out of his mouth between his fingers, as if it were a cigar--we were just in the act of climbing an overhanging big tree, and the passengers were scudding astern like rats-- and lifted up these commands to me ever so gently--
'Stop the starboard. Stop the larboard. Set her back on both.'
The boat hesitated, halted, pressed her nose among the boughs a critical instant, then reluctantly began to back away.
'Stop the larboard. Come ahead on it. Stop the starboard. Come ahead on it. Point her for the bar.'
I sailed away as serenely as a summer's morning Mr. Bixby came in and said, with mock simplicity--
'When you have a hail, my boy, you ought to tap the big bell three times before you land, so that the engineers can get ready.'
I blushed under the sarcasm, and said I hadn't had any hail.
'Ah! Then it was for wood, I suppose. The officer of the watch will tell you when he wants to wood up.'
I went on consuming and said I wasn't after wood.
'Indeed? Why, what could you want over here in the bend, then? Did you ever know of a boat following a bend up-stream at this stage of the river?'
'No sir,--and I wasn't trying to follow it. I was getting away from a bluff reef.'
'No, it wasn't a bluff reef; there isn't one within three miles of where you were.'
'But I saw it. It was as bluff as that one yonder.'
'Just about. Run over it!'
'Do you give it as an order?'
'Yes. Run over it.'
'If I don't, I wish I may die.'
'All right; I am taking the responsibility.' I was just as anxious to kill the boat, now, as I had been to save her before. I impressed my orders upon my memory, to be used at the inquest, and made a straight break for the reef. As it disappeared under our bows I held my breath; but we slid over it like oil.
'Now don't you see the difference? It wasn't anything but a WIND reef. The wind does that.'
'So I see. But it is exactly like a bluff reef. How am I ever going to tell them apart?'
'I can't tell you.