Horace Bixby, pilot of the "Paul Jones," a man of thirty-two, was looking out over the bow at the head of Island No. 35 when he heard a slow, pleasant voice say, "Good morning."
Bixby was a small, clean-cut man. "Good morning, sir," he said, rather briskly, without looking around.
He did not much care for visitors in the pilothouse. This one entered and stood a little behind him.
"How would you like a young man to learn the river?" came to him in that serene, deliberate speech.
The pilot glanced over his shoulder and saw a rather slender, loose- limbed youth with a fair, girlish complexion and a great mass of curly auburn hair.
"I wouldn't like it. Cub pilots are more trouble than they're worth. A great deal more trouble than profit."
"I am a printer by trade," the easy voice went on. "It doesn't agree with me. I thought I'd go to South America."
Bixby kept his eye on the river, but there was interest in his voice when he spoke. "What makes you pull your words that way?" he asked--"pulling" being the river term for drawling.
The young man, now seated comfortably on the visitors' bench, said more slowly than ever: "You'll have to ask my mother--she pulls hers, too."
Pilot Bixby laughed. The manner of the reply amused him. His guest was encouraged.
"Do you know the Bowen boys?" he asked, "pilots in the St. Louis and New Orleans trade?"
"I know them well--all three of them. William Bowen did his first steering for me; a mighty good boy. I know Sam, too, and Bart."
"Old schoolmates of mine in Hannibal. Sam and Will, especially, were my chums."
Bixby's tone became friendly. "Come over and stand by me," he said. "What is your name?"
The applicant told him, and the two stood looking out on the sunlit water.
"Do you drink?"
"Do you gamble?"
"Do you swear?"
"N-not for amusement; only under pressure."
"Do you chew?"
"No, sir, never; but I must--smoke."
"Did you ever do any steering?"
"I have steered everything on the river but a steamboat, I guess."
"Very well. Take the wheel and see what you can do with a steamboat. Keep her as she is--toward that lower cottonwood snag."
Bixby had a sore foot and was glad of a little relief. He sat on the bench where he could keep a careful eye on the course. By and by he said "There is just one way I would take a young man to learn the river--that is, for money."
"Five hundred dollars, and I to be at no expense whatever."
In those days pilots were allowed to carry a learner, or "cub," board free. Mr. Bixby meant that he was to be at no expense in port or for incidentals. His terms seemed discouraging.
"I haven't got five hundred dollars in money," Sam said. "I've got a lot of Tennessee land worth two bits an acre. I'll give you two thousand acres of that."
Bixby shook his head. "No," he said, "I don't want any unimproved real estate. I have too much already."
Sam reflected. He thought he might be able to borrow one hundred dollars from William Moffett, Pamela's husband, without straining his credit.
"Well, then," he proposed, "I'll give you one hundred dollars cash, and the rest when I earn it."
Something about this young man had won Horace Bixby's heart. His slow, pleasant speech, his unhurried, quiet manner at the wheel, his evident simplicity and sincerity--the inner qualities of mind and heart which would make the world love Mark Twain. The terms proposed were accepted. The first payment was to be in cash; the others were to begin when the pupil had learned the river and was earning wages. During the rest of the trip to New Orleans the new pupil was often at the wheel, while Mr. Bixby nursed his sore foot and gave directions. Any literary ambitions that Samuel Clemens still nourished waned rapidly. By the time he had reached New Orleans he had almost forgotten he had ever been a printer. As for the Amazon and cocoa, why, there had been no ship sailing in that direction for years, and it was unlikely that any would ever sail again, a fact that rather amused the would-be adventurer now, since Providence had regulated his affairs in accordance with his oldest and longest cherished dream.