How was the cottonwood stump on the false point below Boardman's Island this morning?"
"Water just touching the roots."
"Well it's pretty close work. That gives six feet scant in the head of Murderer's Chute. We can just barely rub through if we hit it exactly right. But it's worth trying. She don't dare tackle it!"--meaning the Amaranth.
In another instant the Boreas plunged into what seemed a crooked creek, and the Amaranth's approaching lights were shut out in a moment. Not a whisper was uttered, now, but the three men stared ahead into the shadows and two of them spun the wheel back and forth with anxious watchfulness while the steamer tore along. The chute seemed to come to an end every fifty yards, but always opened out in time. Now the head of it was at hand. George tapped the big bell three times, two leadsmen sprang to their posts, and in a moment their weird cries rose on the night air and were caught up and repeated by two men on the upper deck:
"Mark under wa-a-ter three!"
Davis pulled a couple of ropes--there was a jingling of small bells far below, the boat's speed slackened, and the pent steam began to whistle and the gauge-cocks to scream:
"By the mark twain!"
"Eight and a half!"
Another jingling of little bells and the wheels ceased turning altogether. The whistling of the steam was something frightful now--it almost drowned all other noises.
"Stand by to meet her!"
George had the wheel hard down and was standing on a spoke.
The, boat hesitated seemed to hold her breath, as did the captain and pilots--and then she began to fall away to starboard and every eye lighted:
"Now then!--meet her! meet her! Snatch her!"
The wheel flew to port so fast that the spokes blended into a spider-web --the swing of the boat subsided--she steadied herself----
"Sev--six and a half!"
"Six feet! Six f----"
Bang! She hit the bottom! George shouted through the tube:
"Spread her wide open! Whale it at her!"
Pow-wow-chow! The escape-pipes belched snowy pillars of steam aloft, the boat ground and surged and trembled--and slid over into----
"Tap! tap! tap!" (to signify "Lay in the leads")
And away she went, flying up the willow shore, with the whole silver sea of the Mississippi stretching abroad on every hand.
No Amaranth in sight!
"Ha-ha, boys, we took a couple of tricks that time!" said the captain.
And just at that moment a red glare appeared in the head of the chute and the Amaranth came springing after them!
"Well, I swear!"
"Jim, what is the meaning of that?"
"I'll tell you what's the meaning of it. That hail we had at Napoleon was Wash Hastings, wanting to come to Cairo--and we didn't stop. He's in that pilot house, now, showing those mud turtles how to hunt for easy water."
"That's it! I thought it wasn't any slouch that was running that middle bar in Hog-eye Bend. If it's Wash Hastings--well, what he don't know about the river ain't worth knowing--a regular gold-leaf, kid-glove, diamond breastpin pilot Wash Hastings is. We won't take any tricks off of him, old man!"
"I wish I'd a stopped for him, that's all."
The Amaranth was within three hundred yards of the Boreas, and still gaining. The "old man" spoke through the tube:
"What is she-carrying now?"
"A hundred and sixty-five, sir!"
"How's your wood?"
"Pine all out-cypress half gone-eating up cotton-wood like pie!"
"Break into that rosin on the main deck-pile it in, the boat can pay for it!"
Soon the boat was plunging and quivering and screaming more madly than ever. But the Amaranth's head was almost abreast the Boreas's stern:
"How's your steam, now, Harry?"
"Hundred and eighty-two, sir!"
"Break up the casks of bacon in the forrard hold! Pile it in! Levy on that turpentine in the fantail-drench every stick of wood with it!"
The boat was a moving earthquake by this time:
"How is she now?"
"A hundred and ninety-six and still a-swelling!--water, below the middle gauge-cocks!--carrying every pound she can stand!--nigger roosting on the safety-valve!"
"Good! How's your draft?"
"Bully! Every time a nigger heaves a stick of wood into the furnace he goes out the chimney, with it!"
The Amaranth drew steadily up till her jack-staff breasted the Boreas's wheel-house--climbed along inch by inch till her chimneys breasted it-- crept along, further and further, till the boats were wheel to wheel--and then they, closed up with a heavy jolt and locked together tight and fast in the middle of the big river under the flooding moonlight! A roar and a hurrah went up from the crowded decks of both steamers--all hands rushed to the guards to look and shout and gesticulate--the weight careened the vessels over toward each other--officers flew hither and thither cursing and storming, trying to drive the people amidships--both captains were leaning over their railings shaking their fists, swearing and threatening--black volumes of smoke rolled up and canopied the scene,--delivering a rain of sparks upon the vessels--two pistol shots rang out, and both captains dodged unhurt and the packed masses of passengers surged back and fell apart while the shrieks of women and children soared above the intolerable din----
And then there was a booming roar, a thundering crash, and the riddled Amaranth dropped loose from her hold and drifted helplessly away!
Instantly the fire-doors of the Boreas were thrown open and the men began dashing buckets of water into the furnaces--for it would have been death and destruction to stop the engines with such a head of steam on.