Here to return to
SPRING IN MISSISSIPPI
In the Heat of the Day
IT was in the late dusk of an April evening that I arrived at Vicksburg, and I picked out a hotel at random. My choice was not altogether happy. The building was big and gaunt, and the worse for wear, and the rooms were barren and battered. Yet it had the interest that age gives; for it dated back beyond the war, and its proprietor was a gray-bearded ancient who fought in the Confederate army. It stood on the brow of the steep hill that skirts the Yazoo River, and from my chamber window I looked down on the stream and the lights of the various craft that were moored along shore. Across the street some one had a phonograph, and the hoarse crackle of songs and jokes from the machine was pretty constant; but in the intervals I could hear from the lowlands the thrill of the toad’s long-drawn gutturals.
A half-moon was shining encircled by a great hazy ring. Its light revealed dimly a broad reach of watery landscape extending far westward. Over there somewhere, a mile or two away, was the mighty Mississippi. Formerly it made a wide curve and swept past the bluff on which the city stands; but it some years ago cut through a neck of land and left Vicksburg stranded inland. However, before the old channel had filled up, the Yazoo was induced to flow through it, and thus the place still has the benefit of the river traffic.
In my rambles about the town I found everywhere much of the unexpected and picturesque. The buildings cling in a compact mass to the bluff skirting the river, and lift one above the other on the precipitous slope in a very odd jumble. For this effect the lay of the ground is largely responsible; but the structures themselves right in the city centre often offer curious contrasts of the substantial and modern elbowing the shabby and antiquated.
The queerest part of the city is on a big rough hill just beyond the business section up the river. This hill is nothing but clay; yet the clay is so firm it retains its shape even on slopes almost perpendicular. On the side toward the stream the hill rises in an upright wall, much overgrown with trees, grass, and shrubbery. Now and then a rude little hovel finds a clinging-place in some irregularity of the bluff; and there are occasional rough ladders and stairways that give access to the height. The upland is crowned by as strange a helter-skelter of cabins, fences, paths, and devious lanes as ever existed in any African jungle. Every household has apparently established itself at chance, and the sight of such an assemblage of squatters’ cabins, and such a massing of suburban population as the half-wild slopes and hollows of this region revealed, was in its way quite impressive. Most of the houses were built of wood, but there was one rambling dwelling constructed wholly of old iron rubbish, “without enough wood in it to make a good fire,” as a neighbor explained. Its owner had a mania for collecting discarded metal, and all the vicinity of his castle was littered with heaps of rusty worthless wreckage.
I stopped to speak with an old colored woman who was preparing to wash some clothes she had boiling in a kettle set on a little fire in the yard. Her poverty was evidently extreme, and in our chat I questioned whether her life in the days of slavery was not easier and happier than now.
She said, “No,” very emphatically; and added, “We was raised up jus’ like cattle is, and we experienced hard times, mister, we shore did. I rather git along wid eatin’ wunst a week, an’ den only bread an’ water, dan be a slave wid plenty. If you was a slave and ran away dey had nigger dogs to chase yo’ dat’d tear yo’ all up; but of co’se some masters was a heap meaner’n yuthers. Dey didn’t keer to have yo’ know nothin’. Once a black woman started to learn us out of a blue-back elementer [Webster’s Blue-backed Elementary Speller], an’ dey whipped her all night. We had to work long days den, and I never seen de sun rise while I was in de house. I’d be in de cotton fiel’, and many a time I’d be wet as a rat wid de dew.”
She was interrupted by her husband, a gray old man, who came hobbling up the hill with a pail in one hand and a hoe which he used as a cane in the other. He had been a resident of the place since childhood, and was in the city when Grant besieged it in 1862. Presently he was telling of his war experiences. “Along in de winter,” said he, de Union men, dey closed in all aroun’ us. Dey held de river up above an’ down below, an’ dey shut us off on de Ian’ side, too, an’ vittles begun to git sca’ce an’ expensive. By de end er March dey was a-firin’ der shells into de town, knockin’ houses to pieces an’ killin’ folks, and ev’y fambly got itself a cave dug. Dis hyar clay is ve’y good for cave digging, an’ dey hollowed out all de hillsides. Each fambly had a room in de clay wid props inside to keep de top from tumblin’ down on ‘em; and some made two rooms wid a door between. I reckon it cost as much as fifty dollars to dig de best caves. Dey had beds in dar, an’ whenever de guns begun a-bombangin’ dey run to de caves. Sometimes dey be rouse out in de middle er de night an’ run fo’ de caves half dressed. De caves wa’n’t no ve’y nice places. Dey too damp an’ musty.
“Supplies was all de time harder to git, till we hadn’t no coffee, no flour, no cloth, no shoes, or no beef meat; and dey print de newspaper hyar on de clean side er wall-paper. People got to eatin’ mule-meat; an’ rats was killed an’ skinned an’ sol’ fo’ meat, too. Some er de soldiers starved to death; an’ yit dis place sich a natchul fortress it didn’t seem like de Union fellers ever git it. Dar was guns on all de town bluffs, an’ we had one gun we call ‘Whistling Dick,’ becaze when it fire a shell dar always be a long screechin’ soun’. Dat our bes’ gun, an’ we know it bus’ a big hole in de Federal army ev’y time we hear it screech.
“Well, I reckon we might ‘a’ pulled through if it hadn’t been fo’ de Union gunboats. We been thinkin’ all along dey couldn’t never git at us, caze we was boun’ to knock de stuffin’ out’n ‘em if dey come in sight. But one night I happen to be out ‘bout twelve o’clock, an’ I see it lighten; an’ yit de moon was shinin’ an’ dar was no clouds or soun’ er thunder. ‘Dis mighty queer,’ I say, an’ I run an’ woke up my master. We went den an’ look at de river, an’ dar was de Northern gunboats wid barges er hay tied to ‘em to protect ‘em. All de firin’ we could do couldn’t stop ‘em; an’ after dat it didn’t seem much use to hol’ out no longer. So de town surrender, and I jined de Union army. Yas, I was in de 102d dozen Massachusetts regiment under Lieutenant Dodge.”
On an adjoining hill was a national cemetery, thick-set with soldiers’ graves, a beautiful spot, quiet and green, and receiving the best of care; yet it was nevertheless melancholy and lonely, for one could not forget that the sleepers there were far from home and all their kindred.
In a little glen back of the cemetery was a tiny whitewashed cottage, on the shadowed side of which sat an elderly colored woman and a small girl eating bread and milk. Some hens and chickens were picking around and watching the eaters, hopeful of getting a share of the feast; and a dog lay on the ground also alert and expectant; and a pig was rooting close by, and he, too, seemed to be watching for the bestowal of a portion of the bread and milk. It was a hot afternoon, and I stopped to talk.
Every negro at all advanced in years has something to say about old times, and the woman at the cabin in the glen was no exception. “I was raised in Ferginia,” said she; “and I was a house servant. I tell you I had mo’ good times den dan I do now. People say dat evy’thing gittin’ better; but I ain’ no chicken, an’ I know dat ain’ so. I been thinkin’ ‘bout de chilluns. Are dey improve? No! Dey ain’ smart an’ dustless [industrious] like dey was befo’ de war, an’ dey ain’ so mannerble, white or black. Den again, how is it about de Lord’s day? Lots o’ places it’s gittin’ so dey ain’ no weeks. Folks work Sundays same like any other days. Yas, de worl’ mo’ wicked. Is you been in dese yere Vicksburg saloons? I’m skairt to go near de town in de night dar so much rippin’ an’ tearin’. Dey got so bold an’ rapid aroun’ hyar I doan’ hardly want to go out er my house even in de daytime. It look like we so wicked we be punish soon by a great burnin’. De sun a ball er fire, an’ de moon a lump er ice; an’ I reckon if de sun git de upper han’ we’re all goners. Yo’ know how Martinique done got burnt up. Once las’ year it was so hot hyar I thought de heat gwine serve us de same way. Soon or late it’s a-comin’. De Bible say de rainbow sign make us know de worl’ be no mo’ destroy by water. It be fire nex’ time.”
I spoke to the woman about the shops in the town owned by negroes; but she said there ought to be more, and she was not enthusiastic over the thrift of her race. “If a darkey got money he boun’ to spend it,” said she. “He know he ain’ gwine git rich anyway, so he doan’ try to save nothin’. Den, too, a colored man think he cain’t start in business widout he got ‘bout a thousand dollars; but a white man will start wid no mo’ dan a few peanuts an’ a little popcorn in a basket. He lays up de nickels an’ dimes, an’ pretty soon he git a store, an’ fust thing yo’ know he way up.”
Just then the little girl exclaimed, “I done seen a rabbit over dar in de briers.”
“Dat remin’ me er de stories dey use to tell ‘bout de rabbit an’ de yuther creeturs when I was a chile,” remarked the woman. “I thought den de tales was all true, and I was sure Mr. Rabbit ketch us if we go down to de branch in de evenin’; an’ if we see Mr. Rabbit, den we chilluns would light out, skeered to death.”
“What were the stories?” I questioned.
She responded with a series of several which she told with great animation, acting out all the parts and changing her voice to suit the words of the different characters, and now and then rising and skirmishing around the yard to illustrate the more dramatic portions.
“Well,” said she in beginning, “de stories was mos’ly about how ‘mongst all de creeturs Mr. Rabbit was de smartest man in de crowd. He was a sly rascal, he sho’ was. One day when Mr. Rabbit an’ Mr. Fox was talkin’ togedder, Mr. Lion an’ Mr. Tiger drove pas’ wid a load er fish.
“‘Look a’ dar!’ says Mr. Rabbit. ‘I want some er dose fish.’
“‘But yo’ cain’t git ‘em,’ says Mr. Fox.
“‘Yes, I kin,’ says Mr. Rabbit; an’ he cry out, ‘Hol’ on, Mr. Lion! Hol’ on, Mr. Tiger!’
“Dey stop, dey did, an’ he run an’ jump up on de fish wagon. De lion an’ de tiger, dey order him off. Den he run ‘way up de road an’ hide in de bushes, an’ when de fish wagon come along he holler out, ‘Whoop, whoop, whoop, diddle-um-ding, varmints of all kinds, lions an’ tigers, an’ dey cain’t keep my th’oat cl’ar!’
“‘Heyo! Mr. Lion,’ says Mr. Tiger. ‘What dat? I reckon we better be gittin’ along in a hurry.’
“So dey whip up de hoss. But Mr. Rabbit run fas’ as he kin an’ git ahead once mo’ in de bushes, an’ soon as dey come along he holler, ‘Whoop, whoop, whoop, diddle-um-ding, varmints of all kinds, lions an’ tigers, an’ dey cain’t keep my th’oat cl’ar!’
“Dat skeer Mr. Lion an’ Mr. Tiger so much dey jump off de wagon an’ run like dey sent for. Den Mr. Rabbit he drive off wid de fish, an’ de nex’ day he ‘pint a time fo’ a big feast. All Mr. Rabbit’s frien’s come excep’ Mr. Fox, an’ bimeby he come too, but he was all limpy an’ rasslefrassled. ‘Boo-hoo-hoo!’ he cry, ‘I done met up wid Mr. Lion an’ Mr. Tiger, an’ dey ‘cure me er stealin’ der fish; and dose fellers, dey mos’ tore me all to pieces.’
“Dat de way de rabbit always doin’ de mischief, an’ some one else gittin’ punish fo’ it. Yas, de rabbit mighty slick. He de cunningest li’l’ ole creetur in de woods. Sometimes when he chased by dogs he find a long holler log lyin’ on de groun’ wid a hole jus’ large enough fo’ him to slip thoo’, an’ he go in one end an’ out de yuther. De dog foller his track to de log, an’ he spen’ his time pawin’ at de place de rabbit went in, an’ de rabbit git safe home. But his bes’ trick when he runnin’ from de dog is to take a circle aroun’ an’ come back to his track, an’ dar he stop an’ lick his paws to take off de scent. Nex’ thing he fotch a few jumps out sideways, an’ sit still an’ let de dog run pas’. Den he go off about his business.”
MR. FOX LEARNS WHAT TROUBLE IS
“In dese ole stories de rabbit always on a complaint when dar any work to do, an’ he never leave off tellin’ about his troubles. One day Mr. Fox say to him, ‘Seem like you have troubles all de time, Mr. Rabbit.’
“‘Yas,’ Mr. Rabbit reply, ev’ybody always atter me, diggity-diggity, an’ I have nothin’ but trouble.’
“‘Well now, Mr. Rabbit,’ de fox say, ‘I wish yo’ ‘splain to me what trouble is. I doan’ know rightly what yo’ mean by trouble.’
“‘I cain’t tell yo’ de meanin’ er de word,’ says Mr. Rabbit; ‘but I kin show you de meanin’.’
“‘I wish yo’ would,’ says Mr. Fox. ‘I done heard yo’ talk so much about trouble I want to understan’ what it is like.’
“Ve’y well,’ Mr. Rabbit ‘sponds, ‘de nex’ hot day yo’ go out in dat ole fiel’ near my house, an’ yo’ lie down an’ sleep dar on de knoll whar de sage grass grow thick, an’ I’ll come an’ wake yo’ up an’ show yo’ what trouble is.’
“So de nex’ hot day de fox go to de ole fiel’ an’ lie down on de knoll in de sage grass, an’ pretty soon he soun’ asleep. Mr. Rabbit come an’ fin’ him dar, an’ den he set de grass on fire in a ring all aroun’ Mr. Fox. Soon as he done dat he give a yell an’ say, ‘Mr. Fox! Mr. Fox! Yo’ wake up, an’ doan’ was’e no time ‘bout it, needer!’
“Mr. Fox, he wake up, an’ he say, ‘ What all dis smoke, what all dis fire I smell, Mr. Rabbit?’
“‘Dat trouble, Mr. Fox, dat trouble,’ says Mr. Rabbit, an’ he lit out fo’ home.
“Mr. Fox certainly learnt what trouble was, an’ he come mighty nigh bein’ burnt to death.”
Beside the “Bayou”
MR. WREN BORROWS MONEY OF MR. BUZZARD
“Did yo’ ever hear er how de wren borrowed some money er Mr. Buzzard? Mr. Buzzard, he willin’ to ‘commodate Mr. Wren, only he ask, ‘When yo’ gwine pay me?’
“‘Soon as I git growed,’ says Mr. Wren. ‘Soon as I git to yo’ size, Mr. Buzzard,’ says he.
“So Mr. Buzzard loant him de money, and atter dat, once in a while he call on Mr. Wren to see when dat money be paid back. Mr. Wren always say, ‘Soon as I git growed;’ but ev’y time Mr. Buzzard take notice Mr. Wren ain’ gittin’ no larger at all.
“Mr. Buzzard was mos’ as slow in his thinkin’ as Mr. Wren was in his payin,’ but at las’ he begin to suspect somethin’ not right, an’ he speak to Mr. Hawk ‘bout de matter. ‘What kin’ of a man is dis Mr. Wren?’ he say. ‘He been owin’ me money dese five or six years, an’ he say he pay when he git growed; but he de same size now as when he borrow it. Look like he never git growed.’
“‘How dis?’ says Mr. Hawk. ‘Do you reckon Mr. Wren gwine git to be de same size as you an’ me?’ “‘I shore does,’ says Mr. Buzzard.
“‘Dat’s whar yo’ make a mistake,’ Mr. Hawk say. ‘He big as lie ever will be. Why! Mr. Wren was a ole man when he borrowed dat money, an’ yo’ll never see it — not if yo’ wait fo’ ever!’”
JOHNNY AND TOMMY AND THE BEAR
The little girl had been an interested listener to these narratives. Now she asked, “What dat story, granny, ‘bout Johnny and Tommy?”
“One time,” resumed the old woman, “two boys by de name er Johnny an’ Tommy was out in de woods an’ dey come to a tall, hollow stump, and dey heard some b’ar cubs inside. Dey want to git dem cubs, an’ Johnny clumb up to de top er de snag an’ went down inside an’ caught ‘em. Den he foun’ he couldn’t git back. ‘What I gwine do?’ he holler to Tommy.
“‘Have yo’ got a knife?’ Tommy say.
“Yes,’ says Johnny.
“‘Well den,’ Tommy tol’ him, ‘when de b’ar come she’ll go down into de holler stump backward, an’ when she git low enough yo’ ketch her by de tail an’ prick her wid yo’ knife, an’ she’ll pull yo’ out er dar in a hurry.’
“So Tommy hid off in de bushes to see what gwine happen, an’ about sundown de ole b’ar come an’ climb de stump an’ back down out er sight. Johnny all ready, an’ he got de cubs fastened to him tied up in his jacket. Soon as de b’ar got whar he could reach her he grip her tail an’ prick her wid his knife, an’ up she scramble draggin’ him atter her. Den Tommy holler out, ‘Hang on, Johnny! Tail holt is a mighty good bolt!’
“An’ Johnny did hang on, an’ soon as he got to de top he give de b’ar a push an’ she tumble down an’ was killed, an’ de boys got de cubs an’ de b’ar, too.”
THE STORY OF THE FRAIDS
“I remembrance ‘bout anudder li’l’ boy who had to go ev’y evenin’ to de pasture to drive home his master’s cows. He’d start at three o’clock, but he’d stay foolin’ off his time and never would git back till dark. De road pass a graveyard, an’ his master say to him, ‘Ain’ yo’ skeered to come by dat graveyard atter dark?’
“‘No, sir,’ de li’l’ boy say. ‘What for I be skeered?’
“‘Why, dar’s fraids dar,’ de man say.
‘What’s dem?’ de li’l’ boy ask.
“Ghos’es an’ things all in white,’ de man say; ‘an’ if dey cotch yo’ dat de end er you.’
“‘Well, I ain’ never seen none yit,’ de boy say.
“Den de man tell hisse’f dat he ain’ gwine have de boy wastin’ so much time as he been a-doin’, an’ he think he give him a skeer dat make him come home earlier. So de nex’ night he cover hisse’f wid a white sheet an’ go hide in de graveyard. But it happen de man have a monkey dat always try to do ev’ything jus’ like he see his master do; an’ dat monkey, he git a pillow-slip an’ put it over hisse’f an’ foller his master to de graveyard. De man, he didn’t see de monkey, an’ he git on a tombstone, an’ de monkey git on annudder tombstone behind him. Pretty soon de boy come along whistlin’ an’ drivin’ de cows. Den de man raise up an’ squat down in his white sheet, an’ de monkey in de pillow-slip done de same. De boy stop an’ point an’ say, ‘Dar’s two fraids — big fraid an’ li’l’ fraid.’
“De man doan’ understan’ what dat talk mean ‘bout de li’l’ fraid, an’ he look aroun’, but de monkey had jump down out er sight. De man begin his motions ag’in to try to skeer de boy, an’ de monkey git up an’ do de same. De boy point wid his finger, an’ he holler out de secon’ time, ‘Dar’s two fraids, big fraid an’ li’l’ fraid.’
“At dat de man turn aroun’ quick, an’ see de yuther white thing, an’ he git a great fright an’ broke an’ run, an’ de monkey foller him fast as he could go. Den de boy wid de cows holler, ‘Run big fraid or li’l’ fraid’ll cotch you!’
“What de boy had see didn’t skeer him, an’ it didn’t make him no quicker’n he’d been befo’. Seem like yo’ couldn’t learn some folks nothin’ nohow.”
My landlord at the hotel had mentioned that there was “a heap of powerful pretty country under water along the river”; and one day I made a trip to an outlying village to see how the people fared in the submerged districts. At this particular place they took the flood philosophically enough. They were in no danger — simply inconvenienced. Some of the land and houses had not yet been touched, but the majority of the dwellings were quite Venetian, and were either awash with the water, or were on a narrow island that had been the breastwork of a war-time fort. I hired a negro to take me for a row, and he called my attention to stains on the whitewashed walls of some of the cabins that showed last year’s flood had been up to the windowsills. “Floods like dat is a bad thing,” explained my companion. “Dey ramshacks de floor, an’ de furniture all comes to pieces atterwards.”
The village people owned quite a flotilla of boats, some of which were dugouts. These dugouts were usually of cypress and looked clumsy and ugly, but the village storekeeper, with whom I became acquainted, told me they were very serviceable. “You don’t want to git careless, though, or they’ll capsize,” he added. “I mighty nigh got drowned, havin’ one turn over under me this year. I was duck-shootin’, and I had a one hundred and twenty-five dollar gun that I was boun’ to hang on to whatever happened. Another boat come to my help, and I got into it, and the thing was all over so quick I didn’t have time to git scared; but when I was safe I shook like I had the ague.”
There was no levee along here, and the man said they didn’t want one. The flood fertilized their land, and on the whole was a benefit. They always waited till the spring rise was over before planting much, though the water now and then would come up in the summer and do a great deal of damage.
One of the local citizens who attracted my notice was a big-framed and very fleshy black man. He looked so superlatively lazy and amiable and talkative that I had the curiosity to ask how he got along in the world. I was surprised to learn that he owned a little farm, and was prosperous. Yet he did no work on his home place, because he claimed to have heart trouble. His family took care of his garden, and he carried a load of truck to town every week. That sold for four or five dollars, which was money enough to make him independently rich. I first came across him sitting by a roadside ditch chatting with a woman who was fishing. The woman was not catching anything, and seemed minded to quit. “Yo’ think yo’ luck won’t come?” he inquired sympathetically.
“Too much fraish water,” she responded.
“Yas, dat de trouble, sure as de truf,” said the man. “De fish swim all aroun’ de fiel’s now an’ git all dey want to eat, so dey won’t bite yo’ hook. Dem fish jus’ as fat as hogs. It no sati’faction to fish when dey dataway.”
“Las’ week de fish in dis hyar bayou bite as soon as I put de hook in de water,” remarked the woman.
“Maybe dat de consequence again when de river go down,” the man said encouragingly. “ Joe tell me he git plenty spearin’ ‘em wid his gig at night.”
“How does he do it?” I asked.
“He go in his boat wid a torch,” was the reply, “an’ de light draw de fish an’ blin’ ‘em, an’ he plunge his gig into ‘em, an’ dar he have ‘em.”
Not far away were some children with poles and lines lingering along the banks of the ditch catching crawfish. They were quite successful, or, as the fat negro said, “Dey do everlastingly cotch ‘em now, don’t dey? I reckon dey gwine have ‘em fo’ dinner. Summer time, when de ponds are low, yo’ c’n take a rake an’ scoop out crawfish by de hundred. Yo’ tote ‘em home an’ po’ hot water on ‘em an’ den pull de bark off’n ‘em, an’ de tail is rael nice. We fry de meat jus’ like fish, an’ it’s better’n fish fo’ eatin’ because dar ain’t no bones.”
The most interesting excursion I made from Vicksburg was a steamboat trip in the Elk forty miles down the river. We started at noon of a quiet sunny day that was too hot on the land, but very comfortable on the water. Another steamer left the city at the same time, and each tried to get ahead of its rival; but we were gradually left behind. Every one on board was interested in the race, and the officers made many excuses for our defeat — the boat was not loaded right for speed, some of the paddle blades were broken, etc. Among the passengers was an old-time river captain. To him the race was peurile. “By Jove! you ought to see how they did things thirty years ago,” he said.
“Once I raced all the way from New Orleans to St. Louis. My boat was beaten and I lost nine thousand dollars that I bet on her. There was a big lot o’ money changed hands every race when the boats was well matched. In the years just after the war steamboatin’ was a big thing. I made one trip up the Missouri as far as Bismarck that give the owners of my steamboat a profit of $110,000; and every man on the boat made all the money he wanted, besides. We traded with the Indians, and you could get twenty dollars’ worth of furs for a string of beads that cost five cents.”
Now the Elk slowed up to make a landing, and the other boat went on down-stream like a beautiful white water-creature and disappeared from view. We had stopped at a choppers’ camp, and in the near woods I could see tents and oxen. At the shore were several waiting negroes. They wore red shirts that made striking bits of color amid the wild greenery of the woodland. The water was up, lapping the banktop, and the boat swung about in the swift, boiling current, and pushed its bow snug to the shore. Our black roustabouts promptly got a rope around a tree, laid a couple of planks from the boat to the land, and hustled off the bags and parcels that were to be left. Then we went on, and we had the river all to ourselves for the rest of the journey. Its vast loneliness was quite impressive, and it must have appeared much the same in the days of its first explorers. Nearly always the banks were wooded, but there were occasional openings affording glimpses of plantation fields and a scattering of cabins. From time to time we would butt up to the bank and discharge or take on freight, and the boat went over the same route, doing this twice a week the year through.
A Landing at the Levee
The passengers included four young men who were making the round trip for an outing. They spared no effort to have a glorious time, and their visits to the bar were almost unceasing. The capacity they displayed for stowing away liquor was a marvel; and they were very social and affectionate, not only among themselves, but with every one on board. Sometimes they engaged in a tipsy race about the deck. Sometimes they entwined their arms around one another and half sat, half lay in the deck chairs. Sometimes they felt their biceps and challenged each other to fight. The rest of us dodged them when we could. Even the pilot, when they came to the supper table, to which he had just sat down, rose hastily and left. “Here, come back!” one of the rioters called after him. “You got any objections to my company? I ain’t no ghost. I ain’t no haunt.”
Again and again they treated to drinks and cigars the officers of the boat, the passengers, and such of the crew as they happened to meet. Once I saw their leader step up to the mate, pluck a half-smoked cigar from his lips, and throw it into the water. At the same time he handed out another. “Have a good cigar,” he said.
Among the persons treated by the picnickers were a couple of negro convicts who were manacled hand to hand. Their melancholy plight touched the tender sympathies of their benefactors. “You are black,” said one of the quartet; “but I have a heart, and I feel for you. Here, drink another bottle of beer; and, boys, take my advice — behave yourselves while you are serving out your time, and when they set you free live right and don’t get into the same trouble again.”
The prisoners were on their way to a convict camp, where they were to work out their fines at the rate of four dollars a month. Presently we approached their destination, and the steamboat gave a shrill hoot with its whistle, as it always did when we were about to stop. The banks here were low enough so that the flood covered them and allowed us to go back to the levee. Behind the embankment were numerous barns and cabins, and a big, wide-spreading, white mansion in a grove. It was a great event on the plantation to have the steamer come so near, and quite a concourse of negro women and children gathered on the bank to chatter and laugh while they watched the rousters hurry the freight to shore. We passengers looked down on the crowd from the upper deck, and one of the happy four swung a beer bottle in the air and asked if any of those on the levee wanted a drink. “I’ll treat,” he cried. “Have some? Now laugh! What are you all standing there for anyway? Those roustabouts you’re lookin’ at are tired. Go tell ‘em you’ll unload! Let the women do the work, I say! Let the women do the work! Now laugh again!”
He drank the beer himself, and went down on the levee. There he found a small boy whose apparel was amazingly scanty and ragged, and he asked, “Are those the best clothes you’ve got?”
“Why, they are all to pieces, and the buttons are gone.
“You ain’t fit to be seen. Don’t you know that?”
“Well,” said the fellow, thrusting his hand into his pocket and pulling out several silver coins, “take this money and go buy yourself some clothes, and hurry up about it.”
The boy took the money and ran off, and we saw him no more.
We were a long time unloading; for there was an immense deal of cattle feed and farm supplies and household goods in great variety to be left. This convict camp was a big plantation, and, like many other plantations, it had people enough on it to make a good-sized village. Our rousters carried out most of the freight on their heads or shoulders, and their celerity and deftness in the heavy labor were a wonder. Two of them stayed on the lower deck and heaved up a burden to each man in turn, and the leader of the two often broke forth in a strange chant, to which the other responded like an echo. This chant was a monotone consisting of an improvised sentence shouted each time a bag or box was lifted to a waiting roustabout. The fragments were such as these: —
First voice. I ain’ gwine leave yo’ he-ere!
Response. — leave yo’ he-ere.
First voice. Take yo’ load if yo’ ple-ease!
Response. — if yo’ ple-ease.
First voice. Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord!
Response. — Oh, Lord!
First voice. I’m gwine live a long ti-ime!
Response. — a long ti-ime.
First voice. Yo’ doan’ know what trouble I’ve seen!
Response. — what trouble I’ve seen!
Though to me the roustabouts seemed so alert and willing, they were not at all satisfactory to the mate, who, puffing viciously at a cigar, was constantly urging them to greater haste, and once in a while he let off an explosion of oaths. The captain told me he had known the mate to throw a rouster that was lazy right overboard. “You’ve got to be rough with ‘em,” he continued. “They’re a hard lot, and every man of ‘em at the end of the trip will spend or gamble away the two dollars he’s earned in the low dives of Vicksburg.”
Yet as far as their work was concerned he preferred them to whites; for none but negroes would contentedly “eat hardtack” and snatch such sleep as the exigencies allowed, “with a lump of coal for a pillow.”
Toward evening we entered a twenty-mile bend that the river had deserted long before, and which had since been known as Lake Palmyra. But during this year’s high water the river had torn through into the upper end of this ancient, stagnant channel, and a considerable portion of the current now went that way instead of by the cut-off. The river is always tearing away at the banks — an aggressive, unfeeling monster. It will wash off hundreds of acres of an exposed plantation in a single season. But when it washes on one side a sand bar starts opposite and soon rises above low water, begins to grow to willows, and at length builds up so that it can be cleared and cultivated. The stream progresses by many loops through the bottom lands, and often it cuts across the neck of the loops so that the valley is full of these abandoned channels; but the return of the stream to an old-time course is something unusual.
The weather had become threatening, and the sun, low in the west, had been gradually effaced in a gloom of thickening cloud. A rough wind arose, and there was a dash of rain. We had come to another stopping-place, and pushed up into the willows skirting the bank until we could run our gang-plank to land near a storehouse. While we were getting the goods to shore the clouds lifted in the west, and the sun shone out and sparkled on the waves and painted the misty east with a long streak of rainbow, and glorified the whole landscape with amber light. It was a scene enchanted.
Night came presently, but our journey continued with its frequent stops as before. One of our last calls was at a place where we went from the main channel back across country a mile or so. At first we followed a creek in the tall woods, and so narrow was the stream that we sometimes snapped off the branches on one side or the other. Then we came to more open country, where the brilliant eye of our searchlight revealed here and there a gaunt dead tree and a half-submerged barn, and in spots we could see the tops of fence posts. Occasionally we scraped bottom, and the mate stood near the prow dropping the lead and calling out, “Half twain — three feet and a half — mark twain,” etc.
It was a delicate piece of navigation, and not only was there danger of getting aground, or staving a hole on a snag, but the wheel might wind up a barbed wire fence which would be no less serious. However, we continued safely to a levee, where a bent little old man was waiting with a lantern, and walking about to keep warm in the clear chill night air. Not far away was a group of sheds, and the rest was woods. When we finished unlading, the bales and bags and boxes lay in half a dozen piles, covering the levee for some distance. Now the boat backed around, and picked a cautious passage to the main waterway.
About midnight we left Lake Palmyra by forcing our way against the tumultuous current pouring through the new crevasse, and then struggled on up-stream toward Vicksburg. Every one who could went to bed, but the berth assigned to me was in the same room with one of the drunken celebrators, and I preferred to let him have the entire space. In the first gray of the morning we arrived at Vicksburg; and though the trip was not all pleasure, I disembarked pretty well satisfied with its varied sights and experiences.
NOTE. — Vicksburg, by reason of the part it played in the Civil War, is one of the best-known and most interesting towns in the South. The battle-field is a national park. It covers a wide area, and for most persons the best way to see it is by driving. The town itself is remarkably picturesque, and one ought to do a good deal of rambling on foot to really appreciate the exhilarating changes of view, and the odd environment of some of the humbler habitations. Vicksburg is an admirable place from which to make a river trip. Few people would however enjoy being on a Mississippi steamboat more than a day, as the lower river is very monotonous. My experience would indicate that it is desirable to carry along something to eat when making a trip on a local steamer, for the food that will be furnished is likely to be very bad. In Vicksburg, as in nearly all Southern cities, only the best hotels are really satisfactory.