The Steamboat Pilot: An Account by Christophe Damas Thibodeaux

May 9, 2024

For Christophe Damas Thibodeaux—a coddled young Frenchman—his first trip up the treacherously low waters of the Mississippi was marred by daily perils. Tuesday, September 27, 1859, was simply the pièce de résistance. 

The last tendrils of an orange sunset were fading from the sky as the SS Edward J. Gay arrived in Memphis. Damas was on the boiler deck, a glass of Bordeaux in hand, after a sumptuous dinner in the saloon. 

The leadsman was singing the river’s depths as they chugged towards port. “Quarter Twain!” 

Thanks to his new friend Samuel, Damas had started to learn this strange, river-faring language. Despite living most of his life in New Orleans, the sixteen-year-old French immigrant preferred to keep his feet on shore. 

Cutting through the leadsman’s song, another voice cried out. “Look out! Down here!” Passengers and crew members alike rushed to the sides in search. Damas, however, remained rooted. Any warm feelings from his supper instantly vanished. On the hurricane deck above, Captain Bowen’s bellowing baritone echoed. “Out of the way!” 

In the encroaching darkness, Damas saw the small skiff ahead of the steamboat. A man pleading for his life. 

But it was too late. 

One minute he was there. The next, the Gay had run him over, smashing his skiff to bits and killing the man. 

As Damas lay awake in his stateroom, all he could hear was the combined power of steam engines and water splintering the flimsy wood. Over and over it played through his mind.

In the background, the unsteady steps of passengers disembarking mingled with the raucous swearing of the crew as they unloaded the cargo. Then the musical sigh of the steam whistle broke through Damas’ nightmarish daze, silencing all other sounds. 

The next morning, Damas woodenly tossed aside the blankets and crossed the compact apartment. Soft gray light rimmed the tasseled curtains. He peeked out. A dense fog blanketed the Gay as the wooden paddles churned, pushing the ship out from port. “How can we possibly be continuing on?” Damas thought to himself. 

Angry, he yanked his arms into his coat sleeves and shoved his black beret atop his head. After a quick turn about the boiler deck, young Damas scampered up to the hurricane deck. In search of Samuel, he poked his head inside the pilot house. The other pilot, Bell, informed Damas that Samuel was off duty. 

On the hurricane deck, the fog was thinner. Damas could see a huddled form near the base of the towering black smokestacks. Quickly, he strode towards it. The bundle took on a human shape, complete with bits of fiery red hair. The man’s untamed locks peeked out from beneath his beret, nearly identical to the one Damas wore. The sight of it slowed his steps and worked to cool his temper. 

Although he had only known Samuel for five days, Damas counted him among his few friends. While the other “starchy boys,” as Samuel called the crewmen, made fun of Damas’ sea sickness, Samuel came to his aid. Samuel had brought Damas here to keep his gaze out above the water towards the horizon. As Damas’ stomach had settled, the twenty-three-year-old pilot had begun teaching him all about steamboats.

Now, Damas took a seat beside his friend. They sat in silence, listening to the sidewheel paddles of the packet boat push them against the current. Only the occasional song of the leadsman broke the quiet. 

“Mark Twain!” he sang. “Mark Twain!” 

“Two fathoms?” Damas asked. 

Samuel nodded. “Which is?” 

“The minimum for safe navigation.” 

“Your father will be proud,” Samuel said quietly, taking a long swig from a bourbon bottle. 

The anger in Damas’ belly boiled over once more. “Pour quelle raison? For learning a few terms? For standing idly by while others have died? What about your father, non? Would he be proud of you?” 

“My father is dead.” 

Leaping to his feet, Damas cried, “Do the tragedies ever end? Or do they simply follow you in your wake?” 

Eyes wide, Samuel looked up at Damas as though he’d been slapped. “My father died when I was eleven. Pneumonia. I am guiltless.” 

“Of one man’s death.” Damas held up a single finger. “One! What about all the stories you have told me? Henry, the little black girl, the crewman, the Lackeys—” 

“I did not kill them.” 

“Fine. But you cannot deny tragedy follows you! Are sailors not superstitious?” Samuel crossed his arms. 

“Tell me it was not you behind the wheel last night.”

Brows furrowing, Samuel shifted his dark eyes to the horizon. 

“Samuel?” 

The young steamboat pilot did not respond. 

“Samuel!” 

A sudden coughing fit wracked Samuel’s body. His callused hands struggled with the bottle stopper. 

Taking pity, Damas dropped to one knee and opened the bourbon bottle. Coughing and spluttering, Samuel drank. His head cold was still bothering him. As a token of gratitude, Damas had given Samuel his spare beret. The floppy felt kept the dampness off his head. Unsurprisingly, Samuel had lost his own cap gambling. 

As his fit subsided, Samuel motioned for Damas to sit. Behind his eyes, words were spinning. His voice was measured and musical as he started. “Pilots are the only independent, unfettered men left in this country. We navigate these waters, facing dangers around every river bend. There are costs, high costs. Perhaps the stories left behind pay the debt.”

“You believe so?” 

“Yes.” 

It was a simple word, but one spoken with a conviction that surprised Damas. Like the boiler engines below, Samuel’s eyes were lit by a burning fire: the power of stories. Who was this strange young man who had already lived a thousand lives, yet took notice of a weak-kneed French boy? 

It was then Damas realized it was not his friend he was angry with, nor their perilous circumstances. It was the fact he himself had never lived. 

A soft smile tugged his lips. “You are a strange man, Samuel Clemens.”

 

As an author, Alexandra Rexford enjoys writing stories with wit and romance, including a dash of danger. In a perfect world, she would spend all her time writing, reading, sipping hot cocoa, and snuggling with her dogs.

 

 

 

Featured image by Catia Dombaxe.

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