the supertramp - W.H.Davies - proseClick image for Davies home



I WORKED long enough on this canal to save fifty dollars, and then quit, feeling the old restlessness return, which had unsettled me for some time. With this comfortable sum in my possession I kept beating my way west until I arrived at St. Louis, a large city on the Mississippi, having up till now lived frugally, and spent nothing On travelling. This kind of life was often irksome to me, when I have camped all night alone in the woods, beside a fire, when one good sociable companion might have turned the life into an ideal one. Often have I waked in the night, or early morning, to find spaces opposite occupied by one or two strangers, who had seen the fire in the distance, and had been guided to me by its light. One night, in Indiana, when it had rained heavily throughout the day, I had made my fire and camped under a thick leaved tree, where the ground was dryer than in the open. Sometime about midnight, I felt myself roughly shaken, at the same time a sudden shower fell that pinned me breathless to the earth. I looked here and there, but could see no one. Then I left the shelter of the tree and saw to my surprise that the night was fine, and that the stars were thick and shining. As I replenished the fire with wood, of which I always gathered in an abundance before darkness came, it puzzled me much to account for this. Although I thought the shaking must have been a dream, my wet clothes were a sufficient proof of the rain's reality. Every man I met on the following day enquired where I had lodged during the earthquake shock on the previous night, and that question explained everything. The earth had shaken me, and the leaves of the tree, which had been gathering all day the rain drops, had in one moment relinquished them all upon my sleeping form.

On reaching St. Louis I still had something like forty dollars, and being tired of my own thoughts, which continually upbraided me for wasted time, resolved to seek some congenial fellowship, so that in listening to other men's thoughts I might be rendered deaf to my own. I had bought a daily paper, and had gone to the levee, so that I might spend a few hours out of the sun, reading, and watching the traffic on the river. Seeing before me a large pile of lumber, I hastened towards it, that I might enjoy its shady side. When I arrived I saw that the place was already occupied by two strangers, one being a man of middle age, and the other a youth of gentlemanly appearance. Seating myself, I began to read, but soon had my attention drawn to their conversation. The young fellow, wanting to go home, and being in no great hurry, proposed buying a house-boat and floating leisurely down the Mississippi to New Orleans, from which place he would then take train to Southern Texas, where his home was. 'We will go ashore,' he said, 'and see the different towns, and take in fresh provisions as they are needed.' The elder of the two, who had a strong Scotch accent, allowed a little enthusiasm to ooze out of his dry temperament, and agreed without much comment. 'Excuse me, gentlemen,' I said, 'I could not help but hear your conversation and, if you have no objection, would like to share expenses and enjoy your company on such a trip.' The Texan, being young and impetuous, without the least suspicion of strangers, jumped to his feet, exulting at the social project. Scotty, more calm, but with a shrewd eye to the financial side of the question, said that he thought the trip would certainly be enjoyed better by three, and that the expense would not be near so great per head. We had no difficulty in purchasing a houseboat. Hundreds of these are moored to the banks, lived in by fishermen and their wives, and others in various ways employed on the river. But, of course, the one we required was to be much smaller than these. We found one, at last, rather battered, and ill-conditioned, for which we were asked eleven dollars. Scotty, to our unfeigned disgust, acted the Jew in this matter of trade, and had succeeded in beating the price down to nine dollars and a half when we to his annoyance offered to pay that sum without more ado. But Scotty, although mean in these business matters, was strictly honest and just in paying an equal share; for, after I had paid the odd half a dollar, he did not forget that amount when we came to stocking the boat with provisions. We lost no time in getting these, and then went ashore for the evening's enjoyment and the night's sleep, intending to start early the next morning. And with these prospects before us, a very pleasant evening we had.

At nine o'clock the following morning, we weighed anchor- our anchor being a large stone-and drifted into the current, the young Texan using an oar as a tiller. And what a strange voyage we had, fraught with more danger than many would dream. This Mississippi river often had only a few yards for navigation purposes, even when the distance from bank to bank was between two and three miles. Sometimes we were in the middle of this broad river, and yet were in extreme danger of foundering, for we could touch the bottom with a short stick. Yes, we were in danger of foundering, and yet our ship drew less than six inches of water! Trees, whose branches were firmly embedded in the mud, had their roots bobbing up and down, bobbing up unawares, and we were often in danger of being impaled on one of these ere we could steer clear of it. Sometimes we would see villages and small towns that in the remote past had been built flush on the banks of this river: now they were lying quiet and neglected a mile or more away, owing to this river's determination to take his own course. Hundreds of lives had been sacrificed, dying of swamp fever, in building levees and high banks to prevent this, and millions of dollars utilised for the same purpose- but the Father of Waters has hitherto had his own will, and can be expected to be seen at any place, and at any time.

Towards evening we would put ashore on a sand bar, making a fire of driftwood, of which there was an abundance. Here we cooked supper, slept and enjoyed breakfast the next morning. There was no other water to be had than that of the river, which the natives of the south claim to be healthy. We had no objection to using it for cooking and washing, but it was certainly too thick for drinking cold-or rather lukewarm, for it was never cold in the summer months. We would fill a large can and let the water settle for twenty or thirty minutes, and, after taking great care in drinking, a sediment of mud would be left at the bottom a quarter or three-eighths of an inch deep.

We put ashore at one place where a number of negroes and white men had assembled in expectation of work, when man again proposed putting forth his puny strength against the Mississippi, where we decided to wait a day or two and take our chance of being employed. Unfortunately the ill feeling which invariably exists between these two colours, came to a climax on the first day of our arrival. The negroes, insulting and arrogant, through their superiority of numbers, became at last unbearable. On which the white men, having that truer courage that scorned to count their own strength, assembled together, and after a few moments' consultation, resolved to take advantage of the first provocation. This came sooner than was expected. A negro, affecting to be intoxicated, staggered against a white man, and was promptly knocked down for his trouble. The negroes, whose favourite weapon is the razor, produced these useful blades from different parts of concealment, stood irresolute, waiting for a leader, and then came forward in a body, led by a big swaggerer in bare feet, whose apparel consisted of a red shirt and a pair of patched trousers held up by a single brace. These white men, who were so far outnumbered, said little, but the negroes were loud in their abuse. This soon led to blows and in the ensuing fight, knives, razors and fists were freely used. Only one shot was fired, and that one told. When the negroes, whose courage had failed at such a determined resistance, were in full flight, the tall swaggerer was left behind with a bullet in his heart. Several men were wounded, with gashes on necks, arms, and different parts of the body. Small fights continued throughout the day, but it was left for the night to produce a deed of foul murder. A white man was found next morning with his body covered with blood from thirty-nine wounds. Half a dozen razors must have set to work on him in the dark. The razor is a sly, ugly-looking weapon, but is far less dangerous than a knife, a poker, or even a short heavy piece of wood; and as it cannot pierce to the heart or brain, that is why this man took so long in the killing. This deed roused the sheriff and his marshal, and they followed the black murderers to the adjoining state, but returned next day without them.

We embarked again, but owing to the young Texan being taken sick with malarial fever, resolved to put ashore for medicine at the first large town. This malarial fever is very prevalent in these parts, especially this state of Arkansas, which is three parts a swamp. He suffered so much that we decided to call on the first house-boat seen, and ask assistance of the fishermen, and soon we had an opportunity of doing so. Seeing a large house-boat moored at the mouth of a small creek we put the tiller-which as I have said, was an oar-to its proper work, and sculled towards the shore. We ran to land within ten yards of the other boat, and the fisherman, who had seen us coming, stood waiting on the sands to know our wants. He was a typical swamp man, with a dark sickly complexion, thin-faced and dry-skinned and, though he was nearly six feet in height, his weight, I believe, could not have exceeded one hundred and twenty pounds. His left cheek was considerably swollen, which I thought must be due to neuralgia until the swelling began to disappear from that side; and, after witnessing for a few seconds a frightful, even painful contortion of the face, I saw the right check come into possession of the same beautiful round curve, leaving the left cheek as its fellow had been. It was now apparent that the one object of this man's life was to chew tobacco. To him we related our troubles, asking his advice, and for a little temporary assistance, for which he would be paid. Up to the present time he had not opened his lips, except a right or left corner to squirt tobacco juice, sending an equal share to the north and south. 'I guess there's some quinine in the shanty boat,' he said, after a long silence, 'which I reckon will relieve him considerably, but he ought ter go home ter th' women folk, that's straight.' He led the way to his boat, and we followed. We soon had the young Texan in comfort, and Scotty and myself returned to transfer some provisions to the fisherman's house-boat, for the evening's use. While doing so, we decided to sell our own boat, at any price, when we would walk to the nearest railroad, and send the young fellow home; after which we would seek some employment and settle down. We cooked supper, and then slept in the open air, beside a large fire, leaving our sick friend comfortable in the boat.

The next morning we offered our house-boat for sale for six dollars, with all its belongings. The fisherman explained to us that he not only had no money, but rarely had use for it. Everything he needed he paid for in fish, and often went months at a time without a glimpse of money of any description. To my surprise the one thing that did seem to claim his attention, for which he could not help but display some greed, was the large stone which we had brought with us from St. Louis, and which we had used for an anchor. This stone certainly had no vein of gold or silver in it, it was not granite or marble, and could boast of no beauty, being a very ordinary looking stone indeed, but it seemed to have a strange fascination for this man. The fisherman had no money, and had nothing to barter which might be of use to us, so we made him a present of the whole lot, and left him sitting on the stone, watching our departure. 'He seemed very eager to possess that stone,' I remarked to Scotty, as we followed a trail through a thicket, so that we might reach the high-road. 'Yes,' said Scotty, 'for in this part of the country, where there is little but sand, wood and mud, a stone, a piece of iron, or any small thing of weight, can be put to many uses.'

After reaching the road we had twenty miles to walk to reach the nearest railway station, at which place we arrived late that night, the young Texan being then weak and exhausted. A train was leaving at midnight for New Orleans, and, after seeing him safely aboard we sat in the station till day-break. Early the next morning we were examining the town, waiting for business to start, so that we might enquire as to its prospects for work. This seemed to be good, there being a large stave factory which employed a number of men. We succeeded in our quest, starting to work that morning, and at dinner time received a note of introduction to an hotel. That evening we associated with our fellow workmen, and, in the course of conversation, we discovered that there was no particular time to receive wages, there being no regular pay day. Sometimes wages ran on for a month, six weeks, two months, etc. 'Of course,' he explained to us, 'anything you require you can easily get an order for on the stores.' We worked two weeks at this factory, when I was taken ill myself with malaria, and not being able to eat, soon became too weak for work. In this condition I went to the office for my money, but could not get it, and saw that nothing else could be done than to get an order on the stores, and take my wages out in clothes, shoes, etc. Scotty was scared at this, and quitted work at once to-demand his wages in cash, and there I left him, waiting for a settlement. I intended going to Memphis, the nearest large town, and placing myself in its hospital, whilst Scotty was going to New Orleans, where I promised to meet him in a month, providing I was sufficiently recovered to do so.

I don't know what possessed me to walk out of this town, in- stead of taking a train, but this I did, to my regret. For I became too weak to move, and, coming to a large swamp, I left the railroad and crawled into it, and for three days and the same number of nights, lay there without energy to continue my journey. Wild hungry hogs were there, who approached dangerously near, but ran snorting away when my body moved. A score or more of buzzards had perched waiting on the branches above me, and I knew that the place was teeming with snakes. I suffered from a terrible thirst, and drank of the swamp-pools, stagnant water that was full of germs, and had the colours of the rainbow, one dose of which would have poisoned some men to death. When the chill was upon me, I crawled into the hot sun, and lay there shivering with the cold; and when the hot fever possessed me, I crawled back into the shade. Not a morsel to eat for four days, and very little for several days previous. I could see the trains pass this way and that, but had not the strength to call. Most of the trains whistled, and I knew that they stopped either for water or coal within a mile of where I lay. Knowing this to be the case, and certain that it would be death to remain longer in this deadly swamp, I managed to reach the railroad track, and succeeded in reaching the next station, where most of these trains stopped. The distance had been less than a mile, but it had taken me two hours to accomplish. I then paid my way from this station, being in a hurry to reach Memphis, thinking my life was at its close. When I reached that town I took a conveyance from the station to the hospital. At that place my condition was considered to be very serious, but the doctor always bore me in mind, for we were both of the same nationality, and to that, I believe, I owe my speedy recovery.