When I turned twelve, my pa guessed it was time I learned a trade. Not wanting to disappoint, I told a stretcher and said I was all for it. That?¦s when the bargaining started.
?§How about apprenticing with a cooper??¨ he suggested. The thought of making wood barrels all the rest of my born days left me kind of squirmy. True, there?¦s nothing so handsome as a well-made butter churn or molasses barrel or milk bucket, but I hated slivers. Having Ma take a needle to one stuck in the meaty part of my hand made me carry on worse than a colicky baby. And since coopers are forever working in wood, well . . . So after pretending to build up some steam thinking about it, I shook my head no, all regretful-like.
?§Wouldn?¦t seem to be much of a future in it,?¨ I reckoned. Telling Pa I was scared to death of slivers would never have worked, but bringing up the future nearly always bought me some breathing room.
?§All right,?¨ Pa allowed, still sounding fresh about our talk. ?§How about blacksmithing??¨ ?§Wouldn?¦t you think I?¦m kind of scrawny for it??¨ ?§It?¦d put some meat on your bones,?¨ he pointed out. On goes my thinking hat again as I ground away, real serious-like, on the prospects of being a blacksmith. Of course, I already knew that blacksmithing wouldn?¦t do either. Aside from my being a runt, which would make it hard to handle the bellows and pound the horseshoes and such, I?¦m awful jittery about getting burnt. And what blacksmith can do his job without a ripping hot fire? ?§Wouldn?¦t there be some dark days ahead for blacksmiths??¨ I asked. ?§What with the coming of railroads and all??¨ The year was already 1849, after all, and the railroads had big plans, though I hadn?¦t heard any talk about their doing away with blacksmithing. Lucky for me, Pa considered the smithy in the nearest town?X that?¦d be Stavely?¦s Landing, on the Mississippi?Xto be a rude and balky brute, which made it one possibility he was willing to let slip away without a fight. ?§Hmm,?¨ Pa said, turning thoughtful and sizing me up with one eye, kind of squinty-like. ?§What would you say to working in a livery stable? There?¦s steady work there.?¨ Well, taking care of horses and fancy carriages and such would be pretty quality, all right, but I figure Pa?¦s up to something with this one. Everybody knows how bad horsehair gives my nose the dithers.
?§?¦Fraid they wouldn?¦t have me,?¨ I sighed. ?§Not the way I?¦d always be sneezing and spooking the livestock.?¨ ?§Couldn?¦t have that,?¨ Pa agreed, smiling despite himself. ?§Say, maybe you?¦d like to set your sights on becoming a preacher? Your Uncle Clayton went that route, you know.?¨ We were talking about Pa?¦s favorite brother, the one where my middle name sprang from and who?¦d baptized me in the river. I?¦d heard the story of my dunking many a time, ?¦cause my uncle got carried away with his preachifying and held me under a might long, till I was blue. ?¦Course, they got me working again, but my near miss of heaven left my family feeling I had a leg up when it came to talking with higher powers. So real careful-like, I asked, ?§Didn?¦t he get swallowed up by the wilderness??¨ ?§We don?¦t know any such thing at all,?¨ Pa snorted. ?§He could show anytime.?¨ ?§Sorry, Pa,?¨ I said, doing my level best to sound overlooked and dejected, ?§but I?¦m afraid I ain?¦t heard no trumpets calling. Not yet, anyway.?¨ ?§Now listen here,?¨ Pa grumbled, bearing down. ?§Is there anything you?¦d be willing to try??¨ ?§Oh, most everything,?¨ I volunteered, hoping I sounded helpful.
?§Could have fooled me.?¨ ?§Wouldn?¦t want me to jump into something without considering it real careful, would you??¨ ?§I?¦m beginning to think maybe I wouldn?¦t mind that at all.?¨ Pa wagged his head in wonder. ?§You?¦re twelve now, ain?¦t ya??¨ Then a knowing smile ruffled his mustache and I braced myself for the worst. ?§Say, how about this: maybe we could get you work as a cabin boy on a steamer.?¨ Well, there weren?¦t many boys along the Mississippi, Ohio, or Missouri rivers who wouldn?¦t have given all his marbles along with a first-rate mumblety-peg?x knife for such a chance as that. So I had to take her slow. First off, I grinned at Pa, on account of it was expected.
?§Yes sir,?¨ Pa pressed on, probably thinking he was on the trail of something promising at last. ?§You?¦d start out low, but it wouldn?¦t be long before you moved up to mud clerking or maybe cubbing for a pilot. After that, who knows??¨ I nodded at the grandeur of it all, but pretty soon I frowned a tiny bit, as if a troublesome thought had crept up on me. As of yet, I didn?¦t know what thatt thought might be, but I hoped it would come to me quick. I was deathly afraid of drowning in the Mississippi, though it goes without saying that I couldn?¦t tell PPPPPa such a thing; squawking never got me anywhere with that man. Obstacles only made him more set in his ways. He didn?¦t have a mean bone in him, but he didn?¦t have any that were known to bend either. To change his mind, I had to come at him sort of sideways. So while Pa went on about how he hadn?¦t been selling wood to steamboats for going on ten years without knowing himself the names of some captains, I got busy sweating over how to tackle this one. You see, my pa?¦s own pa had spent all his years yanking out tree stumps and starting up farms clear across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, which didn?¦t leave time nor money for setting his sons up in a trade. Naturally, that meant my own pa was bound and determined to see things turn out different for me. Finally, I couldn?¦t bear his enthusiasms a minute longer and called out real desperate, ?§Wouldn?¦t be much of a future, would there??¨ ?§No future??¨ he cried, digging a finger in his ear like he couldn?¦t believe what he was hearing. ?§Why, not even the railroads can put a dent in the future of this river and the steamers it carries. The whole West?¦s being settled, and it?¦s the rivers getting it done. Without ?¦em there wouldn?¦t be no civilization beyond the Alleghenies. There wouldn?¦t be nothing out here but a few smelly trappers and warbling Indians and . . . ?¨ He began to wind down about then, maybe noticing how I looked sort of glum. Finally he stopped talking altogether and took a minute off to gaze up at the sky before muttering to himself, the way he does when our mule won?¦t haul nothing. ?§You seem to think the future?¦s a mighty dark place,?¨ he concluded. ?§Why is that, son? Most anybody else you talk to is usually pretty high on her.?¨ ?§Just a feeling that slides over me,?¨ I mumbled.
?§Let me remind you of one little thing,?¨ Pa went on. ?§You?¦re going to be living the rest of your life in the future, so you better get on speaking terms with it.?¨ ?§Yes sir.?¨ ?§So what troubles you about steamboating??¨ ?§Well,?¨ I wheezed, taking the plunge without knowing what was going to pop out of my mouth, ?§the way this river changes its course so often, who?¦s to say it?¦ll keep going where we need it to??¨ That pretty much did it?Xsealed my fate, so to speak. Pa smoldered for most of a minute, looking like he was about to blow cinders out his top any second. Finally he did, speaking up loud enough for our neighbors a half-mile distant t...