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The End of the World: A Love Story By Edward Eggleston Characters: 7723

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

The steady beat of the wheels and the incessant clank of the engines went on as usual. The boat was loaded almost to her guards, and did not make much speed. The wheels kept their persistent beat upon the water, and the engines kept their rhythmical clangor going, until August found himself getting drowsy. Trouble, with forced inaction, nearly always has a soporific tendency, and a continuous noise is favorable to sleep. Once or twice August roused himself to a sense of his responsibility and battled with his heaviness. It was nearing the end of his watch, for the dog-watch of two hours set in at four o'clock. But it seemed to him that four o'clock would never come.

An incident occurred just at this moment that helped him to keep his eyes open. A man went aft through the engine-room with a red handkerchief tied round his forehead. In spite of this partial disguise August perceived that it was Parkins. He passed through to the place where the steerage or deck passengers are, and then disappeared from August's sight. He had meant to disembark at a wood-yard just below Paducah, but for some reason the boat did not stop, and now, as August guessed, he was hiding himself from Paducah eyes. He was not much too soon, for the great bell on the hurricane-deck was already ringing for Paducah, and the summer dawn was showing itself faintly through the river fog.

The alarm-bell rang in the engine-room, and Wehle stood by his engine. Then the bell rang to stop the starboard engine, and August obeyed it. The pilot of a Western steamboat depends much upon his engines for steerage in making a landing, and the larboard engine was kept running a while longer in order to bring the deeply-loaded boat round to her landing at the primitive wharf-boat of that day. There is something fine in the faith with which an engineer obeys the bell of the pilot, not knowing what may be ahead, not inquiring what may be the effect of the order, but only doing exactly what he is bid when he is bid. August had stopped his engine, and stood trying to keep his mind off Parkins and the events of the night, that he might be ready to obey the next signal for his engine. But the bell rang next to stop the other engine, at which the second engineer stood, and August was so free from responsibility in regard to that that he hardly noticed the sound of the bell, until it rang a second time more violently. Then he observed that the larboard engine still ran. Was Munson dead or asleep? Clearly it was August's duty to stand by his own engine. But then he was startled to think what damage to property or life might take place from the failure of the second engineer to stop his engine. While he hesitated, and all these considerations flashed through his mind, the pilot's bell rang again long and loud, and August then, obeying an impulse rather than a conviction, ran over to the other engine, stopped it, and then, considering that it had run so long against orders, he reversed it and set it to backing without waiting instructions. Then he seized Munson and woke him, and hurried back to his post. But the larboard engine had not made three revolutions backward before the boat, hopelessly thrown from her course by the previous neglect, struck the old wharf-boat and sunk it. But for the promptness and presence of mind with which Wehle acted, the steamboat itself would have suffered severely. The mate and then the captain came rushing into the engine-room. Munson was discharged at once, and the striker was promised engineer's wages.

Gus went off watch at this moment, and the mud-clerk said to him, in his characteristically indifferent voice, "Such luck, I declare! I was sure you would be dismissed for meddling with Parkins, and here you are promoted, I declare!"

The mishap occasioned much delay to the boat, as it was very inconvenient to

deliver freight at that day and at that stage of water without the intervention of the wharf-boat. A full hour was consumed in finding a landing, and in rigging the double-staging and temporary planks necessary to get the molasses and coffee and household "plunder" ashore. Some hint that Parkins was on the river had already reached Paducah, and the sheriff and two deputies and a small crowd were at the landing looking for him. A search of the boat failed to discover him, and the crowd would have left the landing but for occasional hints slyly thrown out by the mud-clerk as he went about over the levee collecting freight-bills. These hints, given in a non-committal way, kept the crowd alive with expectation, and when the rumors thus started spread abroad, the levee was soon filled with an excited and angry multitude.

If it had been a question of delivering a criminal to justice, August would not have hesitated to tell the sheriff where to look. But he very well knew that the sheriff could not convey the man through the mob alive, and to deliver even such a scoundrel to the summary vengeance of a mob was something that he could not find it in his heart to do.

In truth, the sheriff and his officers did not seek very zealously for their man. Under the circumstances, it was probable he would not surrender himself without a fight, in which somebody would be killed, and besides there must ensue a battle with the mob. It was what they called an ugly job, and they were not loth to accept the captain's assurance that the gambler had gone ashore.

While August was unwilling to deliver the hunted villain to a savage death, he began to ask himself why he might not in some way use his terror in the interest of justice. For he had just then seen the wretched and bewildered face of Norman looking ghastly enough in the fog of the morning.

At last, full of this notion, and possessed, too, by his habit of accomplishing at all hazards what he had begun, August strolled back through the now quiet engine-room to the deck-passengers' quarter. It was about half an hour before six o'clock, when the dog-watch would expire and he must go on duty again. In one of the uppermost of the filthy bunks, in the darkest corner, near the wheel, he discovered what he thought to be his man. The deck-passengers were still asleep, lying around stupidly. August paused a moment, checked by a sense of the dangerousness of his undertaking. Then he picked up a stick of wood and touched the gambler, who could not have been very sound asleep, lying in hearing of the curses of the mob on the shore. At first Parkins did not move, but August gave him a still more vigorous thrust. Then he peered out between the blanket and the handkerchief over his forehead.

"I will take that money you won last night from that young man, if you please."


Parkins saw that it was useless to deny his identity. "Do you want to be shot?" he asked fiercely.

"Not any more than you want to be hung," said August. "The one would follow the other in five minutes. Give back that money and I will go away."

The gambler trembled a minute. He was fairly at bay. He took out a roll of bills and handed it to August. There was but five hundred. Smith had the other four hundred and fifty, he said. But August had a quiet German steadiness of nerve. He said that unless the other four hundred and fifty were paid at once he should call in the sheriff or the crowd. Parkins knew that every minute August stood there increased his peril, and human nature is now very much like human nature in the days of Job. The devil understood the subject very well when he said that all that a man hath will he give for his life. Parkins paid the four hundred and fifty in gold-pieces. He would have paid twice that if August had demanded it.

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