Horace Bixby said to the writer of this memoir: “Sam was always good-natured, and he had a natural taste for the river. He had a fine memory and never forgot what I told him.”
Yet there must have been hard places all along, for to learn every crook and turn and stump and snag and bluff and bar and sounding of that twelve hundred miles of mighty, shifting water was a gigantic task. Mark Twain tells us how, when he was getting along pretty well, his chief one day turned on him suddenly with this “settler”:
“What is the shape of Walnut Bend?”
He might as well have asked me my grandmother’s opinion of protoplasm. I replied respectfully and said I didn’t know it had any particular shape. My gun-powdery chief went off with a bang, of course, and then went on loading and firing until he was out of adjectives ....I waited. By and by he said:
“My boy, you’ve got to know the shape of the river perfectly. It is all that is left to steer by on a very dark night. Everything else is blotted out and gone. But mind you, it hasn’t got the same shape in the night that it has in the daytime.”
“How on earth am I going to learn it, then?”
“How do you follow a hall
at home in the dark? Because you know the
shape of it. You can’t see it.”
“Do you mean to say that I’ve
got to know all the million trifling
variations of shape in the banks of this interminable river as well
as I know the shape of the front hall at home?”
“On my honor, you’ve
got to know them better than any man ever did
know the shapes of the halls in his own house.”
“I wish I was dead!”
But the reader must turn to Chapter VIII of “Life on the Mississippi” and read, or reread, the pages which follow this extract—nothing can better convey the difficulties of piloting. That Samuel Clemens had the courage to continue is the best proof, not only of his great love of the river, but of that splendid gift of resolution that one rarely fails to find in men of the foremost rank.
 Depth of water. One-quarter less than three fathoms.
Piloting was only a part of Sam Clemens’s education on the Mississippi. He learned as much of the reefs and shallows of human nature as of the river-bed. In one place he writes:
In that brief, sharp schooling I
got personally and familiarly
acquainted with all the different types of human nature that are to
be found in fiction, biography, or history.
All the different types, but most of them in the rough. That Samuel Clemens kept the promise made to his mother as to drink and cards during those apprentice days is well worth remembering.