The young pilot’s grief was very great. In a letter home he spoke of the dying boy as “My darling, my pride, my glory, my all.” His heavy sorrow, and the fact that with unsparing self-blame he held himself in a measure responsible for his brother’s tragic death, saddened his early life. His early gaiety came back, but his face had taken on the serious, pathetic look which from that time it always wore in repose. Less than twenty-three, he had suddenly the look of thirty, and while Samuel Clemens in spirit, temperament, and features never would become really old, neither would he ever look really young again.
He returned to the river as steersman for George Ealer, whom he loved, and in September of that year obtained a full license as Mississippi River pilot from St. Louis to New Orleans. In eighteen months he had packed away in his head all those wearisome details and acquired that confidence that made him one of the elect. He knew every snag and bank and dead tree and depth in all those endless miles of shifting current, every cut-off and crossing. He could read the surface of the water by day, he could smell danger in the dark. To the writer of these chapters, Horace Bixby said:
“In a year and a half from the time he came to the river, Sam was not only a pilot, but a good one. Sam was a fine pilot, and in a day when piloting on the Mississippi required a great deal more brains and skill and application than it does now. There were no signal-lights along the shore in those days, and no search-lights on the vessels; everything was blind; and on a dark, misty night, in a river full of snags and shifting sandbars and changing shores, a pilot’s judgment had to be founded on absolute certainty.”
Bixby had returned from the Missouri by the time his pupil’s license was issued, and promptly took him as full partner on the “Crescent City,” and later on a fine new boat, the “New Falls City.” Still later, they appear to have been together on a very large boat, the “City of Memphis,” and again on the “Alonzo Child.”
For Samuel Clemens these were happy days—the happiest, in some respects, he would ever know. He had plenty of money now. He could help his mother with a liberal hand, and could put away fully a hundred dollars a month for himself. He had few cares, and he loved the ease and romance and independence of his work as he would never quite love anything again.
His popularity on the river was very great. His humorous stories and quaint speech made a crowd collect wherever he appeared. There were pilot-association rooms in St. Louis and New Orleans, and his appearance at one of these places was a signal for the members to gather.
A friend of those days writes: “He was much given to spinning yarns so funny that his hearers were convulsed, and yet all the time his own face was perfectly sober. Occasionally some of his droll yarns got into the papers. He may have written them himself.”