Harry Castlemon.

George at the Wheel



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CHAPTER I
UNCLE JOHN AND NED

"Well, Ned, I must say, that you have had some narrow escapes. Have you seen anything of those ranchemen lately? I mean the one who owns the stolen horse and his companion?"

"No, sir; and I don't want to see them, either. It is true that they might not recognise me in these clothes, for every time they described me, they spoke of my buckskin coat and silver buttons; but I have no desire to run the risk!"

"You say you haven't seen Gus Robbins since the day you reached town. Where do you suppose he is?"

"I haven't the least idea. All I know is, that he has not gone home. He got angry at some little thing I said, and left without bidding me good-by. But I say, father, I don't want to stay here any longer. I shall not feel safe until I am miles away from Texas!"

"Well, where do you want to go, and what do you want to do?"

"I don't know; I haven't thought about it. George and I talked of going up to the head-waters of the Mississippi, and coming back in a canoe. I should have enjoyed such a trip, but George had to go and get himself captured by those Greasers, and of course that put an end to that scheme."

"If Gus Robbins were here he might go with you. I suppose you wouldn't care to go back to Foxboro' under the existing circumstances?"

"No sir, I should not. All the folks there know that Gus ran away from home and came down here to visit us, and they would have too much to say about it. We couldn't call on Mr. Robbins, of course. He is perfectly well aware of the fact that I sent Gus the money to defray the expenses of his journey, and he'd give us the cold shoulder at once. But, father, what do you suppose those Greasers wanted of George? What did they intend to do with him after they had taken him across the river?"

"I am sure I don't know. I am sorry that Gus left you as he did, for there is no knowing what will become of him."

"What will the neighbors say when they learn that George is gone, and that you made no effort to find him? Won't they suspect something?"

"I can't help it if they do. If there is anything done about it, Mr. Gilbert must be the one to do it; for of course I can't go back there until those ranchemen and Mr. Cook are satisfied. Now, make up your mind where you want to go, and we will leave Brownsville to-night."

Uncle John Ackerman and his son Ned had been closeted in their room at the hotel for the last hour, talking over the exciting events that had happened since the latter left home. The boy, as we have already said, told a truthful story, but his father had very little to tell him in return. He did not want to talk about George, and every time Ned made inquiries concerning him, Uncle John answered his questions in as few words as he could, and made all haste to turn the conversation into another channel. He seemed to grow nervous and excited every time his nephew's name was mentioned; and this, taken in connection with his anxiety to avoid all allusion to him, which was much too palpable to escape Ned's notice, made the latter believe that his father knew more about George's capture than he was willing to reveal.

"He is keeping something from me," said Ned, to himself, over and over again; and the longer the interview continued, the firmer became his convictions on this point.

He brought his cousin's name in at every opportunity, but could neither surprise nor coax his father into saying more than he had already said, viz.: That he knew nothing whatever of the object the Mexicans had in view, when they captured George; and could not even guess what they intended to do with him. Those who have read the preceding volume of this series, know the statement to be false; and to enable those who have not read it to follow this story understandingly, we will spend a few moments upon the missing boy's past history.

George Ackerman, our hero, was born, and had spent the most of his life on his father's cattle ranche, which was located a few days' journey from one of the small frontier towns of Texas. When he was about thirteen years of age his father died, leaving his immense property in trust to his only brother, John Ackerman, who was named as George's guardian. Uncle John came to Texas at once, bringing with him his son, Ned; who, by the terms of the will left by George's father, was to be the heir to the property in case his cousin did not live to reach his majority. That provision of the will, was a most unfortunate one for George, for it was the means of bringing him into a great deal of trouble.

Uncle John was a poor man up to this time, and had been obliged to work hard for his living. He held the position of book-keeper in a dry-goods store in the town in which he lived, and Ned was clerk in the same store. The latter was anything in the world but an industrious boy, and when he learned that his father was to have the entire management and control of an estate worth forty thousand dollars a year, his astonishment and delight knew no bounds.

For awhile, Ned enjoyed the life of ease he led in his new home. The first thought that came into his mind when he awoke in the morning was, that during the whole of the long day before him, he need not turn his hand to labor of any kind. There were a good many servants about the ranche who were paid to work; and it was not even necessary that Ned should black his own boots or saddle his horse. He had nothing to do but enjoy himself. This was a glorious way to live, and Ned told himself that he should never grow tired of it. But he did; and he even learned to hate his life of inactivity and uselessness, as cordially as he had hated the life he led in the dry-goods store in Foxboro'. There was literally nothing he could do but ride on horseback, and Ned had found by experience, that that was hard work. There was nothing to be seen on the ranche; there was not a house in sight; no boys with whom he could associate; no books in the small, well-selected library that he cared to read; and the hours hung heavily on his hands.

To make matters worse, Ned learned that the other boys in the neighborhood, were not as lonely as he was; that they visited one another regularly; had hunting parties and barbecues, and were never at a loss to know how to pass the time in an agreeable manner. But they never asked Ned to join them. They slighted him on every occasion, just as their fathers and older brothers slighted Uncle John.

Nobody in that country liked the new-comers, and the reason was, because they would not work. The settlers, who were always busy at something, did not believe that people could spend their lives in doing nothing. Their creed was, that every man and boy must pass the time in some way; and if they did not devote it to some honest occupation, they would spend it in doing something dishonest. So, when they found that Uncle John and his son held aloof from work and dressed in the height of fashion, they became suspicious of them at once. There was only one class of men in that country who lived and dressed in that way, and they were rogues, every one of them.

Ned, being left entirely to himself, passed a most dismal winter. He never went out of sight of the house but once, and then he spent a few days with his cousin in camp; in the hope of finding an opportunity to try his rifle on some of the big game with which he had heard the plains were so well stocked; but he was caught out in a "norther," and so nearly frozen, that it was a long time before he could get thawed out again. He saw no game, and was glad to get back to the rancho.

When his cousin told him why it was that the boys in the settlement would have nothing to do with him, Ned made a feeble effort to show that he had something in him, and that he was capable of making an honest living. He fenced in fifty acres of land and planted it to wheat – or, rather, he sat on his horse and watched his father's hired men while they did the work. While he was wondering how he should pass the long months that must elapse before his crop would be ready for the reapers, a bright idea occurred to him, and he lost no time in carrying it out.

Among the clerks belonging to the store in Foxboro' in which he had formerly been employed was a young fellow, Gus Robbins by name, the son of the senior partner, with whom he had once been on terms of the closest intimacy. Gus had faithfully promised to visit Ned in his Texas home, and while he was thinking about him, and the agreeable change his presence would make in the gloomy old rancho, it suddenly occurred to him that it was quite possible he could bring him there. He wrote to Gus at once, and was almost ready to dance with delight when he received a letter in reply stating that his friend would be only too glad to visit Texas, and that want of money was the only thing that prevented him from so doing. Ned promptly sent him a hundred dollars, urging him to come on at once, and then settled back into his old aimless life again. But it was not as gloomy as it had been, for he had something to occupy his mind. He laid out numerous plans for the amusement of his expected friend, and promised himself some exciting times when he arrived. But, as it happened, the exciting times began before Gus arrived, and Ned was the hero of a series of adventures that astonished everybody who heard of them. The incident that led to some of these adventures was so simple a thing as trading horses.

It was Ned's custom to ride every day to the top of a high swell, about five miles from home, and there stake out his horse and lie down on his blanket to watch the trail along which his expected friend Gus would have to pass in order the reach the rancho. One day he encountered on the top of this swell a flashily-dressed and splendidly-mounted stranger, who astonished Ned by offering to trade horses with him. The offer was promptly accepted, and the stranger rode hastily away, leaving Ned holding by the bridle the handsomest horse he had ever seen. The animal proved to be just as good as he looked, and Ned was delighted with the way he behaved under the saddle – so delighted, in fact, that he was willing to run a serious risk in order to keep him. He began to suspect, after a while, that the horse had been stolen, so he said nothing to his father about the trade he had made. His suspicions proved to be well-founded, for that same night a couple of men came along looking for this same horse, which they called Silk Stocking. Ned heard them describe the animal, but he did not surrender him, as he ought to have done, for the appearance of the two men, who were armed to the teeth, frightened him, and he was afraid that if he acknowledged he had the horse in his possession, they would do him some serious injury. He knew that the men lived a long distance away, and he hoped that they would go back to their own settlement and stay there; so he resolved to keep the horse, although his resolution did not amount to much, for that very night he lost him. A band of Mexicans, led by renegade Americans, who lived on the other side of the Rio Grande and gained a livelihood by stealing cattle from the Texas farmers and ranchemen, made a descent upon the rancho. They came after the strong box which Uncle John kept in the office, and which one of their spies had told them was filled with gold and silver.

The appearance of the attacking party was entirely unexpected and so sudden that Ned, who happened to be under the shed in which he had hitched his new horse, did not have time to run into the house. He concealed himself in the manger, from which he could obtain a fair view of the yard and see every move the raiders made. He was greatly astonished to discover that they were met at the porch by one of the servants, who seemed to be waiting for them, and who gave them instructions in regard to their future movements. This servant's name was Philip, and he was Uncle John's cook. He had left one of the doors open, and through it the raiders entered the rancho without opposition; but they had scarcely crossed the threshold when they were discovered, and a fierce battle ensued between them and the herdsmen, in which the robbers got the worst of it.

Being driven out of the house, the raiders concealed themselves behind wagons and lumber piles and opened fire on the herdsmen, which the latter returned with their revolvers. One of them ran into the shed and took refuge in the very manger in which Ned was concealed; but he was quickly routed by some sharpshooter in the rancho, who sent his bullets crashing through the planks altogether too close to Ned's head for comfort. The robbers were finally obliged to mount and ride away without accomplishing their object, and Ned's new horse went with them. The boy had released the animal when the raiders first made their appearance, for fear that by his neighing he would lead some of the band to his place of concealment. He was glad to see him go, and hoped from the bottom of his heart that he had seen and heard the last of him. He had seen the last of him, but he was destined to hear a good deal more concerning him. That same horse afterward came pretty near getting George Ackerman into trouble, and how it happened shall be told in its proper place.

A few days after this the long-expected visitor made his appearance. He was met at Palos – that was the name of the nearest settlement – by one of Uncle John's herdsmen, who showed him the way to the rancho. He had left home without his father's knowledge, thus adding another to the list of runaways whose adventures are to be described in this series of books. Ned met him on the top of the swell before spoken of, and the two rode homeward, talking over old times, and dwelling with a good deal of pride and enthusiasm upon the numerous "scrapes" in which they had been engaged in Foxboro'. Gus seemed eager to appear as the hero of new ones, and Ned promised him that his ambition should be fully gratified. And he kept his promise.

A few days afterward, the two boys rode over to look at Ned's wheat field, and found the fence broken down, the crop entirely ruined, and the enclosure in the possession of a small herd of half-wild cattle, which acted as if they were fully sensible of the mischief they had done and were elated over it. Here was a chance for Gus to get himself into business, and he did it by shooting down one of the herd, Ned following his example by severely wounding another. Then they drove the herd out of the field and rode gaily homeward, all unconscious of the fact that the owner of the cattle, Mr. Cook, had been looking at them over the top of a neighboring ridge, watching their every movement. Ned knew better than to do this. He knew, for his cousin George had told him so, that such an act as he had just performed had once set the whole settlement in an uproar, and brought about a reign of terror, the like of which nobody there wanted to see again.

CHAPTER II
A SURPRISE

The settlement in which Uncle John and Ned lived was composed of two classes of men, the farmers and the ranchemen. The former devoted themselves to tilling the soil, and the ranchemen to raising cattle for market. The ranchemen did not like their neighbors, for every farm that was located and fenced in took away just so many acres of their pasture, and the farmers did not like the ranchemen, because their cattle broke down the fences and destroyed the crops. The little difficulties that were constantly arising between these two classes of men gradually gave way to greater ones, until at last the farmers began shooting the stock that broke into their fields, and the ranchemen revenged themselves by shooting the farmers. This led to a state of affairs that can hardly be described; but the troubles had all been satisfactorily settled, and would, perhaps, never have been thought of again if Ned Ackerman's evil genius had not put it into his idle brain to raise another "neighborhood row," as he called it, just to be revenged upon the settlers for paying so little attention to him. His Cousin George urged him to abandon the idea, telling him in so many words that, if he persisted, the country would be made too hot to hold him; but Ned would not listen. He and Gus Robbins shot the cattle, as we have described, and their punishment followed close upon the heels of it.

George Ackerman was unlike his Cousin Ned in every respect. He was industrious and saving, and by his own unaided efforts he had accumulated property in stock worth six thousand dollars. He spent almost all his time in company with his herdsman, Zeke, in taking care of these cattle. He preferred living in camp to living at the rancho, for the old house did not seem like home to him any longer, and neither did his relatives act as though they wanted him there. The truth of the matter was they did not want him there, and they had not been long at the rancho before they began laying plans to drive him away. In order to accomplish this, Ned urged his father to take George's herd of cattle away from him, believing that if it were done, George would be too badly discouraged to raise another, and that he would go off somewhere to seek his fortune, leaving him and his father to manage the estate as they saw fit. But George positively refused to surrender the herd for which he had worked so long and faithfully, and said, more by his manner than by words, that if Uncle John attempted to take it from him by force, he and Zeke would make a most desperate resistance.

The conversation our hero had with his uncle on this subject took place one morning just as George was getting ready to start out with a fresh supply of provisions to join his herdsman, whom he had left on the prairie with his cattle. It was some days before he found him, for Zeke, having seen signs of an Indian raiding party, had moved the herd farther away from the river, in order to insure its safety. But it was not safe even then, as George soon learned to his cost.

The same band of cattle-thieves who had made the attack on the ranche for the purpose of securing the strong box in which Uncle John kept his money, found the herd and stampeded it. They drove the cattle right over George, who threw himself into an old buffalo wallow, and thus escaped being trampled to death. Two of the raiders kept on after the herd to turn it towards the river, while the others provided themselves with blazing brands from the camp-fire and searched the woods until daylight.

George, who could see all their movements, thought they were looking for Zeke. The old fellow carried a repeating rifle, and when the raiders appeared he made a stubborn fight, severely wounding several of their number, and George thought they wanted to capture him, in order that they might take revenge on him for it.

When the cattle-thieves went away, George filled his haversack with the bacon and crackers they had left in camp, and set out for home on foot, his horse and pack-mule having been driven off with the herd. A few days afterwards he fell in with one of the wounded raiders, who had been left behind by his companions, and from his lips he received some items of information that astonished him not a little. He learned that an attack had been made upon the rancho, that his Uncle John was laying plans to get him out of the way so that Ned could inherit the property, and that Philip, the Mexican cook, a man of whom George had always been suspicious, was assisting him in carrying those plans into execution.

Springer (that was the name of the wounded cattle-thief, who had once worked for George's father) assured the boy that it was through Uncle John's connivance that the raiders knew where to find George's cattle, and that it was George himself, and not Zeke, whom they were looking for when they were searching the woods with their firebrands. If they had found him, they would have taken him across the river into Mexico – what they would have done with him after they had got him there, Springer said he didn't know – and Uncle John would have rewarded them for it by bringing in a thousand head of cattle and pasturing them near the river, so that the raiders could come over and capture them at their leisure.

When the man had finished his story, George divided his small stock of provisions with him, put him on his horse, and resumed his journey toward home. He did not know what to think of the news he had just heard, and he finally decided that he would go straight to Mr. Gilbert, who was an old friend of his father's, lay the matter before him, and be governed by his advice. He was obliged to camp one more night on the prairie before he reached Mr. Gilbert's rancho, but he did not pass the night alone. He had two visitors, one of whom was the owner of the stolen horse for which Ned had traded, and to which he had held fast, even after he knew that the man of whom he received him had no lawful right to him.



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