Harry Castlemon.

George at the Wheel

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"What you doin' dar, Jeff?" he shouted, as he drew himself up, and threw one foot over the side of the barge. "Can't you frow chunks just as well, an' mebbe better'n he kin?"

These words seemed to arouse the other negro, who had halted and been on the point of turning back, when he witnessed his companion's discomfiture. He quickly jumped down into the barge; and Tony, who had been indulging in the hope that he could hold the robbers at bay until the tug hove in sight, lost all heart when he saw him begin to gather up the coal. He looked about the deck and saw at a glance, that if the negroes were going to adopt his own mode of fighting, it would be impossible for him to defend his position. They would have a thousand bushels of coal within their reach, while Tony had not more than a dozen lumps, and some of these were too small to be of any service. Two of the biggest of these lumps, Tony in his desperation put to a good use. With one of them he knocked Jeff flat, just as he was preparing to rise to his feet with an armful of coal; and with the other, he inflicted a severe cut upon the hand of Mose, causing him to howl with rage and pain, and to drop the threatening knife. By these two shots, Tony unconsciously created evidence that was strong enough to send both the rogues to jail as soon as they reached St. Louis.

Jeff was on his feet again in an instant, and clearing his eyes of the blood which trickled into them from an ugly cut in his forehead, he looked all around for Tony; but the latter had disappeared. The moment the last lump of coal left his hand, he sprang across the narrow deck, and seizing a rope that was made fast to the bitts, descended it hand over hand, and dropped into a skiff that was towing alongside the barge. To shove off, pick up the oars and put the skiff in rapid motion was the work of scarcely a moment.

"Hyar he is, Jeff," shouted Mose, who had at last succeeded in climbing up and seating himself on the gunwale. "Knock him outen dat dar boat, if he don't come back. Bus' de bottom in. Do something mighty lively, kase we's gone niggahs if dat dar tug kotch us hyar!"

Jeff must have thought so too, for his movements were much quicker than they had been before. He climbed out of the barge to the deck as quickly as he could, and opened a hot fire upon Tony, who was pulling swiftly away from the dangerous neighborhood; but although his missiles were thrown with power sufficient to do damage if they had hit anything, they all went wide of the mark, and by the time Jeff's companion could raise himself to his feet and run along the gunwale to the deck, the boy was safely out of range. Mose fired a few chunks at him, but they all fell short, and then it seemed to dawn upon the negroes all at once that their prize had slipped through their fingers; that they had opened the doors of the penitentiary for their reception, and gained nothing by it. It must have been some such thought as this that set them into the wild war-dance that followed.

They jumped about the deck, stamped their feet, and whooped and swore at the top of their voices; and Mose shook his knife at Tony, and made furious gestures with the weapon, just to show what he would do if he only possessed the power.

"Well, boys," said Tony, as soon as he could make himself heard, "it looks to me as though you were in for it. I've got this thing in my own hands. You'll stay there until the tug comes, and I'll stay here."

"No, we won't stay hyar, nudder," shouted Mose, in reply. "We kin swim to de shoah."

"You try it, if you dare. If I see one of you take to the water, I'll knock him on the head with an oar."

Tony had not only brought himself safely out of a very dangerous situation, but he had very neatly turned the tables upon those who had intended to rob him, and he felt very jubilant over it. Well, it was something to be proud of, and it was a great pity that he should go deliberately to work and spoil it all by his foolishness.

"I have earned a hundred dollars by this day's work," said Tony, as he wiped the big drops of perspiration from his forehead, "and as soon as I get it safe in my hands, I shall bid a long farewell to St. Louis."

Tony uttered these last words very slowly, as if he were talking about one thing and thinking about another. And so he was. Why should he return to St. Louis at all? he asked himself. Before he left home that morning, something had prompted him to put into his pocket the twenty-five dollars he had saved to buy his sailor's outfit when he reached New Orleans. Why not add to that at least a portion of the amount which Mr. Vandegriff had told him he might retain if he got into a fight with the negroes and came off first best? It is true that he had no clothes except those he carried on his back, and he told himself that he did not want any more. It would be a waste of time to go back to the city after a supply, and he would run the risk of being seen by somebody when he crept out of his father's house with a valise in his hand. There was something about such a proceeding that did not suit Tony. He thought it would make him look too much like a sneak-thief. Besides, he wanted to forget his home entirely, and he could not do it so long as he was wearing any of the clothes his father's money had purchased for him.

"It is now or never," said Tony, to himself "I can go down the river in this skiff to Cairo, purchasing my supplies at farm-houses along the way, and there I shall find some Cincinnati or Pittsburgh boat whose officers will not question me, because they are not acquainted with me. I don't feel just right about taking that money, but I have fairly earned it – I wouldn't go through such a battle again for ten times one hundred dollars – and Mr. Vandegriff said I might have it. Good-by!" he shouted, waving his hand to the negroes, "I'll go and hurry up the tug."

As Tony said this, he pulled toward the Missouri shore, and when he had got out of the current, he turned and rowed up the river. As long as he remained in sight of the barge, he kept his eyes fastened upon the negroes, expecting to see them take to the water and strike out for shore; but as they did nothing of the kind, the boy finally came to the conclusion that they could not swim. At last the current carried them and their floating prison into the bend around which the Armada had disappeared half an hour before, and when the barge was out of sight behind the point, Tony ceased his efforts at the oars and began to look about him.


"The first thing is to find a place in which to hide for awhile," said Tony, to himself. "That tug can't be far away – Mr. Vandegriff said she would come up with the barge by the time the Armada had taken all the coal she wanted – and I must keep out of sight until she takes the barge in tow and goes up the river again. I don't know what folks will think when she goes back to St. Louis without me, and I don't care, either. I don't expect to see any of them again for long years to come. I will send Mr. Vandegriff his money as soon as I reach Cairo, and that will make me square with him. I believe that is the spot I am looking for."

Tony had just discovered what he declared to be "the finest kind of a hiding-place." A huge tree which had been undermined by the water had sunk down into the river, and now lay with its top resting upon the bank and its roots in the stream. These roots formed a mass twelve or fifteen feet square, and between them and the bank there was water enough to float the skiff. Tony pulled up to examine this hiding-place, his movements being accelerated by a sound which just then came to his ears. He exerted himself to the utmost, and to his great relief succeeded in running his skiff behind the roots just as the tug came around the point above. Had he been a few moments later he would certainly have been discovered.

"A miss is as good as a mile," panted Tony, as he stretched himself out under the thwarts and looked at the tug through an opening in the roots. "If she doesn't see me now she never will, for it will be pitch dark when she comes back with the barge. I'd give something to know how Jeff and Mose will explain my disappearance."

Tony kept his eyes fastened upon the tug as she moved swiftly past his place of concealment, and then he turned around, and lying with his face toward the stern of the skiff, watched her until she disappeared around the bend below. It was pitch dark when her lights came into view around the point, and her labored puffing, as she struggled against the current with her heavy burden, became audible to the ears of the runaway. Presently she began to whistle, and she kept it up at irregular intervals.

"That's for me," thought Tony. "Captain, you're only wasting steam. I hear you, but I'll not pay any attention to you."

In about two hours the tug passed Tony's hiding-place the second time, and when the sound of her exhaust began to grow fainter, the boy made his skiff fast to one of the roots and lay down to sleep. He slept, too, and his slumber was not in the least disturbed by regretful dreams of the home he had deserted. It needs contact with the world and a few hard knocks from it to show a discontented boy what home is worth, and Tony had not yet received any of these.

He awoke the next morning at daylight, hungry as a wolf, and impatient to reach Cairo in order that he might send Mr. Vandegriff's money to him. He was in a great hurry to be rid of it, for his experience on the barge had satisfied him that he was not altogether safe so long as it was in his possession. The first thing was to look out for a breakfast, and this he obtained at a farm-house he found about five miles down the river. At this place he also purchased a basket and cooked viands enough to fill it. He did not want to go supperless to bed again if he could help it.

Tony passed two more nights on the river, and by that time he had become heartily disgusted with this mode of travelling. Whenever he became tired of rowing, he drew in his oars and allowed the skiff to float with the current; but during these periods of rest, his progress was very slow, and he was so impatient to reach his journey's end, that he kept the oars in motion almost all the time. He had to be constantly on the alert, for there was a good many boats passing up and down the river, and Tony made it a point to go ashore and hide in the bushes every time one hove in sight. He was afraid that some of the pilots would see and recognise him. He was plied with questions every time he stopped for supplies. Canoeing was not as popular in those days as it has since become, and the people living along the river had not grown accustomed to the sight of solitary travellers making their way down the stream in this primitive fashion. One long-haired, unkempt Missourian, after filling his basket, informed him that he had given him a good looking over, and that if anybody came that way in a day or two looking for a stolen boat, he would be able to give an accurate description of him.

Tony passed the little town of Cape Girardeau bright and early one morning, and shortly after twelve o'clock he looked over the levee on the Illinois side, and obtained his first view of the city of Cairo. He at once directed his course across the river, and running the bow of his skiff high and dry upon the bank, he left it and the basket for the use of the first person who might be in need of them, and set out for the city on foot. In this way he saved himself a good deal of hard work, for it would have taken him two or three hours to row around the point and up the Ohio river to the wharf-boat. As it was, he reached the St. Charles hotel in about half an hour, and having purchased two sheets of note-paper and an envelope from the news-agent, he went into the office and sat down to write a letter to Mr. Vandegriff. Having made up his mind what he wanted to say, his pen moved rapidly, and in twenty minutes the letter was finished. It contained a circumstantial account of the battle on the coal-barge, and wound up with these words: —

"You told me that if those negroes attempted to rob me, and I saved your money for you, I could keep a hundred dollars out of it and hand you the balance. You will see, by reference to the book which I send you with this letter, that I have kept out fifty dollars of it, which I need to pay my expenses to the place where I am going. If you should happen to see my father, I wish you would tell him for me that I have decided to strike out for myself. I inclose you bank check for the rest of the money."

When Tony read the letter over to correct the mistakes he had made in his hurried writing, and came to this part of it, he could not help telling himself that it was rather a heartless way of taking leave of his relations; but he was in a great hurry to get through with the business he had to do before the bank closed, and he had only time to add, "Give my love to my mother." Then a sharp pang shot through his heart. He had never cherished much affection for his father, who, being completely engrossed in his business, scarcely ever spoke to Tony, except to take him to task for something he had done. But his mother; could he leave her in this way?

"It isn't too late yet," thought the runaway, settling back in his chair, and holding the letter off at arms' length. "If I leave town this afternoon by rail, I can be in St. Louis to-morrow morning, and I have half a notion – no, I haven't, either. Father would give me a regular overhauling for going away on that barge without first asking his permission (I wasn't fool enough to do that, for I know he would have said 'no' most emphatically), and what excuse could I make for dodging the tug? No, sir; this thing has gone so far that there's no backing out now."

As the boy said this he drew his hand hastily across his eyes, folded and addressed the letter, and placed it into the account book, which he put into his pocket. It was necessary that the book should go with the letter, so that Mr. Vandegriff might know how many bushels of coal the Armada had taken from the barge.

"I suppose there is a bank in this city?" said he, as he approached the clerk's counter.

"Yes, sir," was the reply; "it is in the block up the levee."

"Where is the express office?"

"Two doors this side of the bank; same block."

After thanking the clerk for this information, Tony hurried away. He had no trouble in finding the bank, and after he had counted out fifty dollars of Mr. Vandegriff's money, he handed the rest, together with the letter, to the cashier, with the request that he would give him a check on St. Louis for it, made payable to the person whose name was on the envelope. The cashier complied, and when Tony had placed the check in the letter, and the letter in the account book, he started back for the express office. The clerk he found there was accommodating enough to supply him with paper and twine, and when he had wrapped the book and its contents up in a neat package, and the clerk had further secured it by sealing it with wax, Tony paid the charges on it and went out.

"That's done," said he, as he crossed the railroad track and bent his steps toward the nearest wharf-boat, "and all I have to do now is, to find a boat that is going down the river."

Just then the afternoon train came in from the north, and the steamer lying alongside the wharf-boat began to whistle. Toward her the boy directed his course; and ten minutes later, he was seated on the boiler-deck with his chair tipped back, his feet on the railing, his thumbs hooked in the armholes of his vest, and a ticket for Memphis in his pocket. When he reached that city, he took passage on a steamer bound for New Orleans, at which place he arrived early in the morning. He stayed on board the boat long enough to get his breakfast, and then sauntered out to take a look at things along the river. He had never been in the city before, and and if he had come there under different circumstances, he would have been glad to spend a day or two in seeing the sights; but he was too full of his idea of becoming a sailor, to waste any time in that way. The sooner he found a chance to ship, the sooner he would be on the ocean.

A few minutes after he left the steamer, he obtained his first view of a sea-going vessel. Of course, he was disappointed in her; we generally are disappointed, when we see for the first time something of which we have read and heard a great deal, and which we have often longed to examine for ourselves. She was not near as large as he had expected to find her; and there were many things about her, that did not suit Tony's idea of marine architecture. While he stood on the wharf looking at her, and wondering if anybody would order him ashore if he should step aboard to take a closer view of her, he became aware that he was an object of interest to a boy a little older than himself, who was leaning over the rail, staring at Tony as hard as the latter was staring at the vessel. He was a sailor, that was plain enough to be seen; and he might have been a very good-looking one too, if he had taken a little more pains with his personal appearance. He wore a tarpaulin, which was pushed as far back on his head as it could go without falling off; a blue flannel shirt with a wide collar, and trowsers of the same material, which were thrust into a pair of heavy boots. His face was almost copper-colored; and his hands, which were large and bony, were profusely tattooed with India ink. He chewed tobacco, too, and threw away a big quid before addressing Tony.

"Want to ship?" said he.

"That's what I am here for," answered Tony. "Do you allow folks aboard there?"

"O, yes; come on. You don't look like a sailor man," he added, as Tony sprang over the rail and approached him.

"And when you first went to sea, you didn't look any more like a sailor than I do," replied Tony. "I know I am green, but I can learn as well as anybody, can't I?"

"Of course you can," said the boy, backing up against the rail, and running his eyes over Tony's clothes. "But I don't know whether you can stand the racket or not. You don't look to be any too stout."

"I shouldn't care to measure strength with you," said Tony, with a smile, "but still I have got a pretty good muscle, although I have never done a day's manual labor in my life."

"What kind of labor is that?" asked the young sailor.

"I mean that I have never worked with my hands. I have always worked with my head," explained Tony.

"O! Then you are not the stuff that sailors are made of," was the rather disheartening rejoinder. "I didn't think you could stand the racket."

"Is it a hard life?"

"Well, it aint an easy one – not by no means."

"Then why don't you quit it and go at something else?"

"Me? O, I can't. There's nothing else I could do. I have been to sea ever since I was eight years old, and I am now seventeen."

"You ought to be a first-class sailor," said Tony.

"I can hand, reef and steer as well as the rest of them, if that's what you mean," replied the young sailor, rather proudly. "I am an able seaman, and I should think I had ought to be. I made three voyages as second mate of a little coaster."

"Are you an officer of this ship?" inquired Tony.

"This aint a ship, you lubber. She's a brig." "You see," he added, in a little milder tone, "a ship has three masts, and this has only two. No, I am not an officer. I always have to go before the mast on long voyages, such as the one we have just made, but then I like them better than I do short ones. If you have got any book-learning you might get to be an officer in a few years. If you want to ship I know where there is a chance for you."

"Do you?" exclaimed Tony, eagerly. "I am ever so much obliged to you for telling me of it. I do want to ship."

"All right! Come on. There's a berth for somebody aboard my old vessel, the Princeton," said the young sailor, as he and Tony sprang out upon the wharf. "She's the one I was second mate of, you know. I was down there this morning, and the old man told me, if I heard anybody say he wanted to ship, to send him along; but I guess I had better go with you, for you might not be able to find her. If the captain takes you, you will have the same berth I did when I first went to sea."

"What was it?" asked Tony.

"Jemmy Ducks!"

"I don't understand you. Who's Jemmy Ducks?"

"Well, he's a sort of lackey to everybody. He has to keep the cabin in order, help the cook, and haul at the sheets; and he works for kicks instead of ha'pence."

"Kicks!" exclaimed Tony. "Who'll kick me?"

"All hands and the cook. But, bless you, that won't hurt you. It only makes you tough and waterproof. The only way is to work hard; keep still, and say nothing to nobody till your time comes, and then let him have it, good and strong."

"Let who have it?"

"Why, if you tend to your business straight and square you'll get ahead, of course; and then you'll go for the fellow that takes your place."

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