Harry Castlemon.

George at the Wheel



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As Tony drew nearer to the steamer, he saw that there was a goodly number of gaily-dressed passengers on her deck watching what was passing on the wharf. He had seen the time when he had mingled freely with just such a company on board his father's steamers; but if he should venture among these people in his present plight, how long would it be, he asked himself, before somebody would take him by the collar and assist him back to the pier? His place now was on deck and among the men, and there he was perfectly willing to go.

"Want to ship a hand, sir?" asked Tony, stepping up to a man who was dressed in a suit of navy blue, and wore a gold band around his cap.

"Guess not," replied the officer, taking one glance at Tony and then turning away.

"I'll not ask for any wages, sir," pleaded Tony. "I only want to work my passage to New Orleans."

"Don't want you," was the curt reply. "The crew is full."

This was very discouraging, but still Tony's case was not hopeless. The doctor's parting advice, "Don't you let that boat go to New Orleans without you," kept ringing in his ears, and to prevent it Tony was willing to do something desperate. He walked along the wharf until he came abreast of the stern of the vessel, and there he took his stand, and set himself to watch the officer to whom he had spoken. He moved away presently, and then Tony ran up the plank that led into the after gangway. There was no one in sight, but the hatchway was open, and as quick as thought Tony seized the combings, and swung himself into it. He crawled along over the boxes and bales, of which the steamer's freight was composed, and settling himself into a comfortable position by the side of a water-butt, drew a long breath of relief, and waited to see what was going to happen.

CHAPTER XV
AN OLD ACQUAINTANCE

"The way affairs are ordered in this world bangs me completely. The things we long for and dream about, and which we think are absolutely necessary for our happiness, we can't get; and those we don't care a cent for, are crowded on us."

It was George Ackerman who said this. He took possession of one of the chairs on the guard and waved his hand to Tony Richardson who was just entering the pilot-house of the steamer that was to carry him back to St. Louis.

"Now there's Gus Robbins," continued George, as he pushed his hat on the back of his head and elevated his feet to the top of the rail. "From the little I heard of his history I gained the idea that he ran away from Foxboro' because he had to work in his father's store. He didn't like the business, and rather than follow it he was willing to trust himself to the tender mercies of Ned Ackerman, who went squarely back on him the very first chance he got. If Gus had had any sense at all, he ought to have known that he couldn't spend his whole life in visiting with Ned, that he would have to go to work again some time or another, and that there was nothing on the plains that a dry-goods clerk could do.

I wonder where he went? If he could have heard the way in which Ned talked about him while we were on the way from Brownsville to Galveston, he would never have anything more to do with him."

We may anticipate events a little by saying that Gus never did have anything more to do with Ned, but he had a good deal to do with George – more, in fact, than he wanted to do. But George proved himself a faithful friend, and saved Gus from passing some of the best years of his life in prison.

The young pilot spent a few minutes more in thinking about Gus, wondering where he went when he left Ned so suddenly in Brownsville, and then his thoughts came back to Tony. It was the conversation he had had with the latter a short time before that set George to meditating in this way.

"And now here's another discontented boy," said he, to himself. "I know he has everything on earth that any reasonable fellow could ask for, with one single exception – his own way; and if he could get it, it would be the worst thing that ever happened to him. He wants just what I've got and don't care for – liberty to do as he pleases; and I want just what he's got, but which I never shall have – a kind father and mother. That's what makes me say that the things we want the most we can't get. If I could trade places with Tony, how long would it be before he would want to trade back again?"

While George was communing thus with himself, a sprucely-dressed, but rather dissipated-looking young man, mounted the steps that led to the boiler-deck, and stopped short when he discovered the cub-pilot sitting on the guard. He looked sharply at him for a moment, while an expression of anxiety settled on his face.

"What evil genius sent that fellow here?" said he, to himself. "He knows too much about me, and I don't believe it is safe to have him around. Look here, partner," said he, stepping up and laying his hand upon George's shoulder, "this boat will not start until Monday afternoon."

The words and the touch aroused George from his reverie, and raising his eyes to the face above him, he was surprised to see that it belonged to an old acquaintance – the same young man who had tried to induce him to surrender Mr. Black's pocket-book into his hands, instead of giving it to its lawful owner. He had never seen nor heard of him since leaving the General Quitman.

"I know it," replied George, "but how does it come that you know so much?"

He did not like the arrogant tone in which the young man addressed him, and he took this way to show it.

"Being chief clerk of this craft, I am supposed to know something about her and her contemplated movements," was the young man's reply.

"O, you have charge of the office, have you?" said George. "I wasn't aware of the fact."

"You are not going down the river with us, are you?"

"Well – yes; I have been thinking about it."

"Then you had better go ashore and wait until we are ready to start. We don't keep a hotel, and we are not going to board you two whole days for nothing. The truth is, I don't want him hanging around where he can say something that would injure me," thought the clerk, as he turned on his heel and walked away. "He looked at me pretty sharp, but I don't believe he recognised me. If I thought he did, I should be in suspense during the whole trip."

"He's a conceited little up-start," soliloquised George. "He has never had charge of an office before, and it hurts him. It'll not take me long to give him to understand that he has nothing to do with me."

George was at first inclined to be angry with the clerk for his unwarrantable assumption of authority. He had been on the river long enough to know that when a steamer is lying in port, no objection is ever made to the company of any orderly person. If a visitor chooses to sit on the guards, and watch the boats that are running up and down the river, and enjoy the cool breeze, he is welcome to do so. If he wants to ride up to the coal-fleet on her, he is at liberty to do that also; but he is generally warned that he had better get off unless he is willing to walk back. Of course, no passengers are received previous to the day of sailing, but they are free to come aboard and look about as much as they please.

"I have as much right aboard this boat as he has," thought George, "but of course, he didn't know that. Taking me for a passenger, he thought he would show off a little. No; that can't be the reason, either. He knows that I am the fellow who found Mr. Black's pocket-book, and that was his way of showing that he hates me, because I wouldn't give it up to him. I wonder if Mr. Richardson's agent knows that he drinks and gambles? Probably not; for if he did, he wouldn't trust him to handle any of the boat's money. He wants to go easy on me, or I shall let him know that I remember his doings aboard the Quitman."

George kept his place on the guard until the supper-bell rang, and then he went into the barber shop. After washing his hands and face, and brushing his clothes, he came out and took his seat at the table. One of the waiters pulled his chair out for him, and, as it happened, seated him next to the clerk, who stared at him as if he was greatly amazed at his impudence.

"Tea or coffee, sah?" said the waiter.

"Hold on there!" exclaimed the clerk. "Have you got a ticket, young fellow?"

"Tea," answered George; while the waiter smiled at what he regarded as a pleasantry on the part of the first clerk. Only those passengers who have paid their fare are served at table; and to show that they are square with the office, it is customary for them to place their tickets beside their plates, so that the waiters can see them.

"Beefsteak or mutton chop, sah?" continued the darkey.

George gave his order; and when the waiter had gone off with his plate, he thrust his hands into his vest pockets, as if he were searching for his ticket.

"I guess you haven't got one," said the clerk. "I know you haven't paid your fare to me."

"I don't seem to find anything that looks like a ticket, that's a fact," said George, "but I'll take supper with you, all the same. I wouldn't be too hard on an old acquaintance, if I were you."

"You are no acquaintance of mine," said the clerk, whose face grew a shade paler than it usually was.

"But I have seen you before, anyway," persisted George. "I met you on the Quitman, and we had a talk about a pocket-book I found on the roof. I believe that, in a roundabout way, you rather gave me credit for restoring it to its owner. I didn't think then, that you and I would ever be attached to the same vessel, for I didn't know that you were a riverman."

"O, you belong here, do you?" exclaimed the clerk.

"I do. My place is in the pilot-house."

"Why didn't you say so, without so much fooling?"

"Why didn't you ask me, if you cared to know?" said George, in reply. "You ordered me ashore without taking the trouble to make any inquiries. I think that settles him," added the young pilot, mentally. "I have frightened him, judging by the looks of his face."

Yes, the clerk was "settled," but not in the way that George supposed. As we know, this young man, when he came up the river on the General Quitman, six months before, had lost at the gambling-table a thousand dollars of the money he had collected for his employer. If he could have induced George to give Mr. Black's pocket-book to him, he could have replaced that money, and had something left for himself; but he failed in this and got himself into trouble the moment he reached St. Louis. His employer promptly discharged him from the lucrative position he held, and gave him his choice between refunding the sum he had lost and standing an action for embezzlement. Of course, he preferred to return the money, but it was only after infinite trouble that he succeeded in raising it, his father, to whom he first applied, refusing to aid him in any way. When at last he procured the help he needed, it was through representations as to his financial standing that would hardly have borne investigation in a court of law. He was also obliged to make promises that he could not keep, and to give a note that he could not meet when it became due. He had agreed to return the money he had borrowed in three months, with a heavy interest added. How he was going to fulfil that agreement was a problem over which he had often racked his brain, and to assist him in finding a way out of his troubles, and to make his mind clearer, he regularly and frequently sought the aid of something stimulating which the barkeeper fixed up for him. He had at last arrived at the conclusion that there was no way in which he could extricate himself from the difficulties with which he was surrounded, and he had almost made up his mind that he would not return with the boat to St. Louis – that he would abscond somewhere along the river and leave his creditors to whistle for their money. This was the way the clerk was situated on the night that he and George Ackerman sat at the supper-table in the cabin of the Telegraph; and we have been thus particular in describing it in order that the reader may readily understand what happened afterward.

"Now, here's a kettle of fish," soliloquised the clerk, twisting uneasily about on his chair. "This fellow knows me, and worse than that, he is going down the river with us. I wonder if he knows old Richardson? If he does, I must either get him off the boat or make a friend of him; for if he should take it into his head to tell what happened on board the Quitman, I should lose this berth as sure as I am a living man."

The clerk did not linger as long at the table as he usually did, and neither did he again speak to George. He seemed to be thinking busily, and the expression on his face indicated that the subject upon which he was meditating was not an agreeable one. But at length he assumed a more cheerful look, and as he arose from the table, he said to himself —

"I think I had better let him stay and try to make a friend of him. If I can only do that, I can put myself square with the world once more, and at the same time take revenge on him for getting me into this scrape. For he is the one that is to blame for it. Why didn't he hand over that pocket-book when I offered him a reward for it? My first hard work must be to get on his blind side – make him believe that I am trying to reform, and all that. He is one of those pious fellows who neither drink nor smoke, and I must go to work at him in a pious way."

Just then, the young pilot sauntered out of the cabin, and turned toward his chair on the guard; but when he saw that another close by it was occupied by the clerk, who was smoking a cigar, he walked in another direction. He did not like Murray – that was the clerk's name – and he did not want to have anything to do with him. It would have been well for him, if he had held to this resolution; but he allowed himself to be talked out of it, and it required something that came pretty near being a tragedy, to straighten matters out for him.

"Don't go away mad," said Murray, when he saw George moving off toward the other side of the boat. "Since we are to be shipmates for one trip at least, let's be sociable. Sit down here and talk to a fellow."

The young pilot could not well refuse. He sat down in his old place, and of course, put his feet upon the rail. All the men and boys who sat on the guards made it a point to do that.

"I didn't recognise you when I first saw you," said the clerk, "but I knew you as soon as you spoke about that pocket-book. Most fellows would have taken the reward I offered you, and got themselves into trouble by it. I didn't know you were a cub. You were not attached to the Quitman, were you?"

"No; but I made a bargain with Mr. Black during the trip, and I have been with him ever since," replied George.

"Have a weed?" asked Murray, producing his cigar-case.

"I am obliged to you, but I don't smoke."

"You don't use tobacco or liquor in any form, do you?"

George replied that he never had and never would.

"I wish from the bottom of my heart that I could say the same thing," said Murray. "I am a total abstainer now so far as liquor is concerned, but tobacco gets me. It would be useless for me to make any pretensions to goodness in your presence, for you know more about my habits than I wish you did. You saw the company I kept on board the Quitman; and I don't mind telling you, confidentially, that I came pretty near getting myself into a row by it. If I could only keep away from the bar, I should soon be better off in the world than I am now."

"Then, why don't you do it?" asked George.

"Ah! That's just it. Why don't I? How shall I go to work?"

"Begin by throwing away that cigar," said George promptly.

"There she goes!" exclaimed Murray; and as he spoke, the cigar left his hand and went over into the barge among the coal.

"Now," continued George, "say that you will never go near the bar again, and stick to it. That's all there is of it."

"Yes; it's a very easy thing to say, but it's an almost impossible thing to do. You don't know how hard it is for a fellow who is bound down by the chains of habit, to keep a resolution like that. Why, bless you, I have made it a thousand times and broken it as often. I took my last pledge three months ago, and up to this time I have kept it; but I may go back on it before I am an hour older. If some old friend should come along and say: 'Murray, have something?' I'd go with him without thinking. It is a sort of second nature to me. I wish I could be thrown more into the society of such fellows as you are, and less into the company of rivermen. Nine out of ten of them spend their money as fast as they make it, and that's what keeps them on the river."

George leaned his elbows on the railing, rested his chin on his hands, and looked down at the men who were at work in the barge, but made no reply. The longer he listened to Mr. Murray, the less he liked him.

"Now, you can do me a great favor, if you will," continued the clerk, "one that I shall always remember, although I shall never be able to repay it. I wish you would stay by me as much as you can while you are off duty. Make the office your headquarters. Come in at any hour of the day or night – I shall not always be at work, you know – and if you hear anybody invite me to take a short walk with him, just tip me the wink. That will put me in mind of my pledge and help me to decline the invitation."

"But will you decline?" asked George. "Won't you go, anyhow?"

"Of course I'll not go; I'll decline every time. All I want is somebody close at my elbow to keep my pledge constantly in mind. If you will do that for me during this trip, I am sure that by the time it is ended I shall have fallen into the habit of saying 'No,' and then I shall be all right. To tell you the truth, there's a good deal depending upon your answer," added Murray, who thought by the expression on George's face that he did not much like the part he was expected to perform. "My bad habits have lost several very fine positions for me, and if I don't break them off, I shall lose this and every other one I get. But I have tried it often enough to know that I can't abandon them without help. What do you say?"

"I say that I will do anything I can to help you," was George's answer.

"Thank you!" exclaimed Murray. George's reply argued well for the success of certain plans upon which he had determined, and he could scarcely conceal his exultation. "By the way," he added, "are you on speaking terms with Mr. Richardson?"

"I am quite intimate with Tony, who steered this boat up here for me to-day, but I am not much acquainted with his father, although I have visited at his house by Tony's invitation."

"Well, you'll not say a word to him, or anybody else, about what happened on board the Quitman?" said Murray.

"Not a word."

"All right. I am done with tobacco, liquor and cards for ever," said the clerk, with great determination "I'll rub it all out, and begin over again; turn over a new leaf, and see if I can't make a clean record for myself."

The two sat there on the guards for a long time talking in this way, Mr. Murray apparently being very communicative and confidential, while George was exactly the reverse, and finally they bade each other good-night and separated to their rooms.

"The plan works very well so far," thought Murray, as he locked the door of the office behind him, and sat down to take another smoke. "Ackerman is rather suspicious of me, and I shall have hard work to gain his confidence. I am afraid that the greatest trouble will be to get him in the habit of loafing about the office. If I can do that, I'll see that he puts his foot into a very pretty trap. He got me into this scrape, and he must help me out."

"He doesn't seem to be a bad fellow at heart," thought George, as he tumbled into his bunk in Texas; "but I must say that he's mighty palavering, and that his face is almost too red and bloated for that of a man who has stuck to the pledge for three consecutive months, as he claims to have done. I hope he is in earnest in his desire to reform, and if I can help him by giving him a wink now and then, I shall be perfectly willing to do it."

It was not long after that before the officers of the boat began to tell one another that the chief clerk and Mr. Black's cub had taken a wonderful liking for each other. George was in the office almost all the time, and when the Telegraph left the coal-fleet on Monday morning, and went back to the city, Murray steered her down for him. As soon as she was made fast alongside the wharf-boat, George went ashore to make a few purchases, and when he came back, he found the clerk full of news.

"Ackerman," said he, as the young pilot entered the office and threw down a copy of a morning paper, which Murray had requested him to buy for him, "I am sorry to say that Tony Richardson has steered the Telegraph for you for the last time."

"Why, what do you mean?" exclaimed George. "Has he – has any misfortune befallen him?"



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