Harry Castlemon.

George at the Wheel



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He was about to ask if Tony had run away, but checked himself just in time.

"I mean just what I say," answered Murray. "On Saturday morning the Armada took one of Vandegriff's barges down the river so that she could coal up while she was under way, and Tony went in charge of the barge to check the coal and bring back the money. The tug that Vandegriff sent down the river found the barge and brought it back yesterday morning, but there was no Tony with her."

"Yes, sir; he's run away," thought George, climbing upon the high stool and staring blankly at the clerk.

"I don't wonder that you are astonished," continued Murray. "So is everybody. Poor Tony is at the bottom of the river, beyond a doubt, but he gave a good account of himself before he went there, for both the mokes came back with broken heads."

"Great goodness!" exclaimed George, almost tumbling off the high stool in his excitement. "Then he didn't – do you mean to say that the negroes threw him overboard?'

"Certainly; they are in jail for it now; but the money can't be found. They acknowledge that they made an effort to rob Tony, but declare that they didn't hurt him at all. They say that he jumped into the skiff that was towing alongside the barge, and got away with the money; they couldn't swim a stroke, and therefore they were obliged to stay with the barge until the tug took them off. The general impression seems to be that they knocked Tony down with a chunk of coal and robbed him, and that he died from the effects of the blow. Becoming frightened at what they had done, they threw the body overboard, hid the money, and made up this story to lessen their punishment."

"If they did that, they didn't show much sense in staying with the barge," said George, as soon as he could speak. "Why didn't they get into the skiff and go ashore?"

"I can account for that only on the supposition that the skiff was lost while the Armada was towing the barge down the river," answered Murray. "If Tony ran off with it, as the darkies say he did where is he? If he had rode up the river, he would have met the tug, and if he had tied up to the bank, he would have seen her when she passed him. When the captain of the tug saw the negroes' heads and listened to their story, he was so certain that they had killed Tony, that he tied them hard and fast, and never wasted a minute in looking for the boy, although he kept up a constant whistling, which Tony would certainly have heard if he had been able to hear anything."

George was so deeply affected by this gloomy news that he could not eat any dinner. He visited the tug, which lay at a little distance down the levee, sought an interview with her captain, and after telling him that he was Tony's friend, questioned him closely in regard to his disappearance, but without learning anything more than Murray had already told him.

"It's my opinion," said he, as he walked slowly back to his boat, "that we shall hear more of this matter some day.

If the money wasn't gone, I should feel certain that Tony had cleared out; but somehow I can't bring myself to believe that he would steal funds to help him along. I don't think he's that sort."

The missing boy was constantly in George's mind during the next few days. He and Murray talked about little besides the mystery attending his disappearance, and meanwhile their intimacy increased to such a degree that the officers of the boat began to speak of them as the "twins." Murray never lost sight of the object he had in view in working his way into the young pilot's good graces, and circumstances seemed to conspire to help him. He took particular pains to have it known among the officers that he had "sworn off" on everything that was bad, and that George was the one who had induced him to do it. As a consequence the invitations to visit the bar that he received were numerous and frequent. They were given principally in George's presence, but he was never obliged to tip Murray the wink, for the latter seemed to be always on his guard. This made George believe that he had wronged the clerk by thinking that his desire to reform was not sincere, and the result was that he gave him his entire confidence, and put implicit faith in everything he said. He spent almost all his time when off duty in the office, and whenever Murray could snatch a quarter of an hour from his work, he was always to be found in the pilot-house.

The Telegraph reached her journey's end in due time, her freight was discharged in good condition, her heavy bills were paid, and the money deposited in the safe, of which Mr. Murray carried the key. In a few days she was steaming back up the river, with a large passenger list and a lot of other freight stowed away on the main deck and in the hold. Now the chief clerk began to show signs of nervousness and excitement. Every turn of the paddle-wheels brought him nearer to St. Louis, and to the creditors whom he would have to face when he got there. His situation being a desperate one, he had determined upon desperate measures to get him out of it. If his plans failed, he was doomed.

"You say I look worried," remarked Murray, one day, when he and George and Walker, the second clerk, were alone in the office; "and so would you, Ackerman, if you had my responsibility resting on your shoulders. I don't mind telling you in Walker's presence, because it is all in the family, that there is money enough in this safe under my desk to start us all on the road to fortune."

"Who – whoop!" shouted the pilot through the trumpet. "Anything for Columbia?"

"Yes!" yelled Murray. "Walker, go out and warn the passengers who are to get off there, and I'll see to the freight."

Walker left the office, and Murray took possession of the stool he had just vacated.

"I shouldn't think you would like to have so much money in your charge," said George.

"Well, we do sometimes deposit it in the bank and take a check on St. Louis for it. That's the better plan, but I was too busy to do it, and besides I didn't know just how much I might want to use during the trip. Another thing, I never heard of money being stolen from the office of a steamboat. I don't suppose you could open the safe if I should give you the key, could you?"

"I am sure I couldn't," answered George. "I don't know the combination."

"I'll give it to you," said Murray.

"That wouldn't be right, would it?" asked George, doubtfully. "Suppose the safe should be robbed, and folks knew that I was acquainted with the combination. What would they think about it?"

"Folks would never know anything it; and besides, as soon as you had opened the safe, I should lock it again on another combination, and take good care of the key," said the clerk, with a laugh. "Here, try it just for fun. It's all in the family."

George, having never done business for any body except himself, did not know that business men, and their clerks, too, if they are honest, are very particular about their safes, and that they never, under any circumstances, invite outsiders to tamper with them. He did not know that the most of them lay so much stress on this point, that whenever they go into an office where there is an open safe, they take care to keep away from it; but it seems as if his common sense ought to have told him that he was doing what he ought not to do, when he picked up the key that Murray took out of his pocket and laid on his desk, inserted it into the lock, and went to work on the combination the latter had given him, which, by the way, was not the right one.

"You can't open it to save your life; you are a regular bungler," said Murray, hoping to arouse George's pride or combativeness to such a degree that he would keep at work at the safe until he could have time to carry out a very important part of his scheme. "I must go down and give the mate a list of the freight that is to be put off at Columbia, and you stay here and work at it till I come back. The door shuts with a spring-lock and nobody can surprise you."

These words ought to have aroused George to a sense of the situation, but they did not. He never suspected anything, but resumed his work after Murray went out into the cabin, telling himself the while that the lock was more complicated than the one on the safe at home, for he could not make the combination work at all.

Murray's first care when he heard the spring-lock close behind him, was to look around for Walker, whom he finally found on the boiler-deck.

"Those passengers seemed to have disappeared all of a sudden," said the second clerk. "I thought there were seven to get off at Columbia, and I can find but three."

"Never mind the passengers," said Murray, speaking as if he were in a great hurry. "I must go below for a few minutes, and I wish you would step into the office and stay there. I left Ackerman there alone, and – by the way – this is between you and me – I did very wrong to tell him about the large amount of money in the safe. I don't at all like the way he has hung around and questioned me ever since we left St. Louis."

Walker pricked up his ears at once.

"I wondered why you let him make the office a loafing-place," said he. "I have several times been on the point of telling him to go out, but you always appeared to be glad to see him – ."

"Well, no; I wasn't glad to see him on account of the safe, you know, and the money in it," interrupted the chief clerk. "But he was poor Tony's bosom friend – intimate with the family and all that. Hurry up, Walker."

Murray went below, and the second clerk hastened toward the office. He did not go through the cabin, but passed along the guard, moving with noiseless footsteps, and looking through the glass-door saw George kneeling in front of the safe twirling the knob. The sight made Walker about as mad as a man ever gets to be. Opening the door with a quick push, he stepped across the threshold and confronted the young pilot, who arose to his feet looking not a little confused. The first thought that passed through his mind was that Walker suspected him of trying to rob the safe, and the expression on the second clerk's face certainly warranted that supposition.

"I guess I'll not try any longer," said George, throwing the key upon the desk.

"No, I guess I wouldn't," said Walker, picking up the key with one hand and trying the door of the safe with the other. "What business have you with this key anyway, and how did it come into your possession?"

"Murray gave it to me and told me to see if I could open the safe," replied George, drawing himself up and steadily returning Mr. Walker's searching gaze. "He gave me the combination, too."

"That's a little too thin, Ackerman," said Walker, closing the door and throwing the catch into its place. "I have known Murray too long to believe any such story."

"What do you mean by that?" demanded the young pilot, flushing hotly. "If you throw out any more insinuations, I'll send you over the rail into the river. Open that door."

Walker was a full grown man, but George was his equal in stature and weight, and vastly his superior in strength. He looked dangerous as he stood there with his sleeves pushed back and his fists doubled up, and that the clerk thought he was dangerous, was evident from the haste he used in opening the door and stepping aside so that George could pass out.

CHAPTER XVI
WALKER DISCOVERS SOMETHING

George, who was almost ready to boil over with rage, went straight to the lower deck and sought an interview with the chief clerk. That individual saw him coming, and hastened to meet him, for he knew better than to hold any conversation with him just then in the presence of a third party. So great an indiscretion as that would have been the death blow to his plans, which were only half, carried out.

"My dear fellow," said he, in a low tone, taking the young pilot by the arm and leading him toward the jackstaff, "what's the matter with you? You are as white as a ghost."

"A most unfortunate thing has happened," replied George, somewhat mollified by the presence and touch of the man whom he believed to be his friend. "While I was trying to open the safe, Walker came in through the outside door and caught me at it."

"Suppose he did?" said Murray, soothingly. "What of it? Didn't I tell you it was all in the family?"

"Well, you'll find that you have got anything but a peaceable family in your hands if Walker ever speaks to me again as he did when he came into the office," said George through his clenched teeth. "Do you know that he just as good as told me that I was trying to rob the safe? I came within a hair's breadth of knocking him clear across the state of Arkansaw."

As the office was situated on the port side of the boiler-deck, that was the direction in which the second clerk would have gone if George had struck him. Its legislature had not then passed the law declaring that the last syllable of the name of the state should be pronounced as though it were spelled "saw" instead of "sas," but the river men believed, no doubt, that such a law would be passed in time, for they always called it "Arkansaw."

"He even had the impudence to lock the door, as if he were going to keep me a prisoner there," continued George, hotly; "but I tell you, he opened it pretty quickly."

"No matter, no matter," whispered Murray. "Don't talk so loud. It isn't necessary that everybody should know it."

"I don't care who knows it. I can see now that I have been foolish, but I have done nothing wrong. Walker asked me how the key came into my hands, and when I told him that you gave it to me he said plainly that he didn't believe it. But you did give it to me, didn't you?" said George, turning his flashing eyes full upon the chief clerk.

"Of course, I did; certainly."

"Then come up to the office and tell him so," said George, turning Murray around so that he faced toward the stairs leading to the boiler deck.

"My dear fellow, be easy now," said the clerk, coaxingly. "I wouldn't bring you and Walker face to face while you are in such a passion for any money. He is quick-tempered, and said some things he had no business to say, and very likely you did the same. Hold on, now, and let me do the talking," he added, when George withdrew his arm, and doubled up his fists as if he were about to say something emphatic. "I know you think now that your language and your actions were perfectly justifiable, but when you get good-natured, you will be of a different – Oh, yes, you will," said the clerk, seeing that the young pilot shook his head very decidedly. "Never mind; leave it to me, and I'll straighten it all out as smooth as – "

Murray shut one eye, looked at George through the half-closed lids of the other, and spread his open hands before him as if he were smoothing out a table cloth.

"All right. I want you to be in earnest about what you do," said George, throwing all the emphasis he could into his words. "No half-way work, you understand. Walker must be told, in so many words, that you asked me to see if I could open the safe, that you gave me the key, and sat there on your stool and saw me work at it. You did, didn't you?"

Again the flashing eyes, which seemed to shoot forth angry sparks of fire, were turned full upon the clerk, who would no more have dared to deny it, than he would have dared to enter a powder magazine with an uncovered light.

"I don't want anybody to have so poor an opinion of me, and I can depend upon you to explain matters to him, can't I?" continued George. "Make sure work of it while you are about it, for if you don't, I give you fair warning that I shall broach the subject in the presence of witnesses the very first time I can catch you two together."

"George, you may depend upon me to the death," said Murray, solemnly. "You have been a true friend to me since you have been on this boat, and I am truly sorry that my unbounded confidence in you has been the means of bringing about this misunderstanding between you and Walker. Why couldn't he have kept out of the office until you got through?"

"Why couldn't I have let the safe alone?" said George, bitterly. "If I had done that, there would have been no trouble."

"Don't think about it. Go to bed now, and when you get up I shall be able to tell you that it is all right. By the way, George, don't say a word to anybody about it."

"I believe I'll go to Mr. Black and tell him the whole thing," replied the young pilot.

"My goodness, Ackerman, don't do that!" exclaimed Murray, in great alarm. "Can't you see how such a proceeding would injure me? It would get to Richardson's ears, of course, and he would sack me as soon as he heard of it. Just leave everything to me, and if I don't put you right with Walker, you can take the matter into your own hands."

George agreed to this with some reluctance, although on the face of it it appeared to be a very fair proposition. Acting upon the clerk's advice, he went up to his room and lay down in his bunk to make up for the sleep he had lost the night before while standing at the wheel, and Murray turned toward the office. He went in through the cabin, opened the door with his key and stepped across the threshold, whistling a lively tune; but he stopped very abruptly and looked inquiringly at the second clerk, who was sitting on the high stool, scowling fiercely.

"Hallo! What's the matter with you?" exclaimed Murray.

"Where's the key of the safe?" asked Walker, in reply.

"Well, you could have asked that question without looking at me so savagely, couldn't you?" said the chief clerk, as he stepped to the lower bunk and threw back the pillow. "What do you want of it?"

Walker did not answer. He sat on the stool and watched the movements of his superior, who looked all around the head of the bunk, and then uttering an exclamation of astonishment, began pulling off the quilts. In two minutes more the bed clothes, mattress and all, were piled in the middle of the floor, and Murray was searching his pockets with frantic haste.

"It's gone!" said he, dropping his hands by his side. "Look here, Walker," he almost shouted. "What are you up to? Hand it here."

The second clerk very coolly took the key out of his pocket and laid it upon the desk.

"I came in just in the nick of time," said he. "I found Ackerman trying to open the safe?"

Murray started as if he had been shot, and leaned heavily on the desk for support.

"I have thought all along that you were altogether too free with him," added the second clerk. "Do you generally keep the key under your pillow?"

"Always," replied Murray. "It is safe there, and if I carried it about with me I might lose it, you know."

"Ackerman must have seen you put it there some time, or take it from there," said Walker. "At any rate, he found it as soon as you went out, and went to work on the safe. You ought to have seen his face when I opened the door and surprised him. I tell you, Murray, that boy is a hard community. One would think that he would have been overwhelmed with fear and shame when he found that he was caught, but he wasn't. He tried to explain matters by saying that you had given him the key and the combination, too, and told him to open the safe if he could."

"What a villain!" exclaimed Murray, indignantly.

"Of course he is. When he saw that I couldn't swallow any such story as that, he showed fight. I locked the door and thought I would keep him in here until you came, but I didn't dare do it."

When the second clerk ceased speaking, Murray looked down at the floor, shook his head and sighed deeply. "So that's what he has been hanging around me for, is it?" said he. "An hour ago I wouldn't have believed such a thing of him."

"What are you going to do about it?"

"I don't know. Wait until I get my wits together so that I can think clearly. Walker, I don't believe I can ever trust anybody again."

"You'd better never trust a stranger. You didn't show your usual good sense in taking up with Ackerman as you did. You ought to go straight to the old man with it. If I were captain of this boat I'd put him and his trunk ashore right here in the woods."

"I'll tell you what I think about it," said Murray, suddenly straightening up, and looking at his assistant as if a bright idea had just occurred to him. "It's an ill wind that blows nobody good, and it seems to me that we can make this thing benefit us in some way. As the matter stands now, I am as likely to be punished as Ackerman is, and in the same way – by being kicked off the boat. I will be accused of negligence of duty. Now, I think I see a way to avoid that, and put a few dollars into the pockets of each of us at the same time."

"I am in for that," said Walker.

"I thought you would be. You say this fellow is a hard one, and that's all the better for us, for he will not be satisfied with making one attempt on the safe. He'll come again, depend upon it, so I say let's hush this matter up, lisp not a word of it to anybody, and keep our eyes open and catch him in the act. Of course Richardson would hear of it, and what would be the result? He'd say: 'Those are wide-awake clerks aboard that boat – honest and always looking out for things. Boys, here's a check for a couple of hundred apiece, to show you that your fidelity is appreciated.' Eh?"



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