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.