Harry Castlemon.

George at the Wheel



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Mr. Walker loved money, and such an argument as this was not without its effect upon him. Murray, seeing by the expression on his face that he had made a point, hastened to add:

"Now, there is only one way in which this can be accomplished, and that is to make Ackerman believe that we don't suspect him of anything wrong. We'll be friendly and sociable with him, as we always have been, and never refer to the matter in any way. If he says anything to either of us about it, and most likely he will, for these hardened fellows are the very ones to try to face down an accusation by an assumption of innocence, we'll assure him that it is all right. What do you think of it?"

"I hardly know," said the second clerk, slowly. "I should like to see him punished, for he richly deserves it."

"Of course he does; but think of the possible reward."

"I do think of it, and that's what makes me hesitate. If I was sure that we could catch him, and that that stingy old Richardson would give us anything" —

"We'll catch him," interrupted Murray. "Don't you worry about that. As for Richardson, he'll come down handsomely. We don't run any risk, you understand, for Ackerman doesn't know the combination."

"But he might blunder on to it," said the second clerk.

"There is not one chance in a thousand," replied Murray confidently.

The result of this interview was that at the end of half an hour the chief clerk had brought his companion around to his way of thinking, and it was agreed between them that they would treat George in the future as they had treated him in the past; that they would act as though they were utterly ignorant of the fact that he had been guilty of any wrong; that if he ever referred to the matter in the presence of either or both of them they would laugh at it; and that while they were exerting themselves to the utmost to make him believe that they still had every faith in his honesty, they would watch him as closely as ever a cat watched a mouse. Having arrived at this understanding, Murray, who wanted to be alone for a few minutes, walked out on the guard, rubbing his hands gleefully as he went.

"If I had the ordering of things I couldn't make them work more to my satisfaction," said he to himself. "There hasn't been a single hitch so far, and if I am sharp there needn't be any at all. I shall be able to pay that note and have a snug sum left over to put into my pocket, and no one will be the wiser for it. Walker and I will be sacked for negligence, but I don't care for that. I wonder what he would think if he knew that he was preparing the way for his own discharge? I must work rapidly now, for my time grows shorter every day. I must be very cautious, too, for Ackerman has shown himself to be a fiery fellow, and if I give him any reason to suspect me, he may knock me clear across the state of Arkansaw."

The young pilot awoke about supper time from a troubled slumber, during which he dreamed that he had been detected in numberless attempts to open safes that contained immense amounts of money, and having made his toilet with great care, he descended to the boiler-deck and began to look around for the clerks.

He had made up his mind to one thing, and that was, that that unfortunate affair of the afternoon would have to be satisfactorily settled before he went into the pilot-house that night. The chief clerk had been allowed ample time to explain matters to Walker, and if he hadn't done it, George was determined that he would do it himself.

"I'll take him before the captain, that's what I'll do," said the boy, as he turned toward the cabin after looking in vain for the clerks about the deck. "He knows very well that I never would have thought of touching that safe if he hadn't asked me to do it, and he must tell the captain so in my presence. Of course I shall be sorry to get him into trouble, but I am not going to rest under such an imputation as this any longer."

When George entered the cabin he saw that the window opening into the office was raised, and that the two clerks were at their desk. As he stepped up and rested his arms on the window-sill he thought that Murray started a little and changed color, but Walker greeted him with a cheery "Hollo!"

"What have you to say to me?" demanded the boy without returning the salutation.

"That I was a fool for my suspicions," answered Walker. "It's all square. What a scoundrel he is," said the second clerk, to himself. "He is actually trying to bluff us down."

"You are satisfied now that I had no intention of stealing your money, are you?" said George.

"Perfectly satisfied as to everything," was the reassuring reply. "Go around to the door and come in."

"No, I thank you," answered George, who had resolved that he would never go into the office again. "I'll stroll around a little before supper, for I must be at the wheel until midnight."

So saying, he turned and walked away, feeling as if a mountain of huge dimensions had been lifted from his shoulders. Why was it that he did not inquire particularly, as to the points upon which Walker had been satisfied? Did he know that Murray had given him the key; that he had asked him to try his skill upon the safe; and that he had watched him while he was at work upon it? The chief clerk was afraid that some such questions as these might be asked, and he was on nettles all the while that George stood at the window.

"I declare, I can't look into Ackerman's face without telling myself that I was dreaming; that I never saw him near the safe," said Walker, leaning his elbows on the desk and looking puzzled. "I don't for the life of me, see how a guilty boy can gaze into a fellow's eyes as squarely as he can."

"O, guilt will stare innocence out of countenance any day," returned Murray, carelessly. "Remember, now, that if he makes another attempt on the safe, we must be on hand to catch him; if he doesn't, we must keep the affair secret. It would hurt us, you know, if it should become known."

Murray took the next day to rest in, and to screw up his courage sufficiently to enable him to carry out the next step in his programme. Everything he had done up to this time, was simply preparatory, and now, that he had got matters arranged to suit him, he was ready to strike his blow. On the morning of the second day, Walker worked at his desk until nine o'clock, and then, after pressing his hand to his forehead several times, he descended from his high stool and proceeded to shut up the office. He put down and hooked the window, that looked out into the cabin; closed and bolted the door that opened out on the guard, as well as the blinds that protected that door, and went out into the cabin, taking pains to satisfy himself that the spring lock on that door did its full duty. Seeing his fellow clerk seated at one of the tables reading a newspaper, he walked up and held out the key to him. There was but one key between them, Walker having managed to lose his own.

"I have a bad headache," said he, "and I am going up in Texas to take a nap. Call me at noon, will you? Here's the key."

"Keep it yourself," replied Murray. "I shall not go near the office until you come down. There's not much to be done, and we can straighten the business up in an hour. Sleep all day if you want to. I'll call you when I want you."

Half an hour after this, Murray laid aside his paper, and arose to his feet. He went out of the cabin, and about fifteen minutes later ascended the stairs that led to the hurricane-deck. He went into Texas, and, after looking all around to make sure that there was nobody in sight, stepped cautiously into George Ackerman's room, and taking his pillow off the bunk thrust something into it. He flattered himself, that this action was entirely unobserved, but such was not the case. No sooner had he gone out, than a black face, which was pressed close against a transom over the door that gave entrance into a stateroom on the other side of the little cabin, was withdrawn; and a moment later, the door was opened, and one of the numerous darkies employed on the boat stepped out. He crept to the door on tip-toe, glanced up and down the deck, and after making sure that the chief clerk had gone below, he ran into George's room, pulled down the pillow and looked into it. Between the pillow and the case, he discovered two articles, one of which, after a moment's hesitation, he put into his pocket. The other he left where he found it; and the pillow he put back in its place on the head of the bunk.

During the rest of the day, the chief clerk could scarcely control himself, so nervous and excited was he. There was something hanging over him, a trying ordeal to be gone through with, and he knew that he would be in the greatest suspense until it was all over. If he succeeded, he would be well out of the last scrape he ever meant to get into; if he failed – but that was something he did not like to think about; and besides, he would not allow himself to believe that there was any chance for failure. His situation was too desperate for that. He must succeed. He did not call the second clerk at noon, and the latter did not get up until three o'clock. Murray saw him when he came down, and went into the barber shop; and as soon as he could do so, without being seen by his assistant, he ran to the lower deck and went back into the engineer's room. He had been there perhaps a quarter of an hour, when Walker, pale and agitated, suddenly made his appearance and seized him by the arm.

"Good, gracious!" exclaimed Murray, while the engineers looked on in amazement. "What's the matter?"

"Say nothing to nobody, but come with me," answered Walker, in a low tone. "You were right when you said that he would make another attempt. He's done it; and more than that, he has been successful. Didn't I tell you that he might blunder on to that combination? Well, he did."

This startling announcement seemed to take away the chief clerk's power of speech. Without saying a word, he allowed Walker to lead him to the boiler-deck and around the guard to the outer door of the office. The room certainly looked as though somebody had been there. The clothing in Murray's bunk was tumbled up, the high stool was overturned, the safe was wide open, the key was gone, one of the panes in the glass door was missing, and the fragments were scattered about over the floor. Murray seemed to be utterly confounded. After standing motionless for a moment, he rushed up to the safe, jerked open a little drawer, and then staggered back to his bunk and fell upon it.

"This is the condition in which I found the room when I entered it a moment ago," said Walker, taking possession of the high stool. "I haven't touched a thing. Before I went to bed this morning, I took particular pains to see that everything was secure. The key of the safe was under your pillow then, for I saw it there."

"How do you suppose he got in?" Murray managed to ask, in a trembling voice. There was no sham about his agitation, but it was not occasioned by the robbery of the safe. The ordeal he so much dreaded, was close at hand; and in spite of the confidence he had thus far felt in the success of his schemes, he feared failure and exposure.

"There is but one way he could have got in," answered the second clerk. "He slipped his fingers in through the blinds and raised the hasp, smashed that pane of glass, and put in his hand and opened the door. Then he found the key under your pillow, stumbled upon the combination, as I was afraid he would, and made off with that big envelope which you put in the drawer with three thousand dollars in it. Say, Murray, your plan didn't work worth a cent, did it? We can just consider ourselves discharged."

"Go out and ask the old man to come in here," said the chief clerk. "This thing has got to be looked into. We'll have to tell him about catching Ackerman here, and explain why we didn't report the matter at once. You must do the talking, for my wits have all left me."

The second clerk was gone scarcely more than a minute, for he found the captain on the boiler-deck. When the latter was conducted into the office he uttered an ejaculation indicative of the profoundest amazement, and seated himself on the bunk by Murray's side. The condition of the room, and the expression on the faces of the two clerks, told him what had happened there.

"When was this done?" he asked, as soon as he found his tongue.

"Sometime between nine and three o'clock," replied Walker, who then went on to tell how the thief had forced an entrance into the office.

"Why, it must be somebody who is acquainted with your way of doing business," said the captain, in deep perplexity. "Now, where shall we look for him? I have seen no one loitering about here except George Ackerman."

"And everything seems to point toward him as the guilty party," exclaimed Murray. "I wish you would have his room searched at once."

"Bless my soul!" cried the captain. "You surely don't suspect him? Well, well!" he added, more in sorrow than anger, when he received an affirmative nod from each of the clerks. "That beats me. I would almost as soon suspect my own son of being a thief."

"I know it is hard to believe," answered Walker, "but, captain, listen to this, and tell us what you think of it."

The second clerk then began and described the incidents that had happened in the office two days before; repeated the conversation which he and Murray had held regarding George's unsuccessful attempt to open the safe; and explained the plans they had laid to catch him, if he were bold enough to make another effort to steal the money. The captain listened in genuine amazement, and after asking a few leading questions, arose to his feet saying:

"This affair must be probed to the bottom and that, too, before we make another landing. Let us go and see if we can find Ackerman. Things look rather black against him, I must confess, but I never will believe that he is the one who broke into this office, until he tells me so."

The captain led the way to the hurricane-deck and into Texas. The boy pilot, having finished his nap, had dressed himself, and was on the point of leaving his room as his visitors entered it. He was about to great them pleasantly, but the words died away on his lips when he saw the way they looked at him.

CHAPTER XVII
THE KEY OF THE SAFE

"George," said the captain, closing the door behind him, "I am sorry to tell you that Murray's safe has been robbed, that the key and three thousand dollars in money are missing, and that you are supposed to know more about it than anybody else."

The effect of these words can be more readily imagined than described. George could scarcely believe that he had heard aright. His eyes opened to their widest extent, his under jaw dropped down, and the expression of his face changed like lightning. Bewilderment, grief, incredulity, almost every emotion of which the human mind is capable, was reflected in his countenance, but he did not look guilty. He tried to speak, but he could not utter a sound.

"We have come here to search your room," said the captain.

These words aroused George. The only feeling that possessed him now was one of intense indignation; but still he spoke calmly.

"Who dares accuse me of such an act?" he demanded. "Show him to me. Let me stand face to face with him and ask him his reasons for suspecting me. Is it you, Walker?"

"It is both of us," answered the second clerk.

"Do you suspect me because you saw me trying to open the safe day before yesterday?" asked George, still speaking very calmly.

"Why, Ackerman, any sane boy would be willing to acknowledge that that was a very suspicious circumstance," replied Walker.

"Didn't you assure me that the thing had been explained to your entire satisfaction? I tell you in Murray's presence, as I told you once before, that he handed me the key, gave me the combination and sat there on his high stool and watched me while I was at work on the safe. Murray is that so or not?"

The chief clerk's face was a sight to behold. He was white to the lips and trembling so violently in every limb that he was obliged to place his hand against the bulkhead for support. He opened his mouth as if he were about to speak, but no words came forth.

"Why don't you deny it to him as you did to me?" demanded Walker, while both he and the captain looked at the chief clerk in astonishment.

"I am too angry to say anything," replied Murray.

George was thunderstruck. "Am I to understand that you deny it?" he cried, as soon as he could speak.

"I do, most emphatically," answered Murray, whose courage began to return to him as soon as he heard the sound of his own voice. "There's not a word of truth in it."

"Didn't you give me the key and tell me to see if I could open the safe?" repeated George, who wondered if he were awake or dreaming.

"I never did. People who handle money are not in the habit" —

He never finished the sentence. All of a sudden George's right arm shot out with the force of a thunderbolt, Murray's head came in violent contact with the door, splitting one of the panels, and Murray himself sank helplessly to the floor. The young pilot, who now began to have a very dim idea that he was the victim of a deeply laid plot, was thoroughly aroused, and he would have handled the schemer roughly indeed if the captain and Walker had not caught him in their arms and held him fast.

"What a desperate wretch he is," thought the second clerk, who did not know which to wonder at the more – the cool assurance of the guilty boy, or the power of the arm that had so quickly and easily made a "spread eagle" of his superior. "He looks as innocent as a lamb."

"There's a bug under that chip, and it's a big one, too," thought the captain, by which he meant to inform himself that there was something back of all this that needed looking into. "No guilty boy ever looked and acted like Ackerman. I shall not allow any more violence," said he sternly. "I promise you that the thing shall be thoroughly investigated and the blame placed right where it belongs; but if you don't behave yourself I'll put the handcuffs on you."

"All right, sir," said George, in reply. "The sooner you get to the bottom of it the better you will suit me. You said something about searching my room. There are my keys. Go through my trunk thoroughly, and if you can find anything in it or in my room to condemn me, I will acknowledge myself guilty."

The captain took the keys, inserted one of them into the lock of George's trunk and hesitated. He knew then, as well as he knew it afterward, that he was on the wrong track. The second clerk being of a different opinion, began an attack upon George's bunk. Picking up the pillow, he caught the case by the corners and gave it a shake, when something that gave out a metallic sound fell to the floor. Walker caught it up and held it aloft with an exclamation of triumph. It was the key of the safe. The young pilot fairly gasped for breath when he saw it. He gave Murray one look and seated himself on Mr. Black's trunk.

"George, George!" exclaimed the old captain, sorrowfully. "How do you account for that?"

"I can't account for it, sir," replied the boy; "I never put that key there."

The captain placed his hands behind his back, and looking down into the clear, honest eyes that were gazing straight into his own, told himself that the boy was no more a thief than he was. "Do you know where the money is?" he asked.

"I do not, sir; I have never seen it. The one who put that key there can tell you where he put the money. You have made a good beginning, and you had better go on with your search."

"Pull off the pillow-case, Walker," said Murray, who had backed up into one corner of the room, and stood holding his handkerchief over his wounded eye. "I don't see why that money didn't fall out," he added, mentally.

The second clerk acted upon the suggestion, but found nothing. Murray, who closely watched all his movements, grew a shade whiter than ever, and his heart sank within him. This was the second hitch in his programme. The first was the captain's unshaken faith in George's innocence. That was something that Murray had not look for, and perhaps it was one reason why he did not play his part better.

"It was a well-laid scheme, and I cannot yet see where I made a mistake in it," soliloquized the chief clerk, whose suspense and alarm were so great that he scarcely knew how he was acting. He was almost ready to thank George for giving him that blow, because it furnished him with an excuse for keeping his face covered. "I can't imagine where that money has gone. I put three hundred dollars in that pillow-case at the same time I put the key there, and how it has disappeared so suddenly beats me. If anybody saw me put it there – "

Murray could not bear to dwell upon this thought. It suggested too many dreadful things to him.

As he was in duty bound to do, the captain made a searching investigation, but the money he was looking for could not be found. He questioned George very closely, but could learn nothing from him, for the simple reason that he did not know anything about it.



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