George at the Wheel
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"This is a sad affair," said the captain, at length, "and the law will have to look into it. George, I have known you but a short time, but somehow I have great confidence in you."
The accents of kindness touched the boy's heart, and his eyes filled with tears. "Thank you, sir," said he, heartily. "I assure you that I shall never abuse that confidence."
"Consequently, if you will promise that you will not leave the boat until we reach St. Louis, I shall put no restraint upon you," added the captain.
"I promise; I am as anxious to have this matter looked into as you are; more so, for I have more at stake."
"Very well. Now, gentlemen, we will go below," said the captain, addressing himself to the clerks. "I shall consult with some of the officers, and be governed by their advice."
George's visitors went out, and the boy set to work to repack his trunk and make up the bunks. When this was done, he walked leisurely up the steps that led into the pilot-house, and found the captain and the chief engineer in consultation with Mr. Black and his partner.
"George!" exclaimed Mr. Black, seizing the boy's hand in both his own and shaking it heartily; "these fellows mean to ruin you, don't they?"
"I am afraid they have done it already," replied George, with a sickly smile.
"Not by a long shot," said the other pilot, who stood at the wheel. "I know that the evidence is against you, but your friends have not all turned their backs on you. Has Murray any reason to be down on you?"
"Well, I'll tell you something, and then you can answer that question for yourself," answered George, who then went on to describe how Murray had acted when he saw him pick up Mr. Black's lost pocket-book. His auditors opened their eyes and looked significantly at one another when George explained how it came that he had been so intimate with the chief clerk ever since the Telegraph left St. Louis.
"It's a put-up job," said the chief engineer, decidedly. "I heard that Murray lost a good deal of Clayton's money at cards when he came up on the Quitman a few months ago, and that Clayton discharged him for it. That shows that he is not honest. You asked my advice, captain; I should say, let the matter rest until we reach the city, and then set the law at work. I'll promise that George will not run away," added the engineer, poking the young pilot in the ribs with his finger. "If you want to watch anybody, watch Bill Murray."
This was the captain's idea too, and after some discussion it was decided that the engineer's advice should be followed.
Bad news flies like wild-fire, and it was not long before it was known all over the boat that George Ackerman had broken into the office and robbed the safe of three thousand dollars, and that the captain had virtually placed him under arrest The chief clerk, who was obliged to explain how he got that black eye, industriously circulated this story. He saw the necessity of creating a popular opinion in his favor, for he was literally alone.All the officers who heard his version of the affair looked incredulous, and even Walker acted as though he had his suspicions. Murray, of course, had known all along that when the denouement came a rigid investigation would be held, but he relied upon the overwhelming evidence he could produce to crush George and turn all his friends against him. But the young pilot positively refused to be crushed. Feeling strong in his innocence he was determined to make a fight of it, while his friends – and it looked now as though every man on board the boat was his friend – rallied to his support.
"There's something about this business that doesn't look just right to me," said Walker, as he and Murray went back to the office and began to put things in order there; "but I can't for the life of me tell what it is. I can tell you this much, however, if there had been a stranger with us when we went up to Ackerman's room, he would have declared that you looked and acted more like a guilty man than George did."
"Walker," exclaimed the chief clerk, sharply. "Do you mean to insult me?"
"No; I don't. I mean to tell you that I didn't believe Ackerman knows any more about this robbery than – than I do." He was about to say "than you do."
"Who did it, then. Why, man alive, just look at the evidence."
"I know. But when that evidence comes to be sifted by some sharp lawyer" – Walker stopped there, and left his companion to finish the sentence for himself. "Mark my words," he added, a moment later. "We're going to see lively times before this thing is settled."
"I begin to think so, too," thought Murray. "I am afraid I have jumped out of the frying-pan into the fire. I wonder if I hadn't better take what is left of that three thousand, and step off the boat when we reach Memphis without saying a word to anybody? That's an idea worth thinking about."
While this storm was raging about the young pilot's devoted head, another was brewing which proved to be as dangerous to human life as this one was to George's reputation. A thick, black cloud, which had been hanging in the horizon all the forenoon, now began rising rapidly, and in ten minutes more it had covered the whole heavens. The rain fell in torrents and the wind blew a gale. The Telegraph was within whistling distance of Helena when the storm struck her. For a while it seemed as if the wind would sweep her decks clear of everything; or, failing that, drive her back down the river; but she struggled successfully against it, and finally came abreast of the town. It was a matter of no little difficulty to come alongside the wharf-boat without smashing something, but under the skilful management of Mr. Black and his partner, the landing was made, and after the engineers had been instructed to "keep her working ahead pretty strong," so that the wind would not blow both steamer and wharf-boat away from the bank, the occupants of the pilot-house sat down on the bench to talk over the events of the day.
While they were thus engaged, the watchman suddenly made his appearance, bringing with him a pale, scared face, and said something to the captain, who stood in his usual place near the bell. The latter at once hurried below, while the watchman came into the pilot-house to report that one of the cabin boys had been "pinched" between a fender and a stanchion and very severely injured. The way it happened was this: When the Telegraph came abreast of the wharf-boat, the wind caught her and swung her toward it with great violence. One of the mates, seeing the danger, called out, "Stand by, everybody, to fend off! Drop those fenders overboard! Everybody, I said," he added, shaking his fist at a negro, who was passing along the deck from the engine-room with a pail of hot water in his hand.
Now, although the negro knew all about the duties of a boy who was employed in the cabin, he knew nothing about a deck hand's business. Setting down his pail, he rushed to the side in readiness to assist in pushing the Telegraph away from the wharf-boat; but it so happened that he placed himself close to a stanchion, at the top of which was fastened a fender – a heavy piece of timber long enough to reach from the boiler-deck to the water. No sooner had he taken up his position, than two of the deck-hands seized the fender attached to that stanchion and dropped it overboard. It swung down to its place, and striking the darkey with fearful force, pinned him fast. He was released as soon as the Telegraph swung away from the wharf-boat, carried off in a fainting condition, and laid upon one of the bunks in the deck hands' room, while the watchman was dispatched to acquaint the captain with the accident, and to inquire if there was a surgeon among the passengers. This was the substance of the story to which George and his companions listened. None of them had much to say about it, for accidents of all kinds were of too frequent occurrence to attract any especial notice from men of their calling. They could not foresee the results that were to grow out of this one.
The storm abated about the time the Telegraph was ready to continue on her way up the river, and George took Mr. Kelsey's place at the wheel. As soon as the boat was fairly under way the captain turned toward the pilot-house, when the doctor, who had been summoned to attend to the injured man, came up the stairs. "I was looking for you, captain," said he. "That man of yours is badly hurt and ought to go to the hospital."
"All right," said the captain. "I'll put him ashore at Memphis. I never heard of so careless an act but once before. I knew a deck hand to put his head between a stanchion and a fender, and his neck was broken short off. It is a wonder to me that this man escaped with his life."
"We physicians while acting in our professional capacity, sometimes come into possession of very important secrets. This man, believing that he is going to die, has made a confession, and I – shall I tell it to you here?"
"Yes, speak freely," said the captain, who wondered if the steward had missed any of the silver belonging to the boat. "There is no one to overhear you."
"I understand that there has been a robbery committed on board this boat," continued the doctor, whereupon the captain began to open his eyes; "but I don't know whether or not this man's confession will throw any light upon it. He said that he was at work scrubbing out one of the rooms in Texas, wherever that is – "
"There it is," said the captain, pointing to the little cabin under the pilot-house. "The officers sleep there."
"O!" exclaimed the doctor. "Well, while he was at work in that state-room he saw the chief clerk of the boat go into Ackerman's room, take a pillow off his bunk, and put some money and a key into it. Here is the money, and I – my goodness, what's the matter?"
When the doctor said "here's the money," he drew out of his pocket a package wrapped up in something that looked like a piece of brown paper. As soon as the captain's eyes rested upon it, he snatched it from the hands of the astonished physician and opened it. The brown paper proved to be a large envelope, and its contents were greenbacks. The envelope bore Murray's name and address, and in the upper left hand corner were the figures $300.
"Pardon my rudeness, doctor," said the captain, "but you don't know how impatient I was to see what was in that roll. This is a matter of importance, the first thing you know, and you have completely unravelled something that was to me a deep mystery. Go on, please."
"Well," said the doctor, "when Murray went out, the negro stepped into the pilot's room and stole the money. That's all there is of it. I don't pretend to know why the clerk put the money into the pillow instead of placing it in the pilot's hands, and neither do I know what the key was placed there for."
"I know all about it," explained the captain. "If you will excuse me now I will see you later."
The captain ran down to the boiler-deck and walked around to the outer door of the office, which he entered without ceremony. Both the clerks were there – Walker perched upon a high stool and Murray lying in his bunk with his handkerchief over his wounded eye. They both stared at the captain in great surprise. They had never seen such an expression on his face before.
"Murray," said the captain, without any preliminary remarks, "you might just as well own up. The whole thing is out on you!"
Murray raised himself in his bunk and tried to look astonished, while Walker leaned his elbows on the desk and nodded his head, as if to say that he had been expecting something of this kind.
"The man who saw you put the money and the safe-key into Ackerman's pillow, in your endeavor to fasten this robbery upon him, has made a confession," continued the captain. "I don't wonder that you tremble; I should if I were in your place. You can save yourself trouble by handing out the rest of that three thousand. You've got it, and I know it. If you will do that, I think I can safely promise that Ackerman will let the thing drop right here, and be content to leave you to the punishment of your own guilty conscience."
The chief clerk could not say a word in reply. The rapidity with which the young pilot's vindication had followed upon the heels of his accusation bewildered him. The mysterious disappearance of the money which he had so confidently expected that Walker would find in George's pillow had caused him the most intense alarm, for it told him that somebody had discovered his secret; that somebody had confessed, and it was all over with him.
"There's the money you put into George's pillow when you put the safe-key there," said the captain, handing the envelope and the bills over to Walker, "and I tell you that you will have a time of it if you don't refund the balance. Now, do as you please."
Murray sank back upon his bunk, covered his face with his handkerchief, and without saying a word put his hand into his pocket and drew out a roll of greenbacks. Walker took it and counted it while the captain looked on. There were twenty-seven hundred dollars in it, and that amount, added to the three hundred dollars which the injured darkey had surrendered to the doctor, made up the three thousand dollars that George had been accused of stealing.
"That's all right. Where's the key of the safe? Now," said the captain, as Murray produced it, "vacate this office at once, and leave Walker in charge. Don't come near it again."
The captain left the office and went up to the pilot-house. George and the two pilots were there, and so was the chief engineer, who was laying out some very elaborate plans for establishing George's innocence, which were to be set on foot as soon as they reached St. Louis. When the captain entered, he was saying,
"We'll put a detective after him, and find out everything he has done since Clayton discharged him. Don't you think that would be the best way, skipper?"
"There is no need of it," was the reply. "I know pretty nearly what he has done since he has been on board this boat, and that's enough for me. Don't look so down-hearted, George. I told you that the blame should be placed right where it belonged, and I have kept my word. Murray is the guilty man!"
Without paying any attention to the exclamations uttered by his auditors, the captain gave a hurried account of all the incidents that had happened since the Telegraph left Helena, and the story, while it cleared George, confirmed the suspicions that every one of them had entertained from the moment it became known that he was suspected of robbing the safe. The young pilot was almost overwhelmed by the congratulations he received, and it is hardly necessary to add that he cherished the strongest feelings of gratitude toward the men who had stood by him and believed in him when everything seemed to point to him as the guilty one.
George never saw Murray after that. In fact, nobody seemed to think of him, until the boat had left Cairo and was well on her way toward St. Louis, and then some one asked, merely out of curiosity, where he kept himself ever since the captain ordered him out of the office. Even Walker couldn't tell. At Murray's request he had assigned him to a stateroom, and he had not seen him since he went into it. An examination showed, that the stateroom was empty, although the lower bunk looked as though it had been occupied.
"He's all right; you may depend upon it, Ackerman," said Walker, who had lost no time in making things straight with George. "I know, as well as I want to know it, that he left the boat at Memphis. As we got there in the night, it was no trouble at all for him to step off without being seen by anybody."
The clerk was right. That was just the way that Mr. Murray had taken, to avoid the troubles that would certainly have befallen him if he had gone on to St. Louis. George never heard of him again, as long as he stayed on the river.
Mr. Black was not out of a "job" more than two days after he reached St. Louis. Another of Mr. Richardson's boats, the Benefit, was about to start for New Orleans, and he was one of the pilots who was engaged to take her down and bring her back. The other was Mr. Scanlan, who afterward went down the river with Mr. Black and George on the ill-fated Sam Kendall. Mr. Scanlan spent all his time ashore, Mr. Black stayed at home with his family, and George was left to take the boat up to the coal-fleet. He could not help thinking of the company he had the last time he went up there, and wondered where Tony was now, and whether he was not sorry he had ever run away from home; for by this time it had become known, that he had not been killed by Mr. Vandegriff's negroes, as everybody at first believed. He had been heard from at Cairo. From that city he had written to Mr. Vandegriff, that he was about to strike out for himself; and he had sent that gentleman all his money, with the exception of fifty dollars, which he had kept out for his own use. Unfortunately the report had became raised abroad, that Tony had stolen those fifty dollars; but that was something that George could not believe. It was not like Tony.
The Benefit arrived at New Orleans late one afternoon, and when George had eaten his supper, he strolled out to take a look about the levee. When he came back to his boat he did not go aboard, but seated himself on a bale of cotton to watch a gulf steamer that was getting under way. While he looked at her, he thought of Tony Richardson.
"I suppose that foolish fellow is on deep water by this time, and supping sorrow with a big spoon," soliloquized George, as he put his hands under his legs and kicked his heels against the bale of cotton. "I don't know anything about a sailor's life, but from what I have heard and read of it, I should say it was the very life for which Tony is the most unfitted. There goes a sailor now. I wish Tony could have seen him before he ran away."
The subject of these thoughts was a young fellow who just then came sauntering along with his hands in his pockets. His face was covered with coal-dust, his clothing was very dirty and ragged, and his shoes were almost ready to drop from his feet. When he came opposite to the place where George was sitting, he caught sight of the strip of canvas which was stretched around the railing of the Benefit's hurricane deck, bearing the words, "For St. Louis." He looked at it for a moment, and then walked toward the gang-plank, still keeping his gaze directed toward the strip of canvas, which presently came within range of the steamer's name on the pilot-house. When the sailor saw that, he faced about at once and started up the levee again, this time walking pretty rapidly; but before he had made many steps, he felt George Ackerman's grasp upon his arm.
"Tony!" exclaimed the young pilot, in great amazement.
The sailor turned his face toward George, but it was so completely covered with coal-dust that nobody could tell what the expression of it was. He looked at the trim, neatly-dressed boy before him, then his eyes fell down upon his own dilapidated garments, and he made an effort to pull himself away. "You have made a mistake," said he. "That doesn't happen to be my name."
"Tony, Tony, that won't do," returned George, tightening his grasp on the sailor's arm. "I was a little uncertain at first, but I am not now. I know your voice. Aha! I thought so," said George to himself, as the boy covered his face with his hands and sobbed violently.
It was Tony, sure enough. George put his arm around him and led him back to the cotton-bale from which he had just arisen. He lifted Tony upon it bodily, and seated himself by his side.
"No use of shedding the briny over it," said George, who was delighted to see his friend once more. "You're going home now, are you not?"
"Yes, I am," replied Tony, between his sobs. "And if I ever get there, I'll stay. That is, I'd like to stay, for I have had quite enough of salt water, but I don't know whether the folks will want me there or not."
"I do," said George, cheerfully. "They'll be overjoyed to see you again, and you'll get there just as soon as the Benefit can take you."
"Oh, I can't go on her," exclaimed Tony. "She is my father's boat, and almost all the officers know me. I was going aboard of her to see if I could ship as deck-hand when I noticed the name on her pilot-house."
"You'd look nice, shipping as deck-hand, wouldn't you, now?" said George. "You shan't do it while I have a bunk. What difference does it make to you if the officers do know you? You'll have to meet people who know all about it, and you might as well begin one time as another. Now, where have you been and what have you been doing since I last saw you?"
There was no need that Tony should indulge in flights of fancy or use glowing language to convince George that he had had an exceedingly hard time of it during his short career as a sailor. He had hardly began his story before the young pilot interrupted him with —
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