Harry Castlemon.

George at the Wheel



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"You have lifted a heavy load from my mind. I was informed that you had stolen that money of Mr. Vandegriff.

"I didn't," said Tony, stoutly. "I earned it fairly. I'll go to Mr. Vandegriff with you as soon as we reach St. Louis and ask him if I didn't."

"There is no need of that," answered George "I believe you. Go on."

"The hardest part of my experience," said Tony, after he had described his life on the Princeton and told how he had deserted from her, "was on board the City of Baltimore; but fortunately the voyage was not a long one, and I was able to live through it. I suppose I was a rough-looking fellow, but that was no reason why the mates should kick me and knock me about as they did. I never showed myself until the ship was well out to sea, and then I wished I hadn't showed myself at all. The jawing I got when they found that I was a stowaway was fearful, but it was nothing to the abuse that followed. I was put to heaving coal and kept at it until I was ready to drop. The men who worked with me were changed every few hours, but they wouldn't let me stop at all. I feel as if I could sleep for a week."

By the time Tony had finished his story it was dark, and George took him aboard the Benefit and up to his room in Texas. There were plenty of towels, soap and water handy, and when George had laid out a suit of his own clothing for Tony to put on, he left him to himself. An hour later he went back to his room and found that the runaway had taken possession of his bunk and was sleeping soundly. He looked more like the Tony of old now that he had got rid of the coal-dust and put on a suit of better clothes, but his face was thin and pinched and his eyes were still badly discolored.

Great was the astonishment among the officers of the Benefit when it became known that Tony Richardson had turned up safe, if not sound, and that he was on his way home. Of course they were all glad to see him, and praised him without stint for the courage he had exhibited during the battle on the barge; but they never said a word to him about running away from home. They did not talk or act as though they knew anything about it. When the Benefit reached St. Louis he went straight to the depot to take the first train for Kirkwood, George furnishing the money to pay his fare, and promising to run up to the office and let his father know of his arrival.

CHAPTER XVIII
CONCLUSION

The next half year of George Ackerman's life passed without the occurrence of any event that is worthy of notice. The longer he followed the river the better he liked it. When he was not asleep or at his meals he was always to be found in the pilot-house, no matter whether it was his turn to stand watch or not. He learned rapidly, and it was no unusual thing for him to steer for hours together without a word of instruction or advice. His memory was very retentive, and if Mr. Black, when questioned by a brother pilot, forgot just how much water he found on a certain bar, or in a particular bend during his last trip, he had but to call upon George for the information, and he always got it.

When everything was going so smoothly with him, it was a great pity that those of whom he had a right to expect better treatment, could not let him alone.

Pretty soon warning letters began to arrive from Mr. Gilbert, with whom George had kept up a constant correspondence ever since he had been on the river. The first one conveyed to him the information that Uncle John had discharged Jake and Bob, and all the other herdsmen who had found employment on the ranche during his father's lifetime, and hired others in their places.

"That's some of my affectionate cousin's spite work," said George to himself. "But he can't injure me in that way. One herdsman is about as good as another, and when I return to Texas, if I ever do, I can get all those old-time fellows back again. It wouldn't seem like home to me there without them."

In another letter, which George received about two months later, Mr. Gilbert told him that three very fine herds had been lost through the imprudence or criminality of the men in charge of them, who, in spite of the warnings of the settlers, persisted in pasturing them too close to the river for safety.

"That's a more important matter," thought George. "It looks too much as though Uncle John was paying Fletcher hush-money. I must see to that."

He thanked Mr. Gilbert for keeping so watchful an eye on his interests, and took Uncle John to task for losing those herds in a way that made him and Ned very angry. Two months more elapsed and a third letter told George that his uncle was selling stock as fast as he had the opportunity. He thanked Mr. Gilbert again and wrote to his uncle.

"Have you forgotten the agreement made between us during our second interview at the hotel in Brownsville? I shall be down there to see about your selling stock, which you were positively forbidden to do, and I shall call upon you for a strict account of your stewardship."

George had intended to quit the river at once, and go home and assume charge of his property with Mr. Gilbert for a guardian; but unfortunately Mr. Black was taken ill about the time he had made up his mind to start. He was not so ill that he was obliged to take to his bed, but he was not able to stand his regular watch. Moreover, he was in such a state financially that idleness meant ruin to him.

"I don't see how I can spare you just now," said he, when George told him that his presence was needed at home. "I know I ought not to run on the river, but when I look at my pocket-book, it tells me I must. If you will only stay with me a little while longer, I shall be ahead of the hounds; but if you leave me now, I don't know what I shall do."

"Well, don't worry over it," said George, after Mr. Black had talked to him in this way a few times. "I'll stay. I can better afford to lose a little more through Uncle John, than Mr. Black can afford to lie idle with all those notes to meet," he added, to himself. "But just as soon as he gets firmly on his feet, I shall start for Texas, to look into my guardian's way of doing business."

The last boat that George Ackerman ever backed out from a St. Louis wharf-boat, was the Sam Kendall – a crazy old craft, all paint and gilt outside, but "rotten to the heart," as the rivermen said. If she had been a sea-going vessel, she would have been called a "coffin ship." By this time, Mr. Black had so far recovered his strength that he was able to do a little duty, and he hoped that by the time he returned to St. Louis, his health would be fully restored. George had resolved, that if these expectations were realized, his piloting should end with this trip on the Kendall.

They reached New Orleans without any mishap, her cargo was discharged, another one taken on board, and the Kendall was made ready for her trip up the river. The passengers began to arrive; and while Mr. Black sat on the boiler-deck, watching them as they came up the gang-plank, and waiting for George, who had gone ashore to purchase some papers for him, he discovered among them a pompous old gentleman with a gold-headed cane, whom he was sure he recognised. He turned and looked at the gentleman as he came up the stairs, and telling himself that he had made no mistake, arose and extended his hand to him.

"Why, general, how are you?" said he. "I did not expect to see you here."

Uncle John, for it was he, gave him a haughty stare for an answer. Then he raised his eye-glass and looked at the pilot through it.

"I am Mr. Black, you know," said the latter. "George Ackerman's – "

"O yes, yes!" exclaimed Uncle John, who was cordial enough now – not because he liked the pilot, but because he believed the man could serve him. "Are you and George attached to this boat? Well, that's fortunate. Where is George?"

"I am expecting him every moment," replied Mr. Black. "I am sorry to say that he is going to leave me. I really don't see how I can get along without him."

"I believe there was a distinct understanding between you and him, that he was to remain with you until he learned the river," said Uncle John, as he and the pilot seated themselves. "You told me that it would take him three years or more to do that, but he has been with you scarcely eighteen months."

"But what am I to do when he positively refuses to stay with me any longer?" inquired Mr. Black.

"Reason with him," was the answer. "Talk him into a different frame of mind."

"I have tried to do that, but it is of no use. He says that matters in Texas demand his immediate attention."

"What put that notion into his head?" asked Uncle John, who wanted to know whether or not the pilot knew anything of George's history and home life.

"I am sure I don't know. He receives letters from there regularly, and I supposed they came from you."

"Well, I never said anything to indicate that his presence there was needed," said Uncle John, who, during the long months that his nephew had been on the river had written but two letters to him, and they were wholly taken up with denying the accusations that George brought against him. "I don't want him to leave the river – he mustn't; I'll not consent to it. Of course I should like to have him at home with me, but I don't need him there, for everything is going on to my entire satisfaction; and this way of running from pillar to post, picking up first one business and then another, won't do. It gets a boy into bad habits. You must keep him here, Mr. Black."

The pilot, who had almost come to look upon George as one of his own children, was delighted to find that his guardian did not approve the course upon which he had determined, and promised that he would use every argument he could think of to induce the boy to stay on the river until he became a licensed pilot; although when he made the promise he remarked that he didn't see how he could say more than he had already said, and that, too, without producing the least effect.

"Well, use your best endeavors," urged Uncle John. "Try every plan you think of, and if you succeed, I shall be your debtor for any amount that you have a mind to draw on me for."

Uncle John said a good deal more to the same purport, and he was so deeply in earnest about it that it was a wonder that the pilot did not suspect something. The latter said he would not draw on the "general" for a cent, but he would try to keep the boy with him, for he was very fond of him, and believed that he would make a good pilot.

"I hope you will be successful," thought Uncle John, as he arose and walked into the cabin. "But whether you are or not, George can make up his mind to one thing – he is not going back to Texas to get me into trouble."

Mr. Black kept his seat on the boiler-deck, and while he was wondering what he could say to George that would induce him to stay on the river, at least eighteen months longer, he discovered the boy coming across the levee. Mr. Black's face must have told the young pilot that his friend had some news for him; for, as he mounted the steps and stopped beside his chair, he said, with a smile, "Well, what is it?"

"Prepare to be astonished," answered Mr. Black, as he took the papers that George held out to him. "The general is here."

"The general! General who?"

"Why, your uncle, John Ackerman."

"Oh, great C?sar, is he here?" cried George. "Are you sure?"

"Am I sure that I have eyes and ears? Of course he is here, and I have had a long talk with him. He says he doesn't want you at home, that everything is going smoothly there, and that he will not consent to your leaving the river."

If Mr. Black could have read the thoughts that were passing through the young pilot's mind, he would have been astonished beyond measure. He knew nothing whatever of the boy's private affairs, for the latter had made a confident of no one except Mr. Gilbert; but he was sharp enough to see that the "general's" wishes would have no weight whatever with George.

"Is there anybody with Uncle John?" asked the young pilot, as soon as he had recovered from his surprise.

"I didn't see anybody. I think he is alone. During our conversation, he informed me that he was going up the river on business, and that he had struck this boat by the merest accident, not knowing that we belonged to her."

Leaving Mr. Black to the enjoyment of his papers, George walked into the cabin and looked all around for his uncle. He was not in sight, but the clerks told him that a gentleman who answered to the name and description he gave them, had purchased a ticket for St. Louis, and been assigned to a stateroom; so George sat down in the cabin to wait until he made his appearance.

Those who witnessed the meeting between the young pilot and his relative, who called him his "dear nephew" loud enough to be heard by every body in the cabin, told one another, that Uncle John certainly thought a great deal of the boy, and that George ought to have his ears boxed for giving him so cold a reception. If their meeting had taken place in private, Uncle John would not have been quite so effusive. He felt more like seizing George by the collar, than shaking him by the hand.

"Where's Ned?" asked the boy, after a few common-place remarks had passed between them.

"He is at home," replied Uncle John. "He has started a herd of cattle, and is trying to show the folks there, that he is capable of making an honest living. The troubles into which he so thoughtlessly brought himself are happily settled, and he is very well contented. What has become of Gus Robbins I don't know. But, George, what is this I hear about your leaving the river? You surely haven't made up your mind to that?"

"I certainly have," answered George, emphatically. "I am contented here and should be glad to stay, but you won't let me. You have broken every promise you made me in Brownsville."

"George," said Uncle John, earnestly, "every word that Mr. Gilbert has written you about me and my doings is false – utterly false."

"I have never caught him in a lie, and I don't believe he knows how to tell one," said George, with great spirit. "At any rate, I am going down there as soon as this trip is ended, to satisfy myself of the truth of what I have heard."

"Very well," replied Uncle John, indifferently. "If that is your determination, you are at liberty to act upon it as soon as you please. If I get through my business at St. Louis in time, I shall be glad to go with you. Young man," he added, mentally, "you are not going back to Texas."

"I don't know whether I want him to travel with me or not," thought George, as his uncle arose and walked out of the cabin. "Something tells me that I shall be safer if I go alone. His desire to keep me away from Texas, makes me all the more determined to go there."

Having given his uncle time to get out of the way, George left the cabin and turned toward Mr. Black, whom he found looking down at the deck in a brown study. "George," said he, in a low tone, "I have been looking for it for a long time, and it has come at last. I have made many a trip on this old tub, and every time I thought I had made my last one – that before I should be employed to handle her wheel again, something would happen to her. I have seen the sign, and I predict that this is her last trip!"

"What do you mean?" said George, drawing a chair into such a position, that he could look into Mr. Black's face when he sat down.

The pilot turned about, and after running his eye around the boiler deck, directed George's attention to a gentlemanly-looking passenger who was dressed in black, and wore a white neckcloth. "I see him. He's a gambler, I suppose," said George, who knew that these gentry, during their trips up and down the river, assume all sorts of disguises to assist them in fleecing the unwary.

"No, he isn't; and that's the worst of it," exclaimed Mr. Black. "If he belonged to that class, the old Sam Kendall would be safe enough, for she has carried an army of them, first and last. He's a preacher, and he brought a gray horse aboard with him."

George, who knew the saying among rivermen, that a minister and a gray horse would sink any boat that ever floated, jumped to his feet with an exclamation of impatience.

"O, you may say 'pshaw!' as much as you please," replied Mr. Black, solemnly, "but I tell you, that the Kendall is a dead duck. You'll never steer her into St. Louis. That's my prediction and I want you to remember it."

George did recall it to mind when he and Bob Owens, the boy who had twice saved his life, sat shivering on the bank of the river and watched the Sam Kendall as she burned to the water's edge; but that the minister and his gray horse had anything to do with her destruction, was something he could not think of without getting angry. Mr. Black was honest in his belief that the Kendall was a doomed boat, and so was Mr. Scanlan; and after they left New Orleans, one or the other of them was always in the pilot house. But it happened that the minister and his gray horse went ashore at Donaldsonville, and then the pilots breathed a little easier.

"There!" said George, as the obnoxious passenger disappeared over the levee, all unconscious of the alarm which the mere presence of himself and his beast had excited in the minds of some brave but superstitious men. "We brought him up here all right, and the old Kendall is still on top of the water."

"I am glad to see him go," answered Mr. Black, "but the run isn't over yet. There are a good many miles between here and St. Louis. But, George, if we do get through all right you'll stay with me, won't you?"

Mr. Black and his partner had of late fallen into the way of asking George some such question as this every time they entered into conversation with him; but they could say nothing to make him change his mind. Sometimes the boy was on the point of telling them everything and then asking them what they thought about it; but he as often checked himself, for he could not bear that even his friend Mr. Black should know what a rascal his Uncle John was.

One gloomy night George stood alone at the wheel, while the Kendall, with all her berths full of sleeping passengers, was ploughing her way up the river through darkness so intense that one could scarcely see his hand before him. Mr. Scanlan was snoring loudly in his bunk. Mr. Black, who had tired himself out by standing his regular watch between New Orleans and Donaldsonville, had gone below to obtain a little rest, and George had the pilot-house to himself. He generally felt a thrill of pride on such occasions as these, for the responsibility that was placed upon him made him think that he was of some use in the world; but on this particular night he was anything but cheerful. He was certain that the minister and his gray horse had nothing to do with it, he was equally sure that the unwelcome presence of his Uncle John, who now and then passed before him like a thunder-cloud across a clear sky, was not exerting a depressing influence upon him, but still he was very uncomfortable, and could not rid himself of the impression that there was danger hanging over him.

Being constantly on the alert George did not fail to see the bright light on shore which suddenly shot up through the darkness, and which he knew was a notice to the Kendall that there were passengers or freight waiting for her at that landing. He blew the whistle, warned the engineers, rang the bell for the lead, turned the bow of the steamer toward the fire, and just then Mr. Black, who had heard all these signals, came into the pilot-house. He allowed the boy to make the landing, which the latter did in his usual good style, and then he lay down on the bench with his hat for a pillow, while George went down to the boiler-deck.

After awhile he saw a boy dressed in black, wearing his hat low over his forehead and carrying a valise in his hand, come up the gang-plank and disappear in the direction of the engine-room, but he did not pay any particular attention to him. This was Bob Owens, with whom George was destined to have a good deal to do during the next few years of his life. Bob, as we know, had stolen a large sum of money from David Evans, The Mail Carrier, and run away from his home in Rockdale to enjoy it. When he reached Linwood landing he was arrested by the constable, who suspected him of having stolen the horse he was riding, but which was Bob's own private property. Through the gross carelessness of that officer he managed to escape from him very easily, and having turned his horse loose and started him toward home, he changed his clothes and boarded the Kendall, intending to go to St. Louis on her. When he reached that city he was going to buy a horse and rifle and plunge into the wilderness to win a name for himself as a borderman; but circumstances arose which induced him to change his plans. He did win a name for himself, but it was as a soldier and not as a hunter.

When George became tired of watching the crew at their work, he moved over to the other side of the boiler-deck, and seating himself on the railing looked at a steamer that was going up the river and thought of the future. He became so completely engrossed in his meditations concerning his hard lot in life that he did not know that the bell rang, that the lines were cast off, that the paddle-wheels were set in motion, and that the boat began to swing away from the landing. The sound that aroused him from his reverie was a stealthy footstep on the guard behind him. He turned quickly and saw his Uncle John at his side; but before he could speak to him the man gave him a push that sent him into the river. He went over the rail with such force that he turned a complete somersault, and striking the water feet first "went clear down to China," as he afterward declared, although his friends rather doubted this from the fact that he could give no clear account of what he saw there.



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