Harry Castlemon.

George at the Wheel



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When George found himself struggling in the water, he lost all heart. He could not swim, although he made a feeble attempt to do so as soon as he arose to the surface. He did not hear the uproar that arose on board the steamer, or the frantic orders to "stop her," which the mates shouted up at the captain, nor did he see the boy who plunged fearlessly into the river and swam to his assistance. But he felt his grasp, and resigning himself entirely to the boy's control, he was towed safely to the shore. His rescuer was Bob Owens. He told the young pilot something of his plans while they were changing their wet clothes for dry ones, and it was through him that Bob was induced to abandon, for the present, his idea of becoming a hunter. The two boys became fast friends, and their friendship lasted until they got into trouble that tested Bob's a little too severely.

After the young pilot and his companion had eaten a hasty lunch, they went up into the pilot-house, and while they were there an alarm of fire was raised. It is believed to this day, that the captain of the Kendall, after trying in vain to run her upon a snag which had been the destruction of two or three boats, applied the torch to her in order that he might pocket the money for which she was insured; but this act, like Uncle John's attempt to drown his nephew, had no witnesses, and nothing could be proved against him.

During the wild scenes that followed, Bob Owens, who possessed physical courage in the same degree that he lacked moral courage, exerted himself to the utmost to rescue the passengers and crew whom the flames had driven to the forecastle, but was at last obliged to take to the water in order to save himself. He assisted George's worst enemy, who could not swim, by placing in his hands an oar that supported him while he floated down the current, and discovering the young pilot clinging to the rudder, took him safely to the shore for the second time. They warmed and dried themselves in the cabin of a friendly trapper, and after spending some time in discussing the plans upon which they had determined, they set out to walk to White river landing, where they found a boat that took them to New Orleans.

Now it so happened that Uncle John was in the cabin at the same time the boys were there, having been pulled out of the river by the trapper, who saw him floating by on his oar. His clothing was drying in front of the fire, and he was so closely wrapped up in the only blanket the trapper possessed, that his nephew did not recognise him. He heard George tell his new friend that he was going to take him to Texas and make a brother of him, and as soon as the boys started for White river, he set to work to defeat this plan. He went to New Orleans on a steamer which the trapper hailed for him, and while in that city, made an effort to separate the boys by enticing Bob on board a steamer that was bound to some port in South America. He had nothing against Bob, but he knew that he had money, while George had none; and his object was to keep the latter in New Orleans until he could run down to Texas and straighten up some things there that he had left in a pretty bad state.

But this plot was frustrated, and George and Bob sailed in company for Galveston. There Bob's pocket was picked, and the two friends found themselves in a strange city, hungry, penniless and without a roof to shelter them. They spent the whole night on the streets, keeping constantly in motion in order to avoid arrest, and the next day looking in vain for work.

Late in the afternoon of this particular day, Bob made a discovery that proved too much for his friendship. He found a fifty cent scrip in his watch-pocket. That would provide him with a good supper and a bed to sleep in. It was not enough to pay for supper and lodging for George, too, and believing that he had already shown his good-will for him by saving his life when he could not possibly have saved it himself, Bob slipped away from his companion and hunted up a cheap lodging-house, where he had a square meal and a night's rest. The next day he enlisted in the army. There was where we left him, and where we shall find him the next time we see him. Surprising as it may seem, his life and George's ran on in the same channel for months, and we shall have a good deal to say about them and their exploits.

George never dreamed that Bob had deliberately deserted him. He missed him after a while, and turning back, looked everywhere for him. Although he did not find him, he found somebody else, and that was Mr. Gilbert, the very man he wanted most to see just then. The last time the young pilot saw him he wore a red shirt, coarse trousers, cowhide boots and a slouch hat. Now he was dressed in clothing of the latest cut, and it made so great a change in his appearance that the boy was not sure of his identity until he heard his voice and felt the cordial grasp of his hand.

"Where are you stopping?" asked Mr. Gilbert, after each had expressed the surprise and pleasure he felt at meeting the other.

George moved his hand up and down the street. "This is my hotel," said he, with a laugh. "I haven't a cent in my pocket, and have eaten but one very light meal to-day."

"Is that so?" exclaimed Mr. Gilbert, seizing the boy by the arm and turning him around. "Come to my hotel."

"Hold on a moment," answered George. "I have a friend who is as hungry as I am. I have only just lost him, and he must be close about here."

"Well, you know him, and I don't. Keep a sharp lookout for him, and tell me your story as we walk along. Then I will tell you something that will astonish you."

This announcement made George cut his narrative rather shorter than he would otherwise have done; but still he dwelt long enough on all the important points in it to enable Mr. Gilbert to understand just what had happened on board the Sam Kendall. He did not go any farther back in his history than the beginning of his connection with that boat, for everything that had happened previous to that time had been fully described in his letters. He wound up his story by saying:

"You will hardly believe it, Mr. Gilbert, but Uncle John really did push me overboard."

"It is not so hard for me to believe as you may suppose," answered Mr. Gilbert. "I know more about that man than you think I do."

"I am going to take your advice now and have a new guardian appointed," continued George. "You will bear me witness that I have been very patient with Uncle John, and that I have been willing to submit to almost anything rather than bring him into trouble; but his recent attempt on my life has shown me what he is capable of, and I know I am not safe while he is near me. Don't say anything about that, for I don't want the settlers to know it."

"It isn't necessary," replied Mr. Gilbert. "They are as mad at him already as they can be, and at you and me, too."

"They are!" exclaimed George. "What are they mad about? What do they know about my affairs?"

"They know all about them. The whole thing has been let out among them and the rope is ready. I had just time to put Ned on a horse and run with him. If I had been five minutes later something disagreeable – "

"Mr. Gilbert," interrupted George. "You surely haven't been – "

"No; I haven't. I kept a still tongue in my head until I found that everybody in the settlement knew as much as I did, and that was what made the neighbors mad at me and you, too. They say we ought to have told them about Uncle John, so that they could have run him out of the country. If evidence was wanting to prove the truth of the story you told Mr. Lowry, Joe and myself, regarding your experience among the Contra-Guerrillas," continued Mr. Gilbert, "that evidence has been produced. The regiment was almost cut to pieces at Queretaro, and out of the seven hundred men who went into the last fight there, scarcely more than one-quarter of them came out to tell about it. As bad luck would have it, Fletcher and most of his gang escaped, and they have come back to the Rio and gone into their old business of stealing cattle. Fletcher has made several demands upon your uncle for hush-money, threatening, in case those demands were not complied with, to tell the settlers that he was hired to make an end of you, and that was the way you came to lose those herds. But there was one in the gang who couldn't stand that, and his name was Springer. He couldn't forget that you had helped him to save his life, and so he came over among the settlers and told everything about Uncle John and his plans. Luckily this happened after your uncle had started for St. Louis. If it had happened before, it is probable that you wouldn't have had any guardian now. They threatened vengeance against Ned, and that was the reason I ran off with him. By the way, do you know what Uncle John's business was in St. Louis? Neither do I, but it's my opinion that he was going there to deposit the money he received for the last cattle he sold."

George was indeed astonished by this revelation. He forgot that Uncle John had twice put his life in jeopardy, and thought only of the danger that threatened him when he returned to the rancho. "He mustn't go back there," said the boy; "but how are we going to prevent it?"

"I know of but one way, and that is to stay here and meet him when he comes," replied Mr. Gilbert. "You don't seem to find your friend, do you? Let's go and get something to eat, and then we'll take another look for him."

When they entered the dining-room of the hotel at which Mr. Gilbert and Ned were stopping, George saw his cousin seated at one of the tables, but the latter wouldn't look at him. He also took particular pains to avoid him during the evening, and George, taking his conduct as an indication that Ned wished to hold no farther intercourse with him, made no effort to approach him. After supper he and Mr. Gilbert went out to look for Bob Owens, but could not find him. During this walk a plan of operations was decided upon which was to be carried out as soon as Uncle John made his appearance. He came the very next day, and then there was another stormy interview; but we will draw a veil over that, won't we? It will be enough to say that at the end of half an hour Uncle John came out of the room, in which the interview was held, wiping his face vigorously with his handkerchief; that he and Ned set off at once to find another hotel; and that George and Mr. Gilbert took the first train for Austin, the latter carrying in his pocket a check for nearly sixty thousand dollars which Uncle John had intended to deposit to his own credit in some bank in St. Louis. Uncle John did not dare tell Mr. Gilbert that everything the latter had written to George was false, and when Mr. Gilbert told him that he could make a statement there in Galveston or go back to the rancho to do it, just as he pleased, the guilty man made a full confession. George allowed him every cent that was due him, according to the terms of his father's will, and everybody who heard of it said it was more than Uncle John deserved.

George's business in the courts was soon transacted, and then he settled down at his rancho with his friend for a guardian, but more his own master, in fact, than he had ever been before. Mr. Gilbert rode over nearly every day, just to show his authority, as he said, but in reality to talk to George, whom he was glad to have for a neighbor again. The settlers had a good deal to say about his relatives, but it was in a good-natured way, and the boy noticed that they never failed to speak in the most complimentary terms of his fidelity to them.

When George had shaken hands with Zeke, who almost cried with joy at seeing him once more, and had got all his old herdsmen back, and had received letters from Mr. Black and Mr. Scanlan, both of whom had floated down the river on a sofa until they were picked up by a boat from the shore, he thought he was ready to settle down to business and to begin to enjoy himself in a quiet way; but, as it happened, he was not long allowed to rest in peace. Our dilatory government at last awoke to the fact that if our border along the Rio Grande was to be protected at all, we must protect it ourselves, and the general commanding the Department of Texas was instructed to pursue the raiding parties across the river, and punish them wherever they could be found. This raised the ardor of the Texans, and every man in George's neighborhood and every boy, too, who was old enough to do military duty, enrolled himself as a member of a company of Rangers, which was ready to march in less than forty-eight hours after it became known among the settlers that such an order had been received. But the department commander, knowing the deadly enmity that existed between these men and the Mexicans, would not accept their services. It was his intention, he said, to rely entirely upon the regular troops under his command; but he needed guides who knew the country on the other side of the river, and who could lead him to Don Miguel's rancho, which was supposed to be the headquarters and stronghold of the most daring and formidable of the raiding parties – the one led by Fletcher. There was one in the settlement who could tell him where to look for that rancho, and his services, which were promptly offered to the officer commanding the nearest post, were as promptly accepted. What our hero saw and did after that, how he fell in with Gus Robbins and Bob Owens, and how the latter gained a reputation as an Indian fighter, shall be told in "George at the Fort; or, Life Among the Soldiers."

Transcriber's Note:

Obvious typographic errors have been corrected.

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