Harry Castlemon.

George at the Wheel



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The visitors did not know who George was, and consequently they were very communicative. They told him all about Silk Stocking, and threatened to do something terrible to Ned when they found him. They were sure they would recognise him anywhere by the clothes and ornaments he wore. They were looking for a boy wearing a Mexican sombrero, a buckskin coat with silver buttons, high patent leather boots, the heels of which were armed with silver-plated spurs, and who carried a riding-whip with an ivory handle. They found a boy after a while who answered to this description pretty nearly, and they – well, we have not come to that yet.

George was greatly alarmed by what the men told him. He knew that his cousin had got himself into serious trouble by holding fast to the horse after he knew the animal had been stolen, and he could see no way to get him out of it. If he had been satisfied that the men intended to punish him in some lawful manner, it is probable that he would not have thought of trying to save him from the consequences of his folly; for George was a law-abiding boy, and he did not believe in assisting a culprit to escape, even though that culprit might be his own cousin. But he had the best of reasons for believing that his visitors had made up their minds to take the law into their own hands, and knowing that they had no right to do that, he resolved to save his cousin from their fury, or at least to delay them in their search until he could see Mr. Gilbert, and ask him what he thought about it.

When morning came the men, who had lost their way, asked George to put them on the road to Mr. Ackerman's rancho, but he didn't do it. He sent them thirty-five miles out of their course, after which he set out for Mr. Gilbert's house, where he arrived just at dark. He told his old friend all his troubles, not forgetting to repeat what Springer had said about Uncle John and his plans, and Mr. Gilbert, in return, told him some bad as well as some good news. The good news was that George's horse and mule were safe in his (Mr. Gilbert's) corral; that Zeke was unharmed, and that, with the assistance of some of the settlers he had recaptured every one of George's lost herd. The bad news was, that Ned and his friend, Gus Robbins, had been shooting Mr. Cook's cattle, that all the ranchemen in the neighborhood were very angry at them for it, and that they were going to meet at Cook's on the following day and decide how they would punish them.

This last piece of intelligence made George all the more anxious to reach home in order to warn his cousin, and Mr. Gilbert urged him to lose no time in doing it. The best thing Ned and Gus could do, he said, would be to go North and stay there until the events of the last few days were forgotten; and as for Uncle John, he wasn't fit to be any boy's guardian, and George had better take measures at once to have a new one appointed. Our hero thought this advice worth acting upon, all except that portion of it relating to the selection of a new guardian.

He could not bear the idea of disgracing his father's only brother. Uncle John might be guilty of the offences with which he was charged, and then again he might not. He had nothing but Springer's word for it, and he would wait until he had better evidence than that before he took any action in the case.

While the two were talking the matter over, the owner of the stolen horse and his companion arrived. They had learned that they had been sent a long distance out of their way, and they were in very bad humor over it. While Mr. Gilbert entertained them, George slipped out of the house, mounted his horse, which one of the herdsmen had saddled for him, and started for home with all haste. Every body there was surprised to see him, for Zeke had brought the news of his disappearance, and he was given up for lost. More than that, the trail along which he had just passed was watched by men who had orders to make a prisoner of him and take him across the river. They were instructed to watch for a boy on foot; but George came on horseback, and so passed them in safety.

Ned and his friend, Gus Robbins, were greatly alarmed when they heard what George had to say to them, and so was Uncle John. They agreed to every thing he had to propose, and in a very few minutes the three boys were mounted and riding away in the darkness. George had used extra care to enter and leave the house without Philip's knowledge, but the crafty Mexican knew just what was going on. His first act, when the boys were out of sight, was to put the owner of the stolen horse and his companion on the wrong trail, and his next, to hunt up the two men who had been ordered to capture George, and tell them that he had started for Brownsville. Then he came back and told his employer what he had done, and if George could have overheard their conversation, he would have needed no better evidence that his uncle was his enemy. There was one who did overhear it, and who showed what he thought of it by knocking Philip down.

George was overtaken and captured the next day while he and his companions were in camp, and the last time we saw him his captors were just starting to take him across the river. Before he took leave of his cousin he received permission to change clothes with him, and it was a very fortunate thing for Ned that he did so. The latter was twice brought face to face with the owner of the stolen horse, who was following him with the greatest perseverance, and if he had been dressed in his nobby suit, he would have been recognised and pounced upon at once.

When George was taken from them, Ned and Gus were left to find their own way to Brownsville, which they reached in due time, and a very unsociable pair they were, too. Ned very unreasonably charged his friend with being the cause of all his troubles, and told him that he had better go home and stay there. This made Gus so angry that he scarcely spoke to Ned during the journey, and when they reached Brownsville he left him without saying good-by. It was a long time before Ned heard of him again. Where he went, and what he did, we have yet to tell.

As soon as Ned reached Brownsville he "dressed himself up like a gentleman," as he expressed it, and waited impatiently for the arrival of his father. Uncle John came at last, and took Ned around to his hotel and up to his room, where we now find them, and where they had spent an hour or more in talking over the incidents of the last few days. Ned was surprised at the anxiety his father exhibited to learn all the particulars of George's capture. He was obliged to tell the story over and over again, and when Uncle John had heard all he wanted to know, he dropped George entirely, and would not speak of him if he could help it.

"He is glad George has gone," thought Ned, "and it wouldn't surprise me in the least to know that he had something to do with his disappearance. Well, if he has gone for good, I don't see what I can do about it. I don't see why I should cry over it, either, for I am master of a cool forty thousand a year. I little thought, while I was handling the yard-stick in old Robbins's store and working for starvation wages, that I should ever be a millionaire. Forty thousand a year! How in the world am I going to spend it, I'd like to know! Of course I must go to Europe – all the gentlemen go there – but first I'll go to Foxboro' and lord it over some of those fellows who used to slight me because I was nothing but a dry-goods clerk. But, after all, I don't know that I blame them. I shall not renew my association with those clerks, for a millionaire ought to be particular in regard to the company he keeps."

"Now make up your mind where you want to go and we will leave Brownsville to-night," repeated Uncle John, slapping his son familiarly on the shoulder and breaking in upon his meditations. "We have nobody but ourselves to look out for now that George is gone, and we can do as we please."

"But he might escape and come back, you know," suggested Ned.

"I hardly think – I am afraid he will not be so fortunate," replied Uncle John. "Those cattle-thieves are a desperate lot of men."

"Don't you think you ought to go back to the rancho and make some effort to find him?" inquired Ned.

He asked the question simply to see what answer his father would make, and not because he wanted him to act upon the hint thus thrown out.

"And put myself in danger for nothing?" exclaimed Uncle John. "That would be the height of folly. How could I help him while he is across the river in the hands of those desperadoes? They may have made an end of him already. Mr. Gilbert, who thoroughly understands the temper of the people in that settlement, advised me to go away for a while, and I shall certainly do so."

"And when we come back I shall be the lawful master of the finest estate in Texas," exclaimed Ned, with great enthusiasm.

"I confess that it looks that way now," replied Uncle John, who, although he was as highly elated as Ned was, controlled himself better. "Have you any idea what you will do with your wealth?"

"I know one thing," answered Ned, "and that is, I'll not live in Texas. I'll leave an agent in charge of the ranche and go up north where white folks live. They won't snub me because I wear good clothes. Who's there?"

The bell-boy, who knocked at that moment, evidently took this question for an invitation to enter. At any rate he opened the door, saying as he thrust his head into the apartment —

"A gentleman to see you, sir."

Uncle John and Ned jumped to their feet in the greatest surprise and consternation. The former could not have told just what he stood in fear of, but Ned could. He fully expected to see the owner of that stolen horse stalk into the room; but if that gentleman had made his appearance, Ned would not have been so utterly confounded as he was at the sight of the visitor who came in. Uncle John and Ned took just one look at him and dropped back into their chairs without speaking. It was George Ackerman. He looked as natural as life, and was apparently none the worse for his short sojourn among the cattle-thieves. His presence there proved quite conclusively that Ned was not yet lawful master of the finest estate in Texas.

CHAPTER III
THE CONTRA-GUERRILLAS

The last time we saw George Ackerman he was dressed in his cousin's nobby suit, and was riding away from camp between the two cattle-thieves, whom Philip, his uncle's cook, had placed upon his trail. He was their prisoner, and they seemed determined to keep him too; for one of them, in order to prevent all attempts at escape, held fast to one end of a lariat, the other end of which was tied around the neck of George's horse.

The boy was not frightened in the least – he never was, unless he saw something to be frightened at – but he was anxious and uneasy, as any body would have been under the same circumstances. He began to believe now, that Springer told the truth; and that his capture was the result of the plans his uncle had laid to get him out of the way, so that Ned could lay claim to the property. But beyond that he was all in the dark.

As long as George remained within sight of the camp he turned in his saddle, now and then, to look back at the boys from whom he had been so unexpectedly separated. They were disconsolate enough, if one might judge by their actions. Gus Robbins was standing in the edge of the timber gazing stupidly after the prisoner and his captors, as if he had not yet been able to make up his mind, whether he was awake or dreaming; and Ned was walking back and forth, wringing his hands and making other demonstrations indicative of a very agitated state of mind.

"There is nothing for him to cry over," thought George, who was surprised at his cousin's want of pluck. "He can't get lost if he tries; and he will be sure to meet his father in Brownsville. He had no business to shoot those cattle, for I told him he would get himself into trouble by it."

When the camp and its two unhappy occupants had been left out of sight behind the swells, George turned to take a good look at his captors. They were dressed in Mexican costumes; but for all that, he knew that they were Americans. They were a hard-looking pair; and if he had had any intention of appealing to their sympathies, one glance at their faces would have been enough to drive all such thoughts out of his mind.

"I always heard that the Ackermans was a plucky lot, but I didn't allow to find a kid like you so mighty cool an' keerless like," said one of the men, after he had looked in vain for some signs of alarm in his captive's countenance. "Look here! You said that you knew all about Fletcher, an' I ax you again, who told you about him?"

"And I give you the same reply that I did before," returned George, "It's my own business. Were you with Fletcher on the night he made the attack on our rancho?"

"Mebbe we was, an' mebbe we wasn't," replied the man.

"I hardly thought you would confess it," said George. "Philip thought he was doing a very smart thing when he left that door open, so that you could go into the house; didn't he?"

George's captors seemed greatly astonished at this question. They stared fixedly at him for a moment and then they looked at each other.

"You didn't succeed in getting the money-box, did you?" continued George, who knew that the men would have given something handsome to know where he received all his information. "You got nothing at the ranche but a horse – a dark chestnut with white mane and tail, and four white feet."

"He is over the river now," said one of the men, who was so amazed, that he spoke before he thought what he was doing.

"I know it."

"Wal, go on. What else do you know?"

"I know that you expect to receive a thousand head of fat cattle, as your reward, for making a prisoner of me. You can tell Fletcher, for his satisfaction, that the next time he wants to put a spy into any of the ranches in this country, he had better select a more reliable man than that Mexican cook. There!" added George, to himself, "If I am not very much mistaken, Philip is in a fair way to see as much trouble as he has tried to get me into."

There could be no doubt about that, if the expression on the faces of the boy's captors, was any index of the thoughts that were passing through their minds. He had purposely aroused their suspicions against the cook, and the significant glances they exchanged with each other, had a volume of meaning in them.

"When I get home, the first thing I do will be to tell Jake to kick Philip out of the house," said George, again communing with himself. "Of course, Fletcher will want to know who told me all these things, and it would never do to say that I got my information from Springer. I say," he added, aloud, "where do you fellows make your home, anyhow?"

"You'll see when you get thar," replied one of the men.

"I suppose you were with Fletcher on the night he jumped down on me and stampeded my cattle, were you not?" continued George.

"Mebbe we was, an' mebbe we wasn't."

"I know who was there."

"Who?"

"Springer. He used to herd cattle for my father, you know, and I recognised him the moment I put my eyes on him. He was shot right there," said George, placing the forefingers of each hand on his legs to indicate the spots where Zeke's bullets had found a lodgement. "He was badly injured, too, and I don't believe he ever got back across the river."

"Wal, he did," said one of the men. "He had a hard time of it, but he got through all right, an' he's thar now."

"I am very glad to hear it," said George, to himself. "That's just what I was trying to get at. If I can find him, perhaps he will help me escape."

George held no further conversation with his captors during the ride, for they were busy talking with each other. As they conversed wholly in the Spanish language, George could not understand what they said, but still he knew that they were talking about Philip, for he heard his name mentioned now and then, and it was almost always coupled with an oath. They seemed to think that their trusted spy had been guilty of treachery, and they made a report to that effect when they got across the river.

It was five miles to the nearest belt of timber, and while they were travelling toward it, the cattle-thieves exercised the utmost caution, stopping on the top of every swell and sweeping their eyes around the horizon to make sure that there was no one in sight. But they reached the timber without being seen by anybody, and there they camped to wait until dark. They did not think it safe to approach the ford in broad daylight. George now had an opportunity to finish the nap from which he had been so rudely awakened, and the cattle-thieves took turns in standing guard.

When night came, he was ordered into the saddle again and led toward the ford, his captors taking the same precautions as before to prevent his escape. They crossed the river in safety, and as soon as their horses had mounted the opposite bank, they were put to their full speed. There was no need of concealment now, for the cattle-thieves were among friends who, had they been pursued by ranchemen or troops from Texas, would have done everything in their power to aid them to escape.

They now had a journey of eighteen miles before them, and it required but a little over two hours for them to accomplish it. It was so dark at first that George could not see his hand before him; but the moon arose after a while, and then he was able to see that they were following a well-beaten trail, which ran in a tortuous course through the hills. This trail finally led them into a wide valley, from the middle of which arose the whitewashed walls of what had been a comfortable rancho. Their horses' hoofs rang out loudly on the pavement as they rode unchallenged into the open gateway and along the arched passage that led to the spacious patio or court-yard. It was deserted, save by a few goats that were feeding at a pile of fodder in one corner, and a disconsolate dog or two which, having been awakened from his sleep, was stealing off under the shadow of the walls to find a new resting-place.

On the four sides of the court-yard, doorways without doors yawned darkly at the intruders. In front of one of these doors the cattle-thieves dismounted, and while one remained outside to guard the prisoner, the other entered with the horses, which he hitched there and supplied with a feed of corn. When he came out again, he brought the saddles and blankets with him.

"Now then," said he, as he led the way into one of the adjoining apartments, "we'll go in here. Thar's plenty of room in our hotel, and thar's no need of crowdin' the boarders. Spread your blanket down anywheres, young fellow, and don't try to skip outen here durin' the night, fur we always sleep with one eye open."

As if to put all attempts at escape out of the question, the speaker spread his own couch in front of the door and stretched himself upon it.

A bed which consists simply of a blanket and saddle is quickly made up, and George, who had not yet recovered from the fatigue of his five days' journey on foot, fell fast asleep almost as soon as he took possession of it. When he awoke at daylight he was not a little astonished at what he saw. The rooms opening off the court-yard, which had been so silent and apparently deserted when he rode into the rancho had, during his sleep, given up a most unexpected tenantry – men, women, children, goats and dogs, so many, in fact, that it was a wonder where they all came from. A confused babel of voices saluted his ears, and finally awoke his captors, who made no effort to restrain him when he put on his sombrero and walked out into the courtyard.

Having heard some astonishing stories told of the almost regal state maintained by wealthy Mexican rancheros before the war, George looked about him with the greatest interest. On every side he saw the lingering remains of departed grandeur. In the centre of the court-yard was a ruined fountain, and beyond it was a long column of fluted pillars, with gaily-carved capitals. In front of these pillars were the remains of a garden, now trodden hard with the pressure of many feet, but still affording a little sustenance to a few flowerless shrubs and one or two sickly orange and fig trees. Upon the broad stone verandah on the other side of the fluted columns the master of the house had doubtless feasted his guests, or smoked and dozed away the time in his hammock, while the fountain played merrily and the air was redolent of the perfume of flowers. Now slouching figures, clad in rusty leather trowsers and velvet jackets, and smoking villainous cigarettes, swaggered through the court-yard, and from the adjoining rooms, with their tessellated floors and frescoed ceilings, came the impatient calls of hungry cattle and horses, which were growing tired of waiting for their breakfast.

While George was wondering where the master was, and what had happened to bring about so great a change in the house, he walked slowly along the court-yard, glancing into all the rooms as he passed, and no one spoke to him, or even seemed to notice him. He took a survey of the verandah, which was littered with blankets, ponchos, saddles and weapons, and was about to retrace his steps, when he heard a suppressed exclamation of astonishment near him, and turned quickly to find himself face to face with his father's old herdsman, the cattle-thief who had warned him against his Uncle John. He sat on his blanket, with his back against the wall, and the crutches which lay by his side proved that he had not yet fully recovered from the wounds that had been inflicted upon him by Zeke's Winchester.



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