Harry Castlemon.

George at the Wheel



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"Hallo, Springer!" exclaimed George, starting forward; but as he was about to mount the steps leading to the verandah, the man threw up his hand, with a warning gesture.

"Keep your distance," said he, in a low tone. "We mustn't be too friendly, kase thar's too many watchin' you!"

"Humph!" exclaimed George. "There doesn't seem to be anybody watching me. I have been all around the court-yard, and nobody said a word to me."

"No difference," replied Springer. "They all know you, and have got their eyes on you. Don't you think now that I knowed what I was talking about when I told you that your uncle wasn't no friend of your'n? Where did they find you?"

"They surprised and captured me while I was on my way to Brownsville," replied George, who, still adhering to the resolution he had already made that he would not discuss private family matters with such a fellow as Springer, hastened to add, "Who runs this rancho, and what are these men doing here? Are they all cattle-thieves? There must be five or six hundred of them."

"The house belongs to Don Miguel de – something; I disremember the last name," answered Springer. "You see he thought when Max came over here, him and the French soldiers would be sure to clean out Juarez; so the Don, he accepts some kind of an office under the emperor, and Juarez, he confiscates his property, and Max, he sends a regiment here to watch things. But they don't find nothing much to watch, all the property 'ceptin' the house havin' been took away, an' so they settles down to cattle stealin'."

"Then these men are Maximilian's soldiers, are they?" said George.

"Yes; they're the contra-guerrillas, and a bad lot they are, too."

"I have heard of them," said George, with an involuntary shudder. "The people in Brownsville and Matamoras say there is not a man in the whole crowd who has not committed some crime."

"No more is there," replied Springer. "I'd oughter know, kase I belong to 'em."

"Is Fletcher the colonel of the regiment?"

"No. He's only the boss of the cattle stealin' expeditions, kase he knows the country and the ranches on the other side of the river better'n any body else. His idea of stealing you was a little private speculation of his'n, an' thar's only a few of us into it. Philip is the one that put him up to it. You see, he heard your uncle an' that boy of his'n talkin' agin you, an' wishin' you was out of the way so't they could have the ranche all theirselves, an' Philip, he skirmished around in that sly way of his'n till he got on your uncle's blind side, an' then he told him that if he'd promise to leave a thousand head of cattle where they could be stole easy, he'd see that you didn't never trouble him no more. I wouldn't tell you no lie about this business," added Springer, earnestly. "You give me grub and water when I was starvin' fur 'em, an' put me on my hoss, an' give me a chance for my life, when nobody else wouldn't a done it; an' I'm goin' to do you a good turn to pay you for it, if I can."

"Well, it is quite in your power to do me a good turn," said George, quietly.

"You can help me get away from here."

"O, no, I can't do that," exclaimed Springer. "I want to put you on your guard against your uncle an' cousin, so that you will look out for them. They mean harm to you, sure's you're born!"

"And it seems that they have carried out their plans, too," said George, dolefully. "Have you any idea what these fellows intend to do with me?"

"They ain't agoin' to do nothing to you," said Springer, encouragingly. "They've just going to hold fast to you, that's all; an' as long as Fletcher has got you under his thumb, he's just as good as owner of the Ackerman ranche an' all the cattle that's onto it. You see?"

"No, I don't," answered George.

"Wal, then I'll make it plain to you. A'most all the beef we get for our army comes from over the river. The soldiers eat a power of it, an' when the quartermaster wants some more, he'll send word to Fletcher, an' Fletcher, he'll send word to your uncle by that Mexican cook of his'n to bring in another thousand head so't we can steal 'em, an' your uncle, he'll have to do it; kase if he don't, Fletcher, he'll blow the whole thing, an' what would the neighbors do to your Uncle John? They'd handle him rough, I tell you!"

George made no reply. He could not bear to think of what the settlers would do if they were acquainted with the fact that Uncle John had deliberately caused his nephew to be captured and carried off by the guerrillas in order that he might obtain possession of his property. It was very probable that they would "handle him rough," and that, too, without the aid of judge or jury.

"But look here, Springer," said George, after a moment's reflection. "You told me that you were to receive only a thousand head of cattle for capturing me. When you get them you can't demand any more."

"We can an' we will," said Springer, stoutly. "We'll ax for cattle just as often as we please, an' your Uncle John, he dassen't say no to us. That's Fletcher's plan."

"This is a pretty state of affairs," said George, angrily. "Must I pay for my capture out of my own pocket, and then stand still and allow myself to be stripped clean?"

Springer shrugged his shoulders as if to say that the boy could answer these questions in any way he pleased, and the latter, after turning the situation over in his mind, said with all the bitterness he could throw into his tones:

"I am not going to stay here and be robbed in this way. The Mexican government can't protect me, and my own government won't, for fear of hurting the feelings of you cattle-stealing gentlemen, and I am going to take care of myself. Springer, you must assist me to escape."

We must pause here for a moment to give the reader some idea of the state of affairs on our Texan border at the time of which we write, for George was quite correct when he said that the Mexican government could not protect him and that his own government would not.

From the days of Jacob Sadelmayer, who visited the Apache country about the year 1744, until within a few years past, the Mexican people allowed themselves to be regularly and systematically robbed by bands of raiding Indians who were armed with nothing more formidable than bows and arrows. During our civil war, and for years afterward, these Indians turned their attention to the frontier settlements of Texas, and forced them back a hundred and fifty miles. Our government uttered some feeble protests, but it was not to be expected that a people who had for so many years submitted to the forays of these savages, were going to make vigorous warfare upon them for our protection. It was not to their interest to do so, for the reason that as long as these raiders could find market for their plunder in Mexico, and could retreat there to get out of reach of our troops, they allowed the Mexicans themselves to rest in peace.

At the time George Ackerman was taken prisoner, Maximilian, having been abandoned by the French soldiers, who had been withdrawn on the demand of our government, was making his last stand against Juarez. His soldiers were deserting him by hundreds, and as the most of them would rather steal than work any day, they formed themselves into bands, and plundered their own countrymen and the Texans with the greatest impartiality. Fletcher and his band nominally belonged to one of Maximilian's regiments, but they were nothing better than professional thieves. They formed a sort of foraging party; but instead of foraging upon the enemy, they raided upon the Texans, drove off their cattle and sold them to Maximilian's commissary. These raiding parties were almost always pursued, and although some of them were overtaken and punished, the majority succeeded in crossing the river, where they were safe. The Mexican authorities would not arrest them, and our troops dared not follow them over the Rio Grande for fear of bringing on a war with Mexico. Texan ranchemen, when they passed through Mexican towns, often found property there that had been stolen from them, but their demands for it were met with derision and contempt.

This was the way matters stood on the morning that George Ackerman found himself a prisoner among the Contra-Guerrillas. His chances for seeing home and friends again would have been much better if the United States and Mexico had been at war and he had been captured in battle, for then he might have looked forward to an exchange; but as it was, there was no such hope for him.

CHAPTER IV
MORE ABOUT SILK STOCKING

"Turn about is fair play, Springer," said George. "I fed you when you were hungry, put you on your horse and gave you a chance to escape to this side of the river, and you must help me in some way."

"I don't see how I can do it," replied the wounded cattle-thief, who seemed to be alarmed by the proposition. "If I do an' am ketched at it, I'm a goner. You didn't run no risk by helpin' me."

"I didn't!" exclaimed George. "I know a story worth two of that. What do you suppose the settlers would do to me, if they should find out that I had given aid and comfort to such a man as you are?"

"How are they goin' to find it out? It ain't likely that any one of us will tell 'em of it."

"And neither is it likely that I shall tell Fletcher if you assist me," answered George. "You see, Springer – "

"Easy! easy!" whispered the man, raising his hand warningly. "He's coming."

"Who is coming?"

"The boss."

George faced about and saw a tall fellow, dressed in Mexican costume, picking his way among the recumbent guerrillas who were stretched out on their ponchos in the court-yard, waiting for breakfast. As he came nearer, George turned away from Springer, and looked at him with a good deal of curiosity. He was not a Mexican – there was that much to be said in his favor – but there was nothing in his face that induced the captive to appeal to his sympathies. When the boy descended the steps leading down from the verandah, the robber chief stood at the foot waiting for him.

"So you're George Ackerman, are you?" said he, thrusting his hands deep into his pockets and looking down at the boy. "Now, I want to know, who told you so much?"

The man spoke in an abrupt tone, but his face wore a good-natured smile, and George did not feel in the least afraid of him.

"The fellows who brought you in here last night, seem to think that Philip has been talking too much," continued Fletcher; "and if that is the case, I want to know it."

If the man had looked toward Springer, who at that moment appeared to be busily engaged in adjusting the bandages he wore about his wounded legs, he would have seen that his face had grown very white, and that he was listening intently for George's reply.

"You can ask Philip about that the next time you see him," was the answer, which was given in a tone that was calculated to strengthen Fletcher's suspicions against the cook. "I know why my uncle wants to get rid of me, and how he intends to accomplish his object; and whether or not he will succeed, depends entirely upon yourself. I am your prisoner, and you have the power to do with me as you please."

"Well, you are a cool one, that's a fact," exclaimed Fletcher, who seemed to be astonished at the boy's courage. "He will succeed, so far as getting rid of all his cattle is concerned, your uncle will; but – "

"They are not his cattle," interrupted George. "They belong to me individually."

"No odds. We don't care who belongs to 'em, so long as we get 'em," replied the guerrilla, cheerfully. "As I was going on to say, your uncle will get rid of all his cattle, but he won't get rid of you, by a long shot. We want the beef, and we don't care how we get it, if we don't have to fight for it; but I aint going to put an ugly hand on you, and I'll make it hot for anybody who does. I haint got nothing against you. You don't stand between me and a fortune. I reckon there are others in the settlement who know as much as you do?"

"There are some there who suspect as much as I know," replied George. "I had a long talk with one of my friends about it, night before last."

"Then Philip will have to come away from that ranche, for he won't be of no more use there," said Fletcher. "Now, I aint a going to be any harder on you than I can help. You can walk around the ranche as much as you please; but you can see for yourself, that it won't be of no use for you to try to get away. If we should catch you at that, we'd have to shut you up in one of those rooms and put a guard over you. Come on, and let's get some breakfast."

"What are you going to do with me, any how?" asked George, as he followed the guerrilla toward the other end of the court-yard.

"O, we'll let you visit with us, until we get all Ackerman's cattle; and then we'll set you back across the river, so that you can make it warm for the old rascal," replied Fletcher, with an encouraging wink.

"I don't want to stay here until my stock is all stolen," said George; and he added to himself: "I won't, either."

The boy breathed much easier after his interview with the robber chief. He had never expected to be so well treated by the man who always led the guerrillas on their plundering expeditions, and whose deeds of violence had much to do with the reputation those same guerrillas bore. He had the assurance that no harm was intended him, and consequently his mind was at rest on that score; but he did not want to stay there a passive prisoner, and, what was more, he was determined that he would not. If he saw a chance for escape he would improve it, and he would take some desperate risks, too.>

That day was a dreary one to George, who could find nothing to interest him. He could not smoke and doze away the long hours in his blanket, as the Mexicans did, and he had already seen every thing there was to be seen about the rancho. He was surprised at the manner in which the guerrillas performed garrison duty. There was no guard mount, such as he had seen at the fort on the other side of the river; there was no sentry at the gateway, no herdsmen to take care of the horses, the most of which were allowed to run loose in the valley; and if Springer had not told him that the regiment had been sent there to watch the rancho, he never would have known it from anything they did to indicate the fact. No one paid the least attention to him, not even Springer, who must have taken himself off to some safe hiding-place, for George could not find him again.

"He is afraid that I will ask him to assist me in making my escape," thought the boy, and he made a pretty shrewd guess as to the cause of the man's sudden disappearance. "Well, who cares? If they are going to allow me to run around as I please, I'll not ask help of any body. I wonder what they have done with my horse?"

George answered this question for himself by directing his course toward the room into which he had seen Ranger led the night before. The animal was still there. He greeted his master with a low whinny of recognition, and rubbed his head familiarly against his shoulders when the boy patted his glossy neck. He tried to follow George, too, when the latter went out, but he was tied to a ring in the wall, and his master dared not set him at liberty.

"I am afraid that our days of companionship are over, Ranger," said George, as he put his hands into his pockets and sauntered toward the gate. "Fletcher seems to think that I can't get away from here if he keeps you tied up. But there are other horses close at hand, some of them as good as you are, probably, and I must take one of them."

There was no one at the gate to stop him, and George went through it, and turning around an angle of the wall bent his steps towards the place where the horses belonging to the guerrillas were grazing, walking slowly and stopping now and then to look about him as if he had determined upon nothing in particular. He did not know how many pairs of eyes there might be watching him, and he was careful to do nothing to excite the suspicions of his guard, if he had any. He moved leisurely around the building and then went back through the gate and lay down upon his blanket, which he had spread in front of the room that had served him and his captors for a sleeping apartment. His short walk outside the walls had satisfied him that unless some restraint was put upon his actions his captivity would be of very short duration. If he could leave the rancho after dark, it would be no trouble at all for him to capture one of the horses that were feeding on the plain, and set out for the nearest ford. He resolved that he would attempt it that very night.

George made three or four more excursions outside the rancho that afternoon, each time going a little farther away from the building than before, and when he came in from his last ramble he had been gone two hours, and Fletcher was looking for him.

"O, here you are," he exclaimed, as George approached him. "I reckoned that perhaps you had skipped out."

The man said this with a grin which made George believe that perhaps his escape could not be accomplished so easily after all. It told him as plainly as words that he was watched.

"Skipped out!" repeated George, "I guess not. I have no desire to be shut up in one of these rooms with a guard over me."

"I saw you looking at the horses," continued Fletcher. "Did you notice that fellow with the white mane and tail, and four white feet?"

Yes, George had noticed him, and with the eye of a horseman, too. The animal would have been conspicuous for his beauty in a drove of thoroughbreds; and among the shaggy, ill-conditioned beasts that the guerrillas owned, he looked like a well-dressed gentleman surrounded by a crowd of ragamuffins.

"That's the fellow that followed us off on the night we went to your rancho after that money box," said Fletcher. "He's just lightning, and if some of those rich fellows down there with Max don't offer me something handsome for him, I'll keep him myself."

"It must be the stolen horse that goes by the name of Silk Stocking," thought George. "I wonder if he would let me catch him? If he would, I could get Ned out of one scrape easily enough."

"I reckon you won't be lonesome to-night while I am gone, will you?" continued Fletcher, as he led the way into one of the rooms in which a dozen or more guerrillas were sitting on the floor eating their supper of broiled beef and tortillas. These, as George afterward learned, were the men whom Fletcher had selected to accompany him on a raid he intended to make that night. "Well, I can't help it if you are lonesome, for business is business, and has got to be attended to while the moon shines. We can't go but two or three times more, and then we'll have to stop for a whole month," added the boss cattle-thief, with a deep sigh of regret.

"That knocks me," said George, to himself. "I can't carry out my plans while these fellows are off on a raid, for while I am looking around for a ford I might run right into them. If I don't succeed in the very first attempt I am done for." Then aloud he said: "You'll not hurt any body while you are gone, will you?"

"Not if we can help it," replied Fletcher, in the most unconcerned manner possible. "We're bound to have the cattle, and those who don't want to get popped over will stay in doors, where they belong."

It was all George could do to refrain from telling the nonchalant robber that things would not always be so – that if he lived, he would see the day that he could not rob and shoot honest settlers without being followed across the river and punished wherever he was found – and if he had told him so, he would have uttered nothing but the truth. The time did come, sure enough, and Fletcher lived to see it, when the simple crossing of the Rio Grande did not insure the safety of the raiders. They were pursued into their own territory and soundly thrashed there, and George Ackerman himself was the first guide who led the troops in the pursuit. But, angry as he was, the boy did not give utterance to the thoughts that were flashing through his mind. He knew that it would be folly to irritate the guerrilla, for the latter might put him in close confinement, and then there would be no such thing as escape for him.

Supper over, the cattle-thieves went out to saddle their horses, and when everything was ready for the start, they mounted and rode away, Fletcher pausing long enough to ask his captive if he had any word to send across the river. George replied that he had not, adding, in undertone;

"I wish I could send word to the settlers to be on the alert, to give you the worst whipping you ever had."

But, if George had only known it, there was no need of sending warning to the settlers. Fletcher came back just before daylight with no cattle, and three men less than he had when he went out. The noise the guerrillas made on their return awoke George, who gleaned from the few scraps of their conversation that he was able to catch, that they had had their trouble for their pains – that the ranchemen were waiting for them, and whipped them beautifully before they fairly gained a footing on Texas soil.



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