Harry Castlemon.

George at the Wheel



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"Good for the ranchemen," thought George, as he rolled himself up in his blanket and tried to find an easy place for his head on his hard pillow. "If that is the way they are going to do business, it will be a long time before you get your pay for making a prisoner of me."

The boy did not leave his blanket the next morning until Fletcher came in to tell him that breakfast was ready. He could hear the guerrillas grumbling lustily over the ill-luck that had attended their companions the night before, and he was in no hurry to mingle with them, for fear they might vent their spite upon him in some way; but they showed no disposition to do anything of the kind. Fletcher looked very savage and was not as talkative as usual; the men in his mess swore a little more over this meal, and that was all George saw or heard to indicate that anything had gone wrong with them.

Although the raiders had been badly punished, they were by no means disheartened. As soon as breakfast was over, they took fresh horses, and reinforced by a dozen or more companions, set out to try another ford twenty miles further up the river. They came back early the next morning, and this time they were very jubilant, for they had met with glorious success. They had brought five hundred head of stock back with them, and some unfortunate rancheman on the other side of the river was ten thousand dollars poorer than he had been a few hours before.

Fletcher and his men spent two more nights in this way, and to George's intense disgust, they came back full handed each time. He had the opportunity to look at the cattle before they were sent into the interior, and had the satisfaction of seeing that none of them bore his brand.

On the fifth morning of his captivity, George encountered Springer on the verandah. He had sought an interview with him every day, but Springer had taken good care to keep out of his way, because he knew that he could not assist him in his efforts to escape without running the risk of bringing himself into trouble with the boss cattle-thief. On this particular morning, however, he purposely intercepted the boy while the latter was taking his usual walk around the court-yard. He had something of importance to say to him.

"Wal, George, you ain't gone yet, have you?" said Springer, after he had looked all around to make sure that there was no one within ear-shot.

"No, but I haven't been wasting any time," was the reply. "I have learned that I can go in and out of the rancho whenever I please, and I have made a friend of Silk Stocking."

"Who's that?" inquired Springer.

"That is the name of the horse you raiders brought away with you on the night you made the attack on our rancho," replied George. "I have fed him crackers every day until he has learned to know me, and will let me catch him any where. I got on his back last night, and if I had been certain that the road was clear, you wouldn't have seen me here this morning.

I would have made a bold dash for home and freedom."

"It's just as well that you didn't try it," said Springer, hastily, "kase the road wasn't cl'ar. You might have run plump into Fletcher's gang afore you knowed it. Now I'll tell you what's a fact: I can't help you none only by giving you good advice, an' I am risking my life by doin' that. The road will be clear to-night, an' if you are bound to start for the other side of the Rio, you'd best do it afore you see the sun rise agin. Fletcher aint goin' on no more raids till next full moon, but he's goin' to start with the regiment, bright an' 'arly to-morrow morning, for our old camp at Queretaro; an' I'll just tell you what's a fact, if you ever let yourself be took so far into the country as that, it will be a long time afore you see Texas agin. Fletcher don't mean no harm to you, but thar's fightin' goin' on down thar, an' I don't know what may happen to us."

"I am glad you told me," said George. "I'll be off this very night. Good-by, Springer. Don't go on any more cattle raids, will you?"

"I aint likely to go on any more for a while," said Springer. "I shall be laid up for another month at least."

He looked all around the court-yard to make sure that there was no one watching him, and then cordially shook the hand that George extended toward him.

"If you had been engaged in some honest business that night you would not have received those wounds," said the boy. "Now, when you get well, cut loose from such fellows as these with whom you are now associating, and turn over a new leaf. Good-by!"

"Good-by, an' good luck to you," said Springer, heartily.

George walked slowly across the court-yard, passed out of the gate and went toward the place where the horses were feeding. Silk Stocking was cropping the grass a little apart from the others – he seemed to be a high-toned horse, and to look upon himself as something better than the rest of the drove – and when George whistled to him he promptly raised his head and came up to receive the piece of cracker which the boy had taken care to put into his pocket that morning.

"I don't wonder that those men were so determined to recover possession of you, old fellow," said George, as he ran his fingers through the animal's long white mane. "You are a regular pet and as gentle as you are handsome. Now don't go back on me when I come out to catch you to-night, and I will see that you find your way back into the hands of your lawful master."

George did not dare spend a great while in Silk Stocking's company, for fear that some of the guerrillas might see him and suspect something; so he walked slowly toward the rancho, after seeing him eat the cracker, and the horse began cropping the grass again.

The hours always pass away slowly when one is impatient, and this was the longest and gloomiest day of George's captivity. He spent it, as the most of the guerrillas spent all their unemployed moments, lying at his ease on his blanket; but to a boy of George's active habits this was anything but an agreeable way of killing time. He found an opportunity during the day to secure his lasso, which he tied around his waist, buttoning his buckskin coat over it so that it was concealed from view.

George went to bed at dark, but of course he did not go to sleep. For long hours he rolled uneasily about on his blanket, alternating between hope and fear, and waiting impatiently for the guerrillas to retire to their rooms; but there seemed to be more than the usual number of wakeful and talkative ones among them, and it was almost midnight before silence settled down over the rancho. Then he sat up on his blanket and looked about him.

CHAPTER V
"HOLD UP THERE, SILVER BUTTONS!"

During the time that George had been a prisoner among the guerrillas, he had made it a point to leave the rancho two or three times during the night, his object being to accustom his guards, if he had any, to seeing him go and come at all hours. The fact that no one had ever attempted to interfere with him in any way, encouraged the belief that no one ever would interfere with him; but somehow he felt a strange sinking at his heart as he arose from his blanket and proceeded to arrange it, so that one to have taken a casual glance at it, would have supposed that it still concealed a human figure.

"I can't imagine what is the matter with me," said George, to himself, as he moved to the door with noiseless footsteps, and gazed about the silent and deserted court-yard. "I never have been stopped while passing through that gate, and I don't see why I should stand so much in fear of being stopped to-night. Perhaps it is because I know that if I don't escape the first time trying, I never shall. Yes, that must be it. Well, I must make the attempt successful."

So saying, George stepped boldly out of the door, and after assuring himself that his lasso was securely fastened about his waist, he thrust his hands into his pockets and walked along with the greatest deliberation, as he always did when taking his airings about the court-yard. But he did not go straight toward the archway that formed the gate. He drew up behind the wall and peeped cautiously around the corner of it. As he did so he drew a long breath and his courage gave away altogether. There was a sentinel at the opposite end of the archway. He was leaning in an easy attitude against the wall, his feet crossed and his hands clasped at a "parade rest" over the muzzle of his carbine. His sombrero was pushed on the back of his head, and he was gazing in a dreamy sort of way toward the hills that bounded the western end of the valley.

The officer in command of the guerrillas (George did not know who he was, for since he had been at the rancho he had heard orders given by nobody except Fletcher), had stationed the sentry at the gate to keep his men from straying away to visit some of the neighboring haciendas. He wanted them all there when he was ready to begin the march for Queretaro in the morning, and the measures he had taken to secure their presence had shut up George's only avenue of escape.

So thought the prisoner, as he took another look at the sentinel and walked back toward his quarters. He had scarcely moved away from the wall when a loud yawn broke the stillness, and a moment later the door which opened into the room next to the one he occupied as a sleeping-apartment, was filled by a tall figure, who stretched his arms and rubbed his eyes vigorously. It was Fletcher. George was really alarmed by this unexpected encounter, but the cattle-thief's first words proved that he did not suspect anything.

"Hallo, there!" he exclaimed, when he saw the boy coming toward him. "What's the matter with you. Can't you sleep?"

"No," replied George. "I don't do enough during the day to make me tired enough to sleep at night."

"You'll have enough to do to-morrow," replied the boss cattle-thief, encouragingly; "so you had better go back to your blanket. We shall be in the saddle at daylight."

"Where are we going?" asked George, who was not supposed to know anything of the contemplated movement on the part of the guerrillas.

"Down to join old Max," was the reply. "Wouldn't wonder if we saw lively times down there, too. They say that Max is on his last legs, now that the Frenchmen have left him; and if that is the case, we are going to leave him, too, and strike hands with Juarez. You see, there is going to be some shooting done before this little matter is settled; and we don't want to be found on the losing side."

"It is no more than I should expect of you," said the boy, to himself, as he passed on toward his own room. "You joined your fortunes with Maximilian when you thought he was sure to succeed; and stand ready to desert him at the very time when he needs you the most. For downright meanness, commend me to a renegade of your stamp."

But, after all, Fletcher and his men were not more despicable than some who held higher positions in the army. One of Maximilian's trusted native officers, General Lopez, betrayed him; and on the 19th day of the following June, he was led out of his prison at Queretaro, to be shot. The contra-guerrillas did, indeed, see lively times at that place, being almost cut to pieces while they were on their way to join Juarez.

George afterward heard all about it from Springer, who came out of the fight in safety, and profiting by the severe lesson he had received at the hands of George's herdsman, made efforts to lead an honest and respectable life.

George did not forget his own affairs, while commenting upon the perfidy of Fletcher and his guerrilla companions. While he was thinking about that, he was preparing to try another way of escape. He did not go into his own room again, but passed on to the apartment that served as a stable for his horse, which had never been allowed to run at liberty with the others. It will be remembered, that Philip had warned the men who captured George, to look out for that same horse, for he was very swift; and if they allowed him the least chance, he would carry his master so far out of their sight, that they would never see him again. These men had, in turn, warned Fletcher, and that was the reason the horse had been kept confined. But there was another steed about there that was quite as fleet as Ranger, and which could be as readily caught when running at large, and George was impatient to be on his back.

In the room in which Ranger was secured, was a window that was high and narrow —very narrow, the boy thought, as he looked at it, and then took a survey of his broad chest. It had more the appearance of a port-hole than a window; for the stones of which the thick wall was built, were laid at such an angle, that the opening was much wider in the room than it was on the outside of the building. Fortunately, there were neither bars nor window-sash to impede his movements.

"It will be hard work," thought George, "but I must get through or go to Queretaro."

He quickly pulled off his coat, which, with his sombrero and lasso, he thrust through the window. Then having further reduced his proportions by removing all his outer clothing, he crawled into the opening, feet first, and after a good deal of effort and some very tight squeezing, he worked himself through and dropped to the ground on the outside.

To put on his clothing again, catch up his lasso and leave the building out of sight in the darkness, was the work of but a very few minutes. It took him longer to find the horses, and he approached them with the greatest caution, for fear of creating a stampede among them; but when he found them, his troubles were over, for almost the first one he saw was Silk Stocking. The animal allowed himself to be caught, raised not the slightest objection as the lasso was forced into his mouth and tied about his lower jaw, and when the boy flung himself upon his back, he moved off without waiting for the word.

Now came the most dangerous part of the whole undertaking. In order to reach the road that led to the river, he was obliged to pass along the valley within easy gun-shot of the sentry at the gateway, who would certainly have discovered him had it been even moonlight; but fortunately the night was very dark – so dark, that the only way in which George could tell when he reached the road was by listening to the sound made by his horse's hoofs. That intelligent animal seemed to know just what was expected of him. He kept in a rapid walk until he reached the road, and then he turned into it without any guidance from his rider, and of his own free will broke into a gallop.

Although George had passed along this road but once before, he had no fear of losing his way. His bump of locality was so well developed, that he could find in the darkest of nights any place which he had once visited, and while he trusted to his horse to keep in the road, he trusted to his own senses to keep him from straying off into the wrong trail. He travelled as a river-pilot guides his vessel at night – by the shape of the trees and bushes on each side of the way, and they were all familiar to him, although he had seen them but once. He stopped occasionally to listen for sounds of pursuit, but if there was any attempted, those who were following him never came within hearing.

For the first few miles George kept his horse moving along at an easy gait, holding his speed in reserve for an emergency; but when half the distance to the river had been passed over, and Silk Stocking, warming to his work, showed an inclination to go faster, the boy did not try to check him. He had not been long on his back before he told himself that he didn't wonder that Ned's desire to keep him had been strong enough to get him into trouble. The animal's speed was equal to his beauty and docility.

As soon as George became satisfied that his escape had been accomplished, he began to think of the future. Where should he go and what should he do after he got across the river? His uncle and cousin did not want him at home (he had heard and experienced enough to remove all his doubts on that point), and George was too high-spirited to go where he was not welcome. He knew that it was in his power to bring about a different state of affairs at the rancho, and that he could do it by simply applying for a new guardian; but his friend and counsellor, Mr. Gilbert, had told him that the change would have to be made by process of law, and George was afraid that before the matter was settled, some very damaging disclosures regarding his uncle's way of doing business would be brought to light. It would never do, he thought, to allow his father's only brother to be disgraced, and if he permitted him to stay there in charge of the estate, it was quite probable that when George reached his majority he would step into a very small patrimony.

"I don't know what to do," thought the boy, after he had racked his brain in the unsuccessful effort to find a way out of the difficulty. "I must either come down on Uncle John, or stand quietly by and see him pocket all my money. I don't see why he and Ned can't behave themselves! They will make enough out of me in an honest way, according to the terms of father's will, to make them independent, and I do wish they would stop stealing from me and laying plans to get me out of the way. I'll speak to Mr. Gilbert about it."

Silk Stocking might have made quicker work of the eighteen miles that lay between the rancho and the river, if his rider had urged him to do it, but being allowed to choose his own gait, he accomplished it in about two hours and a half, so that it was about four o'clock in the morning when George crossed the ford and found himself again on Texas soil. Feeling perfectly safe from pursuit, he jogged along at a very easy pace, directing his course toward Mr. Gilbert's rancho. He did not know that Uncle John had followed Ned to Brownsville, or rather, he was not certain of it, and he did not want to see him again, until he had had an interview with the only man in the settlement who was unprejudiced enough to give him sensible advice.

It was twenty-five miles to his friend's rancho, and before he had gone half that distance, he was aroused from a reverie into which he had fallen by a quick movement on the part of his horse, which suddenly threw up his head, and after turning his ears back as if he were listening to some sound behind him, set off at the top of his speed. At the same moment George heard the muffled sound of horses' hoofs in the grass behind him. That was a most alarming sound, but it was accompanied by one that was still more alarming – the sharp crack of a revolver and the noise made by a bullet as it passed through the air close by his side.

"Hold up, there, Silver Buttons!" shouted a voice that sounded strangely familiar to the boy's ears. "That's only a warning! the next one will strike centre, sure!"

Believing that Fletcher and his men were upon him, and that the time had come for the exhibition of all the speed which Silk Stocking had thus far held in reserve, George threw himself flat upon his horse's neck, dug his heels into his side, and looking back over his shoulder, saw that he was pursued by two men, who, by keeping their nags in the long grass that grew on each side of the trail, had succeeded in coming quite close to him before their approach was discovered. But they were not Fletcher's men; they were Texans.

A single glance at them was enough for George, who, seeing one of the men raise his revolver and take a steady aim at his head, brought himself to an upright position, stopped his horse with a word and faced about. The man lowered his revolver, and he and his companion rode up and scowled fiercely at George, who knew who they were and whom they supposed him to be, before they said a word to him. One of them was the owner of Silk Stocking; and as George had his cousin's clothes on, of course they supposed him to be Ned Ackerman, the boy who had given them so much trouble. George remembered how savagely they had talked while they were smoking at his camp-fire, that they had threatened to snatch Ned so bald-headed that the next time he saw a stolen horse he would run from it, and he wondered what they would do to him, now that they had caught him with the stolen animal in his possession. Of course, it would be no trouble at all for him to prove that he wasn't Ned Ackerman, and that he had never had anything to do with the stolen horse, if they would only give him the opportunity; but the probability was that they would take vengeance on him first and listen to his explanation afterward, if there was life enough left in him to make it.

There was another disagreeable thought that came into George's mind while he was sitting there waiting for the men to approach (one thinks rapidly when he is in danger, you know), and it was this: If he proved that he wasn't Ned Ackerman, wouldn't it also be necessary for him to prove who he was? And while he was doing it, wouldn't the men learn that he had had something to do with Ned's escape? They would certainly be very angry at him for that. In fact, it will be remembered that while he was in Mr. Gilbert's library, he had over heard one of these same men say, as he and his companion passed through the hall, that he would like to get his hands on that rascally boy who had sent them so far out of their course. Taken altogether, it looked as though George was in a fair way to be punished both for what he did as well as for what he didn't do.



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