Harry Castlemon.

George at the Wheel



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"Well, my young Silver Buttons, you stopped just in time," said one of the men, as he rode up and seized the lasso which served George for a bridle. "If I had sent one more bullet after you, it would have struck something, sure. Get off that horse before I knock you off. You have backed him for the last time!"

George lost not a moment in obeying this order. The man carried a loaded riding-whip, and as he uttered these words he wound the lash about his hand, in readiness to strike the boy with the heavy butt, if he did not move on the instant.

"A pretty chase you have led us," exclaimed the other horseman, whom we have heard addressed as "Joe." "How did you get back from Brownsville so quickly?"

"I haven't been to Brownsville yet," answered George, "but I hope to go there to-morrow or next day."

"Perhaps you will, and then again perhaps you won't," said the owner of the stolen horse, who answered to the name of Lowry. "It's my opinion, that when we are through with you, there won't be enough of you left to go any where."

"Very well," replied George, with a calmness that surprised himself. "If you have made up you minds to that, of course you can carry out your resolution, for I haven't the power to resist you. If I had, I should use it. I confess that appearances are against me – "

"Yes; I should say they were," interrupted Joe.

"But I can explain everything to your satisfaction," continued George, "and more than that, I can prove every statement I make."

"By whom will you prove it?"

"By people living right here in this settlement, who have known me ever since I was born."

"Wouldn't trust 'em," exclaimed Mr. Lowry, quickly. "We know, by experience, that the most of them are rascals who are in league with you. One night, when we were lost on the prairie, we camped with a cow-boy who told us a cock-and-a-bull story about having been robbed by the raiders, and who sent us thirty-five miles out of our way; Gilbert sent with us, as guide, a herdsman who lost us again on purpose; and finally, we were met by one of Ackerman's servants, who told us, that his employer had just started for Palos to be gone two or three weeks, and that his son went with him riding this very horse. We went in pursuit as soon as we got our own horses out of Ackerman's corral; and we might have been riding toward Palos yet, if we hadn't been set right by a man of the name of Cook. We knew that he wouldn't deceive us, for he was very angry at you for shooting some of his cattle. He's the only white man in the settlement."

"I am glad to know that you have confidence in somebody," answered George, wondering who that servant was who sent Mr. Lowry and his companion off toward Palos, "and I am perfectly willing to go to his rancho with you. When you know all the circumstances connected with this miserable business, you will not have so poor an opinion of the people living in this settlement."

"Well, I must say that you ring a pretty oily tongue," said Mr.

Lowry, who was plainly surprised at the ease with which the boy expressed himself. "Go on now, and explain why you didn't give Silk Stocking up on the night Joe and I came to your father's rancho and got fresh horses there?"

"Because I wasn't at the rancho that night, and neither was the horse in my possession," answered George.

"You were there," exclaimed Joe, in angry tones, "and the horse was in your possession. You had him hitched under an open shed close by the house, and you heard us say that he had been stolen."

"I can prove that I never heard you speak that night. I couldn't, for I was miles away attending to my herd of cattle."

Joe seemed ready to boil over with rage when he heard this, and his companion turned white with anger. The former would at once have fallen upon the boy with his riding-whip if he had not been restrained by Mr. Lowry; but the latter's forced calmness was more alarming than Joe's belligerent demonstration, for it told George, as plainly as words, that when his anger broke forth, it would be all the more terrible from being so long restrained.

"Do you mean to tell us that we can place no dependence upon our senses?" demanded Mr. Lowry, while an ominous light shone in his eyes.

"No, sir; I mean to tell you that you are mistaken as to my identity. On the night you got those fresh horses I was at Catfish Falls, watching my cattle which had been stolen from me, as I told you."

"As you told us!" echoed Joe. "Great Moses! Are you the scamp that sent us to Dickerman's when we wanted to go to Ackerman's?"

"Hold on, Joe!" said Mr. Lowry, extending his arm to interrupt the riding-whip which was brandished threateningly in the air. "He can't get out of this scrape by pretending to be somebody else. We saw him standing on his father's porch, and he had these same clothes on, too."

"These are not my clothes."

"Whose are they then, and what are you doing in them?"

"They belong to my cousin, Ned Ackerman, who, if he has had good luck, is safe in Brownsville by this time. He was the one who traded for Silk Stocking, and the reason why he would not give him up, was because he was afraid that you would lay violent hands upon him. I exchanged my clothes for his at the time I was captured by the Greasers, and I did it for his protection, little dreaming that I should get myself into trouble by it. I knew that you would follow him, and that if you came up with him you would recognise him by his dress."

"What do you mean by saying that you were captured by Greasers?" asked Joe, whose anger seemed to have given away to astonishment.

"I mean just what I say. I have been a prisoner on the other side of the river since last Thursday, and it was there I found Silk Stocking."

The ranchmen looked at each other for a moment, and then broke out into loud peals of laughter. George's story was too ridiculous for belief.

CHAPTER VI
GEORGE PROVES AN ALIBI

"Young fellow," exclaimed Joe, who was the first to speak. "I have often said that when I came across the champion liar, I would give him my hat. I think you are fairly entitled to it. Here, take it!" he added, pulling off his sombrero and extending it toward George, who was forced to smile in spite of himself. "I'll go home bareheaded!"

"You are a good one, I declare," remarked Mr. Lowry. "I said you should never back my horse again, but I think you have earned a ride. Jump on and come with us."

Without a moment's hesitation George swung himself upon Silk Stocking's back and rode away with the ranchemen, who burst out into fresh peals of laughter every time they looked at him.

"Do you know any more funny stories?" asked Joe, at length.

"I have only made a beginning," answered George.

"Got more of them back, have you?" exclaimed Mr. Lowry. "If I wasn't so mad at you I would let you go on, just to see how big a story you can tell."

"I could tell you one that would make you open your eyes," said George, "and it would be nothing but the truth. But I know you wouldn't believe a word of it, and perhaps it would be better that you should hear it from somebody besides myself. You will give me a chance to prove that I am not the boy you take me for, will you not?"

"O, yes," replied Mr. Lowry, who seemed to have recovered his good-nature all of a sudden. "We'll give you all the chance you want."

"Then let's turn off here to the right. This is my ranche – or rather it will be mine if I live to be twenty-one years old – and that house you see over there was my home when my father was alive."

There was something in those words that touched Joe's heart. He looked steadily at George for a moment, and then asked in a much kinder tone of voice than he had thus far used in addressing him.

"Where is your home now?"

"I have none," replied George sadly. "But that is a part of my story, and, as I said before, I would rather that somebody else should tell it to you. Then perhaps you will believe it."

After this the three relapsed into silence, and did not speak again until they rode around the house and drew rein in front of the porch. Jake, who was acting as manager of the ranche during Uncle John's absence, and Bob, another herdsman, who was officiating as cook, hearing the sound of their horses' hoofs, came out to see who the visitors were. At that moment George was just dismounting. The men took one look at his sombrero, ornamented with its gaudy cord and tassel, and at the patent-leather boots, with their silver-plated spurs, and were about to walk away with an exclamation of disgust, when George turned his face toward them. Then they uttered ejaculations indicative of the greatest astonishment, and springing forward caught him in their arms.

"Why, Mr. George, is this you?" cried Jake, when he had given the boy two or three bear-like hugs, during which he swung him clear off the ground. "It is, aint it? We thought the Greasers had got you, sure."

"And so they did have me," answered George, after he had brushed back his hair and replaced his sombrero, which had fallen from his head. "I have only just escaped from them. Now, Jake, I want you to answer a few questions for me."

"Heave ahead, Mr. George," replied Jake. "Thar's been a heap of things goin' on here since you've been away."

"I don't care anything about that. I want you to tell my friends here who I am."

"Who you be?" The herdsman backed away and gave the boy a good looking over, as if to make sure of his identity, and continued almost indignantly: "Why, you are George Ackerman, the young gentleman who will some day own this yere ranche an' everything what's onto it. An' a mighty fine piece of property it is, too, gents," he added, nodding to the two horsemen, who had not yet dismounted. "Worth a clean forty thousand a year."

"Never mind that," said George, hastily. "Whose clothes are these I have on?"

"They are Ned Ackerman's," replied Jake, throwing as much contempt as he could into his tones. "But how you came by 'em, and how you can bring yourself to wear that feller's duds, beats my time all holler. Don't it your'n, Bob? He's the chap, gents, Ned is, who traded for this very hoss, an' who held fast to him arter he knowed that he had oughter give him up. He's the fine lad that shot Cook's cattle, too, Ned is. Oh, he's meaner'n – meaner'n – "

Jake flourished his clenched hand over his head and glared wildly about, being utterly at a loss for a simile.

"Remember who he is and say nothing hard against him," said George quietly. "He has never injured you in any way. Was Ned at home on the night these gentlemen came here in search of Silk Stocking?"

"'Course he was. He stood right here on the porch an' heard everything they had to tell about the hoss bein' stole. That's why I say he had oughter give him up."

"What was the reason he would not surrender him?"

"'Cause he dassent, the coward. He was afeared they'd trounce him. An' served him right if you had, too, gents. That boy oughter have some sense pounded into him."

"Hold on, Jake. Where was I on the night in question?"

"You? You was off to Catfish Falls, a'most a hundred miles from here, whar the Greasers jumped down on you an' stampeded your cattle."

"Then they did rob me of my cattle, did they?"

"Mr. George!" exclaimed the herdsman, who had been every moment growing angrier under this catechising, of which he could not see the object, "what be you tryin' to get through yourself, any how?"

"Nothing at all. I only want you to answer my questions. Did the raiders run off any of my cattle?"

"They run 'em all off; but Zeke, he put the settlers on the trail an' got 'em all back agin. Mighty pretty herd it is, too, gents. Three hundred head of 'em, an' all fit for market."

"You remember the night these gentlemen came here to punish Ned, and you assisted me to get him out of the house before they arrived, do you not?"

"I ain't likely to forget it," replied Jake, drawing himself up to his full height, and looking defiantly at the two horsemen, as if to say that if he and George had done anything wrong in assisting Ned in his extremity, and they felt like punishing them for it, they (Mr. Lowry and Joe) were quite welcome to attempt it.

"Have you any idea who it was that met these men before they reached the rancho, and sent them off toward Palos on a wild-goose chase?"

"I know who it was; it was Philip."

"Where was the horse at the time?"

"He was across the Rio, most likely. But if he was there, I don't know how you got him. Howsomever, I do know, gents, that he went off with the Greasers on the night they jumped down on this rancho."

"How do you know that it was Philip who sent them off towards Palos?"

The herdsman suddenly lost his defiant attitude, and became almost cringing.

"I really don't like to tell, Mr. George," said he, after making several ineffectual attempts to speak, "'cause, it's something I never did afore. But I s'pose I'll have to answer that question, won't I? Wal, the fact is, I never did like the way that chap Philip went snoopin' around while he was here. On the night these gents came to the rancho, I seed that he was riding about a good deal on hoss-back, an' that was something I never knowed him to do afore. I seed him when he came back an' put his hoss into the corral, an' I seed him, too, when he walked into the house, an' straight to the office whar Mr. Ackerman was. He went without bein' asked, an' that made me think that he was up to something pizen; so I crept along the hall, an' looked in at the key-hole. I didn't see nothing, though, for the cunnin' rascal had hung his hat over the key-hole; but I heard something an' I – I listened, I did, Mr. George. I never done it afore, an' I'll never do it agin, if you don't want me to."

"All is fair in war," exclaimed Mr. Lowry.

He and his companion were so deeply interested, and so utterly amazed at what they heard, that neither of them had spoken before. George had proved that he had uttered nothing but the truth when he told them that he could make them open their eyes.

"What did you hear?" added Mr. Lowry.

"Wal, gents, in the first place I heared something private, which I don't tell to nobody but Mr. George," said Jake; and this answer proved him to be a discreet as well as a faithful friend. "In the next place I heared him tell Mr. Ackerman that he had met you on the trail, an' sent you off towards Palos. In the next place, he said that the trail was watched, so't George couldn't never come home agin."

"Who were watching for him, and what was the reason they didn't want him to come home?" asked Joe.

"That was one of the private things you heard, I suppose?" remarked Mr. Lowry.

"Sartinly, it was. That's something I can't tell you, gents. After that Philip went on to tell that he had hunted up some Greasers an' put them on the trail of Mr. George, who had started to guide his cousin to Brownsville, an' – an' that's all."

Jake was about to add that Philip had suggested that his employer had better pasture a thousand head of cattle near the river, so that they could be easily captured by the raiders, as Uncle John had agreed to do in case George was got out of the way, so that Ned could claim the property; but he checked himself just in time.

"No, that ain't all neither," he added, after a moment's reflection. "I listened at that thar key-hole till Philip opened the door to come out, an' then I lifted him, I tell you. I knocked him clean acrost the room, just to let him an' Mr. Ackerman see that I knowed all about it. Then, thinkin' that two heads was better than one in a furse like that, I hunted up Bob, here, who had just happened to come into the kitchen. He listened to what I had to say, an' then he allowed that we had oughter gobble the varmint, 'cause most likely the settlers would want to see him in the mornin'; but when we went back arter him, we found that he had skipped. We ain't none of us seed him since."

George, who could not think of any other questions that he wanted to ask just then, turned to Mr. Lowry and his companions and said, with a smile —

"Now, Mr. Joe – I don't know what other name to call you – I shall be happy to take your hat if you still consider me the champion liar."

George did not notice how quickly Jake's face and Bob's flushed with anger when they heard these words, and neither did the ranchemen.

"I beg your pardon, George," said Joe, promptly. "I am sorry I said it, but you will confess that appearances were very much against you."

"Didn't I say as much?" asked George, in reply. "Now, gentlemen, get down and come into the house. As soon as we have had some breakfast, we will ride over and see Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Cook."

"My lad," said Mr. Lowry, as he swung himself out of his saddle and shook George warmly by the hand, "we can see now that we made a great mistake. I never listened to a more remarkable story."

"But it is the truth, every word of it," roared the herdsman, as he brought one of his huge fists down into his open hand with a ringing slap. "An' any gent who don't believe it, just wants to step out with me in front of this shed. We will soon see who's the champion liar."

"Jake, come back here and behave yourself," commanded George.

"I wouldn't get excited, my friend," said Mr. Lowry, calmly. "Never mind him," he added, turning to George. "I don't blame him. I should do the same thing myself under similar circumstances. We are entirely satisfied, and there is no necessity of proceeding further in the matter."

"There is one thing I forgot, Jake," exclaimed George, suddenly. "Where is Uncle John now?"

"Gone to Brownsville," replied the herdsman, who was in a very bad humor. "As soon as I knocked Philip down, he packed up an' cleared himself. I have since found out that he went over to Gilbert's and left money enough with him to pay for this hoss an' for the cattle that were shot."

"Who is cook now that Philip has gone?"

"I am," said Bob, gruffly.

"Well, then, show us what you can do in that line, by serving up a good breakfast in a little less than no time," said George, paying no attention to Bob's black looks. "I, for one, shall bring a sharp appetite to it. Jake, see that these three horses are fed, and pick out a good one for me to ride over to Mr. Gilbert's. Ranger I shall never see again. I left him in the hands of the guerrillas, and I suppose he is on his way to Queretaro before this time. Come in, gentlemen."

Bob scowled savagely at George's guests as they passed, and as soon as he saw them enter the hall, he walked slowly into the kitchen. His first move was to take down from a nail in the wall a broad belt containing a brace of navy revolvers. This he buckled about his waist, after which he began his preparations for breakfast. When Jake came in, having attended to the horses that had been entrusted to his care, he proceeded to arm himself in the same manner. Then he threw himself into the nearest chair and assumed a sort of dogged, defiant air as if he were waiting for something to turn up.

What was the meaning of these warlike preparations? Why, one of the ranchemen had called George the champion liar, and that, according to a Texan's code, was a mortal offence. Explanations and apologies would not make amends for it; nothing but a fight could do that. Jake and Bob thought that the affray ought to have come off at once; and after they had satisfied George's wounded honor by putting a bullet or two into each of the visitors, then they would have invited them to breakfast, but not before. However, the matter could be brought to a settlement when the visitors went away, and the herdsmen were both determined that it should be done. But George, being a Texan himself and understanding the customs of the country, was on the alert. Having conducted the ranchemen into the sitting-room, which Uncle John had furnished in such gorgeous style, he excused himself for a moment and hurried into the kitchen. The countenances of the two men he found there lighted up as he entered, but fell again when George, pointing to the revolvers, said quietly —

"Pull those things off!"

"But, Mr. George," began Jake.

"Pull those things off!" repeated the boy. "I know what you mean by this nonsense, but I shall not allow my guests to be insulted in any such way. You'd look nice, wouldn't you, Bob, waiting at table with a brace of navy revolvers strapped about your waist? Why, those men in there could use you up in a minute."

"Wal, I'd see that the buffalo gnats didn't bother 'em none while they was a doin' it," replied Bob, sullenly.

"Pull those things off, I say!" exclaimed George, again, "or else clear out and leave me to get breakfast alone."

That settled the matter. The herdsmen reluctantly obeyed the order, and when George had seen the revolvers hung up where they belonged, he left the kitchen and went to his own room. He quickly threw off his cousin's fancy clothes – he was glad to get rid of them – and having removed all travel-stains from his hands and face, and put on a neat business-suit and a pair of well-blacked boots, he went back to his guests again. The change in his dress made a great difference in his appearance, and if Ned could have seen him now, perhaps he would not have been ashamed of him.



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