Harry Castlemon.

George at the Wheel



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During the half hour that elapsed before Bob announced that breakfast was ready, George and his visitors chatted as unreservedly and familiarly as three friends would who had long been separated. The ranchemen told of their exciting race after the thief who had stolen the horse, described their journey to Brownsville and back, and laughed over their numerous failures to capture the boy of whom they were in search; and George, in return, explained why he had sent them so far out of their course on the morning they left his camp, and astonished them by declaring that he was in the library on the night they came to Mr. Gilbert's rancho, and that he had heard some of the threats they made concerning him. The men praised him for his adroitness, and said that he was a brave boy to risk so much for the sake of his cousin. If they had known just how he stood in regard to that same graceless relative, their admiration would have been greatly increased.

An excellent breakfast having been disposed of the horses were brought to the door, and in a few minutes more George and the two ranchemen were in the saddle, and riding toward Mr. Gilbert's rancho. That gentleman regarded them with some uneasiness as they drew rein and dismounted in front of his porch, but Mr. Lowry's first words reassured him.

"It is all right, sir," said he, as he grasped Mr. Gilbert's hand. "We know all about it, and we beg to take back the hard things we said in your hearing about the people living in this settlement. We were nicely outwitted by everybody with whom we came in contact; but, as I said before, it is all right."

Mr. Gilbert cordially returned Mr. Lowry's greeting and Joe's, and then turned to welcome George.

"You can't imagine how anxious I have been about you," said he. "Jake turned me out of bed to tell me that Philip had put some Greasers on your trail, and I was really afraid that they might capture you."

"So they did," exclaimed Joe, before George could speak. "If they hadn't caught him, we wouldn't have had Silk Stocking now."

Mr. Gilbert opened his eyes in surprise.

"I wondered how you got the animal back," said he, "for I knew that he had gone off with the raiders. Come in, and tell me all about it."

The horses having been given into the charge of one of the herdsmen, Mr. Gilbert ushered his visitors into the library.

CHAPTER VII
A STORMY INTERVIEW

"This is the room," said George, seating himself on the lounge, while Mr. Lowry and Joe took possession of the easy chairs that were pointed out to them. "I was in here when you came to the rancho, and heard you say, as you passed through the hall, that you thought there was a regular nest of horse-thieves at Ackerman's; and that you would like to get your hands on that rascally boy who had sent you so far out of your course. While you were waiting for supper, I slipped out, mounted my horse, which in company with my pack-mule had made straight for this place, when my cattle were stampeded, and put out for home."

"It was a pretty sharp trick," said Joe, "and you deserve credit for the way in which you carried it out."

"Now, George," said Mr.

Gilbert, "we are ready to hear your story. Where have you been? and what have you been doing, since I last saw you?"

George settled himself into an easy position on the lounge, and beginning with the night on which he had left Mr. Gilbert in so unceremonious a manner, he gave a glowing description of his adventures and exploits among the guerrillas. The only thing he omitted from his narrative, was the conversation he had had with Springer and Fletcher in regard to his uncle's plans. The visitors would have been glad to hear that, for Jake had told them just enough to excite their curiosity; but it was something that George reserved for Mr. Gilbert's private ear.

"Silk Stocking is in the hands of his lawful owner at last," said the boy, in conclusion, "and as soon as Mr. Cook has been paid for the cattle that Ned and Gus shot, all these difficulties will be happily ended."

"Then they are ended already," said Mr. Gilbert. "Cook has been paid, and says he is entirely satisfied."

"Of course he doesn't blame me for anything that happened," said George.

"Well, yes, he did," answered Mr. Gilbert, "and so did all the rest of the settlers. They found fault with you for assisting those boys to escape. They said you had no business to do it."

"Humph!" exclaimed George. "What do they take me for, I'd like to know? Would any of them stand by and see a relative of theirs get into trouble and never lift a finger to help him? I guess not."

Mr. Gilbert shrugged his shoulders by way of reply, and Mr. Lowry, after a few minutes silence, remarked that he thought he and Joe had better be moving toward home. Wouldn't they wait until after dinner, which would be ready within an hour? No; he guessed they had better not. They had been gone a long time, and unless they "showed up," pretty soon, their folks would begin to worry about them. So, in accordance with their request, their horses were brought to the door, and the ranchemen, after taking leave of Mr. Gilbert and George, mounted and rode away.

"That business was settled in a way I did not expect," said the former, as he and his young companion went back into the library. "You have made a friend of every body in the settlement by the course you have pursued, although I must say, that the neighbors were very angry at you at first; but Uncle John and Ned – Well, what are you going to do in regard to them?"

George replied to this question by completing the story of his captivity among the guerrillas, which he did by describing his interview with Springer, and repeating the conversation he had had with the boss cattle-thief. Mr. Gilbert listened in silence, and when the boy ceased speaking, he got up and began pacing the floor.

"Well, George," said he, at length, "you know what I think of this difficulty. There is only one way out of it. Your uncle will not willingly give up his position, and you must call upon the law to throw him out, neck and heels."

"But if I should tell him, in so many words, that I know all about his plans, don't you think he would be more careful in future?" asked George.

"Beyond a doubt he would," replied Mr. Gilbert; and to himself he added: "He would be so very careful that nobody would detect him in his villainy again."

"That is what I thought," said George. "I don't want to turn him loose in the world and send him back to his bookkeeping again, for he is getting to be an old man. I can remove one temptation from his path by keeping out of his way, and that I have decided to do. If I am ever going to see anything of life outside of Texas, I must see it now, for when I come into possession of the ranche and the stock that belong to it, I shall be kept busy."

Mr. Gilbert rubbed his chin, and looked up at the picture that hung on the wall over the lounge.

"I don't know whether you will be kept so very busy or not," said he, to himself. "It is my opinion that if you give your rascally relatives full swing, you will have very little stock to take care of."

But Mr. Gilbert did not give utterance to this opinion. He saw very plainly that the boy was opposed to taking any legal action against his uncle, and he was determined that he would not try to influence him in the matter. He had given his advice simply because George had asked him for it, and the boy was quite at liberty to do as he pleased about following it.

"What course have you marked out for yourself?" added Mr. Gilbert, aloud.

"I thought I would leave Texas for a year or two (you know you told me that I would be safer anywhere in the world than I am here) and go into business," replied George.

"Have you any idea what it will be?"

"No, sir; I have not."

"Neither have I. A boy who has spent most of his life in the saddle, or in camp taking care of cattle, wouldn't make a very good clerk – at least I shouldn't want such a one, if I were a merchant – and your schooling hasn't fitted you for anything else."

"I can keep a set of books," said George, with some dignity.

"But you couldn't stand the confinement. You are not accustomed to it. You will want some active, out-of-door occupation."

"And what is the reason I can't find it? There must be plenty of such work to do."

This was but the beginning of a long conversation that George held with Mr. Gilbert that day, and after he had told his friend all his plans, and listened to some good advice, he mounted his horse and rode away to find Zeke, who was pasturing his herd on Mr. Gilbert's grounds, about three miles from the rancho. The honest old fellow was delighted to see his employer once more, and was almost overwhelmed with grief when George told him that he was going away to be gone a year, and perhaps a good deal longer. The boy gave him some very emphatic instructions in regard to the management of his herd, and then took a hurried leave of him and galloped away; for the longer he remained in Zeke's company, the more firmly he became convinced that he was about to abandon the only life for which he was suited, and the stronger became his desire to give up his "northern scheme," as Mr. Gilbert called it, and settle down again to the business of herding cattle.

Having already said good-bye to Mr. Gilbert and his family, George did not return to that gentleman's rancho, but held straight for home, and sought an interview with Jake and Bob. To these faithful men he also gave some very positive orders, and having entered into a sort of alliance with them, both offensive and defensive, and spent an hour or two in looking over some books he found in his uncle's safe, he packed his valise, mounted his horse and set out for Brownsville, accompanied by a young herdsman who was to bring back his nag, as well as those on which his relatives and Gus Robbins had made the same journey a few days before.

His first hard work, after reaching his destination, was to find Uncle John and Ned, and there was but one way to do it. He visited all the principal hotels and examined the registers. On one he found the name of Edward Ackerman.

"I don't know who he is or where he is," said the clerk, when his attention was drawn to the signature. "I judged by his appearance that he was a cow-boy. He stopped with us about an hour and then dug out, taking the key of his room with him and leaving his grip-sack behind. I was under the impression that he had been doing something crooked, for I never saw him after two men came here making inquiries about him. Did he get in on you for any amount?"

"O, no," answered George. "He is square with the world – so far as I know," he added, to himself, as he turned and walked out of the office. "The men who came here looking for him were Mr. Lowry and Joe. I saw their signatures on the register. It is probable that Ned saw and recognised them, and that that was the reason he 'dug out' so suddenly."

At the next hotel at which he called, George met with better success. His uncle was registered as one of the guests of the house, and the clerk said he had seen him go up to his room an hour or so before, taking a strange young gentleman with him. The bell-boy was summoned, and George followed him up the stairs.

"A gentleman to see you, sir," announced the boy; after which he closed the door and went back to the office, leaving George standing face to face with his relatives, who hoped they had seen him for the last time. The explosion of a bomb-shell in their room would hardly have caused them greater astonishment and alarm. There was an expression on his face that they did not like to see there. They stared, but could not speak to him.

"Well, how do you do?" exclaimed George, as he deposited his valise beside the door and seated himself on the bed, both the chairs being occupied. "You seem surprised."

"We are indeed surprised, most agreeably so," said Uncle John, recovering his power of speech by an effort.

He got up and extended his hand to his nephew, who took it, but did not grasp it with any cordiality. Ned also came forward to greet him, but anybody could see that it was something he did not like to do.

"Your cousin told me that you were captured by the Mexicans, and I never expected to see you again," said Uncle John, as he went back to his chair. "Did you escape from them, or did they release you; or how did you get away? I am anxious to know all the particulars."

"It is a long story," replied George, looking carelessly about the room, "and I have more important matters to talk about just now."

"Have you any idea why they didn't take Ned and Gus, too?" said Uncle John, who knew very well what those "important matters" were to which George referred. "Your cousin has had one or two very narrow escapes from the men who were hunting for that stolen horse. Do you know what they would have done with him if they had caught him? I wonder where Silk Stocking is now?"

Uncle John thought, that by rattling on in this way, he could divert his nephew's mind; turn the conversation into channels selected by himself; and so, indefinitely postpone the discussion of a very disagreeable subject. When George first entered the room, Uncle John told himself, that he had come there "on purpose to raise a row;" and he thought so now, as he noticed the hard lines about the boy's mouth.

There was something coming – the guilty man was sure of that – and he wanted to put it off as long as he could; but George didn't. He was waiting patiently for an opening, and it was presented the very next minute.

"I never heard of those cattle thieves taking a prisoner before," faltered Ned, who knew that he ought to say something.

"Neither did I; and they never would have made a prisoner of me, if they hadn't been hired to do it."

As George said this, his eyes ceased to rove about the room, and rested first upon Uncle John and then upon Ned. The latter grew as pale as a sheet under his gaze, while Uncle John's face turned very red. George had dealt them a stunning blow, and Uncle John was the first to rally from it.

"Why do you look at me in that way?" he demanded sharply. "And what do you mean to insinuate, when you say, that those men were hired to make a prisoner of you?"

"Yes," said Ned, in a very faint voice. "What do you mean to insinuate?"

"I insinuate nothing!" replied George, in a tone that alarmed his uncle, for it told him very plainly that the boy was sure of his ground. "I mean to tell you, in language you can easily understand, that I know all about it."

"About it! About what?"

"Uncle John, it is useless for you to feign ignorance. You are to blame for my capture, and I know it as well as you do. Jake knows it, and he knocked Philip down in your presence to pay him for putting those cattle thieves on my trail. Fletcher knows it, and I had a long talk with him on the subject. If I hadn't escaped from him, my ranche would have been stripped clean. His plan was to hold fast to me, so that he could make a demand on you for stock whenever he felt like it. If you refused to comply with those demands, he would have blown the whole thing among the settlers. If he had ever done that, Uncle John, you would have been in more danger than Ned and Gus were on the night I took them out of the rancho. He may do it yet, for he has got as good a hold on you as he wants. By the way, I don't see Gus anywhere. Has he gone home?"

"George!" exclaimed Uncle John, as soon as he could speak, "I don't understand you at all. What are you trying to get at? There is only one thing plain to me, and that is that somebody has been slandering me."

There was nothing "sharp" in the tone in which these words were uttered. It was evident that Uncle John was very badly frightened, although he was doing his best to keep up a bold front.

"Did Springer slander you when he told me that you were to pay Fletcher and his gang twenty thousand dollars in stock for capturing me?" asked George.

Uncle John settled back in his chair, with an air which said that he had no patience with anybody who could put faith in so outrageous a statement, while Ned, who began to tremble all over, got up and walked to the window. He could not bear to meet his cousin's eye.

"Of course he slandered me if he told you that, and you insult me by believing it," replied Uncle John. "I don't know Springer, and neither did I ever hear of him before."

"You have heard of Fletcher, haven't you?"

Uncle John replied most emphatically that he never had.

"Did Philip slander you, when he told you to your face that you might as well tell one of the men to bring in a thousand head of cattle and pasture them between the rancho and the river, so that they could be easily captured?" inquired George.

"He never used any such language to me."

"He wasn't knocked down in your presence, either, was he?"

"He never was. If such a thing had happened, I should promptly have discharged the man who did it, for I will not allow any fighting among my own servants."

"You had better not say that much to Jake or Bob when you go home, for if you do, they will certainly knock you down."

"George!" Uncle John almost shouted, "have you been setting the servants against me? If you have, you are guilty of a most contemptible proceeding."

"That's the way to talk to him!" exclaimed Ned, whose courage seemed to be coming back to him, now that he had placed himself out of reach of his cousin's searching gaze. "You had better go out of the room, or leave off insulting us."

"I am not insulting you. I am telling you the truth in plain language, and if I stay in here, I shall continue to do so until I have convinced you that your rascality has been most thoroughly exposed."

"Leave the room!" roared Ned.

"Very good," replied George, rising to his feet, and putting on his hat; "I will leave the room very willingly, but I give you fair warning, Uncle John, that if I do it, I shall go straight home and begin proceedings against you. I have been advised to have a new guardian appointed, and I begin to think it is the best thing I can do."

"Sit down! sit down!" cried Uncle John, when he saw the boy moving toward his valise. "Let us see if we can't straighten things out to the satisfaction of all of us."

"I think myself that you had better straighten them out now, instead of waiting until you are obliged to do so before a court of law," said George, significantly.

"Who advised you to have a new guardian appointed?" inquired Uncle John.

"Mr. Gilbert did."

"Of course," sneered Ned. "He is down on us because we are so far above him. Who is he, any how, but a low, ignorant herdsman, whose money entitles him to the position he holds? What would he be up North?"

"What were you up North?" asked George, in reply.

"I was a gentleman, and I am one now."

"And Mr. Gilbert would be known as an honest man, no matter where he went."

"I suppose you think I am not honest," said Uncle John, who, during this side sparring had been allowed a little time in which to collect his scattered wits. "You can carry out your silly threat about that court of law just as soon as you please."

"If I do, you will have to account for every cent that has passed through your hands since you have been my guardian," returned George.

"I can do it. The books show where it has gone."

"What entry did you make in reference to the money that Ned sent to Gus Robbins to pay his way down here?"

"I charged it to myself," answered Uncle John, who was not a little astonished by this question. He supposed that that was a matter that George knew nothing about.

"What did you do with the ten thousand dollars you received for the herd of cattle that Mose drove to Palos when he met Gus Robbins there?"

"I entered it upon the cash account in the proper way. The books show it."

"They don't show it!" said George, bluntly. "They don't show more than half the money you have received since you have been on that ranche."

"How do you know?" demanded Uncle John, starting up in his chair. "Look here, young man! Have you been prying into my private affairs?"

"I have been examining the books you thought you left locked up in the safe, if that is what you mean," replied George, boldly. "And as I know something about bookkeeping, and all about the money you have received since you took charge of my affairs, I was able to see that your accounts are frauds of the first water. Now, Uncle John, I have dwelt longer on these matters than I intended to when I came up here, and I am coming down to business. If you will promise faithfully that you will deal honestly and fairly by me from this time forward, you can hold your present position for five years longer; otherwise you shall not hold it five days. In the first place, there must not be a single steer sold from that ranche while I am gone. There is no need of it, for you have, or ought to have, fifty thousand dollars in the bank to draw on. Do you promise that?"

"I shall make no promises or concessions whatever," replied Uncle John, whose terror had given away to rage intense and bitter. "I shall manage that estate in future as I have in the past, according to my own judgment."



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