Harry Castlemon.

George at the Wheel



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"Then you shall not manage it any longer. Your account is twenty-five or thirty thousand dollars short already, and I can't stand such a leak as that," said George, as he put on his hat again and picked up his valise. "I don't want to disgrace you, but I don't see how I can help it; for you can bet your bottom dollar that I am not going to stand still and see myself robbed."

George walked out of the room, banging the door behind him, while Ned threw himself into his chair and looked at his father who mopped his face vigorously with his handkerchief, while his hands trembled so violently that he could scarcely control them. They had passed through a very trying interview.

CHAPTER VIII
LIFE IN THE PILOT-HOUSE

"Now, I just want to know if anybody ever heard of such miserable luck as I have," exclaimed Ned, who was the first to break the silence. "Here I was, pluming myself on being the owner of the finest cattle ranche in Texas, when, as if to mock me and show me how all my bright hopes are destined to end, in walks George, as cool as a cucumber, and looking as though he had never seen a Greaser. Why in the world couldn't they hold fast to him after they got him? My forty thousand a year are up a hollow stump, and George knows everything. Did you hire those men to capture him?"

"Didn't you hear me say that every word of his story was false?" demanded his father, fiercely. "Would I be likely to put my nephew's life in jeopardy?"

"If there is no truth in it, I don't see how he came to hear it from so many different sources."

"And neither do I see how he found out that you sent that money to Gus Robbins," said Uncle John. "Have you any idea how that got to his ears?"

"Not the slightest," answered Ned. He saw that his father was almost ready to boil over with fury, and he did not think it would be quite safe to acknowledge that it was through his own admissions that George had become acquainted with that little circumstance. "Gus must have told him; or it may be that I have enemies as well as you. But what are we going to do? That's the question."

And it was one that aroused Uncle John from the stupor into which he had fallen, and showed him the necessity of prompt and decisive action. He jumped from his chair and began walking up and down the room.

"Can George turn you out of your position and have somebody appointed in your place?" continued Ned.

"Of course he can. I hoped to keep him in ignorance concerning that fact, but Gilbert, or some other busy-body, has been posting him."

"Then you had better make things straight with him and be quick about it," said Ned, growing frightened again. "If you don't, he'll oust you sure, and then what will become of me – of both of us? You'll have to go back to your desk again, and I'll have to pick up my yard-stick. Father, I never could endure that sort of life again. You must make it up with him?"

Uncle John wrung his hands and groaned.

He was terribly agitated, and it was not to be wondered at. He could not have told which he stood the more in fear of – punishment at the hands of the angry settlers, who would be sure, sooner or later, to learn all about his dealings with his nephew, or the loss of the management of his brother's property. He could not bear to think of either.

"Where are you going?" inquired Ned, as his father suddenly turned toward the door and laid his hand upon the knob.

"I am going to see George," was the reply. "It would never do to let him go back home feeling as he does now, for you and I would never dare to show our faces there again. I am going to try to reason with him first, and if that has no effect, I shall use my authority."

"That's the way to talk," exclaimed Ned, gleefully. "Pound him within an inch of his life, and if you want any help, call for me. I will leave the door open so that I can hear you."

Ned had been on the very point of volunteering to go with his father, in order to back him up during the coming interview, and holding himself in readiness to assist him as circumstances might require; but the fear that the interview might end in a fight, checked the words that arose to his lips. George's fists were pretty large and heavy, and a good fair blow from one of them would have played sad havoc with the little sense that Ned Ackerman possessed.

"I hardly think that extreme measures will be called for," said Uncle John, "but if they are, I shall use them. Stay here until I return."

"I declare, I didn't know that George could be so insolent," thought Ned, as his father closed the door behind him. "The idea of a little snipe like him sitting there and talking to a gray-headed man as he would talk to a boy of his own age! I wonder that he wasn't kicked out of the room for his impudence. But I believe that father is afraid of him; he certainly acted like it; and if he is, it proves that he has been up to something. I hope he will lay his plans with a little more skill next time."

Ned kept his ear at the open door, but no sounds came up from below to indicate that his father had found it necessary to use his authority in order to bring the refractory George to his senses. He passed a long and gloomy hour alone in his room, and sometimes his impatience and suspense increased to such a degree that it was all he could do to keep from going out in search of Uncle John. When the latter at last made his appearance, Ned saw at a glance that he had passed through another exciting and stormy interview. The perspiration stood on his forehead in great beads, and his face was as flushed as it would have been if he had just finished a hotly-contested foot-race with somebody. He dropped into his chair, and drew his handkerchief from his pocket.

"Now, I tell you what's a fact," said Ned, to himself; "if he has been trying to use 'extreme measures,' he has got worsted at it; he has come back whipped. Well, why don't you speak?"

"Let me recover my breath, won't you?" exclaimed Uncle John, impatiently.

"Is everything all right, or not?" demanded Ned, paying no attention to this request. "I want to know the best or the worst, at once."

"I am to retain my position as his guardian," said Uncle John, "but he imposes some hard conditions."

"You didn't agree to them, of course?"

"Of course, I did. I couldn't do otherwise."

"Why didn't you use the authority you talk so much about?"

"I didn't think it was best. I can do as I please about keeping my promises."

"So you can; I didn't think of that."

"If I find that George's interests require me to exercise my own judgment, as I have done in the past, I shall not hesitate to do it," continued Uncle John, who could not bear that his own son should see him in his true character. "He cannot possibly foresee every emergency that may arise."

"George told you that not a steer was to be sold off the place while he was gone," said Ned. "What did he mean by that?"

"He meant just what he said. Zeke is the only one who has authority from George to sell any cattle."

"Well, if that isn't a pretty state of affairs, I wouldn't say so," exclaimed Ned, in great disgust. "So Zeke is put over you, is he?"

"Oh, no; he is left in charge of George's herd, and when he wants money, he is at liberty to sell cattle to get it. George himself is going North to find something to do."

"Well, there!" cried Ned, bringing his hands together with a loud slap. "I have heard some good news at last. That will leave us monarchs of all we survey, won't it? I will get rid of that Zeke the first thing I do."

"How will you go to work? If I told him that his services were no longer required he would pay no attention to me. George said so."

"Very well; let him stay; but when he comes after supplies, just see that he doesn't get any."

"But he'll not come to us; he'll go to Gilbert. George arranged all that before he left. Then he ordered Jake and Bob to visit every one of our herds and find out just how many cattle there were in each of them. They are to send a report to him through Gilbert, and George says that when he comes home the number of cattle he finds on the ranche must correspond with that report, or there'll be trouble between us."

"Why, father, he has tied your hands hard and fast," exclaimed Ned, springing from his chair, and walking about the room in a state of great excitement.

"He thinks he has," said Uncle John, quietly.

"I don't see why in the world you agreed to any such degrading terms," continued Ned.

"I did it because it was that or the desk for me, and the yard-stick for you," answered Uncle John. "But there are one or two contingencies that George did not provide for. Some of the cattle will probably be stolen."

This was said in so significant a tone of voice that Ned would have been dull indeed if he had failed to catch his father's meaning.

"Then, again, there are herdsmen in the country who will suit us much better than those we now employ, and as fast as they turn up I shall hire them, without consulting anybody's wishes except my own."

"So you can," exclaimed Ned, joyfully. "That boy has somehow got the idea into his head that he is just a trifle smarter than anybody else, but he will find that there are others in the world who are just as smart as he is. Did he have any more to say in regard to those ridiculous stories that somebody has been circulating about you?"

"He did, and he believes them to be true. I assured him that they were not, that I was perfectly willing that my conduct should be investigated at any time, and finally we shook hands, and agreed to let by-gones be by-gones."

"I should think you would have felt more like knocking him down," said Ned; "I know I should."

"His perverseness was certainly very trying to my patience; but, after all, my way of settling the difficulty was the best. We shall leave Brownsville for St. Louis to-night; and as we are to travel in his company, I want you to be very guarded in your words and actions. Everything is satisfactorily settled, and we must be careful to treat him as kindly and considerately as we did before he insulted us."

A stranger would have supposed, from this, that Ned and his father were the injured parties, and that George had no reason to complain of their treatment of him.

Uncle John did not tell all that happened during his second interview with George. While he was in the presence of his son his pride had enabled him to keep up some show of courage; but when he was alone with his nephew, he had nothing to sustain him, and it was all he could do to keep from breaking down entirely. He loudly denied every accusation that George brought against him, but the boy gave him to understand that he knew just what he was talking about, and that there was but one way in which Uncle John could ever regain his confidence. That was by dealing fairly with him in the future. This the old man eagerly, almost abjectly, promised to do; but we have already seen how sincere he was when he made those promises.

"I don't want to see him again," said Ned, "and neither can I bear the thought of travelling in his company as far as St. Louis. I don't see why you consented to any such arrangement. Why didn't you let him go alone, if he is so very anxious to leave to-night? We could have waited until to-morrow."

"But we must be willing to do something for the sake of appearances," replied his father, who would have breathed much easier himself if George had been a thousand miles away at that moment. "One reason why I decided to go with him, was because I want to see him settled at something before I leave him."

"But just think how he will lord it over us!" said Ned, who knew very well how he would have acted if he had been in his cousin's place. "He will let everybody know that he is the moneyed man and that we are the dependants."

"You need not be at all alarmed. George is not that sort of a boy. I'll say that much for him."

Ned's fears on this score were entirely set at rest when he met his cousin at the supper table. George had always been somewhat reserved in the presence of his relatives – he could not help feeling that there was something between himself and them that kept them apart – and the events of the last few days did not in the least widen the gulf between them. Having taken his uncle to task for his rascality, and come to a plain understanding with him, he regarded all differences between them as settled for ever, and he never referred to them in any way. If Mr. Gilbert had known it, he would have declared that George was "too confiding for any use;" and perhaps we shall see that he would not have been very badly mistaken if he had pronounced such a judgment upon the boy's actions.

The three left Brownsville that night for Galveston, at which place they boarded a steamer bound for New Orleans. They stopped there a week in order to give Uncle John and Ned an opportunity to see the sights, and to drive out the shell road to Lake Pontchartrain. Ned and his father had, of course, passed this way when they went to Texas, but they were so impatient to see the property of which Uncle John was to have charge, and to begin the spending of its handsome revenues, that they had not wasted a day in this or any other city along their route.

Having done New Orleans and vicinity to their satisfaction, they took passage for St. Louis on board the steamer General Quitman.

She was a very fine and a very swift vessel (during the war she was fitted up by the rebels as a cotton-clad ram, and we know, by experience, that some of the gunboats in the Mississippi squadron were very much afraid of her), and she left the miles behind her at an astonishing rate, her loud "exhaust" proclaiming her approach to the settlers who lived along the banks a league in advance of her.

While the novelty of this mode of travelling lasted, George and his companions were at no loss to know what to do with themselves. They found abundant gratification in sitting on the wide guards, enjoying the rapid motion, and watching the panorama that passed so swiftly before them; but this grew monotonous after a while, and then Ned took to his bunk; Uncle John read the papers and magazines with which he had provided himself before starting from New Orleans, and George, being left to himself, strolled about the boat to see what he could find that was worth looking at. One day he went up to the hurricane-deck, where he took his stand and watched the pilot who was steering the vessel.

"Come in; come in," said the latter, when he saw that the boy was interested in his movements.

"Thank you, sir. I didn't know that you allowed passengers in here," replied George, as he ascended the steps that led up to the pilot-house door.

"O, yes we do, and we are glad to have them come, for we get lonely sometimes. Sit down there," said the pilot, pointing to a high bench that was built against the after-bulkhead. "Then you can look out ahead and on both sides of you and see everything."

"I think you pilots have an easy way of making a living," said George, as he took possession of the bench. "You have no dirty work to do as the engineers have."

"That is very true," replied the pilot. "We are on duty only while the vessel is under way. As soon as we reach port we are at liberty to go ashore and spend the time as we please, until the boat is ready to start again. But it is not an easy berth for all that. In fact, I don't know any easy way of making a living. You are a young man, and you don't want to start out in life with the foolish notion that you can make headway in the world unless you are willing to work."

"I know what work is," said George, with a smile.

"What is your business?"

"I have none just at present. I am looking for an opening. I am from Texas, and I used to herd cattle."

"Were they your own, or did they belong to somebody else?"

"They were my own property."

"There, now!" exclaimed the pilot. "I'll warrant that you sold out your herd in the hope of finding some easier way of making a livelihood. You will never find it. I have spent some months in Texas, and I know how those ranchemen live. They have nothing to do, month in and month out, but ride around on horseback and keep their stock from straying away. If I had money enough I would go into that business to-morrow; and if you are wise, you will go straight back to it."

"I can't," replied George, who told himself that after his new acquaintance had tried herding unruly cattle for a while, and been caught out in a 'norther or two, and jumped down on by raiders, he would be quite willing to resume his place in the pilot-house. "Circumstances compel me to strike out in another direction. How long does it take one to learn the river, and how much does it cost?" added George, who had suddenly taken it into his head that he would like to be a pilot. It was an active, out-of-door occupation, and that was just what he wanted.

"Well, that depends," was the answer. "If you have a good memory and are a judge of water, you could learn it in three years, or less. The cost need not amount to any great sum. If you have any personal friends among pilots, one of them might be induced to take you for nothing; but a stranger would probably charge you something. In fact, he wouldn't think of taking you as a 'cub' unless you agreed to pay him."

"I don't know a single pilot," said George, "and I should be perfectly willing to pay for instruction. How much does a licensed pilot receive for his services?"

"That also depends. If there is plenty of freight, and the water is good, they sometimes get two hundred and fifty dollars a month."

"Three thousand dollars a year!" exclaimed George.

"Well – no; not always. There is scarcely one pilot in ten who works every month in the year. Unless his boat is in some regular trade, he is paid off as soon as the trip for which he was hired is made, and he remains idle until he finds another job. If times are dull and the water low, he may not find anything to do for months; for pilots are not wanted when boats are not running, you know, Tommy."

"My name is George Ackerman," said the boy.

"Ah! I am delighted to hear it. My name is Black. I suppose you can steer a horse pretty well, can't you? I thought so. Do you think you could steer this boat?"

"I am afraid not. I never tried it."

"Well, step up here and see what you can do," said Mr. Black, moving away from the wheel, but still keeping his right hand upon one of the spokes. "We often have passengers come up here and steer for us. One of those boys who got off at Natchez, steered for me yesterday for over three hours; but then he is a pilot's son, and has made a good many trips up and down the river. Don't get in front of the wheel," he added, as George stepped down from the bench and laid his hands upon the spokes. "Stand at the side of it – so. Now you have got perfect control of it. Do you see that white pole out there in the bow? That is the jack-staff, and the large black ball you see about half way up the staff, is the night hawk."

"What is it for?"

"That is what we steer by in the night."

"I shouldn't think you could see it."

"O yes, we can. It shows almost as plainly as it does in the daytime, and by keeping one eye on it we can tell which way the boat is swinging. Do you see that leaning tree up there in the bend? Well, keep the jack-staff pointed straight toward it."

"If I do that I shan't keep the boat in the middle of the river," said George.

"I don't want you to keep in the middle of the river. I want you to go where the water is the deepest."

Mr. Black moved away from the wheel, and George had the swiftly-moving boat under his own control.

CHAPTER IX
THE PILOT'S GRATITUDE

George was greatly surprised to find that it requires skill, and a good deal of it, too, to do so simple a thing as keeping a steamer in a straight course. Mr. Black had done it without the least apparent exertion, not unfrequently managing the wheel with only one hand, but George could not, for the life of him, keep the jack-staff directed towards the object in the bend that had been pointed out to him. That leaning tree was like the negative pole of a magnet: it seemed to repel rather than to attract; and every time the jack-staff was brought to bear upon it, the bow would swing to one side or the other, and George could not hold it anywhere. Like all beginners, he kept the wheel in constant motion; but he was quick to learn anything in which he was interested, and it was not long before he found out that there was always an increased strain upon the tiller rope before the boat began to swing, and that easing the wheel a spoke or two did more good than giving it a round turn. When he had learned this much, he had taken the first step towards learning how to steer a steamboat.

"The deepest water is not always to be found in the middle of the river," continued Mr. Black. "If it was, what would be the use of pilots? Anybody could take a boat up or down the river, provided he knew the bells and could handle the wheel. But the channel is constantly changing, and to-day we find plenty of water in places where sand-bars were high and dry a year or two ago."



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