George at the Wheel
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"How do you know, then, but that the channel we are now following may change over to the other side of the river before you come down again?" said George.
"I don t know it. I shouldn't be in the least surprised, for stranger things than that have happened. Do you see that tow-head over there?" inquired Mr. Black, directing the boy's attention to a little grove of willows that grew on the farther side of the stream; "that's 'Old' river. The Mississippi used to run on the other side of that tow-head, at least three miles from where it runs now. It is these constant changes that make it necessary for us to have fields-men, who are willing to devote all their time to keeping track of the channel. A pilot of twenty, or even ten years ago, would find it hard work to take a boat to New Orleans. In fact, I don't believe that he could do it, if he depended entirely upon himself. But we help one another all we can. For example, when we get to Cairo, some pilot there, who hasn't been down the river for a few months, will ask me how I got into Helena; there's a very bad river there, you know, and lots of bars, and those bars are always on the move. I'll tell him all the turns I made, and he will remember every word I say, and make the same turns in the darkest of nights. That's why I told you that a man must have a good memory to be a pilot. Now here we are in the bend, and this leaning tree will be of no more use to us to-day. We must find something else to steer by. Bring her around easy, keeping just about this distance from the shore – that's it – now a little more. Steady at that. Do you see that log cabin up there in the bight of the next bend? Well, run the boat right in at the door."
George, who changed the course of the boat very cleverly in obedience to these instructions, told himself that he was learning rapidly, and the pilot remarked that he was doing very well indeed for a boy who had never touched a wheel before. While he was thus engaged, Ned, who had grown tired of idling away the time in his bunk, sauntered up to the hurricane-deck, and exhibited the greatest surprise at what he saw when he glanced toward the pilot-house. He came up the steps, seated himself on the elevated bench, and listened eagerly to the conversation between Mr. Black and his cousin. He must have heard something that interested him, for when the dinner-bell rang, and Mr. Black took the wheel, after telling George that he could come up and steer for his partner in the afternoon, if he felt so inclined, Ned hurried off to hunt up his father, whom he found in the barber shop.
"George has struck something already," he whispered, as he turned the water into one of the wash-bowls, "and I hope from the bottom of my heart that he will make the most of it. He has been steering the boat all the morning, and from what I heard him say to the pilot, I gained the idea that he has some intention of becoming a river man."
"Perhaps it would be a good opening for him," said Uncle John, burying his face in one of the towels.
"I am sure it would," replied Ned."It would take him three years at least to learn the river, and there are no vacations, you know."
That was the reason why Uncle John had not suggested to George, that it would be a good plan for him to go back to school, because there were vacations; and because he knew that during those vacations, George would be very likely to run down to Texas to see how things were going there. It was Uncle John's desire to see the boy settled in some business, that would occupy every moment of his time.
"It is a dangerous calling, but a very honorable as well as a useful one," added Uncle John. "We couldn't get along without pilots, you know."
"I heard George say, that he would be willing to give fifty dollars a month to learn the business," said Ned.
"Very well. If he has made his decision, the want of money shall not stand in his way. Could you describe the pilot to me, so that I could recognise him?"
"Do you know that tall, dark man, with long black whiskers that come clear down to his waist, and who always dresses in light clothes?"
"I believe I have seen him," said Uncle John, in reply.
This was all the conversation that passed between Ned and his father on this subject, but it was enough to enable the boy to understand, that Uncle John had marked out a course of action for himself. And so he had. He scraped an acquaintance with Mr. Black before he went to dinner, told him of the relationship that existed between himself and the boy who had spent the morning in the pilot-house, and had a long talk with him about river men and the dangers of the life they led. He told him, too, that he (Uncle John) was a very wealthy man, and quite willing to indorse any arrangements his nephew might be able to make with Mr. Black. This, of course, increased the pilot's interest in George, and an incident happened that very afternoon that increased it still more.
Contrary to his usual custom, George ate his dinner in great haste that day. He had already become infatuated with life in the pilot-house, and he was eager to see more of it. As he ran up the steps that led to the hurricane deck, his eye chanced to fall upon something that lay close to the cabin skylights, and under the shelter of the projecting roof, where it must have rolled when it dropped from its owner's pocket. It was a large, black pocket-book, and if there was any faith to be put in appearances, it was well filled. George picked it up, turned it over in his hands, and looked all around the deck to see if there was any body in sight. As he did so, a rather flashily-dressed young man, who had been standing near the bell, hurried up to him with a great show of eagerness. He was one of the passengers, and George had often bestowed more than a passing glance upon him, for the reason that he had seen him drinking at the bar, and playing cards in the cabin for money.
"I am very much obliged to you," said he, as he held out his hand. "I couldn't imagine where I had dropped it, and I thought I was ruined."
If the young man had hoped to surprise George into promptly surrendering the article he had found, he was doomed to be disappointed. It is true that the boy was from the country, and that he had never had anything to do with city sharpers; but he was pretty smart, for all that, and his quick wit served him in the place of experience.
"What is it?" said he, as he put his hand behind him.
"Why, it is my pocket-book. It is a black one with a silver clasp."
"I am well aware of that fact," replied George, who knew that the young man must have caught a momentary glimpse of the article in question while he was holding it in his hands. "It is easy enough to describe the outside of a thing after you have seen it, but can you describe the contents?"
"Of course I can. There's a good deal of money in it."
"That is something I can't tell, for I am so careless with money, that I never keep a strict account of what I carry about with me. There are also some papers in it that are of no value to anybody except myself."
"All right," said George. "Come on."
"Where are you going?"
"Down to find the captain. You can come with me and describe those papers to him."
"I will give you a hundred dollars the minute you hand over my property," said the young man.
"I don't want your money. I only want to be sure that I give the wallet into the hands of its owner."
As he said this, he took his hand from behind him and put it into his pocket. The young man had a fair view of the wallet, for George did not attempt to hide it from his gaze, and he saw that it was pretty "fat." Believing that its plumpness was occasioned by a big roll of greenbacks which he would find on the inside in case he could get the pocket-book into his possession, he thought he could afford to increase his reward.
"That's mine," said he. "I have carried it for years, and I would recognise it among a thousand. Hand it over here, without any more fooling, and I will give you two hundred dollars to reward you for your honesty. Just think of it! That is a big sum for a boy like you to own."
"I don't want your money," repeated George. "Whenever you get ready to prove the contents of this pocket-book, you can go to the old man to do it."
So saying he ran down the stairs, paying no heed to the protests of the young man, who increased his offer of reward to two hundred and fifty dollars, and turning into the cabin found the officer of whom he was in search just rising from the table.
"I have found something, sir," said he, "and I would thank you to take charge of it until the owner calls upon you for it."
He handed out the pocket-book, as he spoke, and the captain at once opened it to see if he could find anything to indicate who the owner was.
"It belongs to somebody who is pretty well fixed," said he, at length. "There's a big roll of bills here, as well as – Hallo! Jerry Black," he exclaimed, pulling out a card and reading the name that was written upon it. "He is one of my pilots – the man I saw you steering for this morning. He will be glad to remember you for this, for you have placed him under very heavy obligations. I say it knowing something of his circumstances. If you are not afraid to trust me with it, I will give it to him as soon as he awakes. He has gone to bed for the afternoon."
When George ascended to the hurricane deck again he looked every where for the young man who had laid claim to the lost pocket-book, but he was not to be seen. The boy had said nothing to the captain about that little affair, because he did not want to get the would-be swindler into trouble. He had easily foiled him in his attempt to cheat Mr. Black out of his property, and that was the end of the matter so far as George was concerned. When he entered the pilot-house he found there a new man, who greeted him cordially.
"So you're the boy that wants to be a pilot, are you?" said he, "Jerry spoke to me about you. Come on, and let us see what you can do."
George had the boat under his charge almost all that afternoon. About four o'clock Mr. Black suddenly mounted the steps. His face was very pale and he looked as though he had lost everything on earth that was worth living for.
"What's the matter?" exclaimed his partner, as the owner of the lost pocket-book threw himself wearily down upon the bench. "Are you sick?"
"Yes, sick at heart. I am a used-up man, Sam," replied Mr. Black. "My wife and children will lose the roof that shelters them, and I shall be turned out to begin the world again, as I began it thirty years ago, with empty hands."
"You don't mean to tell me that you have lost it?" exclaimed Sam.
"Yes, I do."
"Then what in the name of sense are you staying in here for? Stir around and make a fuss about it. If you dropped it on the boat, it may have fallen into the hands of some honest person."
"And so it has," cried George, from his place at the wheel. "The old man's got it."
George thought that since he was acting as a pilot, he ought to use a pilot's language, and that was the reason he called the captain the "old man."
"How do you know that?" demanded Mr. Black and Sam, in one breath.
"I saw him have it – it was a black pocket-book with a silver clasp – and I heard him read the name of Jerry Black from a card he took out of it."
The owner of that name jumped off the bench, went through the door like a shot, and disappeared down the stairs. He went straight to the captain, who handed out his property without waiting to be asked for it, at the same time telling the pilot who it was that had found it and given it into his keeping. Mr. Black started for the pilot-house to thank George for the favor he had rendered him, and on the guards he ran against Uncle John.
"General," said he, acting upon an idea that suddenly shot through his mind, "may I have a word with you?"
Almost everybody of any prominence in the South answers to some military or judicial title. If he is pretty well to do in the world, he is a major; if he is very well to do, he is a judge or a colonel; and if he is wealthy, he bears the dignified title of general. Uncle John was flattered by this show of respect, and announced that he was quite ready to hear what Mr. Black had to say to him.
"General," said the pilot, slapping the recovered pocket-book into his open palm. "I owe that nephew of yours something. He found this wallet that I had somehow lost out of my pocket. It contains fifteen hundred dollars that I borrowed in New Orleans to pay off the mortgage on my house, and the receipts for all the money I have paid on that mortgage. If I had lost the money, my house would have been sold over the head of my wife, who is an invalid, and who could never survive the loss of the home for which we have both worked so hard. My property is mortgaged to a sharper who would foreclose in a minute in order to gain possession of it."
"Well, sir," said Uncle John, with the dignity becoming his newly-acquired title. "What has my nephew to do with it?"
"He has this much to do with it, or, rather, I have this much to do with him: I want to make him some return for the service he has rendered me, and I don't know how to go about it. You say that the boy is rich, and that he will some day be richer, and of course, under the circumstances, I couldn't think of offering him money."
"Certainly not," said Uncle John. "He doesn't need it. He can call upon me for all he wants. There is only one way in which you can help him, and that is by making a pilot of him."
"I should be glad to do it," said Mr. Black, "but I thought I had better speak to you before saying anything to him about it."
"O, my consent is not necessary," replied Uncle John. "The boy has always been his own master, and I suppose he always will be."
"But if he is so well off, I don't see why he should want to risk life and limb by running on the river," said Mr. Black.
"Riches sometimes take to themselves wings and fly away, you know. No matter how much money a young man may be worth, or how much more he may have in prospect, he ought to be made to learn some useful trade or business that will enable him to earn a living for himself, if circumstances compel him to do so. That was his father's doctrine and it is mine, too."
"And a very good doctrine it is," said Mr. Black.
"I repeat, that I stand ready to back up, with money, if money is required, any bargain that you may make with my nephew," continued Uncle John. "But I want you and him to understand one thing very distinctly; if George takes up this business of piloting, he must stick to it until he makes himself master of it. If he can't learn the river in three years, I want you to keep him six. I don't believe in doing things by halves."
"Neither do I. A poor pilot is worse than none, for he endangers every boat and cargo that are placed under his care. George seems to take to the business naturally; and if he will only stay with me, I will make a first-class – "
"If he goes into it at all, he must stay with you!" said Uncle John, emphatically. "I want an agreement to that effect, made between him and you. You need not say, however, that I suggested the idea to you. Speak for yourself, but not for me."
"All right, general," said Mr. Black, as he turned toward the stairs, "I'll bear it in mind."
"O, don't I hope he will take it, though!" exclaimed Ned, who had stood a little apart from his father, but still quite near enough to him to catch every word of the conversation. "I wonder if I could say anything that would induce him to do so?"
"Probably not," answered his father. "George has somehow got hold of the idea, that we don't want him near us – he told me so in plain language during our second interview at Brownsville – and you might influence him the wrong way."
That was something Ned did not want to do, and so he wisely resolved that he would say nothing to his cousin on the subject. Knowing that George was in the pilot-house, he hung around the foot of the stairs all the afternoon, waiting to hear what he would have to say to Uncle John when he came down.
Mr. Black returned to the pilot-house, looking very unlike the pale, discouraged man who had gone in there a few minutes before. He carried his pocket-book in his hand, and slammed it down upon the bench with a triumphant air.
"George," said he, "let Sam steer the boat, and you come and sit down here. I want to talk to you."
The boy reluctantly gave up his place at the wheel; and after Mr. Black had shaken him warmly by the hand, and told him how deeply he was indebted to him for the recovery of his money and receipts, he listened while George described how he had found the pocket-book; and then he drew him to a seat on the bench.
"If you really want to be a pilot, I will take you with me as a cub, free of all expenses, except your clothes, which you will have to provide for yourself," said he. "That is customary, you know. That is the only way in which I can repay you."
"I hope you don't think I want to be paid for being honest," said George.
"Certainly not; but still we always like to show our gratitude to those who have done us a service. What do you say?"
This brought the matter squarely home to George, who did not know what to say. He had never in his life thought of being a pilot until that morning, and all the ideas he had of the business, he had gained during the few hours he had spent in the company of Mr. Black and his partner. He had only seen the sunny side of it; of its trials and perplexities he knew nothing. He tried to obtain some information regarding them during the long conversation that followed Mr. Black's proposition, and before it was ended he came to the conclusion that unless his new friends told some greatly exaggerated stories, there where not so many difficulties and obstacles in the way of a cub-pilot, as there were in the path of him who was ambitious to become a successful cattle raiser. Something definite must have been decided upon, for when the supper bell rang, and Mr. Black and George descended to the boiler-deck, Ned said to himself, after taking one look at his cousin's face:
"He's done it! He's done it, as sure as the world, and we are well rid of his hateful presence for long months to come."
And the sequel proved that Ned was not far from right.
When George had eaten his supper he drew a bee-line for the pilot-house. He saw but one person on the boiler-deck, and that was the young man who had tried to swindle him out of Mr. Black's money. George thought that if he had been guilty of an act of that kind he would have gone off somewhere and hidden himself; but the young man held his head up and looked as honest as anybody.
"Well," said he, "I didn't succeed in fooling you, did I? I only wanted to try you, you know. Have you found the owner yet?"
George replied that he had.
"I suppose he did the handsome thing by you?" said the young man, in an inquiring tone. "I know I should if it had been mine."
"I am entirely satisfied with the reward I received," replied George.
"Was there much in it?"
"Fifteen hundred dollars, I believe, and papers worth twice that amount."
The young man's countenance fell at once. He turned and walked away, while George ran up the stairs that led to the hurricane-deck.
"Fifteen hundred dollars, and papers worth twice that amount," repeated the young man, as he leaned upon the rail and looked down into the water. "That would have set me square with my employer, and got me out of a scrape that I am sure is going to end in something serious, sooner or later. I have lost a lot of Clayton's money at poker, and how I am going to replace it, I don't know. Why couldn't I have been lucky enough to find that pocket-book? But I never have luck except in one way: I am always able to get even with those who go back on me, and if I ever have the chance to make this young snipe feel as miserable as I do this moment, how quickly I'll jump at it."
The opportunity he wished for presented itself after a while, and we shall see what use the young man made of it.
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