Harry Castlemon.

George at the Wheel

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"Anthony, why didn't you do this during school hours?"

The speaker was Mr. Bliss, the principal of one of the St. Louis grammar schools. He leaned back in his chair and looked at a young fellow about sixteen years of age, who stood in front of the rostrum with his eyes fastened upon a dog's-eared algebra he held in his hand. This was Tony Richardson, of whom we had something to say in the first volume of this series, and he was the only son of one of the wealthiest steamboat owners in the city.

"Don't you think this thing is getting to be a little too monotonous?" continued the principal. "This makes the third time that you have been kept after school this week for coming to the recitation-seat unprepared."

"My head is so thick I can't learn figures," replied Tony. "It seems to run in the family. I have heard my father say that he was the poorest scholar in his class, so far as mathematics were concerned. No matter how hard he studied, he couldn't get his lesson."

"But the trouble with you is, you do not study unless you are obliged to do so," answered Mr. Bliss. "To be candid with you, Anthony, I think you have fallen into the way of allowing your mind to wander off to the ends of the earth, when it should be kept right here in the school-room and concentrated on your books. That is a most ruinous habit, and you would do well to break it off at once. You have committed this lesson in ten minutes, simply because you knew that you would be required to do so before you could go home. You could have mastered it in the same length of time during school hours, if you had set about it in earnest. Now, see if you can't give a better account of yourself in future. Try it for one short week – for your father's sake, if you won't try it for your own. That will do."

"For my father's sake," said Tony, to himself. "I don't see why I should exert myself to please him, when he goes out of his way to refuse every request I make of him."

He walked back to his desk, placed his algebra upon the shelf with the rest of his books – it would have given him more pleasure if he could have kindled a fire with it in the stove – bade his teacher good-night and went out. Most boys would have been too sulky to be courteous, but Tony Richardson was not that sort. With all his faults he was not mean-spirited.

"This thing is getting to be a trifle too monotonous," said he, as he put on his hat and descended the stairs, "and I am not going to stand it much longer; that's all there is about that. I don't see why father wants me to study algebra, when he hated it so cordially himself. I'll warrant that there are not two captains in his whole fleet who know the binomial-theorem from a side of sole-leather, and yet they are all good commanders. If they can run a boat without knowing anything about mathematics, I don't see why I can't do the same. I want to go to sea – I just know I was born to be a sailor – and if father won't let me go, he must give me a place on one of his boats.

I can tell him that much."

While these thoughts, and a good many others like them, were passing through Tony's mind, he was walking rapidly toward the levee. When he came within sight of the river he saw there, among the scores of other vessels with which the levee was lined, one of his father's magnificent boats, the Telegraph, which was advertised to start for New Orleans on the following Monday. The engineer had just sounded his gong, and a boy about his own age was ascending the steps that led into the pilot-house. The captain had stationed himself near the bell that stood on the forward part of the hurricane-deck, and the hands, under the charge of one of the mates, were awaiting the order to haul in the gang-plank and cast off the lines.

"She must be going up to the coal-fleet," thought Tony, as he ran swiftly down the levee, swinging his hat over his head. "I shall have plenty of time to go up with her, and get back to the depot before the train starts for home."

The captain saw him coming, and knowing who he was, delayed the order to cast off until Tony had run up the gang-plank. The latter stopped on the hurricane-deck to exchange a few words of greeting with the "old man," and then went into the pilot-house, where he found George Ackerman at the wheel. George had now been on the river for more than six months, and the reader will have some idea of the progress he had made in his new vocation when we tell him that he was the only pilot on board the Telegraph at that moment, that Mr. Black, after being engaged for the trip, had gone to Webster Groves to take leave of his family, that his partner, Mr. Kelsey, was somewhere on shore, and that neither of them had felt the least hesitation in leaving George to take the boat up to the coal-fleet, and bring her back again.

Our hero did not yet know the river, but he was a fine steersman, and could make a landing or get the boat under way almost as well as anybody. He was worth something now, and Mr. Black paid him twenty dollars a month for his services. Regarding this in the light of a promotion, George wrote to Texas about it, and was afterwards very sorry that he had done so, for Uncle John, prompted by Ned, at once shut down on the monthly allowance which he had thus far sent him regularly. The amount he received was enough to clothe him as well as he cared to dress; he was under no expense for board, for when he was not running on the river, he lived with Mr. Black, in his home at Webster Groves. But still George did not like that act on the part of Uncle John. It showed him that his guardian was determined to exercise all the authority he possessed, and more, too, if he could.

"How are you, Tony?" exclaimed George. "Sit down until I back her out and straighten her up, and then I'll talk to you."

"And I'll take your place at the wheel, won't I?" said Tony, as he took a seat on the elevated bench.

"Of course; that's always understood."

The two boys, having often been thrown into each other's society of late, were well acquainted, and a sort of friendship had sprung up between them. Mr. Black had been employed on one or another of Mr. Richardson's boats ever since he left the General Quitman, and of course George went with him everywhere as his assistant. Tony, who thoroughly hated school and everything belonging to it, was deeply in love with the water, and spent all his leisure hours in loitering about the levee; and whenever any of his father's boats were moved from one wharf-boat to another, or sent up to the coal-fleet, Tony was generally on hand to do the steering. He took unbounded delight in a boat, and looked forward with impatience to the day when he would take his position as captain of one of the swiftest and most beautiful steamers on the river. What sort of an apprenticeship he would have to serve before he would be qualified to fill so responsible a berth, Tony did not know. In fact, it was something about which he seldom troubled himself. There was one thing he was certain of, however, and that was, he was not going to begin as deck hand or watchman, or even as clerk or mate. The deck hands were a low set, in Tony's estimation. Besides, they were obliged to handle the freight, and that was not a genteel business. Watchmen were only a grade higher than the deck hands, clerks had too much to do with figures, and mates were generally too rough in dress and language to suit the boy. He had heard of men stepping from the pilot-house into the captain's place, and if he had to serve in any subordinate capacity before he could take command of a steamer, he thought he would rather be a pilot than anything else. These officers and the clerks comprise the aristocracy among river men. They generally dress in the height of fashion, sport a good deal of jewelry, and the pilots, if they choose to do so, can wear kid gloves while they are at work. Their money comes easily, and, as a rule, goes easier. Where there is one prudent man among them, like Mr. Black, who puts his earnings into a home, there are a dozen who make all haste to get rid of them.

We ought to say right here, that the prospect of becoming a riverman, did not exactly suit Tony. His first love was the sea. He thought about it during his waking hours, and dreamed of it when he was asleep. He sang forecastle songs, told sea stories, and tried to talk and walk like a sailor. When his father emphatically refused to aid him in carrying out his insane ideas, Tony shed a good many tears in secret; banged his school-books about more spitefully than ever; and fell back upon the river as the next best thing to think about. If he went there he would accept nothing but a high position, and he would hold it only temporarily; for as soon as he became his own master, he would start as straight for salt water as he could go.

"How do you like the river by this time?" asked Tony, as the Telegraph was backed rapidly away from the wharf-boat.

"First rate!" replied George with great enthusiasm. "I like it better and better every day, and I know I shall never get tired of it. I don't think I should like to go back to herding cattle again."

"Well, there's no need of it. If I were my own master, as you are, I should do as I please."

"And you would please to go to sea, I suppose?"

"Of course I would. That is what I am going to do sometime; and I don't see why my father will not let me go now."

"Perhaps he has something better in view for you," suggested George.

"He can't have anything in view for me that will suit me half so well," replied Tony, with the air of one who had made up his mind. "I am old enough to know what I want, and what I don't want. Let me have her now."

The Telegraph had by this time been backed away from the levee, and straightened up the river, and George felt safe in resigning the wheel to his companion. But he did not go far away from it. There were a good many boats running about, some moving out of their berths and others going in; and as it required some skill to steer clear of all of them, George stood close by, so that he could seize the wheel in an instant; while Tony, who was no mean steersman, managed it with one hand, and kept up an almost constant signaling with the other.

When two boats meet, one going down and the other up the river, or if a boat is backing out into the stream while another is coming up, the upper boat has the right of way, but the lower one always whistles first. For example, Smith, who is piloting a boat up the river, may whistle once to notify Brown, who is coming down the river, that he (Smith) intends to turn his boat to the right, so as to pass by on Brown's left hand. If the latter is satisfied with the arrangement, he gives notice of the fact by whistling once in reply; but if he is not satisfied with it, if he wants to make a landing, or pick up a tow, or do anything else that required him to make Smith pass by on his right hand instead of the left, he whistles twice; and Smith must reply to the signal, to show that he understands it; get his boat out of Brown's way, and go by on the other side. The burden of the responsibility in avoiding a collision, if one seemed likely to occur, would rest with the pilot who was going up the river; for the reason, that his vessel could be handled much more easily and quickly, than the one that was coming down driven by all the force of a powerful current. George had learned all these things, as well as a good many others, during the comparatively short time he had been under Mr. Black's instructions; and knowing his responsibility, he did not feel willing to trust his boat entirely in the hands of his friend Tony.

The nearer the Telegraph approached to the coal-fleet, which was composed of a number of barges moored to the bank two or three miles above the city, the clearer the river became, and presently George moved away from the wheel and seated himself on the bench. He kept one eye on Tony, who was too busy to talk, and the other out ahead to see that nothing came in their way.

The young pilot had been acquainted with his new friend long enough to know that he was a very discontented boy, and he could not see why it was so. He did not then know that the source of happiness is within ourselves, and that our surroundings have not so much to do with it as our own dispositions. By Tony's invitation he had once accompanied him to his home, and he had found there all the aids to happiness that any reasonable boy could ask for; but still Mr. Richardson was strict, and Tony was very much of a rebel The more he resisted lawful authority the tighter the reins were drawn, until Tony finally came to the conclusion that home was always a dreary place, that fathers found no pleasure in life except in denying their sons every gratification on which they had set their hearts, and that no boy of any spirit would put up with such a state of affairs after he became able to take care of himself. George was not long in finding out how matters stood, and he wasted all his eloquence in the effort to make Tony believe that he was then seeing the happiest years of his life.

"You may some time know by experience, what it is to have no home to go to," said George. "Stranger things than that have happened, you know, and then you will wish that you had made the most of these days, which now seem so gloomy to you, and improved the opportunities you slight every hour of your life."

"You needn't preach," snapped Tony, in reply. "Haven't you told me more than once that you left home because you were not happy there?"

"I have told you that I left Texas because I was not safe there," answered George.

"Well, it was your home, wasn't it?"

"It used to be."

"You lived in the same house that you lived in while your father was alive?"

George said he did.

"And your father's only brother was your guardian and had charge of the house?"

George said that was so, too.

"Then it was your home," said Tony, triumphantly; "and to be consistent, you ought to have stayed there, whether you wanted to or not."

"But haven't I told you that I couldn't stay?" asked George.

"And haven't I told you that I can't stay here?" retorted Tony. "This is not a new notion of mine. I have been thinking about it for a long time – in fact, ever since I went into algebra. It is hard work for me to go to school."

"It will be harder for you to earn your own living. I know what work is, and you don't. There is no need of your going to sea, or running on the river."

"I know what you mean. Of course, I shall be a rich man some day, if I live, but I don't care for that. I want liberty to do as I please, more than I want money, and I want it now. What's more, I'm going to have it, either with or without – "

"Your father's consent," added George, when Tony paused.

"That's just it. I don't know that I ought to be so plain with you, but you will not repeat what I say?"

"I have better business than carrying tales," replied George. "If your father should ever say anything to me about it, I should tell him the truth, and some day you would thank me for it. I know what you have in your mind, and you had better take my advice and give it up."

"More preaching," said Tony, with a laugh. "I give you fair warning that you will never make a convert of me, for you don't know what you are talking about. You have led a free and easy life there on the plains, being under no restraint, but coming and going as you pleased, and what do you know of the trials and tribulations of a boy who is held with his nose tight to the grindstone every day? Come, George, give us a rest. If you do not let my father into my secret before he broaches the subject to you, you will never say a word to him about it."

There was not the slightest danger that Mr. Richardson would ever speak to George about Tony, but it was not very long before he took occasion to speak to Tony about George. The next evening, while they were seated in the cars waiting for the train to start toward home, Mr. Richardson suddenly looked up from his paper and said:

"Anthony, who was that fellow you brought home with you yesterday?"

"He's not a fellow," answered the boy. "His name is Ackerman, and he is Mr. Black's cub. He runs on one of your boats."

"Well, just drop him now; and don't bring him or anybody like him out to Kirkwood any more. When you have so many nice acquaintances, I can't imagine why you should be so intimate with those rivermen," said Mr. Richardson.

"They are the ones who have made your money for you," said Tony.

"I am aware of that; and they have been well paid for serving me. I find no fault with the men themselves – a braver and more skilful class cannot be found anywhere – but I do object to the morals of the most of them. Having passed some of the best years of my life on the river, I ought to know something about rivermen. This boy you speak of may be all right now, but he is under bad influences."

George never heard of this conversation between Tony and his father, and there was nothing in Tony's behavior toward him to indicate that such an interview had ever taken place. The latter kept track of the different boats on which Mr. Black was employed, and whenever one of them came into port, Tony made it a point to visit the cub pilot as soon as he could get out of school. He liked George, and he had but one fault to find with him; the latter had been a cattle raiser, and Tony wished he had been a sailor, so that he could have talked with him about the sea.

The Telegraph reached the coal-fleet in due time, and fortunately for Tony there was another boat there, the Ida Clifford, which, having filled her bunkers, was about to return to the city. Being acquainted with one of the pilots, Tony went aboard of her and steered her down, thus saving himself a long walk. On arriving at the landing he went ashore, and started for his father's office on Fourth street. When he reached it, he saw Mr. Richardson standing in the door drawing on his gloves.

"Ah!" said he, as Tony came up. "I began to think I should have to start for home without you. You have been kept after school as usual, I suppose?

"Yes, sir," replied Tony, "And when I got out, I went up to the coal-fleet on the Telegraph."

"Well, now that you have come, we will start for the depot. We have barely time to catch the train."

Mr. Richardson lived in Kirkwood, a beautiful little village located about thirteen miles from the river. Its society was made up principally of the families of wealthy men who did business in St. Louis. Living within easy reach of the city, they were still far enough away from it to escape all its heat, dust and noise. Tony and his father came in every morning on the seven o'clock train, and returned together in the evening after business hours were over.

"I should think you would get tired of being kept after school," said Mr. Richardson, as they walked toward the depot. "The report you bring home every week shows you to be anything but a faithful student. What do you expect to gain by so foolish a waste of time?"

"I don't expect to gain anything by it," replied Tony. "I only want to get through my school-days with as little trouble and work as I can. I shall be glad when they are over."

"And you want to get through life in the same way, I suppose?" said his father.

"No, sir; I am willing to work, and I should like to begin to-morrow. I want to go to sea."

"Anthony, you might as well give up that idea first as last. You will never go with my consent. I don't see what put that notion into your head. You have about as clear an idea of what would be required of you on shipboard as you have of the duties of a book-keeper."

"Will you let me do the next best thing, then? Will you let me go on the river?"

"No, indeed. I want to see you something better than a steamboat man."

"I should really like to know what you want me to be, anyhow," said Tony, with some impatience.

"I want to see you a respected member of society, for one thing," said his father. "I hope you will not think that your school-days are over until you have been through college. That was one thing I missed, for I began life poor; but I don't want you to miss it. I can see now how advantageous such training would have been to me. Get your education first, and decide upon your life-work afterwards."

"But I don't want to go to college," said Tony; "and I won't, either," he added, in an undertone. "I am not going to study myself to death for the sake of reading Greek and Latin. I don't want to go to school any longer," he said, aloud. "I had the best notion in the world to pack up my books to-night and take them home with me."

"That would have been a useless waste of strength and time on your part, for on Monday morning you would have had the pleasure of packing them up again and taking them back with you," said Mr. Richardson, bringing the iron ferule of his heavy cane down upon the sidewalk with more than his usual energy. "I believe I shall have something to say in regard to your conduct for at least five years to come."

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