“I’ll learn yeh to steal my time!” he was saying. “I’ll learn your mother to lie to me about your workin’. A great lubber like you traipsin’ around idle, and my woman bringin’ a doctor’s bill on me by workin’ night an’ day to make up your wages to me—and lyin’ to her husband! I’ll track you by the blood! Take that—and that—and that!”
I had never resisted him: and even now I only tried to wiggle away from him. He held me with one hand, though; and at every pause in his scolding he cut me with the whip. Weeks after the welts on my back and shoulders turned dark along the line of the whip, and greenish at the edges. I did not cry. I felt numbed with fright and rage. Suddenly, however, the tall canal-boat captain, coming back along the tow-path, put in his oar by striking the whip out of John Rucker’s hand; and snatched me away from him.
“I’ll have the law on you!” snarled Rucker.
“The devil you will!” said the captain.
“I’ll put you through!” screamed Rucker.
The captain eased himself forward by advancing his left foot, and with his right fist he smashed Rucker somewhere about the face. Rucker went down, and the captain picked up the whip, and carefully laying Rucker on his face stripped up his shirt and revenged me, lash for lash; and counting each cut stopped when he reached ten.
“I guess that’s the number,” said he, taking a look at my bloody back; “but for fear of fallin’ short, here’s another!” And he drew the whip back, and brought it down with a quick, sharp, terrible whistle that proved its force. “Now,” said he, “you’ve got somethin’ to put me through fer!”
Then he started back toward the boat, after picking up a clevis which it seems the driver-boy had dropped. I looked at Rucker a moment wondering what to do. He was slowly getting on his feet, groaning, bloody of face and back, miserable and pitiable. But when he saw me his look of hatred drove out of my mind my first impulse to help him. I turned and ran after the captain. That worthy never looked at me; but when he reached the boat he said to some one on board: “Bill, I call you to bear witness that I refused Bubby here a chance to run away.”
“Ay, ay, sir,” responded a voice from the boat.
The captain took me gently by the hand and helped me over the gunwale.
“Get out o’ here,” he shouted, “an’ go back to your lovin’ father!”
I sought to obey, but he winked at me and motioned me into the little cabin forward.
“An’ now, my buck,” said he, “that you’ve stowed yourself away and got so far from home that to put you ashore would be to maroon you in the wilderness, do you want to take a job as driver? That boy I’ve got lives in Salina, and we’ll take you on if you feel like a life on the ocean wave. Can you drive?”
“I do’ know!” said I.
“Have you ever worked?” he asked.
“I’ve worked ever since I was six,” I answered.