Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 16
Mother and son turned quickly towards the open doorway of the little sitting room.
It framed a forlorn figure—a boyish form covered with mud, hatless, and disheveled.
"Van!" cried Mrs. Fairbanks in astonishment.
She had a warm corner in her heart for the refugee who had made her home his for so many weeks when his poor mind was distraught.
Her motherly face lit up, and she extended her arms in greeting.
But Van edged up to her gingerly, and kissing her cheek quickly drew back with the remark:
"I've been homesick and hungry for a week just to see you smile and to hear you call me your boy, but I'm too muddy and torn up for even a second-class prodigal son!"
"Why, Van!" cried Ralph; "how did you get in that fix?"
"Run down by a team."
"And you are hurt—there is a deep cut on your cheek."
"Oh, that's a whip-handle clip from a very particular friend of yours," responded Van carelessly. "Ike Slump."
Mrs. Fairbanks shivered at the mention of that detested individual. Ralph was eagerly inquisitive.
"And about Mrs. Davis?" he asked hurriedly.
"The woman who lived here—the photograph woman?"
"Yes, Van. Do you know anything about her?"
"I fancy I do. She has been kidnapped."
"We feared that!" murmured Mrs. Fairbanks anxiously.
"Yes," nodded Van briskly, "it looks that way, and I have had a lively time of it. Did you tell your mother about meeting me here last night, Ralph?"
"Then I will tell her now. You see, Mrs. Fairbanks, I was caught by Ralph peeking into this very room, last night. I explained to him how it was. I had an old photograph of a woman who turns out to be this Mrs. Davis. I had been instructed to locate her."
"By whom, Van?" inquired the astonished Mrs. Fairbanks.
"It's a secret, it is not my business in a way," he burst forth abruptly, "but I can't keep the truth from you two. I think you ought to know it. I think, too, that the person for whom I am acting, the way things have turned out, would also wish you to know it. Here is the fact: Farwell Gibson is the person who got me to come here to locate this Mrs. Davis."
"Farwell Gibson?" repeated Mrs. Fairbanks in wonderment, though Ralph was not surprised at the statement. He had already half guessed out what his chum now disclosed.
"Yes," nodded Van.
"Then he knows Mrs. Davis?" asked Mrs. Fairbanks.
"Ought to," answered Van promptly, "seeing she is his wife."
"You astound me, Van !" murmured the mystified Mrs. Fairbanks.
"Well, she is. At least, the original of the photograph I showed Ralph is his wife. I don't know all the details, only it's some more of Farrington's fine work. You know Gibson was in his clutches for years. Mr. Gibson and his wife had a bitter quarrel over money matters many years ago. It seemed he had used some of her means in his stock-jobbing operations with Farrington. They separated. Later Farrington made Gibson believe his wife was dead. He did this to get Gibson to consent to sign certain papers that furthered Farrington's schemes. Then he got Gibson under his thumb, and drove him into exile."
"I wonder the villain sleeps nights!" said the indignant Ralph.
"Well, anyhow," proceeded Van, "Gibson got looking into matters, when his meeting with Ralph led to your having your rights, and old Farrington taking the clamps off Gibson by destroying the forged note he had held over him for so many years. Gibson learned that his wife was not dead. He sent me to try and locate her—which I have done."
"But she is lost again," suggested Mrs. Fairbanks.
"Oh, don't fret about that," spoke Van coolly. "I'll find her again, don't you doubt it. You see, all this concerns you and Ralph very closely, I am sure. In fact, Mr. Gibson intimated to me that if he could get into communication with his estranged wife, he believed she could give information that would lead to the recovery of those twenty thousand dollars in railroad bonds."
"Everything fits to one conviction," mused Ralph aloud. "All this being true, it is certainly to Farrington's interest to drive Mrs. Davis away from Stanley Junction."
"They drove her away, right enough," nodded Van vigorously—"in a close carriage, behind a spanking team. It was old Farrington's, and the drivers were Ike Slump and a fellow I heard him call Mort."
"Mort Bemis," murmured Ralph.
"You see," said Van, "when I left you last night, I had only one idea: to get back to Mr. Gibson and report. I started for the depot to take the train for Springfield, intending to come back and see you all in a day or two. Well, on my way to the depot I ran across old Farrington I got thinking that his appearance on the scene, spying on the woman Gibson, was sig—sig—what's the word, anyhow?"
"Significant," suggested Ralph.
"That's it—significant. I thought I would watch him a bit. He did not go home. He went to an old abandoned shanty near the fair grounds. He met two fellows there, apparently waiting for him. They strolled up and down the road, talking together. As soon as I recognized Ike Slump, I knew deep mischief was up. I saw Farrington give them money. I caught the name of the other fellow—Mort. I saw old Farrington to bed, and lay down in one of his comfortable garden hammocks to think. When I woke up it was daybreak."
"Why didn't you come to the house and see us?" inquired Mrs. Fairbanks reproachfully.
"Couldn't bring my mind to disturb you, with business on hand," declared Van sturdily. "I hung around, and saw old Farrington go about as if nothing unusual was on the string. Then about noon I went down to the shanty where he had met Slump & Co. No one there. They had moved quarters, it seemed. I nosed around generally. About four o'clock I ran across that Mort. He was visiting some stores. Acted as if it wasn't exactly safe to linger around people, for he didn't lose much time in buying some neckties, collars, cigars, and two new hats."
"He robbed a chum day before yesterday," explained Ralph.
"Oh, that was it? He looked like a thief. I suppose Slump didn't care to show his face at all. Well, I took up the trail of his crony. He started out the west turnpike. I kept safely in the rear. He beat me."
"A man came along with a fast team. This fellow, Mort, begged or paid for a lift. They disappeared in a cloud of dust. I went back to town, saw your railroad detective, told him Ike Slump was on the scene, and he is looking for him with a warrant for stealing those brass fittings from the roundhouse. I thought I'd clip Slump's wings for good. It made one the less to watch."
"Whew!" whistled Ralph slowly, "you're action when you get started, Van."
"There is only a little more to tell," continued Van. "I went back to the Farrington place. Just at dusk, who should drive out but old Farrington himself, with his best team hitched to a close carriage. The fates were again against me. He got out by the rear, and he, too, took the west turnpike. I ran for a mile, keeping tab on a cloud of dust. It was no use. I sat down on a log by the roadside to rest. In a few minutes I keeled over double-quick, and lay flat. Farrington was coming back—on foot."
"He had left his team somewhere?"
"That's it. I waited until he was out of sight. Then I reasoned out that this was a very queer proceeding. I made up my mind that somehow he had given that team over into the keeping of his two young scallawag friends. I put for the country. I inquired along half a dozen branching country roads I took. About an hour ago I gave it up, was trudging back for town, when down the road came a team—Farrington's team. One of its drivers flashed a match to light a cigarette. Then I knew my people. I edged aside, but as the carriage flew by I jumped on the rear axle, drew myself up, and tried to look in through the rear little glass window. Someone was lying on the back seat. There was a smell like chloroform in the air. I managed to climb right up on the smooth, slippery top of the carriage."
"What was your idea?" asked Ralph.
"I hardly knew. Somehow, a quick suspicion came into my mind that the person inside that carriage was Mrs. Davis."
"I know that now, sure enough. I crept forward. That fellow, Mort, happened to turn. Our faces came nearly together. I grabbed at him, he at me. He must be a pretty husky specimen. Before I could save myself, he gave me a pull and a fling. I went down between the horses."
Mrs. Fairbanks shuddered, and looked solicitous and alarmed.
"Ike Slump reversed the whip and struck out at me. I dropped into a mud-puddle. For a minute anyhow I was insensible from the blow and the fall. When I picked myself up the team was nowhere in sight. I came back to find out if they had really kidnapped Mrs. Davis, and met you."
Van sat down, pretty well tired out, at the conclusion of his recital. Mrs. Fairbanks looked very serious, Ralph worried and excited.
"Something must be done instantly," Ralph declared.
"Hold on," interrupted Van coolly, "make this strictly my affair, if you please. From what I hear, you need all your time and ability for the splendid railroad service you are doing. You can't corner old Farrington—he's too foxy. You can't overtake Slump & Co.—they've got too good a start. It's a simple matter: Farrington is sending Mrs. Davis out of the way. That team has got to come back. The police will find Ike Slump. They don't dare seriously molest Mrs. Davis. I shall keep on the watch. In the morning I will get word somehow to Farwell Gibson. Then I will devote my time strictly to finding Mrs. Davis, and—I intend to find her."
They closed up the deserted house. Then all three took their way homewards.
"Of course you are coming with us, Van?" said Mrs. Fairbanks.
"Yes, ma'am," answered Van promptly. "I want to forget all about this worrying business for twelve hours, so as to be fresh and bright for a new trail in the morning. And I'm just pining for a good, thick slice of your home-made bread."
"You shall have it, Van," smiled Mrs. Fairbanks, trying to momentarily put aside her troubles, "and half a mince pie, as well."
"Home-made, too?" interrogated Van, in a famished way.
"M-m-m!" mumbled Van ravenously. "I'm homesick for one of your rare, square meals. Hustle, Ralph—lead the way to the royal banquet!"