Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 4

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Ralph in the Switch Tower by Allen Chapman
Chapter 4

CHAPTER IV


A MYSTERY


Ralph looked at his switch-tower visitor in great surprise.

"Why, Mrs. Davis," he asked, "what is the matter?"

"N—nothing," she stammered, trying to control herself, but her features were working strangely. "So your name is Fairbanks?"

"Yes, Mrs. Davis."

"Not John Fairbanks—how simple I am, though, of course not. He was an old man. Are you his son, then?"

"Yes," answered Ralph, his curiosity excited. "My name is Ralph. I am John Fairbanks' son. He is dead, you know. Were you acquainted with him?"

"Not acquainted exactly," replied the woman, in a certain repressed way. "I have heard of him, you see."

"Oh, you mean since you came to Stanley Junction?"

"No, no, a long way from here, and a long time ago. Where I used to live. I heard he was dead, and I heard you and your mother was dead, too. I did not dream that any of the Fairbanks were here now."

"Why, you amaze me!" cried Ralph. "Who could have told you that?"

"A certain man. He told a falsehood, didn't he? I might have known it. I see now—yes, I begin to see how things are."

She said this in a musing tone, as if half-forgetting that she had an auditor. Ralph was more than interested. He was startled. He knew enough of human nature to guess that Mrs. Davis was concealing something from him.

She arose quite flustered, and began to arrange her bonnet. She evaded Ralph's eye, and appeared anxious to get away. Ralph determined to press some further inquiries. Before he could begin, she made the remark:

"You are a good boy, Ralph Fairbanks, and I shan't forget you. I will take the loan you offer me, but it will be promptly paid back, very soon. Boy," she continued, with a good deal of animation, as if suddenly stirred by some impulsive thought, "you will get a blessing for being good to a poor lone widow, see if you don't."

"I seem to be getting blessings all the time," said Ralph lightly, but reverently. "I guess life is full of them, if you do right and put yourself in the way of them. Is there some special blessing you are thinking of, Mrs. Davis?" he inquired, saying the words because the woman had used a certain significant, mysterious tone in her last statement. This made him believe she could be clearer and say a deal more, if she chose to do so.

"Yes, there is," replied Mrs. Davis, almost excitedly. "You mustn't question me, though, boy—not just now, anyway. You have given me a lot to think of. I may tell you something very important later on—I may tell your mother to-day. Good-by."

As she approached the trap in the floor, Ralph got a call for a switch. He was reluctant to let his visitor depart. Her vague revelations disturbed him. When he had attended to the levers, he turned again to Mrs. Davis. In doing so he chanced to glance down at the near tracks, and fixedly regarded two approaching figures.

"Hello," he spoke irrepressibly, aloud. "Coming here—the master mechanic and Gasper Farrington."

"What's that—who?" cried Mrs. Davis, almost in a shout.

Ralph looked at her in new amazement. As she had caught the last name he had spoken, she stood erect in a strained, tense way, seeming to be frightened.

The two men Ralph had indicated now crossed the tracks and entered the switch tower below. Their voices could be heard distinctly.

"We have a switch plan upstairs in the tower, Mr. Farrington," sounded the clear, incisive tones of Mr. Blake, the master mechanic of the Great Northern.

"All right," answered his companion, and the accents of his voice seemed to be familiar to Mrs. Davis. She looked almost terrified. She glanced wildly around the tower room.

"Hide me!" she gasped appealingly to Ralph.

"Why, what for?" he inquired.

"It's Gasper Farrington, isn't it, just as you said? And he is coming up here!"

"It seems that he is, Mrs. Davis," responded Ralph.

"I don't want to meet him. I don't want him to see me—not yet," went on the woman rapidly.

"Are you afraid of Gasper Farrington, Mrs. Davis?" asked Ralph pointedly.

But she did not answer him. She glided to the coat closet at the end of the room, as if seeking a hiding-place. As she pulled its door open, she noticed that it was too shallow to admit a human form.

The dial again called Ralph. By the time he had attended to the levers, he noticed that Mrs. Davis had produced a thick heavy veil and was concealing her face under it. She stood fidgeting nervously at a window at the far end of the room, her back turned to the trapdoor, as if to escape direct attention.

The master mechanic came into view. Then he helped his companion into the room.

Ralph caught his breath quickly and his lips compressed a trifle, as he recognized Gasper Farrington.

His advent was a certain new cause of some inquietude to the young leverman. An old-time enemy, and a bitter and crafty one, Ralph knew he could never expect any good from the miserly old magnate of Stanley Junction.

Farrington's wealth and position gave him a certain influence and power that had been repeatedly used to crush those he did not like. He disliked the Fairbanks family for more reasons than one, and he had tried to crush Ralph more than once. In these efforts, however, he had failed. Ralph had come off the victor because he was in the right, which always prevails, sooner or later.

In their last encounter, Ralph had forced the scheming Farrington to release the fraudulent mortgage he held on the Fairbanks cottage. He had bargained to keep the humiliating details of Farrington's swindling operations secret as long as the defeated magnate let them alone. He did not think that Farrington would now risk public exposure by attempting any further tricky measures of gain or revenge. Still, Ralph disliked coming in contact with the man, who would willingly do him an injury and gloat over his downfall.

He was glad that Farrington did not notice him. The attention of the magnate was at once directed to a blue-print plan nailed between two windows.

"There is the switch plan of the yards, Mr. Farrington," said the master mechanic, indicating the sheet of paper in question.

Mr. Blake nodded to Ralph. Then he looked inquiringly at Mrs. Davis.

"A lady who was looking for Mort Bemis," explained Ralph. "He owes her some money, it seems."

"He owes about everybody he can work," said the master mechanic brusquely, and crossed the room after Farrington.

Mrs. Davis quickly went to the trap. She kept her eye on Gasper Farrington until safely down on the ladder, placed her finger on her lips in significant adieu to Ralph, and then disappeared.

The latter stood at the levers, his back turned purposely on the newcomers into the switch tower.

There was no need of his having an encounter with Farrington, if it could be avoided. Ralph attended to his duties strictly. However, he could not help overhearing what the two men at the side of the room were saying.

Ralph soon divined the nature of Farrington's visit to the switch tower. The magnate owned a factory building about half a mile from the railroad. It had stood vacant and abandoned for some time, as Ralph knew. Now, it seemed, a manufacturer had agreed to lease it for a term of years, provided he could have direct railroad transportation facilities put in.

This point the two men at the switch plan were now discussing. Farrington was following the finger of the master mechanic, as it moved along over the traceries of white and red ink that criss-crossed the blue print.

"Here is where you start your spur," Mr. Blake was explaining. "We can put you in a single track, you to bear half the expense."

"You mean one-third," interrupted the bargaining old schemer.

"I mean just what I said," observed the master mechanic grimly. "It is a long reach for a siding, you have no right of way, and we are supplying it, although we will have to run a pretty steep grade down the ravine, for that is the only land we own in your direction. We have right of way to within three hundred feet of your factory. As to the strip that intervenes—"

"Oh, there's nothing there but an old shanty on leasehold," answered Farrington.

"Can you get permission to cross it?" asked Blake.

"He! he!" chuckled Farrington; "can I get it? I'll take it!"

"Well, that is your own matter," spoke Blake. "All we want is a bond guarantee for five years, that you will run enough freight over the spur to equal a ten per cent, annual investment."

"Isn't my word good enough for that?" demanded Farrrington arrogantly.

"The Great Northern takes no man's word where a contract is concerned," was the definite answer.

"All right, close the matter up as soon as you like," said Farrington. "Here's where you control the switches, eh?" he continued, leaving the plat and taking a curious glance about the tower.

"Yes."

"I should say it took a clear head and lots of experience to avoid mistakes."

"It does, and lots of muscle, too—eh, Fairbanks?" spoke the master mechanic.

Ralph nodded. He aimed to escape recognition at the hands of Farrington, who, in another minute, would have left the place. He knew, however, that he was discovered, as the magnate uttered a short, sharp grunt.