Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 6
mrs. Fairbanks' visitor
It seemed to Ralph that his eyes closed tight shut for half a minute, and then came open as wide as ever.
He did not believe he lost consciousness for more than thirty seconds. That, however, was time enough for his mysterious assailant to make himself scarce.
Ralph got to his feet, quite shaken. His hand went to the side of his head involuntarily. His left cheek was scraped and full of splinters, though not bleeding. A big lump was rising in front of one ear.
On the ground lay the club that had dealt Ralph the blow. He moved it with his foot to find it heavy, as if made of hard wood.
"Why, the fellow might have killed me had he struck a little harder," said Ralph seriously. "Who was he? It must be that he knows me, for he spoke my name."
There was a hydrant in the center of a platform space near by. Ralph went over to this and turned on the water and sopped his handkerchief, applying it to the lump on his head.
"Was it Mort Bemis?" his mind ran on. "No, I am sure it was not. Bemis is stubby and broad, this fellow was tall and slim. Looked like a half-starved rat. Who could it be?"
In a minute or two Ralph went back to the car that had proven for him a kind of Pandora's box.
He lifted himself through the open doorway and flashed some matches.
The car was bare. It smelled of tobacco smoke, and there was a litter of cigarette stubs in one corner. The other closed door was back-sheathed with smooth boards. Under these Ralph discovered some fresh whittlings, or splinters. He inspected door and floor more closely.
"Ah, I see," he observed: "the stowaway has been killing time by cutting his name on the pillar of fame."
The door surface bore a record of various jack-knife experts. Idle hands, belonging to all kinds of ride-stealers, had from time to time cut their initials on the smooth boards.
There were some pencilings, too—all kinds of doggerel slang and initials. Thus: "Turnpike Tim on his fift' trip sout'." "Mugsey, the Terror," and the warning line: "Bad road for tramps. Calaboose twice for flipping trains."
The last stowaway, as evidenced by two letters cut into the board, had sought to rival his predecessors. The newly indented initials were nearly eight inches long, and formed an I and an S.
"'I. S.,'" read Ralph. "The solution is easy. It was Ike Slump. Those are his initials, and, come to recall my fierce assailant, he fits Ike's size exactly. That mean attack, too, would be characteristic of Slump. He was afraid of me. He needs to be. There is a standing reward of twenty-five dollars from the railroad for his arrest. I don't want the reward, but I don't propose to have him come back to his old haunts and associates to bother me."
Ralph walked home slowly. The blow he had received caused him some pain. The addition of the malignant Ike Slump to the list of his active enemies troubled him. Ralph knew what it was to fight a mean, underhanded foe. The roster so far included not only Slump, but Bemis and Gasper Farrington.
"It's my duty to notify the railroad company that Slump is again on hand," declared Ralph. "That will dispose of him. As to Bemis, I shall seek him out and give him a warning. If he troubles me any further I will have him arrested for his malicious mischief of to-day. It would be a pretty serious charge—endangering the railroad property. Gasper Farrington will not do anything openly to harm me. He dare not. But he will work against me in the dark, if he sees the chance to do it. Well, I shall watch his movements mighty closely."
Ralph spurred up as he came within the lights of home. The lamp burning brightly in the front room of the neat little cottage was always a cheering beacon to him, for he knew it had been placed by loving hands.
Mrs. Fairbanks, the tender, thoughtful mother, made that home a peaceful paradise for her only son. She greeted Ralph at the door with a welcome that made him forget instantlv all of the cares and troubles of the day in entering the sheltering of a rare haven of rest and contentment.
Ralph took a good wash at the kitchen sink, put on a clean collar and tie and a light house-coat. Then he sat down to a table steaming with appetizing food.
"Why, Ralph," instantly spoke Mrs. Fairbanks, "you have been hurt!"
Ralph carelessly moved his hand over the lump on his head.
"Nothing serious, mother," he declared with a reassuring smile. "A fellow generally gets some initiation bumps on his first day in a new job on the railroad."
Mrs. Fairbanks was scarcely satisfied with this off-hand explanation, but Ralph at once shifted the conversation into other channels. He made up his mind he would not worry his mother with the story of his encounter with Ike Slump, at least for the present.
"By the way," he said, as he stowed away a hearty meal, "did you have a visitor to-day, mother?"
"Why, yes," answered Mrs. Fairbanks. "A lady—Mrs. Davis."
"I am glad she came," said Ralph. "She took the ten dollars I wrote you about?"
"Rather reluctantly. She is a strange woman," went on Mrs. Fairbanks thoughtfully; "I could not quite make her out. She acted quite flighty at times, but I believe she is honest, and very earnest in her gratitude and good intentions towards you."
"Why, yes," answered Ralph, with a suggestive smile. "She promised me a blessing. Have you any idea of what she was driving at?" he questioned, scanning his mother's face closely, for he observed that it bore a vague, disturbed expression.
"I think I have, Ralph. It appears that she knew—or at least knew about—your father, some years ago."
"She told me that."
"And she knows Gasper Farrington. She asked me a queer question, Ralph."
"What was it, mother?"
"If father did not once own twenty thousand dollars in railroad bonds, and if we had ever got them."
Ralph stopped eating for a moment.
"She said that, did she?" he murmured. "Mother, wouldn't it be strange if she knew something about those bonds?"
"How do you know?"
"Because she admitted it. Mrs. Davis was very much agitated. She seemed on the point constantly of telling me something, and then she would mutter to herself and apparently change her mind. When she went away she looked at me very strangely and said: 'Mrs. Fairbanks, when I get the money from my sister to pay your son back the ten dollars he has so kindly loaned me, I am going to tell him a little story about those twenty thousand dollars bonds that may interest him.'"
The bonds formed the topic of conversation for mother and son for nearly an hour after that. They could only surmise and anticipate, but both were very much stirred up.
"I tell you, mother," said Ralph emphatically, "that woman knows something of importance to us about those bonds. You and I and others have never doubted that Gasper Farrington stole them from father. I have never given up the idea that some day I would reach the truth, and force Farrington to disgorge, just as we made him release the fraudulent mortgage. I really believe things are going to turn so as get us our full rights."
"We will hope so, Ralph," said the widow, with a dubious sigh. "And now tell me all about your first day in the switch tower."
Ralph went to bed about eleven o'clock. He had a good sleep until eight in the morning, devoted an hour or two to tidying up the yard and assisting his mother in various ways, and at noon started for work again.
Old Jack Knight was on duty, and spelled Ralph at the levers until about four o'clock. No unusual incident disturbed the usual routine until an hour later.
In starting to give a switch engine the siding, Ralph found the lever would not budge. The locomotive engineer discovered the unset switch in time to stop. Ralph megaphoned to hold tionary till he investigated, and ran down the ladder.
He found the lever cables chained to a wall bracket. Of course here was some more spite work. He removed the obstruction, hurried upstairs, switched the delayed engine, and kept an eye out for the watchman who covered that part of the yards.
When he finally appeared in view, Ralph hailed him and asked him to come inside the tower.
"Mr. Brady," he explained, "I wish you would keep a close eye on the lower story here for a day or two."
"Why, what's wrong?" inquired the watchman.
"Well, someone is up to dirty work," replied Ralph. "They tried to put two levers out of commission yesterday, and just now I found another lever chained up."
The watchman looked startled, and whistled under his breath.
"That's pretty serious," he remarked.
"It is," responded Ralph. "I wish you would keep a watch on strangers."
"And discharged employees?" interrogated the watchman, with a shrewd nod. "I think I know what's up, and who is up to it."
Ralph felt certain that Mort Bemis was back of the last attempt to cripple his usefulness. He did not, however, believe that Bemis himself had chained the lever, for he had kept a pretty close watch of the yards all afternoon, and had seen nothing of the discharged leverman. Ralph theorized that Bemis had put some associate up to the trick. It was an easy matter for any passerby to step into the lower story of the switch tower without being seen from above. Ralph made up his mind he would seek out Bemis. When he was relieved after dark he did not go home. He had made some inquiries of Knight as to the present whereabouts and haunts of Mort Bemis, and Ralph thought he knew where to look for the fellow.