Ralph of the Roundhouse/Chapter 15

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Ralph of the Roundhouse by Allen Chapman
Chapter 15: "Van"

CHAPTER XV


"VAN"


When the one o'clock whistle sounded, Ralph started over for the engine stalls.

"Hold on!" challenged the lame helper, suddenly appearing in his usual extraordinary way.

"What's the trouble?" asked Ralph.

"Boss says you're on the sick list."

"But I'm not!" declared Ralph with a smile and mock-valiantly waving his injured arm.

"Says you're to go home, and report in morning."

"But I can't do that," demurred Ralph.

"Must—orders."

"It would worry my mother, she would think something serious was wrong with me, while I feel as well as I ever did in my life—yes, better, even," insisted Ralph.

"Well, you're not to work, boss says—you can loaf, if you like."

"That's something I don't fancy."

"Then watch me, and I'll show you some things."

"Good!" assented Ralph. "If they are bound to have me invalided, at least let me learn something in the meantime."

Limpy did not talk much, but after an hour of his company Ralph voted him a wonder.

There must be some vivid history back of the man, Ralph theorized, for there were sparkles of real genuius here and there in his movements and explanations of the next two hours.

He showed Ralph the true merits and economics of the wiper's avocation in a quick, practical way that proved Ike Slump was a novice and a bungler.

Then the helper took Ralph under his special tuition higher up in the scale.

Ralph was in a real transport of delighted interest as the lame helper taught him the first principles of preparing, running and controlling a locomotive.

He did something more than control a throttle or move a lever—he explained why this and that was done, and demonstrated cause and effect in a clear-cut way that gave Ralph more real, sound information in two hours than he could have gained from the study of books in as many months.

The foreman passed in and out of the place several times during the afternoon, but seemed almost studiously to avoid contact or ccnversation with Ralph.

About four o'clock the helper, busy wheeling away the broken bricks from the hole in the wall, nudged Ralph meaningly.

"Slump's old man," he said tersely.

Glancing towards the office, Ralph saw a coarse-featured, disorderly looking man conversing with the foreman.

The latter was cool, dignified and evidently laying down the law in an unmistakably clear manner to his visitor, who shrugged his shoulders, pounded his palms together, and seemed wroth and worked up over the situation they were discussing.

Ralph knew that Slump senior ran a saloon just beyond the freight sheds, and was glad to see him go off alone and evidently disgruntled and fancied he caught an expression on Forgan's face indicating that he had done his duty and was glad of it.

"Bad lot," commented Limpy, coming back for some more bricks.

"Foreman?"

"No, Slump. It was two of his poison drinks four years ago that sent me home one night on the wrong tracks, crippled me for life, lost me my run, and made a pensioned drudge of me for the rest of my years," declared the helper bitterly.

By five o'clock the debris had been cleared away from the break in the roundhouse wall, the derailed locomotive backed to place, and things ready for the masons to repair the damage in the morning.

Ralph was walking away from a cursory inspection of the spot, when a whistle sounded directly outside. Then a hissing voice echoed:

"Hey, Slump!"

Ralph turned. A man was moving around the edge of the break in the wall.

"I'm not Slump," announced Ralph. Then he recognized the stranger. It was the tramp-like individual who had come after Ike Slump's dinner pail two nights previous.

"Oh!" he now said, drawing back in a suspicious, embarrassed manner. "Where's Ike?"

"He has gone home, I suppose," answered Ralph.

"Didn't—that is, he hasn't left his dinner pail for me, has he?" floundered the tramp.

"No, he took it with him. At any rate, his locker is empty."

"All right," muttered the fellow, edging away.

Ralph remembered that heavily-weighted dinner pail of Ike Slump's with some suspicion. Still, Ike's explanation of furnishing the man with a daily lunch looked plausible.

"Hold on," called Ralph after the receding form.

"What is it?" inquired the tramp, wheeling about.

"I'll help you out—wait a minute."

Ralph hurried to his locker. Fully half of his noonday lunch had been left untasted. He bundled up the fragments and returned to the break in the wall.

"Here's a bite," said Ralph.

"Thank you," growled the tramp gruffly, taking the proffered lunch.

A minute later Ralph was summoned to a bench placed under the windows at the south curve of the building.

Limpy stood on the bench, looking out.

"Come here," he directed. "No use!"

"What do you mean?" inquired Ralph.

"Look."

Ralph, clambering up to the bench, had the retiring tramp in full view.

The latter was piece by piece firing the lunch he had given him at switches and signal posts, as if he had a special spite against it.

"Didn't come for food, you see?" observed the helper.

"What did he come for, then?" demanded Ralph, indignant and wrought up.

Limpy simply shrugged his shoulders, and went off about his duties.

Ralph was not sorry when the six o'clock whistle sounded. He had gone through an uncommon strain, both mental and physical, during the day, and was tired and glad to get home.

Limpy, in his smooth, quiet way, arranged it so that he left the roundhouse when Ralph did, and as the latter noticed that his companion kept watching out in all directions, he traced a certain voluntary guardianship in the man's intentions.

But if Limpy feared that Ike Slump or his satellites were lying in wait, it was not along the special route Ralph took in proceeding homewards.

He reached the little cottage with no unpleasant interruptions. His mother welcomed him at the gate with a bright smile. Their boy guest was weeding out a vegetable bed. He immediately came up to Ralph, extending a beautifully clean full-grown carrot he had selected from its bed.

Ralph took it, patting the giver encouragingly on the shoulder, who looked satisfied, and Ralph was pleased at this indication that the boy knew him.

"How has he been all day?" Ralph inquired of his mother.

"Just as you see him now," answered the widow. "He has been busy all day, willing, happy as a lark. The doctor dropped in this afternoon."

"What did he say?" asked Ralph.

"He says there is nothing the matter with the boy excepting the shock. He fears no violent outbreak, or anything, of that kind, and only hopes that gradually the cloud will leave his mind."

"If kindness can help any, he will get sound and well," declared Ralph chivalrously. "He doesn't talk much?"

"Hardly a word, but he watches, and seems to understand everything."

"What is that? " asked Ralph, pausing as they passed together through the side door.

The wood shed door was scrawled over with chalk marks Ralph had not seen there before.

"Oh," explained Mrs. Fairbanks, "he found a piece of chalk, and seemed to take pleasure in writing every once in a while."

"And just one word?"

"Yes, Ralph—those three letters."

"V-A-N," spelled out Ralph. "Mother, that must be his name—Van."