Ralph of the Roundhouse/Chapter 27
RECALLED TO LIFE
Van landed half-way down the incline. His feet sank deep into the sandy soil, the shock threw him forward with dangerous velocity, and he went head over heels, slid ten feet like a rocket, and reached the bottom of the embankment.
His head landed squarely against the lower board of the fence. Rip! crack! splinter! The contact burst the board into kindling wood. Van drove through and about five feet beyond, and lay still and inert in the bed of the dusty country road.
Ralph believed he was killed. With a groan he leaped to the side of Griscom and grabbed his arm. The engineer's lightning eye followed his speechless indication of Van, and he pulled the machinery to a speedy halt that jarred every bolt and pinion.
Ralph was trembling with dread and emotion. He ran back along the track fifty feet, and breathlessly rushed down the incline at the point where Van had descended.
As he gained the bottom of the embankment his heart gave a great jump of joy. He saw Van move, struggle to a sitting posture, rub his head bewilderedly with one hand, and stare about him as if collecting his scattered senses.
"Are you hurt?" involuntarily exclaimed Ralph.
"Not much— Hello! Who are you?"
Ralph experienced the queerest feeling of his life. He could not analyze it just then. There was an indescribable change in Van that somehow thrilled him. For the first time since Ralph had found him in the old factory he spoke words connectedly and coherently.
A great wave of gladness surged over Ralph's soul. He was a quick thinker. The presentation of the moment was clear. The young doctor at Stanley Junction had said that just as a shock had deprived Van of reason, so a second shock might restore it. Well, the second shock had come, it seemed, and there was Van, a new look in his eyes, a new expression on his face. Ralph remembered to have read of just such extraordinary happenings as the present. He had but one glad, glorious thought—Van had been recalled to life and reason, and that meant everything!
Toot! toot! Ralph glanced at the locomotive where Griscom was impatiently waving his hand. The Great Northern could not check its schedule to suit the convenience of two dead-head passengers.
"Quick, Van," said Ralph, seizing the arm of his companion—" hurry, we shall be left."
"Left—how? where?" inquired Van, resisting, and with a vague stare.
"To the locomotive. We must get back, you know. They won't wait."
"What have I got to do with the locomotive?"
"You just jumped from it."
"You're dreaming!" pronounced Van. "What you giving me—or I've been dreaming," he muttered, passing his hand over his forehead again.
Ralph suddenly realized that Van regarded him as an entire stranger, that time and explanation alone could restore a friendly, comprehensive basis.
He gave Griscom the go ahead signal. The engineer looked puzzled, but there was no time to waste, for the tracks were now signaled clear ahead. He put on steam and the train moved on its way, leaving Ralph and Van behind.
The boy paid no further attention to locomotive or Ralph. He struggled to his feet, and looked up the country road, then down it. The gig had disappeared, but a cloud of dust lingered in the air over where it had just turned a bend.
Van started forward in this direction. There was a pained, confused expression on his face, as if he could not quite get the right of things. Ralph came up to him and detained his steps by placing a hand on his arm.
The way Van shook off his grasp showed that he had lost none of his natural strength.
"What you want?" he asked suspiciously.
"Don't you know me?"
"Me? you? No."
"Hold on," persisted Ralph, "don't go yet. You are Van."
"That's my name, yes."
"And I am Ralph—don't you remember?"
Van gave a start. He squarely faced his companion now. His blinking eyes told that the machinery of his brain was actively at work.
"Fairbanks—Fairbanks?" he repeated. "Aha! yes—letter!"
His hand shot into an inside coat pocket. He withdrew it disappointedly. Then his glance chancing to observe for the first time, it seemed, the suit he wore, apparel that belonged to Ralph, he stood in a painful maze, unable to figure out how he had come by it and what it meant.
"You are looking for a letter," guessed Ralph.
"Yes, I was—'John Fairbanks, Stanley Junction.' How do you know?" with a stare.
"Because I am Ralph Fairbanks, his son. When you first showed it to me—"
"Showed it to you?"
"At Stanley Junction."
"I never was there."
"I think you were."
"About three weeks ago. And you just left there this morning. You was with me on that locomotive that just went ahead, jumped off, and—you had better sit down and let me explain things."
Van looked distressed. He was in repossession of all his faculties, there was no doubt of that, but there was a blank in his life he could never fill out of his own volition. He studied Ralph keenly for a minute or two, sighed desperately, sat down on a bowlder by the side of the road, and said:
"Something's wrong, I can guess that. I had a letter to deliver, and it seems as if it was only a minute ago that I had it with me. Now it's gone, I find myself here without knowing how I came here, with you who are a stranger telling me strange things, and—I give it up. It's a riddle. What's the answer?"
Ralph had a task before him. In his judgment it was best not to crowd things too speedily, all of a jumble.
"You came to Stanley Junction with a letter about three weeks ago," he said. "It seemed you had dead-headed it there on the trucks from some point down the line."
Van nodded as if he dimly recalled all this.
"You hid in an old factory, or went there to take a nap. A baseball struck your head accidentally. We took you to our home, you have been there since."
"That's queer, I can't remember. Yes—yes, I do, in a way," Van corrected himself sharply. "Was there a chicken house there—oh, such a fine chicken house!" he exclaimed expansively, "with fancy towers made out of laths, and a dandy wind vane on it?"
"You built that chicken house yourself," explained Ralph.
"Oh, go on! " said Van incredulously.
"Well, you did."
"And there was a lady there, dressed in black," muttered Van, his glance strained dreamily. "She was good to me. She used to sing sweet songs—just like a mother would. I never had a mother, to remember."
Van's eyes began to fill with tears. Ralph was touched at the recognition of his mother's gentleness. Emotion had lightened the shadows in Van's mind more powerfully than suggestion or memory.
Ralph felt that he had better rouse his companion from a retrospective mood.
"You're all right now," he said briskly.
"And I was knocked silly?" observed Van "I see how it was. I've been like a man in a long sleep. How did I come out of it, though?"
"Just as you went into it—with a shock. I took you for a trip on a locomotive. Just as we got near here you made a sudden jump, rolled down the embankment, your head burst through that fence board yonder, and I thought you were killed."
Van felt over his head. He winced at a sensitive touch at one spot, but said, with a light laugh:
"I've got a cast-iron skull, I guess! But what made me jump from the locomotive? Did I have daffy fits?"
"Oh, not at all."
"Why," said Ralph, "I think the sight of a man in a long linen duster, driving a one-horse gig down this road startled you or attracted your attention, or something of that sort."
"Ginger!" interrupted Van, jumping to his feet, "I remember now! It was—him! And I've got to see him. He went that way. I'm off."
"Hold on! hold on!" called the dismayed Ralph.
But Van heard not, or heeded not. He sprinted for the bend in the road, Ralph hotly at his heels.