Ralph of the Roundhouse/Chapter 28

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Ralph of the Roundhouse by Allen Chapman
Chapter 28: Mystery

CHAPTER XXVIII


MYSTERY


Ralph outran his competitor, then kept easy pace with him, and did not try to stop him. He recognized a certain obstinacy and impetuousness in Van that he felt he must deal with in a politic manner.

He noticed, too, that Van was not in normal physical trim. The roll down the embankment had wrenched one foot slightly, and when they came to the bend to discover no gig in sight, and a series of other bends ahead, Van halted, breathless and tired.

"Give it up!" he panted, sinking to a dead tree. "Oh, well! I can catch him up later. Twenty-miles tramp, though."

"You seem to know who the man in the linen duster is?" ventured Ralph.

"Oh, yes."

"Is it important that you should see him?"

"Well, I guess so!"

Van was close-mouthed after that. He lay back somewhat wearily on the log and closed his eyes. The reaction from his tumble was succeeding the false energy excitement had briefly given him.

"See here," said Ralph, "I suggest that you take a little snooze. It may do you a heap of good."

"Wish that lady was here to sing one of her sweet songs!" murmured Van. "I just feel collapsed."

"If you will stay here quietly for a few minutes," suggested Ralph, "I will go to that house over yonder and get some water and a bite to eat. That will make you feel better. We had a lunch, but it was left behind on the locomotive."

"All right," said Van sleepily.

He seemed instantly to sink into slumber. Ralph waited a few moments, then he went over to a house on the outskirts of the town, all the time keeping an eye directed towards the spot where he had left his companion.

A woman stood in its open doorway. She had witnessed the jump from the locomotive, and referred to it at once.

"Where's the boy who was with you?" she inquired.

Ralph pointed to the spot where he had left Van.

"Was he hurt much?"

"I think not at all seriously. He's played out, though, and I have advised him to sleep a little."

"That's right," nodded the woman. "Natur's the panoseeds for all sich. That—and hot drops. You just take him a little phial of our vegetable hot drops. They'll fix him up like magic."

"Why, thank you, madam, I will, if you can spare them," said Ralph. "I was also going to ask you to put me up a bite of something to eat and let me have a bottle of water."

"Surely I will," and the good-hearted woman, pleased with Ralph's engaging politeness, bustled off and soon returned with a paper parcel, a two-quart bottle of water and a little phial filled with a dark liquid.

Ralph insisted on leaving her twenty-five cents, and went back to his friend with a parting admonition "to be sure and give him the hot drops soon as he woke up."

Van was sleeping profoundly, and Ralph did not disturb him. He sat watching the slumberer steadily. Van seemed to have placid, pleasant dreams, for he often smiled in his sleep, and once murmured the refrain of one of Mrs. Fairbanks' favorite songs.

An hour later Van turned over and sat up quickly. Ralph had been somewhat anxious, for he did not know what phase his companion's condition might assume at this new stage in the case. Van came upright, however, and dispelled vague fears—clear-eyed, smiling, bright as a dollar.

"Hello!" he hailed—"locomotive, friend, embankment. You're Fairbanks?"

"That's right," said Ralph—"you remember me, do you?"

"Sure, I do. What's in the bundle? Grub? and the bottle? Water? Give me a swig—I'm burned up with thirst."

"This first," said Ralph, producing the phial, and explaining its predicted potency. "Half of it—now some water, if you like."

Van choked and spluttered over the hot decoction. Ralph was immensely gratified as he followed it up by eating a good meal of the home-made pie, biscuits and cheese with which the kind-hearted woman at the nearest house had provided them.

Van's affliction had lifted like a cloud blown entirely away by a brisk, invigorating breeze.

"Rested and fed," he declared, with a sigh of luxurious contentment and satisfaction. "So I was crazy, eh?" he bluntly propounded.

"Certainly not."

"Idiotic, then?"

"Hardly," dissented Ralph. "My mother has grown to think almost as much of you as she does of me——"

"Bless her dear heart!"

"You've made our home lot look like the grounds of some summer villa," went on Ralph. "That don't look as though there was much the matter with you, does it?"

"But there was. It's all over now, though. My head is clear as a bell. I remember nearly everything. Now I want you to tell me the rest."

Ralph decided it was the time to do so. They would certainly be at cross-purposes on many perplexing points, until his companion had gained a clear comprehension of the entire situation.

There was never a more attentive listener. Van's eyes fairly devoured the narrator, and when the graphic recital was concluded, his wonderment, suspense, surprise and anxiety all gave way to one great manifestation of gratitude and delight, as he warmly grasped Ralph's hand.

"I never read, heard or dreamed of such treatment!" declared the warm-hearted boy. "You cared for me like a prince!"

"Seeing that I had so effectually put you out of business," suggested Ralph, "I fancy I had some responsibility in the case."

"I want to see your mother again," said Van, in a soft, quivering voice. "I want to tell her that she's woke up something good and happy and holy in me. I was a poor, friendless, homeless waif, and she kept me in a kind of paradise."

"Well, you have woke up to more practical realities of life," suggested Ralph, "and now what are you going to do next?"

But Van could not get away from the theme uppermost in his mind.

"And you are John Fairbanks' son?" he continued musingly. "And I landed against you first crack out of the box! That was queer, wasn't it? Some people would call it fate, wouldn't they? It's luck, anyhow—for you sure, for me maybe. The letter didn't tell you anything, though. Now what should I do? Say, Fairbanks, let me think a little, will you?"

Ralph nodded a ready acquiescence, and Van sat evidently going over the situation in his mind. As he looked up in an undecided way, Ralph said:

"I don't see any great occasion for secrecy or reflection. You were sent to deliver a letter?"

"Yes, that's so."

"To my father. My father is dead. We open the letter, as we have a right to do. It satisfies us that the writer knows considerable that might vitally affect our interests. Very well, it seems to me that your duty is to take me, the representative of John Fairbanks, straight to the person who wrote that letter."

"Yes," said Van, "that looks all clear and nice enough to you, but I don't know how he might take it."

"You mean the writer of the letter?"

"Of course."

"Whose name is Farwell Gibson."

"I didn't say so," declared Van evasively.

"But I know it, don't I? Have you any reason for concealing his identity?"

"Yes, sir, I have," declared Van flatly.

"Why?"

"I can't tell you that. See here, Fairbanks, you guess what you like, but until I have reported the result of my mission to—to him, I have no right to say another word."

"All right," assented Ralph. "It will all come out clear in the end, only before we drop the subject I would like to make another guess."

"What is it?" challenged Van.

"That man in the long linen duster in the one-horse gig was Farwell Gibson."