Ralph of the Roundhouse/Chapter 4
IKE SLUMP'S DINNER PAIL
Ralph hurried home. His mother had gone temporarily to some neighbors, he judged, for the house was open, and the midday lunch he had purposely avoided was still spread on the table.
He ate with a zest, but in a hurry. His mind was working actively, and he hoped to accomplish results before he had an interview with his mother, and was glad when he got away from the house again without meeting her.
Ralph went down to the depot. He was not in a communicative mood, and did not exchange greetings with many friends there. When the 5.11 train came in there were two packages to deliver. He attended to these promptly, and was back at the express shed just as the agent was closing up for the day.
"All square, Fairbanks?" he inquired, as Ralph handed him the receipt book.
"Yes." nodded Ralph. "They paid me. I want to thank you for all the little jobs you have thrown in my way, Mr. More. It has helped me through wonderfully. You haven't anything permanent you could fit me into, have you?"
"Eh?" ejaculated the agent, with a critical stare at Ralph. "Why, no. Looking for a regular job, Fairbanks?"
"I've got to," answered Ralph.
"Any branch of it."
"Yes, I think it's my line."
"I think so, too," nodded the agent decisively, "You haven't made loaf and play of what little you've done for me. There's no show here, though. I get only forty-five dollars a month, and have to help with the freight at that, but if you are headed for the presidency—"
"Start in the right way, and that is at the bottom of the ladder. You don't want office work?"
"That would take me to general headquarters at Springfield," demurred Ralph, "and I don't want to leave mother alone—just yet."
"I see. There's nothing at the shops down at Acton, where you could go and come home every day, except a trade, and you're not the boy to stop at master mechanic."
"Oh, come now! Mr. More"
"You can't look too far ahead," declared the agent sapiently. "Dropping jollying, though, we narrow down to real service. There's your starting point, my boy, plain, sure and simple, and don't you forget it—and don't you miss it!"
He extended his finger down the rails.
"The roundhouse?" said Ralph, following his indication.
"The roundhouse, Fairbanks, the first step, and I never knew a genuine, all-around railroad man who didn't make his start in the business in the oil bins."
"What is the main qualification to recommend a fellow?" asked Ralph.
"An old suit of clothes, a tough hide, and lots of grit."
"I think, then, I can come well indorsed," laughed Ralph. "Whom do I see?"
"Usually the ambitious father of a future railway president goes through the regular application course at headquarters," explained the agent, "but if you want quick action—"
"See the foreman."
"Who is he?"
"Tim Forgan. If he takes you on, and you get to be a fixture, the application route is handy later, when you think you deserve promotion."
"Thank you," said Ralph, and walked away thoughtfully.
He had five dollars in his pocket that Ned Talcott had given him for his uniform, and eighty cents in loose change. This made Ralph feel quite free and easy. He had not a single disturbing thought on his mind at present except the broken window at the old factory, and that was easily fixed up, he told himself.
So, in quite an elevated frame of mind, Ralph walked down the rails. The roundhouse was his objective point. Ralph had been there many a time before, but only as a visitor.
Now he was interested in a practical way, and the oil sheds, dog house, turntable and other adjuncts of this favored center of activity fascinated him more then ever.
He had a nodding acquaintance with some of the firemen and engineers, but was not fortunate enough to meet any of these on the present occasion.
Ralph went along the hard-beaten cinder path, worn by many feet, that circled the one-story structure which sheltered the locomotives, and glancing through the high-up open windows caught the railroad flavor more and more as he viewed the stalls holding this and that puffing, dying or stone-dead "iron horse."
Over the sill of one of these windows there suddenly protruded a black, greasy hand holding a square dinner pail. It came out directly over Ralph's head, and halted him.
Its owner sounded a low whistle and a return whistle quite as low and suspicious echoed behind Ralph.
"Take it, and hustle!" followed from beyond the window, and almost mechanically Ralph Fairbanks put up his hand, the handle of the pail slipped into his fingers, and he uttered an ejaculation.
For the pail was as heavy as if loaded with gold, and bore him quite doubled down before he got his equilibrium. Then it was jerked from his grasp, and a gruff voice said:
"Hands off! What you meddling for?"
"Meddling?" retorted Ralph abruptly, and looked the speaker over with suspicion. He was a ragged, unkempt man of about forty, with a swarthy, vicious face. "I was told to take it, wasn't I?"
"Hullo! what's up? Who are you? Oh! Fairbanks."
The speaker was the person who had passed out the dinner pail, and who, apparently aroused by the colloquy outside, had clambered to a bench, and now thrust his head out of the window.
He looked startled at first, then directed a quick, meaning glance at the tramp, who disappeared as if by magic. The boy overhead scowled darkly at Ralph, and then thought better of it, and tried to appear friendly.
"I give the poor beggar what's left of my dinner for carrying my pail home, so I won't be bothered with it," he said.
The speaker's face showed he did not at all believe that keen-witted Ralph Fairbanks accepted this gauzy explanation, after hefting that pail, but Ralph said nothing.
"What's up, Fairbanks?" inquired his shock-headed interlocutor at the window—"sort of inspecting things?"
Ralph, preparing to pass on, nodded silently.
"Trying to break in, eh?"
"Is there any chance?" inquired Ralph, pausing slightly.
Ike Slump laughed boisterously. He was a year or two older than Ralph, but had a face prematurely developed with cunning and tobacco, and looked twenty-five.
"Yes," he said, "if you're anxious to get boiled, blistered, oiled and blinded twenty times a day, be kicked from platform to pit, and paid just about enough to buy arnica and sticking plaster!"
"Bad as that?" interrogated Ralph dubiously.
"For a fact!"
"Oh, well—there's something beyond."
"When you get out of the oil and cinders, and up into the sand and steam."
"Huh! lots of chance. I've been here six months, and I haven't had a smell of firing yet—even second best."
Ralph again nodded, and again started on. He did not care to have anything to do with Ike Slump. The latter belonged to the hoodlum gang of Stanley Junction, and whenever his crowd had met the better juvenile element, there had always been trouble.
Ike's ferret face worked queerly as he noted Ralph's departure. He seemed struggling with uneasy emotions, as if one or two troublesome thoughts bothered him.
"Hold on, Fairbanks!" he called, edging farther over the sill. "I say, that dinner pail—"
"Oh, I'm not interested in your dinner pail," observed Ralph.
"Course not—what is there to be curious about? I say, though, was you in earnest about getting a job here?"
"I must get work somewhere."
"And it will be railroading?"
"If I can make it."
"You're the kind that wins," acknowledged Ike. "Got any coin, now?"
"Suppose I have?"
Ike's weazel-like eyes glowed.
"Suppose you have? Then I can steer you up against a real investment of the A 1 class."
Ralph looked quizzically incredulous.
"I can," persisted Ike Slump. "You want to get in here to work, don't you? Well, you can't make it."
"Why can't I?"
"Without my help—I can give you that help. You give me a dollar, and I'll give you a tip."
"What kind of a tip?"
"About a vacancy."
"Is there going to be one?"
"There is, I can tell you when, and I can give you first chance on the game, and deliver the goods."
Ralph was interested.
"If you are telling the truth," he said finally, "I'd risk half a doliar."
Ralph took out the coin. A sight of it settled the matter for Ike.
He reached for it eagerly.
"All right, I'm the vacancy. You watch around, for soon as I get my pay to-morrow I'm going to bolt. It's confidential, though, Fairbanks—you'll remember that?"
Ike Slump was a notorious liar, but Ralph believed him in the present instance. Anyhow, he felt he was making progress. He planned to be on hand the next day, prepared for the expected vacancy, and incidentally wondered what had made Ike Slump's dinner pail so tremendously heavy, and, also, as to the identity of the trampish individual who had disappeared with it so abruptly.
He wandered about half a mile down the ttacks where they widened out from the main line into the freight yards, and selected a pile of ties remote from any present activity in the neighborhood to have a quiet think.
He determined to see the foreman, Tim Forgan, the first thing in the morning, and discover what the outlook was in general. If absolutely turned down, he would await the announced resignation of Mr. Ike Slump.
Ralph understood that a green engine wiper in the roundhouse was paid six dollars a week to commence on if a boy, nine dollars if a man. He picked up a torn freight ticket drifting by in the breeze, and fell to figuring industriously, and the result was pleasant and reassuring.
Ralph looked up, as with prodigious whistlings a single locomotive came tearing down the rails, took the outer main track, and was lost to sight.
Not two minutes later a second described the same maneuver. Ralph arose, wondering somewhat.
Looking down the rails towards the depot, he noticed unusual activity in the vicinity of the roundhouse.
A good many hands were gathered at the turntable, as if some excitement was up. Then a third engine came down the rails rapidly, and Ralph noticed that the main "out" signal was turned to "clear tracks."
As the third locomotive passed him, he noticed that the engineer strained his sight ahead in a tensioned way, and the fireman piled in the coal for the fullest pressure head of steam.
Ralph made a start for home, reached a crossroad, and was turning down it when a new shrill series of whistles directed his attention to locomotive No. 4. It came down the rails in the same remarkable and reckless manner as its recent predecessors.
"Something's up ! " decided Ralph, with an uncontrollable thrill of interest and excitement—"I wonder what?"