Ralph on the Engine/Chapter 19
THE WIRE TAPPERS
When the door of the office that Ralph was watching closed again and was locked, the young fireman approached the room. He was very sure that some important move against the railroad was meditated by the two men he had just seen, and he was anxious to overhear their conversation if possible.
To his intense satisfaction Ralph found that a coal box rested under the clouded-glass window of the office looking into the hallway. This window was down from the top some inches. Ralph clambered up on the coal box, got to the side of the window, fixed his eye at a small space where the glass was broken, and prepared to listen to the words of the two men he had in view.
Both sat in chairs now. Bartlett looked brisk and pleased; the ex-telegraph operator was unkempt, rather sullen, and acted like a man under orders on some unpleasant duty.
"Well, Morris," said the former, "all ready, are you? Tools and wire in that bag?"
"Batteries and all, complete outfit," responded the other. "What's the programme?"
"You haven't mentioned about my employing you to any one?"
"And have arranged to stay away from town for several days?"
"A week, if you like, at ten dollars a day you promised me," answered Morris.
"Very good. Let me see. There's a train about 10 o'clock."
"There is, if the strikers will let it run out," said Morris.
"Oh, they will. I have arranged all that," chuckled Bartlett. "They'll even help it on, knowing I'm aboard."
"That so?" muttered Morris. "You must have a pull somewhere."
"I have, or at least money has, and I control the money," grinned Bartlett. "You are to come with me down the line about twenty miles. You'll be told then about this special job."
Bartlett got up and bustled about. He packed a great many papers in a satchel, and finally announced that they had better be starting for the depot.
"Any little by-play you see on the train," said Bartlett, "help along, mind you."
"Why, what do you mean?" inquired Morris.
"You'll see when we get there," replied Bartlett enigmatically.
When they reached the depot the two men got aboard the one passenger coach of the night accommodation. There was a combination express car ahead. Ralph went to the messenger in charge and arranged to have free access to do as he desired.
When the train started up, he opened the rear door of the car and commanded a clear view into the passenger coach. The men he was watching sat side by side, engaged in conversation. There were only a few passengers aboard.
Ralph kept his eye on the two men. He noticed that Bartlett consulted his watch frequently and glanced as often from the car window. Finally, when the brakeman was out on the rear platform and the conductor at the front of the coach, the young fireman saw Bartlett quickly draw a small screwdriver from his pocket. Hiding its handle in his palm and letting the blade run along one finger, he dropped his arm down the seat rail into the middle of the aisle.
Morris watched towards the rear platform, Bartlett kept his eye on the conductor. His hand worked against the floor of the car. Finally he drew up his arm, put the screwdriver in his pocket and once more resumed his watch on the outside landscape.
There was a sharp signal, and the train gave a jerk. Bartlett arose to his feet. The next instant he fell fiat headlong, and lay apparently insensible on the floor of the coach.
The conductor ran outside. The train started up again. Ralph, from the open doorway, heard the engineer shout back something about a false signal, presumably the work of the strikers. The train proceeded on its way.
It was not until then, as he re-entered the coach, that the conductor became aware of the prostrate man on the floor and Morris and other passengers gathering around him in excitement and solicitude. Ralph ventured across the platform near to the door of the passenger coach.
Bartlett, seemingly unconscious, was lifted to a seat. He soon opened his eyes, but feigned intense pain in his side, and acted the injured man to perfection. He began to explain, pointing to the floor. The conductor investigated. Ralph saw him draw a long brass screw into sight.
"A clever game," murmured the young fireman. "What a rascal the fellow is! He is laying the foundation for a damage suit."
Morris made himself busy, taking the names of witnesses. When the train stopped, Bartlett had to be almost lifted from the coach. Ralph alighted, too, and kept in the shadow. As soon as the train left, Bartlett was able to walk about unassisted.
The little town they had arrived at was dark and silent, and the two men met no one as they proceeded down its principal street. Then they turned to the south and walked a distance of about a mile. There was a kind of a grove lining the railroad. At its center they reached a lonely hut.
"Open up, there!" shouted Bartlett, pounding on its door with a stick he had picked up.
A light soon showed through the cracks of the board shutters.
"Who is there?" demanded a voice from the inside.
"All right—come in."
"Gasper Farrington," murmured Ralph, as he recognized the occupant of the hut.
It was the magnate of Stanley Junction, still disguised, just as he had been the last night Ralph had seen him at the home of Jim Evans. The three men disappeared within the house. Ralph approached and went cautiously about the place. He could not find a single point where he could look into the hut.
The young fireman felt that it was very important that he should learn what was going on within the house. He at length discovered a way of gaining access to at least one part of it. This was at the rear where a high stack of old hay stood. It almost touched the hut, and its top was very near to a sashless aperture in the attic.
Ralph scaled the stack with some difficulty and reached its top. In another moment he was inside the attic. It was low, the rafters were few and far between, and, as he crept over these, they began to sway and creak in an alarming way.
"This won't do at all," murmured the youth in some dismay, for it seemed that one more movement would carry down the entire ceiling below. He tried to retreat. There was a great cracking sound, and before he could help himself the young fireman went sprawling into the room below in the midst of a shower of plaster and laths.
"Hello!" shouted Bartlett, jumping up from a chair in consternation.
"I should say so," exclaimed Morris, dodging about out of the way of falling bits of plaster from the ceiling.
"A spy!" cried Farrington, "a spy! Why, it's Ralph Fairbanks!"
The young fireman stood surrounded by the three men, trying to clear his half-blinded eyes. He was seized and hustled about, thrown into a chair, and regained his wonted composure to find Gasper Farrington confronting him with an angry face.
"So, it's you, is it—you, again?" spoke the latter, gazing at Ralph with a glance full of ill will."
"Yes," responded the youth. "I can't deny it very well, can I?"
"How do you come to be up in that attic? How long have you been there? What are you up to, anyway?" shouted the excited Farrington.
"Don't ask me any questions for I shall not answer them," retorted Ralph nervily. "Here I am. Make the best of it."
"See here," said Bartlett, a deep frown on his face. "This looks bad for us. Morris, watch that young fellow a minute or two."
He and Farrington went into the next room. There was a low-toned consultation. When they came back the lawyer carried a piece of rope in his hand. It was usetess for Ralph to resist, and the three men soon had him securely bound. He was carried into a small adjoining room, thrown on a rude mattress and locked in.
For nearly half-an-hour he could hear the drone of low voices in the adjoining room. Then the door was unlocked, and Farrington came in with a light and made sure that the captive was securely bound.
"You are going to leave here, then?" asked Bartlett.
"Don't I have to?" demanded Farrington. "This fellow has located us. I'll take you and Morris to the place I told you about, and move my traps out of here early in the morning."
"What are you going to do with Fairbanks?" inquired Bartlett.
"I'm thinking about that," retorted Farrington in a grim way. "It's the chance of a lifetime to settle with him. You leave that to me."
The speakers, shortly after this, left the hut with Morris. Ralph found he could not release himself, and patiently awaited developments. His captors had left the light in the next room and the door open, and he could see on a table the satchel the lawyer had brought with him from his office.
The sight of it caused Ralph to make renewed efforts for freedom. He strained at his bonds strenuously. Finally a strand gave way.
It was just as he began to take hope that he might acquire his liberty before his captors returned, that a sudden disaster occurred that made the young fireman fear for his life.
Some more of the ceiling plastering fell. It struck the lamp on the table, upset it, and in an instant the room was ablaze.