Ralph on the Engine/Chapter 21
A FRIEND IN NEED
There was a sluggish current to the creek and as soon as the scow got into midstream, it proceeded steadily on its voyage.
"This is better than staying at the old mooring place," reasoned Ralph. "Of course, Slump and Bemis will return there and search for the scow. Before they do, I hope I will have drifted past some house or settlement where I can call out for assistance."
Ralph, however, was not destined to meet with ready relief. The scow floated along banks wild and timbered, and, during a vigilant watch at the little window of over two hours, he saw no human being or habitation.
Finally the scow slowed up, its course became irregular, it bumped into some obstacle, turned around, and Ralph discovered the cause of the stoppage. A mass of logs and other debris had formed clear across the creek at one point. This the scow lined, edging slowly along as if drawn by some counter-current.
In a few minutes the craft had worked its way into a cut-off from the creek. It floated slowly in among a swampy wilderness of reeds and stunted trees, came to halt at a shallow, and there remained stationary.
"Why, this is worse than being in the creek," ruminated Ralph, with some concern. "There was a chance of hailing some one there sooner or later, but in this isolated spot I stand the risk of starving to death."
The young fireman was both hungry and thirsty. He made another desperate attempt to force the scuttle, but found it an utter impossibility. Then he took out his pocket knife. There was one last chance of escape in sight. If he could cut the wood away around the bolt of the scuttle cover, he might force it open.
Ralph could not work to any advantage, for the top of the hold was fully a foot above his head. However, patiently and hopefully he began his task. Bit by bit, the splinters and shavings of wood dropped about him.
"Too bad, that ends it," he exclaimed suddenly, as there was a sharp snap and the knife blade broke in two.
The situation was now a very serious one Ralph tried to view things calmly, but he was considerably worried. He was somewhat encouraged, however, a little later, as he noticed that along the dry land lining the swampy cut-off there were signs of a rough wagon road.
"All I can do now is to watch and wait," he declared. "I guess I will take a look over the contents of those satchels."
Once started at the task, Ralph became greatly interested. He was amazed at what the documents before him revealed of the plans and villainies of old Gasper Farrington. There was evidence enough, indeed, as Slump had said, to send the village magnate to the penitentiary.
"This information will be of great value to the railroad people," said Ralph. "It would enable them to at once break the strike."
Ralph gave utterance to a cry of delight and surprise. He ran to the little window of the scow. Not fifty feet away was a horse and wagon. Its driver had shouted out the word to halt. Now he dismounted and was arranging a part of the harness where it had come loose.
"Hello, there! Joe! Joe! hurry this way!" fairly shouted Ralph.
"Hi, who's that, where are you?" demanded the person hailed "In the scow. Ralph! Locked in! Get me out!"
"I declare! It can't be Ralph. Well! well!" Nimbly as his crutches would allow him; Limpy Joe came towards the scow. He halted as he neared the window where he could make out the anxious face of his friend.
"What are you ever doing there? How did you get in there? Why, this is wonderful, my finding you in this way," cried the cripple.
"I'll tell you all that when I get out," promised Ralph. "All you have to do is to spring back the bolt catch on the cover to the hold scuttle."
"I'll soon have you out then," said Joe, and with alacrity he waded into the water, got aboard the old craft, and in another minute Ralph had lifted himself free of his prison place.
"Whew! what a relief," aspirated the young fireman joyfully. "Joe, it is easy explaining how I came to be here—the natural sequence of events—but for you to be on hand to save me is marvelous."
"I don't see why," said Joe. "I have been coming here for the last three days."
"What for?" inquired Ralph.
"Mother told me you had taken the horse and wagon and had gone off on a peddling trip," said Ralph.
"Yes, I sold out a lot of cheap shoes to farmers which I got at a bargain at an auction," explained Joe. "Then I struck a fine new scheme. It brought me here. I'll explain to you later. Your story is the one that interests me. Tell me how you came to be in that scow, Ralph."
The young fireman brought up the two satchels from the hold of the old craft, and briefly related to Joe the incidents of his experience with Farrington, Slump and the others.
"I say, you have done a big thing in getting those satchels," said Joe, "and you want to place them in safe hands at once. Come ashore, and I'll drive you to the nearest railroad town. You don't want to risk meeting any of your enemies until you have those papers out of their reach."
When they came up to the wagon, Ralph gazed at its piled-np contents in surprise. The wagon bottom was filled with walnuts and butternuts. There must have been over twelve bushels of them. On top of them was spread a lot of damp rushes and all kinds of wild flowers, mosses and grasses. Two large mud turtles lay under the wagon seat.
"Why, what does all that layout mean?" exclaimed Ralph, in amazement.
"That," said little Joe, with sparkling eyes, "is an advertising scheme. Some time ago I discovered the finest nut grove in the timber yonder you ever saw. I suppose I could in time have gathered up a hundred wagon loads of them. I intend to make a heap of money out of them. A couple of days ago, though, I thought out a great idea. You know Woods, the dry goods man at the Junction?"
"Yes," nodded Ralph.
"He is a wide-awake, enterprising fellow, and I told him of my scheme. It caught his fancy at once. The plan was this: every week, I am to trim up his show window with what we call 'a nature feature.' We keep pace with vegetation. This week we show a swamp outfit; next week pumpkins and the like; the following week autumn leaves. We work in live objects like turtles to give motion to the scene. Do you catch on?"
"It is an excellent idea and will attract lots of attention," declared Ralph.
"You bet it will," assented his comrade with enthusiasm. "Anyhow, my pay is fine and I expect to work other towns in the same way. I will show you the most artistic display window you ever saw when I get this load of truck to town."
In about two hours they reached a railroad station, and somewhat later Ralph caught a train for the city. He went at once to the office of the president of the Great Northern. There was a long interview. As Ralph left the railroad magnate his face was pleased and his heart light and hopeful.
"Fairbanks," said Mr. Grant, "I cannot express my satisfaction at your discoveries. It is as we supposed—some individual has been encouraging the strikers. There are ample proofs among these papers of the fact that Gasper Farrington has hired the strikers to commit all kinds of misdeeds to scare stockholders of the road. He has thus been enabled to buy up their stock at a reduced figure, to make an enormous profit when the strike is over. He had a scheme to tap our wires and cause further complications and trouble. Within a week the backbone of the strike will be broken, and we shall not forget your agency in assisting us to win out."
Ralph went back to Stanley Junction that same day. He related all his varied adventures to his mother that evening.
"One thing I discovered from those documents in the satchels," said Ralph. "Farrington has transferred all his property to Bartlett so we could not collect the money he owes us."
"Then we shall lose our twenty thousand dollars after all," said Mrs. Fairbanks anxiously.
"Wait and see," replied Ralph, with a mysterious smile. "I am not yet through with Gasper Farrington."