Ralph on the Engine/Chapter 27
A NEW MYSTERY
"Danger," shouted Ralph. "Quick, men. Do you see ahead there?"
Down the rails a red signal fuse was spluttering. It was quite a distance away, but they would reach it in less than sixty seconds if the present fearful speed of the train was kept up.
"Hear that?" roared the conductor in a hoarse, frightened tone.
Under the wheels there rang out a sharp crack, audible even above the roar of the rushing train—a track torpedo.
Ralph ran across the top of the forward car. As he reached its front end, Lyle turning discovered him.
He set up a wild yell, reached into the tender, seized a big sledgehammer lying there and braced back.
The young fireman was amazed and fairly terrified at his movements, for Lyle began raining blows on lever, throttle and everything in the way of machinery inside of the cab.
Past the red light, blotting it out, sped the train, turning a curve. Ralph anticipated a waiting or a coming train, but, to his relief, the rails were clear. Ahead, however, there was a great glow, and he now understood what the warnings meant.
The road at this point for two miles ran through a marshy forest, and this was all on fire. Ralph gained the tender.
"Back, back!" roared Lyle, facing him, weapon in hand. "She's fixed to go, can't stop her now. Whoop!"
With deep concern the young fireman noted the disabled machinery.
Half-way between centers, the big steel bar on the engineer's side of the locomotive had snapped in two and was tearing through the cab like a flail, at every revolution of the driver to which it was attached.
Just as Ralph jumped down from the tender, the locomotive entered the fire belt—in a minute more the train was in the midst of a great sweeping mass of fire. The train crew, blinded and singed, retreated. Ralph trembled at a sense of the terrible peril that menaced.
Lyle had drawn back from the lever or he would have been annihilated. Then as the fire swept into his face, he uttered a last frightful yell, gave a spring and landed somewhere along the side of the track.
The young fireman was fairly appalled. Such a situation he had never confronted before. The cab was ablaze in a dozen different places. The tops of the cars behind had also ignited. Ralph did not know what to do. Even if he could have stopped the train, it would be destruction to do so now.
Suddenly the locomotive dove through the last fire stretch. Ahead somewhere Ralph caught the fierce blast of a locomotive shrieking for orders. For life or death the train must be stopped.
He flew towards the throttle but could not reach it safely. The great bar threatened death. Twice he tried to reach the throttle and drew back in time to escape the descending bar. At a third effort he managed to slip the latch of the throttle, but received a fearful graze of one hand. Then, exhausted from exertion and excitement, the young fireman saw the locomotive slow down not a hundred yards from a stalled train.
The passenger coaches were soon vacated by the passengers, while the train crew beat out the flames where the cars were on fire.
The Limited Mail made no return trip to Stanley Junction that night. The following morning, however, when the swamp fire had subsided, the train was taken back to the Great Northern and then to terminus.
Lyle, the engineer, was found badly burned and delirious in the swamp, where he would have perished only for the water in which he landed when he jumped from the locomotive cab. He was taken to a hospital.
There was a great deal of talk about the latest exploit of the young fireman of the Limited Mail; and Ralph did not suffer any in the estimation of the railroad people and his many friends.
One evening he came home from an interview with a local lawyer concerning the interests of his young friend, Earl Danvers.
Ralph felt quite sanguine that he could obtain redress for Earl from his heartless relations, and was thinking about it when he discovered his mother pacing up and down the front walk of the house in an agitated, anxious way.
"Why, mother," said Ralph, "you look very much distressed."
"I am so, truly," replied Mrs. Fairbanks. "Ralph, we have met with a great loss."
"What do you mean, mother?"
"The house has been burglarized."
"Some time during the past three hours. I was on a visit to a sick neighbor, and returned to discover the rear door open. I went inside, and all the papers in the cabinet and some money we had there were gone."
"The papers?" exclaimed Ralph.
"Yes, every document concerning our claim against Gasper Farrington is missing."
"But what of Earl Danvers?" inquired Ralph. "Was he away from home?"
"He was when I left, but he must have returned during my absence."
"How do you know that?" asked Ralph.
"The cap he wore when he went away I found near the cabinet."
Ralph looked serious and troubled.
"I hope we have not been mistaken in believing Earl to be an honest boy," he said, and his mother only sighed.
Then Ralph began investigating. The rear door, he found, had been forced open. All the rooms and closets had been ransacked.
"This is pretty serious, mother," he remarked.
Earl Danvers did not return that day. This troubled and puzzled Ralph. He could not believe the boy to be an accomplice of Farrington, nor could he believe that he was the thief.
Next morning Ralph reported the loss to the town marshal. When he went down the road, he threw off a note where the men were working on the Short Line Route at its junction with the Great Northern. It was directed to Zeph Dallas, and in the note Ralph asked his friend to look up the two uncles of Earl Danvers and learn all he could about the latter.
It was two nights later when Mrs. Fairbanks announced to Ralph quite an important discovery. In cleaning house she had noticed some words penciled on the wall near the cabinet. They comprised a mere scrawl, as if written under difficulty, and ran:
"Earl prisoner. Two boys stealing things in house. Get the old coat I wore."
"Why, what can this mean?" said Ralph. "Earl certainly wrote this. A prisoner? two boys? the thieves? Get the old coat? He means the one he wore when he came here. What can that have to do with this business? Mother, where is the coat?"
"Why, Ralph," replied Mrs. Fairbanks, "I sold it to a rag man last week."