Ralph on the Overland Express/22
IKE SLUMP AGAIN
Ralph knew at once that he had fallen into a trap of some kind. He struggled violently, but it was of no avail. Two persons had slipped up behind him, two pairs of hands were holding him captive.
"Who are you?" demanded the young engineer sharply, over his shoulder.
There was no response, but he was forced forward clear back into the shed. The front door was kicked shut. Ralph was thrown roughly among a heap of junk. He recovered himself quickly and faced his assailants.
The light in the place was dim and uncertain. The only glazed aperture in the shed was a small window at the rear. With considerable interest Ralph strained his gaze in an endeavor to make out his captors. Then in immense surprise he recognized both.
"Ike Slump and Jim Evans," he spoke aloud involuntarily.
"You call the roll," observed Evans with a sneer.
Ralph reflected rapidly. The last he had heard of this precious brace of comrades, they had been sentenced to prison for a series of bold thefts from the railroad company. How they had gotten free he could not decide. He fancied that they had in some way escaped. At all events, they were here, and the mind of the young engineer instantly ran to one of two theories as to their plans: Either the gang at Stanley Junction had hired them to annoy or imperil him, or Slump and Evans were inspired by motives of personal revenge.
Ike Slump had been a trouble to Ralph when he first began his ambitious railroad career. It was Slump who had hated him from the start when Ralph began his apprenticeship with the Great Northern, as related in "Ralph of the Roundhouse." Ralph had detected Slump and others in a plot to rob the railroad company of a lot of brass journal fittings. From that time on through nearly every stage of Ralph's upward career, Slump had gone steadily down the easy slope of crime.
When he linked up with Evans, his superior in years and cunning, he had several times sought revenge against Ralph, and but for the vigilance and courage of the young engineer his life might have paid the forfeit.
Evans acted promptly, wasting no words. He had drawn a weapon from his pocket, and this he handed to Slump. Then he turned a fierce, lowering visage upon Ralph.
"Fairbanks," he began, "you're to go with us—where, don't matter, nor why. We owe you one, as you've known for a long time, and if it wasn't that we're here for the money there is in it, and not revenge, I'd take pleasure in balancing the months you got us in jail by crippling you so you'd never pull another lever. This is business, though, pure and simple. If you get hurt, you can blame yourself. You've got to go with us.
"Why have I?" demanded Ralph.
"Because we say so. There's a man quite anxious to see you."
"Who is he?"
"That's telling. He wants to ask you just one question. A civil answer given, and you are free as the wind. Slump, take this pistol, get up on that pile of rails, and guard Fairbanks. If he starts to run, shoot—understand?"
"I guess I do!" snarled the graceless Ike, climbing to the top of the pile of rails. "When I think of what this fellow has done to down me, it makes my blood boil."
"I'll be back with a wagon in fifteen minutes," said Evans. "You take your medicine quietly, Fairbanks, and nobody will get hurt. Try any capers, and blame yourself."
The speaker proceeded to the door of the shed, opened it, and closed it after himself as if everything was settled his way. Ike Slump, regarding the captive with a venomous expression of face, sat poising his weapon with the manner of a person glad to have an occasion arise that would warrant its use under the instructions given by his partner.
Ralph summed up the situation and counted his chances. It was apparent to him that only a bold, reckless dash could avail him. There was no chance to pounce upon and disarm the enemy, however, and Ralph hesitated about seeking any risks with a fellow who held him so completely at his mercy.
"How does it seem?" jeered Ike, after a spell of silence, but Ralph did not answer at once. He had experienced no actual fear when so suddenly seized. Now, although he could not disregard a certain risk and menace in the custody of two of his worst enemies, a study of the face of the youth before him made the young railroader marvel as to what he could find enticing in doing wrong, and he actually felt sorrow and sympathy, instead of thinking of his own precarious situation.
"Slump," spoke Ralph finally, "I am sorry for you."
"That so? Ho! ho! truly?" gibed the graceless Ike. "What game are you up to? Don't try any. I warn you. You're clever, Ralph Fairbanks, but I'm slick. You see, the tables have turned. I knew they would, some time."
"What is it you fellows want of me, anyhow?" ventured Ralph, hoping to induce Ike to disclose something.
"Nothing to worry about," declared Slump carelessly. "You'll soon know. Say, though, Fairbanks, don't stir the lion, don't pull his tail."
"You seem to be talking about menageries," observed Ralph.
"You'll think you're in one, sure enough, if you rile Evans up. He won't stand any fooling, you hear me. Shut up, now. We'll leave discussing things till this job is over and done with. Then I may have something to tell you on my own personal account, see?" and Ike tried to look very fierce and dangerous. "I'll give you something to think of, though. You're going to tell a certain man all you know about a certain fellow, and you're going to fix it so that the certain man can find the certain fellow, or you don't run 999 for a time to come, I'll bet you."
"Who is this certain man?" inquired Ralph.
"I don't know his name. He's a stranger to me.
"And who is the certain fellow?"
"I know that one—I don't mind telling you. Then shut up. You've a way of worming things out of people, and I'm not going to help you any—it's Marvin Clark."
"I thought it was," nodded the young engineer reflectively; and then there was a spell of silence.
Ralph could only conjecture as to the significance of Ike's statement. There certainly was some vivid interest that centered about the missing son of the railroad president. That name, Marvin Clark, had been used to lure Ralph to the old shed. Now it was again employed. It took a far flight of fancy to discern what connection young Clark might have with these two outcasts—worse, criminals. Ralph decided that their only mission in any plot surrounding Clark was that of hired intermediaries. He did not know why, but somehow he came to the conclusion that Evans and Slump were acting in behalf of the pretended Lord Montague. Why and wherefore he could not imagine, but he believed that through circumstances now developing he would soon find out.
Slump shifted around on the pile of rails a good deal. They afforded anything but a comfortable resting place. Finally he seemed to decide that he would change his seat. He edged along with the apparent intention of reaching a heap of spike kegs. He never, however, took his eye away from Ralph. Ike, too, held his weapon at a continual menace, and gave his captive no chance to act against him or run for the door.
Near the end of the pile of rails, Ike prepared to descend backwards to the spike kegs. He planned to do this without for an instant relaxing his vigilance. As he reached out one foot to touch the rails, there was an ominious grinding sound. He had thrown his weight on one rail. The contact pushed this out of place.
Once started, the whole heap began to shift. Ralph, quite awed, saw the pile twist out of shape, and, tumbling in their midst, was his watcher. A scream of mortal agony rang through the old shed, and Ike Slump landed on the floor with half a ton of rails pinioning his lower limbs.