Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 29
Young Slavin was marking some initials on the current date on a big calendar hanging up on the door of the coat closet of the depot switch tower.
It was his third day of service. As old Jack Knight came up the trap ladder, his grim face broke into an expression of sincere approbation. He took a keen look around the place.
"Neat and tidy," he observed. "You'll do, Slavin. But what's those hieroglyphics on that calendar for?"
"Oh, just a memoranda," explained the new tower hand, with a conscious flush.
"'P. I. N.' eh?" said Knight.
The initials were blue-penciled in the date space of each of the three days of Slavin's employment.
"What's the answer? Something about a coupling pin?"
"Naw. Those initials, Mr. Knight, represent the boiling down of the rules for employes printed on the card of instructions."
"Yes, sir, Promptness, Industry, Neatness. I'm trying to fill that bill."
"You've done it so far," observed old Jack. "I hear you show up an hour before time."
"Can't sleep, thinking of my grand luck!" chuckled Slavin.
"You're certainly all the time fussing around, if that's industry," went on Knight. "Those windows shine like headlights. You've oiled up everything till the lack of creaking makes a fellow lonesome. As to neatness—well, if you haven't actually scrubbed the floor here!"
"I thought it needed it," said Slavin.
"Keep it up, son," encouraged old Jack. "You're making a fine beginning."
Slavin went singing and whistling about his work the whole day long. It did Ralph's heart good, when he arrived, to see his protégé happy, industrious, and headed in the right direction.
Things were going on famously smooth and satisfactory at the switch tower. A friend of old Farrington's, and by no means of Ralph's, one Bardon, an inspector, had looked over the layout with a critical eye the day previous.
"You'll find no flaws here, friend," old Jack had announced.
Bardon had to admit that the switch tower regime was in perfect working order.
Since the escape of Ike Slump and Mort Bemis and the new disappearance of Van Sherwin, not a clew as to the course or whereabouts of the missing trio had reached either Ralph or his friends.
There had been a big row up at the jail, and one of the under officers had been discharged under suspicion.
It was evident that someone had smuggled tools and ropes into the jail, for these were found in the cell through the forced window of which Slump and Bemis had escaped.
These could hardly have passed proper inspection, if hidden in food or clothing brought to the prisoners by outsiders.
"Of course old Farrington's man did the job," asserted Slavin.
"Of course he did," assented Ralph. "It was the cheapest way of giving his troublesome pensioners their liberty."
Van's message to Ralph had a very encouraging tone to it. He evidently had a clew to Mrs. Davis' place of confinement, and "he had the stolen documents."
As the days went by, however, Ralph began to grow anxious, and his mother shared his worry. Ralph had told her everything concerning the rifled tin box. Mrs. Fairbanks was mainly troubled over the possible imprisonment and mistreatment of Mrs. Davis.
"The poor lady has suffered a great deal of trouble." she remarked. "Her mind was none too strong. It is wicked to torture her further, Ralph, can we do nothing to force Mr. Farrington to tell where she is?"
"He would deny having ever heard of Mrs. Davis," asserted Ralph convincedly. "Of course, if any mishap or failure comes to Van, and he doesn't report soon, I will see a lawyer and try and compel Farrington to some action. He is a shrewd, cruel man, though, mother. I am afraid our only hope is in Van, or the recapture of Slump and Bemis."
"Have they tried to find them?"
"Mr. Adair has been searching for them everywhere. He believes that Farrington assisted in their escape, and gave them a large amount of money to leave the country."
Gasper Farrington was not having a very happy time of it. Ralph decided this that morning, as he noticed the magnate pass on the other side of the street.
Farrington looked bent, old, and troubled. He had sustained a total loss at the factory fire. His tricky methods were becoming known to the public. He was losing the respect of people. This he realized, and showed it both in bearing and face.
Ralph was thinking about all this about three o'clock in the afternoon, when the depot master's messenger came up the tower ladder. He had a pocketful of mail.
"Postal card for you, Fairbanks," he said.
Ralph took the card and went to the window to inspect it. The postal was blurred over and wrinkled, back and front. It looked as if it had been posted after being wetted by snow or rain, or in some stage of its transmission had fallen into a mess of wet dirt.
Its address was clear enough. It bore a railway mail postmark. On its reverse side the letters had run with the moisture.
"From Van," said Ralph, setting himself the difficult task of deciphering the blurred lines. "I know his handwriting, and it is signed 'V.' It was written in a hurry, that looks certain. What has he to say?"
Ralph conned the imperfect message over and over. After many interruptions, at the end of fully half an hour's careful study, these were the only coherent words he could formulate from the blurred scrawl:
"——hurry—and important. Don't miss telling—Slump—Bemis—Wednesday evening—safe—bank shipment—express—found out, and special freight—sure to be there—not later—near South Dover—don't delay a minute—will soon—back at Stanley Junction."
"What is he trying to tell me?" murmured Ralph in a puzzled and anxious way, after a third and fourth reading of the perplexing message.
He finally gave up guessing what the missing links in the postal screed might be.
"One thing is certain," reflected Ralph. "Wednesday evening something is on the books. The only other definite clew is South Dover. Does he mean for me to meet him there? Does he mean that Slump and Bemis are in that neighborhood? There is something about a bank shipment, express, and special freight. That means the railroad is somehow interested. 'Don't miss,' he writes, 'don't delay.' I won't," resolved Ralph keenly. "I wouldn't dare to, with such a word from Van. He has kept mum all along. Now that he does speak out, it certainly means something important."
Ralph thought things over for another half-hour, and then made up his mind what he would do.
He consulted the train schedules. Then he explained to Knight the necessity for a brief absence from duty. Without seeing Slavin, who had been sent for some report blanks to the depot, Ralph hurried home.
He told his mother about the postal card, dressed for the trip down the road, and caught the 4.30 train. Ralph was cordially invited to a seat in the cab by his loyal old friend, Engineer Griscom.
It was nearly dusk when the train reached South Dover. The place was only a name. There was not a building within a mile of the tool sheds and water tank that marked the spot.
The train slowed up for Ralph, who jumped off. He waved his hand to Griscom in adieu, and looked all about him.
South Dover was a switching and make-up point for the accommodation of Dover freight transfers. It had a dozen sidings and spurs. Freight coming into Dover on a north destination was switched here, and made ready to be taken up by through trains.
A man on a track bicycle had just set some lights. He whirled away towards Dover as Ralph stood looking about him.
No other human being was in sight. On a near siding stood half a dozen freight cars. Over on another track, near the water tower, stood a dead freight dummy.
"I can't make out much here," reflected Ralph. "No one in sight, no indication why Van mentioned the place."
He strolled over to the dead locomotive. Its tender was full of coal. Ralph opened the furnace door. Everything was ready to kindle up, and the gauge showed a full water supply.
"I see," mused Ralph. "There is to be some switching, or a night run. I don't know how soon, though. Well, I'll hang around a bit. Something may develop."
Ralph walked down the short line of freights, casually inspecting the cars. As he came to the last one he dodged back in a very lively fashion.
Climbing up the embankment to the left were four persons. They had just emerged, it seemed, from thick underbrush lining the tracks.
Two of them were grown men—bearded, rough-looking fellows, resembling tramps.
The other two persons of the group had a prompt and distinct interest to Ralph. He at once recognized Ike Slump and Mort Bemis.
They were coming directly towards the freights. Ralph saw the danger of discovery.
The door of the car next to the last box freight was ajar.
Ralph leaped up into the car just as Ike Slump reached the top of the railroad embankment.