Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 3

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CHAPTER III


A CLOSE GRAZE


Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack!

Ralph's strained hearing caught these sounds vaguely. All his attention was centered on the locomotive apparently speeding to sure disaster.

The next instant, however, he became aware that in some mysterious way these noises signalized his rescue from a terrible situation.

The lever rods his hands clasped vibrated harshly. As if by magic that glue-like suction tension on his fingers was withdrawn.

His hands still burned and tingled, but a great gasp of relief left his lips. His eyes fixed on the rushing engine, his hands now pulled the levers in order.

Not six inches from taking the in main rails, not eight seconds from reducing the accommodation to a heap of kindling wood, the "chaser" shot switch eleven, and glided smoothly to the terminus. Its serene crew never dreamed how they had grazed death by a hair's breadth.

Ralph half fell between the levers. He felt that his face must be the color of chalk. His strength was entirely spent. He still grasped the levers, hanging there for a moment like a person about to faint.

Fortunately there was no call for switch tower service during the ensuing minute or two. Ralph tried to rally his dazed senses, to comprehend what was going on below.

For again a swishing, cracking, clattering sound rang out. This time it was followed by a curdling cry of pain.

"You'll blind me—you're tearing my hair out by the roots!" screamed a voice which Ralph instantly recognized.

It belonged to Mort Bemis. Ralph began to have a coherent suspicion as to the cause of his recent helplessness.

"I'll tear twenty-six dollars out of you, or I'll have your hide!" proclaimed strident feminine tones.

"I hain't got no money."

"You'll get it for me. What, strike me with that piece of wire! You wretch, I'll——"

There was a jangling crash, as of some heavy body thrown back against the lever cables in the lower story of the switch tower.

Then its door crashed open, and glancing through the windows Ralph saw Mort Bemis dash into view.

He sped across tracks as if for his life. He was hatless, his face was streaked with red welts. From one hand trailed a piece of insulated electric light wire.

Giving a frightened backward glance as he reached a line of freights, the ex-towerman leaped the space between two cars and disappeared from view.

From the lower story of the switch tower there now issued exclamations of rage and disgust.

Ralph started to look down the ladder trap. Just then the dial called for a switch, and duty temporarily curbed his interest and curiosity. As he set clear tracks again, a head obtruded through the trapdoor.

It was that of the resolute woman Ralph had noticed a little time past so audaciously crossing the rails and defying instructions. Her face was red and heated, her eyes flashing. Her hair was in disorder, and the poke bonnet was all awry.

"Be careful—don't fall, madam," said Ralph quickly, with inborn chivalry and politeness, springing to the trap.

He put out a hand to help her. She disdained his assistance with an impatient sniff, and cleared the ladder like an expert.

"Don't trouble yourself about me, young man," she observed crisply. "I'm able to take care of myself."

"I see you are, madam."

"I've run an ore dummy in my time, when my husband was head yardman at an iron works, and I know how to climb. See here," she demanded imperatively, fixing a keen look on the young railroader, "are you boss here?"

"Why, you might say so," answered Ralph. "That is, I am in charge here."

The woman put down her umbrella to adjust her bonnet. Ralph observed that the umbrella was in tatters and the ribs all broken and twisted. He comprehended that it was with this weapon that she had just assaulted Mort Bemis.

"If you're the boss," pursued the woman, "I'm Mrs. Davis—Mort Bemis' landlady, and I want to know what I've got to do to get twenty-six dollars thet he owes me for board and lodging for the last six weeks."

"I see," nodded Ralph—"slow pay, that fellow."

"No pay at all!" flashed out the woman wrathfully. "He came to me month before last with a great story of promotion, big salary, and all his back funds tied up in a savings bank at Springfield. Last pay day he claimed someone robbed him. This pay day he dropped from the garret window, leaving an old empty trunk. I got on his trail to-day, and I want to garnishee his wages. How do I go about it?"

"I don't know the process," said Ralph, "never having had any experience in that class of business, but I should say garnisheeing in this case would simply be sending good money after bad."

"How?" demanded Mrs. Davis sharply.

"Bemis has very likely drawn every cent the company owes him."

"But his pay is running on."

"Not now, madam. He was discharged two days ago."

"W-what!" voiced Mrs. Davis, in dismay. "And won't he be taken back?"

"From what I hear—hardly," said Ralph.

The woman's strong, weather-beaten features relaxed. All her impetuosity seemed to die out with her hope. Ralph felt sorry for her. She was brusque and harsh of manner, masculine in her ways, but the womanly helplessness now exhibited was pathetic.

She tottered back to the armchair, every vestige of willfulness and force gone. Apparently this odd creature never did things by halves. She sunk down in the chair, and began to cry as if her heart would break. Ralph was called back to the levers and had no time to console her. He watched her pityingly, however. Between her sobbings and incoherent lamentations he pretty clearly made out the history of her present woes.

Mort Bemis had, it seemed, shown himself a "dead beat of the first water." Mrs. Davis had recently come to Stanley Junction, and had rented an old house near a factory owned by Gasper Farrington.

Bemis had applied for board and lodging. With what he promised to pay, and with what she could make off an orchard, vegetable patch, and some poultry, this would give Mrs. Davis a fair living.

"And he never paid me a cent," she sobbed out. "Last Saturday my last cent went for flour. Yesterday I used up the last bread in the house. I haven't eaten a morsel this blessed day. The man who owns the house threatens to turn me out if I don't pay the six dollars rent by six o'clock to-night, and all for that rascally, thieving Bemis! A full-grown man, and robbing and cheating a poor lone widow like me!"

Ralph glanced up and down the rails. Then he glided over to the clothes closet at the end of the tower room and secured his dinner pail.

"And what was the scoundrel up to below, when I discovered him just now, I'd like to know?" went on Mrs. Davis. "Some dirty mischief, I'll be bound. He had a wire fixed around a bigger one, and was holding the scraped copper ends against the lever cables till they sparked out little flashes of fire. Say, can't he be arrested for swindling me? The reprobate deserves to suffer."

Ralph gave a little start of comprehension just there. The woman's last recital had cleared up the mystery of his recent sudden helplessness.

There was no doubt whatever in his mind but that the revengeful Mort Bemis had started in to "fix" him, as he had threatened earlier in the day. His knowledge of the details and environment of the switch tower had enabled him to work out a well-devised scheme.

Ralph knew that Bemis was determined to undermine and discredit him at any cost.

He theorized that in some way Bemis had connected the current from the wires that looped up from the road boxes into the tower. He had the practiced eye to know what levers Ralph would use. Bemis had thrown on the current, magnetizing the new leverman at just the critical moment.

But for the providential intervention of Mrs. Davis a destructive collision would have occurred, Ralph would have been disgraced, and there would have been a vacancy at the switch tower.

"The villain!" breathed Ralph, all afire with indignation, and then his glance softened as he turned to the woman seated in the armchair. Her grief had spent itself, but she sat with her chin sunk in one hand, moping dejectedly.

There was a short bench near one of the windows. Ralph pulled this up in front of the armchair. He opened his lunch pail and spread out a napkin on the bench. Then on this he placed two home-made sandwiches, a piece of apple pie, and a square of the raisin cake that had made his mother famous as a first-class cook.

All this Ralph did so quickly that Mrs. Davis, absorbed in her gloomy thoughts, did not notice him. He touched her arm gently.

"I want you to sample my mother's cooking, Mrs. Davis," he said, with a pleasant smile. "You will feel better if you eat a little, and I want to tell you something."

"Well, well! did you ever?" exclaimed Mrs. Davis, noting now the sudden transformation of the bench into a lunch table. "Why, boy," she continued, with a keen stare at Ralph, "I can't take your victuals away from you."

"But you must eat," insisted Ralph. "I had a hearty dinner, and have a warm supper waiting for me soon after dark. I brought the dinner pail along just as a matter of form in a way, see"

"Yes, I do see," answered his visitor, with a gulp, and new tears in her eyes—"I see you are a good boy, and a blessing to a good mother, I'll warrant."

"You are right about the good mother, Mrs. Davis," said Ralph, "and I want you to go and see her, to judge for yourself."

Mrs. Davis munched a sandwich. She looked flustered at Ralph's suggestion.

"I'm hardly in a position to make calls—I'm dreadfully poor and humble just now," she said in a broken tone.

"Well," repeated Ralph decisively, "you must call on my mother this afternoon. You see, Mrs. Davis, that rent of yours has got to be paid by six o'clock, hasn't it?"

"The landlord said so."

"I have only a dollar or so in my pocket here," continued Ralph, "but my mother has some of my savings up at the house. I want to let you have ten dollars. I will write a note to my mother, and she will let you have it."

Mrs. Davis let the sandwich she was eating fall nervelessly to the napkin.

"What—what are you saying!" she spoke, staring in perplexity at Ralph.

"Why, you must pay your rent, you know," said Ralph, "and you need a little surplus till you get on your feet again. There may be some way of shaming or forcing Mort Bemis into paying that twenty-six dollars. If there is, I will discover it for you."

"But—but you don't know me. I'm a stranger to you. I couldn't take money from a boy like you, working hard as you must, probably for little enough wages," vociferated Mrs. Davis, strangely stirred up by the generous proffer. "I might take a loan from somebody able to spare the money, for I can write to a sister at a distance and get a trifle, and pay it back again, but not from you. No—no, thank you just the same—just the same," and the woman broke down completely, crying again.

Ralph sprang to the levers at a new switch call. Then he resumed his argument.

"Mrs. Davis, you shall take the ten dollars, and you shall have twenty if you need it, and that is an end to it. First: because you are in distress and I have it to spare. Next: because I owe you a debt money cannot pay."

"Nonsense, boy," spoke Mrs. Davis dubiously.

"It's true. You don't happen to know it, but you have saved my position and my character this afternoon. You have probably saved the railroad company great loss of property, if not of life itself. I should be a grateful boy to you, Mrs. Davis. Let me tell you why."

Ralph did tell her. He recited the story of the last hour at the levers. Before she could make a comment at its termination, he had written and thrust into her hand a note addressed to his mother.

"I'll take the ten dollars," said Mrs. Davis, in a subdued tone, after he had directed her to his home, "but only as a loan. You shall have it back quick as I can get word from my sister."

"As you like about that," answered Ralph. "I hope you will make a friend of my mother," he added. "She has had her troubles, and you would be the happier for asking her counsel."

"Yes, I've had a heap of troubles, boy," sighed Mrs. Davis. "Oh, dear! I may be a little good in the world, after all. And," with a wistful look at Ralph, "it's hopeful to think all boys aren't like bad Mort Bemis. And here I'm borrowing money from you, and don't even know your name."

She groped in a pocket and drew forth a worn memorandum book and a pencil. Then, opening the book at a blank page, she looked up inquiringly at Ralph.

"Fairbanks," dictated Ralph.

Mrs. Davis had placed the pencil point on the blank page, ready to write. As Ralph spoke her hand seemed swayed by a great shock.

The pencil and book were nervelessly dropped to the floor. She turned a colorless face towards Ralph, and, shrinking back in the creaking armchair, stared at him so strangely and fixedly that he was unable to understand her sudden emotion.