Ralph on the Engine/Chapter 20
The young fireman gave a great shout of distress and excitement as he realized that he was in a decidedly perilous predicament. The oil of the lamp had ignited and the hut seemed doomed.
Ralph tugged at his bonds in a frenzy. Another strand of the rope gave way, then another, and still another. He trembled with mingled surprise and hope. Could he get free in time? It seemed not, for the flames were spreading fast and furiously.
Suddenly there was a shout outside of the hut. It was repeated, and then there came a great crash at the door. Ralph wondered at this, for he could think only of Farrington and his accomplices returning to the rescue. The loud pounding on the door, however, indicated that the persons engaged in it had no key. There was more than one person; Ralph ascertained this from the sound of mingled voices.
Suddenly the door gave way. It was burst bodily from its hinges and went crashing against the blazing table, upsetting it. At just that moment Ralph got one arm free. He was about to shout for assistance when he recognized the intruders.
They were Ike Slump and Mort Bemis. Both dashed into the blazing room. One found a pail of water and threw it in among the flames. This subdued the blaze partially.
"Be quick!" cried Slump to his companion. "Grab all you can. You have been watching the place, and say you know where old Farrington is likely to hide his valuables."
"Right here," replied Bemis, tearing open the door of a cupboard. "Here's a satchel."
"And here's another one," said Ike Slump, picking up the one that Bartlett had brought to the place. "Look sharp, now. They may come back at any moment."
The two marauders ransacked the room. Ralph refrained from calling out to them. He could now reach his pocket knife, and just as Slump and Bemis, pretty well singed by the flames, ran out of the hut, he hurried to a rear door and darted outside as well.
The young fireman peered around the corner of the hut. He saw Slump and Bemis making for the nearest timber. Ralph put after them, and as he gained the cover of the woods, looking back, he made out three figures dashing towards the blazing hut.
"Farrington and the others," decided Ralph. "This is an exciting business. Now to keep track of Slump and Bemis. I can hardly figure out, though, how they came to rob the hut, for Farrington was once their friend."
The precious pair of thieves scurried along through the woods, laughing and talking gleefully over the plunder they had secured. They must have gone over three miles before they halted. It was at a spot in among high bushes. Here they had evidently been camping previously, for there was a lot of hay on the ground, the signs of a recent campfire, and a sort of roof of bark overhead for shelter from rain and dew. They sat down on the ground and Slump proceeded to light a lantern.
"Your watching has amounted to something at last, Mort," said Slump. "Farrington went back on us in a measly way. Why, after all we did for him he took up with Jim Evans and others, and even refused me a few dollars when we were in hiding and trouble after that silk robbery. Here's our revenge. He's been up to some deep game for a week. He'll never know who stole this plunder."
"Find how much of it there is," suggested Bemis.
Each took up a satchel to investigate the contents. Ralph was intensely interested. He peered from a safe covert near at hand.
"Well, well, well!" exclaimed Slump as he opened the satchel taken from the cupboard of the old hut. "Why, there's a fortune here, if we can only handle it. Bonds of the Great Northern, stock in the Great Northern. See? some money—notes, mortgages, deeds! This is a big find."
"Same here, except the money," reported Bemis, investigating the documents in the satchel brought from Stanley Junction by Bartlett. "Mostly railroad stock in the Great Northern. Private letters, lists of names of the strikers. Memoranda about some wire-tapping scheme. Say, these papers are enough to send the old skeesicks to the penitentiary. He'll pay a fortune to get them back."
Slump pocketed the ready cash in the satchel. Then he was silently thoughtful for a few moments.
"See here, I have my scheme," he said finally. "We'll carry these satchels down to the old barge at the creek, and hide them there. Then we'll block out some plan to work Farrington for their return."
"All right," said Bemis. "Come ahead."
They took up the satchels and started off again, and Ralph followed them as before. They came to a creek, and, after lining its shore for nearly a mile, to a large roughly-made scow. Both boarded the craft, disappeared in its hold, reappeared, and came to the shore again.
"We'll just enjoy the ready cash for the time being," said Slump, "and later find out a safe way to deal with Farrington."
When they had gone, Ralph went aboard the scow. A scuttle led down into its hold. Its cover was closed with a strong spring bolt. Ralph drew this back and sat over the edge of the scuttle.
He peered down, prepared to push the cover clear back, when he slipped and went below headlong. The cover fell tightly shut, and he was a prisoner.
Ralph did not mind this much at the time. He believed he could readily force up the cover in some way when he wanted to leave the scow. He lit some matches and proceeded to search for the two satchels. He found them in a remote corner of the hold.
It was when he prepared to leave the hold that the young fireman discovered himself in a decided quandary. He could barely reach the scuttle cover, and there was not an object in the hold that he could use to force it open. Finally Ralph decided that he could not hope for escape in that direction.
There was a little window at one end of the scow, but it was too small to escape by. Ralph was compelled to accept the situation, at least until daylight. He tried to sleep, and at dawn looked out from the window.
"I will simply have to wait here until some one passes by," he told himself. "In the meantime, though, Slump and Bemis may return. Can I reach the rope holding the scow to the shore?"
This was secured around a tree stump. Ralph reached with his pocket knife through the window, and began cutting at the scow end of the rope, which ran just above it.
In a few minutes the strands gave way and the scow floated down the creek.