Ralph on the Engine/Chapter 8
THE HIDDEN PLUNDER
"That's the fellow who brought the package of silk to old Ames," whispered Zeph, staring hard from under covert at Slump.
"Yes, I recognize him," responded Ralph in quite as guarded a tone. "Quiet, now, Zeph."
Ike Slump and Mort Bemis continued to linger at the tree. They were looking at the wagon and beyond it.
"Say," spoke the former to his companion, "what's wrong?"
"How wrong?" inquired Mort.
"Why, some way our plans appear to have slipped a cog. There's the wagon broken down and the boy has gone with the horse. Two of our men were to stop him, you know, and keep him here while we used the wagon."
"Maybe they're behind time. What's the matter with our holding the boy till they come?"
"The very thing," responded Ike, and, leaving the basket where it was, he and Mort ran after Limpy Joe and the horse.
"Get out of here, quick," ordered Ralph to Zeph. "If we don't, we shall probably be carried into the camp of the enemy."
"Isn't that just exactly the place that you want to reach?" inquired the farmer boy coolly.
"Not in this way. Out with you, and into the bushes. Don't delay, Zeph, drop flat, some one else is coming."
It was a wonder they were not discovered, for almost immediately two men came running towards the spot. They were doubtless the persons Ike Slump had referred to, for they gave a series of signal whistles, responded to by their youthful accomplices, who, a minute later, came into view leading the horse of which Limpy Joe was astride
"We were late," panted one of the men.
"Should think you were," retorted Ike Slump. "This boy nearly got away. Say, if you wasn't a cripple," he continued to the young restaurant keeper, "I'd give you something for whacking me with that crutch of yours."
"I'd whack you again, if it would do any good," said the plucky fellow. "You're a nice crowd, you are, bothering me this way after I've probably saved you from starvation the last week."
"That's all right, sonny," drawled out one of the men. "We paid you for what you've done for us, and we will pay you still better for simply coming to our camp and staying there a prisoner, until we use that rig of yours for a few hours."
"If you wanted to borrow the rig, why didn't you do so in a decent fashion?" demanded Joe indignantly.
"You keep quiet, now," advised the man who carried on the conversation. "We know our business. Here, Slump, you and Mort help get this wheel on the wagon and hitch up the horse."
They forced Joe into the wagon bottom and proceeded to get ready for a drive into the woods.
"Bet Joe is wondering how we came to get out of that wagon," observed Zeph to Ralph.
"Don't talk," said Ralph. "Now, when they start away, I will follow, you remain here."
"Yes, so that I may find you when I come back, and so that you can follow the wagon when it comes out of the woods again if I am not on hand."
"You think they are going to move some of their plunder in the wagon?"
"Exactly," replied the young fireman.
"Well, so do I. They won't get far with it, though, if I am after them," boasted Zeph. "Wish I had a detective, star and some weapons."
"The safest way to do is to follow them until they get near a town or settlement, and then go for assistance and arrest them," advised Ralph. "Now, then, Zeph, make no false moves."
"No, I will follow your orders strictly," pledged the farmer boy.
The basket was lifted into the wagon by Ike, who, with Mort, led the horse through the intricate timber and brushwood. Progress was difficult and they proceeded slowly. As soon as it was safe to do so, Ralph left Zeph. The two men had taken up the trail of the wagon, guarding its rear so that Joe could not escape.
Ralph kept sight of them for half-an-hour and was led deeper and deeper into the woods. These lined the railroad cut, and he wondered that the gang of robbers had dared to camp so near to the recent scene of their thieving operations.
At last the young fireman was following only two men, for he could no longer see the wagon.
"Perhaps they have left Ike and Bemis to go ahead with the wagon and they are reaching the camp by a short cut," reflected Ralph. "Why, no," he suddenly exclaimed, as the men turned aside to take a new path. "These are not the same men at all who were with the wagon. I am off the trail, I am following some one else."
Ralph made this discovery with some surprise. Certainly he had got mixed up in cautiously trailing the enemy at a distance. He wondered if the two men he was now following belonged to Ike Slump's crowd.
"I must assume they do," ruminated Ralph, "at least for the present. They are bound for some point in the woods, of course, and I shall soon know their destination."
The two men proceeded for over a mile. They commenced an ascent where the cliffs lining the railroad cut began. The place was thick with underbrush and quite rocky in places, wild and desolate in the extreme, and the path they pursued so tortuous and winding that Ralph at length lost sight of them.
"Where have they disappeared to?" he asked himself, bending his ear, keeping a sharp lookout, and with difficulty penetrating the worst jungle of bushes and stunted trees he had yet encountered. "I hear voices."
These guided Ralph, and he followed their indication. At last he came to a halt near an open space, where the men he was following had stopped.
"Here we are, Ames," were the first distinct words that Ralph heard spoken.
"Why, one of these men must be the farmer that Zeph worked for," decided Ralph.
"All right, you're safe enough up here. Got the plunder here, have you?" was asked.
"Yes. I will show you the exact spot, and you come here after we have got the bulk of the stuff to a new hiding place, take it as you can, dispose of it, and keep us in ready money until we feel safe to ship our goods to some distant city and realize on them."
"I'll do just that," was replied. "What are you leaving here for?"
"Adair, the road detective, is after us, we understand, and this is too dangerously near the railroad."
"That's so," replied the person Ralph supposed to be Ames. "All right, I'll not miss on my end of the case. Only, don't send any more packages of the silk to friends. The one Slump sent might have got you into trouble."
"I never knew he did it at the time," was responded. "I raised a big row when I found out. You see, Evans, the man he sent it to, is in with us in a way, and is a particular friend of Ike Slump, but it was a big risk to send him goods that might be traced right back to us. Safe hiding place, eh?"
The speaker had proceeded to some bushes guarding the entrance to a cave-like depression in the dirt, gravel and rocks. He re-appeared with some packages for his companion. Then both went away from the spot.
"Why," said Ralph, with considerable satisfaction, "this is the hiding place of the plunder. I am in possession, and what am I going to do about it?"
The discovery had come about so easily that the young fireman could scarcely plan out a next intelligent move all in a moment.
"Ames is an accomplice of the thieves," he decided, "who are going to use Joe's wagon to remove the bulk of this plunder. They will soon be here. What had I better do—what can I do?"
Ralph went in among the bushes as the men had done. He took a glance at a great heap of packages lying in a depression in the rocks. Then he advanced a few steps towards the edge of the cliff.
Ralph looked down fully two hundred feet into the railroad cut. This was almost the spot where the landslide had stopped the Dover night freight. The main tracks were clear now, but on a gravel pit siding were several cars.
"Why," exclaimed Ralph suddenly, "if I only have the time to do it in, I have got the whole affair right in my own hands."
A plan to deprive the railroad thieves of their booty had come into the mind of the young fireman. Ralph filled his arms with the packages of silk, advanced to the edge of the cliff, threw them over, and continued his operation until he had removed the last parcel from its hiding place.
"Something more to do yet," he told himself, when this task was completed. "When the thieves discover that their plunder is gone, they may surmise that it disappeared this way. Can I make a safe descent?"
Ralph had a hard time getting down into the railroad cut. Once there, he hastily threw the silk packages into a half -filled gravel car, with a shovel covered them all over with sand and gravel, and then started on a run for Brocton.