Ralph on the Overland Express/29

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"Say—Engineer Ralph—Mr. Fairbanks!"

A spluttering, breathless voice halted Ralph on his way from the depot to the roundhouse. It was the call boy, Torchy, the young engineer ascertained, as he waited till the excited juvenile came up to him.

"What's the trouble, Torchy?" he inquired.

Torchy caught his breath, but the excited flare in his eyes did not diminish.

"Say!" he spluttered out; "I was looking for you. That car, the one they use out west in Calfrancisco, Francifornia, no, I mean Calfris—rot! out west, anyway—tourist car."

"I know, yes," nodded Ralph.

"Well, you remember the queer old fossil's special to Fordham spur? That fellow Zeph Dallas was on it."

"I remember distinctly; go ahead."

"There's another car just like that one in the yards now, right this minute."

"You don't say so? I didn't suppose that more than one antiquated relic of that kind was in existence," said Ralph.

"Come on and see," invited Torchy. "This last car must have come from the north this morning, just like the other one did. It's bunched up with a lot more of the blockade runners, delayed freight, you know, and they've made up a train of it and others for the Mountain Division."

Besides being intensely interested, Ralph had time to spare. It was nearly a week after the Shelby Junction incident. The great storm had crippled some of the lines of the great Northern to a fairly alarming extent. The Mountain Division had felt the full force of the blizzard and had suffered the most extensively. There were parts of the division where it took several days to repair culverts, strenghten trestles and replace weakened patches of track. The Overland Express missed several runs, but had got back on fair schedule two days before. A new storm had set in that very morning, and as Ralph followed Torchy there were places where the drifts were up to their knees.

"There you are," announced his companion, pausing and pointing over at a train on a siding. "Isn't that last car the very picture of the one that Dallas was on?"

"Remarkably so," assented Ralph.

"I've got to get to the roundhouse," explained the little fellow, turning back in his tracks. "Thought you'd want to know about that car, though."

"I do, most emphatically," declared Ralph, "and greatly obliged to you for thinking of it."

Ralph approached the train on the siding. It was one of the queerest he had ever seen. There was a motley gathering of every class of freight cars on the line. As he passed along he noted the destination of some of the cars. No two were marked for the same point of delivery. It was easy to surmise that they were victims of the recent blockade.

Ralph came up to the rear car of the incongruous train with a good deal of curiosity. It was not the car that had made that mysterious run to Fordham Spur with Zeph Dallas, although it looked exactly like it. The present car was newer and more staunch. A fresh discovery made Ralph think hard. The car was classified as "fast freight," and across one end was chalked its presumable destination.

"Fordham Spur," read the young engineer.

"Queer—the same as the other car. I wonder what's aboard?"

Just like the other car, the curtains were closely drawn in this one. There was no sign of life about the present car, however. Smoke curled from a pipe coming up through its roof. No one was visible in the immediate vicinity except a flagman and some loiterers about a near switch shanty. Ralph stepped to the rear platform of the car. He placed his hand on the door knob, turned it, and to his surprise and satisfaction the door opened unresistingly.

He stepped inside, to find himself in a queer situation. Ralph stood in the rear partitioned-off end of the car. It resembled a homelike kitchen. An oil stove stood on a stand, and around two sides of the car were shelves full of canisters, boxes and cans, a goodly array of convenient eatables. Lying asleep across a bench was a young colored man, who wore the cap and apron of a dining-car cook.

Ralph felt that he was intruding, but his curiosity overcame him. He stepped to the door of the partition. Near its top was a small pane of glass, and through this Ralph peered.

"I declare!" he exclaimed under his breath, and with a great start.

A strange, vivid picture greeted the astonished vision of the young railroader. If the rear part of the tourist car had suggested a modern kitchen, the front portion was a well-appointed living room. It had a stove in its center, and surrounding this were all the comforts of a home. There was a bed, several couches, easy chairs, two illuminated lamps suspended from side brackets, and the floor was covered with soft, heavy rugs.

Upon one of the couches lay a second colored man, apparently a special car porter, and he, like the cook, was fast asleep. All that Ralph had so far seen, however, was nothing to what greeted his sight as his eyes rested on the extreme front of the car.

There, lying back in a great luxurious armchair, was a preternaturally thin and sallow-faced man. His pose and appearance suggested the invalid or the convalescent. He lay as if half dozing, and from his lips ran a heavy tube, connected with a great glass tank at his side.

Such a picture the mystified Ralph had never seen before. He could not take in its full meaning all in a minute. His puzzled mind went groping for some reasonable solution of the enigma. Before he could think things out, however, there was a sound at the rear door of the car. Someone on the platform outside had turned the knob and held the door about an inch ajar, and Ralph glided towards it. Through the crack he could see three persons plainly. Ralph viewed them with wonderment.

He had half anticipated running across Zeph Dallas somewhere about the train, but never this trio—Ike Slump, Jim Evans and the man he had known as Lord Montague. The two latter were standing in the snow. Ike was on the platform. He was asking a question of the man who had posed as a member of the English nobility:

"Be quick, Morris; what am I to do?"

Lord Montague, alias Morris, with a keen glance about him, drew a heavy coupling pin from under his coat.

"Take it," he said hastily, "and get inside that car."

"Suppose there's somebody hinders me?"

"Didn't I tell you they were all asleep?" demanded Morris. "You'll find a man near a big glass tank."

"See here," demurred Ike; "I don't want to get into any more trouble. When it comes to striking a man with that murderous weapon——"

"Murderous fiddlesticks!" interrupted Morris. "You are to hurt nobody. Smash the tank, that's all—run out, join us, and it's a hundred dollars cash on the spot, and a thousand when I get my fortune."

"Here goes, then," announced Ike Slump, pushing open the door, "but what you want to go to all this risk and trouble for to smash an old glass tank, I can't imagine."

"You'll know later," muttered Morris grimly.

Ralph did not know what the three rascals were up to, but he realized that it must be something bad. Putting two and two together, thinking back a bit of all that had occurred concerning Zeph, the Clark boy, and the Slump crowd, he began to fancy that tourist cars played a big part in the programme, whatever that progarmme was. The smashing of the glass tank, Morris had announced, was worth a hundred dollars to Ike—might lead to a fortune, he had intimated.

"There's some wicked plot afoot," decided Ralph, "so—back you go, Ike Slump!"

As Ike stepped across the threshold of the car the young engineer acted. He had grabbed the coupling pin from Ike's hand, dropped it, grasped Ike next with both hands and pressed him backwards to the platform. Ike struggled and himself got a grip on Ralph. The latter kept forcing his opponent backwards. Ike slipped and went through the break in the platform railing where the guard chain was unset, and both toppled to the ground submerged in three feet of snow.

Ralph had landed on top of Ike and he held him down, but the cries of his adversary had brought Evans and Morris to his rescue. The former was pouncing down upon Ralph with vicious design in his evil face, when a new actor appeared on the scene.

It was Zeph Dallas. He came running to the spot with his arms full of packages, apparently some supplies for the tourist car which he had just purchased of some store on Railroad Street. These he dropped and his hand went to his coat pocket. The amateur detective was quite as practical and businesslike as did he appear heroic, as he drew out a weapon.

"Leave that fellow alone, stand still, or you're goners, both of you," panted Zeph. "Hi! hello! stop those men! They're conspirers, they're villains!"

Zeph's fierce shouts rang out like clarion notes. They attracted the attention of the crowd around the switch shanty, and as Evans and Morris started on a run three or four of the railroad loiterers started to check their flight. As Zeph helped Ralph yank Ike Slump to his feet and drag him along, the young engineer observed that Evans and Morris were in the custody of the switch shanty crowd.

Two men coming down the track hastened over to the crowd. Ralph was glad to recognize them as Bob Adair, the road detective, and one of the yards watchmen.

"What's the trouble here, Fairbanks?" inquired Adair, with whom the young engineer was a prime favorite and an oldtime friend.

"Dallas will tell you," intimated Ralph.

"Yes," burst out Zeph excitedly; "I want these three fellows arrested, Mr. Adair. They must be locked up safe and sound, or they'll do great harm."

"Ah—Evans? Slump?' observed Adair, recognizing the twain who had caused the Great Northern a great deal of trouble in the past. "They'll do on general principles. Who's this other fellow?"

"He's the worst of the lot, the leader. He's an awful criminal," declared Zeph with bolting eyes and intense earnestness. "Mr. Adair, if you let that crowd go free, you'll do an awful wrong."

"But what's the charge?"

"Conspiracy. They're trying to——"

"Well, come up to the police station and give me something tangible to go on, and I'll see that they get what's coming to them," promised ths road detective.

"I can't—say, see! my train. I've got to go with that train, Ralph," cried Zeph in frantic agitation. "Try and explain, don't let those fellows get loose for a few hours—vast fortune—Marvin Clark—Fred Porter—Fordham Cut—big plot!"

In a whirl of incoherency, Zeph dashed down the tracks, for the train with the tourist car had started up. He had just time enough to gather up his scattered bundles and reach the platform of the last car, as the mixed train moved out on the main line and out of sight, leaving his astonished auditors in a vast maze of mystery.