Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 1

RALPH IN THE SWITCH

TOWER


CHAPTER I


DOWN AND OUT


"Get out of here!" said Jack Knight, head towerman of the Great Northern Railroad, at Stanley Junction.

"Why, I ain't doing no harm," retorted Mort Bemis, ex-leverman of the depot switch tower.

"And stay out. Hear me?" demanded Knight, big as a bear, and quite as gruff.

"What's the call for sitting down on a fellow this way, I'd like to know!" muttered Bemis sullenly.

"You're a bad lot, that's what," growled the veteran railroader. "You always were and you always will be. I'm through with you. So is the railroad company. What's the call, you meddlesome, malicious reprobate? That's the call!" fairly shouted the towerman, red of face and choleric of voice.

He moved one arm as he spoke. It hung in a sling, and the hand was swathed in bandages.

"There's some of your fine, Smart-Aleck work," he went on angrily. "Come now, take yourself out of here! This is a place for workers, not loafers."

Mort Bemis gave Jack Knight a revengeful look. Then he moved towards the trap in the floor.

The scene was the depot switch tower at Stanley Junction, in sight of the local passenger depot. It loomed up thirty feet in the air, glass-windowed on every side. It was neat, light, and airy. In its center, running nearly its length, was the row of long heavy levers that controlled the depot and siding switches of the terminus of the Great Northern Railroad.

The big-framed, business-faced man who bustled among these, keeping an angry eye meantime on an unwelcome visitor, was a veteran and a marvel in local railroad circles.

When the Great Northern had come to Stanley Junction, ten years back, it brought old Jack Knight with it.

He had an eye like an eagle and the muscles of a giant. The inside of his head was popularly believed to be a vast railroad map. He controlled the main rails, switches, and sidings, like a woman would the threads of an intricate knitting piece. He directed the locomotives and trains up and down that puzzling network of rails, like puppets moved by strings. In ten years' service he had never been responsible for an accident or a wreck.

Old Jack, therefore, having never made a mistake in railroading, had little patience with the careless, lazy specimen whom he had just ordered out of the place.

Mort Bemis had been his assistant in the tower. The fellow's record had always been full of flaws. He was slow and indifferent at the levers. He associated with a shiftless crowd outside. He borrowed money and did not pay it back. He was unreliable, disagreeable, and unpopular.

Three days previous, old Jack was adjusting a heavy weight bar on the lower story of the switch tower.

Mort, upstairs, was supposed to safely hold back a spring-bar apparatus while his superior was fixing the delicate mechanism below.

His mind everywhere except on his task, Mort for an instant took his hand off the bar to wave a recognition to a chosen chum, "flipping" a passing freight train.

There was a frightful yell below. Mort, fled, pulled back the bar. Then he stuck his head through the trap. There stood old Jack, pale as death, one hand crushed and mutilated through his helper's outrageous lapse of duty.

The old railroader's rage was terrible, as he forgot his pain and hurt in the realization that for the first time in ten years he was crippled from active service.

The frightened Mort made a dive for a window. He slid down the water-spout outside, got to the nearest switch shanty, telephoned the depot master about the accident,—and made himself scarce.

Mort joined some chosen chums in one of the haunts of Railroad Street. He reported by 'phone "on the sick list" next morning. He did not show up until two days later, "after a good and easy rest," as he put it, and then fancying old Jack's "grouch" had cooled down.

Mort's reception has been related. He was informed that the railroad company had peremptorily discharged him. As to old Jack himself, Mort readily discerned that the veteran railroader was aching to give him a good hiding.

Mort did not wait to furnish an excuse for this. He now started down the trap-door ladder, grumbling and growling.

"Be careful!" rapidly but pleasantly warned someone whom Mort jostled a few feet from the bottom.

Mort edged over and dropped to the floor. He gave the speaker a keen look.

"Hello! Oh; it's you?" he muttered with a scowl; "Ralph Fairbanks."

The person addressed responded with a short nod. Then he continued to mount the ladder in an easy, agile way.

"Hold on," challenged Bemis.

He had planted his feet apart, and had fixed a fierce and malignant glance upon the newcomer.

Suspicion, disappointment, and rage showed plainly in his coarse, sullen face.

There was something in the striking contrast between himself and the other that galled Mort.

He was "down and out," he realized, while the neat, cheery, ambitious lad whom he had hailed, three years his junior, was "going up the ladder" in more ways than one.

The latter wore a new, clean working suit, and carried a dinner pail. He suggested the wholesome, energetic worker from top to toe.

"I am holding on," he observed to Mort, stopping half-way up the ladder.

"Thought you was working at the roundhouse?" said Mort.

"I was," answered Ralph Fairbanks. "I have been promoted."

"Where to?"

"Here."

"What!" flared out Mort. "What do you know about switch-tower duty?"

"Not much, only what Mr. Knight has shown me for the past two days. But I'll catch on, I guess."

Mort Bemis struck a tragic pose and his voice quavered.

"Oho! that's the game, eh? All cut and dried! My bread and butter taken away from me, to give to one of the master mechanic's pets. Augh!"

Mort retreated with a grimace of disgust. He was standing under a floor grating. Purposely or by accident, Knight, overhead, had dropped a dipperful of water through the grating.

Mort jumped outside the lower tower room, growling like a mad catamount. He shook his fist menacingly at Ralph.

"Fairbanks," he cried, "I'll fix you for this!"

Ralph did not even look at his enemy again. He completed his ascent of the ladder, and came up through the trap with a bright, cheery hail to old Jack, whom he liked and who liked him.

"I report for active duty, Mr. Knight," he announced briskly.

"Oh, do you?" retorted the old railroader, disguising his good nature under his usual mask of grimness. "Well, you're ahead of time fifteen minutes, so just sit down and behave yourself till I get those freights over yonder untangled. Anxious for work, are you?" he pursued quizzically. "You'll have enough of it. I'm ordered up to the crossings tower, and you'll have to take the first half-night shift here alone. Think you can manage it?"

"I can try, Mr. Knight," was the modest but resolute reply.