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Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 12

CHAPTER XII


THE SUPERINTENDENT'S OPINION


It seemed as if the escaped circus tiger had disputed the intrusion of Young Slavin just as it had previously that of Ralph.

Whether his belligerent enemy had tried to beat off the animal, or it had attacked Slavin as he attempted to ascend the ladder, Ralph could not tell. One thing was sure, however: the impetuous "champeen" found himself in the mix-up of his life.

The tiger was growling and snarling. Slavin was uttering muffled shouts of terror and pain. Ralph fairly dropped down half a dozen rungs of the ladder.

The wrench with which he had armed himself was heavy, and had a very long handle. Six feet from the floor of the lower tower room, Ralph leaned as far out as he could, holding on to the ladder by one foot and one hand.

Swinging the wrench in the other hand and watching his opportunity, Ralph landed a sturdy whack directly on top of the head of the infuriated tiger.

The blow was severe enough to crack the skull of a human being. The tiger, however, only ducked its head and sneezed, but it relaxed its hold of Slavin.

Ralph saw its great paw cut the air in one lightning-like downward stroke. He saw Slavin, with a curdling shriek, bound through the doorway like a ball. Then the tiger turned, caught sight of his new assailant, and crouched with a malignant snarl, posing for a spring.

Ralph took aim. He let go of the heavy wrench, using it as a missile now. It struck the tiger squarely between the eyes, throwing the animal off its balance. Then with due agility Ralph shot up the ladder like a steeple-jack.

Once in the tower room he closed the trap and fastened it down. A glance from its window showed some commotion in the yards round about.

A wild, tattered figure was scudding in frenzy for the street. It was Young Slavin. He was hatless, and, from neck to heel down his back, every garment he wore was ripped exactly in two as if slashed scientifically by a butcher-knife.

This envelope of tatters and Slavin's fearful outcries had attracted the attention of flagmen, engineers, and brakemen in the vicinity. They shouted after the scurrying fugitive, they even tried to head him off for an explanation. Slavin, however, lost to reason for the moment, made a mad bee-line for Railroad Street, and disappeared behind some freight sheds.

Ralph hailed a roundhouse hand carrying a bucket of oil.

"Shut the lower door, will you?" he asked.

The man did so. It operated on a spring, and all he had to do was to detach a hook from a staple that held it open.

"Slip the padlock," continued Ralph.

"Why, that will lock you in!" exclaimed the bewildered oilman.

"That's all right," answered Ralph. "Thanks."

He smiled to himself as he answered some switch calls. The smile broadened as he ran over the exciting incidents of the hour.

Young Slavin was probably more scared than hurt. In his muddled condition, amid the semi-darkness of the lower tower room he might not have discerned or realized what had attacked him.

"He will report me a demon, and his friends will think me one, if he shows up in those tatters, laying his plight to my charge," smiled Ralph. "Well, I fancy 'the young Hercules' has got all the satisfaction he wants for the present."

In about fifteen minutes Ralph leaned from the window to greet a coterie he had been expecting for some time.

Stiggs, placid-faced and leisurely as usual, led a party Ralph had seen grouped around the circus cages on the street tracks at noon.

The six menagerie men still carried their equipment for capturing the escaped tiger: pikes, hooks, halter chain, and muzzle.

The manager, his hat stuck back on his head, nervously chewing a match and urging Stiggs to hurry, looked very much excited.

"Come, can't you hustle a bit?" Ralph heard him say to Stiggs. "Where's your tiger?"

Stiggs pointed up to the switch tower.

"What are you giving me?" demanded the circus manager in disgust—"that's a boy."

"He sent me—he knows where the tiger is," asserted Stiggs.

"Oh, that's it. Young man!" called up the circus manager. "Do you know this man?"

"Very intimately. I sent him to you. I have located your escaped animal, as he told you, I presume?" said Ralph.

"He did. It's true, then?" cried the circus manager eagerly. "Where is the brute?"

"Mr. Stiggs," called down Ralph, "are these people going to pay you for your trouble?"

"Oh, sure," replied Stiggs animatedly. "See there—they gave me a whole package of tobacco."

Ralph regarded the simple-minded railroad pensioner pityingly. He fixed a censorious glance on the circus manager. The latter flushed and looked embarrassed.

"He said that was all he wanted," stammered the man.

"Oh, well, that won't do at all," declared Ralph. "Your animal has done some damage—in fact, came very nearly doing a great deal of damage. Besides that, Mr. Stiggs is a poor man. You offered a liberal reward for the capture of the animal this morning, I believe. Does that offer stand good now?"

A little crowd had been drawn to the spot by the presence of such an unusual group. Among them was a young fellow who had kept with the party since it had started out.

The circus manager knew this young man to be a reporter on the local paper, in the quest of a sensation. He could not risk an effective free advertisement by an exhibition of niggardliness on the part of the proprietors of the circus.

"Sure," he said importantly; "our people spare no expense in catering to the great show-going public. They spent six thousand dollars in caging the famous Calcutta Tom, the wonder of the animal universe, and—"

"You went over all that this noon," said Ralph, in a business-like way. "What about the fifty dollars?"

"Have you got the tiger?"

"I have," answered Ralph definitely.

"Produce him, and the money is yours."

"Very good," nodded Ralph, tossing down the key to the padlock of the lower door. "You will find the escaped animal downstairs here."

The local reporter made himself unduly active within the ensuing thirty minutes. He had written up Ralph Fairbanks once before. That was when the young railroader had acted as substitute fireman during the big fire in the yards at Acton, as already related in "Ralph of the Roundhouse."

Ralph had proven "good copy" in that instance. The fact of his having the escaped animal in custody, the litter of glass under the tower windows, some vague remarks of the flagman who had witnessed Ralph's sensational ascent of the telegraph pole, set the young reporter on the trail of a first-class story in a very few minutes.

The circus manager and his assistants soon had Calcutta Tom in fetters. As they pulled him out into daylight the manager cuffed and kicked him till the animal slunk along, spiritless and harmless as some antiquated horse.

He drew out a roll of bank bills, counted out fifty dollars, made sure the reporter was noticing the act, and with a flourish tossed the money up to Ralph.

He wrote out a free pass to the show for Stiggs, slapping him on the shoulder and calling him a royal good fellow.

"Don't know if the railroad company can spare me," said Stiggs, shaking his head slowly.

"Come up here, Mr. Stiggs," said Ralph.

Jack Knight came along from the limits tower just then. He was halted by the reporter. Stiggs joined Ralph a few minutes later.

"I want to tell you, Mr. Stiggs, about this fifty dollars' reward from the circus people," began Ralph.

"Yes, glad you got it, Fairbanks," said Stiggs heartily. "If it wasn't for you I wouldn't have got the tobacco."

"Well, I want you to tell Mrs. Stiggs when you go home that I've got twenty-five dollars for her," went on Ralph.

"My! that's a lot of money," exclaimed the old railroad pensioner, opening wide his eyes. "Say, Fairbanks, that would stock me up with tobacco for the rest of my life!"

Knight came through the trap, the local reporter at his heels.

"What's been going on here?" demanded the veteran towerman, with a glance at the broken window panes.

Ralph glanced at the reporter. That individual had a paper tab in his hand all covered with notes, and looked eager and expectant.

"If our friend here will excuse our attention to railroad business strictly, I will try to tell you," said Ralph.

"Certainly," nodded the reporter, but disappointedly, as Ralph took Knight to the end of the room and a low-toned conversation ensued.

The same was interspersed with sensational, startling ejaculations of wild excitement, such a vivid play of interest and wonder on the part of old Jack, that the reporter wriggled in a kind of professional torment. He knew that Ralph must have a graphic story to relate.

"Mr. Fairbanks," he said anxiously, as the two terminated their conversation, "I hope you will give me a brief interview."

"Really, I couldn't think of it," answered Ralph, with a genial smile. "A tiger escaped from the circus and hid in the switch tower. That's about the facts of the case."

"You're a deal too modest," snorted old Jack. "You see, he's a stickler for railroad ethics," he explained to the reporter. "Well, that's all right in a young man, for the company usually want to give out their own reports to the press. In this instance, though, I don't think they will hold back the credit young Fairbanks deserves. You come with me, young man, and as soon as I report to the superintendent, I think you can get the facts for the liveliest railroad sensation you have had in Stanley Junction for many a long day."

Ralph had no right to interfere with this arrangement.

Knight came back in thirty minutes, chuckling gleesomely.

"Shake, old man!" he called out, grasping Ralph's hand with a switch-lever clutch that would have made his assistant wince a week back. "I guaranteed you to the company when they put you on here. The man with the iron mask just thanked me for it. Thanked me for it, just think of it—and smiled!"

"Who is the man with the iron mask?" asked Ralph innocently.

"The superintendent, of course. Ever see him? Well, they say he was born with a frown on his face, called down his father and mother when he was six months old, and spent ten years at a special actors' school where they learn the ebony glare, the tones that chill a fellow, and that grand stern air that makes a railroad employee shake in his boots when the superintendent passes by."

"Why, I have found him rather dignified, but a thoroughly just and genial gentleman," said Ralph.

"Thank you, Fairbanks!" interrupted a voice that made the two friends start, and the head of the superintendent of the Great Northern came up through the trap. "Quite a word-painter, Mr. Knight!" he continued, glancing at old Jack with a grim twinkle in his eye.

"Ah, overheard me, did you?" retorted Knight, never abashed at anything. "You didn't wait till I got through. I was going to add, for the benefit of our young friend here, that all the qualities I was describing have made you the most consistent, thoroughgoing railroader in the country, that back of the mask were more pensions to deserving disabled employees than the law allowed, and a justice and respect for loyal sub-ordinates that made you an honorary member of our union, and the Great Northern the finest railway system ever perfected."

"Thank you, Mr. Knight!" retorted the superintendent, a genuine flush of pleasure on his face. "I know you are sincere, so you will join me, I am certain, in telling our young friend that the risk he took to save the special this day entitled him to a high place in the esteem of his employers and associates."

"Right you are, sir!" answered Knight emphatically. "I'm proud of Ralph Fairbanks—and so are you."