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Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 13

CHAPTER XIII


SQUARING THINGS


Ralph was tremendously pleased at the praise of the superintendent of the Great Northern. He started for home, his work through with for the day, feeling that life was very much worth living.

He lost no time on this especial occasion in reaching the home cottage. He wanted to share his pleasure with his devoted mother.

Ralph found the front door locked. He had a key to it however, let himself in, and was wondering at this unusual absence of his mother at a regular meal hour, when he caught sight of a folded note on the little table in the hall.

"I am at Mrs. Davis'," his mother's note ran. "She is not very well, and wishes me to stay with her for a few hours. Please call for me at her house at about nine o'clock."

Entering the little dining room, Ralph found the table all set. He proceeded to the kitchen, and discovered under covers on a slow fire his meal ready to be served.

"Always kind and thoughtful," he reflected gratefully, as he sat down to his solitary repast. "Nine o'clock, eh? That gives me time to attend to some pressing duties. Perhaps Mrs. Davis may have something to say about those bonds."

Ralph's mother had done her duty in seeing to it that he was not put out by her absence. He now proceeded to do his by clearing up the table and washing the dishes. He had everything in order before he left the house.

He sauntered downtown, changed a twenty-dollar bill that was among those the circus manager had given him, and started down a humble side street.

In about ten minutes Ralph reached the Stiggs home. It was a small one-story struecure, but comfortable-looking and well-kept.

In the garden was a small summerhouse. A spark of light directed Ralph thither. It appeared that Stiggs was banished from the house while using his favorite weed. This was his "smokery."

Before Ralph could announce his presence, someone spoke from an open window of the house.

"John Jacob Stiggs—smoke! smoke! smoke!" proclaimed a high-pitched voice. "I should think you'd be ashamed—at it all the time. If you are so valuable to your railroad cronies why don't you bring home a chicken, or a watermelon, or a bag of potatoes once in a while, instead of your perpetual 'plug cut,' and 'cut loaf,' and 'killmequick'? Oh, dear! dear! you are such a trial."

"That's so—never thought of that," responded Stiggs from his snuggery, in his usual quiet way. "But, my dear, something is coming. Some money—you know I told you."

"Nonsense!" retorted Mrs. Stiggs violently. "They stuff you full of all kinds of stories. Last week you said they were going to make you master mechanic."

"I declined it! I declined it!" answered Stiggs in quick trepidation. "The responsibility of the position—think of it, my dear!"

"Well, I suppose you're my cross," sighed his helpmate patiently. "Only, don't get a woman's hopes all alive with your story of five dollars coming, and a new shawl for me."

"Ten, my dear," interrupted Stiggs. "I've quite forgotten the amount, but I am sure it was more than five. You see, I helped catch a tiger——"

"John Jacob Stiggs!" cried his wife severely, "you'd better keep those wild notions out of your head. Tigers! Who ever saw a tiger in Stanley Junction?" she sniffed disdainfully.

"Why, I did, Mrs. Stiggs," broke in Ralph, stepping to the window with a pleasant smile, and lifting his cap politely. "It escaped from the circus now in town. Your husband helped me get it into the hands of the show people, they paid us fifty dollars' reward for our services, and half of it belongs to Mr. Stiggs. There is his share, madam."

"Laws-a-mercy!" cried the astounded woman, as the crisp green bills were placed on the window ledge. "You don't mean——"

"Twenty-five dollars," nodded Ralph.

"His? mine? ours?"

"Yes, Mrs. Stiggs. You can have a famous new shawl now, can't you, madam?"

"Oh, come in. Oh, dear! dear! it don't seem real."

Ralph stepped around to the door and entered the little sitting room. Mrs. Stiggs could not keep still for excitement. She was laughing and crying by turns.

Old Stiggs followed after Ralph in a kind of dumb amazement, and stood staring at the banknotes in his wife's hand. She chanced to observe him. For the first time in his life, it seemed, her husband had ventured inside the house smoking his despised tobacco.

"John—Jacob—Stiggs!" she screamed.

"Oh—my!" gasped the horrified culprit.

The lighted pipe dropped from his mouth, and he bolted out of doors as if shot from a cannon.

Mrs. Stiggs was profuse in her thanks. She got more coherent, and poured out her little troubles to Ralph, who was a sympathetic listener. He gave her some advice, and his heart warmed as he finally left the house, happy in the consciousness that he had bestowed some pleasure and benefit where he felt sure they were fully deserved.

"Anybody but mother would call me a chump for what I've got to do next," he mused, as he proceeded briskly in the direction of lower Railroad Street, "but I've got the impulse, and it looks clear to me that I'm doing the right thing all around."

Ralph proceeded past the long line of poor buildings just back of the depot tracks. He looked into the restaurant where he had found Mort Bemis and Young Slavin some evenings previous.

They were not in evidence now, however, at this or other places he inspected. Ralph made inquiries of some "extras," who had a good deal of spare time, and were likely to know the denizens of Railroad Row.

No one could tell him of the whereabouts of the persons he sought, until he met a young urchin whom he questioned.

"Slavin?" pronounced the precious street arab. "Champeen? He's at Murphy's shed."

A man named Murphy ran a cheap ice cream place further down the street, Ralph remembered. The shed he also recalled as a loafing place for juvenile road hands around the noon and evening hours.

It was a great open structure where expressmen stored their wagons for shelter. Ralph reached its proximity in a few minutes. He glanced around the open end of the place.

Three or four boys were squatted on the ground. Two of them had a coat and a vest, on which they were clumsily sewing. Near by, wrapped in an old horse-blanket, seated on a box, his eyes fixed gloomily on the ground, was the object of Ralph's visit—Young Slavin.

Ralph went forward at once. Two of the group sprang to their feet, startled. Young Slavin, looking spiritless and cowed, craned his bull neck in silent wonder and uncertainty.

"Mr. Slavin," spoke Ralph promptly, "I have been trying to find you."

"What for?" mumbled Slavin in a muffled tone. "I'm ripped up the back. Out of training—see you later."

"Oh, I haven't come to fight," Ralph assured him. "It is this way: I saw you meet with an unfortunate accident this afternoon."

"If you mean you made rags of the only suit of clothes I've got, it's correct," admitted Slavin dejectedly.

"Well, I warned you, but you would rush on your fate," said Ralph. "Pretty badly used up, are they?"

"Are they?" snorted Slavin bitterly. "They were ripped from stem to stern. And what's worse—look at them now!"

Ralph could scarcely keep from laughing outright. One of the amateur tailors had essayed to mend Slavin's trousers.

He had taken up a seam four inches wide. In pursuing the seam, he had sewed it into bunches, knobs, and fissures. One leg was shorter than the other, and stood out at an angle from the knee down.

"No, that won't do at all," said Ralph gravely. "I felt sorry for you, Slavin. As I warned you, that tiger was in the switch tower. I got a reward for telling the circus people where it was, and I think it is only fair that they pay for the damage the animal did. They advertise a good eight-dollar suit down at the Grand Leader. Go and get one. That squares it, doesn't it?"

Ralph extended a ten-dollar bill to Slavin. The eyes of his engrossed companions snapped at the sight of so much money. As for Slavin himself, he stared at the bill and then at Ralph in stupid wonder.

"Take it," urged Ralph.

"Mine?" gulped Slavin slowly.

"Of course it's yours."

"You give it?"

"Why not? I collected damages from the circus people—that's your share."

Slavin's fingers trembled as he took the proffered banknote. He wriggled restively, looked up, and then looked down.

"Say," he spoke hoarsely at last, "your name is Fairbanks."

"Yes," nodded Ralph.

"A good name, and you're a good sort. I jumped on you wrong the other night, and I want to say it right here. I thought Mort Bemis was my friend. This afternoon he took up with a fellow named Slump, broke open my trunk, stole two of my silver medals, and sloped. That's what I got for being his friend. Now you come and do me a good turn. I'm not your kind, and we can't ever mix probably, but if ever you want anyone hammered, I'll be there. See? I'm—I'm obliged to you, Fairbanks. You've taught me something. There's something better in the world than muscle—and you've got it."

When Ralph left the old shed, he was pretty certain that he had made a new friend. He had, too, won the respect of the little coterie who had seen the terrible "champeen" eat humble pie before a fellow half his size.

Ralph went to a millinery store next. The Saturday evening before he had accompanied his mother on her shopping tour. She had admired a hat in a show-window, but had said she could not spare the money for it just then.

Ralph proudly walked home with the self-same hat in a band-box.

"I have made quite a hole in that fifty dollars," he mused, as he left the band-box at the home cottage, and started for Mrs. Davis' house. "I wonder if I would be as extravagant on a bigger scale, if we should be fortunate enough to get back those twenty thousand dollars' worth of railroad bonds?"