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Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 14

CHAPTER XIV


A BUSY EVENING


The nearest cut to the house where Mrs. Davis lived was along a sort of a ravine, and Ralph pursued this route. It was the shortest, and it was here that the switch spur was to run up to Gasper Farrington's old factory.

Ralph was interested in this as a railroader. The work of grading had already commenced. It was not to be a very particular job, as the service would be only occasional. The company was using old rails and second-hand ties.

There was a natural rock shelf on the north side of the ravine. This the roadbed would follow. There were several sharp grades, but there would be no heavy traffic. The entire factory output, which was in the furniture line, would not exceed a carload a day.

Mrs. Davis' home stood back from the ravine about a hundred feet. It was some three hundred yards from the factory building. Between it and the latter structure was a low two-story house, very old and dilapidated. Ralph wondered if this was the spot which Farrington had said he would appropriate, law or no law, as the connecting link in his right of way.

"Mr. Farrington may well look out for wrecks," soliloquized Ralph, as he passed along the ravine. "The freight business from the factory is not worth enough for the company to put in a first-class roadbed. A poor one means danger. They will have to go slow on some of those mean curves and crooked grades, if they want to avoid trouble."

Ralph turned from the ravine as he caught the gleam of a light in the house he knew to be occupied by the mysterious Mrs. Davis.

It was a desolate place, and he felt sorry for anyone compelled to live so remote from neighbors. He felt glad, however, that the lonely widow had been so fortunate as to find a friend in his mother.

Mrs. Davis had proven her honesty by wishing to repay him the ten-dollar loan. Ralph in a way counted that evening on some intimation concerning the twenty thousand dollars railroad bonds. He was naturally wrought up and anxious over this particular phase of the situation.

The house did not front on the ravine. In approaching it, Ralph came up to its side first. The light that had guided him was in a middle room. Its window was open and the shade was lowered, but the breeze blew it back every little while.

It was a bright moonlight night. Ralph could make out the house and its surroundings as plain as day. As he walked beside a hedge of high alders, he paused with a start.

Someone stood directly beside the open window where the light was. The house shadowed him, but even at a distance Ralph could see that the lurker was a boy about his own height.

This person stood with his face to the window. Every time the breeze moved the curtain, he bobbed about actively. He craned his neck, and made all kinds of efforts to look into the room.

"Why," said Ralph indignantly, "it is someone spying!"

The breeze freshening, the curtain was just then blown on a forty-five degree slant. A perfectly plain view of the room and its inmates was momentarily shown.

Even at a distance Ralph could make out Mrs. Davis propped up in a chair with pillows, and his mother seated near by.

The lurker at the window was taking a good clear look. He suddenly whipped a card out of his pocket. He glanced at it quickly, then inside the room again. The breeze let down, and the curtain dropped plumb once more.

Ralph made an impetuous run for the window. He came up to the lurker, grabbed his arm, and still at full momentum ran him twenty feet along from the window. He did not wish to startle the inmates of the house. The astonished boy he had seized Ralph landed against the side of a summerhouse. He never let go of him. His prisoner wriggled in his grasp.

"Hey, what's this?" he began.

"Who are you and what are you up to?" challenged Ralph sharply. "What!" he cried, loosening his hold in stupefaction. "Van—Van Sherwin!"

"Hello!" muttered his companion, now faced squarely about, and staring in turn. "It is you, Fairbanks? Well, that's natural, seeing your mother is here, but you took me off my feet so sudden. Shake. You don't seem glad to see me one bit, although it's an age since I met you last. How goes it?"

Ralph shook the hand affectionately extended. It was not the hearty greeting, however, he usually awarded to this his warmest boy friend. Ralph looked grave, uncertain, and disappointed.

Of all the chums he had ever known, Van Sherwin had come into his life in a way that had appealed strongly to every friendly sentiment. Deprived of reason temporarily through a blow from a baseball, and practically adopted by the Fairbanks family, Van's gentle, lovable ways had charmed them. When he recovered his reason and was the means of introducing Ralph to Farwell Gibson, Van was cherished like a brother by Ralph.

Less than two weeks previous Van had gone back to the wilderness stretch beyond Springfield, where Gibson was keeping his railroad cut-off charter alive by grading the roadbed so much each day, as required by law.

Through Gibson Ralph had got the information that enabled them to prove Gasper Farrington's mortgage on their home a fraud. Naturally he felt thankful to the queer old hermit who was working out an idea amid Crusoe-like solitude.

As to Van,—mother and son made him a daily topic of conversation. They had longed for a visit from the strange, wild lad who had unconsciously brought so much good into their lives.

Now Van had appeared, yet a vague distrust and disappointment chilled the warmth of Ralph's reception. Van had always been frank, open-minded, aboveboard. Ralph had just discovered him apparently engaged in eavesdropping.

Thinking all this over, Ralph stood grim and silent as a statue for the space of nearly two minutes.

"Hey!" challenged Van suddenly, giving his arm a vigorous shake. "Are you dreaming, Ralph?"

Ralph roused himself. He determined to clear the situation, if it could be cleared.

"Van," he said definitely, "what were you doing at that window?"

"Why, didn't you see—looking in."

"I know you was. In other words, spying. Oh, Van—spying on my mother!"

Van Sherwin's eyes flashed. In a trice he had whipped off his coat. His fists doubled up. He advanced on Ralph, his voice shaking with an angry sob.

"Take that back, Ralph Fairbanks!" he cried. "Do it quick, or you've got to lick me. Me spy on your mother? Why, she's pretty near my mother, too—the only one I ever remember."

"But I saw you lurking at that window," said Ralph, a good deal taken aback by Van's violent demonstration.

"Lurking, eh?" repeated Van sarcastically. "I'm a lurker, am I? And a spy? Why don't you call me a bravo—and a brigand? Humph—you chump!"

The impulsive fellow shrugged his shoulders in such a pitying, indulgent way that Ralph was fairly nettled.

"I won't fight you," declared Van, putting on his coat again. "You think so much of your mother that I'll forgive you. But I think a lot of her, too, as you well know, and, knowing it, you ought to have thought twice before you—yes, imputed to me any action that could do her any harm."

"You're right, Van," said Ralph, grasping both hands of his eccentric chum, heartily enough this time. "I am so strung up, though, with things happening, and so much suspicion and mystery in the air, that I'm jumping to all kinds of conclusions helter-skelter. I hate mystery, you know."

"Sit down," said Van, moving around to the door of the dismantled summerhouse, and dropping to its worm-eaten seat. "I want to tell you something. I wasn't looking in that window expecting to see your mother."

"No?"

"Not at all."

"Then it must have been Mrs. Davis, the woman who lives there."

"Is that her name?" inquired Van, with a shrewd smile.

"She says it is."

"You know her, then? Well, I don't, Ralph. Never saw her before. Yet, I've traveled a long distance to get a look at her. See here—can you make it out?"

Van took from his pocket the card Ralph had seen him consult at the window. Ralph held it up to the moonlight.

It was an old-fashioned card photograph. Judging from its yellow, faded appearance, it seemed taken in another generation. It presented the face of a woman of about thirty years of age.

Ralph scanned this with a certain token of recognition.

"This picture resembles Mrs. Davis," he said.

"Think so?" asked Van. "I know it does. It's meant for the lady in that room yonder—when she was younger, though."

"How do you come by it?" inquired Ralph.

"It's a secret for the present, but I don't mind telling you. A friend—a long distance away—asked me to locate the original of that picture. Somehow he got a clew to the fact that she was living in this district."

"Yes, she came to Stanley Junction recently."

"Anyhow, I followed out directions," narrated Van. "I've done what I came for. The woman lives in that house yonder. I must go back and inform my friend."

"Not right away. Mother will want to see you, Van."

Van shook his head resolutely.

"I'll be back again soon, Ralph," he promised. "I wish I could tell you more, but it's not my business."

"That's all right. Van. I don't want to pry into your secrets."

Van restored the picture to his pocket. He sighed with a glance at the house, as if it would indeed be a pleasure to have a chat with his adopted mother, Mrs. Fairbanks.

"Oh, Ralph!" he said suddenly, checking himself as he was about to move away—"have you ever heard anything more about those twenty thousand dollars railroad bonds?"

"Have I?" spoke Ralph animately; "I seem to be hearing about them every step I take, lately!"

"Is that so?"

"Yes, but always in a vague, unsatisfactory way. What made you ask that question, Van?" inquired Ralph, with a keen glance at his companion.

"Oh, nothing," declared Van carelessly. "I was just thinking, that's all. You see, Mr. Gibson is a rare, good fellow."

"He did me some rare, good service—I know that," said Ralph warmly.

"Well, he's pegging away at that railroad of his, wasting valuable time. He don't dare to leave it, because he might vi—vi—bother the word—oh, yes! vitiate his legal rights. He told me, though, that if he could get someone to put up a few thousand dollars so he could hire help, he would go to some big city and interest capital and rush the road through."

"I will bear that in mind," said Ralph thoughtfully. "I believe he has the nucleus of a big speculation. There are rich men in Stanley Junction who might be induced to help him."

"Suppose you got those twenty thousand dollars bonds, Ralph," said Van suddenly. "Would you be inclined to invest?"

"I would feel it a duty, Van," responded Ralph promptly. "I believe my mother would, too. You will remember that if it was not for Mr. Gibson, we would probably be without a home to-day."

"You're a good fellow, Ralph Fairbanks!" cried Van, slapping his chum heartily on the shoulder. "I knew you'd say that. And say—I guess you're going to hear something about those bonds, soon."

"The air seems full of those bonds!" half smiled Ralph. "I wish something besides shadows would materialize, though."

Ralph felt that Van was keeping something back—certainly about the person so interested in the mysterious Mrs. Davis, possibly in reference to the railroad bonds, as well.

Before he could express himself further, Van grabbed his sleeve and pulled him into the shelter of the summerhouse with a quick warning:

"S-sh!"

"What is it, Van?" inquired Ralph in surprise.

"Speak low, look sharp!" whispered Van, pointing through the interstices of the trellis in the direction of the house. "You hate mystery, you say. Then how does that strike you?"

"Why," exclaimed Ralph, after a steadfast glance in the direction indicated—"it is Gasper Farrington!"