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Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 15

CHAPTER XV


A HERO DESPITE HIMSELF


Ralph did not have to look twice to be sure that it was the village magnate who stood just where he had discovered Van Sherwin a few minutes previous.

Gasper Farrington was stooping stealthily under the open window. He did not seem to care so much to see who was inside. Perhaps he had already seen. His whole attitude showed that he was listening intently.

Ralph disliked Farrington. He had reason for the sentiment. He could not recall one gracious action on the part of the miserly old man in all the years he had known him.

His present occupation, that of an eavesdropper, was so expected and characteristic of Farrington, that Ralph's indignation was less than his contempt.

"What is he after here?" reflected Ralph; "no good, of course. Mrs. Davis knows him and fears him, it seems. He is going."

Before Ralph could make up his mind to any definite course of action, Farrington, after a meditative pause, slunk from under the window. Then he disappeared briskly around the corner of the house.

Ralph ran softly after him and peered around the end of the structure. He saw Farrington headed for town, across lots to the nearest highway.

Ralph came back to the old summer house to find Van gone. He looked for him, even tried a whistle signal both understood, but obtained no response.

"It's all a queer affair," mused Ralph. "Mrs. Davis seems to be a great center of interest just at present. Perhaps she has told mother something that explains matters."

Ralph was doomed to disappointment in this hope. When he knocked at the door of the Davis home, his mother answered the summons.

"Mrs. Davis is resting nicely," she whispered. "It would only excite her to see you to-night. Just wait outside, and I will slip away and join you in a few minutes."

Mrs. Fairbanks was soon on the way homeward with Ralph. She explained that Mrs. Davis was quite unwell and nervous. She had stayed with her and nursed her, and left her comfortable for the night.

"She gave me the ten dollars for you, Ralph," said Mrs. Fairbanks, "but she said very little about the bonds. I have an idea that she knows something about them, and I think she has been writing to Gasper Farrington. The last thing she said as I left her, was for both of us to come to see her to-morrow night. She said she would get something in the meantime she had placed with a friend to show us, in which we would both be interested."

Ralph said nothing to his mother about meeting Van, nor did he mention Farrington's visit to the Davis home. He did not wish to worry his mother, and he hoped that another twenty-four hours might somewhat clear the situation.

Of course Mrs. Fairbanks was more than pleased over her present of the new hat. Her son's recital of the tiger episode frightened and thrilled her by turns.

Ralph did a good deal of thinking after getting to bed. He wondered if Mrs. Davis was up to any double-dealing. Perhaps she knew something of importance about the bonds. She might have come to Stanley Junction to sell her secret to Farrington. Possibly later she became undecided as to her course, her accidental meeting with Ralph moving her to favor him in the matter.

Ralph guessed that no one but Farwell Gibson could have sent Van to Stanley Junction. Gibson had been mixed up in the matter of his father's railroad bonds, years back. Was there some kind of a three-cornered complication, in which Farrington, Gibson, and Mrs. Davis each had a share, and all three playing at cross-purposes?

At ten o'clock that night the local newspaper left the press, weighted with the biggest sensation of the year, but Ralph did not know it.

He was made aware of it next morning, however, as he left the house. Ned Talcott, an old school chum, came running up to him fluttering a freshly-printed sheet.

"Did you see it? Did you really do all that?" he demanded, in breathless excitement.

"See what—do what?" inquired Ralph.

"Well, just run your eagle eye over these two front columns!" chuckled Ralph's ardent admirer.

"Oh, dear!" said Ralph, in faint stupefaction.

The ambitious newspaper reporter had dished up a wonderfully graphic and interesting story. He did not seem to have missed a point in the episode of the escaped circus tiger.

He had got every fact about the special, every detail of Ralph's encounter with Calcutta Tom, the sensational climb of the telegraph pole, the swing of the lever just in time. He even touched on the accident to Young Slavin, Ralph's benevolence to that enemy, and his generous division of the reward with the Stiggses.

"Whew!" gasped Ralph, concluding the article with a whirling head. "Why, if I wasn't mad at all the bosh he has put into this screed, I could laugh—it is simply ridiculous!"

All the same, the reporter had written a very entertaining article. It was the "fancy touches" that seemed preposterous to Ralph, who had gone through the episode practically.

All through the story the writer held the tension high as to suspense and impending peril. He made the reader fairly see the glaring eyeballs of the defiant tiger. He almost made him hear the wild beatings of the heart of the desperate but intrepid young leverman.

The warning shrieks of the devoted special on the verge of destruction, the nearing hiss and splutter of the steam jets, the thunderous thunder of the grinding wheels—all these were the thrilling concomitants of a breathless description. It ended in the crash of the tower window, the leap to the levers, the action that made of Ralph Fairbanks the hero of the hour.

The grand finale was a pathetic touch. It alluded to the great throbbing heart of humanity always electrically responsive to such appeals as that involved in the anxious chaste of the distressed railroad president to reach a beloved wife at the door of death.

Three people whom Ralph knew stopped him to congratulate him before he reached the depot yards.

A cheer greeted him as he crossed from Railroad Street to the switch tower. It came from a flag-shanty, where four of his firemen friends were standing. Two of them waved papers. Ralph laughed and nodded carelessly, but flushed with pleasure.

"There's two men I would like to have see that article," spoke old Jack Knight, emphatically slapping the newspaper in his lap as Ralph came on duty. "One is the master mechanic. The other is that old skeesicks, Farrington."

Ralph was embarrassed by further congratulations all through the morning. He had a pleasant day, however. The praises of his real friends were very sweet, and the sense of duty well done was a spur to his noblest ambitions.

It was toward five o'clock that the crowning episode of the day occurred. Ralph was busy at the levers, Knight was at the telephone, as the superintendent came up the trap ladder.

His manner to both these valued employees was more than usually genial.

"Dropped in on my way to the roundhouse," he observed. "I received a wire from the president of the Great Northern about an hour ago, Fairbanks."

"Yes, sir?" said Ralph, wondering what was coming.

Shrewd Jack Knight gave a wise chuckle, and his eyes twinkled.

"He mentioned you," pursued the superintendent. "He sent a long wire, requesting an expression of his thanks for prompt service all along the line. He added a paragraph that may interest you. As I take you to be too practical a young man to get the swelled head, or impose on an appreciation of duty well done, I will read the paragraph to you."

The speaker drew a typewritten yellow sheet from his pocket. He resumed:

"The president says: 'I imagine that by young Ralph Fairbanks, who has shown such devotion to his duty and saved the special under such extraordinary circumstances, the intelligence will be gladly received that my timely arrival at home probably saved my dear wife's life. The morning papers here have a full account of his remarkable adventures at the switch tower. I desire that you commend him warmly in my behalf, and it is the sense of the road directors that, while you do not promote him too fast, you must see that he gets what he deserves promptly."

Ralph flushed with emotion. He could not speak.

"Good!" commented blunt old Jack. "The president is a brick. You're another one, Mr. Superintendent, and you don't lose, let me tell you, by warming up a thrifty employee's heart by giving him the real stuff, right from the shoulder, when he deserves it."

The superintendent smiled and bowed, and went on his way.

"Stiff as a poker, looks as if his only thought was to catch a chance to fire someone," observed Knight, watching the prim, dignified official crossing the tracks below. "Look at him—cold as an iceberg. You've thawed him out, though, Fairbanks!" chuckled the veteran towerman. "That's so—there is something I wanted to find out."

He pretended to be mightily busy poring over a little red memorandum book for a few minutes.

"Got it," he called out finally: "Chief Train Dispatcher. One hundred and seventy-five dollars a month. Keep it in view, kid. You heard what the president said."

"Nonsense!" flushed Ralph; "my highest ambition for a long time to come is to run a locomotive."

Mrs. Fairbanks regarded her son with humid eyes as he told the story of the day that night.

She did not try to express her emotion. She could not. Ever since Ralph had resolutely started at work, there had been what she greeted as a continual round of blessings. And Ralph shared her heartfelt gratefulness.

Right after supper they started together to visit Mrs. Davis. Ralph carried a basket which contained some dainties his mother had prepared for the invalid.

On their way Ralph told his mother of the suspicious circumstances of Gasper Farrington's visit to the Davis home the evening previous. He thought she ought now to know of it. He intimated, too, that it might be wise to warn Mrs. Davis.

"If she would only talk out what is evidently preying on her mind," observed Mrs. Fairbanks, "we could understand the situation much more clearly."

"You know she has promised to enlighten us in a way, this evening," suggested Ralph.

"The house is dark," said his mother, as they neared it.

"Yes, and—why, mother! the door is open."

Ralph knocked loudly. There was no response.

"I hope nothing is amiss," murmured Mrs. Fairbanks, in a fluttering tone.

She groped her way down the dark hall and into the sitting room, stumbling over some garments lying on the floor which nearly tripped her up.

"Mrs. Davis! Mrs. Davis!" she called, "are you here?"

Again there was only silence. Mrs. Fairbanks sighed with deep suspense.

"Perhaps I had better get a light," suggested Ralph.

"I wish you would," said his mother. Ralph flared a match. He discovered a lamp on a mantel-shelf and lighted it. Mother and son glanced about the apartment searchingly.

On the floor lay the heavy shawl Mrs. Fairbanks had stumbled over. A little table was overturned. A drapery that had festooned the entrance doorway from the hall was torn half loose, as if someone had grasped it in being dragged from the room.

"That looks bad," said Ralph gravely.

He took up the lamp and went all through the house. In the one upper chamber the contents of the bureau drawer were scattered all over the floor. A trunk was broken open, and its interior all in disorder.

"Is she here, Ralph?" questioned his mother anxiously, as he returned to the sitting room.

"No," answered Ralph. "Mother, there is foul play here."

"Oh, Ralph!"

"I am sure of it. Someone has ransacked the house, and I believe they have kidnapped Mrs. Davis."

"But—why?" stammered the affrighted Mrs. Fairbanks.

"Why?" cried Ralph, greatly stirred up by tumultuous thoughts and suspicions that irresistibly thronged his brain. "To secure something that Mrs. Davis had in her keeping, I believe."

"But who would do it?"

"Who?" responded Ralph. "I can imagine only one person who might be interested."

"And that is?"

"Gasper Farrington."

"Right!" pronounced a new voice, startlingly near. "You have hit the nail squarely on the head this time, Ralph Fairbanks!"