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Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 17

CHAPTER XVII


A MIDNIGHT VISITOR


Ralph was a month old at switch-tower service.

Looking back over thirty days, it seemed more than four weeks, so many varied and important incidents in his career had been crowded into that space of time.

It was a wild, stormy night. Sleet and wind were battering the switch tower windows. Although there was a chill in the air, the lightning was vivid and the thunder roll incessant.

The clock showed even midnight. Ralph for over a week had been on night duty solely. Doc Bortree was laid up with a fever, and Ralph and Jack Knight had been running the place on two shifts.

Since the night of her disappearance, neither Ralph nor his anxious mother had learned a thing as to the fate or whereabouts of Mrs. Davis.

Van had left them the following day. Upon that day, too, Gasper Farrington appeared, imposing and self-contained as ever, driving about the town with his team. It had returned, it seemed, but Ike Slump and Mort Bemis had not. Ralph looked for them and inquired about them at many sources, friendly and unfriendly. They had completely vanished.

Ralph and his mother had many consultations over the situation. The former was for interviewing Farrington. He even suggested going to some lawyer or to the police with his story of the disappearance of Mrs. Davis.

On second thoughts, however, he realized that he had very little tangible evidence implicating the magnate to offer. Farrington was wealthy, influential. To make a mistake at this juncture would be to only strengthen and warn the scheming magnate.

So Ralph concluded to wait patiently, hoping day by day that Van would get some word to them.

A week went by, two of them—no token from Van to show that he was following up the Davis affair.

About the middle of the third week, however, Ralph received a brief note from Van. It had been mailed at Springfield.

"I am laid up at Farwell Gibson's with a sprained ankle," the brief letter ran. "Don't worry. Will soon be on deck again. Things working."

This was pretty vague encouragement, but Ralph was forced to be content with it for the time being.

"There's one thing," he told his mother: "Mr. Gibson knows all that we know, and all that Van knows, and probably a great deal more. He is not the man to be idle in a matter like this. Between them, he and Van will probably do all that can be done in finding Mrs. Davis, and we shall hear from them in due time."

Ralph met Gasper Farrington face to face several times. The magnate did not speak to him. He did, however, look very sneeringly and significantly at the young towerman with a kind of triumphant vindictiveness, Ralph fancied.

Farrington was busy pushing along the work of the switch spur up to his factory. It had progressed rapidly, adding two new levers to the battery that Ralph operated.

Another person Ralph was somewhat interested in crossed his path occasionally. This was Young Slavin. He would simply nod to Ralph, but the old rowdyish swing was gone. There was a strange, grave respect in his manner. When Ralph tried to engage him in any protracted conversation, however, Slavin backed off with an embarrassed excuse about being busy.

Ralph was pretty lonesome and weary that night in the switch tower. A couple of night watchmen had alternately kept him company up to ten o'clock. Since that hour he had been completely alone.

The tracks were comparatively idle. There was a west train at 12.15, the night out mail. The night in express train from the switch was due at 12.05, but was reported delayed by a washout beyond Acton. Behind her was the through freight.

These were all the regulars Ralph had to look out for. About eleven o'clock two trains had come in. The limits tower had given siding directions on one, and a new depot terminal on the other.

This led to a mix-up, nothing worse, but Ralph wondered why the peculiar orders had been given. At 11.30, limits dialed for "Chaser on the way." None came. At 11.15 the telephone called for a double switch on a freight special. It did not show up.

"Strange!" reflected Ralph. "Old Bryson is on duty at the limits. He is exact as a die, and never jokes. Is the electricity playing tricks with the wires, or is some one at the limits spelling Bryson and having some fun with me? Pretty serious business to fool with, and a pretty bad night to indulge in jokes."

Ralph swung the out rails for the 12.15. He sat down in the comfortable old armchair in ready reach of the telephone and plain sight of the dial, and spread out his lunch for a midnight nibble.

He was just realizing what famous doughnuts his mother made, when the trap came up. Ralph had closed it to shut out the draught.

A familiar head came up from the ladder. Ralph in some wonderment recognized Young Slavin.

"Oh, it's you?" he said pleasantly. "Come in—sit down."

"No, I won't stay," demurred Slavin, shaking his outer coat, which was dripping with wet. "I—you see, I was strolling by. Saw you up here, and thought I'd drop in for a minute."

"I am glad. It is pretty lonesome up here, you know," said Ralph.

He noticed a certain embarrassment in Slavin's manner. It was a queer night and a queer hour for Slavin to select for a stroll. Ralph wondered what really was the motive of his visit.

As Slavin shook his outer coat Ralph caught a gleam of bright red beneath it. He was quite surprised to observe that this was a sweater, bearing the initials "S. A." braided across its front.

"Why, Mr. Slavin," he said with an inquisitive smile, "is that a uniform you are wearing?"

"Why, yes," admitted Slavin, turning as red in the face as the sweater itself—"Salvation Army, you know."

"I thought so. Joined them?"

Slavin fidgeted, and regarded Ralph suspiciously from the corner of one eye to see if he was laughing at him. Ralph preserved a reassuring gravity on purpose.

"N-no," said Slavin. "You see, I got tired of that mob I was training with. They borrowed and stole all I earned."

"I am glad you have left them," said Ralph.

"Thought you would be, and thought I'd come and tell you," stammered Slavin in a floundering way. "Oh, I'm playing no goody-goody act. I am just holding my mouth, and watching those preacher fellows at the army barracks. They're all right. Wish I was. 'Live and let live,' I told them, when some rowdies pelted them and smashed a hole in their big bass drum. So, just at present I am acting as their bouncer."

"Good for you!" commended Ralph heartily.

"You know I can bounce all right?" said Slavin significantly. "Well, I must be going. So long. Oh, say—by the way, Fairbanks."

It was evident to Ralph that Slavin was now about to reveal the real motive of his midnight call.

"I wanted to ask you," proceeded Slavin, rather lamely—"has anyone been troubling you lately?"

"Why, no," answered Ralph in quick surprise at the pointed inquiry—"but who, for instance?"

"Mort Bemis, for one. And do you know the fellow he went off with?"

"You mean Ike Slump?"

"That's his name. Look out for him—for both of them. I'll do the rest," rather emphatically observed Slavin, doubling up his fist till it resembled the hammering end of a big sledge.

"It seems strange, your asking me about them," remarked Ralph. "I would like very much to know where they are at present."

"You would? I can tell you—they are right here in Stanley Junction. I'm laying for them. That's why I'm up so late. I know they have it in for you."

"Why?"

"Oh, on general principles of meanness. That's why I came to warn you. I think," continued Slavin with a dangerous gleam in his eye, "I think I'll get there first. Don't you worry—I'm pretty sure to head them off. Only keep an eye open."

"Thank you," said Ralph. "So they are back in town? Are they going about openly?"

"They came late this afternoon. A friend told me he saw them driving along in a cab, fixed up reckless. He said they had on the latest new togs, diamond pins, kid gloves, et settery, till you couldn't rest."

"I should think that was rather venturesome on Slump's part," said Ralph.

"You mean, because there's a warrant out for him on that old junk-stealing case?"

"Yes," answered Ralph.

"It's settled."

"It's—what?" demanded Ralph in profound astonishment.

"Settled—at least fixed up in some way."

"How do you know?" inquired Ralph skeptically.

"Adair, the road detective, told a crossings man, boiling hot over it. Said that Slump had gone to the justice, put in an appearance, and was bound over to next court term."

"Why," said Ralph, "that looks incredible. He would have to give bonds."

"Yes, five hundred dollars' bail. He gave it, right enough. Bondsman was right there. The thing had been cut and dried beforehand."

"Who was his bondsman—did you learn?" asked Ralph.

"Sure—it was old Gasper Farrington."