Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 18
A DESPERATE CHANCE
"Gasper Farrington again!" cried Ralph.
His thoughts ran rapidly. At a good many turns of late, it seemed, the miserly magnate of Stanley Junction was coming into his life.
To Ralph the solution of the present problem was prompt and logical: Farrington probably had the unfortunate Mrs. Davis in his power. He had hired Mort Bemis and Ike Slump to kidnap her. Now he himself was at the mercy and in the clutches of his conscienceless confederates.
Ralph theorized that he had paid his accomplices a goodly sum of money for their assistance. For a time, with plenty of ready cash in their possession, they had found diversion in the city. The longing to cut a dash at home, however, had brought them back to Stanley Junction.
It looked as if Slump had set a price for his silence and secrecy regarding the magnate's schemes. He had probably demanded that Farrington go on his bail bond, and afterwards stand back of him in the trial with his wealth and influence.
"I am very much obliged to you for what you have told me, Slavin," said Ralph at last. "Also for your kindly intentions toward me. If I were you, though, I wouldn't go getting into trouble with those two fellows."
"Trouble?" cried Slavin wrathfully. "I want to get back my medals. Say, if those fellows who stole them have sold them where I can't get them, or melted them down, I'll pretty near cripple them for life. But you mind what I came to tell you. They hate you, and they'll try and trap you. So, you watch out close. As I say, I'll do the rest. I'm going."
"Good-night, Slavin," answered Ralph, extending his hand.
Slavin started at the sight of it. He flushed, looked pleased, and his big broad paw shot out.
"You honor me," he said, "and I'm proud of it. Oh, say—'scuse! 'scuse!"
"Excuse what?" demanded Ralph calmly, with a twinkle in his eye.
Slavin had unconsciously given Ralph the crushing hand-shake that used to lay up unsuspicious new acquaintances for a week. To his surprise the grip was returned with equal force. Ralph did not even wince.
"You're a good one," pronounced Slavin, in genuine admiration. "I thought I'd hurt you."
"Pulling those levers is a great muscle-builder," explained Ralph.
"Looks so, in your case," admitted Slavin. "Say," he added, in a kind of longing sigh, his eyes sparkling as they ran the grim battery of switch pullers—"there's my ambition in life."
"What's that, Slavin—tower duty?"
"Oh, anything in the railroad line, from pulling up piles to driving spikes," declared Slavin, swinging his big arms about restlessly. "There's no bad in me. I'd love to work. Only, you see, I was born strong, and something has kept me pushing my muscle to the fore. It led to encouraging me to be a bruiser. I tell you, if I had a job like this, where I could work off the extra steam, I'd just make a record."
"Then—why not?" inquired Ralph.
"You mean, why not get the job?" exclaimed Slavin in an eager breath.
"Would they have me?"
"Again, why not?" said Ralph—"if you are in earnest."
"Oh, am I!"
"I'll speak to Mr. Knight. I will do more. I will ask the depot master to take your application, Slavin," said Ralph earnestly, laying a gentle hand on the big fellow's shoulder, "you have shown yourself a man to-night. Keep it up, and"—Ralph smiled significantly as he quoted Slavin's own recent words—"I'll do the rest."
Slavin dashed an impetuous hand across his eyes. They had filled with a suspicious moisture. He evidently could not trust himself to speak further, for as he started down the trap ladder he only waved Ralph a clumsy, silent adieu.
The episode of Yaung Slavin's visit had been a pleasant diversion to the monotony of the hour Ralph pulled the out switch for the 12.15 mail. Then he sat down again and finished his lunch.
The storm raged on with unabated fury. There was nothing to do now until morning except to watch out for the night express and the regular freight.
The express, Ralph knew, was stalled by a wash-out beyond Acton. Naturally the freight, blocked behind it, could not get through until the road was cleared. Ralph walked up and down the tower for exercise. Suddenly he threw up a window.
Some moving lanterns over on the repair track attracted his attention. Their flare and that of the lightning showed him three men getting a handcar in to service. One of them ran up to the tower and made a trumpet of his hands.
"Give us the out track," he called.
"All right," answered Ralph.
"Train ditched—wrecking crew ordered out."
"Yes, I know—the wash-out at Acton," said Ralph—"the in express."
"No, the outmail—just beyond the limits."
"What!" cried Ralph in a startled tone.
He kept at the levers until he saw the handcar speed safely down the main rails. Then he ran to the telephone and called up the limits tower.
There was no action, and no response.
"That's bad," murmured Ralph—"fuse burned out. The lightning has put the 'phone out of commission. I wish I understood things straight. Two trains delayed by the wash-out. The mail ditched. Bad shape all around, this, for such a night."
Ralph wished he could run up to the dispatcher's office and get more information at the depot. This he dared not do, however. He paced up and down restlessly, wondering how serious the mishap to the mail might be.
It was precisely one o'clock when the dial hand moved with a kind of an electric tang. It circled and then shot back, as if directed by an erratic hand.
Ralph watched it intently. That dial disc was his only present reliable communication with the outside railroad world. The pointer vibrated, then halted.
"Through freight, track 7," it directed.
"Why, exclaimed Ralph, "that can't be! The through freight is stalled at Acton behind the express, and—why, she's coming now!"
He could hardly believe his eyes. Usually a minute and a half elapsed before a train announced at the limits showed coming around the curve.
Now, boring the water-laden air with a quiver that showed full speed, a great laboring headlight glared along the in tracks.
Had Ralph caught her sooner, he could have switched onto any one of the half a dozen tracks which were empty. She was now past all the main switches, however, except the in passenger track 7 and inside 6.
"It is No. 3, the through freight, sure enough," said Ralph, recognizing the approaching train with the intuitive sense of experience. The headlight, the sway of the ponderous locomotive, the very sound of the long train, vague as it was, told a sure story to his practiced eye and ear.
"She must have got around the wash-out and ahead of the express," said Ralph. "Why, there's some mistake at the limits. She should have been given the long freight siding, and she has passed it, and—track 7. It's in use!"
Ralph, darting to the levers, uttered these words in a great hollow shout.
Lever 7, operating the switches of that set of rails, had a card hung to its handle. These cards were always used nights as a guide to the levermen, where any special, extra, or transient cars, passenger or freight, were stationary.
The sight of the card recalled a startling fact to Ralph: at the depot end of track 7 lay the occupied tourist car of an Uncle Tom's Cabin theatrical troupe which was then visiting Stanley Junction.
"Something wrong at limits—everything wrong here!" panted Ralph, his heart suddenly beating like a trip-hammer. "What shall I do?"
He shot a glance at the nearing headlight. Relying on limits signals, evidently expecting the long freight siding, in the darkness and storm taking no note of outside switches, and behind time, those in charge of the through freight had nearly full speed set.
Ralph felt the blood leave his face. Through his mind in rapid sequence ran the plat of switches at the depot yards.
"No. 6, or destruction!" he gasped. "I've got to make the choice. It's the only track open. Open—no!" he added, with a new thrill of apprehension, "but—there's no other way."
He pulled the lever that would send the through freight down track 6. Then a wild tumult seized him. He darted for the trap. He almost fell the length of the iron-runged ladder. Then Ralph sprang through the doorway and tore across the tracks.
Track 6 was not empty. At its bumpered end were three old empty freights. Ralph, however, counted their destruction as of little consequence as compared with a crash on track 7 into the theatre car, holding perhaps a dozen sleeping inmates. He had made an independent choice. He had saved them. Now, if possible, to save the freight train from a collision!
As he passed the switch he tore from a pivot the signal lantern resting there. Carrying it in his arms, he dashed forward diagonally to meet the rushing freight. Extending its red slide, he waved frantically up and down and across, yelling at the top of his voice.
The locomotive of the through freight whizzed by him. In the blur of rain and radiance Ralph fancied a grizzled head was poked out through the cab window. At all events he caught the quick, harsh whistle of the air brakes. A jolt shook the long freights. His signal had been observed.
Following the locomotive with his eye, Ralph saw, three hundred yards further on, a figure suddenly cleave the air. The engineer had put on full stop brakes and had jumped.
The train was slowing up. Would she stop in time? Car after car whirled by. Then crash! Far ahead, the last car past him, Ralph caught the ominous sound, and shivered and gasped.