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Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 20



All Stanley Junction was agog with the story of the "crazy" train orders the day after the storm.

It was one of the most remarkable occurrences of risk and danger ever known in the history of the Great Northern.

Expert railroad men looked grave, as the facts came out. Citizens generally shuddered, as they realized how nearly the caprice of a mad leverman had come to causing wide-spread death and disaster.

Ralph Fairbanks himself was thrilled and amazed, as he learned from Jack Knight's lips the the facts of the case.

From ten o'clock the evening the storm until nearly two o'clock the ensuing morning, a madman had controlled the Great Northern train system at Stanley Junction, out and in.

For over three hours, therefore, Ralph, at the depot switch tower, had been the plaything of a crazed, delirious human being, who, by force and cunning, had usurped the place of trusty, experienced old Joe Bryson.

This was the way it had all come about:

When the master mechanic and Jack Knight reached the limits tower after the report of the double wreck, they had found it in total darkness.

The ladder trap was bolted. They had to break the trap open. Entering the tower room and securing a light, they discovered a strange and startling condition of affairs.

Lying on the floor in a heavy, leaden sleep, was Bryson. Crouching in a corner, with lurid eyes, physical strength exhaused, but raving in wild delirium, was Doc Bortree.

The telephone receiver was smashed, and the transmitter lay torn loose, wires and all, on the floor. Other parts of the tower equipment were in rare disorder. The west levers were set in all kinds of erratic and impracticable shapes.

It took the two railroad men fully half an hour to restore order from the chaos in the tower and along the tracks. It took them double that time to arouse Bryson, and to get Bortree into a state of partial coherency. They sent messengers to Bortree's home. They listened to Bryson's confused story. Then, putting this and that together, they finally got the truth of affairs.

Doc Bortree, as Ralph knew, had been confined to his bed with a high fever for nearly a week. That was why, compelled to share two long shifts with Knight alone, Ralph happened to be on all-night duty at the present time.

It seemed that early in the evening, Bortree's sister had left her brother sleeping quietly. He appeared to be on the mend.

About ten o'clock the sick leverman must have had a relapse into delirium. Railroad service was his daily routine. His brain, running in that line, had suggested to him a whimsical and irrational course. This he had carried out with all the cunning of a real madman.

He had taken a bottle of cordial and had poured into it a sleeping potion. He had got into his clothes, left the room by opening a window, and, breasting the violent tempest, had made for and reached the limits tower.

Joe Bryson afterwards, in telling his story, said that the bedraggled appearance of Bortree was startling enough. His actions were quite lucid, however. All he noticed peculiar about his talk was the persistency and strange delight with which Bortree alluded to an order he expected to receive from the superintendent to take charge of the entire train dispatching service the next day.

When Bortree produced the bottle and told that it was a mild, pleasant wine the doctor had prescribed for him, Bryson indulged in a glass—"for companionship's sake." Then he remembered nothing further until awakened by the master mechanic and Jack Knight.

As soon as Bortree had disposed of his companion, he began his mad, riotous work.

All kinds of exaggerated ideas must have filled his mind. The reader has already seen how his crazy orders operated. His own work at the limits had ditched the midnight mail. His instructions to Ralph had sent the through freight crashing into the three freight empties at terminus.

Finally, exhausted after his mad work at the levers, Bortree had commenced a work of general destruction. When through, he had extinguished the lights and lapsed into a weak delirium in which the two railroad men had finally found him.

"There should always be a team at the limits tower," was Knight's ultimate comment on the affair.

"Yes," the master mechanic assented—"sickness, enmity, a burned-out wire, a dozen things might come up where one man would be helpless. If it is only a messenger, we must not again leave these important points at the mercy of chance and accident."

Ralph made a note of this suggestion. He determined when the right moment came to speak a good word for Young Slavin.

He had never been more tired and sleepy than when he reached home that morning.

Ralph ate a hurried breakfast. He explained only casually the happenings of the night to his mother. Getting to bed promptly, he put in ten hours of the solidest sleep that he had ever enjoyed.

He found his mother quite nervous and worried when he reported for his late afternoon dinner. Mrs. Fairbanks had learned from a neighbor of the startling occurrences of the previous night.

"I am all unstrung over this railroad business, Ralph," she said. "I would feel easier in my mind if you could transfer to some branch of the service where you were not constantly meeting these terrible dangers."

"What! my own dear mother going back on me in the midst of my ambitions!" cried Ralph in a tone of playful raillery. "Oh, surely, never! I hope you wouldn't advise me to follow old Farrington's grand suggestion—for his own benefit; get a clerical position at the general offices at Springfield, and—as he puts it—'be a gentleman.'"

"No, Ralph, I should not like to have you leave Stanley Junction, where you have made such a good record," responded Mrs. Fairbanks, "but think of the fearful responsibilities of your position."

"I do," answered Ralph gravely, "and that is why I am going to stick. Mother, someone has to face these serious issues. Perhaps my clear head, and willing hands, and genuine love for the business, fit me to be just the person to fill the gap when these unavoidable troubles come along. Besides, if someone does not go through the apprenticeship, where will the service be when Jack Knight and the other old hands have retired? I want to be, as I expect to be, a thorough railroad man," pursued Ralph with resolution, "and first-class, or nothing. In order to do so, I must know every step of the service, from roundhouse to train dispatcher's desk. I have started up the ladder. I can't afford to slip one rung. If I get jolted, I intend to hang on all the closer."

The widow was silent. Her son's earnest determination consoled her, somehow. Yes, she reflected, Ralph had braved perils and had saved the lives of others, where one less brave and self-reliant might have failed. So far he had proven himself "the right man in the right place." Secretly she murmured a fervent prayer for his safety and guidance, and tried to be content until he should reach smoother and less risky paths of service.

Ralph received an official assurance from the superintendent through loyal old Jack Knight that afternoon, that his action in dealing with the crazy orders had won the highest commendation of the railroad company.

The following day he spoke about Young Slavin to Knight. The next day the latter informed him that on the first of the month the master mechanic had agreed to pass on the application which Slavin was to file in the meantime. Nothing unforseen happening, it looked as if the sturdy young pugilist would speedily have a chance to exercise his muscle in some department of the Great Northern service.

Pleasant routine succeeded for some days for Ralph to the exciting episodes of the week previous. Some changes were made on the limits tower, and the day man there transferred to the depot yards.

Ralph was back on the shift he preferred; four hours in the morning, and four hours in the afternoon.

He had not heard again from Van. As to Mort Bemis and Ike Slump, they had flashed into town, thrown away a lot of money along lower Railroad Street, and had again disappeared.

Ralph met Slavin one day. The latter was delighted over the prospect of soon getting at work for the railroad company. His face scowled, however, as Ralph asked if he had seen or heard anything concerning Ike and Mort.

"Why, yes," answered Slavin, "I heard they were cutting a dash up at the racetrack at Springfield. Plenty of money, and bragging that they owned a rich old magnate here at Stanley Junction. I'd go gunning for them, if I wasn't waiting to hear from my railroad job."

"Oh, leave them alone—why bother your head about them?" suggested Ralph.

"No, Fairbanks," dissented Slavin stubbornly. "I want those medals, or I want their hides. I'm not a good enough Salvationer just yet to forgive those villains. I can't wipe them off the slate till I've had one last round with them."

Gasper Farrington had completed the switch spur to the factory. Ralph learned that he had invited a heavy damage suit by crossing the lot of a poor old invalid widow, who occupied a house next to that where Mrs. Davis had formerly lived.

He heard a good many comments on this last act of the selfish, tyrannical magnate. There was some current criticism, too, as to his going on the bonds of the idle scapegrace, Ike Slump. Farrington pretended that he had bailed out Ike because his father was an old acquaintance. Ralph knew better, but held his peace. He had faith that the real truth would come out, sooner or later.

With entire confidence in Van Sherwin, he believed that he would soon receive some word from that good friend to show he had been quietly working in the dark all this time.

About five o'clock one afternoon a barefooted urchin Ralph did not know by name came up the switch tower ladder. Ralph was alone, but expected Knight to relieve him at five o'clock.

"Say," projected the frowsy-headed lad, staring curiously around the place, "you Mr. Fairbanks?"

"That's right, my little man," answered Ralph.

"Say, you know Mr. Stiggs?"

"Slightly," nodded Ralph, with a smile.

"Well, he sent me here. He said to fetch a message to you."

Ralph recalled the fact now that Mr. Stiggs had not shown up about the yards for the past two days. This was an unusual thing for the old railroad pensioner.

"Is Mr. Stiggs sick?" he inquired with interest.

"Dunno," answered the youngster. "It was his wife I talked with. She said Mr. Stiggs would like to have you call about seven o'clock, if convenient. He wants to see you."

"Very well," said Ralph. "Are you to see her again?"

"Why, I can."

"Then tell her I will drop around at seven o'clock this evening."

The urchin lingered. He was a shrewd-faced little fellow.

"Say," he again projected, "Mrs. Stiggs didn't have any change."

"Didn't have—oh, I see!" laughed Ralph. "All right, son—there's a nickel."

Ralph thought little of this incident for the remainder of the afternoon. He fancied that Stiggs might be indisposed, and had some mission for him to execute.

He went home, ate his supper, and strolled slowly in the direction of the Stiggs home about dusk.

There was a light in the rear room, and the front door was open. Ralph knocked.

"Come in," sounded a vague direction from the little front parlor.

Ralph stepped into the hall and crossed the threshold of the parlor. He made out a figure dimly, standing by a chair.

"That you, Mr. Stiggs?" he observed. "Pretty dark here. Hold on—what is this?"

Ralph started back. The figure behind him had made a jump and had seized either arm of the youth by the wrist.

At the same moment a second person sprang from the shadows behind Ralph. A rope encircled the young leverman's body, and Ralph Fairbanks was a prisoner.