Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 21

CHAPTER XXI


IKE SLUMPS "NUTCRACKER"


Ralph was taken completely off his guard. He struggled violently, but his assailants had the advantage.

One of them pinioned his arms. The other tied the rope about them. A second rope was whipped about his ankles, and secured.

"Push him down," spoke a quick voice.

They half-lifted, half-dropped their prisoner. Ralph was thrust down into an old easy-chair.

"Now then, shut the door and fetch the lamp," was the next order.

Ralph was too astonished to say anything for a minute or two. One of his captors flitted from the room. The front door slammed shut. Then the fellow ran to the kitchen and brought in a lamp and placed it on a table.

"Well," he said with a great chuckling guffaw, "how's Mr. Ralph Fairbanks?"

"Slump—Ike Slump, eh?" spoke Ralph calmly, but following a start of some surprise.

"Don't miss me, Ralphy," suggested Slump's companion in a tone of sneering mockery.

"And Mort Bemis?" added Ralph coolly. "Good-evening, gentlemen—what can I do for you?"

"Nervy!" sneered Slump—"but it won't last. It's what we're going to do that will interest you, Ralph Fairbanks."

Ralph looked over the enemy with a steadfast glance. They were certainly "dressed to kill." He noticed that their clothing was of the most expensive grade. For all that, it was disordered and ill-fitting.

They looked as they had not slept regularly for a week, and when they did, seemed to have made any old place their resting-spot. Their faces bore marks of dissipation.

Their whole bearing indicated that the money they had recently come into had helped them down the road of idleness and crime.

"We've come back to the Junction specially to see you," observed Bemis, sinking upon a sofa opposite their helpless prisoner.

"Yes, unfinished business, ha! ha!" jeered Ike Slump, looking mightily bad and vicious as he proceeded to light a cigarette. "We owe you one, as you'll perhaps remember. You put the police onto me."

Ralph had not done this. As the reader knows, it was the act of Van Sherwin. Ralph, however,

did not care to enlighten his captors as to the real facts of the case.

"And you stole my job from me," added Mort Bemis savagely. "You've put Young Slavin up to queer us, too."

"So," resumed Slump, "seeing we did one good job for a certain liberal gentleman in Stanley Junction, we'll try and please him in another. At the same time, we get good and even with you for ourselves."

"I can easily guess you might please Gasper Farrington with anything that means harm to me, if that is what you are getting at," observed Ralph pointedly.

"Who mentioned Farrington?" demanded Slump.

"He went on your bond. It is pretty easy to guess you are in cahoots with him in some way," bluntly retorted Ralph.

Mort Bemis got up from his seat and strode up and down the room. Through a long tirade of his fancied wrongs, he worked himself up into a seething fury, real or pretended. Ralph's cool unconcern nettled him. Once or twice he referred to the saving of the limited, and to other acts that had made Ralph popular and his friends proud of him.

"You robbed me of my chance," he snarled. "If I'd have been on deck, your luck would have fallen to me. I'm out for revenge. I'm going to pay you off."

"With bluff and blow?" demanded Ralph sarcastically.

Bemis leaned over and slapped Ralph's face.

"Don't you sass me!" he gritted out. "It won't be healthy for you."

"You're a mean coward!" said Ralph. "Give me a free show, and we'll see who is the better man."

"I'll show you something!" snapped Bemis venomously. "Do you know what we are going to do with you? I'm going to fix you, Ralph Fairbanks, so you will never crow over me—you'll never pull another lever."

"Jaw less—get into action," directed Ike Slump tartly.

"Where's the fixtures?"

"Here they are."

Ike reached over to a chair and picked up something that jangled. Ralph regarded the the trap-like apparatus disclosed with some interest.

Bemis took it from the hand of his associate.

"Do you know what this is?" he inquired of Ralph.

"I don't."

"It's a nutcracker, see?"

Ike grinned as if that was a big joke.

"You're the funniest fellow in the world, Mort!" he chuckled gleesomely.

The instrument Bemis displayed somewhat resembled a nutcracker. It opened and was operated by hand pressure. It had fine grooves. These tallied to the fingers on a human hand.

"They used that on the scabs, the time of the big railroad strike," exclaimed Bemis grimly. "The strikers did."

Ralph started. He recognized the "nutcracker" now. It was one of the brutal instruments of torture that had been used to terrify and cripple the men who had taken the places of the strikers, during the labor troubles on the Great Northern about a year back.

"We put your hand in these grooves," proceeded Bemis. "Crack! Your knuckles are gone. See? The man who can pull a lever ever afterwards is a dandy. See?"

"I see," nodded Ralph, his lips set firmly, though his heart misgave him. "Do you mean, Mort Bemis, brute, coward, and traitor, to the honest workingman's cause, that you intend to maim me for life to satisfy a low, paltry spirit of revenge?"

"Mr. Ralph Fairbanks," declared Bemis coolly, "I—mean—just—that."

"Have you considered what this job is likely to cost you?" inquired Ralph.

"It didn't cost the strikers anything," jeered Ike.

"I am not mixed up in any strike," observed Ralph. "I warn you I have good friends, and any such fiendish act as that you contemplate will send them on your track to the ends of the earth."

"That'll do," growled Bemis. "Grab his hand—the right one, Ike."

"Got it—he's easy to handle," said Slump.

The young towerman was indeed easy to handle, for the reason that his arms were securely surrounded by the ropes, both above and below the elbows.

Ike seized the wrist of Ralph's right hand and Bemis advanced with the "nutcracker."

A cold shiver ran over Ralph as his fingers were encased in the grooves of the iron hand.

He remembered having once seen a victim of the strike, a poor fellow who had gone around with the knuckles of one hand twisted so out of shape that he would never be able to straighten out his fingers again.

Ralph could not resist. If he shouted for help, he knew that he would be brutally silenced. He thought of his mother, of the bright ambitions about to be wrecked by two worthless, cruel enemies.

Then Ralph closed his eyes. He set his lips firmly, and silently prayed that his wicked inquisitors would not dare carry out fully their announced programme.

"I'm ready," sounded Bemis' heartless tones.

"So am I," chorused Ike. "You'll wish you'd minded your own business and let us alone, Ralph Fairbanks."

Bemis began to put the pressure on the vile instrument of torture. Ralph's breath came quick. He felt his fingers compress.

Chug!

Ralph strained his hearing at the new sound. He opened his eyes with a thrill.

The pressure on his hand was relaxed. The "nutcracker," released by Bemis with strange suddenness, dangled at Ralph's finger tips for an instant. Then it dropped harmless to the carpet with a dull clang.

Ralph saw something cleave the air directly in front of him. It was a human fist. It met the broad, astonished face of Mort Bemis squarely.

That shuddering, sickening sound echoed out. It reminded Ralph of the noise made by a boy playing with a big lump of clay, and spatting it violently against a wooden fence.

He saw Bemis fall back with a roar of awful pain. In that fleeting glimpse, it looked to Ralph as if Mort's face had been flattened out from ear to ear. His nose seemed to have disappeared. In its place was a vague red blotch of color.

Bemis fell flat backwards, his head striking a chair and smashing off its arm.

"You next!" shouted a terrible voice.

Ike Slump had already dropped Ralph's hand. With a sharp cry of alarm he tried to dodge back.

Again that great fist swung forward. Ralph turned pale, and he felt his flesh creep.

As he looked, he saw Ike Slump reeling. There was a ghostly grin on his face. His whole lower row of teeth was gone.

"I said I'd do it," spoke Ralph's rescuer and the assailant of his enemies, "and I've kept my word."

Young Slavin proceeded to liberate Ralph from the ropes that bound him.