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Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 23



"That fellow has got his nerve with him all right!" spoke old Jack Knight.

"I can't make out his idea," observed Ralph Fairbanks.

It was two days after the arrest of Ike Slump and Mort Bemis. Knight and his junior lever-man were engrossed in watching a little interesting by-play going on in the vicinity of the in freight tracks.

A boy about Ralph's age and height had jumped into an open box car. He came out with a head of cabbage.

He did not run away, but stood stock-still on the near tracks, as if dallying with detection and arrest.

Some teamsters near by saw the act, but they only laughed carelessly.

The boy dropped the cabbage, climbed into another car, and came out this time with a small sack of potatoes. This he swung across his shoulders, and started towards the depot.

"The chump!" commented Knight. "Does he want to get caught purposely? Look at that, now: coast clear to the street, and walking deliberately into the jaws of justice!"

"He's caught, yes," said Ralph.

A day watchman had come rushing up to the boy. The latter neither stopped nor ran. He kept on his way steadily. He halted only when the watchman banged his cane down on the bag on his back. Then he dropped it.

The watchman grabbed the culprit's arm. The watchers in the switch tower could observe him excitedly waving his cane. He seemed to be trying to make his prisoner realize the enormity of his offense.

The latter, however, was unconcerned. He walked quietly along with the watchman towards the depot, making no effort to escape.

"A mighty queer sort of a thief, that," remarked Knight.

"Yes," said Ralph—"oh, my!"

Ralph gave a quick start. He leaned far through the open sash, and stared fixedly at prisoner and watchman as they passed the switch tower in his direct range of vision.

The young leverman was greatly perturbed. A call to the 'phone had distracted Knight's attention. As the watchman and his prisoner disappeared in the direction of the depot, Ralph's face grew to a void of wonder, doubt, and anxiety.

"It was Van Sherwan!" he breathed excitedly—"Van Sherwin, surely. Van a thief? Oh, there is some mistake!"

Ralph was greatly worked up. There was nothing in the rough attire and smirched face of the prisoner to recall the neatly-dressed Van whom Ralph had last seen. Yet as the prisoner had passed the tower, a gesture, the bearing of the latter, a familiar feature had enlightened Ralph unmistakably.

"Mr. Knight," he said quickly, "can I have ten minutes off?"

"Sure thing. What's up, Fairbanks?—you look disturbed," spoke Knight curiously.

"I—I want to run up to the depot to ask about a friend," explained Ralph, rather lamely.

He slipped on a coat and was down the ladder in a jiffy. Once out of the tower, he ran across the tracks in the direction of the depot.

Passing a switch shanty, a figure stepped from its side directly in his path. A challenging voice said quickly:

"Hold on, there, Ralph Fairbanks."

"Oh, you, Slavin?" said Ralph. "Don't delay me. I am in a hurry."

"I see you are. No need," proclaimed Slavin coolly, seizing and detaining Ralph's arm. "You're trying to overtake a friend, aren't you?"

"Why, how do you know that?" exclaimed Ralph in surprise.

"Name, Van—Van Sherman. No, Sherwin—that's it. Am I right?"

"Why, yes," admitted Ralph in a tone of wonderment, "but how you come to know——"

"I do know, don't I?" projected Slavin, with a shrewd smile. "This way for a minute, please."

He led Ralph out of range of the switch shanty. Then, buttonholing him persuasively, he said:

"Fairbanks, I know a good deal more about your affairs to-day than I did yesterday. Mightily glad I am of it. You'd ought to be, too. It's this way: I ran across that friend of yours last night."

"You mean Van Sherwin?"

"That's just what I do mean," responded Slavin. "It was queer, but I was nosing around the jail for some point on those fellows Slump and Bemis. I was very anxious to find out how they would act regarding old Farrington. It appears they sent messages to him. I know that much. But he didn't show up. I noticed a stranger hanging around, just as I was doing. His actions aroused my suspicions. Well, it led to our getting acquainted, cautiously. You know how such things go. Soon we understood each other, perfectly. I was on the trail of Slump and Bemis to head off any funny work on the part of their friend, Farrington. Sherwin was trying to get a line on the whole case."

"He told you——" began Ralph.

"All I'd ought to know. Enough to show me that those fellows and Farrington are up to a very deep game. It all affects your interests. That was enough for me. There's a woman missing, isn't there? And some bonds? Those prisoners know where the woman is. The woman probably knows where the bonds are. All that is straight and simple. We took some time, this famous friend of yours, Van Sherwin, and I, deciding which thought the most of you——"

"Thank you, Slavin," said Ralph warmly.

"Then we concluded that you had enough real work to bother with, and decided to help you out on this case. The question was: how could we get in touch with Ike Slump & Co.? Your sharp-witted friend decided that. He's chain lightning, I tell you, and no mistake. He saw only one way. He acted on it. I reckon you saw how: he got arrested."

"As a thief!" exclaimed Ralph anxiously.

"Oh, don't let that worry you," and Slavin smiled coolly. "It was all arranged and understood by Bob Adair. Sherwin will go to jail all right. But Adair has fixed it so the minute he finds out what he is after and gives the word, Van Sherwin will have his liberty."

Ralph reflected seriously. He could find no fault with the unselfish ardor of his friends, that was sure. Their plan was a drastic one, but Van was smart, and probably knew what he was about.

"So," remarked Slavin, "you just get back to your work. Don't spoil our plans by interfering or trying to see Sherwin. Until I get that railroad job I'm promised I have nothing special to do. I'll put in the time in your service, see?"

"But," said Ralph, "Ike Slump knows Van."

"Does he? Very slightly, Sherwin says. And by the way, you didn't see Sherwin—close at hand?"

Ralph shook his head negatively.

"Only a special friend like you would be likely to recognize him, Sherwin says. He's fairly well disguised himself. Besides, he simply wants to get where he can watch and overhear Slump & Co. He won't try to chum with them."

Ralph went back to the switch tower more easy in his mind. He felt pretty tender towards his two loyal boy friends. Knowing Ike Slump's crude, blurting ways, he believed that if Farrington got balky, Ike would make some break that would be of advantage to Van.

He decided to tell his mother of this new phase in the case. Something startling, however, interrupted.

He had got ready for supper, and was entering the cozy little dining room, when Mrs. Fairbanks, at the window, called out suddenly:

"Come here, quick, Ralph."

"What is it, mother?" he asked.

"I fancied I heard some sounds like an explosion—and shouts," said Mrs. Fairbanks. "There is a great glare over to the south. Look, Ralph."

She held aside the curtain so he could see.

"Why," cried Ralph, "it is a fire—a big fire, somewhere!"

Farrington's old factory," said Mrs. Fairbanks.