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Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 25

CHAPTER XXV


THE LITTLE TIN BOX


Ralph ran towards the grape trellis. He soon found the ladder the old woman had mentioned.

It was long and quite heavy, but seizing one end he dragged it towards the burning building. Soon he had it set in place and balanced. He had guessed at the proper slant correctly. Its top just rested on the edge of the attic window outside the sill.

"No time to lose," declared Ralph. "Where will I find a hatchet?" he called to the old woman.

"In the wood shed—right near the door, on a chopping block," she directed, watching his every movement in a fever of suspense.

Ralph darted into the wood shed. He came out, hatchet in hand, and sprang instantly onto the ladder.

The building was doomed, he saw that. Its entire front half was in flame. As he got a few feet from the ground a great whirlwind of smoke and sparks enveloped him.

"Why," exclaimed Ralph, as he reached the top of the ladder, "the window is all right."

He did not need to use the hatchet. Contrary to the old woman's positive statement, Ralph found the sash raised an inch or two. It pushed up smoothly. He felt obtruding nails on the inside, which appeared to have been forced out of place.

Climbing through the window, Ralph was nearly choked with the dense smoke filling the room. The window vent somewhat cleared the air, but he could not see an inch before his face.

"I can't stand much of this," he reflected, and then held his breath closely.

Ralph had to grope with hands and feet. He lined one side wall of the apartment, ran to the window for a supply of fresh air, and resumed his difficult quest.

"No luck so far," he panted. "The room seems entirely empty. There is not even a carpet on the floor."

Suddenly, a cracking sound and then a slight crash warned him to look out for danger.

A door leading into the front attic just then burned free of its hinges. It fell inside the apartment Ralph was in.

Its vivid blazing lit up the room somewhat.

"I see it—the trunk!" said Ralph, and sprang to a corner where a box-like outline showed.

Again the old woman's statements were at fault. The trunk was perfectly easy of access, and Ralph did not have to use the hatchet at all.

Ropes that at one time possibly enclosed the trunk lay at one side, cut in two. The broken lock of the trunk lay on the floor. Ralph threw up the cover.

Inside was a mass of cotton batting. He threw this out on the floor. Then some old newspapers followed. Beneath these lay a little flat tin box.

"I have it," said Ralph with satisfaction, grasping the object of the old woman's anxiety.

It was high time to make an exit. Some sparks fell on the cotton. It blazed up into his face and singed his hair. Ralph found himself nearly overcome by the smoke. He fairly staggered to the window, and spluttering and scorched, almost slid the length of the ladder.

Reaching the ground the young leverman stood stationary for a moment. He dug the cinders out of his eyes, and took a good long refreshing breath of the pure air.

A call roused him to new action. The old woman was shouting at him and waving her hand eagerly.

She was not alone now. A pale-faced young man of about thirty stood by her side. Ralph presumed that this was her son, David, to whom she had so frequently referred.

"Did you get it—did you get it?" she called out anxiously, as Ralph ran up to the invalid chair.

"Yes, ma'am," responded Ralph, handing over the box.

"Oh, dear! Oh, how shall I ever thank you? David, he is a brave, noble boy!" and hugging the box to her breast, the old woman wept hysterically.

"You saved my mother's life," spoke the young man, placing a hand that trembled on Ralph's shoulder.

"I am glad if that is so," said Ralph.

"David! David! David!"

Just here the old woman interrupted with startling suddenness. Ralph turned quickly toward her in amazement. Her son ran to her side, very much alarmed. She had shouted out his name in such a lost, despairing tone that both her auditors were thrilled.

"Mother—what is it?" cried the young man.

The old woman waved the tin box that Ralph had just given her.

"It was tied with twine—in a sheet of writing paper, and sealed," she said. "And look now, David—it is empty!"

"Was there something in it?" questioned Ralph, his spirits sinking to zero.

All along he had entertained some hopeful ideas regarding that little tin box, knowing that it had been the property of the mysterious Mrs. Davis.

"Why, surely," said the old woman, weeping bitterly and wringing her hands. "Mrs. Davis put some folded papers in it. I saw her do it. She said they were very valuable. She was afraid she would lose them, or be robbed. She said she feared wicked enemies."

"When was that?" asked Ralph.

"About a month ago. She wrapped up, tied, and sealed the box. She asked me where she could hide it for a time. I told her about the old trunk. It was empty, except for some cotton and newspapers. I told her to nail down the window, put the box in the trunk, tie up the trunk, and lock the attic door. She did all that. She made me promise solemnly to think first of that box if anything happened. And now someone has stolen the papers! I have been faithless to my trust! Poor Mrs. Davis said her very life depended on those papers. Oh, David! David! I shall die of shame and grief, I know I shall!"

"You did your best, you couldn't help it," said her son soothingly.

"No, some thief has visited your attic," decleared Ralph.

"But no one except Mrs. Davis and myself knew that the box was there," suggested the weeping woman.

"Someone surely found out," said Ralph. "I found the window forced up and the trunk lock broken."

"Mother, you really must not take on so," spoke the young man in a worried tone. "You are shaking all over. I must get you to some shelter."