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Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 30

CHAPTER XXX


PRECIOUS FREIGHT


"Here we are!" almost immediately sounded out the tones of Mort Bemis.

"Glad of it," growled a gruff, breathless voice, unfamiliar to the listening Ralph. "We are about done out lugging these heavy crowbars over swamps and up this steep climb."

"Quick action, now," broke in Slump. "Here, give me a crowbar."

Ralph glided to the end of the box car he was in. He got near its little rear grated window.

Cautiously he looked out. Standing at the side of the track were Bemis and the two tramps. One of them held a crowbar. Another like it Ike was extending between the bumpers. He knocked up the coupling pin connecting the rear car with the rest of the train.

Then he pried against the head of the pin, and forced it out. As it fell to the roadbed, he said:

"Watch up and down the tracks, Mort."

"Oh, there's no likelihood of anybody coming for three hours," retorted Bemis. "The express has passed, and the signal man. The switching crew will keep snug and cozy in Hank Allen's restaurant up at Dover till schedule time, and that isn't till nine o'clock."

"Well, keep a sharp lookout, all the same," directed Ike. "I worked up this deal, and I reckon I have a right to boss the job. Come, my friend," to the tramp holding the other crowbar. "Pry on that left wheel. I'll take the right. Soon as we get momentum, you two give us a shoulder. Push, till I say let go. Understand?"

Ralph was momentarily bewildered. The quartette were about to separate the last car from the train. Why?

Ike and his helper got their crowbars each under a wheel. They budged the car, and got it fairly started. Then they yelled to the other two, and, dropping the crowbars, joined them in pushing the car along by sheer shoulder strength.

Ralph stared after them in doubt and concern. Then as they took a switch with rusted rails, he clearly saw their object.

The wheels of the detached freight car, striking a sharp slant, ran away from the persons who had started it up.

They stood still, gazing after the runaway. It moved on with sharpening speed, took a curve, and was shut out from view.

For fully two minutes afterwards, however, Ralph could catch the diminishing clatter of the fast revolving wheels. The others stood listening, too.

It was fairly dusk now. As the quartette approached the remaining cars, Ralph noticed that Mort Bemis was chuckling. Ike Slump's face wore an expression of intense satisfaction. They all halted as they reached the stationary freights.

"Here," spoke Ike, "we don't need those any longer."

He seized the crowbars in turn lying on the roadbed. He gave them a swing, sending them in among the long grass at the side of the embankment.

"Done quite neatly," spoke Bemis. "Now then, fellows—back the way we came. Horse and wagon all ready?"

"Yes," assented one of the tramps.

"Make it lively, then. We can get around to the switch off where that car has come to a stop, in about an hour."

"Then for the safe, and a fortune apiece!" cried Ike excitedly. "Say, Mort, the five hundred we lost on the races looks a fleabite to what we'll divide up in the next two hours!"

"I don't see why you didn't drive right up here and dump the safe?" suggested one of the men of the party.

"Don't you?" spoke Ike. "Well, you'd have a fine time, driving over that boggy waste, wouldn't you? Besides, that spur is never used. No chance of any meddlers where that car is now. The train crew won't be here till nine o'clock. When they do come, even if they miss the car, they won't suspect where it has gone to."

"Correct," assented Mort Bemis in a jubilant tone. "Oh, we're working on greased rollers! Come, let's go around for the horse and wagon, and get that safe in our claws."

The quartette descended the embankment and disappeared from view. Ralph jumped from the car the moment they were out of sight.

In the light of the overheard conversation and recent doings of Slump and his companions, the young leverman was pretty well able to conjecture what they were doing.

Van's blurred message grew clearer now. Ralph doubted not but that Slump and Bemis had projected and were carrying out a daring robbery.

According to what they had said, the detached car had aboard some very valuable freight: nothing less than a safe. And Ike had intimated that it contained "a fortune apiece."

This seemed incredible to Ralph. All the same, he realized that they had isolated the car to loot it.

"In an hour they will have their booty," he reflected rapidly. "Can I foot it to Dover in time? No way to wire. Why, I'll do it!"

A quick idea came into Ralph's mind. He would anticipate the robbers. He ran fast as he could to the locomotive on the siding.

Ralph Fairbanks never valued his practical roundhouse experience so greatly as during the ensuing fifteen minutes.

He knew all about a locomotive, for he had been a shop hand to some profit. He lit the fire, set the steam gauges, piled on the coal. Steam up, he backed towards the spur, stopped, opened a switch, and glided west after the runaway car.

As he rounded a curve he noticed that the spur had two tracks, and he had by chance taken the outer one.

The tracks ran parallel, however. There must be switches further on, he decided, and he put on a fair head of steam and sped on his way.

The spur ran in and out a hilly district with numerous curves. At length there was a level stretch. Ralph whizzed by the detached car, standing stationary at the end of a steep grade about a quarter of a mile from the main rails where it had been started.

He took a new curve, slowed up, and began looking for a switch. The tracks ended near a dismantled ruin. It had evidently once been in use as a factory, but now, like the spur tracks, was abandoned.

At this terminus were several switches. Ralph got righted on the inside rails and started back for the detached car.

There were as many as four curves to pass, all breasting elevations at the side. Ralph proceeded rather slowly. As he reached the final open stretch, however, his hand came down sharply on the lever.

He pulled the throttle open. A glance had warned him that there was no time now to dally.

It was not quite dark yet. Some lanterns were now at the side of the detached car.

Near it was a horse and wagon. The side door of the car was open. One of the tramps was carrying a rope from the wagon. The other was just climbing into the car.

Ralph drove the locomotive forward so promptly that the alarmed shout of the man coming from the wagon was mingled with a resounding crash, as the bulkheads of the cow-catcher struck the end of the car. The freight was momentarily lifted from its trucks. Then car and engine swept on.

The tramp, just climbing into the car when the contact came, was knocked free of his hold by the shock. He went keeling over and over in the gravel by the side of the track.

From the inside of the car sounded loud and fervent yells. Ralph kept his eye fixed on the side of the freight. A head was thrust out—two of them.

Staring back in startled wonder, Ike Slump and Mort Bemis saw what had happened, and marvelled.

They did not attempt to jump. Ralph believed that they recognized him. Whether this were true or not, just as the locomotive reached the main road bed a report rang out. A bullet smashed in the front window of the cab.

Ralph dodged down. His enemies were driven to desperate straits. He held back from the window out of range, but kept his hand firmly on the lever.

A glance showed what he was running into. The stationary freights blocked his course. Ralph slowed up. Then, as the expected contact came, he put on full steam again.

A momentary halt had given Bemis a chance to leave the detached car in safety. As the locomotive glided by he grabbed at its step.

Ralph threw out one foot. It met Mort's jaw, and sent him spinning clear of his hold.

The locomotive was now pushing the entire train. Ralph's heart began to beat fast. He dared not stop, for Slump was probably armed, and his confederates might come in pursuit.

Ralph did not know what he might run into, or what might run into him. He was a "wild" of the most reckless description. It was make or break for Dover, now!

"He's jumped!" exclaimed Ralph.

A dark form, that of Ike Slump, leaped from the car ahead as it passed a morass. Ralph ventured to lean out of the cab window.

He could make out the nearing lights of Dover. Glancing back, he saw by the signals that the tracks were clear for the regular service.

Toot-toot-too-oot-too-oot!

Far and wide rang the ear-splitting alarm signal. Ralph kept it up continuously. Then, as he neared the crossings tower lights at Dover, he shut off steam and jolted down to a dead stop.

Glancing back and ahead, he saw the signals change in a flash, blocking all rails.

A lantern moved down the tracks. Two men came running towards the freights and along them till they reached the locomotive.

One of the men was evidently the head towerman. He glared wildly up at Ralph.

"What in thunder is this?" he cried.

"Why, you may call it a special," answered Ralph promptly.

"Special?" roared the irate towerman—"special what?"

"A special treasure train, I would call it, from what I learn," said Ralph coolly. "I have just run it clear of four robbers, and I understand it has 'four fortunes' in it."