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Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 5



"What's that?" called out Gasper Farrington, hobbling up to the levers and staring at Ralph. "Look here, Mr. Blake," he pursued, his brows drawn in a mean, savage scowl. "You don't mean to tell me this boy has anything to do with your switching?"

"He has everything to do with it," announced the master mechanic, looking as if he was disposed to resent the manner and words of the client he did not like any too well himself.

"Well, then, it won't do!" snarled Farrington, getting excited. "I want trustworthy service, I do. I don't propose to run the risk of damage and loss with a road that hires kids for its most important work."

Mr. Blake's lips drew tightly together. Then he remarked:

"Mr. Farrington, the Great Northern knows its business distinctly, we are responsible for any damage caused by the negligence or inability of our employees. In this instance you may quiet your needless fears. Mr. Fairbanks thoroughly understands his business, and I personally recommended him to his present position on account of the cleanest record and best practical ability of any junior employee of the company."

"H'm. Ha! That so?" mumbled Farrington, taken a good deal aback by Blake's definite expressions of approval, while Ralph felt his heart beat with pleasure, and blushed hotly. "All right. I suppose you think you know your business. Only—he was a barefooted urchin six months ago."

"He has earned a good many pairs of shoes since then," observed Blake crisply.

Ralph said not a word. A spell of silence ensued. Farrington stood like some baffled hyena held back from its prey. Ralph quickly and deftly attended to the call for several switches, with a precision and system that even interested the master mechanic.

"It strikes me he'll do," spoke Blake, and Ralph looked grateful as the master mechanic plainly evidenced a pride in the demonstrated ability of his young protégé.

All this roused the vengeful, malignant Farrington to the verge of impotent fury.

"Ah," he growled, "favor cheap help, I suppose? All right. Though be sure to make it your business if any damage comes, that's all. That boy owes me a grudge, and if I know anything of human nature, there will be a wreck on the factory spur before it's been running long."

Ralph felt his fingers tingle. He decided that he had a right to speak now. He faced about squarely. The mean-eyed magnate quailed at the honest indignation of his glance.

"Mr. Farrington," said Ralph, "have I ever sought to do you an injury?"

"Yes—no—perhaps not," stammered Farrington, "but you would like to."

"Why?" demanded Ralph definitely.

"Because—because—oh, I know you. I know the whole brood. You smashed a window in my factory, once."

"Accidentally. And paid for it. Is that true?"

Farrington squirmed. He wanted to back out. He found that he could not domineer in the present instance. More than that, he realized that he dared not. The master mechanic, with a grim smile on his lip, helped him out of the dilemma.

"Come, Mr. Farrington," he said, smartly clicking his watch and helping him through the trap. "We will miss the superintendent, and you say you want to close up this business to-day. Careful, take it a rung at a time—you skunk!" he concluded in an undertone to Ralph, giving him a significant look, and meaning the words for Ralph's ear only.

Ralph felt as if the air was cleared of some violent poison at the departure of this miserable apology of a man.

"Faugh! I won't think of him," he soliloquized. "What possible happiness in life can such people have? I wonder which is the worst: Mort Bemis, poor and mean, or Gasper Farrington, rich and mean. Which carries out what mother has often said: 'Money is not everything.'"

Ralph dismissed his enemies from his mind, whistling cheerily at his tasks. He thought a good deal about Mrs. Davis. He was anxious to get through work and hurry home, to learn if she had called on his mother, and if she had imparted to Mrs. Fairbanks any explanation of her strange acquaintance with his dead father, and of her still more strange fear of Gasper Farrington.

From five until seven o'clock the tracks were kept pretty full. Ralph had a busy time of it. He got through without a delay or a mix-up, however. Jack Knight came up the ladder about eight o'clock.

He looked pleased at the collected, businesslike way that Ralph handled things. He finally remarked:

"Met Blake a bit back, Fairbanks."

"The master mechanic—yes," nodded Ralph.

"Keep it under your hat, now," continued Knight significantly. "Blake was riled. He said he'd give half a month's salary to wallop one man in Stanley Junction, if it wasn't business policy to keep down personal feelings for the good of the service."

"Who was the man, Mr. Knight?"

"He didn't say, but no friend of yours, it seems. The gist of it is, that this man—I'd like a crack at him myself—offered Blake two hundred dollars to get you shifted onto some other section."

"I seem to come high," smiled Ralph, although he experienced a faint uneasiness at mind, as he clearly comprehended that Gasper Farrington was up to some of his old underhanded tricks.

"Well, Blake politely turned down the offer. He said to me, though, that if any treachery or influence got you the jacket in this position, if he had to fire every other man along the line, he'd find a place for you in the train dispatcher's office at double pay."

"He is a good friend," said Ralph, with emotion—"and you, too, for giving me the warning, Mr. Knight. Knowing what I do, though, I think I can take care of myself. I do not believe the man you refer to will succeed in disturbing me here."

"He won't, if I can help it," muttered old Jack doughtily.

"Hello, there!" hailed Doc Bortree, the night-shift man, intruding his bulky form and big, jolly face through the trap.

Bortree was a general favorite. He carried an atmosphere of good nature always along with him.

"Well, kid," he hailed. "Busted anything to-day?"

"Not yet," answered Ralph gayly.

They sent him home forthwith. Ralph felt very happy as he descended the ladder from his first real day's service at the switch tower.

His work had gone smoothly, and he loved it. A spice of new interest had been injected into his personal affairs that day, and his mental conjectures were not unpleasant ones.

"I wonder if Mrs. Davis saw mother?" he mused, as he crossed the tracks, homeward bound. "Hello, a stowaway!"

Ralph halted, just passing a line of delayed freights. A great thumping was going on at the side door of the end car.

"Someone in there, sure," soliloquized Ralph. "A tramp, I suppose. Stowed in at some point, and side-tracked here this morning. Out with you, whoever you are!" ordered Ralph, unbolting and sliding back the door.

In the dim light of a distant arc lamp Ralph made out a forlorn figure. The stowaway was shabby and peaked-looking, holding in one hand a piece of wood with which he had been hammering for release.

His face was so grimed that Ralph took him for a negro at first. Always kind-hearted, the young leverman had not hesitated to give the stowaway prompt liberty, and it was in his mind to help him farther if necessary.

The stowaway glanced all about the yards as if fearing the gauntlet of cuffs and kicks often in vogue for his class. Then, rubbing his eyes to clear the glare of sudden light, he looked sharply at Ralph.

"Hello," he exclaimed, shooting back out of view. "It's Fairbanks!"

"What's that?" cried Ralph, catching the name in wonderment. "Here, who are you? Do you know me?"

Suddenly as the figure had vanished within the dark car, it now reappeared. With a spring the stowaway cleared the doorway of the car, landing on the cinders beside Ralph.

"Take that!" he hissed, savagely whirling the club above his head.

Ralph dodged. Mystified and unprepared, however, his usual agility was at fault.

A heavy blow landed on the side of his head, and Ralph fell flat.