Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 7
Railroad Street to the right of Stanley Junction was a busy, respectable thoroughfare. There were a hotel, some restaurants, a store or two, and beyond these some old residences.
To the left, however, the street retrograded into second-hand stores, junk-shops, and the like, cheap eating places and boarding-houses, with a mixture of saloons.
The lower class of railroad employees and the scum of the Junction usually infested these places. At a restaurant called "The Signal" Ralph, from what he learned that day, felt he was pretty sure to get some trace of Mort Bemis.
He went by the place slowly once or twice, but could not discover Bemis in the crowded front room.
Then he paced down the alley at the side of the building. Several lower-story apartments showed lighted up. He approached the open window of one of these.
As he did so, he noticed that directly under it lay some person asleep, rolled up in horse-blankets. Ralph nearly stumbled over this individual.
He glanced into the room beyond the window. It held a table, at which was seated the object of his search.
Mort Bemis was idly pawing over a greasy deck of playing cards. He seemed to be awaiting the arrival of congenial company. Tilted back in a chair against the wall near by, a skullcap pulled down over his eyes and seemingly asleep, was a person Ralph did not recognize.
Ralph now stepped cautiously over the sleeper at his feet so as not to disturb him, and went around to the front of the restaurant.
It was run by a man named Prince, who at one time had conducted eating camps for railroad construction crews. He kept lodgers upstairs, and derived a good deal of revenue by letting out the rear rooms of the lower floor to card-players.
Ralph entered the restaurant and passed through a curtained doorway at one side. Prince, at the cashier's desk, gave him a keen look, but took him for some new recruit to the crowd who infested the rear rooms.
A narrow passageway led the length of the rear addition. Ralph turned the knob of the second door he reached. He found he had correctly located the apartment he had viewed from the alley.
Mort Bemis looked up as Ralph closed the door behind him. He started and stared. Ralph came around to the table, sank into the chair directly opposite Bemis, and looked him squarely in the face.
"What are you doing here?" demanded Bemis a surly, suspicious expression crossing his features.
"I came particularly to see you," answered Ralph calmly. "Can I have your attention for a minute or two?"
"Just two of them," growled Bemis.
Ralph did not scare at the bullying, significant manner of the discharged leverman.
"It's just this," he said bluntly: "you visited the switch tower yesterday and came very nearly causing a bad wreck."
"Who told you so?" demanded Bemis.
"Oh, there are plenty of witnesses, your former landlady, for one. Another low-down trick was attempted this afternoon, instigated, I believe, by you. Now, Mr. Bemis, this has come to a dead-open-and-shut conclusion."
"Has it? How?" sneered Mort.
"I have legitimately succeeded to your position, and I intend to hold it. You seem resolved to discredit and disgrace me. It won't work. If you make one more break in my direction, I shall go to the superintendent of the Great Northern, make a formal complaint of malicious mischief, and then enter a regular complaint with the police."
Mort Bemis did not reply. His bluff was gone, for he knew that Ralph meant every word that he said.
"There's another thing," pursued Ralph: "you owe a poor widow money that she needs, and needs badly. If you have any sense of shame or honor in your nature, you will find honest work and pay her."
"I don't want none of your advice!" flared out Bemis. "You've said your say! Then get out. I'll keep hands off because I don't fancy being locked up, but," he added with a malicious grin, "I can't hold back my friends from doing what they like."
"You have had your warning," said Ralph quietly, rising to his feet. "I've given you your chance. Leave my affairs alone, if you are wise."
Ralph started for the door. Suddenly his way was blocked. The person he had supposed to be asleep, tilted back against the wall in a chair, had roused up with marvelous quickness.
As this individual threw back his skullcap, he revealed the coarse, bloated face of a boy about two years Ralph's senior. He was a powerfully-built fellow. Ralph remembered having seen him once in the hands of the police after a raid on a chicken fight at the fair grounds.
"Easy," spoke this person, springing between Ralph and the door, and doubling up his fists pugilist-fashion. "This gent is my friend, and you've insulted him."
"I think not," said Ralph calmly.
"Do all your thinking quick, then," advised the other, "for I want satisfaction."
The speaker drove at Ralph with one hand. It was a sledge-hammer blow. Ralph whirled half-way across the room.
His antagonist followed him up quickly. His back now to the window, he put up his fists anew.
"I wanted some training," he chuckled. "Come up to your punishment. Do you know who I am?"
"I do not, and don't care," answered Ralph quickly, nettled out of his ordinary composure by a blow that had nearly knocked the breath out of his body.
"Then you can't read the newspapers. I'm Young Slavin, the juvenile Hercules, light-weight champeen. Come, wade in; I give you one chanct."
"I have no quarrel with you," remarked Ralph. "Stand aside. I wish to leave this room."
"Ho! ho! When you do, it will be on a shutter."
"And I shall not let you pound me. I warn you to mind your own business."
"Time!" roared the pugilist gloatingly.
Ralph took in the situation in all its bearings. He realized that he confronted a young giant. To oppose his prodigious muscular strength in even battle would be to be hammered to a jelly.
The occasion called for action, however. Ralph reflected for a bare minute, and then he "waded in."
With a rush he made a slanting dive for the brutal bully, aiming squarely for his feet.
Exercising all the muscle of which he was capable, Ralph grasped his antagonist's ankles, took him off his guard, gave him a sudden trip, and sent him toppling backwards.
With a yell of consternation and pain Young Slavin went crashing through the window sash.