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Ralph in the Switch Tower/Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII


A BAD LOT


Mort Bemis gave an astonished gasp as he saw his crony disappear like magic through the window sash.

His respect for the nerve and prowess of his successor at the switch tower was immensely increased. He spoke not a word, being stupefied and cowed.

Ralph started to leave the room, unmolested now. A sudden outcry checked him. He proceeded to its source—the open window.

Below it on the ground a stirring scene was in progress. It seemed that his masterly fling of Young Slavin had landed that juvenile Hercules directly on top of the individual Ralph had noticed lying asleep under the window, swathed in horse-blankets.

Aroused from dense slumber by a terrific shock, this person had struggled to his feet.

"Well, well," said Ralph, his eyes opening wide as he recognized the disturbed sleeper; "Ike Slump again."

Ralph at once knew the gaunt, desperate-looking fellow, who had jumped from the delayed freight car and knocked him down the previous evening.

The stowaway's face was no longer grimed, and Ralph had a clear view now of its natural lineaments. It was Ike Slump, peaked and wretched-looking. His appearance evidenced that his stolen junk operations and his later fugitive role had not led him into any pleasant path of flowers.

It seemed that Slump, skulking anywhere for hiding and repose like a hunted rat, had utilized the horse-blankets as a bed.

It seemed, too, that he was in constant dread of discovery and arrest. He must have slept with a missile or a weapon always handy, for his fingers now clutched a brick.

Suddenly disturbed, his nervous fears aroused, at sea as to the cause of the shock as Slavin landed on him, Ike had come erect, grabbing the brick instanter.

He was all entangled in his bed coverings, but he maintained a staggering footing. He was reaching out for his disturber to beat him off with the brick.

"You've broken my nose," he yelled; "take that—take that!"

"Murder!" howled Young Slavin.

He did not use his doughty fists, for he could not. In blind rage and terror Ike was striking out with the brick.

He delivered several blows on Slavin's head and face that made Ralph shudder.

A final one sent the young pugilist reeling back against the clapboards of the house. He was blinded with blood and pain, and shouted for help in sniveling terror.

Slump kicked his feet free of the entangling horse-blankets, and darted away towards the railroad tracks.

Ralph turned in disgust from the scene. He faced Bemis, who, his curiosity awakened by the tumult, had come to the window.

"You are training with a nice crowd, Mr. Bemis," observed Ralph. "Better switch off and get back to the main tracks."

"Lots of show for me, isn't there?" growled Mort sullenly.

"Get a roundhouse clearance of clean flues and headlights, and try it," answered Ralph.

The allusions were technical ones that Bemis fully understood. But he only blinked his bleared eyes, and more savagely gritted his teeth on the cigarette he was smoking.

"It's too bad," ruminated Ralph, as he left the place, shaking his shoulders as if to cast off a spatter of filthy mud. "It is a terrible warning, too," he continued. "Thank Heaven for mother, home, and principle! Maybe those fellows haven't got all the blessings that keep me in the right path. I wish I could do them some good. Well, I won't do them any harm. Let Ike Slump go his way. I fancy the punishment he has got will keep him from troubling anyone around Stanley Junction for a while."

Ralph did not inform the local police of Ike's reappearance, nor did he lodge any complaint against Bemis.

He imagined that his visit to the latter had scared off his enemies, as two days went by and there was no further attempt made to obstruct his services at the switch tower.

Affairs there got down to a routine that pleased the young leverman. Not a jar or break in the service occurred. He seemed to have glided naturally into the details of the business, and was able to take it easier now. He did not worry about wrecks any more. Following out old Jack's definite instructions to always strictly obey orders and act promptly, he simply watched 'phone, dial, and levers. He let the limits tower and the yards switches take care of themselves.

It was three days after Ralph's encounter with Young Slavin and the fifth of his service at the switch tower.

His shift had been changed temporarily. It was divided into four hours in the morning and four in the afternoon.

Ralph had an hour for dinner. That especial day his nooning had something of the element of a new interest. His mother told him she had received a brief note from Mrs. Davis.

The latter in a penciled scrawl told Mrs. Fairbanks that the writer was not very well, and would like to have her call that afternoon. She said she wanted to pay back the ten dollars she owed Ralph, as she had received a remittance from her sister.

"Are you going to see her, mother?" inquired Ralph.

"Surely. I will run up to her house as soon as the dishes are washed."

"I hope she will tell you something about those bonds," said Ralph. "I shall be anxious to know the result of your call."

"What time will you be home, Ralph?" asked his mother.

"A few minutes after five," he answered, and started for work, his mind filled with all kinds of anticipations regarding his mother's visit to Mrs. Davis.

A crowd lined the out freight tracks as Ralph reached the depot yards.

A circus had come to town, and the menagerie vans had been switched on the street sidings early that morning.

Now the big circus wagons were unloading these, to convey them to the tent site up on the common.

Some of the cages were uncovered purposely to advertise the coming show. This had drawn a throng of excited urchins and the loungers from lower Railroad Street.

Ralph halted for a minute or two, watching the removal of some of the cages.

He moved up to one that was the center of a peering, engrossed crowd. Those present acted as though something was going on out of the common.

A person who seemed to be the manager of the show, and looking quite serious and important, was giving some instructions to half a dozen circus hands.

Three of these latter had armed themselves with long pikes. Another carried a pole with a crooked iron end, resembling a giant chicken catcher. A fifth had a stout rope with a chain end forming a halter. The last of the group carried an enormous wire muzzle.

They stood beside a car which held a strong iron cage. This was empty, and at one end its canvas covering was torn, and two of its bars were bent far out of regular position.

Ralph ran up against an old friend as he pressed on the outskirts of the crowd.

This was John Griscom, the veteran engineer who had impressed Ralph into service the day of his first railroading experience when the yards at Acton had caught fire.

Griscom was on his way to the roundhouse to get his locomotive in trim for a regular afternoon trip. His dinner pail swung from his arm. He was such a practical old fellow that Ralph wondered at his taking an interest in anything so trifling as circus excitement.

"What's the excitement, Mr. Griscom?" he asked.

"Animal loose."

"Indeed? When did it escape?"

"That's what's worrying the circus people. They don't know. They just took off the canvas cover of the cage to make the discovery. The train switched here before daylight. It was in the cage then, they say."

Here the six circus hands started out on the quest of the missing animal.

"Search the yards thoroughly," ordered the menagerie manager. "Shoot, if you can't corner him. It won't do the show any good to have him do damage or scare people. Fifty dollars' reward for the capture of the beast!"

"What kind of an animal was it?" Ralph asked of Griscom.

"Toothless old bear, I suppose, or a blind lion," bluffly answered the railroad veteran, who did not have a very high opinion of the average circus wild beast.

Just here the menagerie manager seemed to discover an opportunity for advertising the show and lauding its attractions.

"I beg of you, gentlemen," he said, in a suave tone, as the crowd made a move to follow the searching party—"don't impede our efforts by getting in the way. Calcutta Tom, the largest and fiercest Indian tiger in captivity in any menagerie in the country, is loose. This superb king of the forests killed five men before he was caged, was brought to this country at a cost of six thousand dollars, and, if captured now, will be on exhibition this afternoon, along with the most marvelous aggregation of brute and human celebrities on the face of the civilized globe to-day."

"And all for twenty-five cents—lemonade and popcorn a nickle extra," piped a mischievous urchin.