Ralph of the Roundhouse/Chapter 14

CHAPTER XIV


RALPH FAIRBANKS' REQUEST


Ralph felt the sense of a crisis strong upon him. Circumstances had given some stormy features to the morning's progress, but had cleared the air generally.

He believed, all told, that he had carried off the honors quite creditably, and was in a measure master of the situation.

When he came to the office door it was partly open, but he knocked.

"Come in," spoke the foreman's voice, a good deal toned down from its usual accents of asperity.

Tim Forgan stood over near the window, his back turned to Ralph. His hands, clasped behind him, fumbled nervously. He was palpably in a disturbed mood, and from the vague view Ralph had of his side face he noted it was pale and anxious-looking.

"Sit down," directed the foreman. He stood in the same position for nearly a minute. Then very abruptly he turned, came up to Ralph, tended his hand as if with an effort, and said, almost brokenly:

"Fairbanks, I want to thank you for what you have done for me and mine."

"I am glad I did it," answered Ralph simply.

The foreman sank into a chair, started to speak, arose, paced the floor restlessly, finally halted in front of Ralph, and looked him squarely in the face.

"Fairbanks," he said, "I believe I have done you an injustice. Don't answer. Let me speak while the mood is on me. I am a proud man, and it's hard for me to root out my settled suspicions. I won't say they are all gone yet, but after what has happened it would be wrong and churlish for me to hold back what is on my lips. When you came here this morning, I was satisfied that you came here as a spy upon my actions."

"Oh, Mr. Forgan!" explained Ralph involuntarily.

"And I prepared to treat you as a spy. I have had trouble with the master mechanic, off and on—that is, we are rivals in the race for the presidency of the local labor council, and Ike Slump's father, when I told him about your card from the master mechanic, scented a plot at once."

"Why, Mr. Forgan! exclaimed Ralph in amazement, "I never saw the master mechanic until night before last, then only for less than two minutes, and my meeting with him was purely accidental."

The roundhouse foreman looked Ralph through and through.

"I believe you, Fairbanks," he said, at length. "You don't look like the lying, sneaking sort, and Denny says he'd bank his soul on you. He says I've got bad, crafty advisers. Maybe so, maybe so," went on Forgan, half to himself. "I wish I'd kept out of the labor ring. It makes one fancy half his friends enemies. Drop that, though. I've made my confession, and I believe you're square. I've sent for you to exonerate you from all part in the smash-up, and to tell you that I owe you a debt I can never pay. I'll try to square some of it, though. Fairbanks, you shall stay here, and I shall give you more than a chance to forge ahead."

"I thank you, Mr. Forgan," said Ralph gratefully.

The foreman strode over to the window again. Ralph studied this strange make-up of real force, dark suspicions and ungovernable impulses, but did not appear to watch him. In a covert way, with a sidelong glance at Ralph, the foreman opened the door of a little closet, took out a dark bottle, and Ralph could hear the gurgling dispatch of a long, deep draught.

He had overheard some of the men in the dog house hinting at the boss' failing, that morning. Now, Ralph kenw what it was, and the discovery depressed him.

The stimulating draught seemed to restore the foreman's equilibrium, for in a minute or two, when he again addressed Ralph, his old half-dignified, half-autocratic manner had returned to him.

"We shall have no more Ike Slump here, father or no father," he observed. "I'm going to give you a chance, Fairbanks."

"Thank you, Mr. Forgan."

"Keep on as wiper till I get a new helper, and I'll give you a boost into an extra berth quicker than any boy ever shot up the roundhouse ladder before. I tell you, I'll never forget what you've done for me—and my dear little Nora!"

Ralph arose.

"Mr. Forgan," he said, "I am much obliged to you, and I hope I shall deserve and win your good opinion. But I want to earn my way. I don't wish to slip over one single branch of the course that will make a thorough, all-around, first-class railroad man out of me, and too fast promotion might spoil me."

The foreman, understood him, but the liquor had exhilarated him, and he said:

"All the same, I'm your friend for life, Fairbanks—and I give you my word, when you ask me a favor, I'll grant it."

Ralph bowed and proceeded towards the door. Forgan was back at the closet almost immediately, Ralph wavered. He formed a quick resolution, and stepped back into the room just as the foreman turned, wiping off his lips.

"Mr. Forgan," said Ralph, "you will not be offended at something I feel it my duty to say?"

"Not a bit of it," pledged the foreman.

"You said I might ask you a favor."

"Just name it, Fairbanks."

"I shall, but first, I want to say this: You are in a fine, responsible position here, and your control and your influence affect every man in your service."

"I worked hard for the job," asserted Forgan proudly.

"I know you must have done that," said Ralph, "and I also know you must have had good abilities to step so high over the heads of others. But sometimes, Mr. Forgan—you will acknowledge it yourself—your temper, your impulses, your suspicions get the better of you."

Ralph was treading on dangerous ground. He realized it, for a certain quick flash came into Forgan's eyes. It was quenched, however, at an evident memory of the incident of the morning; and the foreman spoke, quite gayly:

"Go ahead, I'll listen. I see your drift."

"You have lots of friends, sir—try and know the real ones. And, Mr. Forgan, now for the favor I have to ask."

The foreman's bushy brows met in a suspicious way, but he declared promptly:

"You have only to ask."

"You will grant it?"

"For little Nora's sake, lad, I'd give you half I own!"

"I don't want that, Mr. Forgan. The favor I have to ask is—don't drink."

It was out, with an effort—Ralph had placed a pleading hand on the foreman's arm. He felt Forgan start and quiver. Would he burst into one of his uncontrollable fits of passion and storm and rave, and probably assault him?

The climax delayed so long that Ralph ventured another appeal.

"For little Nora's sake, Mr. Forgan!" he pleaded.

"Boy, you have said enough—go! go!" spoke Forgan huskily.

He almost pushed Ralph from the room. The door went shut, with Ralph standing outside, his breath coming quickly, for the episode had been one of intense strain.

Ralph sighed. Had he gone too far? The sincerity of his wish for the foreman's good told him he had not.

In the little office he could hear Forgan striding to and fro. Suddenly there was a halt.

Then came a crash. If only for the time being, Tim Forgan had been influenced to a holy, beneficent decision. He had shattered the wretched black bottle to atoms.

"Thank God!" breathed the young railroader fervently.