Ralph of the Roundhouse/Chapter 17

CHAPTER XVII


THE BATTLE BY THE TRACKS


"What do you want?" demanded Ralph.

He did not at all look as if his hour had come, but he backed to a commanding position against the pile of ties, as half a dozen hoodlum companions of Ike Slump followed their leader into sight.

"Peel!" said Ike importantly, and he began to roll up his sleeves.

"I'm comfortable," suggested Ralph easily. "By the way, Ike, your father is looking for you."

"Never you mind about my affairs," retorted Ike. "It's you I've been waiting for, it's you I've got, and it's you I'm going to lick."

"What for?" asked Ralph.

"What for?" echoed Ike derisively—"hear him, fellows!"

"Ho! hear him!" echoed the motley crew at Ike's heels.

"I told you at the roundhouse that I'd pay you off, didn't I?" demanded Ike.

"I think I remember."

"Well, I'm going to do it."

"Here? And now?"

"Precisely."

"You insist that I've done something to be paid off for?"

"Yes, You insulted me."

"How?"

This was a poser. Ike was silent.

"Tell you, Slump," said Ralph, setting down his dinner pail. "You're just spoiling to do something mean. I never did you an injury, and I would like to do you some good, if I could. You're in bad company. You had better leave it and go home to your father. If you won't take advice, and are bound to force me to the wall—why, I'll do my share."

At Ralph's allusion to the company Ike kept, two of the biggest of his cohorts sprang forward.

"Your turn later," said Ike. "This is my personal affair just now."

"You will force things?" questioned Ralph calmly.

"What! Do you mean will I let you off? Nixy! No baby act, Fairbanks! Peel, and put up your fists."

"Very well," said Ralph. "I think I can manage you with my coat on."

Ralph was not a particle in doubt as to the ultimate result of the "scrap." He had gone through a half-vacation course of splendid athletic training, and his muscles were as hard as iron. Not so cigarette-smoking, loose-jointed Ike Slump.

"That for that sand trick!" announced Ike. "And that's for dodging that waste ball."

So sure was Ike of landing on Ralph's nose with one fist, that he supplemented his first announcement with the second one as his other fist circled to take Ralph on the side of the head.

Ralph did not dodge. He inwardly laughed at Ike's clumsy tactics. With one hand he warded off both blows, drew back his free fist, and let it drive.

"Ugh!" said Ike Slump.

As Ralph's knotty knuckles took him under the chin, there was a snap, a whirl, and Ike Slump keeled clear off his balance and sat down on the ground.

It was done so quickly and so neatly that Ike's cohorts were too astonished to move.

"Get up—go for him!" directed the biggest boy in the gang.

"I can't!" bellowed Ike, spitting out a tooth—"he's cracked my jaw. He had a spike in his hand!"

"Foul, eh!" scowled the big fellow, lunching towards Ralph.

The young railroader with a contemptuous smile extended both free palms. He shut them quickly together again, however, for he saw that Slump's crowd did not know the meaning of either honor or fairness.

So determined and ready did he look that the big fellow hesitated. Ralph heard him give some directions to his companions, and the crowd moved forward in unison.

"A rush, eh?" he said. "You're a fine bunch! but—come on."

Ralph's spirit was now fully aroused. He had no ambition to shine as a pugilist, but he would always fight for his rights.

The big fellow dashed at him, calling to his companions. Ralph shot out his right fist as quick as lightning. The blow went home, and the big bully blinked, spluttered, and reeled aside with his nose flattened.

Two of his companions sprang at Ralph, one on each side. Ralph caught one by the throat, the other by the waistband. They were hitting away at him, but he knew how to dodge. To and fro they wrestled, Ralph knocking them together whenever he could, never letting go, and using them as a shield against the big fellow, who, as mad as a hornet and with a reckless look in his eye, had resumed the attack.

Suddenly the latter managed to dodge behind Ralph, put out his foot, tripped him, and the trio fell to the ground.

Ralph held on to his first assailants, struggling to a sitting position.

At that moment the big bully ran upon him. The cowardly brute raised his foot to kick Ralph. The latter saw he was at the rascal's mercy. He let go the two squirming at his side, shot out a hand, and catching the uplifted foot brought its owner pell-mell down upon him.

The bully struck his head in falling, and was momentarily dizzied. Ralph flopped clear over, sat upon him, and was kept busy warding off the blows of the two fellows he had released.

There were six others in the gang. These now made an onrush. Ralph tried to calculate his chances and map out the best course to pursue.

Just then a new element was injected into the scene.

Around the corner of the pile of ties came a new figure with cyclonic precipitancy.

It was Van, the guest of the cottage. He must have witnessed the scene from a distance. He swung to a halt, his face imperturbable as ever, but his eyes covering every object in the ensemble.

"Fight," he said simply, and swinging both arms like battering arms sailed into the nearest adversary.

"Don't strike him!" called out Ralph instantly—"he's wrong in his head!"

"We'll right it for him!" announced one of the crowd.

The speaker swung a bag as he spoke. It seemed to contain something bulky, for as it just missed Van's head and bounded on the shoulders of one of the user's own friends, the latter went down like a lump of lead.

Van never stopped. In a kind of windmill progress he struck out, sideways, in all directions. In two minutes' time he had cleared the field, every combatant was in flight, and leaning over and seizing the big bully squirming under Ralph, he weighted him on a dead balance for a second, and then sent him sliding ten feet along the ground after his beaten fellows.

Ralph released the other two and let them run for safety, actually afraid that his friend Van would do them some serious injury with that phenomenal ox-like strength stored up in his sturdy arms.

But Van was as cool as an iceberg. He was not even out of breath.

"More," he said.

"No, no, Van!" demurred Ralph. "You've done nobly, old fellow. Let them go, they've had their medicine. Carry this for me," and Ralph thrust his dinner pail into Van's hand, more to divert his attention than anything else.

"They've left something behind, it seems." Ralph picked up the bag he had seen used as a missile. Its weight aroused his curiosity, he peered into the bag.

"I see!" he murmured gravely to himself.

In the bottom of the bag was about thirty pounds of brass fittings. Ralph had seen bin after bin of their counterparts in the supply sheds near the roundhouse, and never in any quantity anywhere else.

These, like those, were stamped, and bore the impress that they were railroad property.

"You can come with me, Van," said Ralph, and turned back in the direction of the roundhouse.

The foreman was just leaving the office, Ralph dropped the bag inside the room.

"What's that, Fairbanks?" inquired Forgan, as he heard the stuff jangle.

"It's some brass fittings," explained Ralph. "I am sure they belong to the company. I found them in the hands of a gang of hoodlums, and of course they were stolen."

"Eh? hold on—this interests me!" and Forgan proceeded to inspect the contents of the bag. "That's bad!" he commented with knit brows. A leak like that shows something rotten on the inside! Tell me more about this affair, Fairbanks."

Ralph fancied he now understood the mission of the tramp who was in such close touch with Ike Slump, and also the reason why Slump's dinner pail was so heavy.

He did not, however, impart his suspicions to the foreman. The latter muttered something about the thing being important, and that he must look into it deeper, as Ralph stated that he had been assaulted, by a gang of hoodlums who had left the bag of fittings behind them.

"Who are they?" questioned the foreman.

"I don't know their names."

"Was Ike Slump among them?" shrewdly interrogated Forgan.

"I don't care to say," answered Ralph.

"You needn't, I can guess the rest. Only don't forget what you do know if somebody higher up asks about this matter. I'm responsible here, and a leak in the supply department has dished more than one foreman. Thank you. Fairbanks—thank you again," added the foreman with real sentiment in glance and accents.

About ten o'clock the next morning Ralph was called to the foreman's office.

He expected some further developments in the matter of the brass fittings, but, upon entering the room, found himself face to face with Ike Slump's father.

The foreman was, or pretended to be, busy at his desk. Slump senior looked very much troubled. Ralph shrank from his repulsive face and a memory of his nefarious calling, but he nodded politely as Slump asked:

"This is young Fairbanks?"

The saloon keeper fidgeted for a minute or two. Then he said:

"I don't suppose you bear any particular good will towards me or mine, Fairbanks, but I've had to come to you. My boy assaulted you last night, I understand."

"Why, no," answered Ralph, with a slight smile—"he only tried to."

"Well, it's just this: He's in trouble, and he's likely to go deeper unless he's stopped. He keeps out of my way. His mother is heart-broken and sick abed over his doings."

"I am very sorry," said Ralph. "Can I do anything to help you, Mr. Slump?"

"I think you can," answered Slump. "You know Ike and his associates, and maybe you can get track of their hang-out. I can't. Fairbanks," and the man's voice broke, "it's killing my wife! It's a lot to ask of you, under the circumstances, but Forgan says you seem to have a knack of doing everything right. I want you to find my boy—I want you to try to prevail on him to come home. Will you?"

Ralph was a good deal moved as he thought of the stricken mother. He had small hopes of Ike Slump—smaller than ever, as he considered the manner of man his father was, but he answered promptly:

"I'll try, Mr. Slump."