Ralph of the Roundhouse/Chapter 19

CHAPTER XIX


IKE SLUMP'S FRIENDS


When Ralph reached home after his exciting half-hour with Gasper Farrington, he was considerably wrought up.

He had called for assistance at the Farrington home as soon as its owner went down in a fit, a servant had hurried to the porch, between them they got Farrington into the house and on a couch, a physician was telephoned for, and as soon as he saw returning signs of consciousness on the part of his host and discerned that his condition was not really serious, Ralph left the place.

Van had gone to bed, and Ralph found his mother alone. They sat in the little parlor, conversing. Mrs. Fairbanks was very much perturbed at Ralph's recital of his sensational encounter with Gasper Farrington.

"I fear he is an evil man, Ralph," she said, with anxiety. "He has power, and he will not hesitate to misuse it."

"He seems to be determined to drive us out of Stanley Junction," said Ralph.

"And I fear he may succeed."

"Not while I have you to care for and your interests to protect!" declared Ralph, with vim. "That old man has aroused the fighting blood in me, mother, and I'll see this thing through, and stay right on the spot, if I have to peddle papers for a living. But don't you worry about his getting me discharged. I have made some friends in the railroad business, and I believe they will stick by me."

Mrs. Fairbanks sighed in a worried way.

"I wish you had not run counter to him tonight," she said.

"I am glad," responded Ralph. "Don't you see he has shown his hand? Why, mother, can anything be plainer than that he realizes our presence here to be a constant menace to some of his interests? And as to that random shot about Farwell Gibson—it told. He is afraid of us and this Gibson. Well, it has all cleared the way to definite action."

"What do you mean, Ralph?"

"I mean that the letter Van brought us must have been very important. I believe this man, Gibson, is alive, but in hiding. He shows it by the roundabout, laborious way he took to send the letter, and his ignorance of father's death. I believe that letter hinted at his knowledge of wrongs Farrington has done us. If we can find this person, I feel positive he can impart information of vital value to our interests."

Mrs. Fairbanks acquiesced in her son's theories, but was timorous about further antagonizing their enemy. It was mostly for Ralph and his prospects that she cared.

"I have been thinking the whole matter over, mother," proceeded Ralph, "and I believe I see my course plain before me. As soon as I can, I am going to ask the foreman to give me a couple of days' leave of absence. Then I will get Mr. Griscom to take Van and me on his run, and return. Van came in on his morning run, so I conjecture he must have got on the train somewhere between Stanley Junction and the terminal. Is it not possible, going back over the course, that he may show recognition of some spot with which he is familiar?"

"Yes, Ralph, that looks reasonable."

"Once we know where he came from, and find his friends, we can trace up this Mr. Gibson. Don't you see, mother?"

Mrs. Fairbanks did see, and commended Ralph's clear, ready wit in formulating the plan suggested. She did not show much enthusiasm, however. She was more than content with the present—a comfortable home, a manly, ambitious boy at her side, full of devotion to her, and making his way steadily to the front.

Ralph was called into the foreman's office almost as soon as he reached the roundhouse next morning.

Forgan looked serious and acted anxious.

"Sit down, Fairbanks," he directed, closing the door after his visitor. "We're in trouble here, and I guess you will have to lift us out of it."

"Can I, Mr. Forgan?" inquired Ralph.

"You can help, that's sure. Those brass fittings you found were stolen from the railroad company."

"I thought that. They had the Great Northern stamp on them."

"That isn't the worst of it. Some one has been systematically rifling the supply bins. I suppose you know that some of these pinions and valves are very nearly worth their weight in silver?"

"I know they must cost considerable, those of a special pattern," assented Ralph.

"They do. That little heap you brought in the bag represents something over fifty dollars to the company."

Ralph was surprised at this declaration.

"To an outsider they are not worth one-tenth that amount, because there is a penalty for selling them, even as junk, and the only people who handle them are stolen-goods receivers, who melt them down. Well, Fairbanks, I started an investigation in the supply department last evening. The result is astonishing."

The foreman's grave manner indicated that he had some pretty sensational disclosures in reserve.

"We find," continued Forgan, "that there has been cunning, systematic thievery; some one entirely familiar with the supply sheds and their system has removed a large amount of plunder, probably a little at a time. They, or he, whoever it is, did not excite suspicions by taking the fittings from the bins, but tapped the reserve boxes and kegs in the storeroom. We estimate that nearly two thousand dollars' worth of stuff has been stolen."

Ralph was astonished at this statement.

"That means trouble for me," announced the foreman, "unless I can remedy it. I am supposed to employ reliable men, and safeguard the goods in their charge. The railroad company doesn't stop to find excuses for shortages, they simply discharge a man who is not smart enough to protect his own and the company's interests."

"I understand," murmured Ralph.

"A new inventory is due next month. I must recover that stolen plunder—at least discover the thieves—to square myself before then," announced Forgan. "We can't afford to dodge any corners, Fairbanks, and I want you to be clear and open with me. I believe that young rascal, Ike Slump, had a hand in the robbery, and I further believe that you know it to be a fact."

"I do not positively know it, Mr. Forgan," said said Ralph.

"But you suspect it, eh? Don't shield a rogue, Fairbanks. It isn't fair to me and it isn't fair to the company. Ike's father told me this morning you promised to try and find his son for him. I think you are shrewd enough to do it. All right—at the same time keep in mind my interest in the affair, and try and get a clew from Ike Slump as to those stolen fittings. You can call the day off—I'll pay your time out of my own pocket."

Ralph understood what was expected of him. He received the suggestions of his superior without further questioning, as if they comprised a regular order, went to his locker, and in a few minutes was ready for the street.

He did not know where to find Ike Slump, but he was thoroughly acquainted with the town, which had its rough quarters, like all other railroad centers.

Extending from the depot along the tracks for half a mile were small hotels, workingmen's boarding houses, second-hand stores, restaurants, saloons, and all kinds of little business places.

They comprised a nest where most of the drinking and all of the crime of the place occurred. It was not a desirable quarter, but Ralph realized that within its precincts he was likely to locate Ike Slump, if at all in Stanley Junction.

Ralph put in an hour strolling in the vicinity. He kept a keen eye out for those of Ike's chosen chums whom he knew. He did not believe that Ike was likely to show himself much in the day-time. His father had been unable to find him, and Ike probably had some safe hide-out, and pickets on the lookout, besides.

About eleven o'clock, coming down the tracks near the scene of the battle royal, Ralph discovered half a dozen boys in the rear yard of a blacksmith shop.

Various vehicles, sheds and general yard litter enabled Ralph to approach them unobserved. He fancied that at least two of the crowd had been mixed up in the fracas which Van's valiant onslaught had terminated, for one had a swollen nose and another a black eye.

Ralph suddenly appeared before the crowd, engrossed in their game. They rose up, startled. Then he was apparently recognized, for a quick murmur went the rounds, and they quickly hunched together with lowering- brows and suspicious looks.

"I want to have a word with you fellows," said Ralph bluntly.

They were six to one, and here was a golden opportunity to avenge the ignominious defeat they had sustained. Ralph's off-hand bearing, however, his clear eye and manly tones, impressed them, and perhaps, too, they had a wholesome fear that his giant-fisted champion, Van, might be lurking in the vicinity.

No one spoke, and Ralph resumed.

"See here, boys, this is business. I want to find Ike Slump, and it's for his own good. He's likely to get into trouble if he doesn't see his father very soon, and it will be the police, not me, next visit. His mother's sick, boys, sick abed, and heart-broken over his absence. Come, fellows, tell me where he is."

"You're pretty fresh!" spoke out one of the crowd. "What are you after? a bluff, or a give-away?"

"If you mean I am misrepresenting Ike's danger, or that I have any unfriendly feeling towards him," said Ralph, "you are entirely wrong. I'm trying to help him, for the sake of his poor mother and others—not hurt him."

Two or three heads went close together. There was a brief undertoned conference.

"We don't bite," finally announced the spokesman of the crowd. "We'll take your message to Ike. If he wants to find you, he knows how."

"All right," said Ralph, moving away—"only he may wait too long. I'll give you a quarter to put me in touch with him for two minutes."

No one responded to the offer. A little dirty-faced urchin, who looked unhappy and out of place with that motley crew, looked longingly at Ralph. No one called him back as he moved slowly away.

Ralph left the place, and had gone about two hundred yards down the track along a high fence, when he heard a thin, piping voice call out :

"Hold on, mister, back up—I want to tell you something!"