Ralph of the Roundhouse/Chapter 21

CHAPTER XXI


A FREE RIDE


The hogshead in which Ralph had ensconced himself was made of loose, defective staves. He found himself facing an aperture, through which he could look quite readily.

Two persons entered the room. One was Ike Slump. The other Ralph recognized as the second-hand dealer, Cohen. The latter carried a lamp, which he placed on a shelf. He closed the door after him, and sat down on a box. Ralph's range of vision was immediately impeded. Ike had lifted himself to the edge of the hogshead and perched there, his feet dangling and beating a tattoo on the staves with his heels.

"Now then, Slump," were Cohen's first words, "you're bound to leave?"

"Haven't I got to?" demanded Ike testily. "I'm in a nice box, I am—lost my job, don't dare to go home, and no money."

"I gave you some."

"A measly ten dollars in a week, not a fiftieth part of what I brought in. See here, Cohen, you haven't given me a fair deal. I've taken all the risk, and what have I got?"

"The risk? the risk?" repeated Cohen. "My young friend, it's me who takes all the risk. Suppose the railroad men should drop in here and find the stuff? Where would I be? As to money, will anybody else you know touch the stuff?"

"Well, I've got to get some funds, I'm going to slope the town for good," announced Ike. "Now, there'll be no slip up if I carry out your plans?"

"Not a bit of it," answered Cohen. "I have no facilities here for handling railroad junk. Jacobs, at Dover, has. I don't dare to ship it by rail. He has his own melters. I furnish the horse and wagon. We'll load you up, and cover the boxes with vegetables. All you've got to do is to drive out of town and deliver the goods at Dover. You say your friend, the tramp, will go with you?"

"Yes, but what about the team? I won't come back, you know. I'm going West for a spell."

"Jacobs will attend to the team. See, here is a letter—give it to him. He'll give you the twenty-five dollars I promised you, and that's the end of it."

"All right. What time shall we start?"

"When the town is asleep, and nobody nosing around. Say one o'clock, sharp."

"I'll be ready."

The conference seemed ended. Ralph comprehended that his double mission would be ineffective unless he got word to Ike Slump's father and the roundhouse foreman within the next four hours.

He lay snug and still, formulating an escape from the place as soon as the two plotters should withdraw.

Ike slipped to the floor, took out a cigarette, lit it, threw the match away, and stretched his arms and yawned.

"Give me a little loose change to play with the crowd, Cohen, will you?" he asked. Cohen reached in his pocket, but very quickly drew out his hand again empty, to point it excitedly at the hogshead with the sharp cry.

"Fire! look there! You stupid, see what you've done!"

"What have I done? Ginger—the cigarette!"

Ralph quivered as he listened and looked. A swishing sound accompanied a brilliant flare. Ike had carelessly thrown the match with which he had lighted his cigarette into the midst of the dry, tindery excelsior.

"Put it out! Stamp it out!" yelled Cohen.

Ike grabbed a handful or two of the flaming mass, burned his fingers, and retreated, while Cohen made a frightened rush for a stand in one corner of the room holding a big pitcher.

He ran at the hogshead with it. It was half-full of water. Cohen doused it into the hogshead just as Ralph, unable to stand the pressure any longer, arose upright.

Ike gave a stare and a shout. Cohen jumped back with alarm in his face. The water had extinguished the blaze, but the episode had betrayed Ralph's presence to his enemy.

"Who are you?" ejaculated Cohen darkly, grasping the pitcher and again advancing.

"Needn't ask him—I know!" snapped out Ike. "Grab him, Cohen! It's Ralph Fairbanks, from the roundhouse, and he's a spy!"

Ralph leaned a hand on the hogshead rim to get purchase for a leap out of his difficulties. Ike made a spring for him and grabbed one arm, preventing the movement.

"If he's a railroader and a spy," cried Cohen, "we're in for it!"

"Don't let him go, then—oh!"

Ike went spinning, for Ralph had given him a quick blow, knocking him aside. Cohen swung the pitcher aloft. Down it came with terrific force. Ralph experienced a blow on the side of the head that instantly shut out sense and sight. He fell over the edge of the hogshead, and hung there limp and lifeless.

It was the first blank in his life. Its duration Ralph could only surmise as he opened his eyes. At first he fancied he was blind, for everything was pitchy black about him. He sat up with difficulty, putting a hand to his head where it felt sore and smarted.

Ralph found a bad cut there, which had bled profusely. The blow with the pitcher had been cruelly heavy. He sat up, swaying to and fro, and soon traced out his environment.

He was in a freight car, its doors and windows were closed, and it was rolling along at a good fast rate of speed.

Ralph reasoned out his situation. His enemies had fancied he was seriously hurt, or wanted him out of the way until they could safely remove the stolen plunder. His hopes and plans were effectually balked if he had been long insensible, or was far on the free trip, for which they had booked him. They had carried him from Cohen's rooms by way of the back stairs, had thrown him into the empty car, and had left him to his fate.

Ralph tried the side door of the car. To his satisfaction it shoved open freely. Getting his eyes used to the darkness and his mind clearer, as the moments sped by, he endeavored to guess his location and estimate the time.

He was partly familiar with the road, and knew considerable as to the various passenger and freight trains and their schedule and route. Ralph concluded that he was on the regular nine o'clock freight, which usually hauled empties, going south. Judging from distant lights in houses scattered on the landscape, he estimated that it was about ten o'clock.

He soon surmised from landmarks he passed that the train was not on the main line. As he neared a cattle pen he knew exactly where he was—two miles from Acton and about twenty-two from Stanley Junction.

"They don't stop for ten miles," quickly reckoned Ralph. "There's the creek. I've got to get to Acton and back to the Junction before midnight, if I hope to accomplish anything."

The train slowed somewhat on the up grade. Ralph clung to the door and looked ahead. It was a long train, and he was at about its middle. He had an idea of trying to get to the roof, run back to the caboose, and try and interest the conductor. On second thought, however, he realized that he could not expect them to stop for him. He would only lose time. A daring idea presented itself to his mind, and his breath came quick. An opportunity hovered, and he had too much reliance in himself to let it pass by.

"I've got to get back and stop the removal of that stolen plunder," he kept telling himself over and over, fixing his eyes on the signals that indicated the bridge over the creek.

Ralph posed for a spring as the locomotive struck the bridge and the gleaming waters came nearer and nearer. The bridge had no railing, and they were on the outer side; Ralph posed himself steady and true, let go the door, and leaped into the darkness as the car he was in reached the middle of the bridge.

Then he dropped down like a shot, struck the cold, deep water, and went under.