Ralph of the Roundhouse/Chapter 26

CHAPTER XXVI


A ROVING COMMISSION


It was difficult for Ralph to sleep after the departure of Big Denny. He was still under the disturbing influence of the exciting events of the afternoon and evening. His mother had not been disturbed by the watchman's visit. Ralph finally strolled out into the garden, and sat down in the little summer house to rest and think.

He did not exactly feel as though he were at the height of his ambition, but Ralph did feel exceedingly thankful and encouraged. He valued most the friends he had gained personally, from the lowly walks of life it was true, but who had been bettered and elevated by the contact.

The pre-eminent thought now in Ralph's mind was concerning Gasper Farrington. Had things gone on smoothly, and had the magnate left him alone, Ralph might have been inclined to accept the situation. His mother did not care to rouse a sleeping enemy, and he would have respected her decision. But now that Farrington had so palpably shown his intentions, had declared war to the knife, bitter and vindictive, all the fighting instincts in Ralph's nature arose to the crisis.

"I shall not take Mr. Matthewson's ten dollars a week unless I find the stolen plunder and really earn the money," Ralph reflected. "It is hardly probable I shall succeed along that line, after his expert assistants have failed. But in trying to locate Van's friends I shall probably be in the neighborhood of Dover, and I may stumble across some clew to Ike Slump's whereabouts."

Ralph went inside the house after an hour and brought out a railroad map. He studied the route of the Great Northern and the location of Dover, and went to bed full of the plan of his projected journey.

He showed his mother the check for the twenty dollars and his pass over the road the next morning, and explained his projects fully. They met with the widow's approbation.

"Not that I want to get rid of Van," she said feelingly. "He has grown very dear to me, Ralph. Poor fellow! Perhaps it is his affliction that appeals to me, but I should be very lonely with him away."

"I do not think he has many friends who care for him," theorized Ralph, "or there would have been some search, or inquiry through the newspapers."

After breakfast Ralph went to the depot. He found his young pensioner, Teddy, in high feather over success in getting two hours' regular employment a day delivering bundles for a dry-goods store. Ralph gave him some encouraging advice, and went to see the young doctor who had attended Van.

He explained his intended experiment clearly, and asked the physician's opinion as to its practicability.

"Try it by all means," advised the doctor heartily. "It can do no harm, and the sight of some familiar place may be the first step towards clearing the lad's clouded mind. A great shock robbed him of reason; a like event, such as strong, sudden confrontation by some person or place he has known for years, may restore memory instantly."

Ralph was encouraged. When he went home he sat down with Van and tried to fix his attention.

It was very difficult. His strange guest would listen and look pleased at his attention, but his eyes would wander irresistibly after some fluttering butterfly, or with a gleam of satisfaction over to the wood pile his careful manipulation had made as neat and symmetrical as a storekeeper's show case.

Ralph pronounced in turn the name of every station on the main line of the Great Northern, but Van betokened no recognition of any of them.

Ralph waited in the neighborhood of Griscom's house after the 10.15 express came in, and intercepted the engineer on his way homeward.

He showed his pass and explained his project. He wanted Griscom to allow himself and Van to ride on the tender to the end of his run and back.

"That's all right, Fairbanks," said the engineer, "pass or no pass. Be on hand at the water tank yonder as we pull out the afternoon train. I'll slow up and take you on."

Ralph tried to express to Van that afternoon that they were going on a journey. Van only looked fixedly at him, but when Mrs. Fairbanks handed him a parcel of lunch, he proudly stowed it under one arm, and when she put on him a clean collar and necktie, he showed more than normal animation, as though he caught a dim inkling that something out of the usual was on the programme.

Van went placidly with Ralph. The afternoon train came along a few minutes after they had reached the water tank.

"Now then," said Ralph, as Griscom slowed up, "be lively, Van!"

His words may have conveyed no particular meaning to his companion, but the approaching train, the picturesque track environment and Ralph's energetic motions roused up Van, whose face betokened an eagerness out of the common as he commented:

"Engine."

"Yes, Van."

"Ride."

Ralph bundled him up into the cab, clambered back into the tender, and made a comfortable seat for Van on top of the coal.

On that perch the lad seemed a happy monarch of all he surveyed. Ralph realized that the variety and excitement had a stimulating influence on his mind, and that even if nothing materialized in the way of discoveries from the trip, the general effect on Van would be at least beneficial.

Griscom tossed a cheery word to his young passengers ever and anon. His fireman, a new hand, was kept busy at the shovel, and had no time to inspect or chum with the boys.

They passed station after station. Ralph kept a close watch on Van's face. It was as expressionless as ever. His eyes roamed everywhere, and he was evidently at the pinnacle of complacent enjoyment.

Outside of that, however, Van gave no indication that he saw anything in the landscape or the depot crowds they passed that touched a responsive chord of recognition in his nature.

Forty miles down the road was Wilmer. It was quite a town. Southwest forty miles lay Dover, and west was the wild, wooded stretch known as "The Barrens." This was no misnomer. There were said to be less than twenty habitations in the desolate eighty miles of territory.

The Great Northern had originally surveyed ten miles into this section with the intention of crossing it, as by that route it could strike a favorable terminal point at a great economy of distance. The difficulties of clearing and grading were found so unsurmountable for an infant road, however, that the project had been finally abandoned.

They passed Wilmer. Signals called for "slow" ahead, as a freight was running for a siding. They had barely reached the limits of the town when Griscom put on a little more speed.

"Whoop!" yelled Van suddenly.

Ralph had shifted his seat on account of some undermining of the coal supply, and at just that moment for the first time was away from the side of his fellow passenger.

Before he could clamber over the coal heap Van had arisen to his feet.

"Stop, Van!" shouted Ralph.

But Van's eyes were fixed on the little winding country road lining-the railway fence at the bottom of the embankment.

An antiquated gig, well loaded and attached to a sorry looking nag, and driven by a man well muffled up in a dilapidated linen duster, was plodding along the dusty thoroughfare.

Upon this outfit Van's eyes appeared to be set. His hand waved nervously, and he seemed to forget where he was, and was not conscious of what he was doing.

He was in the act of stepping off into nothingness, and in a quiver of dread Ralph yelled to the engineer:

"Mr. Griscom, stop! stop!"

But the engineer's hearing was occupied with the hiss of steam directly around him, and his attention riveted on signals ahead.

Ralph made a spring. Some lumps of coal slipped under his hasty footing. His hand just grazed a disappearing foot.

The train was going about fifteen miles an hour, and Van had recklessly taken a header down the embankment.