The Daylight Express rolled up to the depot at Stanley Junction, on time, circling past the repair shops, freight yard and roundhouse, a thing of life and beauty.
Stanley Junction had become a wide-awake town of some importance since the shops had been moved there, and when a second line took it in as a passing point, the old inhabitants pronounced the future of the Junction fully determined.
Engine No. 6, with its headlight shining like a piece of pure crystal, its metal trimmings furbished up bright and natty-looking, seemed to understand that it was the model of the road, and sailed majestically to a repose that had something of dignity and grandeur to it.
The usual crowd that kept tab on arriving trains lounged on the platform, and watched the various passengers alight.
A brisk, bright-faced young fellow glided from their midst, cleared an obstructing truck with a clever spring, stood ready to greet the locomotive and express car as they parted company from the passenger coaches, and ran thirty feet along the siding to where the freight-sheds stood.
He appeared to know everybody, and to be a general favorite with every one, for the brakeman at the coach-end air brake gave him a cheery: "Hi, there, kid!" gaunt John Griscom, the engineer, flung him a grim but pleased nod of recognition, and the fireman, discovering him, yelled a shrill: "All aboard, now!"
The young fellow turned to face the latter with a whirl and struck an attitude, as if entirely familiar with jolly Sam Cooper's warnings.
For the latter, reaching for a row of golden pippins stowed on his oil shelf, contributed by some bumpkin admirer down the line, seized the biggest and poised it for a fling.
"Here she goes, Ralph Fairbanks!" he chuckled.
"Let her come!" cried back Ralph, and-clip! he cut the missile's career short by the latest approved baseball tactics.
Ralph pocketed the apple with a gay laugh, and was at the door of the express section of the car as it slid back and the messenger's face appeared.
The agent had come out of his shed. He glanced over an iron chest and some crated stuff shoved forward by the messenger, and then, running his eye over the bills of lading handed him by the latter, said briskly:
"You will not be needed this time, Ralph."
"All right, Mr. More."
"Nothing but some transfer freight and the bank delivery-that's my special, you know. Be around for the 5.11, though."
"Sure," nodded Ralph Fairbanks, looking pleased at the brisk dismissal, like a boy on hand for work, but, that failing, with abundant other resources at hand to employ and enjoy the time.
With a cheery hail to the baggage master as he appeared on the scene, Ralph rounded the cow-catcher, intent on a short cut across the tracks. His appearance had been actuated by business reasons strictly, but, business not materializing, he was quite as practical and eager on another tack.
Ever since vacation began, three weeks previous, Ralph had made two trips daily to the depot, on hand to meet the arriving 10.15 and 5.11 trains.
This had been at the solicitation of the express agent. Stanley Junction was not a very large receiving point, but usually there were daily several packages to deliver. When these were not for the bank or business houses in the near center of the town, but for individuals, the agent employed Ralph to deliver them, allowing him to retain the ten cents fee for charges.
Sometimes Ralph picked up as high as fifty cents a day, the average was about half that amount, but it was welcome pocket money. Occasionally, too, some odd job for waiting passengers or railroad employes would come up. It gave Ralph spending money with which to enjoy his vacation, and, besides, he liked the work.
Especially work around the railroad. What live boy in Stanley Junction did not-but then Ralph, as the express agent often said, "took to railroading like a duck to water."
It was a natural heritage. Ralph's father had been a first-class, all-around railroad man, and his son felt a justifiable pride in boasting that he was one of the pioneers who had made the railroad at Stanley Junction a possibility.
"Home, a quick bite or two, and then for the baseball game," said Ralph briskly, as he ran his eye across the network of rails, and beyond them to the waving tree tops and the village green. Preparing to make a run for it, Ralph suddenly halted.
A grimed repair man, tapping the wheels of the coaches, just then jerked back his hammer with a vivid:
Ralph discerned that the man was not addressing him, for his eyes were staringly fixed under the trucks.
"Let me out!" sounded a muffled voice.
Ralph was interested, as there struggled from the cindered roadbed an erratic form. It was that of a boy about his own age. He judged this from the dress and figure, although one was tattered, and the other strained, crippled and bent. The face was a criss-cross streak of dust, oil and cinders.
"A stowaway!" yelled the repair man, excitedly waving his hammer. "Schmitt! Schmitt! this way!"
The depot officer came running around the end of the train at the call. Ralph had eyes only for the forlorn figure that had so suddenly come into action in the light of day.
He could read the lad's story readily. The last run of No. 6 was of ten miles. There was no doubt but that for this distance, if not for a greater one, the stowaway had been a "dead-head" passenger, perilously clinging to the brace bars, or wedged against the trucks under the middle coach.
The dust and grime must have half-blinded him, the roar have deafened, for he staggered about now in an aimless, distracted way, hobbling and wincing as he tried to get his cramped muscles into normal play.
"What you doing?" roared the old watchman, on a run, and waving his club threateningly.
"I've done it!" muttered the boy dolefully. He kept hobbling about to get his tensioned nerves unlimbered, edging away from the approaching watchman as fast as he could.
"Show me!" he panted, appealingly to Ralph,
The latter understood the predicament and wish. He moved his hand very meaningly, and the stowaway seemed to comprehend, for he glided to where a heap of ties barricaded a dead-end track. Rubbing the blinding dirt from his eyes, he cleared the heap, dropped on the other side, and ran down a narrow lane bounded on one side by a brick wall and on the other by a ten-foot picket fence.
"Third one in a week!" growled the watchman. "Got to stop! Against the law, and second one lost a foot!"
Ralph moved along, crossed four tracks and a freight train blockaded, and kept on down the straight rails. The stowaway had passed from his mind. Now, glancing toward the fence, he saw the lad limping down the lane.
The stowaway saw him, and coming to a halt grasped two of the fence bars, and peered and shouted at him.
"Want me?" asked Ralph, approaching. He saw that the stowaway was in bad shape, for he clung to the fence as if it rested him. He had not yet gotten all the cricks out of his bones.
"It was a tough job," muttered the boy. "It took grit! Say, tell me something, will you?"
Ralph nodded. The boy rubbed the knuckle of one hand across his coat to wipe off the blood of an abrasion, and groped in a pocket.
"Where is that?" he asked, bringing to light an envelope, and holding it slantingly for Ralph's inspection. "Can you tell me?"
"Why," said Ralph, with a start-"let me look at that!"
"No," demurred the other cautiously. "It's near enough to read. I want to find that person."
"It's my name," said Ralph, quickly and with considerable wonderment. "Give it to me."
"I guess not!" snapped the stowaway. "I don't know who John Fairbanks is, but I know enough to be sure you ain't him."
"No, he was my father. Climb over the fence. I don't quite understand this, and I want you to explain."
The stowaway sized up the fence, wincing as he lifted one foot, and then, with a disgusted exclamation, turned abruptly and broke into a run.
Ralph saw that the cause of this action was the watchman, who had come into view through a doorway in the brick wall, and had started a new pursuit of the boy.
He was a husky, clumsy individual, and had counted on heading off or creeping unawares on the fugitive, but the latter, with a start, soon outdistanced him, and was lost to Ralph's view where the lane broadened out into the railroad scrap yards.
Ralph stood undecided for a minute or two, and then somewhat reluctantly resumed his way.
"He'll find us, if he's got that letter to deliver," he concluded. "I wonder what it can be? From somebody who doesn't know father is dead, it seems."
Ralph neared home in the course of ten minutes, to save time crossing lots to reach by its side door the plain, but comfortable looking, neatly kept cottage that had been his shelter since childhood.
It was going to be a busy day with him, he had planned, and he flung off his coat with a business air of hurried preparation for a change of toilet.
Ten feet from the door through which he intended to bolt as usual with all the impetuosity of a real flesh and blood boy, on the jump every waking minute of his existence, Ralph came to an abrupt halt.
He expected to find his mother alone, and was ready to tell her about the stowaway episode and the letter.
But voices echoed from the little sitting room, and the first intelligible words his ear caught, spoken in a gruff snarl, made Ralph's eyes flash fire, his fists clenched, and his breath came quick.
"Very well, Widow Fairbanks," fell distinctly on Ralph's hearing, "what's the matter with that good-for-nothing son of yours going to work and paying the honest debts of the family?"
Ralph recognized that strident voice at once. It belonged to Gasper Farrington, one of the wealthiest men of Stanley Junction, and one of the meanest.
Whenever Ralph had met the man, and he met him often, one fact had been vividly impressed upon his mind. Gasper Farrington had a natural antipathy for all boys in general, and for Ralph Fairbanks in particular.
The Criterion Baseball Club was a feature with juvenile Stanley Junction, yet they had many a privilege abrogated through the influence of Farrington. He had made complaints on the most trivial pretexts, winning universal disrespect and hatred from the younger population.
More than once he had put himself out to annoy Ralph. In one instance the latter had stood for the rights of the club in a lawyer-like manner. He had beaten Farrington and the town board combined on technical legal grounds as to the occupancy of a central ball field, and Ralph's feelings towards the crabbed old capitalist had then settled down to dislike, mingled with a certain silent independence that nettled Farrington considerably.
He had publicly dubbed Ralph "the ringleader of those baseball hoodlums," a stricture passed up by the club with indifference.
Ralph never set his eyes on Farrington but he was reminded of his father. John Fairbanks had come to Stanley Junction before the Great Northern was even thought of. He had thought of it first. A practical railroad man, he had gone through all the grades of promotion of an Eastern railway system, and had become a division superintendent.
He had some money when he came to Stanley Junction. He foresaw that the town would one day become a tactical center in railroad construction, submitted a plan to some capitalists, and was given supervisory work along the line.
His minor capital investment in the enterprise was obscured by mightier interests later on, but before he died it was generally supposed that he held quite an amount of the bonds of the railroad, mutually with Gasper Farrington.
It was a surprise to his widow, and to friends generally of the Fairbanks family, when, after Mr. Fairbanks' death, a few hundred dollars in the bank and the homestead, with a twelve-hundred dollar mortgage on it in favor of Gasper Farrington, were found to comprise the total estate.
Mrs. Fairbanks discovered letters, memoranda and receipts showing that her deceased husband and Farrington had been mutually engaged in several business enterprises, but they were vague and fragmentary, and, after ascertaining from her the extent of her documentary evidence, Farrington bluntly declared he had been a loser by her husband.
He professed a friendship for the dead railroader, however, and in a patronizing way offered to help the widow out of her difficulties by taking the homestead off her hands for the amount of the mortgage, "and making no trouble."
Mrs. Fairbanks had promptly informed him that she had no intention of selling out, and for two years, until the present time, had been able to meet the quarterly interest on the mortgage when due.
Gasper Farrington was now on one of his periodical visits on business to the cottage, but as, right at the home threshold, and in the presence of the gentle, loving-hearted widow, he gave utterance to the scathing remark still burning in the listener's ears, a boy of true spirit, Ralph's soul seemed suddenly to expand as though it would burst with indignation and excitement.
Many times Ralph had asked his mother concerning their actual business relations with Gasper Farrington, but she had put him off with the evasive remark that he was "too young to understand."
But now he seemed to understand. The spiteful tone of the crabbed old capitalist implied that he indulged in the present malicious outburst because in some way he had the widow in his power.
Ralph took an instantaneous step forward, but paused. He could trust his mother to retain her dignity on all occasions, and he recalled her frequent directions to him to never act on an angry impulse.
Now he could see into the room. His mother stood by her sewing basket, a slight flush of indignation on her face.
Farrington squirmed against the doorway, fumbling his cane, and puffing and purple with violent internal commotion.
"Then what's the matter with that idle, good-for-nothing, son of yours going to work and paying the honest debts of the family!" he stormily repeated.
The widow looked up. Her lips fluttered, but she said calmly: "Mr. Farrington, Ralph is neither idle nor good-for-nothing."
"Huh! aint! What's he good for?"
The widow's face became momentarily glorified, the true mother love shone in the depths of her pure, clear eyes.
"He is the best son a mother ever had." She spoke with a tremor that made Ralph thrill, and must have made Farrington squirm.
"He is affectionate, obedient, considerate. And that is why I have never burdened his young shoulders with my troubles."
"It's high time, then!" snarled Farrington-"a big, overgrown bumpkin! Guess he'll shoulder some responsibility soon, or some one else will, or you'll all be without a shelter."
Ralph felt a sinking at the heart at the vague threat. He was relieved, however, as anxiously glancing at his mother's face he observed that she was not a whit disturbed or frightened.
"Mr. Farrington," she said, "Ralph has nothing to do with our business affairs, but I wish to say this: I am satisfied that my dead husband left means we have never been able to trace. It lies between your conscience and yourself to say how much more you know about this than I do. I have accepted the situation, however, and with the few dollars in ready money he left me, and my sewing, I have managed to so far give Ralph a fair education. He has well deserved the sacrifice. He has been foremost in every athletic sport, a leader and of good influence with his mates, and was the best scholar at the school, last term."
"Oho! prize pupil in the three R's!" sneered Farrington-"Counts high, that honor does!"
"It is a step upwards, humble though it be," retorted Mrs. Fairbanks proudly. "If he does as well in his academic career-"
"In his what?" fairly bellowed Farrington. "Is the woman crazy? You don't mean to tell me, madam, that you have any such wild idea in your head as sending him to college?"
"I certainly have."
"Then you'll never make it-you'll waste your dollars, and bring him up a pampered ingrate, and he's a sneak if he allows his old mother to dig and slave her fingers off for his worthless pleasure!"
A faint flush crossed the widow's face. Ralph burst the bounds. He sprang forward, and confronted the astonished magnate so abruptly that in the confusion of the moment, Farrington dropped his cane.
"Mr. Farrington," said Ralph, striving hard to keep control of himself, "my mother is not old, but I am-older than I was an hour ago, I can tell you! old enough to understand what I never knew before, and-"
"Hello!" sniffed Farrington, "what's this your business?"
"I just overheard you say it was essentially my business," answered Ralph. "I begin to think so myself. At all events, I'm going to take a hand in my mother's affairs hereafter. If I have hitherto been blind to the real facts, it was because I had the best mother in the world, and never realized the big sacrifice she was making for me."
"Mr. Farrington," continued Ralph, seeming to grow two inches taller under the influence of some new, elevating idea suddenly finding lodgment in his mind, "as a person fully awakened to his own general worthlessness and idle, good-for-nothing character, and in duty bound to pay the honest debts of the family-to quote your own words-what is your business here?"
"My business!" gasped Farrington, "you, you-none of your business! Mrs. Fairbanks," he shouted, waving his cane and almost exploding with rage, "I've said my say, and I shan't stay here to be insulted by a pert chit of a boy. You'd better think it over! I'll give you five hundred dollars to surrender the house and get out of Stanley Junction. Decline that, and fail to pay me the interest due to-day, and I'll close down on you-I'll sell you out!"
"Can he do it?" whispered Ralph, in an anxious tone.
"No, Ralph," said his mother. "Mr. Farrington, I believe I have thirty days in which to pay the interest?"
"It's due to-day."
"I believe I have thirty days," went on the widow quietly. "It is the first time I have been delinquent. I have even now within twenty dollars of the amount. Before the thirty days are over you shall have your money."
"I'll serve you legal notice before night!" growled Farrington-"I don't wait on promises, I don't!"
There were hot words hovering on Ralph's lips. It would do him good, he felt, to give the heartless old capitalist a piece of his mind. A glance from his mother checked him.
She was the gracious, courteous lady in every respect as she ushered her unpleasant visitor from the house.
Her heart was full in more ways than one as she returned to the little sitting room. A predominating emotion filled her thoughts. She understood Ralph's mind thoroughly, and realized that circumstances had, as he had himself declared, "awakened him."
She had intuitively traced in his manner and words a change from careless, boyish impetuosity to settled, manly resolution, and was thankful in her heart of hearts.
"Ralph!" she called softly.
But Ralph was gone.
Ralph Fairbanks had "woke up," had seen a great light, had formed a mighty resolution all in a minute, and was off like a flash.
As he bolted through the doorway it seemed as if wings impelled him.
He realized what a good mother he had, and how much she had done for him.
Following that was one overwhelming conclusion: to prove how he appreciated the fact.
"Yes," he said, as he hurried along, "I'd be a sneak to let my mother slave while I went sliding easy through life. If I've done it so far, it was because I never guessed there wasn't something left from father's estate to support us, and never stopped to think that there mightn't be. She's hidden everything from me, in her kind, good way. Well, I'll pay her back. I see the nail I'm to hit on the head, and I'll drive it home before I'm twenty-four hours older!"
Gasper Farrington had opened a gate on the highway of Ralph Fairbanks' tranquil existence, and, though he never meant it, had aroused the boy's soul to a sudden conception of duty. And Ralph had seen the path beyond, clear and distinct.
It seemed to him as if with one wave of his hand he had swept aside all the fervid dreams of boyhood, formed a resolution, set his mark, and was started in that very minute on a brand-new life.
Ralph did not slacken his gait until he reached a square easily identified as a much used ball grounds.
Over in one corner was a flat, rambling structure. It had once been somebody's home, had fallen into decay and vacancy. The club had rented it for a nominal sum, fixed it up a bit, and this was headquarters.
Over the door hung the purple pennant of the club, bearing in its center a broad, large "C." In the doorway sat Ned Talcott, an ambitious back-stop, who spent most of his time about the place, never tired of the baseball atmosphere.
He looked curiously at Ralph's flustered appearance, but the latter nodded silently, passed inside, and then called out: