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THE MEETING IN THE WOODS.
Ralph was so sore and stiff from his fall that he walked very slowly toward Westville. It seemed to him that he ached in every joint, and it was not long before he sought a soft grassy bank upon which to rest.
"If only somebody would come along with a wagon," he thought, as he gazed up and down the rather rough woodland road. "I would willingly pay a half-dollar for a lift, as much as I need my money."
The boy was much exercised over his mother. He knew that she would be greatly worried over his prolonged absence. Never before had he remained away from home over night.
No wagon or any other vehicle appeared, and Ralph was forced to resume his journey on foot, dragging his tired and bruised body along as best he could.
Presently he came to a tiny stream that flowed into Big Silver Lake. Here he stopped again, not only to rest, but also to bathe his temples and obtain a drink, for the water was both pure and cold.
He could not help but think of the strange manner in which he had been attacked. What had been the purpose of Martin and Toglet?
"If I did not know better, I would be almost forced to believe it was accidental," he thought. "But in that case they would have come to my assistance, instead of taking the sloop and hurrying off with her."
It was so comfortable a spot at the brook that Ralph rested there longer than he had originally intended. But at last he arose and moved on, thankful that he had accomplished at least one-third of the distance home.
The road now left the vicinity of the lake and led up into the woods and across several deep ravines. It also crossed the railroad track, for there was a spur of the main line which came down to Glen Arbor--this spur being the only railroad in the vicinity.
Ralph had just crossed the tracks, when happening to glance toward an old shed in the vicinity, he saw something which filled him with astonishment. Emerging from the place were two men, and they were Martin and Toglet!
At first the boy could scarcely credit his senses. But a second look convinced him that he was not mistaken. They were his two assailants, true enough.
Ralph stood still, not knowing whether to advance or retreat. Before he could decide the point, Martin and Toglet, who had spent the night in the shanty after leaving Squire Paget, discovered him.
Toglet gave a cry of terror, thinking he was looking upon a ghost. Martin also uttered a yell, but it was more of astonishment than aught else.
"Look! look!" shrieked Toglet.
And he pointed with his long finger.
"It's the boy, as I'm a sinner!" burst out Martin.
"It's his ghost! Oh, why did I----"
"Shut up! It's the boy, I tell you! He must have escaped in some miraculous manner. See, his forehead is bound up," went on Martin.
"But how could he escape?" asked Toglet, faintly.
"That is more than I can answer. But there he is, and all our work was for nothing," growled Martin.
"Never mind; we've got the two hundred," began his younger companion.
"But we haven't the five hundred additional," grumbled Martin. "Let us go after him."
Martin strode forward, and shaking in every limb, Toglet followed.
Each of the rascals carried his gun, and as they advanced upon him, Ralph thought it best to retreat. There was no telling what they would do. For all he knew, they might try to finish their dastardly work.
"Hi! hi! stop!" called out Martin, as he began to run.
"What do you want?" called back Ralph.
"I want to talk to you. What are you afraid of?"
"You know perfectly well," returned Ralph.
"Ain't you going to stop?"
"Not just now. Come up to the railroad station and do the talking."
"Don't you do it," put in Toglet, in alarm. "He'll have us arrested."
"Stop where you are, or it will be the worse for you," went on Martin.
He raised his gun and pointed it at Ralph's head.
Fearful that the villain would shoot him, Ralph left the road and dodged behind a clump of trees.
There was no longer the slightest doubt in the boy's mind concerning the two men. They had meant to take his life, and they were still disposed to carry out their intention.
"He has gone into the woods," cried Toglet. "Why not let him go?"
"You fool! If he gets away he'll have the officers of the law on our track in no time!" ejaculated Martin. "We must catch him by all means!"
He sprang on ahead, and was soon making after the boy as rapidly as his long legs would carry him.
Ralph heard him coming, and once more he moved away. He left the patch of wood, and a second later came out on the railroad tracks.
As he did so, he heard a locomotive whistle, and a locomotive rolled past, followed by a long line of empty freight cars.
"Now I'll catch him!" cried Martin to Toglet. "He can't cross the tracks while the cars are passing."
He rushed toward Ralph, who did not know which way to turn. Up the track a big cut in the rocks blocked his way, and down was a deep ravine.
Just then, for some reason apparent to the engineer, the long train slackened its speed for a moment. A freight car came to a halt directly in front of Ralph, the big side doors wide open.
Hardly giving the matter a second thought, the boy sprang up into the car, intending to let himself out on the other side.
But before he could accomplish his purpose the train gave a jerk, and in a second more was on its way on a down grade at such a rate of speed that to leap off would have been highly dangerous.
Ralph was exhausted by his run, and when the car started off he could hardly stand. He clutched at the side and staggered to one end, and then sank down in a heap in the corner. The excitement had been too much for him in his weak state, and he had fainted.
When he came to his senses all was dark around him. A strange whirr sounded in his ears, coming from the car wheels, and telling him that the car was still in motion.
He arose to his feet, and then made the discovery that although it was dark in the car, it was daylight outside. The reason was plain--both of the doors on either side had been closed during the time that he had been lying in the corner.
Feeling his way along the side of the empty car he at length reached one of the doors only to find it locked. He crossed over to the other side to find a similar condition of affairs. He was a prisoner in the freight car and riding he knew not where.
"Well, this is too bad!" he murmured to himself, as, too weak to stand longer, he sank down on the floor. "I wonder how long I have been riding?"
This was a question just then impossible to answer, but he made up his mind that he had been riding for some little time, possibly half an hour or more.
There was satisfaction, however, in the thought that he had escaped from Martin and Toglet. It was not likely that they had been able to board the train, even if inclined to do so, which was decidedly doubtful.
A half-hour went by, and still the car rattled on, up grade and down, without once slacking its speed.
"I'd like to know if we're not going to stop pretty soon," Ralph murmured to himself.
He was getting thirsty, and knew it would not be long before he would need both food and drink.
Getting up once more he began to kick upon one of the doors with the heel of his shoe. He kicked as loudly and as long as he could, but no one came to answer his summons.
At the end of another hour Ralph began to grow alarmed. The train had stopped once, but kicking on the door and shouting had brought no one to his aid. It looked as if he must remain in the car until the journey's end.
"We must be miles away from Westville by this time," he thought. "I would like to know where we are going, east, west, north, or south? Perhaps they'll land me in some out-of-the-way place that I never even heard of before."
Another hour passed, and Ralph began to grow sleepy. He laid down, and, making a pillow of some loose hay in the bottom of the car, began to take it easy. In ten minutes more he was sound asleep.
His awakening was a rude one. Somebody touched him in the side with the toe of a boot, and the light of a smoky lantern was flashed into his face.
"Get out of here, you tramp!" cried a rough voice. "Get out of here at once, before I turn you over to the police!"
"Who--what----" stammered Ralph, rising to his feet.
But before he could say more he was jerked backward and sent flying out-of the car into the darkness.
"Now get out of the freight yard," said the man who had ejected him so forcibly. "Skip, do you hear?"
And he raised a stick he carried so threateningly that Ralph was glad to retreat.
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