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- The City of Fire - 1/55 -


[Postprocessor's Note:

*renumbered chapters beginning with chapter 24: original text had two chapters numbered 23

*changed Fenning to Fenner 3 times (11 instances of Fenner) on pages 120, 122, and 133 of the original.]

THE CITY OF FIRE

BY

GRACE LIVINGSTON HILL

THE CITY OF FIRE

I

Sabbath Valley lay like a green jewel cupped in the hand of the surrounding mountains with the morning sun serene upon it picking out the clean smooth streets, the white houses with their green blinds, the maples with their clear cut leaves, the cosy brick school house wide winged and friendly, the vine clad stone church, and the little stone bungalow with low spreading roof that was the parsonage. The word manse had not yet reached the atmosphere. There were no affectations in Sabbath Valley.

Billy Gaston, two miles away and a few degrees up the mountain side, standing on the little station platform at Pleasant View, waiting for the morning train looked down upon the beauty at his feet and felt its loveliness blindly. A passing thrill of wonder and devotion fled through his fourteen-year-old soul as he regarded it idly. Down there was home and all his interests and loyalty. His eyes dwelt affectionately on the pointing spire and bell tower. He loved those bells, and the one who played them, and under their swelling tones had been awakened new thoughts and lofty purposes. He knew they were lofty. He was not yet altogether sure that they were his, but they were there in his mind for him to think about, and there was a strange awesome lure about their contemplation.

Down the platform was the new freight agent, a thickset, rubber-shod individual with a projecting lower jaw and a lowering countenance. He had lately arrived to assist the regular station agent, who lived in a bit of a shack up the mountain and was a thin sallow creature with sad eyes and no muscles. Pleasant View was absolutely what it stated, a pleasant view and nothing else. The station was a well weathered box that blended into the mountain side unnoticeably, and did not spoil the view. The agent's cabin was hidden by the trees and did not count. But Pleasant View was important as a station because it stood at the intersection of two lines of thread like tracks that slipped among the mountains in different directions; one winding among the trees and about a clear mountain lake, carried guests for the summer to and fro, and great quantities of baggage and freight from afar; the other travelled through long tunnels to the world beyond and linked great cities like jewels on a chain. There were heavy bales and boxes and many trunks to be shifted and it was obvious that the sallow station agent could not do it all. The heavy one had been sent to help him through the rush season.

In five minutes more the train would come from around the mountain and bring a swarm of ladies and children for the Hotel at the Lake. They would have to be helped off with all their luggage, and on again to the Lake train, which would back up two minutes later. This was Billy's harvest time. He could sometimes make as much as fifty cents or even seventy-five if he struck a generous party, just being generally useful, carrying bags and marshalling babies. It was important that Billy should earn something for it was Saturday and the biggest ball game of the season came off at Monopoly that afternoon. Billy could manage the getting there, it was only ten miles away, but money to spend when he arrived was more than a necessity. Saturday was always a good day at the station.

Billy had slipped into the landscape unseen. His rusty, trusty old bicycle was parked in a thick huckleberry growth just below the grade of the tracks, and Billy himself stood in the shelter of several immense packing boxes piled close to the station. It was a niche just big enough for his wiry young length with the open station window close at his ear. From either end of the platform he was hidden, which was as it should be until he got ready to arrive with the incoming train.

The regular station agent was busy checking a high pile of trunks that had come down on the early Lake train from the Hotel and had to be transferred to the New York train. He was on the other side of the station and some distance down the platform.

Beyond the packing boxes the heavy one worked with brush and paint marking some barrels. If Billy applied an eye to a crack in his hiding place he could watch every stroke of the fat black brush, and see the muscles in the swarthy cheeks move as the man mouthed a big black cigar. But Billy was not interested in the new freight agent, and remained in his retreat, watching the brilliant sunshine shimmer over the blue-green haze of spruce and pine that furred the way down to the valley. He basked in it like a cat blinking its content. The rails were beginning to hum softly, and it would not be long till the train arrived.

Suddenly Billy was aware of a shadow looming.

The heavy one had laid down his brush and was stealing swiftly, furtively to the door of the station with a weather eye to the agent on his knees beside a big trunk writing something on a check. Billy drew back like a turtle to his shell and listened. The rail was beginning to sing decidedly now and the telephone inside the grated window suddenly sat up a furious ringing. Billy's eye came round the corner of the window, scanned the empty platform, glimpsed the office desk inside and the weighty figure holding the receiver, then vanished enough to be out of sight, leaving only a wide curious ear to listen:

"That you Sam? Yep. Nobody about. Train's coming. Hustle up. Anything doing? You _don't say_! Some big guy? _Say_, that's good news at last! Get on the other wire and hold it. I'll come as quick as the train's gone. S'long!"

Billy cocked a curious eye like a flash into the window and back again, ducking behind the boxes just in time to miss the heavy one coming out with an excited air, and a feverish eye up the track where the train was coming into view around the curve.

In a moment all was stir and confusion, seven women wanting attention at once, and imperious men of the world crying out against railroad regulations. Billy hustled everywhere, transferring bags and suit cases with incredible rapidity to the other train, which arrived promptly, securing a double seat for the fat woman with the canary, and the poodle in a big basket, depositing the baggage of a pretty lady on the shady side, making himself generally useful to the opulent looking man with the jewelled rings; and back again for another lot. A whole dollar and fifteen cents jingled in his grimy pocket as the trains finally moved off in their separate directions and the peace of Pleasant View settled down monotonously once more.

Billy gave a hurried glance about him. The station agent was busy with another batch of trunks, but the heavy one was nowhere to be seen. He gave a quick glance through the grated window where the telegraph instrument was clicking away sleepily, but no one was there. Then a stir among the pines below the track attracted his attention, and stepping to the edge of the bank he caught a glimpse of a broad dusty back lumbering hurriedly down among the branches.

With a flirt of his eye back to the absorbed station agent Billy was off down the mountain after the heavy one, walking stealthily as any cat, pausing in alert attention, listening, peering out eerily whenever he came to a break in the undergrowth. Like a young mole burrowing he wove his way under branches the larger man must have turned aside, and so his going was as silent as the air. Now and then he could hear the crash of a broken branch or the crackle of a twig, or the rolling of a stone set free by a heavy foot, but he went on like a cat, like a little wood shadow, till suddenly he felt he was almost upon his prey. Then he paused and listened.

The man was kneeling just below him. He could hear the labored breathing. There was a curious sound of metal and wood, of a key turning in a lock. Billy drew himself softly into a group of cypress and held his breath. Softly he parted the foliage and peered. The man was down upon his knees before a rough box, holding something in his hand which he put to his ear. Billy could not quite see what it was. And now the man began to talk into the box. Billy ducked and listened:

"Hello, Sam! You there! Couldn't come any quicker, lots of passengers. Lots of freight. What's doing, anyhow?"

Billy could hear a faint murmur of words, now and then one gutteral burst out and became distinct, and gradually enough words pieced themselves together to become intelligible.

"... Rich guy! High power machine ... Great catch ... Tonight!... Got a bet on to get there by sunrise.... Can't miss him!"

Billy lay there puzzled. It sounded shady, but what was the line anyway? Then the man spoke.

"Sounds easy Sammy, but how we goin' to kidnap a man in a high power machine? Wreck it of course, but he might get killed and where would be the reward? Besides, he's likely to be a good shot--"

The voice from the ground again growing clearer:

"Put something across the road that he'll have to get out and move, like a fallen tree, or one of you lie in the road beside a car as if you was hurt. I'm sending Shorty and Link. They'll get there about eight o'clock. Beat him to it by an hour anyway, maybe more. Now it's up to you to look after details. Get anyone you want to help till Shorty and Link get there, and pay 'em so in case anything gets them, or they're late. I'll keep you wise from time to time how the guy gets on. I've got my men on the watch along the line."

"I'd like t' know who I'd get in this God forsaken place!" growled the heavy one, "Not a soul in miles except the agent, and _he'd_ run


The City of Fire - 1/55

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