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- The City of Fire - 2/55 -
right out and telegraph for the State constab. Say, Sammy, who is this guy anyway? Is there enough in it to pay for the risk? You know kidnapping ain't any juvenile demeanor. I didn't promise no such stuff as this when I said I'd take a hand over here. Now just a common little hold-up ain't so bad. That could happen on any lonely mountain road. But this here kidnapping, you never can tell how its going to turn out. Might be murder before you got through, especially if Link is along. _You know Link!_"
"That's all right, Pat, you needn't worry, this'll go through slick as a whistle, and a million in it if we work it right. The house is all ready--you know where--and never a soul in all the world would suspect. It's far enough away and yet not too far--. You'll make enough out of this to retire for life if you want to Pat, and no mistake. All you've got to do is to handle it right, and you know your business."
"Who'd you say he was?"
"Shafton, Laurence Shafton, son of the big Shafton, you know Shafton and Gates."
A heavy whistle blended with the whispering pines.
"You don't say? How much family?"
"Mother living, got separate fortune in her own right. Father just dotes on him. Uncle has a big estate on Long Island, plenty more millions there. I think a million is real modest in us to ask, don't you?"
"Where's he goin' to? What makes you think he'll come this way 'stead of the valley road?"
"'Cause he's just started, got all the directions for the way, went over it carefully with his valet. Valet gave me the tip you understand, and has to be in on the rake-off. It's his part to keep close to the family, see? Guy's goin' down to Beechwood to a house party, got a bet on that he'll make it before daylight. He's bound to pass your mountain soon after midnight, see? Are you goin' to do your part, or ain't you? Or have I got to get a new agent down there? And say! I want a message on this wire as soon as the job is completed. Now, you understand? Can you pull it off?"
It was some time after the key clicked in the lock and the bulky form of the freight agent lumbered up through the pines again before Billy stirred. Then he wriggled around through the undergrowth until he found himself in front of the innocent looking little box covered over with dried grass and branches. He examined it all very carefully, pried underneath with his jack knife, discovered the spot where the wire connected, speculated as to where it tapped the main line, prospected a bit about the place and then on hands and knees wormed himself through the thick growth of the mountain till he came out to the huckleberry clump, and recovering his bicycle walked innocently up to the station as if it were the first time that day and enquired of the surly freight man whether a box had come for his mother.
In the first place Billy hadn't any mother, only an aunt who went out washing and had hard times to keep a decent place for Billy to sleep and eat, and she never had a box come by freight in her life. But the burly one did not know that. Just what Billy Gaston did it for, perhaps he did not quite know himself, save that the lure of hanging round a mystery was always great. Moreover it gave him deep joy to know that he knew something about this man that the man did not know he knew. It was always good to know things. It was always wise to keep your mouth shut about them when you knew them. Those were the two most prominent planks in Billy Gaston's present platform and he stood upon them firmly.
The burly one gave Billy a brief and gruff negative to his query and went on painting barrel labels. He was thinking of other matters, but Billy still hung around. He had a hunch that he might be going to make merchandise in some way of the knowledge that he had gained, so he hung around, silently, observantly, leaning on old rusty-trusty.
The man looked up and frowned suspiciously:
"I told you NO!" he snapped threateningly, "What you standin' there for?"
Billy regarded him amusedly as from a superior height.
"Don't happen to know of any odd jobs I could get," he finally condescended.
"Where would you expect a job around this dump?" sneered the man with an eloquent wave toward the majestic mountain, "Busy little hive right here now, ain't it?"
He subsided and Billy, slowly, thoughtfully, mounted his wheel and rode around the station, with the air of one who enjoys the scenery. The third time he rounded the curve by the freight agent the man looked up with a speculative squint and eyed the boy. The fourth time he called out, straightening up and laying down his brush.
"Say, Kid, do you know how to keep yer mouth shut?"
The boy regarded him with infinite contempt.
"Well, that depends!" he said at last. "If anybody'd make it worth my while."
The man looked at him narrowly, the tone was at once so casual and yet so full of possible meaning. The keenest searching revealed nothing in the immobile face of the boy. A cunning grew in the eyes of the man.
"How would a five look to you?"
"Not enough," said the boy promptly, "I need twenty-five."
"Well, ten then."
"The boy rode off down the platform and circled the station again while the man stood puzzled, half troubled, and watched him:
"I'll make it fifteen. What you want, the earth with a gold fence around it?"
"I said I needed twenty-five," said Billy doggedly, lowering his eyes to cover the glitter of coming triumph.
The thick one stood squinting off at the distant mountain thoughtfully, then he turned and eyed Billy again.
"How'm I gonta know you're efficient?" he challenged.
"Guess you'c'n take me er leave me," came back the boy quickly. "Course if you've got plenty help--"
The man gave him a quick bitter glance. The kid was sharp. He knew there was no one else. Besides, how much had he overheard? Had he been around when the station telephone rang? Kids like that were deep. You could always count on them to do a thing well if they undertook it.
"Well, mebbe I'll try you. You gotta be on hand t'night at eight o'clock sharp. It's mebbe an all night job, but you may be through by midnight."
"Nothing much. Just lay in the road with your wheel by your side and act like you had a fall an' was hurt. I wanta stop a man who's in a hurry, see?"
Billy regarded him coolly.
"Oh, no!" said the other, "Just a little evening up of cash. You see that man's got some money that oughtta be mine by good rights, and I wantta get it."
"_I_ see!" said Billy nonchalantly, "An' whatcha gonta do if he don't come across?"
The man gave him a scared look.
"Oh, nothin' sinful son; just give him a rest fer a few days where he won't see his friends, until he gets ready to see it the way I do."
"H'm!" said Billy narrowing his gray eyes to two slits. "An' how much did ya say ya paid down?"
The man looked up angrily.
"I don't say I pay nothing down. If you do the work right you get the cash t'night, a round twenty-five, and it's twenty bucks more'n you deserve. Why off in this deserted place you ought ta be glad to get twenty-five cents fer doin' nothin' but lay in the road."
The boy with one foot on the pedal mounted sideways and slid along the platform slowly, indifferently.
"Guess I gotta date t'night," he called over his shoulder as he swung the other leg over the cross bar.
The heavy man made a dive after him and caught him by the arm.
"Look here, Kid, I ain't in no mood to be toyed with," he said gruffly, "You said you wanted a job an' I'm being square with you. Just to show I'm being square here's five down."
Billy looked at the ragged green bill with a slight lift of his shoulders.
"Make it ten down and it's a go," he said at last with a take-it-or- leave-it air. "I hadn't oughtta let you off'n less'n half, such a shady job as this looks, but make it a ten an' I'll close with ya. If ya don't like it ask the station agent to help ya. I guess he wouldn't object. He's right here handy, too. I live off quite a piece."
But the man had pulled out another five and was crowding the bills upon him. He had seen a light in that boy's eye that was dangerous. What was five in a case of a million anyway?
Billy received the boodle as if it had been chewing gum or a soiled handkerchief, and stuffed it indifferently into his already bulging pocket in a crumple as if it were not worth the effort.
"A'rright. I'll be here!" he declared, and mounting his wheel with an air of finality, sailed away down the platform, curved off the high step with a bump into the road and coasted down the road below the
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