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- The City of Fire - 30/55 -


even though he did not belong to her, even though he were not her friend.

She was almost cheerful again, when at last the dallying guests appeared for a late breakfast. Mark was still working at the car, filing something with long steady grinding noises. She had seen him twice from the window, but she did not venture out. Mark had not wished her to speak to him, she would not go against his wish,--at least not now--not until the guests were out of the way. That awful girl should have no further opportunity to say things to her about Mark. She would keep out of his way until they were gone. Oh, pray that the car would be fixed and they pass on their way at once! Later, if there were opportunity, she would find a way to tell Mark that he should not refuse her friendship. What was friendship if it could not stand the strain of falsehood and gossip, and even scandal if necessary. She was not ashamed to let Mark know she would be his friend forever. There was nothing unmaidenly in that. Mark would understand her. Mark had always understood her. And so she cheered her heavy heart through the breakfast hour, and the foolish jesting of the two that sounded to her anxious ears, in the language of scripture, like the "crackling of thorns under a pot."

But at last they finished the breakfast and shoved their chairs back to go and look at the car. Mr. Severn and his wife had eaten long ago and gone about their early morning duties, and it had been Marilyn's duty to do the honors for the guests, so she drew a sigh of relief, and, evading Laurie's proffered arm slid into the pantry and let them go alone.

But when she glanced through the dining-room window a few minutes later as she passed removing the dishes from the table, she saw Mark upon his knees beside the car, looking up with his winning smile and talking to Opal, who stood close beside him all attention, with her little boy attitude, and a wide childlike look in her big effective eyes. Something big and terrible seemed to seize Marilyn's heart with a vise-like grip, and be choking her breath in her throat. She turned quickly, gathered up her pile of dishes and hurried into the pantry, her face white and set, and her eyes stinging with proud unshed tears.

A few minutes later, dressed in brown riding clothes exquisitely tailored, and a soft brown felt hat, she might have been seen hurrying through the back fence, if anybody had been looking that way, across the Joneses' lot to the little green stable that housed a riding horse that was hers to ride whenever she chose. She had left word with Naomi that she was going to Economy and would be back in time for lunch, and she hoped in her heart that when she returned both of their guests would have departed. It was perhaps a bit shabby of her to leave it all on her mother this way, but mother would understand, and very likely be glad.

So Lynn mounted her little brown horse and rode by a circuitous way, across the creek, and out around the town to avoid passing her own home, and was presently on her way up to the crossroads down which Laurie Shafton had come in the dark midnight.

As she crossed the Highway, she noticed the Detour, and paused an instant to study the peculiar sign, and the partly cleared way around. And while she stood wondering a car came swiftly up from the Economy way past the Blue Duck Tavern. The driver bowed and smiled and she perceived it was the Chief of Police from Economy, a former resident of Sabbath Valley, and very much respected in the community, and with him in the front seat, was another uniformed policeman!

With a sudden constriction at her heart Marilyn bowed and rode on. Was he going to Sabbath Valley? Was there truth in the rumor that Mark was in trouble? She looked back to see if he had turned down the Highway, but he halted the car with its nose pointed Sabbath Valleyward and got out to examine the Detour on the Highway. She rode slowly and turned around several times, but as long as she was in sight his car remained standing pointed toward the Valley.

XVII

Billy awoke to the light of day with the sound of a strange car going by. The road through Sabbath Valley was not much frequented, and Billy knew every car that usually travelled that way. They were mostly Economy and Monopoly people, and as there happened to be a mountain trolley between the two towns higher up making a circuit to touch at Brooktown, people seldom came this way. Therefore at the unusual sound Billy was on the alert at once. One movement brought him upright with his feet upon the floor blinking toward his window, a second carried him to shelter behind the curtain where he could see the stranger go by.

Billy had reduced the science of dressing to a fine degree. He could climb into the limited number of summer garments in less time than any boy in the community, and when he saw that the car had halted just above the house and that the driver was interviewing Jim Rafferty, he reached for a handful of garments, and began to climb, keeping one eye out the window for developments. Was that or was it not the Chief's car out there? If it was what did it want?

Billy was in socks, trousers and shirt by the time the car began to puff again for starting, and he stove his feet into his old shoes and dove down stairs three steps at a stride and out the door where he suddenly became a casual observer of the day.

"Hullo, Billy! That you?" accosted the Chief driving slowly down the street, "Say, Billy, you haven't seen Mark Carter, have you? They said he had gone down to the blacksmith's to get something fixed for a car. I thought perhaps you'd seen him go by."

Billy shook his head lazily:

"Nope," he said, "I've been busy this morning. He mighta gone by."

"Well I'll just drive down and see!" The car started on and turned into the Lane that led to the blacksmith shop.

Billy dove into the house, made short work of his ablutions, gave his hair a brief lick with the brush, collected his cap and sweater, bolted the plate of breakfast Aunt Saxon had left on the back of the stove when she went away for her regular Monday's wash, and was ready behind the lilac bush with old trusty, down on his knees oiling her a bit, when the Chief drove back with Mark Carter in the back seat looking strangely white and haughty, but talking affably with the Chief.

His heart sank. Somehow he knew something was wrong with Mark. Mark was in his old clothes with several pieces of iron in his hand as if he hadn't taken time to lay them down. Billy remained in hiding and watched while the Chief's car stopped at Carter's and Mark got out. The car waited several minutes, and then Mark came out with his good clothes on and his best hat, and got into the car and they drove off, Mark looking stern and white. Billy shot out from his hiding and mounting his steed flew down the road, keeping well behind the maples and hedges, and when the Chief's car stopped in front of the parsonage he dismounted and stepped inside Joneses' drive to listen. Mark got out, sprang up the steps, touched the bell, and said to someone who appeared at the door, "Mr. Shafton, I'm sorry, but I'll not be able to get those bearings fixed up to-day. The blacksmith doesn't seem to have anything that will do. I find I have to go over to Economy on business, and I'll look around there and see if anybody has any. I expect to be back by twelve o'clock, and will you tell the lady that I will be ready to start at half-past if that will suit her. I am sure we shall have plenty of time to get her to Beechwood by five or sooner. If anything occurs to keep me from going I'll telephone you in an hour, so that she can make other arrangements. Thank you, Mr. Shafton. Sorry I couldn't fix you up right away, but I'll look after the lady for you." Mark hurried back to the car again and they drove off.

Billy escorted the Department of Justice distantly, as far as the Crossing at the Highway, from which eminence he watched until he saw that they stopped at the Blue Duck Tavern for a few minutes, after which they went on toward Economy; then he inspected the recent clearing of his detour, obviously by the Chief, and hurried down the Highway toward the railroad Crossing at Pleasant View. It was almost train time, and he had a hunch that there might be something interesting around that hidden telephone. If he only had had more time he might have arranged to tap the wire and listen in without having to go so near, but he must do the best he could.

When he reached a point on the Highway where Pleasant View station was easily discernible he dismounted, parked his wheel among the huckleberries, and slid into the green of the Valley. Stealing cautiously to the scene of the Saturday night hold-up he finally succeeded in locating the hidden telephone, and creeping into a well screened spot not far away arranged himself comfortably to wait till the trains came. He argued that Pat would likely come down to report or get orders about the same time as before, and so in the stillness of the morning he lay on the ground and waited. He could hear a song sparrow high up on the telegraph wire, sing out its wild sweet lonely strain: Sweet--sweetsweetsweet--sweetsweet--sweetsweet--! and a hum of bees in the wild grape that trailed over the sassafras trees. Beside him a little wood spider stole noiselessly on her busy way. But his heart was heavy with new burdens and he could not take his usual rhapsodic joy in the things of Nature. What was happening to Mark and what could he do about it? Perhaps Mark would have been better off if he had left him in the old house on Stark's mountain. The chief couldn't have found him then and the kidnappers would have kept him safe for a good many days till they got some money. But there wouldn't have _been_ any money! For Mark wasn't the right man! And the kidnappers would have found it out pretty soon and _what_ would they have done to Mark? Killed him perhaps so they wouldn't get into any more trouble! There was no telling! And time would have gone on and nobody would have known what had become of Mark. And the murder trial-- if it was really a murder--would come off and they couldn't find Mark, and of course they would think Mark had killed the man and then run away. And Mark would never be able to come home again! No, he was glad Mark was out and safe and free from dope. At least Mark would know what to do to save himself. Or would he? Billy suddenly had his doubts. Would Mark take care of himself, just himself, or not? Mark was always looking after other people, but he had somehow always let people say and do what they would with him. Aw gee! Now Mark wouldn't let them locate a thing like a murder on him, would he? And there was Miss Lynn! And Mark's mother! Mark oughtta think of them. Well, maybe he wouldn't realize how much they did care. Billy had a sudden revelation that maybe that was half the matter, Mark didn't know how much any of them cared. Back in his mind there was an uncomfortable memory of Aunt Saxon's pink damp features and anxious eyes and a possible application of the same principle to his own life, as in the case of Judas. But he wasn't considering himself now. There might come a time when he would have to change his tactics with regard to Aunt Saxon somewhat. She certainly had been a good sport last night. But this wasn't the time to consider that. He had a great deal more important matters to think of now. He had to find out how he could make it perfectly plain to the world that Mark Carter had not shot a man after twelve o'clock Saturday


The City of Fire - 30/55

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