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- The City of Fire - 6/55 -
There had come a silverness in the sky over the next eastern mountain, and he could see the better what he was doing. Now and again he stopped cautiously and listened, his heart beating high with fear lest after all the rich guy might arrive before he was ready for him. When the obstruction was finished he got out a large piece of card board which had been fastened to the handle bars of his wheel, and from a box also fastened on behind his saddle he produced his can of paint and a brush. The moon was beginning to show off at his right, and gave a faint luminus gleam, as he daubed his letters in crudely.
"DETOUR to SABBATH VALLEY. Rode flooded. Brige down."
His card was large, but so were his letters. Nevertheless in spite of their irregularity he got them all on, and fastened the card firmly to the most obvious spot in the barricade. Then with a wicked gleam of mischief in his eye he looked off down the Highway across the ridge to where some two miles away one Pat must be awaiting his coming, and gave a single mocking gesture common to boys of his age. Springing on his wheel he coasted down the humps and into the darkness again.
He reflected as he rode that no harm could possibly be done. The road inspector would not be along for a couple of days. It would simply mean that a number of cars would go around by the way of Sabbath Valley for a day or so. It might break up a little of the quiet of the Sabbath day at home, but Billy did not feel that that would permanently injure Sabbath Valley for home purposes, and he felt sure that no one could possibly ever detect his hand in the matter.
The road at the forks led four ways, Highway, coming from New York and the Great North East, running North and South, and the Cross road coming from Economy and running through Sabbath Valley to Monopoly. He had made the Detour below the Cross Road, so that people coming from Economy would find no hindrance to their progress. He felt great satisfaction in the whole matter.
And now there remained but to do his part and get his money. He thought he saw a way to make sure of that money, and his conscience had no qualms for extracting it from so crooked a thief as Pat.
The clock on the church tower at Sabbath Valley was finishing the last stroke of eleven when Billy came slickly up the slope of the road from Sabbath Valley, and arrived on the station platform nonchalantly.
By the light of the moon he could dimly see Pat standing uneasily off by the tracks, and the heads of two men down below in the bushes near the lower end of the Highway where it crossed the tracks and swept on South between two mountains.
Pat held his watch in his hand and looked very ugly, but nothing fazed Billy. He didn't have to carry this thing out if he didn't want to, and the man knew he knew too much to be ugly to him.
"There you are, you young Pill you!" was Pat's greeting, "What kinduva time is this 'ere to be coming along to your expensive job? I said _eight!_"
"Oh," said Billy with a shrug and jumped to his wheel again, "Then I guess I'll be going back. Good night!"
"Here! Wait up there, you young devil! You come mighty nigh dishing the whole outfit, but now you're here, you'll earn your ten bucks I was fool enough to give you, but nothing more, do you hear that?" and the man leered into his freckled young face with an ugly gun in his hand.
Billy eyed the gun calmly. He had seen guns before. Moreover he didn't believe the man had the nerve to shoot. He wasn't quite so sure of the two dark shadows in the bushes below, but it was well to be on the safe side.
"Keep yer shirt on," said Billy impertinently, "and save yer powder. You don't want the whole nation to know about this little affair of ours do you _Pat?_"
The wide one glared.
"Well, you better not have anything like shooting going on, fer I've got some friends back here a little way waiting to joy ride back with me when my work's over. They might get funny if they heard a gun and come too soon."
"You little devil, you! I mighta known you'd give it away--!" he began, but he lowered the gun perceptibly. "Every little skunk like you is yella--yella as the devil--"
But Pat did not finish his sentence, for Billy, with a blaze in his eyes like the lamps of a tiger, and a fierce young cat-like leap flew at the flabby creature, wrenched the gun out of his astonished hand, and before he could make any outcry held it tantalizingly in his face. Billy had never had any experience before with bullies and bandits except in his dreams; but he had played football, and tackled every team in the Valley, and he had no fear of anything. Moreover he had spent long hours boxing and wrestling with Mark Carter, and he was hard as nails and wiry as a cat. The fat one was completely in his hands. Of course those other two down across the tracks might have made trouble if Pat had cried out, but they were too far away to see or hear the silent scuffle on the platform. But Billy was taking no chances.
"Now, keep on yer shirt, Pat, and don't make no outcry. My friends can get here's easy as yours, so just take it quiet. All you gotta do is take that remark back you just uttered. I ain't yella, and you gotta say so. Then you hand over those fifteen bones, and I'm yer man."
It was incredible that Pat should have succumbed, but he did. Perhaps he was none too sure of his friends in the bushes. Certainly the time was getting short and he was in a hurry to get to his job on the Highway. Also he had no mind for being discovered or interrupted. At any rate with a hoarse little laugh of pretended courage he put his hand in his baggy pocket and pulled out the bills.
"You win, Kid," he admitted, "I guess you're all white. Anything to please the baby and get down to biz. Now, sonny, put that gun away, it don't look well. Besides, I--got another." He put his hand insinuatingly to his hip pocket with a grin, but Billy's grin answered back:
"That's all right, pard. I'll just keep this one awhile then. You don't need two. Now, what's wanted?"
Pat edged away from the boy and measured him with his eye. The moon was coming up and Billy loomed large in the darkness. There was a determined set to his firm young shoulders, a lithe alertness about his build, and a fine glint in his eye. Pat was really a coward. Besides, Pat was getting nervous. The hidden telephone had called him several times already. He could hear even now in imagination its faint click in the moss. The last message had said that the car had passed the state line and would soon be coming to the last point of communication. After that it was the mountain highway straight to Pleasant View, nothing to hinder. It was not a time to waste in discussion. Pat dropped to an ingratiating whine.
"Come along then, Kid. Yes, bring your wheel. We'll want it. Down this way, just over the tracks, so, see? We want you to fall off that there wheel an' sprawl in the road like you had caught yer wheel on the track an' it had skidded, see? Try her now, and just lay there like you was off your feed."
Billy slung himself across his wheel, gave a cursory glance at the landscape, took a running slide over the tracks with a swift pedal or two and slumped in a heap, lying motionless as the dead. He couldn't have done it more effectively if he had practised for a week. Pat caught his breath and stooped over anxiously. He didn't want a death at the start. He wouldn't care to be responsible for a concussion of the brain or anything like that. Besides, he couldn't waste time fooling with a fool kid when the real thing might be along any minute. He glanced anxiously up the broad white ribbon of a road that gleamed now in the moonlight, and then pulling out his pocket flash, flooded it swiftly over Billy's upturned freckled face that lay there still as death without the flicker of an eyelash. The man was panic-stricken. He stooped lower, put out a tentative finger, turned his flash full in the boy's face again, and was just about to call to his helpers for aid when Billy opened a large eye and solemnly winked.
Pat shut off his flash quickly, stuck it in his pocket backed off with a low relieved, "All right Kid, you'll do. I guess you're all right after all, now you jest lay--!" and slid away down the slope into the cypress clump.
Billy with upturned face eyed the moon and winked; again, as if to a friend up there in the sky. He was thinking of the detour two miles up the road.
It was very pleasant lying there in the cool moonlight with the evening breeze blowing his rough hair and playing over his freckles, and with the knowledge of those twenty-four bucks safely buttoned inside his sweater, and that neat little gun in his pocket where he could easily close his fingers about it. The only thing he regretted was that for conscience sake he had had to put up that detour. It would have been so much more exciting than to have put up this all-night camouflage and wait here till dawn for a guy that wasn't coming at all. He began to think about the "guy" and wonder if he would take the detour to Sabbath Valley, or turn back, or perhaps try Economy. That would be disappointing. He would stand no chance of even hearing what he was like. Now if he went through Sabbath Valley, Red or Sloppy or Rube would be sure to sight a strange car, particularly if it was a _high power_ racer or something of that sort, and they could discuss it, and he might be able to find out a few points about this unknown, whom he was so nobly delivering for conscience sake--or Lynn Severn's--from an unknown fate. Of course he wouldn't let the fellows know he knew anything about the guy.
He had lain there fifteen minutes and was beginning to grow drowsy after his full day in the open air. If it were not for the joke of the thing he couldn't keep awake.
Pat stole out from the weeds at the slope of the road and whispered sepulchraly:
"That's all right, Kid, jest you lay there and hold that pose. You couldn't do better. Yer wheel finishes the blockade. Nobody couldn't get by if he tried. That's the Kid! 'Clare if I don't give you another five bucks t'morrer if you carry this thing through. Don't you get cold feet now--!"
Billy uttered a guttural of contempt in his throat and Pat slid away to hiding once more. The distant bells struck the midnight hour. Billy thrilled with their sweetness, with the fact that they belonged to him, that he had sat that very evening watching those white fingers among the keys, manipulating them. He thought of the glint on her hair,--the halo of dusty gold in the sunshine above--the light in her eyes--the
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