*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
GRACE LIVINGSTON HILL
THE CITY OF FIRE
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 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 tunnel toward Monopoly, leaving Sabbath Valley glistening in the sunshine off to the right. With all that money in his pocket what was the use of going back to Sabbath Valley for his lunch and making his trip a good two miles farther? He would beat the baseball team to it.
The thick one stood disconsolately, his grimy cap in his hand and scratched his dusty head of curls in a troubled way.
"Gosh!" he said wrathfully, "The little devil! Now I don't know what he'll do. I wonder—! But what else could I do?"
Over in Sabbath Valley quiet sweetness brooded, broken now and again by the bell-like sound of childish laughter here and there. The birds were holding high carnival in the trees, and the bees humming drowsy little tunes to pretend they were not working.
Most of the men were away at work, some in Monopoly or Economy, whither they went in the early morning in their tin Lizzies to a little store or a country bank, or a dusty law office; some in the fields of the fertile valley; and others off behind the thick willow fringe where lurked the home industries of tanning and canning and knitting, with a plush mill higher up the slope behind a group of alders and beeches, its ugly stone chimneys picturesque against the mountain, but doing its best to spoil the little stream at its feet with all colors of the rainbow, at intervals dyeing its bright waters.
The minister sat in his study with his window open across the lawn between the parsonage and the church, a lovely velvet view with the old graveyard beyond and the wooded hill behind. He was faintly aware of the shouting of the birds in glad carnival in the trees, and the busy droning of the bees, as he wrote an article on Modern Atheism for a magazine in the distant world; but more keenly alive to the song on the lips of his child, but lately returned from college life in one of the great universities for women. He smiled as he wrote, and a light came in his deep thoughtful eyes. She had gone and come, and she was still unspoiled, mentally, physically, or spiritually. That was a great deal to have kept out of life in these days of unbelief. He had been almost afraid to hope that she would come back the same.
In the cool sitting-room his wife was moving about, putting the house in order for the day, and he knew that on her lips also was the smile of the same content as well as if he were looking at her beloved face.
On the front veranda Marilyn Severn swept the rugs and sang her happy song. She was glad, glad to be home again, and her soul bubbled over with the joy of it. There was happiness in the curve of her red lips, in the softly rounded freshness of her cheek and brow, in the eyes that held dancing lights like stars, and in every gleaming tendril of her wonderful bright hair that burst forth from under the naive little sweeping cap that sat on her head like a crown. She was small, lithe, graceful, and she vibrated joy, health, eagerness in every glance of her eye, every motion of her lovely hands.
Down the street suddenly sounded a car. Not the rattling, cheap affairs that were commonly used in those parts for hard work and dress affairs, with a tramp snuffle and bark as they bounced along beneath the maples like house dogs that knew their business and made as much noise about it as they could; but a car with a purr like a soft petted cat by the fire, yet a power behind the purr that might have belonged to a lion if the need for power arose. It stole down the street like a thing of the world, well oiled and perfect in its way, and not needing to make any clatter about its going. The very quietness of it made the minister look up, sent the minister's wife to raise the shade of the sitting-room window, and caused the girl to look up from her task.
The morning flooded her face, the song was stayed, a great light came into her eyes.
The man who was driving the car had the air of not expecting to stop at the parsonage. Even when he saw the girl on the porch he held to his way, and something hard and cold and infinitely sad settled down over his face. It even looked as though he did not intend to recognize her, or perhaps wasn't sure whether she would recognize him. There was a moment's breathless suspense and the car slid just the fraction past the gate in the hedge, without a sign of stopping, only a lifting of a correct looking straw hat that somehow seemed a bit out of place in Sabbath Valley. But Lynn left no doubt in his mind whether she would recognize him. She dropped her broom and sped down the, path, and the car came to an abrupt halt, only a hair's breadth past the gate,—but still—that hair's breadth.
"Oh, Mark, I'm so glad to see you!" she cried genuinely with her hand out in welcome, "They said you were not at home."
The boy's voice—he had been a boy when she left him, though now he looked strangely hard and old like a man of the world—was husky as he answered gravely, swinging himself down on the walk beside her:
"I just got in late last night. How are you Lynn? You're looking fine."
He took her offered hand, and clasped it for a brief instant in a warm strong pressure, but dropped it again and there was a quick cold withdrawing of his eyes that she did not understand. The old Mark Carter would never have looked at her coolly, impersonally like that. What was it, was he shy of her after the long separation? Four years was a long time, of course, but there had been occasional letters. He had always been away when she was at home, and she had been home very little between her school years. There had been summer sessions twice and once father and mother had come to her and they had taken a wonderful trip together. But always there had seemed to be Mark Carter, her old friend and playmate, in the background. Now, suddenly he seemed to be removed to indefinite distances. It was as if she were looking at a picture that purported to be her friend, yet seemed a travesty, like one wearing a mask. She stood in the sunlight looking at him, in her quaint little cap and a long white enveloping house apron, and she seemed to him like a haloed saint. Something like worship shone in his eyes, but he kept the mask down, and looked at her with the eyes of a stranger while he talked, and smiled a stiff conventional smile. But a look of anguish grew in his young face, like the sorrow of something primeval, such as a great rock in a desert.
The minister had forgotten his article and was watching them through the window, the tall handsome youth, his head bared with the glint of the sun on his short cropped gold curls making one think of a young prince, yet a prince bound under a spell and frozen in a block of ice. He was handsome as Adonis, every feature perfect, and striking in its manly beauty, yet there was nothing feminine about him. The minister was conscious of all this as he watched—this boy whom he had seen grow up, and this girl of his heart. A great still question came into the father's look as he watched.
The minister was conscious of Lynn's mother standing in the doorway just behind him, although she had made no noise in entering. And at once she knew he was aware of her presence.
"Isn't that Mark Carter?" she asked just above a breath.
"And she doesn't know! You haven't told her?"
The minister shook his head.
"He will tell her. See, he is telling her now!"
The mother drew a shade nearer.
"But how do you know? See, she is doing the talking. You think he will tell her? What will he tell her, Graham?"
"Oh, he will not tell her in words, but every atom of his being is telling her now. Can't you see? He is telling her that he is no longer worthy to be her equal. He is telling her that something has gone wrong."
"Graham, what do you think is the matter with him? Do you think he is—BAD?" She lifted frightened eyes to his as she dropped into her low chair that always stood conveniently near his desk.
A wordless sorrow overspread the minister's face, yet there was something valiant in his eyes.
"No, I can't think that. I must believe in him in spite of everything. It looks to me somehow as if he was trying to be bad and couldn't."
"Well, but—Graham, isn't that the same thing? If he wants to be?"
The minister shook his head.
"He doesn't want to be. But he has some purpose in it. He is doing it—perhaps—well—it might be for her sake you know."
The mother looked perplexed, and hesitated, then shook her head.
"That would be—preposterous! How could he hurt her so—if he cared. It must be—he does not care—!"
"He cares!" said the man.
"Then how do you explain it?"
"I don't explain it."
"Are you going to let it go on?"
"What can be done?"
"I'd do something."
"No, Mary. That's something he's got to work out himself. If he isn't big enough to get over his pride. His self-consciousness. His—whatever he calls it—If he isn't big enough—Then he isn't big enough—!" The man sighed with a faraway patient look. The woman stirred uneasily.
"Graham," she said suddenly lifting her eyes in troubled question, "When your cousin Eugenie was here, you remember, she talked about it one day. She said we had no right to let Lynn become so attached to a mere country boy who would grow up a boor. She said he had no education, no breeding, no family, and that Lynn had the right to the best social advantages to be had in the world. She said Lynn was a natural born aristocrat, and that we had a great responsibility bringing up a child with a face like hers, and a mind like hers, and an inheritance like hers, in this little antiquated country place. She said it was one thing for you with your culture and your fine education, and your years of travel and experience, to hide yourself here if you choose for a few years, pleasing yourself at playing with souls and uplifting a little corner of the universe while you were writing a great book; but it was quite another for us to allow our gifted young daughter to know no other life. And especially she harped on Lynn's friendship with Mark. She called him a hobbledehoy, said his mother was 'common', and that coming from a home like that, he would never amount to anything or have an education. He would always be common and loaferish, and it wouldn't make any difference if he did, he would never be cultured no matter how much education he had. He was not in her class. She kept saying that over. She said a lot of things and always ended up with that. And finally she said that we were perfectly crazy, both of us. That she supposed Lynn thought she was christianizing the boy or something, but it was dangerous business, and we ought to be warned. And Graham, I'm afraid Mark heard it! He was just coming up on the porch as she finished and I'm almost sure he heard it!"
The eyes of the minister gave a startled flicker and then grew comprehending. "I wondered why he gave up college after he had worked so hard to get in."
"But Graham! Surely, if he had heard he would have wanted to show her that she was wrong."
"No, Mary. He is not built that way. It's his one big fault. Always to be what he thinks people have labeled him, or to seem to be. To be that in defiance, knowing in his heart he really isn't that at all. It's a curious psychological study. It makes me think of nothing else but when the Prince of the Power of the Air wanted to be God. Mark wants to be a young God. When he finds he's not taken that way he makes himself look like the devil in defiance. Don't you remember, Mary, how when Bob Bliss broke that memorial window in the church and said it was Mark did it, how Mark stood looking, defiantly from one to another of us to see if we would believe it, and when he found the elders were all against him and had begun to get ready for punishment, he lifted his fine young shoulders, and folded his arms, and just bowed in acquiescence, as if to say yes, he had done it? Don't you remember, Mary? He nearly broke my heart that day, the hurt look in his eyes; the game, mistaken, little devil! He was only ten, and yet for four long months he bore the blame in the eyes of the whole village for breaking that window, till Bob told the truth and cleared him. Not because he wanted to save Bob Bliss, for everybody knew he was a little scamp, and needed punishment, but because he was hurt—hurt way down into the soul of him to think anybody had thought he would want to break the window we had all worked so hard to buy. And he actually broke three cellar windows in that vacant store by the post office, yes, and paid for them, just to keep up his character and give us some reason for our belief against him."
The wife with a cloud of anxiety in her eyes, and disapproval in her voice, answered slowly:
"That's a bad trait, Graham. I can't understand it. It is something wrong in his nature."
"Yes, Mary, it is sin, original sin, but it comes at him from a different direction from most of us, that's all. It comes through sensitiveness. It is his reaction to a deep and mortal hurt. Some men would be stimulated to finer action by criticism, he is stimulated to defy, and he does not know that he is trying to defy God and all the laws of the universe. Some day he will find it out, and know that only through humility can he make good."
"But he is letting all his opportunities go by."
"I'm not so sure. You can't tell what he may be doing out in the world where he is gone."
"But they say he is very wild."
"They were always saying things about him when he was here, and most of them were not true. You and I knew him, Mary. Was there ever a finer young soul on earth than he with his clear true eyes, his eager tender heart, his brave fearlessness and strength. I can not think he has sold his soul to sin—not yet. It may be. It may be that only in the Far Country will he realize it is God he wants and be ready to say, 'I have sinned' and 'I will arise.'"
"But Graham, I should think that just because you believe in him you could talk to him."
"No, Mary. I can't probe into the depths of that sensitive soul and dig out his confidence. He would never give it that way. It is a matter between himself and God."
"Lynn has God too, my dear. We must not forget that. Life is not all for this world, either. Thank God Lynn believes that!"
The mother sighed with troubled eyes, and rose. The purring of the engine was heard. Lynn would be coming in. They watched the young man swing his car out into the road and glide away like a comet with a wild sophisticated snort of his engine that sent him so far away in a flash. They watched the girl standing where he had left her, a stricken look upon her face, and saw her turn slowly back to the house with eyes down—troubled. The mother moved away. The father bent his head upon his hand with closed eyes. The girl came back to her work, but the song on her lips had died. She worked silently with a far look in her eyes, trying to fathom it.
The eyes of her father and mother followed her tenderly all that day, and it was as if the souls of the three had clasped hands, and understood, so mistily they smiled at one another.
Billy Gaston, refreshed by a couple of chocolate fudge sundaes, a banana whip, and a lemon ice-cream soda, was seated on the bench with the heroes of the day at the Monopoly baseball grounds. He wore his most nonchalant air, chewed gum with his usual vigor, shouted himself hoarse at the proper places, and made casual grown-up responses to the condescension of the team, wrapping them tenderly in ancient sweaters when they were disabled, and watching every move of the game with a practised eye and an immobile countenance. But though to the eyes of the small fry on the grass at his feet he was as self-sufficient as ever, somehow he kept having strange qualms, and his mind kept reverting to the swart fat face of Pat at the Junction, as it ducked behind the cypress and talked into the crude telephone on the mountain. Somehow he couldn't forget the gloat in his eye as he spoke of the "rich guy." More and more uneasy he grew, more sure that the expedition to which he was pledged was not strictly "on the square."
Not that Billy Gaston was afraid. The thrill of excitement burned along his veins and filled him with a fine elation whenever he thought of the great adventure, and he gave his pocket a protective slap where the "ten bones" still reposed intact. He felt well pleased with himself to have made sure of those. Whatever happened he had that, and if the man wasn't on the square Pat deserved to lose that much. Not that Billy Gaston meant to turn "yellow" after promising, but there was no telling whether the rest of the twenty-five would be forthcoming or not. He fell to calculating its worth in terms of new sweaters and baseball bats. If worst came to worst he could threaten to expose Pat and his scheme.
During the first and second innings these reflections soothed his soul and made him sit immovable with jaws grinding in rythmic harmony with the day. But at the beginning of the third inning one of the boys from his Sunday-school class strolled by and flung himself full length on the grass at his feet where he could see his profile just as he had seen it on Sunday while he was listening to the story that the teacher always told to introduce the lesson. He could see the blue of Lynn Severn's eyes as she told it, and strangely enough portions of the tale came floating back in trailing mist across the dusty baseball diamond and obscured the sight of Sloppy Hedrick sliding to his base. It was a tale of one, Judas, who betrayed his best Friend with a kiss. It came with strange illogical persistence, and seemed curiously incongruous with the sweet air of summer blowing over the hard young faces and dusty diamond. What had Judas to do with a baseball game, or with Billy Gaston and what he meant to do on the mountain that night?—and earn good money—! Ah! That was it. Make good money! But who was he betraying he would like to know? Well if it wasn't on the square perhaps he was betraying that same One—Aw—Rats! He wasn't under anybody's thumb and Judas lived centuries ago. He wasn't doing any harm helping a man do something he wasn't supposed to know what. Hang it all! Where was Mark Carter anyway? Somehow Cart always seemed to set a fella straight. He was like Miss Lynn. He saw through things you hadn't even told him about. But this was a man's affair, not a woman's.
Of course there was another side to it. He could give some of the money to Aunt Saxon to buy coal—instead of the sweater—well, maybe it would do both. And he could give some to that fund for the Chinese Mission, Miss Lynn was getting up in the class. He would stop on the way back and give her a whole dollar. He sat, chin in hand, gazing out on the field, quite satisfied with himself, and suddenly some one back by the plate struck a fine clean ball with a click and threw the bat with a resounding ring on the hard ground as he made for a home run. Billy started and looked keenly at the bat, for somehow the ring of it as it fell sounded curiously like the tinkle of silver. Who said thirty pieces of silver? Billy threw a furtive look about and a cold perspiration broke out on his forehead. Queer that old Bible story had to stick itself in. He could see the grieving in the Master's eyes as Judas gave Him that kiss. She had made the story real. She could do that, and made the boy long somehow to make it up to that betrayed Master, and he couldn't get away from the feeling that he was falling short. Of course old Pat had said the man had money belonging to him, and you had to go mostly by what folks said, but it did look shady.
The game seemed slow after that. The two captains were wrangling over some point of rule, and the umpire was trying to pacify them both. Billy arose with well feigned languor and remarked, "Well, I gotta beat it. Guess we're gonta win all right. So long!" and lounged away to his wheel.
He purchased another soda at the drug store to get one of his fives changed into ones, one of which he stowed away in his breast pocket, while the remainder was stuffed in his trousers after the manner of a man. He bent low over his handle bars, chewing rythmically and pedaled away rapidly in the direction of Sabbath Valley.
The bells of the little stone church were playing tender melodies as he shot briskly down the maple lined street at a break neck pace, and the sun was just hovering on the rim of the mountain. The bells often played at sunset, especially Saturday evenings, when Marilyn Severn was at home, and the village loved to hear them. Billy wouldn't have owned it, but he loved to hear those bells play better than anything else in his young life, and he generally managed to be around when they were being played. He loved to watch the slim young fingers manipulating the glad sounds. A genius who had come to the quiet hill village to die of an incurable disease had trained her and had left the wonderful little pipe organ with its fine chime of bells attached as his memorial to the peace the village had given him in his last days. Something of his skill and yearning had fallen upon the young girl whom he had taught. Billy always felt as if an angel had come and was ringing the bells of heaven when Marilyn sat at the organ playing the bells.
This night a ray of the setting sun slanting through the memorial window on her bronze gold hair gave her the look of Saint Cecilia sitting there in the dimness of the church. Billy sidled into a back seat still chewing and watched her. He could almost see a halo in yellow gold sun dust circling above her hair. Then a sudden revulsion came with the thought of "that guy Judas" and the possibility that he and the old fellow had much in common. But Bah! He would go to the mountain just to prove to himself that there was nothing crooked in it.
The music was tender that night and Billy felt a strange constriction in his throat. But you never would have guessed, as Lynn Severn turned at the end of her melody to search the dimness for the presence she felt had entered, that he had been under any stress of emotion, the way he grinned at her and sidled up the aisle.
"Yeah, we won awright," in answer to her question, "Red Rodge and Sloppy had 'em beat from the start. Those other guys can't play ball anyway."
Then quite casually he brought forth the dollar from his breast pocket.
"Fer the Chinese Fund," he stated indifferently.
The look in her face was beautiful to see, almost as if there were tears behind the sapphire lights in her eyes.
"Billy! All this?"
He felt as if she had knighted him. He turned red and hot with shame and pleasure.
"Aw, that ain't much. I earned sommore too, fer m'yant." He twisted his cap around on his other hand roughly and then blurted out the last thing he had meant to say:
"Miss Lynn, it ain't wrong to do a thing you don't know ain't wrong, is it?"
Marilyn looked at him keenly and laughed.
"It generally is, Billy, if you think it might be. Don't ever try to fool your conscience, Billy, it's too smart for that."
He grinned sheepishly and then quite irrelevantly remarked:
"I saw Cart last night."
But she seemed to understand the connection and nodded gravely:
"Yes, I saw him a moment this morning. He said he might come back again this evening."
The boy grunted contentedly and watched the warm color of her cheek under the glow of the ruddy sunset. She always seemed to him a little bit unearthly in the starriness of her beauty. Of course he never put it to himself that way. In fact he never put it at all. It was just a fact in his life. He had two idols whom he worshipped from afar, two idols who understood him equally well and were understood by him, and for whom he would have gladly laid down his young life. This girl was one, and Mark Carter was the other. It was the sorrow of his young life that Mark Carter had left Sabbath Valley indefinitely. The stories that floated back of his career made no difference to Billy. He adored him but the more in his fierce young soul, and gloried in his hero's need of faithful friends. He would not have owned it to himself, perhaps, but he had spoken of Mark just to find out if this other idol believed those tales and was affected by them. He drew a sigh of deep content as he heard the steady voice and knew that she was still the young man's friend.
They passed out of the church silently together and parted in the glow of red that seemed flooding the quiet village like a painting. She went across the stretch of lawn to the low spreading veranda where her mother sat talking with her father. Some crude idea of her beauty and grace stole through his soul, but he only said to himself:
"How,—kind of—little she is!" and then made a dash for his rusty old wheel lying flat at the side of the church step. He gathered it up and wheeled it around the side of the church to the old graveyard, threading his way among the graves and sitting down on a broad flat stone where he had often thought out his problems of life. The shadow of the church cut off the glow of sunset, and made it seem silent and dark. Ahead of him the Valley lay. Across at the right it stretched toward the Junction, and he could see the evening train just puffing in with a wee wisp of white misty smoke trailing against the mountain green. The people for the hotels would be swarming off, for it was Saturday night. The fat one would be there rolling trunks across and the station agent would presently close up. It would be dark over there at eight o'clock. The mountains loomed silently, purpling and steep and hazy already with sleep.
To the left lay the road that curved up to the forks where one went across to the Highway and at right angles the Highway went straight across the ridge in front of him and sloped down to the spot where the fat one expected him to play his part at eight o'clock to-night. The Highway was the way down which the "rich guy" was expected to come speeding in a high power car from New York, and had to be stopped and relieved of money that "did not belong to him."
Billy thought it all over. Somehow things seemed different now. He had by some queer psychological process of his own, brought Lynn Severn's mind and Mark Carter's mind together to bear upon the matter and gained a new perspective. He was pretty well satisfied in his own soul that the thing he had set out to do was not "on the level." It began to be pretty plain to him that that "rich guy" might be in the way of getting hurt or perhaps still worse, and he had no wish to be tangled up in a mess like that. At the same time he did not often get a chance to make twenty-five dollars, and he had no mind to give it up. It was not in his unyellow soul to go back on his word without refunding the money, and a dollar of it was already spent to the "Chinese Fund," to say nothing of sundaes and sodas and whips. So he sat and studied the mountain ahead of him.
Suddenly, as the sun, which had been for a long time slipping down behind the mountains at his back, finally disappeared, his face cleared. He had found a solution.
He sprang up from the cold stone, where his fingers had been mechanically feeling out the familiar letters of the inscription: "Blessed are the dead—" and catching up the prone wheel, strode upon it and dashed down the darkening street toward the little cottage near the willows belonging to his Aunt Saxon. He was whistling as he went, for he was happy. He had found a way to keep his cake and eat it too. It would not have been Billy if he had not found a way out.
Aunt Saxon turned a drawn and anxious face away from the window at his approach and drew a sigh of momentary relief. This bringing up boys was a terrible ordeal. But thanks be this immediate terror was past and her sister's orphaned child still lived! She hurried to the stove where the waiting supper gave forth a pleasant odor.
"Been down to the game at M'nop'ly," he explained happily as he flung breezily into the kitchen and dashed his cap on a chair, "Gee! That ham smells good! Say, Saxy, whad-ya do with that can of black paint I left on the door step last Saturday?"
"It's in a wooden box in the corner of the shed, Willie," answered his Aunt, "Come to supper now. It'll all get cold. I've been waiting most an hour."
"Oh, hang it! I don't s'pose you know where the brush is—Yes, I'm coming. Oh, here 'tis!"
He ate ravenously and briefly. His aunt watched him with a kind of breathless terror waiting for the inevitable remark at the close: "Well, I gotta beat it! I gotta date with the fellas!"
She had ceased to argue. She merely looked distressed. It seemed a part of his masculinity that was inevitable.
At the door he was visited with an unusual thoughtfulness. He stuck his head back in the room to say:
"Oh, yes, Saxy, I might not be home till morning. I might stay all night some place."
He was going without further explanation, but her dismay as she murmured pathetically:
"But to-morrow is the Sabbath, Willie—!" halted him once more.
"Oh, I'll be home time fer Sunday-school," he promised gaily, and was off down the road in the darkness, his old wheel squeaking rheumatically with each revolution growing fainter and fainter in the night.
But Billy did not take the road to the Junction in his rapid flight. Instead he climbed the left hand mountain road that met the Forks and led to the great Highway. Slower and slower the old wheel went, Billy puffing and bending low, till finally he had to dismount and put a drop of oil in a well known spot which his finger found in the dark, from the little can he carried in his pocket for such a time of need. He did not care to proclaim his coming as he crept up the rough steep way. And once when a tin Lizzie swept down upon him, he ducked and dropped into the fringe of alders at the wayside until it was past. Was that, could it have been Cart? It didn't look like Cart's car, but it was very dark, and the man had not dimmed his lights. It was blinding. He hoped it was Cart, and that he had gone to the parsonage. Somehow he liked to think of those two together. It made his own view of life seem stronger. So he slunk quietly up to the fork where the Highway swept down round a curve, and turned to go down across the ridge. Here was the spot where the rich guy would presently come. He looked the ground over, with his bike safely hidden below road level. With a sturdy set of satisfaction to his shoulders, and a twinkle of fun in his eye, he began to burrow into the undergrowth and find branches, a fallen log, stones, anything, and drag them up across the great state highway till he had a complete barricade.
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 glow of her cheek—her delicate profile against the memorial window— the glint of her hair—it came back, not in those words, but the vision of it—what was it like? Oh—of course. Cart's hair. The same color. They were alike, those two, and yet very different. When he had grown a man he would like to be like Cart. Cart was kind and always understood when you were not feeling right. Cart smoothed the way for people in trouble—old women and animals, and well—girls sometimes. He had seen him do it. Other people didn't always understand, but he did. Cart always had a reason. It took men to understand men. That thought had a good sound to the boy on his back in the moonlight. Although he felt somewhat a fool lying there waiting in the road when all the time there was that Detour. It would have been more a man's job if there hadn't had to be that Detour, but he couldn't run risks with strange guys, and men who carried guns, not even for—well, thirty pieces of silver—! But hark! What was that?
There seemed to be a singing along the ground. Was he losing his nerve lying here so long? No, there it was again! It couldn't be possible that he could hear so far as two miles up that road. It was hard and smooth macadam of course, that highway, but it couldn't be that—what was it they called it?—vibrations?—would reach so far! It must be. He would ask Cart about that.
The humming continued and grew more distinct, followed by a sort of throbbing roar that seemed coming toward him, and yet was still very far away. It must be a car at the Detour. In a moment it would turn down the bumpy road toward Sabbath Valley, and very likely some of those old broken whiskey bottles along the way would puncture a tire and the guy would take till morning getting anywhere. Perhaps he could even get away in time to come up innocently enough and help him out. A guy like that might not know how to patch a puncture.
But the sound was distinctly coming on. Billy opened one eye, then the other, and hastily scanned the sky in either direction for an aeroplane, but the sky was as clear as crystal without a speck, and the sound was distinctly drawing nearer.
A voice from the roadside hurtled sharply across:
"Hist! There! He's coming! Lay still! Remember you get five more bucks if you pull this off!"
A cold chill crept down Billy's back on tiny needle-pointed fringe of feet like a centipede. There was a sudden constriction in his throat and a leaden weight on each eye. He could not have opened them if he had tried, for a great white light stabbed across them and seemed to be holding them down for inspection. The thing he had wanted to have happen had come, and he was frightened; frightened cold clear to the soul of him—not at the thing that was about to come, but at the fact that he had broken faith with himself after all; broken faith with the haloed girl at the organ in the golden light; broken faith—for thirty pieces of silver! In that awful moment he was keenly conscious of the fact that when he got the other five there would be just thirty dollars for the whole! Thirty pieces of silver and the judgment day already coming on!
Lynn Severn was restless as she sat on the porch in the cool dark evening and heard unheeding the small village sounds that stole to her ears. The laughter of two children playing hide and seek behind the bushes across the way; the call of their mother summoning them to bed. The tinkle of a piano down the street; the whine of a Victrola in another home; the cry of a baby in pain; the murmur of talk on the porch next door; the slamming of a door; the creak of a gate; footsteps going down the brick pavement; the swinging to and fro of a hammock holding happy lovers under the rose pergola at Joneses. She could identify them all, and found her heart was listening for another sound, a smooth running car that purred, coming down the street. But it did not come!
By and by she slipped out and into the church, opening one window to let in the moonlight, and unlocking the organ by the sense of feeling. Her fingers strayed along the keys in tender wandering melodies, but she did not pull the stop that controlled the bells. She would have liked to play those bells and call through them to Mark across the mountains where he might be riding, call to tell him that she was waiting, call to ask him why he was so strangely aloof, so silent, and pale in his dignity; what had come between them, old friends of the years? She felt she could say with the bells what her lips could never speak. But the bells would cry her trouble to the villagers also, and she could not let them hear. So she played soft melodies of trust and hope and patience, until her father came to find her, and linking his arm in hers walked back with her through the moonlight, not asking anything, only seeming to understand her mood. He was that way always. He could understand without being told. Somehow she felt it and was comforted. He was that way with everybody. It was what made him so beloved in his parish, which comprised the whole Valley, that and his great sincerity and courage. But always his sense of understanding seemed keenest with this flower-faced girl of his. He seemed to have gone ahead of her way always to see that all was right—or wrong—and then walked with her to be sure she did not stumble or miss her way. He never attempted to reason her out of herself, nor to minimize her trials, but was just there, a strong hold when she needed it. She looked up with a smile and slipped her hand in his. She understood his perfect sympathy, as if his own past youth were touching hers and making her know that whatever it was she had to face she would come through. He was like a symbol of God's strength to her. Somehow the weight was lifted from her heart. They lingered on the piazza together in the moonlight a few minutes, speaking quietly of the morrow and its duties, then they went into the wide pleasant living room, and sat down, mother and daughter near together, while the father read a portion:
"He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. "I will say of the Lord, he is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. "Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. "He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust."
The words seemed to fill the room with a sweet peace, and to draw the hearts of the listeners as a Voice that is dear draws and soothes after a day of separation and turmoil and distress.
They knelt and the minister's voice spoke familiarly to the Unseen Presence, giving thanks for mercies received, mentioning little throbbing personalities that belonged to them as a family and as individuals, reminding one of what it must have been in the days before Sin had come and Adam walked and talked with God in the cool of the evening, and received instruction and strengthening straight from the Source. One listening would instinctively have felt that here was the secret of the great strength of Lynn Severn's life; the reason why neither college nor the world had been able to lure her one iota from her great and simple faith which she had brought with her from her Valley home and taken back again unsullied. This family altar was the heart of her home, and had brought her so near to God that she knew what she had believed and could not be shaken from it by any flippant words from lovely or wise lips that only knew the theory of her belief and nothing of its spirit and tried to argue it away with a fine phrase and a laugh.
So Lynn went up to her little white chamber that looked out upon the quiet hills, knelt awhile beside the white bed in the moonlight, then lay down and slept.
* * * * *
Out among the hills on the long smooth road in the white moonlight there shot a car like a living thing gone crazy, blaring a whiter light than the moonlight down the way, roaring and thundering as only a costly and well groomed beast of a machine can roar and thunder when it is driven by hot blood and a mad desire, stimulated by frequent applications from a handy flask, and a will that has never known a curb.
He knew it was a mad thing he was doing, rushing across space through the dark at the beck of a woman's smile, a woman who was another man's wife, but a woman who had set on fire a whole circle of men of which he was a part. He was riding against all caution to win a bet, riding against time to get there before two other men who were riding as hard from other directions to win the woman who belonged to an absent husband, win her and run away with her if he could. It was the culmination of a year of extravagances, the last cry in sensations, and the telephone wires had been hot with daring, wild allurement, and mad threat in several directions since late the night before.
The woman was in a great summer hotel where extravagances of all sorts are in vogue, and it had been her latest game to call with her lute-like voice over the phone to three of her men friends who had wooed her the strongest, daring them all to come to her at once, promising to fly with the one who reached her first, but if none reached her before morning dawned she remained as she was and laughed at them all.
Laurence Shafton had closed with the challenge at once and given orders for his car to be ready to start in ten minutes. From a southern city about an equal distance from the lady, one Percy Emerson, of the Wellington-Emersons, started about the same time, leaving a trail of telegrams and phone messages to be sent after his departure. The third man, Mortimer McMarter, a hot-headed, hot-blooded scot, had started with the rest, for the lady knew her lovers well, and not one would refuse; but he was lying dead at a wayside inn with his car a heap of litter outside from having collided with a truck that was minding its own business and giving plenty of room to any sane man. This one was not sane. But of this happening not even the lady knew as yet, for Mortimer McMarter was not one to leave tales behind him when he went out of life, and the servants who had sent his messages were far away.
The clock in the car showed nearly twelve and the way was long ahead. But he would make it before the dawn. He must. He stepped on the accelerator and shot round a curve. A dizzy precipice yawned at his side. He took another pull at the flask he carried and shot on wildly through the night. Then suddenly he ground on his brakes, the machine twisted and snarled like an angry beast and came to a stand almost into the arms of a barricade across the road. The young man hurled out an oath, and leaned forward to look, his eyes almost too blood-shot and blurred to read:
"DETOUR to Sabbath Valley!"
He laughed aloud. "Sabbath Valley!" He swore and laughed again, then looked down the way the rude arrow pointed, "Well, I like that! Sabbath Valley. That'll be a good joke to tell, but I'll make it yet or land in hell—!" He started his car and twisted it round to the rougher road, feeling the grind of the broken glass that strewed the way. Billy had done his work thoroughly, and anticipated well what would happen. But those tires were costly affairs. They did not yield to the first cut that came, and the expensive car built for racing on roads as smooth as glass bumped and jogged down into the ruts and started toward Sabbath Valley, with the driver pulling again at his almost empty flask, and swaying giddily in his seat. Half a mile farther down the mountain, the car gave a gasp, like the flitting soul of a dying lion, and came with sudden grinding breaks to a dead stop in the heart of a deep wood.
Five minutes later another car, with a soft purring engine came up to the Crossroads from Economy, slowed just a fraction as it crossed the Highway, the driver looking keenly at the barricade, then stopping his car with a sudden jerk and swinging out. He turned a pocket flash on the big card board Billy had erected, its daubed letters still wet and blurring into the pasteboard. He looked a bit quizzical over the statement, "RODE FLOODED, BRIGE DOWN," because he happened to know there was no bridge and nothing to flood the road for several miles ahead. He examined the barricade carefully, even down to the broken glass in the road, then deliberately, swiftly, with his foot kicked away the glass, cleared a width for his car, and jumping in backed up, turned and started slowly down the condemned road to investigate. Something was wrong down the highway, and the sooner it was set right the better. There was one thing, he wished he had his gun with him, but then—! And he swung on down for two miles, going faster and faster, seeing nothing but white still road, and quiet sleeping trees, with looming mountains against the sky everywhere. Then, suddenly, across the way in the blare of his lights a white face flashed into view, and a body, lying full across the road, with a bicycle flung to one side completing the block. He brought his car to a quick stand and jumped out, but before he could take one step or even stoop, someone caught him from behind, and something big and dark and smothering was flung over his head. A heavy blow seemed to send him whirling, whirling down into infinite space, with a long tongue of living fire leaping up to greet him.
"Beat it, Kid, and keep yer face shut!" hissed Pat into Billy's ear, at the same time stuffing a bill into his hand.
Billy had just sense enough left to follow the assisting kick and roll himself out of the road, with a snatch at his machine which pulled it down out of sight. He had a secret feeling that he was "yellow" after all in spite of his efforts, letting a guy get taken this way without even a chance to put up a fight. Where was that gun? He reached his hand into his pocket and was steadied by the feeling of the cold steel. Then he knew that the men were in the car and were about to start. They had dumped the owner into the back seat and were going to carry him off somewhere. What were they going to do? He must find out. He was responsible. He hadn't meant to let anything like this happen. If everything wasn't going to be on the square he might have to get into it yet. He must stick around and see.
The men were having a whispered consultation over the car. They were not used to that kind, but a car was a car. They tried to start it with nervous glances down the road. It jerked and hissed and complained but began to obey. The wheels were beginning to move. In a flash it would be gone!
Billy scrambled noiselessly up the bank behind the car, his move well covered by the noise of the engine. With a quick survey of the situation he tucked himself hastily into the spare tire on the back, just as the car gave a lurch and shot forward down across the tracks. He had all he could do to maintain his position and worm himself into a firmer holding for the first minute or two, and when he began to realize what he was doing he found his heart beating like a young trip hammer. He slid a groping hand into his pocket once more for reassurance. If anything really happened he had the gun.
But his heart was heavy. Things had not gone right. He had planned to carry this thing through as a large joke, and here he was mixed up in a crooked deal if ever there was one. The worst of it was he wasn't out of it yet. He wished he knew whose car this was and where they were bound for. How about the license tag? Gripping his unstable seat he swayed forward and tried to see it just below him. In the dim light it looked like a New York license. It must be the guy they were after all right,—they had telephoned about a New York man—yet—Cart had a New York license on his car! He was living in New York now,—and there must be lots of other guys—!
A kind of sickening thud seemed to drop through his mind down to the pit of his stomach as he tried to think it out. His eyes peered into the night watching every familiar landmark—there was the old pine where they always turned off to go fishing: and yes, they were turning away from Economy road. Yes, they were going through Hackett's Pass. A chill crept through his thin old sweater as the damp breath of ferns and rocks struck against his face. His eyes shone grim and hard in the night, suddenly grown old and stern. This was the kind of thing you read about in novels. In spite of pricks of conscience his spirits rose. It was great to be in it if it had to be. The consciousness of Sabbath Valley bathed in peaceful moonlight, all asleep, of the minister and his daughter, and Aunt Saxon, fell away; even the memory of bells that called to righteousness—he was out in the night on a wild ride and his soul thrilled to the measure of it. He fairly exulted as he reflected that he might be called upon to do some great deed of valor—in fact he felt he must do a great deed of valor to retrieve his self respect after having made that balk about the detour. How did that guy get around the detour anyway? Some guy!
Hackett's Pass was far behind and the moon was going low when the car stopped for a moment and a hurried consultation took place inside. Billy couldn't hear all that was said, but he gathered that time was short and the conspirators must be back at a certain place before morning. They seemed somehow to have missed a trail that was to have cut the distance greatly. Billy clung breathlessly to his cramped position and waited. He hoped they wouldn't get out and try to find the way, for then some of them might see him, and he was so stiff he was sure he would bungle getting out of the way. But after a breathless moment the car started on more slowly, and finally turned down a steep rough place, scarcely a trail, into the deeper woods. For a long time they went along, slower and slower, into the blackness of night it seemed. There was no moon, and the men had turned off the lights. There was nothing but a pocket flash which one of them carried, and turned on now and again to show them the way. The engine too was muffled and went snuffing along through the night like a blind thing that had been gagged. Billy began to wonder if he would ever find his legs useful again. Sharp pains shot through his joints, and he became aware of sleep dropping upon his straining eyes like a sickening cloud. Yet he must keep awake.
He squirmed about and changed his position, staring into the darkness and wondering if this journey was ever to end. Now they were bumping down a bank, and slopping through water, not very deep, a small mountain stream on one of the levels. He tried to think where it must be, but was puzzled. They seemed to have traveled part of the way in curves. Twice they stopped and backed up and seemed to be returning on their tracks. They crossed and recrossed the little stream, and the driver was cursing, and insisting on more light. At last they began climbing again and the boy drew a breath of relief. He could tell better where he was on the heights. He began to think of morning and Sabbath Valley bathed in its Sabbath peace, with the bells chiming a call to worship—and he not there! Aunt Saxon would be crazy! She would bawl him out! He should worry! and she would weep, pink weak tears from her old thin eyes, that seemed to have never done much else but weep. The thought turned and twisted in his soul like an ugly curved knife and made him angry. Tears always made him angry. And Miss Lynn—she would watch for him—! He had promised to be there! And she would not understand—and there would come that grieved look in her eyes. She would think—Oh, she would think he did not want to come, and did not mean to keep his promise, and things like that—and she would have to think them! He couldn't help it, could he? He had to come along, didn't he?
In the midst of his miserable reflections the car stopped dead on a level place and with a cold perspiration on his forehead Billy peered around him. They must have reached the top of a ridge, for the sky was visible with the morning star pinned against a luminous black. Against it a blacker shape was visible, half hid in trees, a building of some sort, solid, substantial, but deserted.
The men were getting out of the car. Billy gripped the gun and dropped silently to the ground, sliding as stealthily into the shadows of the trees as if he had been a snake.
Pat, stepped heavily to the ground and began to give directions in a low growl. Billy crouched and listened.
"Let's get him shifted quick! We gotta beat it outta here! Link, it's up to you an' Shorty to get this car over the state line before light, an' you'll have to run me back to the Crossing first, so I can be at the station in time for the early train. That'll be going some!"
"Well, I guess anyhow not," said Link sullenly, "Whadda ya think we are? Fools? Run you back to the Crossing in a pig's eye. You'll foot it back if you get there, er come with us. We ain't gonta get caught with this car on our hands. What we gonta do with it anyhow, when we get crost the state line?"
"Why, you run it into the field off behind that row of alders. Sam's got a man on the lookout. They'll have that little old car so she won't recognize her best friend before you can count three, so you should worry. And you'll run me back or you won't get the dough. See? I'll see to that. Pat said I wasn't to run no risks fer not bein' back in time. Now, shift that guy's feet out on my shoulder. Handle him quick. Nope, he won't wake up fer two hours yet. I give him plenty of dope. Got them bracelets tight on his feet? All right now. He's some hefty bird, ain't he?"
They moved away in the direction of the building, carrying a long dark shape between them, and Billy breathless in the bushes, watched, turning rapid plans in his mind. Here he was in the midst of an automobile getaway! Many the time he had gone with Mark and the Chief of Police on a still hunt for car thieves, but this time he was of the party. His loyal young heart boiled hot with rage, and he determined to do what he could single-handed to stem the tide of crime. Just what he was going to do he was undetermined. One, thing was certain, he must get the number of that license tag. He looked toward the house.
The group had paused with their burden at the door and Pat had turned on his pocket flash light for just an instant as they fumbled with an ancient lock. In that instant the whole front of the old stone house was lit up clearly, and Billy gasped. The haunted house! The house on the far mountain where a man had murdered his brother and then hanged himself. It had stood empty and closed for years, ever since Billy could remember, and was shunned and regarded with awe, and pointed out by hunters as a local point of interest.
Billy regarded with contempt the superstition that hung around the place, but he gasped when he saw where he was, for they must have come twenty miles round about and it was at least ten across the mountains by the short cut. Ten miles from home, and he had to foot it! If he had only brought old trusty! No telling now whether he would ever see it again. But what were bicycles at such a time as this!
The flash had gone out and the house was in darkness again, but he could hear the grating of a rusty hinge as the door opened, and faint footfalls of rubbered feet shuffled on a dusty floor. Now was his time! He darted out to the back of the car, and stooping down with his face close to the license, holding his old cap in one hand to shelter it drew out his own pocket flash and turned it on the sign, registering the number clearly on his alert young mind. The flash light was on its last breath of battery, and blinked asthmatically, winking out into a thread of red as the boy pressed it eagerly for one more look. He had been so intent that he had not heard the rubbered feet till they were almost upon him, and he had barely time to spring back into the bushes.