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   Chapter 1 No.1

The City of Fire By Grace Livingston Hill Characters: 18764

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

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."

"What doing?"

"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.

"Any shooting?"

"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?"

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