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   Chapter 3 No.3

The City of Fire By Grace Livingston Hill Characters: 24346

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

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, Hi

ghway, 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!

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