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   Chapter 4 No.4

The City of Fire By Grace Livingston Hill Characters: 21198

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

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.

"Hist! What was that?" whispered Pat, and the three stopped motionless in their tracks. Billy held his breath and touched the cold steel in his pocket. Of course there was always the gun, but what was one gun against three?

* * *

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