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   Chapter 6 No.6

The City of Fire By Grace Livingston Hill Characters: 26765

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Billy was doing some rapid thinking while he stood motionless in the bushes. It seemed a half hour, but in reality it was but a few seconds before he heard a low whistle. The men piled rapidly into the car with furtive looks on either side into the dark.

Billy gave a wavering glance toward the looming house in the darkness where the motionless figure had been left. Was it a dead man lying there alone, or was he only doped. But what could he do in the dark without tools or flash? He decided to stick with the machine, for he had no desire to foot it home, and anyway, with his bicycle he would be far more independent. Besides, there was the perfectly good automobile to think about. If the man was dead he couldn't be any deader. If he was only doped it would be some time before he came to, and before these keepers could get back he would have time to do something. Billy never doubted his responsibility in the matter. It was only a question of expediency. If he could just "get these guys with the goods on them," he would be perfectly satisfied.

He made a dash for his seat at the back while the car was turning, and they were off at a brisk pace down the mountain, not waiting this time to double on their tracks, but splashing through the Creek only once and on up to the road again.

Like an uneasy fever in his veins meantime, went and came a vision of that limp inert figure of the man being carried into the haunted house as it stood out in the flare of the flash light, one arm hanging heavily. What did that hand and arm remind him of? Oh-h! The time when Mark was knocked cold at the Thanksgiving Day Football game last year. Mark's hand and arm had looked like that-he had held his fingers like that-when they picked him up. Mark had the base-ball hand! Of course that rich guy might have been an athlete too, they were sometimes. And of course Mark was right now at home and in bed, where Billy wished he was also, but somehow the memory of that still dark "knocked cold" attitude, and that hanging hand and arm would not leave him. He frowned in the dark and wished this business was over. Mark was the only living soul Billy felt he could ever tell about this night's escapade, and he wasn't sure he could tell him, but he knew if he did that Mark would understand.

Billy watched anxiously for a streak of light in the East, but none had come as yet. The moon had left the earth darker than darkness when it went.

He tried to think what he should do. His bicycle was lying in the bushes and he ought to get it before daylight. If they went near the station he would drop off and pick it up. Then he would scuttle through the woods and get to the Crossroads, and beat it down to the Blue Duck Tavern. That was the only place open all night where he could telephone. He didn't like to go to the Blue Duck Tavern on account of his aunt. She had once made him promise most solemnly, bringing in something about his dead mother, that he would never go to the Blue Duck Tavern. But this was a case of necessity, and dead mothers, if they cared at all, ought to understand. He had a deep underlying faith in the principle of what a mother-at any rate a dead mother-would be like. And anyhow, this wasn't the kind of "going" to the Tavern his aunt had meant. He was keeping the spirit of the promise if not the letter. In his code the spirit meant much more than the letter-at least on this occasion. There were often times when he rigidly adhered to the letter and let the spirit take care of itself, but this was not one.

But if, on the other hand they did not take Pat all the way back to the crossing by the station it would be even better for him, for the road on which they now were passed within a quarter of a mile of the Blue Duck Tavern, and he could easily beat the car to the state line, by dropping off and running.

But suddenly and without warning it became apparent that Pat was to be let out to walk to the station crossing, and Billy had only a second to decide what to do, while Pat lumbered swearing down from the car. If he got off now he would have to wait till Pat was far ahead before he dared go after his wheel, and he would lose so much time there would be no use in trying to save the car. On the other hand if he stayed on the car he was liable to be seen by Pat, and perhaps caught. However, this seemed the only possible way to keep the car from destruction and loss, so he wriggled himself into his seat more firmly, tucked his legs painfully up under him, covered his face with his cap, and hid his hands in his pockets.

"You've plenty of time," raged Pat, "You've only a little five miles run left. It's a good half hour before light. You're a pair of cowards, that's whut ye are, and so I'll tell Sam. If I get fired fer not being there fer the early milk train, there'll be no more fat jobs fer youse. Now be sure ye do as you're told. Leave the car in the first field beyond the woods after ye cross the state line, lift yer flash light and wink three times, count three slow, and wink three times more. Then beat it! And doncha ferget to go feed that guy! We don't want he should die on us."

The engine began to mutter. Pat with a farewell string of oaths rolled off down the road, too sleepy to look behind, and Billy held his breath and ducked low till the rolling Pat was one with the deep gray of the morning.

The first streak of light was beginning to show in the East, and the all-night revellers at the Blue Duck were in the last stages of going home after a more than usually exciting season, when Billy like the hardened promise-breaker he felt himself to be, boldly slid in at the door and disappeared inside the telephone booth behind the last row of tables in the corner. For leave it to a boy, even though he be not a frequenter of a place, to know where everything needful is to be found!

He had to wait several minutes to get the Chief of Police in Economy, and while he waited two gaunt habitues of the Tavern slid into seats at the table to the left of the booth, ordered drinks and began to discuss something in a low tone. Billy paid no heed till he happened to hear his friend's name:

"Yep, I seen Mark come in with Cherry early in the evening. He set right over there and gotter some drink. The girl was mad because he wouldn't get her what she wanted to drink. I happened to be settin' direckly in front and I heard her gassin' about it. She tossed her head and made her eyes look little and ugly like a pig, and once she got up to go, and he grabbed her hands and made her set down; and just set there fer sometime alookin' at her hard an' holdin' her han's and chewin' the rag at her. I don't know what all they was sayin,' fer he talked mighty low, an' Ike called me to take a hand in the game over tother side the room, so I didn't know no more till I see him an' Cherry beatin' it out the side door, an' Dolphin standin' over acrost by the desk lampin' 'em with his ugly look, an' pretty quick, Dolph he slid out the other door an' was gone quite some time. When he come back Cherry was with him, laughin' and makin' eyes, and vampin' away like she always does, an' him an' her danced a lot after that-"

A voice on the end of the wire broke in upon this amazing conversation, and Billy with difficulty adjusted his jaded mind, to the matter in hand:

"'Z'is the Chief? Say, Chief, a coupla guys stole a machine-Holes-Mowbrays-license number 6362656-W-Got that? New York tag. They're on their way over to the State Line beyond the Cross Roads. They're gonta run her in the field just beyond the woods, you know. They're gonta give a flash light signal to their pal, three winks, count three slow, and three winks more, and then beat it. Then some guy is gonta wreck the machine. It's up to you and your men to hold the machine till I get the owner there. He don't know it's pinched yet, but I know where to find him, an' he'll have the license and can identify it. Where'll I find you? Station House? 'Conomy? Sure! I'll be there soon's I get'im. What's that? I? Oh, I'm just a kid that happened to get wise. My name? Oh rats! That don't cut any ice now! You get on yer job! They must be almost there by now. I gotta beat it! Gub-bye!"

Billy was all there even if he had been up all night. He hung up with a click, for he was anxious to hear what the men were saying. They had finished their glasses and were preparing to leave. The old one was gabbling on in a querrilous gossipy tone:

"Well, it'll go hard with Mark Carter if the man dies. Everybody knows he was here, and unless he can prove an alibi-!"

They were crawling reluctantly out of their haunts now, and Billy could catch but one more sentence:

"Well, I'm sorry fer his ma. I used to go to school with Mrs. Carter when we were kids."

They were gone out and the room suddenly showed empty. The waiter was fastening the shutters. In a moment more he would be locked in. Billy made a silent dash among the tables and slid out the door while the waiter's back was turned. The two men were ambling slowly down the road toward Economy. Billy started on a dead run. His rubber soled shoes made no echo and he was too light on his feet to make a thud. He disappeared into the grayness like a spirit. He had more cause than ever now for hurry. Mark! Mark! His beloved Mark Carter! What must he do about it? Must he tell Mark? Or did Mark perhaps know? What had happened anyway? There had evidently been a shooting. That Cherry Fenner was mixed up in it. Billy knew her only by sight. She always grinned at him and said: "Hello, Billee!" in her pretty dimpled way. He didn't care for her himself. He had accepted her as a part of life, a necessary evil. She wore her hair queer, and had very short tight skirts, and high heels. She painted her face and vamped, but that was her affair. He had heretofore tolerated her because she seemed in some way to be under Mark Carter's recent protection. Therefore he had growled "Ello!" grimly whenever she accosted him and let it go at that. If it had come to a show down he would have stood up for her because he knew that Mark would, that was all. Mark knew his own business. Far be it from Billy to criticize his hero's reasons. Perhaps it was one of Mark's weaknesses. It was up to him. That was the code of a "white man" as Billy had learned it from "the fellas."

But this was a different matter. This involved Mark's honor. It was up to him to find Mark!

Billy did not take the High road down from his detour. He cut across below the Crossroads, over rough ground, among the underbrush, and parting the low growing trees was lost in the gloom of the woods. But he knew every inch of ground within twenty miles around, and darkness did not take away his sense of direction. He crashed along among the branches, making steady headway toward the spot where he had left his bicycle, puffing and panting, his face streaked with dirt, his eyes bleared and haggard, his whole lithe young body straining forward and fighting against the dire weariness that was upon him, for it was not often that he stayed up all night. Aunt Saxon saw to that much at least.

The sky was growing rosy now, and he could hear the rumbling of the milk train. It was late. Pat would not lose his job this time, for he must have had plenty of time to get back to the station. Billy wormed himself under cover as the train approached, and bided his time. Cautiously, peering from behind the huckleberry growth, he watched Pat slamming the milk cans around. He could see his bicycle lying like a dark skeleton of a thing against the gravel bank. It was lucky he got there before day, for Pat would have been sure to see it, and it might have given him an idea that Billy had gone with the automobile.

The milk train came suddenly in sight through the tunnel, like a lighted thread going through a needle. It rumbled up to the station. There was a rattling of milk cans, empty ones being put on, full cans being put off, grumbling of Pat at the train hands, loud retorts of the train hands, the engine puffed and wheezed like a fat old lady going upstairs and stopping on every landing to rest. Then slamming of car doors, a whistle, the snort of the engine as it took up its way again out toward the rosy sky, its headlight weird like a sick candle against the dawn, its tail light winking with a leer and mocking at the mountains as it clattered away like a row of gray ducks lifting webbed feet and flinging back space to the station.

Pat rolled the loaded truck to the other platform ready for the Lake train at seven, and went in to a much needed rest. He slammed the door with a finality that gave Billy relief. The boy waited a moment more in the gathering dawn, and then made a dash for the open, salvaging his bicycle, and diving back into the undergrowth.

For a quarter of a mile he and the wheel like two comrades raced under branches, and threaded their way between trees. Then he came out into the Highroad and mounting his wheel rode into the world just as the sun shot up and touched the day with wonder.

He rode into the silent sleeping village of Sabbath Valley just as the bells from the church chimed out gently, as bells should do on a Sabbath morning when people are at rest, "One! Two! Three! Four! Five!"

Sabbath Valley looked great as

he pedalled silently down the street. Even the old squeak of the back wheel seemed to be holding its breath for the occasion.

He coasted past the church and down the gentle incline in front of the parsonage and Joneses, and the Littles and Browns and Gibsons. Like a shadow of the night passing he slid past the Fowlers and Tiptons and Duncannons, and fastened his eyes on the little white fence with the white pillared gate where Mrs. Carter lived. Was that a light in the kitchen window? And the barn that Mark used for his garage when he was at home, was the door open? He couldn't quite see for the cyringa bush hid it from the road. With a furtive glance up and down the street he wheeled in at the driveway, and rode up under the shadow of the green shuttered white house.

He dismounted silently, stealthily, rested his wheel against the trunk of a cherry tree, and with keen eyes for every window, glanced up to the open one above which he knew belonged to Mark's room. Strong grimy fingers went to his lips and a low cautious whistle, more like a bird call issued forth, musical as any wild note.

The white muslin curtains wavered back and forth in the summer breeze, and for a moment he thought a head was about to appear for a soft stirring noise had seemed to move within the house somewhere, but the curtains swayed on and no Mark appeared. Then he suddenly was aware of a white face confronting him at the downstairs window directly opposite to him, white and scared and-was it accusing? And suddenly he began to tremble. Not all the events of the night had made him tremble, but now he trembled, it was Mark's mother, and she had pink rims to her eyes, and little damp crimples around her mouth and eyes for all the world like Aunt Saxon's. She looked-she looked exactly as though she had not slept all night. Her nose was thin and red, and her eyes had that awful blue that eyes get that have been much washed with tears. The soft waves of her hair drooped thinly, and the coil behind showed more threads of silver than of brown in the morning sun that shot through the branches of the cherry tree. She had a frightened look, as if Billy had brought some awful news, or as if it was his fault, he could not tell which, and he began to feel that choking sensation and that goneness in the pit of his stomach that Aunt Saxon always gave him when she looked frightened at something he had done or was going to do. Added to this was that sudden premonition, and a memory of that drooping still figure in the dark up on the mountain.

Mrs. Carter sat down the candle on a shelf and raised the window:

"Is that you Billy?" she asked, and there were tears in her voice.

Billy had a brief appalling revelation of Mothers the world over. Did all Mothers-women-act like that when they were fools? Fools is what he called them in his mind. Yet in spite of himself and his rage and trembling he felt a sudden tenderness for this crumply, tired, ghastly little pink rimmed mother, apprehensive of the worst as was plain to see. Billy recalled like a flash the old man at the Blue Duck saying, "I'm sorry for his ma. I used to go to school with her." He looked at the faded face with the pink rims and trembling lips and had a vision of a brown haired little girl at a desk, and old Si Appleby a teasing boy in the desk opposite. It came over him that some day he would be an old man somewhere telling how he went to school-! And then he asked:

"Where's Mark? Up yet?"

She shook her head apprehensively, withholdingly.

Billy had a thought that perhaps some one had beat him to it with news from the Blue Duck, but he put it from him. There were tears in her eyes and one was straggling down between the crimples of her cheeks where it looked as if she had lain on the folds of her handkerchief all night. There came a new tenderness in his voice. This was Mark's mother, and this was the way she felt. Well, of course it was silly, but she was Mark's mother.

"Man up the mountain had n'accident. I thought Mark ud he'p. He always does," explained Billy awkwardly with a feeling that he ought to account for his early visit.

"Yes, of course, Mark would like to help!" purred his mother comforted at the very thought of every day life and Mark going about as usual, "But-" and the apprehension flew into her eyes again, "He isn't home. Billy, he hasn't come home at all last night! I'm frightened to death! I've sat up all night! I can't think what's happened-! There's so many hold-ups and Mark will carry his money loose in his trousers pocket-!"

Billy blanched but lied beautifully up to the occasion even as he would have liked to have somebody lie for him to Aunt Saxon:

"Aw! That's nothing! Doncha worry. He tol' me he might have t'stay down t'Unity all night. There's a fella down there that likes him a lot, an' they had somekinduva blowout in their church last night. He mightuv had ta take some girl home out of town ya know, and stayed over with the fella."

Mrs. Carter's face relaxed a shade:

"Yes, I've tried to think that-!"

"Well, doncha worry, Mizz Carter, I'll lookim up fer ya, I know 'bout where he might be."

"Oh, thank you Billy," her face wreathed in wavering smiles brought another thought of school days and life and how queer it was that grown folks had been children sometime and children had to be grown folks.

"Billy, Mark likes you very much. I'm sure he won't mind your knowing that I'm worried, but you know how boys don't like to have their mothers worry, so you needn't say anything to Mark that I said I was worried, need you? You understand Billy. I'm not really worried you know. Mark was always a good boy."

"Aw sure!" said Billy with a knowing wink. "He's a prince! You leave it t'me, Mizz Carter!"

"Thank you, Billy. I'll do something for you sometime. But how's it come you're up so early? You haven't had your breakfast yet have you?"

She eyed his weary young face with a motherly anxiety:

"Naw, I didn't have no time to stop fer breakfast," Billy spoke importantly, "Got this call about the sick guy and had to beat it. Say, you don't happen to know Mark's license number do you? It might help a lot, savin' time 'f'I could tell his car at sight. Save stoppin' to ast."

"Well, now, I don't really-" said the woman ruminatively, "let me see. There was six and six, there were a lot of sixes if I remember-"

"Oh, well, it don't matter-" Billy grasped his wheel and prepared to leave.

"Wait, Billy, you must have something to eat-"

"Aw, naw, I can't wait! Gotta beat it! Might miss 'im!"

"Well, just a bite. Here, I'll get you some cookies!"

She vanished, and he realized for the first time that he was hungry. Cookies sounded good.

She returned with a brimming glass of milk and a plate of cookies. She stuffed the cookies in his pockets, while he drank the milk.

"Say,-" said he after a long sweet draught of the foaming milk, "Ya, aint got enny more you cud spare fer that sick guy, have ya? Wait, I'll save this. Got a bottle?"

"Indeed you won't, Billy Gaston. You just drink that every drop. I'll get you another bottle to take with you. I got extra last night 'count of Mark being home, and then he didn't drink it. He always likes a drink of milk last thing before he goes to bed."

She vanished and returned with a quart of milk cold off the ice. She wrapped it well with newspapers, and Billy packed it safely into the little basket on his wheel. Then he bethought him of another need.

"Say, m'y I go inta the g'rage an' get a screw driver? Screw loose on m'wheel."

She nodded and he vanished into the open barn door. Well he knew where Mark kept his tools. He picked out a small pointed saw, a neat little auger and a file and stowed them hurriedly under the milk bottle. Thus reinforced without and within, he mounted his faithful steed and sped away to the hills.

The morning sun had shot up several degrees during his delay, and Sabbath Valley lay like a thing new born in its glory. On the belfry a purple dove sat glistening, green and gold ripples on her neck, turning her head proudly from side to side as Billy rode by, and when he topped the first hill across the valley the bells rang out six sweet strokes as if to remind him that Sunday School was not far off and he must hurry back. But Billy was trying to think how he should get into that locked house, and wondering whether the kidnappers would have returned to feed their captive yet. He realized that he must be wary, although his instinct told him that they would wait for dark, besides, he had hopes that they might have been "pinched."

Nevertheless he approached the old house cautiously, skirting the mountain to avoid Pleasant Valley, and walking a mile or two through thick undergrowth, sometimes with difficulty propelling the faithful machine.

Arrived in sight he studied the surroundings carefully, harbored his wheel where it would not be discovered and was yet easily available, and after reconnoitering stole out of covert.

The house stood gaunt and grim against the smiling morning. Its shuttered windows giving an expression of blindness or the repellant mask of death. A dead house, that was what it was. Its doors and windows closed on the tragedy that had been enacted within its massive stone walls. It seemed more like a fortress than a house where warm human faces had once looked forth, and where laughter and pleasant words had once sounded out. To pass it had always stirred a sense of mystery and weirdness. To approach it thus with the intention of entering to find that still limp figure of a man gave a most overpowering sense of awe. Billy looked up with wide eyes, the deep shadows under them standing out in the clear light of the morning and giving him a strangely old aspect as if he had jumped over at least ten years during the night. Warily he circled the house, keeping close to the shrubbery at first and listening as a squirrel might have done, then gradually drawing nearer. He noticed that the down stairs shutters were solid iron with a little half moon peep hole at the top. Those upstairs were solid below and fitted with slats above, but the slats were closed of all the front windows, and all but two of the back ones, which were turned upward so that one could not see the glass. The doors, both back and front, were locked, and unshakable, of solid oak and very thick. A Yale lock with a new look gave all entrance at the front an impossible look. The back door was equally impregnable unless he set to work with his auger and saw and took out a heavy oak panel.

He got down to the ground and began to examine the cellar windows. They seemed to be fitted with iron bars set into the solid masonry. He went all around the house and found each one unshakable, until he reached the last at the back. There he found a bit of stone cracked and loosened and it gave him an idea. He set to work with his few tools, and finally succeeded in loosening one rusted bar. He was much hindered in his work by the necessity of keeping a constant watch out, and by his attempts to be quiet. There was no telling when Link and Shorty might come to feed their captive and he must not be discovered.

It was slow work picking away at the stone, filing away at the rusty iron, but the bars were so close together that three must be removed before he could hope to crawl through, and even then he might be able to get no further than the cellar. The guy that fixed this house up for a prison knew what he was about.

Faintly across the mountains came the echo of bells, or were they in the boy's own soul? He worked away in the hot sun, the perspiration rolling down his weary dirty face, and sometimes his soul fainted within him. Bells, and the sweet quiet church with the pleasant daily faces about and the hum of Sunday School beginning! How far away that all seemed to him now as he filed and picked, and sweated, and kept up a strange something in his soul half yearning, half fierce dread, that might have been like praying only the burden of its yearning seemed to be expressed in but a single word, "Mark! Mark!"

At last the third bar came loose and with a great sigh that was almost like a sob, the boy tore it out, and cleared the way. Then carefully gathering his effects, tools, milk bottle and cap together, he let them down into the dungeon-like blackness of the cellar, and crept in after them, taking the precaution to set up in place the iron bars once more and leave no trace of his entrance.

Pausing cautiously to listen he ventured to strike a match, mentally belaboring himself at the wasteful way in which he had always used his flash light which was now so much needed and out of commission. The cellar was large, running under the whole house, with heavy rafters and looming coal pits. A scurrying rat started a few lumps of coal in the slide, and a cobwebby rope hung ominously from one cross beam, giving him a passing shudder. It seemed as if the spirit of the past had arisen to challenge his entrance thus. He took a few steps forward toward a dim staircase he sighted at the farther end, and then a sudden noise sent his heart beating fast. He extinguished the match and stood in the darkness listening with straining ears. That was surely a step he heard on the floor above!

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