THE CITY OF FIRE
THE CITY OF FIRE
GRACE LIVINGSTON HILL
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
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
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
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
"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
Billy regarded him amusedly as from a superior height.
"Don't happen to know of any odd jobs I could get" he finally
"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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