So you’ve been in the hospital, have you?

“A big, square house, wid evergreens around it? Yes, I could find it again in de dark.”

“Very well,” continued the bookkeeper, whose pen did not cease scratching for a single moment, “you’d better go up now and find it, for there’s a gentleman up there who may give you a job; but let me give you a bit of advice, young man. Don’t remember too much or see too much when you’re sent on errands. It’s the boys who forget what they see, and the places that they’re sent to, who make the most money nowadays. Here’s twenty-five cents for car fare, and now you go up there, and you’ll find the gentleman whom you politely refer to as ‘the bloke with the black whiskers’ waiting for you.”

Skinny made haste to obey, and within an hour was entering the dark, shady grounds of Mr. Dexter’s house with the same furtive, cautious way of looking about him that he had shown further down town. His old acquaintance, the man with the black beard and the deeply-scarred face, was walking up and down the roadway in front of the house, smoking a cigar.

“So you’ve been in the hospital, have you?” was his salutation. “What sort of a hospital was it? One with bars to the window?”

226“Naw, der wan’t no bars to de windows. I wuz in de New York hospital, and I’ll leave it to de nurse, a dinky lady wot sat up all night wid us, and wore a white cap. Dat’s on de level, boss.”

The tall man regarded him suspiciously for a moment, and the boy squinted up at him with a defiant look in his sharp eyes that caused the other to smile and say to him in more conciliatory tones: “Well, I’ve got one or two errands for you to do, and if you do them properly, you’ll be well paid for them. If not, you’ll come to grief. How would you like to take a little trip into the country, to be gone two or three days? I hope that you have no pressing business engagements in the city that will interfere with the project.”

Skinny replied with perfect gravity that he had intended to take dinner with Mr. Vanderbilt that night, but that he would try and get him to excuse him, in which case he observed in his picturesque slang that it would be necessary for him to eat elsewhere, and at an early moment. The tall man was laughing broadly now—he always found a great deal of amusement in Skinny—and so he bade him go into the kitchen and tell the cook to let him have something to eat. “When you are through, come into the library, I want to talk to you.”

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He managed to climb out on the ladder and carry it down to the street

Bruce Decker was grit clear through, but all at once there came into his mind the thought of his father and of the great fire in which he had lost his life. He had gone in among the smoke and the flame on that fateful day with a length of hose under his arm, and he had never come out. For one brief moment his son wondered if he too were doomed to perish in a like manner. Then, by a strong effort of will, he drove the thought from his mind, and the bright face of Laura Van Kuren came up before him and nerved him to do his best.

Taking a tight grip on the hose, which quivered like a thing of life as the swift stream of water rushed through it, the boy stumbled blindly on through the heavy smoke. He could see nothing, for, with his lack of experience, he did not know, as the older firemen did, how to protect his eyes. He had lost his cap, too, and a hot cinder falling on his head made him wish that he had on one of the heavy fireman’s caps which he used to think so 158cumbrous. He made no pretense of dragging the hose now. It was dragging him, and he had not gone far before he was thrown with sudden force against some obstruction, and fell at full length on a narrow flight of stairs. As he struggled to his feet he heard the hoarse word of command somewhere above him, and the hose came to a standstill. The men had made their way through the room and upstairs to the floor above. He could hear them plainly, tramping about and shouting in the darkness. He could hear the hissing of the flames, too, as the water fell upon them, and already there was a thick stream flowing in a series of miniature cascades down the narrow flight of steps.

There was nothing for him to do now but follow on, until he reached his old place twenty-five feet behind the man in front of him, and so he groped his way up the steps, and crawling on all fours with the hose under him, followed the long, black, quivering trail until he could see dimly the forms of the other men. Then he stopped, and, not knowing what else to do, lifted the line from the floor, and stood with it under his arm awaiting further orders.

By this time the well directed streams from without and within the building had had their effect 159on the flames, and a strong wind, entering through the windows which had been broken by the firemen, was driving out the black clouds of smoke, and leaving a purer and clearer atmosphere in their stead. This enabled him to see the group of men who stood about twenty feet in front of him, with the captain among them, and the water still rushing from the brass pipe which he held in his hand. Then there was another sharp order, the captain moved on and the men, gathering up the slack hose, followed in a long line as before, with Bruce at the rear. Through an open window they went, one after another, still carrying the hose, and dropping on a tin roof beneath them.

“Let the last man stand in the window and look out for the hose!” was the order given in stentorian tones that reached Bruce’s ear as the men climbed, one after another, into a window that opened out on a roof just opposite him.

“Aye, aye, sir,” he shouted in reply, as he took up his position just inside the open window, and, by the exercise of every particle of his strength, managed to keep the hose from being injured by nails or sudden jets of flames as it was dragged rapidly across the sill. He saw the other men appear at a window above the one they had entered, and lift the hose up 160to it by means of a piece of rope. Then they disappeared, the hose moving after them for a few minutes, when it stopped and remained suspended from one window to the other about six feet above the low tin roof over which the captain and his men had passed.

Then, for the first time since the Captain had thundered back his order, Bruce looked about him and was dismayed to find the smoke pouring up the staircase in much denser and blacker clouds than before, filling the room so as to completely shut out every thing from his sight, and pouring out of the upper part of the window by which he stood, in a dark stream, which was growing thicker and darker every moment. A little gust of wind swept some of the smoke into his face and made him turn, gasping and with smarting eyes, to the fresh air.

Leaning far out across the window ledge, he gazed at the opposite window to which the hose led, and called aloud to Captain Murphy. But no reply was wafted back to him from the smoke and the flames, and the horrible thought came across him that perhaps his mates had forgotten him. But with characteristic pluck and self-reliance, he fought back the idea before it had fairly taken lodgment in his brain, and turned his attention to making a careful survey 161of his surroundings. Behind him was a great room that was so filled with a dense, black smoke that it would be impossible, if the worst came to the worst, for him to cross it and make his way down the narrow staircase. And even if he did find the staircase and descended in safety, what would he find at the foot of it? He was likely to find the lower floors all ablaze and ready to collapse as he walked across them. Then he looked down at the tin roof beneath the window, and saw that in two or three places the metal had melted, and thin jets of flame were beginning to burst through.

That his life was in extreme peril he could no longer doubt, and that there was still a chance of saving it by deserting his post he well knew. He could leap down, make a dash for it across the roof and through the window and easily find the others by simply following the line of the hose, and for a moment he stood irresolutely with one leg thrown across the ledge and the other foot resting across the floor. But he did not hesitate long; he had been told to remain at the window, and what would Captain Murphy and Chief Trask think of a boy who had lost his head and disobeyed orders the very first time he was assigned to an important and dangerous duty? It might 162be, after all, that the danger was not as great as he imagined, and he comforted himself with that assurance, at the same time carefully nourishing his faith in Captain Murphy, who would not, he was positive, go off and leave his youngest subordinate to face death alone.

There was nothing dramatic or imaginative about the hero of this story; he was simply a plain, straightforward, courageous American boy, who could always be depended upon to act rather than to talk or pose. And in this moment of supreme danger it did not occur to him that his position between the black smoke that was rolling up behind him and the red flames that were bursting out before and under his very eyes, was an unusual or heroic one. It had been his ambition ever since his arrival in New York to take an active part in the work of the fire department, and now for the first time he had realized his ambition and had an opportunity, if not to distinguish himself, at least to show what sort of stuff he was made of.

It was an opportunity in which he gloried, with a sense of exaltation such as he had seldom known in the whole course of his life, and he resolved then and there that neither smoke nor flames should drive him from his post unless 163he first received orders from his superior officers.

And it happened that just as he uttered this resolution to himself Captain Murphy, working with his men in the other building to which the hose was stretched, exclaimed: “What’s become of that boy Decker? Has anything happened to him?”

Then he remembered that he himself had ordered Bruce to remain at the window, and knowing the lad’s firmness of character and tenacity, the thought occurred to him that possibly he was still there, waiting further orders, although when he gave his command he had only intended to have him remain there so long as the line was moving. Handing the brass pipe to one of his men the captain dashed across the floor, looked through the window and saw Bruce with his jacket tied around his head, lying with his body stretched half way across the sill.

“Come over here quick!” he yelled, and Bruce, only too glad to obey, leaped down to the roof and started across. But to his horror he felt the hot metal sagging beneath his feet like thin ice after a February thaw. The flames were bursting out in a dozen places, and by this time the captain realized the danger 164and called to him to make haste. Above his head swung the hose, and ten feet further, provided the roof held up, would bring him to a point where it sagged so low as to be within his reach. He was just in time, for as he caught it a great sheet of flame burst up in exactly the place across which he had passed, and then a portion of the roof went down in front of him and a cloud of smoke and cinders, interspersed with darting tongues of flame, rose up and shut out Captain Murphy from his sight.

With the agility of a cat the boy swung himself up on the line, wound his jacket still more closely about his head, and, encouraged by the shouts of the officer whom he could no longer see, started to crawl along his frail bridge through the thick curtain of smoke and fire. The heat was awful, his clothing was afire in half a dozen places, and he knew that the hose could not hold out much longer against the flames. At one time it seemed as if he could go no further, but must let go and drop into the fiery chasm beneath him. Then by a final effort he called to his aid all his reserve force of courage, obstinacy and determination, crawled blindly along the line, found himself in a clearer and cooler air, heard the captain’s voice close to him, and then a strong hand 165clutched him by the shoulder and dragged him through the window.

And just at that moment the hose yielded to the intense heat and burst, discharging a stream of water into the flames beneath. The end to which Bruce still clung as the captain dragged him through the window hung down like a lifeless thing, but the other end was thrashing about like a wounded serpent, and hurling thick streams of water in every direction.

Once inside the window the boy collapsed altogether and fell upon the floor, but Captain Murphy lifted him up as if he had been a baby and bore him rapidly to a window on the other side of the building from which he took him, by means of a thirty-five foot ladder, to the street below, placed him tenderly on the sidewalk, and then returned to his post as a familiar voice exclaimed: “I’ll look after the lad.”

It was Peter Dewsnap who bent down over the blackened and apparently lifeless form of the boy as he lay on the pavement, and, as the old gentleman raised his head after listening a moment at the lads left side, he said:

“Thank God, he is alive, but there’s no telling how badly he’s hurt. Have you rung for an ambulance?”

166Yes, that had been done already, and in a few minutes the vehicle, with its uniformed driver and surgeon and its sharp clanging bell, was making its way through the crowd, which by this time had reached enormous proportions. It drew up near the curbstone, the surgeon leaped to the ground and knelt down beside the unconscious boy. Mr. Dewsnap was sitting in the gutter beside him, regardless of his fine clothes, and briskly rubbing his hands in the hope of restoring the circulation. Chief Trask, who had lingered a moment to assure himself that the lad was still alive, had returned to his duties, but the reporters had gathered about and, in a quick, business-like way, were questioning Mr. Dewsnap and the surgeon.

“Does anybody know the boy’s name or how he happened to get hurt?” asked a pleasant faced young chap, who had a note-book and pencil in his hand.

“Bruce Decker is his name,” replied the old gentleman, “and he’s not regularly in the department but helps the chief down at headquarters. Why, his father was killed in that Broadway apartment house fire some time ago.”

“I remember all about it,” rejoined the young man, and then turning to his companions, 167he said: “Don’t you remember that Frank Decker, the fireman who was lost when that apartment house burned down? I covered that fire and I remember all about it.”

“Just give me a hand, will you, I think I’ll take this young man right up to the hospital,” said the surgeon, who had been making a superficial examination of Bruce’s injuries. “I took a young kid up there from this very fire half an hour ago.”

Then, with Mr. Dewsnap’s assistance, he deposited Bruce on the spring mattress inside the ambulance, resumed his seat behind him and told the driver to go on.

Mr. Dewsnap stood watching the departing vehicle with an anxious, troubled face and then, turning to the reporter with whom he had spoken before, he said: “That young lad whom they have just carried off is the worthy son of a good father, and if it hadn’t been for him, that other boy that the surgeon spoke of wouldn’t have been saved. He found him lying on the floor up there, and I myself saw him carry him down the ladder and then go right back to his work again. That’s a pretty good record for a boy to make at his first fire, isn’t it.”

The reporters listened attentively to what Mr. Dewsnap said, and made frequent entries 168in their note-books. Most of them knew the old gentleman as a fire-crank, frequently encountered at fires, and one who was always ready to furnish them with any information they required. It was he to whom they usually went if any one was hurt, for he knew the names and histories of all the important men in the department as well as those of the subordinate firemen employed in Chief Trask’s battalion, in which he claimed a sort of honorary membership.

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Bruce delivers a lecture on botany

For a few moments after Laura had descended from the wall the trio walked along in silence. Bruce, who had been really startled by the sudden apparition of the black-bearded man, was too busy with his own thoughts to do much talking. What did the presence of this mysterious stranger in that part of the town signify? Could it be that he was following up the boy just as he had followed up the father? Bruce could not drive from his mind the remembrance of what Weyman had told him, and now, whenever he thought of his father, he remembered that on the very day when he went to his death in the smoke and the flames of the Broadway fire that same bearded stranger had called to see him and they had had a long, earnest talk together.

And now, twice within a week, the stranger’s path had crossed that of the boy. Was this a mere accident or was he deliberately shadowing the young lad with a view to wreaking further vengeance on him? As for Laura, she was fairly bubbling over with excitement, but she said 109nothing for fear of awakening her brother’s suspicion. She wished that she could devise some excuse for getting him out of the way, if only for a few minutes, in order that she might have a few words with Bruce, and so as they paused for a moment at a turn in the road, she said innocently: “You see that fence down there by the brook? Well, Tommy Martin ran and jumped over it the other day and leaped clean on the other side of the brook. He’s the best jumper anywhere around here.”

Now, Tommy Martin was a boy who lived near them and who often came over to visit them—a boy of whom Harry was decidedly jealous, partly because they had already been looked upon as rivals in such sports as running and jumping, and partly because they both liked the same girl, Kitty Harriott, a particular friend of Laura’s. Laura knew all about this rivalry when she took pains to point out the fence and brook over which Tommy had leaped so brilliantly, and she was not surprised when Harry burst forth contemptuously: “What do you mean by the best jumper anywhere about here? You don’t call that anything of a jump, do you? Why that’s nothing at all. I can go over it myself and I’ll bet I’ll strike two feet further on the other side than Tom did!”

110With these words he slipped off his coat, walked over toward the spot indicated by his sister, surveyed it carefully and then walked back a dozen paces in order to make a flying leap. While he was doing this Laura had gasped out to Bruce, “Was that really the man with the black beard and the scar that went by?”

“Yes,” replied the boy, “I’d know him anywhere I saw him. Did you get a fair look at him?”

“Not very,” answered Laura, “but I think I would know him again if I saw him. Wasn’t that neat, the way I got Harry away for a minute? Now, you must be sure not to say a word to him or to anybody else about that man. We’ll keep that a secret for ourselves. My! just look at Harry, he’s going to take that jump. The silly fool, Tommy never jumped over that, I just told Harry that so as to get him out of the way a minute. He thinks he can do everything that Tommy does and they’re both of them perfectly wild over the same girl, who is my dearest friend. I’ve told her all about you, and she’s just crazy to see you.”

At this moment Harry leaped boldly over the fence and landed on the other side, but not quite where he had expected. Either the 111brook was wider than he supposed or else his foot slipped, but somehow, instead of alighting on the grassy bank he struck in about two feet of water, clutched wildly at the branch of an overhanging tree and then fell over on his back. Laura began to laugh, but Bruce, fearing that his friend might have been hurt by his fall, ran down to help him. He crossed the fence just as Harry climbed up on the shore sputtering and blowing and wiping the mud and water from his face. He was completely soaked, and his cap was drifting rapidly down stream.

“Are you hurt?” demanded Bruce anxiously.

“No, of course I’m not, but I’ll bet you Tommy Martin never made that jump; Laura just said that to get me into the water. Never mind she’ll catch it when we get home. What are you laughing at up there?” he continued, turning suddenly and addressing himself to his sister who was standing by the roadside with amusement pictured on her face. “Perhaps you won’t think it so funny after a while,” continued the boy, angrily, and then Bruce, fearing that he too might be moved to laughter by his comical appearance, ran off down the stream to recover the lost cap.

Harry was soaking wet, and there was nothing for him to do but take off his coat and 112waistcoat and place them on a big rock on which the sun had been shining all day, while he himself sat down beside them, wrung the water out of his trousers and began to dry off. He was in the midst of the drying process when Bruce said to Laura in a low whisper, “I’ve just got an idea in my head about that man. Doesn’t Mr. Dexter live near here?”

“Yes,” replied the young girl, “about a quarter of a mile further on.”

“Then he was going that way when he passed us, wasn’t he?”

“Certainly he was; why I wonder if it could be possible that he was going up there. Do let us hurry on.”

“I do believe that you two have got some sort of a secret between you,” exclaimed Harry, suddenly looking up. “What man are you talking about? I tell you you’d better let me know all about it.”

“Secret,” said Laura, slyly, “there’s no secret in what I was saying, because everybody knows it. I was just telling him about Kitty and you, and there’s lots more things I could tell him if I wanted to.”

Harry dropped the conversation at this point, and a minute or two later he picked up his 113coat and vest, declared that he was dry enough anyway and proposed that they should continue their walk. In a few minutes he had completely recovered his good humor and offered Bruce to run him a race to the next gateway. Bruce accepted the challenge, never doubting that he could win it, but he found to his surprise that the slim, active, young New Yorker was a much fleeter runner than he was, and, do what he could, strain every nerve as he might, he reached the goal completely out of breath and fully fifty feet behind his adversary, whom he found standing by the gate post looking, as he expressed it, “as fresh as a daisy,” and laughing all over at his own success.

Bruce was just a little bit annoyed to find himself so easily beaten by a lad whose appearance indicated anything but strength and agility, but when he saw how the little bit of excitement and the triumph of winning the race had restored his friends temper to its usual good-natured pitch and completely dispelled a feeling which might have culminated in a quarrel, he was rather glad on the whole that he himself had lost.

Therefore he simply smiled pleasantly, and said what was perfectly true: “Well, I never thought you could run like that.”

114Then they sat down on the big, white marble carriage block and waited for Laura, whom they could see approaching at a leisurely pace. Bruce realized, as he looked about him, that they were not far from the Dexter mansion. In fact, by going out in the middle of the road, he could easily see the dark clump of firs and pines and the grey gate posts which guarded the entrance. As they walked along he and Laura exchanged significant glances from time to time and as they drew near to the house, he said to Harry, “That’s the house I went to for those magazines and papers that day I met you.”

“Why, do you know old man Dexter?” demanded the boy with much interest.

“No,” said Bruce, “except that he was very nice to me that day. Did you ever meet him?”

“Not for a long while,” replied Harry.

“Let’s all go into the grounds and see what the place looks like,” said Laura.

“You’d better not, Laura,” said her brother, significantly, “we’ll be sure to be caught if we do, and you know perfectly well what papa said would happen if he heard of our going there.”

“Well, I’ve a great mind to go in there and ask Mr. Dexter if he has any more magazines for us,” said Bruce, bravely. “I’m not afraid 115of those thick woods, and I’m not afraid of him either. Come along, let’s all go in there.”

“I’d just as leave go,” said Laura, defiantly, “even if we were told not to, but listen, there comes somebody now.” They had just reached the gateway by this time and as they peered through it into the shadowy depths of the fir woods, they heard the quick hoof-beats of approaching horses, and in another moment a buggy drawn by two black horses, came down through the grounds at a swift pace and passed through the gateway into the road. The tall, bearded and scarred stranger held the reins and beside him sat Mr. Samuel Dexter. Laura held her breath with excitement, and an eager gleam came into Bruce’s eyes as he turned significantly toward her. Another link had been added to the chain in which he was trying to connect the past with the present. Mr. Dexter and the mysterious one were evidently friends, and he resolved that the very next day he would go to him, tell him his own history as far as he knew of it, and ask him to help him solve the remainder of it.

“What are you going to do?” whispered Laura, excitedly. Bruce made no reply except to shake his head and place his fingers on his lips as if to command silence.

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