Chapter XX. The Rescue
 

Allen, rushing up with his company, gave one quick glance at the group of women and girls before the burning house, then strode grimly over to Amy's side.

"Where's Betty?" he demanded roughly, his voice sounding strange, even to himself.

"Allen, Allen, they've gone to rescue her," cried Amy, shaking like a leaf. "She's still in the house---"

With a hoarse cry Allen turned, and ran like a madman toward the burning building. A fireman, stumbling gaspingly from the house, almost knocked him down.

"Isn't any use!" he cried. "That stair's on fire, too. We've got to reach 'em from the outside."

"Get out of the way!" cried Allen, shoving him roughly to one side.

The fireman called after him, but there was no stopping the terror that forced him on. Terror for Betty--up there alone--Betty--Betty. He clapped a hand before his eyes and stumbled blindly on.

Flames lapped at him hungrily as he forced his mad way through them, smoke choked him, blinded him, and yet he must go on. Betty--Betty... A section of the stairs gave way before him and he had to jump to keep from going with it.

Was this the head of the stairs? He felt for it with his hand and pulled it back with an involuntary cry of pain. He was horribly burned, his hands, his face, his hair--his clothing had started. He beat at them as he ran. He must live until he had rescued Betty--and then----

A door. Fumblingly he opened it--then forced it shut from the other side. Blindly he felt for the bed. Yes, she was here. Thank God he had found her! But there was another figure--someone else to save.

Then he felt a sharp pain. He looked down and found that the flames were rapidly creeping up-creeping up... There was a rug on the floor-- with feverish haste he wrapped himself in it--smothering the flames. He must live until----

He staggered to his feet, lifted one of the unconscious figures in his arms and staggered with it to the door. A hades of flame leaped at him. It was too late. They were trapped!

He groaned aloud and great tears rolled down his face. Betty--Betty! Carefully he laid his burden down and staggered to the open window.

The firemen were raising a ladder to another window. He beckoned to them, he shouted to them in a hoarse voice that seemed to him to make no noise at all.

But they saw him and shifted the ladder to his window. Was there a chance, after all? The flames were eating away the door, were leaping into the room. Down below the firemen had stretched a net.

Sobbing now, his breath coming in great gasps, Allen rushed back to the bed, picked up one of the figures, and staggered with it back to the window. They saw him standing there; and a great cheer went up from the spectators.

Gathering all that wonderful reserve strength that comes to every one in time of greatest need, he swung his burden far out from the window--then dropped it.

Allen paused for a moment, steadying hand on the windowsill, then gathered himself for the last great effort. The bed was invisible now, the room an inferno--he had to fight every step of the way back to the bed. Then he found what he sought, and fought the slow fight back to the window.

But his strength was going--going--his arms were iron weights--the room was going black. With a great effort he fought off the faintness. Then he saw a great, helmeted head peering in at him from the window.

"Give her to me, son," said a hearty voice; then, it seemed to Allen miraculously, he was relieved of his burden. Swaying, dizzy, he clung to the windowsill to keep himself erect.

"Now I guess I can die," he heard himself saying, through an eternity of space.

"You just hold tight, son," said the hearty voice, as its owner carefully lowered himself and the poor little unconscious figure down the ladder. "I'll be back for you in jig time."

But it was an eternity while Alien waited, every nerve tense in the fight for consciousness, red hot irons searing his flesh, that roaring hades of flames creeping closer, closer----

"Your turn, son!"

Dimly he saw the helmeted head through a haze of smoke and tried to speak--but no sound came from between his cracked, parched lips. He swayed. A brawny arm gripped him like a vise.

"Can you climb out," asked the voice, "or will I have to carry you?"

Allen's head jerked up proudly, and he forced still a little more from that splendid reserve of strength. Afterward he could never remember how he clambered over that windowsill, and got his feet upon the ladder.

That he did it and managed the descent with the aid of the firemen, he afterward learned from his friends. All he could remember, was the great shout which came to him like a little murmur that went up from the crowd at sight of him.

He was a hero, a great hero, but at the time the fact interested him not at all. He wanted to sleep--to sleep--if they would only let him sleep!

Four days later, he awoke and looked around him lazily. A delightful drowsiness surrounded him; he was too comfortable even to inquire where he was.

Then a sweet voice reached his ears and he turned his head sharply.

"No, thank you," it said. "I think I'll take these to him myself, if you don't mind. This door? Thank you."

Fascinated, Allen watched the door as it slowly opened, admitting-- Betty! Betty, sweeter and more beautiful than he had ever seen her. Her eyes widened at sight of him, and she ran forward impulsively.

"Allen!" she cried, drawing a chair to the bedside and taking his outstretched hand. "Oh, I'm so glad! I was afraid you were just going to sleep on forever. How do you feel?"

"Not at all," he responded whimsically, his eyes devouring her face. "I haven't been awake long enough to feel anything--except your hand in mine," he added softly.

She thoughtfully regarded the hand he still held, yet did not try to draw it away. Instead she smiled a little--a smile that set Allen's heart to throbbing painfully, and said, so softly he could hardly hear her:

"Aren't you just a little bit curious to know what I think of you-- and everybody else, for that matter--after what you did the other day?"

"Yes, what do you think of me?" he asked breathlessly. "I've wanted ever since I can remember, to know that."

"I think," said Betty, flushing, yet meeting his eager eyes steadily, "you're the dearest and most wonderful person I ever knew."

"Betty," he cried hoarsely and would have leaped from the bed had she not forcibly restrained him. "Oh, Betty, Betty," he murmured over and over again. "Did you mean that--did you?"

"I--I'm not the only one," said Betty, startled at what she had done. "Everybody is talking about you and praising you to the skies, and there was even a piece about you in the paper. I--I'm afraid when you are able to get out and hear how everybody is raving about you, you'll be spoiled entirely."

"Betty," he commanded, in so very different a tone from any he had ever used before that she started and looked at him shyly, "what are you running on about such nonsense for? If I did anything, it was for you and because I loved you, Betty. There wasn't any heroism. I don't deserve any fuss about it and I don't want any thanks. I don't deserve any. You weren't hurt, Betty?"

"No," she answered softly, not daring to look at him. This was such a different Allen and so wonderfully attractive. "Mollie and I were both a little sick from the smoke and shock, but it didn't take us long to recover. You were the one who was so terribly burned that for one horrible long day, the doctors didn't know whether you'd pull through or not. Oh, Allen, that awful day!"

"Were you worried?" queried Allen gently.

"I--I never want to live through another one like it," she said with a little shiver, then suddenly rose to go. "The doctor said you mustn't be excited," she explained as he looked up at her reproachfully. "And I," she looked away again, "I just wanted to--thank you, Allen-- but if you won't let me----"

"Betty," he broke in, an eager light of daring in his eyes, "I know it's sort of taking advantage--but--there's just one way you can-- thank me. Won't you--please----"

Slowly his meaning dawned upon Betty, and the color flamed into her face. Then, light as thistledown, her lips brushed his cheek and she was gone, closing the door softly behind her.

With wildly beating heart Allen pressed a hand to his cheek and gazed longingly after her.

"Betty," he whispered. "Oh, my Betty!"