Chapter XIV. Ben Shows Himself a Hero
 

A fire in a country village, particularly where the building is a prominent one, is sure to attract a large part of the resident population. Men, women, and children, as well as the hook and ladder company, hurried to the scene of conflagration. Everybody felt a personal interest in Crawford's. It was the great emporium which provided all the families in the village with articles of prime and secondary necessity. If Paris can be called France, then Crawford's might be called Pentonville.

"Crawford's on fire!" exclaimed old Captain Manson. "Bless my soul! It cannot be true. Where's my cane?"

"You don't mean to say you're goin' to the fire, father?" asked his widowed daughter in surprise, for the captain had bowed beneath the weight of eighty-six winters, and rarely left the domestic hearth.

"Do you think I'd stay at home when Crawford's was a-burning?" returned the captain.

"But remember, father, you ain't so young as you used to be. You might catch your death of cold."

"What! at a fire?" exclaimed the old man, laughing at his own joke.

"You know what I mean. It's dreadfully imprudent. Why, I wouldn't go myself."

"Shouldn't think you would, at your time of life!" retorted her father, chuckling.

So the old man emerged into the street, and hurried as fast as his unsteady limbs would allow, to the fire.

"How did it catch?" the reader will naturally ask.

The young man who was the only other salesman besides Ben and the proprietor, had gone down cellar smoking a cigar. In one corner was a heap of shavings and loose papers. A spark from his cigar must have fallen there. Had he noticed it, with prompt measures the incipient fire might have been extinguished. But he went up stairs with the kerosene, which he had drawn for old Mrs. Watts, leaving behind him the seeds of destruction. Soon the flames, arising, caught the wooden flooring of the upper store. The smell of the smoke notified Crawford and his clerks of the impending disaster. When the door communicating with the basement was opened, a stifling smoke issued forth and the crackling of the fire was heard.

"Run, Ben; give the alarm!" called Mr. Crawford, pale with dismay and apprehension. It was no time then to inquire how the fire caught. There was only time to save as much of the stock as possible, since it was clear that the fire had gained too great a headway to be put out.

Ben lost no time, and in less than ten minutes the engine, which, fortunately, was housed only ten rods away, was on the ground. Though it was impossible to save the store, the fire might be prevented from spreading. A band of earnest workers aided Crawford in saving his stock. A large part, of course, must be sacrificed; but, perhaps, a quarter was saved.

All at once a terrified whisper spread from one to another:

"Mrs. Morton's children! Where are they? They must be in the third story."

A poor woman, Mrs. Morton, had been allowed, with her two children, to enjoy, temporarily, two rooms in the third story. She had gone to a farmer's two miles away to do some work, and her children, seven and nine years of age, had remained at home. They seemed doomed to certain death.

But, even as the inquiry went from lip to lip, the children appeared. They had clambered out of a third story window upon the sloping roof of the rear ell, and, pale and dismayed, stood in sight of the shocked and terrified crowd, shrieking for help!

"A ladder! A ladder!" exclaimed half a dozen.

But there was no ladder at hand--none nearer than Mr. Parmenter's, five minutes' walk away. While a messenger was getting it the fate of the children would be decided.

"Tell 'em to jump!" exclaimed Silas Carver.

"They'd break their necks, you fool!" returned his wife.

"Better do that than be burned up!" said the old man.

No one knew what to do--no one but Ben Barclay.

He seized a coil of rope, and with a speed which surprised even himself, climbed up a tall oak tree, whose branches overshadowed the roof of the ell part. In less than a minute he found himself on a limb just over the children. To the end of the rope was fastened a strong iron hook.

Undismayed by his own danger, Ben threw his rope, though he nearly lost his footing while he was doing it, and with an aim so precise that the hook caught in the smaller girl's dress.

"Hold on to the rope, Jennie, if you can!" he shouted.

The girl obeyed him instinctively.

Drawing the cord hand over hand, the little girl swung clear, and was lowered into the arms of Ebenezer Strong, who detached the hook.

"Save the other, Ben!" shouted a dozen.

Ben needed no spur to further effort.

Again he threw the hook, and this time the older girl, comprehending what was required, caught the rope and swung off the roof, scarcely in time, for her clothing had caught fire. But when she reached the ground ready hands extinguished it and the crowd of anxious spectators breathed more freely, as Ben, throwing down the rope, rapidly descended the tree and stood once more in safety, having saved two lives.

Just then it was that the poor mother, almost frantic with fear, arrived on the ground.

"Where are my darlings? Who will save them?" she exclaimed, full of anguish, yet not comprehending that they were out of peril.

"They are safe, and here is the brave boy who saved their lives," said Ebenezer Strong.

"God bless you, Ben Barclay!" exclaimed the poor mother. "You have saved my life as well as theirs, for I should have died if they had burned."

Ben scarcely heard her, for one and another came up to shake his hand and congratulate him upon his brave deed. Our young hero was generally self-possessed, but he hardly knew how to act when he found himself an object of popular ovation.

"Somebody else would have done it if I hadn't," he said modestly.

"You are the only one who had his wits about him," said Seth Jones. "No one thought of the rope till you climbed the tree. We were all looking for a ladder and there was none to be had nearer than Mr. Parmenter's."

"I wouldn't have thought of it myself if I hadn't read in a daily paper of something like it," said Ben.

"Ben," said Mr. Crawford, "I'd give a thousand dollars to have done what you did. You have shown yourself a hero."

"Oh, Ben, how frightened I was when I saw you on the branch just over the burning building," said a well-known voice.

Turning, Ben saw it was his mother who spoke.

"Well, it's all right now, mother," he said, smiling. "You are not sorry I did it?"

"Sorry! I am proud of you."

"I am not proud of my hands," said Ben. "Look at them."

They were chafed and bleeding, having been lacerated by his rapid descent from the tree.

"Come home, Ben, and let me put some salve on them. How they must pain you!"

"Wait till the fire is all over, mother."

The gallant firemen did all they could, but the store was doomed. They could only prevent it from extending. In half an hour the engine was taken back, and Ben went home with his mother.

"It's been rather an exciting evening, mother," said Ben. "I rather think I shall have to find a new place."