Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

The Hills of Refuge: A Novel online

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just yet, it seems. The ball is lodged in the stomach somewhere, and
they seem to be afraid to probe for it. It was a good-sized piece of
cold lead and the fellow may kick the bucket any minute. You see - "

"Stop! She is fainting!" Charles cried.

He sprang forward, but Frazier had put his rough arm about her and began
to fan the ghastly face which now rested on his breast.

"By God! so she is!" Frazier said. "Get some water, man. Quick! I can
hold her, all right!"

"No, no, don't go!" said Mary, as she opened her eyes, drew herself
erect, and stood away from Frazier. "I felt faint, but it is all gone
now. Nothing is the matter with me. Go on! Tell me about my brothers."

Frazier glanced at Charles, half smiled, and shrugged his shoulders.

"Oh, you know as much about them as I do, I reckon," he said. "They came
this way. I know where they are by this time. I know, but my brother
doesn't," and Frazier laughed significantly. "You see it is like this,
little girl; my brother happens not to be on to these trips of mine out
here to see you. I have my reasons, and good ones at that, for not
letting him know. There is a part of my father's estate that is to be
divided when either me or John marries, and if he thought that I was
thinking of such a thing it might upset him a little. At any rate, he is
in the dark about us, so when he started out this morning after your
brothers I made it my business to throw him clean off the track. I told
him that they had gone exactly the opposite way and that I was sure they
would take a train for the West at Tifton, and show him a clean pair of

"Then - then he won't look for them here in the mountains?" Mary panted.

"Not for a while, anyway," Frazier returned. "And that is what I came to
tell you, little woman. I'm no fool and I am going to do everything in
my reach to keep the boys out of John's clutch till we can tell how
Keith gets on. John and I have worked together in tracking men down, and
he doesn't dream that I am against him in this. Thanks to me, he and his
deputies are working on a false scent altogether, and I'll keep them at
it if I turn the world over. You can depend on me, little girl. I'll
keep you posted. The boys will be safe where they are for a while, if
you will keep them fed."

"But do you think Keith will live?" Mary demanded, tremulously.

"The Lord only knows," Frazier said. "He is awfully low, it seems to me.
I reckon there is no use fooling you as to that. You may get bad news
any minute. But even if he dies we'll manage somehow to slip the boys
away. I know a feller now in the West. I get letters from him. Fifteen
years ago he shot a man in - "

"Don't, don't tell me about it!" Mary pleaded, her agonized eyes turning
to Charles, as if for protection that was not available from any other

"No, what is the use of all that?" Charles blurted out.

"Don't chip in here!" Frazier thundered. "What do you mean by breaking
into my talk? Get back to your work! Are you paid to stand here idle?"

There was nothing he could say, and Charles dropped his head for a
moment. Mary was staring at him blankly. So vast was the tragedy
hovering over her that she quite failed to sense the tension between the
two men.

"Come on, let's go to the house," went on Frazier, continuing to scowl
at Charles even while he was putting his arm about the girl. "I have to
see your father about some money he wants to borrow at the bank. He
wants me to indorse a note for him."

"You know what to do, Mr. Brown," Mary said. "It will take you several
days to finish the cotton. After that we'll decide what next to do."

Charles doffed his hat and bowed as she turned away, Frazier's arm still
about her waist. He went to the unfinished row of cotton-plants and
began to work. His back was turned to the receding pair. How different
his outlook was from that of the day before! Then a veritable new
existence seemed to have opened out before him, an existence that was a
divinely bestowed transition from sordid misery to far-reaching
happiness. All the ills of life seemed to have taken wing, leaving him
free to grow and expand as the plants he was nurturing; but now there
was nothing to face but the grim fact that he was a drudging outcast
from conventional civilization. As he toiled on his breast ached under a
pain that was superphysical. Had he brought it on himself? he wondered.
Was all this the inevitable punishment for the reckless folly of his
youth? It might be so, he told himself, and the sacrifice he had made
for William and Celeste and Ruth was not sufficient. He had caused his
dying mother great mental distress; he had led young men astray; he had
been ostracized by his club and college fraternity; he had been
sentenced by a judge in a police court; he had disgraced his family. He
ceased working and looked toward the house. Mary and Frazier were still
in sight. The heavy arm was still about the slender waist. The fellow
bore himself with the air of a man confident of the prize he was
winning, and yet unconscious of its inestimable value. Charles stood
staring till they disappeared in the house, then he resumed his work,
but without any part of the interest of the day before. A wonderful
thing had happened to him. He had scoffed all his life at the idea of a
man's supreme devotion to any particular woman, and yet within only a
few hours he had found himself bound hand and foot, mind and soul, to a
young girl he had never seen before. What had brought it about? Ah, she
was suffering and he was suffering! It was the kinship of his soul to
hers. But what could come of it? he asked, gloomily. Nothing, not even
if she were to withhold her love from her present suitor, for Charles
could never prove himself worthy of her. She belonged to a proud old
family, and he was virtually a nameless man. For William's sake he had
promised to obliterate himself, and he must keep his promise. He toiled
on. The sun was hot and the perspiration oozed from him and dampened his
clothing. He worked with the despair of a shackled convict bent on
forgetting all that lay beyond his prison walls.


The next day was a wet one. Charles heard the rain beating on his window
when he waked. Dressing hurriedly, for his watch showed that he was
late, he went down-stairs. No one was in sight. Going to the
dining-room, he saw Zilla putting his coffee at his plate.

"I heard yer comin'," she said, agreeably. "My white folks ain't up yit.
Marse Andy al'ays sleeps late on er wet day, en young miss just got back
from town en is in 'er room, tryin' ter res'. She saddled de hoss
'erse'f 'bout midnight en rode off. She said she couldn't sleep nohow
widout knowin' how Tobe Keith was gittin' on. I tried ter stop 'er, en
so did 'er pa, but she would go."

"And did she get favorable news?" Charles asked.

"He's des de same as he was," Zilla replied, with a sigh. "He's powerful
critical. She waited dar all night at de hotel wid Miz' Quinby. One
minute she'd hear one thing, and den ergin sumpin' else. Po' chile talk
erbout war-times en slave days? Dat po' chile has mo' ter bear dan 'er
ma en pa ever went th'oo when dey was all fightin' fer de ole state."

The rain was still falling heavily when he left the table, and as he
stood in the front doorway and realized that it was too wet for hoeing,
he suddenly thought of the blacksmith shop and the work he had planned
to do in sharpening the tools. Glad of something to busy himself with,
he went to the shop, kindled a fire in the antiquated forge, and began
to work. There was something vaguely soothing in the splash and patter
of the rain on the low, blackened roof of split oaken boards, the
sucking of the air into the bellows, the creaking of the bellows chains,
the ringing of the anvil, and the spray of metallic sparks in the half
darkness of the room.

It was near noon. The rain had ceased, though the clouds were still
heavy and lowering. He was hammering on a red plowshare when Mary
suddenly appeared in the doorway. Her back was to the outer daylight,
her face dimly lighted by the slow blaze of the forge. She advanced into
the shop, paused and scanned the heap of sharpened tools on the ground
near the tub of blackened water which was used for cooling the metal.

"What a wonder you are!" she cried, with an attempt at a lightness he
knew she did not feel. "You have already done ten dollars' worth of work
this morning. You see I know, for I pay the bills."

"It is nothing," he answered. "I wanted to be busy."

"I heard the ringing of the anvil when I waked, and knew what it meant.
Yes, you are wonderful, and I am afraid" - she tried to smile - "that you
are too valuable for us. I was thinking about you on my way to town last
night. You won't stay here. You can't stand this sort of thing - I mean
the awful mess you find us in. I wouldn't blame you for leaving us. Why,
I'll be frank with you, Mr. Brown - it is only fair to you as a stranger
in this locality. There are plantations only a few miles away where you
would find more people employed, where they have some sort of amusement,
and where the people you'd work for would not be upset and depressed as
we are. I did want to save our crops, now that they are planted, but,
facing this other thing, the crops count for nothing - nothing at all. If
God would show me a way to save my brothers I'd give my very soul in
payment. You don't know - no one could know how I feel. I am stretched on
a cross, Mr. Brown. I am praying with every breath I draw, but I am
stifling under the dread of what may happen. At this very minute Tobe
Keith may - may - " she groaned, leaned against the bellows and stood
shuddering, cowed and wild-eyed, under the horror her mind had pictured.

"Don't, don't, please don't!" he cried. "Don't give up. Don't lose hope.
There is always hope. I lost it once in - in a great trouble, but I lived
through it somehow. You will, too. Some wise man has said that God does
not lay any burden on any one that is too heavy to bear. Think of
that - believe that; it comforted me once. It is comforting me now in the
belief that you will escape from this terrible thing."

"Oh, do you think so - _do_ you?" and she wrung her hands, lowered her
head again, and uttered a little wail that ended in a sob.

He all but reached out his hands toward her in a strange, bold impulse
to take her into his arms, but checked himself and stood aghast as he
contemplated the catastrophe which might have followed such an
unwarranted act. Had he subconsciously leaped back to the free period
before his downfall, or, as a regenerated man, had he for an instant
felt himself to be on her level? Ah no, it was the kinship again - the
kinship of suffering souls.

"I'm sure of it," he repeated. "If I thought otherwise I'd see no good
in life at all. Men deserve punishment for the wrong they do, but gentle
girls like you must not suffer for the mistakes of men. It will pass
over - your cloud will blow away."

"Oh, oh!" and she put her hands to her dry eyes while her shoulders
shook. "I hope - you make me hope a little, somehow - that what you say
may be true. You comfort me more than everybody else put together. It is
your way, your voice, your look. You are a good, kind man, Mr. Brown.
How strange that you came just when you did! I'll try to be braver. I'll
try to stop thinking that every approaching person on the road is coming
to tell me the worst."

"That is right," he said.

"And would you pray - would you continue to pray?" she asked, with the
timid simplicity of a child groping in the dark.

Their eyes met steadily. "I don't know how to advise you as to that," he
said, after a pause full of thought. "I must confess that I am not
religious. I used to pray, as a child, but I don't now."

"Well, I shall keep it up," she said, quietly. "There are moments when
it seems to help. I prayed to be allowed to sleep this morning, and I
did. You see, I need the strength. If I go to pieces all may be lost,
for my father can do nothing."

She turned back to the house. The rain had ceased, though the clouds
were still thick and lowering. The forge blazed again; the anvil rang as
he pounded the yielding steel into shape. He had forgotten himself and
his past; the new existence was buoying him up again. Nothing mattered
but the woes which had come to Mary Rowland and the necessity of his
shouldering them - fighting them.

When the bell rang for lunch he went into the house. He found Mary in
the dining-room, packing some food into a basket.

"It is for the boys," she explained. "I am glad it is clearing up, for I
must take it to them."

"You?" he cried, in surprise.

"Yes," she made answer, simply. "Father and I are the only ones who know
where the boys are. Father is in town now to wait for news and to attend
to some business with Mr. Frazier at the bank. Father would not want me
to go, but some one must."

"Might I not go in your place?" he asked, and he actually held his
breath while he waited for her reply.

"You don't know the way," she said. "It is hard even for me to find."

He looked at the heavy basket. "But you can't carry that by yourself.
May I not carry it for you?"

She glanced at him gratefully. "Would you really care to go?" she
inquired. "It is a long walk, and difficult even in dry weather."

"Please!" he said. "You ought not to go alone."

"Thank you; but first get your dinner. I don't want any. I have only
just eaten my breakfast."

When they started out, half an hour later, the clouds had lifted
somewhat, though they were still full of rain. They went through the
barn-yard, climbed over the rail fence, and entered the near-by thicket,
which stretched on into the sloping woodland of the mountains. The wet
weeds and grass were already dampening her shoes, and, noting it, he
paused suddenly.

"You really ought not to expose yourself this way," he protested. "Your
feet will be soaked in a very short time."

"It doesn't matter," she said. "Nothing matters, Mr. Brown, but the fate
that hangs over my brothers. I think I could wade in water up to my
knees for days at a time and not be conscious of discomfort. It isn't
one's body that feels the greatest pain, it is the mind, the soul, the
memory. The pain comes from the futility of hoping. Life is a tragedy,
isn't it?"

"Yes and no," he answered, smiling into her expectant, upturned face,
the beauty of which had deepened under her gloom. "I have thought so at
times, but there were always rifts in my clouds. There will be in

"How sweet and noble of you!" she said, tremulously, in her emotion.
Suddenly he saw that she was studying his face closely, feature by
feature. Then she continued, as one rendering a verdict: "Yes, you have
suffered. I see the traces of it. It lurks in the tone of your voice; it
shows itself in your sympathy for me."

Without revealing his new-found passion for her, which surged within him
like a raging torrent, there was nothing he could say. Presently they
came to a brook several yards in width and he could see no means of
crossing it. She was disturbed for a moment, but to her surprise he
stepped into the shallow water, took the basket to the other side and,
wet to his knees, came wading back to her.

"You must let me carry you across," he said, smiling.

"No, I'm too heavy." She shook her head.

"I could carry one of you under each arm," he jested. "Come!" He held
out his hands. She hesitated. A touch of pink colored her cheeks, and
then she came into his arms.

"There," he directed, as he lifted her up, "put your arm around my neck
and lean toward me. Don't be afraid. That's right. I must be steady, you
know, for there are round stones under my feet, and if I slipped we'd
both go down."

Reaching the other side, he put her down and took up the basket. His
heart was beating like a trip-hammer. The flush was still on Mary's

"You carried me as if I were a baby," she said. "How very strong you
are! I could feel the muscles of your arms like knotted ropes. What an
odd mixture you are!"

"In what way?" he asked, as they moved on side by side.

"I hardly know," she answered. "Well, for one thing, you seem out of
place as a common workman in the fields. You have the manner, the way
of - " She broke off, and the flush in her cheeks deepened.

"I've been several things," he admitted, with a sigh. "I ought to know
something of life, for I've had many experiences."

"I was in your room this morning," she said. "It is a desolate place for
a man of your temperament. I must fix it up. The attic is full of old
things - curtains, pictures, and even books. You must be lonely at times.
I noticed a photograph on your bureau in a frame. It was that of a
child, a beautiful little girl. She was so refined-looking, and so
daintily dressed. She resembled you, about the eyes and brow."

Charles stared fixedly. He looked confused. "Yes, I think we do look
alike," he finally replied. Probably she expected him to say more, but
how was it possible to explain?

"I think I understand," she said, almost in an undertone, as she strode
on ahead of him. "I now know why you look homesick at times. You must
miss her."

He saw that she did not fathom the truth about the child, but he was not
prepared for an adequate explanation and so he remained silent. However,
the girl was making deductions.

"It must be," she thought, as she forged her way through the damp bushes
still ahead of him. "It is his child. His wife must be living and they
are separated, or he would speak of her. Poor fellow!"


For four miles they walked over very uneven, rocky ground. Deeper and
deeper they went into the mountains. There were hills to climb in places
where there was no sign of path or road; there were yawning gulches to
cross; dank, stream-filled cañons filled with dead and leaning trees to
pass through. He felt that she was leading him aright, for her step was
firm and her progress rapid and sure. Now and then she would look at the
western sky where the presence of the sun was indicated by a somewhat
brighter spot than the rest of the dun expanse.

"We really must hurry," she kept saying, "for we'll be overtaken by
night on our return if we don't get to them pretty soon."

"Have you a landmark to guide you?" he asked.

"Yes, there to the left. Do you see that mountain peak? Well, their
hiding-place - it is a little cave they know about - is in the thick
jungle at the foot of it, on this side. We can't go all the way in. It
would be impossible. I shall get nearer and whistle for them to come
out. They know my whistle. They taught me how to do it when I was
little. It is like this," and she clasped her hands together tightly,
leaving an orifice between the thumbs into which she blew her breath
sharply. A keen whistle was produced. "There is no mistaking it," she
continued. "They would know it anywhere. Every pair of hands makes a
different sound."

Half an hour later they were on the edge of the dense jungle of which
she had spoken. A veritable riot of dank undergrowth was massed beneath
giant trees and around green, moss-grown boulders. The greater part of
it was a miasmatic swamp, the boggy soil of which could not be walked
upon with safety even in dry weather. Mary paused on a spot where the
ground was firm and folded her hands. "Be still and listen," she said.
"If they are there, they will answer. They will know that I'd not
whistle if it were not safe."

The flutelike note rose on the still air; it was echoed from a near-by
cliff and died down. No sound followed. Mary looked perplexed, worried.
She whistled again. This time a distant whistle caught up the echo. It
was a coarser tone than hers but produced in the same way.

"That's Kensy!" she cried, in relief. "Listen! Hear the twigs breaking?
He is coming - maybe both. She whistled again, now more softly, and in
her excitement tremulously. The sound of bending bushes and the cracking
of dry branches was growing nearer.

"Hello, brother!" Mary suddenly cried out. "Here we are. Come on."

"Hello, sis! Who is with you - father?"

"No, Mr. Brown."

The sound of his movements ceased. "Who?" he asked, dubiously.

"Mr. Brown, you know. He is working for us. Come on. It is all right,

"Oh!" Kenneth was heard ejaculating. "All right. Coast clear, sis?"

"Yes, yes, Kensy. We've got some food."

"Food, thank God! We are starving, sis. We haven't had a bite to eat
since the night before we left home." With this he appeared from a clump
of weeping willows, and stood before them. She introduced him to
Charles. Kenneth simply nodded. He was coatless, without a hat, and
besmeared with the dark mud of the morass from head to foot.

"I fell down back there," he said. "My foot slipped while I was on a
log. I was wet, anyway. We were away from the cave, trying to kill some
birds to eat, and got caught in the rain. Afraid to make a fire, anyway.
No matches."

"I have some in a dry box," Charles said. "Won't you take them?"

"Never mind. I put plenty of them in the basket," Mary said. "Where is

"In the cave. He had his clothes off, trying to dry them, and so I came
out alone. He is all right, but acting like a baby. Oh God! what have
you got, sis. He had the basket in his muddy hands and was removing the
napkin which covered the contents. There he comes now. He couldn't

The other boy now appeared, barefooted, his trousers rolled up to his
knees. On being introduced he shook hands timidly. He ignored the basket
of food. His glaring, dark-ringed eyes rested on his sister's face. He
panted as he bent toward her. "How is Keith?" he asked.

"Yes, how is he?" Kenneth echoed, glancing up from the contents of the

Charles thought it was significant that Mary hesitated for an instant
before replying. "He is just the same as he was - no better, no worse,"
she answered.

"No better? My God!" Martin seemed to shrink together like a touched
sensitive-plant. "Then - then he may die?"

Kenneth had his hands full of baked chicken, but he lowered them and,
leaving the food in the basket, he stood up. "Is it as bad as that,
sis?" he faltered, his lips betraying a tendency to shake.

"I hate to say so," Mary faltered, "but I must not deceive you and make
you reckless. This is the only safe place now." She told them of Albert
Frazier's aid in misleading his brother.

"He is a good one," Kenneth said, more at ease. "He is sharper any day
than his blockhead of a brother. If he stays on our side we'll be all
right, even - even if - "

"Don't say it, Ken!" Martin's young mouth was twisted awry. "I can't
bear it. I can't - I simply can't!"

Kenneth uttered a forced laugh of defiance. "He is like that all the
time," he said. "He didn't sleep a wink last night. He cried. He prayed
to God and to mother's spirit: 'Save Tobe Keith - save Tobe Keith! Don't
let 'im die!'"

"It is because I held him," Martin feebly explained. "You see, I had him
so he couldn't move, and - and when Ken shot I felt his body sort of
crumble up and hang limp in my arms. If he dies it will be my fault,
for - for he could have dodged the shot but for me. If he dies, sis, it
will be my fault and it will mean the rope and the scaffold."

Kenneth had bent to the basket again, but he refrained from taking up
the food. He faced his sister. "We'll have to stay hid," he said,
grimly. "Don't offend Albert Frazier, for all you do. He won't let his
brother find us. Even if he found us, I'll bet Albert could keep him
from making an arrest. He owes Albert money, I've heard. They always
work into each other's hands. Albert had some trouble himself once that
the sheriff squashed."

Charles was now looking at Mary. There was an expression about her face,
and all but swaying body, that was akin to that of her fainting-spell in
the field the preceding day. She had locked her hands together and he
saw a flare of agony in her tortured eyes. There was a fallen tree near
her and she sank down on its trunk and lowered her head. Finally she
accomplished what he knew she was trying so hard to do; she mastered her

"Martin, sit here by me," she said, pleadingly, and the younger boy
obeyed, the far-reaching terror still in his bland blue eyes. She
stroked back his matted hair and picked the fragments of leaves and
grass from it. "My sweet boy!" she faltered, "I don't know what to say
to comfort you and quiet your fears about - Tobe's condition. I'm glad
mother is not alive, Martin. She could not have borne this. You are so
young - just a boy - and you are sensitive and imaginative. It looks worse

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