Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

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sullen, resentful expression to spread over her wrinkled face and
tighten the muscles of her lips.

"May I come in, Mrs. Keith?" Mary asked, holding the gate partly open
and dubiously waiting for a response.

The pipe was clutched more firmly and the woman stared straight at her.
"You may come in if you want to," was the caustic answer. "We don't keep
no bitin' dog. I didn't 'low the likes of you would want to come, after
what's happened, but if you do I can't hinder you an' Tobe hain't able
to prevent it, nuther."

"Who is it, mother?" came a faint voice from within the house.

"Never mind, sonny, who it is," the old woman called back. "I'll tell
you after awhile. Remember what the doctor said, that you must not get
excited an' lift your fever."

There was silence in the room behind the grim sentinel at the door, and
Mary lowered her voice almost to a whisper.

"Perhaps I'd better go away, Mrs. Keith," she faltered. "I thought I
might see you alone. That's why I came. I don't want to disturb your
son - I wouldn't, for all the world. Mrs. Keith, I am unhappy over this,

"Huh! I don't see nothin' fer _you_ to be upset over!" sneered the old
woman. "Your brothers lit out fer new fields an' pastures with money to
pay expenses with, like all highfalutin folks manage to git, while us
pore scrub stock o' whites has to suffer, like Tobe is thar on his back,
unable to move, an' with barely enough t' eat except what neighbors send

No seat was offered the visitor; the speaker grimly kept her chair, her
stiff knees parted for the reception between them of her two gnarled
rebellious hands and the clay pipe.

"I came to ask - I had to come," Mary faltered, her sweet face whitened
by the rising terrors within her. "I came to see if any arrangements are
being made to - to - I understand the doctors advise your son's removal
to Atlanta, and - "

"They advise anything to shuffle the blame off their _own_ shoulders,"
blurted out the stubborn woman. "They see they ain't able to do nothing,
an' they want my boy to die some'r's else, to save the county the
expense of - of - " and she choked down a sob, a dry, alien thing in her
scrawny neck. "I don't believe he'll ever be sent, so I don't. Sis
Latimer, my cousin, a preacher's wife, has traipsed over two counties,
tryin' to raise the four hundred dollars, and now says it can't be done.
That was the last straw to Tobe. He lay thar, after she left, an' I
heard 'im cryin' under the sheet, to keep me from hearin' him. He says
he hain't got nothin' ag'in' your two brothers now. He says they was all
to blame, an' if they hadn't been drunk an' gamblin' it wouldn't 'a'
happened. Tobe's a odd boy - he forgives in a minute; but I hain't that
way. I know how your brothers felt. They looked on my boy like dirt
under their feet because you folks used to own niggers and live so high
in your fine house with underlings to run an' fetch for you at every
call. Kenneth Rowland would have thought a second time before pullin'
down on a feller in his own set. Oh, I heard the filthy name he called
Tobe, an' I didn't blame my boy for hittin' him, as they say he did,
smack on the jaw. A blow with the bare hand, after a word like that is
passed, doesn't justify the use of a gun while another feller is pinnin'
a man's arms down at his side so he can't budge an inch. I'll tell you
what you may not know, an' that is that if my boy does die them two
whelps will be hunted down and strung up by the neck till they are dead,
dead, dead! Thar never was a plainer case o' murder - cold-blooded
murder. They say - folks say your brothers are livin' like lords in the
West on money sent to 'em by rich kin to escape disgrace. The sheriff
said so hisse'f, an' he ort to know. He's jest waitin' to see what comes
o' Tobe. Your turn an' your stiff-backed, haughty old daddy's is comin',
my fine young lady."

The faint voice was heard protesting from the interior of the house, and
Mrs. Keith rose and stalked to the bed on which the wounded man lay. He
said something in a low, guarded tone and Mary heard his mother answer:

"I wouldn't do that if I was you, honey. Let 'er go on. I can't stan'
the sight of 'er, after what has happened. She looks so uppity, in 'er
fine clothes an' white skin not touched by the sun, while me an' you - "

The man's voice broke in, plaintively rumbling, as if from a great
distance. He must have been insisting on some point to be gained, for he
continued talking, now and then coughing and spitting audibly.

"Well, well," Mrs. Keith exclaimed, "I'll tell 'er. I think it is
foolish, but I'll tell 'er. Do you want me to comb your head a little
an' spruce you up some?"

He evidently did, for Mary was kept waiting ten minutes longer. Then the
sullen virago appeared in the doorway. "Tobe wants you to come in and
see 'im," she reluctantly announced.

Despite the feeling that she was unwelcomed by the woman, Mary saw no
alternative but to go in. She regretted it the instant her eyes fell on
the wasted form on the unkempt bed and beheld the eager orbs peering at
her from deep, dark sockets beneath shaggy brows. The room seemed to
swing around her, the crude board floor to rise and fall like the waves
of a rocking sea, the bed to float like a raft holding a starving
derelict. Grasping the back of a chair for support, Mary leaned on it
for a moment, and then, slightly recovering, she sat down, wondering if
she could possibly bear the impending ordeal.

"I'm glad you thought enough o' me to come, Miss Mary," Tobe began, in
the instinctive tone of respect that his class had for hers, "an' I want
to say something to you." He hesitated and lifted his eyes to his
mother, who was standing at the foot of his bed. "Ma," he said, "will
you please go out a little while - just a little while?"

"Me! Why, I'd like to know?" she fiercely demanded. "Surely you hain't
got no secrets from me?"

"I hain't got no secrets, but I want to talk free an' easy like to Miss
Mary, an' somehow when you stan' lookin' like that an' thinkin' what I
know you are thinkin' - well, I just can't talk, that's all."

"Humph! I say! Well, this is a pretty come-off!" Mrs. Keith fairly
quivered with suppressed rage. "Can't talk before me, eh? An' me your
mother at that. Well, well, I won't hender you, though you know the
doctor told me to keep you perfectly quiet, an' here you are - Well,
well, I'll go; if you feel that-away I'll go! A mother's feelings is
never paid attention to nohow."

Mary tried to protest, but could think of nothing to say under the
circumstances; besides, the angry woman was already whirling away. Mary
heard her treading the creaking boards of the adjoining room.

"Please move your chair up a little mite closer," Tobe requested. "I've
got just so much wind, an' no more, an' I can talk easier when you are
close to me."

She obeyed, feeling like an inanimate thing pushed forward by some
designing force. His thin hand lay within her reach. It was a repulsive
object, and yet the same force directed her to take it; she did so, and
with the act all her fears, all her timidity, left her. She pressed it
gently; she leaned forward and stroked it almost caressingly with her
other hand. Tears welled up in her eyes; they broke their bounds and
fell upon her hands and his. He stared in slow astonishment, his lower
lip quivered; he closed his great, somnolent eyes as if to give himself
up to the dreamlike ecstasy of the moment. She saw his breast shaking,
his throat moving as if he were swallowing rising sobs. Silence fell,
broken only by the creaking boards in the next room, the clucking of a
busy hen in the yard, the chirping of little chickens, the thwacking of
an ax at a wood-pile not far away. Tobe turned his face from her. She
saw him stealthily wiping his eyes on a soiled handkerchief.

"I'm gittin' to be a fool, a babyish fool," he said, presently. "Lyin'
here like this is calculated to make a feller that-away, an' you bein'
so kind an' gentle, too, is - is sorter surprisin'. A sick man can hear a
lot o' ridiculous things when he is down like this. You see, I'm
surrounded mostly by women, an' they chatter a lot. Anyways, you hain't
nothin' like most of 'em say you are - too proud an' stuck up even to
inquire about a feller in my fix. Yes, I'm glad you come, so I am. I
hain't heard anything lately but revenge! revenge! revenge! The idle
women that huddle about me through the day talk hate from morning to
night. They got Ma at it; she hain't that-away as a general thing. I
wanted to see you. I've seen you at a distance an' always wanted to get
a closer look. They all say you are pretty, an' so you are. By all odds,
I should count you the prettiest young lady in this part o' the country.
I know I hain't never seed one that could hold a candle to you. I want
to talk to you about Ken an' Martin. Miss Mary, them boys hain't bad at
heart. La! I used to love 'em both, an' they liked me, too! It was just
rot-gut liquor. Mart didn't mean no harm by holdin' me when that
scrimmage begun, an' Ken may have _thought_ he saw a knife in my hand
that I was about to stab into Martin. I understand that's what he
claimed before they made off to the West, an' it all may be so, for a
drunk feller will think all sorts o' things. I wanted to see you
because, if I _do_ peg out - an' it looks like I'm goin' to - I want you
to write this to the boys. I want you to tell 'em, Miss Mary, that you
saw me an' that Tobe Keith said he didn't bear no ill-will an' died
without hard feelin's. Tell 'em, too, that I said I hoped they would
show the law a clean pair o' heels, for it looks like they will have
trouble if they are fetched back here. Oh, I'm sorry for 'em! I saw,
while I was lyin' thar, how sorry them boys looked when they saw what
had happened. It sobered 'em in a minute, an' they would have stayed to
help me if their friends hadn't got scared an' told 'em to run, that the
sheriff was comin', an' the like."

"You mustn't say you are going to die, Tobe," Mary faltered, huskily,
still gently stroking his hand. Beads of perspiration were on his sallow
brow, and with her handkerchief she wiped them away. "The doctors say
that if you go to Atlanta, to Doctor Elliot's sanatorium, he can - "

"I've given that up." He smiled faintly. "The money ain't in sight an'
never will be. Besides, they only want to experiment on me. I know my
condition better than they do. Surgical skill may be all right in many
such cases, but mine has stood too long. I hain't afeard to die, Miss
Mary, but I am sorry my going will be so serious for Ken an' Martin. Do
you know, I was to blame chiefly. I was the one that furnished the
whisky for that racket. I got it from a moonshiner I know. That is
between you an' me, Miss Mary, for I broke the law when I went to his
secret still an' got it without reportin' him."


Mary remained twenty minutes longer, and when she was going out at the
gate she met Doctor Harrison, who had just alighted from his buggy and
was hitching his horse to a portable strap and iron weight near the
fence. He doffed his straw hat and smiled from his genial, bearded,
middle-aged face and twinkling blue eyes.

"So you've turned nurse, have you?" he jested. "Well, I'm glad you came,
for more reasons than one."

"You think it was right, then?" she answered.

"Decidedly, Miss Mary. At such a time as this we should not listen to
gossip, but simply act humanely."

"I hardly knew what to do, for some persons thought that it would look
as if I - I admitted that my brothers were - "

"I know," the doctor broke in, "but, nevertheless, I'm glad you put that
aside. If I were on a jury - " He hesitated, as if he realized that he
was on ground forbidden by due courtesy to her feelings. "Well," he
started anew, "it can't possibly do any harm, and I am sure you will
feel all the better for it."

"What are the chances for his recovery?" Mary asked, with bated breath,
as she met his mild gaze with her steady eyes.

He looked toward the cottage door, placed his whip in the holder on the
dashboard of the buggy, and then slowly swept his eyes back to her face.

"I am sorry to say - to _have_ to say - that he is not doing so well. He
seems a little weaker. However, when he gets to Atlanta - I hope I am
not betraying secrets, but I met Albert Frazier just now and he told me
that you had about concluded arrangements to supply the money. He did
not say that he was telling me in confidence, but he may have meant it
that way. People often say things to doctors, you know, that they would
not make public, and if it _is_ a private matter - "

"It is not, Doctor. I know - at least, I think I know - where I can get
the money, and I shall not care who knows that it is from me. Tell me,
please, do you think it best to send Tobe to Atlanta?"

"It is the only thing to do," was the decided answer. "You see, here in
this small place we haven't the facilities, the surgical skill, the
equipment for such a critical operation, and the truth is we all of us
here balk at it. A doctor like Elliot can afford to take the risk, you
see. If he should fail, you know there would be no criticism, while if
one of us here were to do so we'd be thought - well, almost criminally

Mary's face was brooded over now by a shadow. She shuddered; her eyes
held a tortured look. "So you think he ought to go at once?" she said.

"The sooner the better, Miss Mary," was the prompt answer. She gave him
her hand, and he wondered over the change in her mood as he lifted his

"I'll let you know very soon, Doctor," were her parting words. "Please
don't mention it, for the present, anyway. I think I know where I can
get the money that is needed."

Mary walked on, now toward the square. Her step was slow, her eyes were
on the ground.

"Oh God! how can I? And yet I must!" she groaned. "He means to make me
take the money; that is plain. He understands what it would mean, and so
do I; but, oh, I don't want to marry him. I'd rather die - I would, I
would, I would. And yet if I died - if I died - "

She had to pass through the square to get her horse, and she dreaded the
possible encounter again with Albert Frazier. She felt relieved, on
entering the square, to notice that he was not in sight. The plate-glass
window of the bank, with its gilt-lettered sign, caught her eye. Why not
try there to borrow the money, as a last resort? Perhaps the banker
would consider lending her the money on her own name. She had heard of
loans being made to women who had no security. Yes, she would try. It
would be a last effort, but she must make it.

Entering the little building, she went to the opening in the wire
netting and asked the cashier if Mr. Lingle were in. She was answered in
the affirmative and directed to a half-closed door bearing the words,
"The President's Office."

She opened the door without knocking, and saw the back and shaggy head
of a man of sixty, without his coat, his collar and necktie loose, his
sleeves rolled up, busy writing. Hearing her, he turned, suppressed a
frown of impatience, stood up and bowed. His face was round, beardless,
and reddish in tint.

"Oh, Miss Mary, how are you?" he asked, awkwardly extending a fat,
perspiring hand. "Want to see me, eh, personally? Well, I'm at your
service, though these are busy days for us. What can I do for you?"

Her voice seemed to have deserted her. She was conscious of the fear
that no words at all would come from her, and yet immediately she heard
herself speaking in a calm, steady tone. She was smiling, too, as if she
knew that what she was saying had a touch of absurdity in it.

"I've come to bore you," she said. "I need some money, not on my
father's account now, Mr. Lingle, for I know about his debt to you, but
for myself, this time. I have no security beyond my word and promise to
pay. It is a very serious matter, Mr. Lingle. You know about Tobe
Keith's condition and that he must be sent to Atlanta. No one else will
pay for it, and - "

"So you are going to mix yourself up in that mess, are you?" asked
Lingle, frowning till his shaggy iron-gray brows met and all but
overlapped. "If you were my daughter - Oh, what's the use? I'm not your
teacher, but if you were in my charge I'd make you stay out of this. I
know, I reckon, what's the matter. You feel responsible because your
brothers were held accountable; that's like a woman. But all that is
neither here nor there. I can't let you have any money at all. I'm going
to be plain. Maybe it will open your eyes a little to the facts. My dear
girl, I hold a mortgage on all the crops in the ground at your place, on
the very tools, cattle, hogs, and horses. Your father - I hate to say
it - but your father is as helpless in business matters as a new-born
baby. He belongs to the old order. He is up to his neck in debt to every
friend he has. I can't let him have any more money, and I can't let you
have any. I wouldn't let you have it for what you want it even if you
had good collateral to pin to your note. I couldn't conscientiously do
it, for it would be throwing it away. That drunken roustabout hasn't one
chance in a thousand to live, anyway, and the country would be better
off without his brand. As for your brothers - well, you'd better keep
them in the West. Men of your father's stamp don't have quite the
influence they used to have. Our courts are being criticized for their
lax methods so much that our judges and juries are becoming more careful
in administering justice. If Tobe Keith dies - well, your brothers had
better stay away, that's all."

"So there's no use asking you to - "

"No, Miss Mary, this bank can't mix up in such matters as that. Folks
from up-to-date towns are making fun of us, too. One drummer was telling
it around in Atlanta the other day that any stranger could cash a check
here by simply inviting us to take a drink or handing us a cheap cigar.
We are making new rules and sticking to them." With that the president
of the bank turned toward his desk and reached out for a sheet of paper
on which he had been writing.

"I thank you, Mr. Lingle," she faltered. "I am sure that you know best."

He held his paper in his left hand while he gave her his right, and made
a sort of scraping movement with his foot as he executed a bow.

As she went back into the main room she was conscious of the fear that
Albert Frazier might have discovered her presence at the bank and be
waiting for her outside. Why, she asked herself, was the thought
actually so terrifying? He might propose that he should have her horse
sent out and that he be allowed to drive her home. In that case it would
all be over. She would have to give the promise he had so long sought
and she had so long withheld. A thrill of relief went through her on
finding that he was not in sight anywhere about the busy square. She
walked rapidly now toward the livery-stable, still with the fear of
pursuit on her that was like the haunting dread of a nightmare. She was
soon in the saddle and galloping homeward. At the point where the
village street gave into the main country road she checked her speed.
What, after all, was she running from? If the thing was inevitable, what
was the use in putting it off? Was not the delay injurious to the end
she was seeking? Might not even another day count fatally against Tobe
Keith's recovery? Yes, the answer was yes, and nothing else. If it had
to be done, why wait longer? She actually tried to turn the head of her
horse toward the village, but the animal had scented home and the food
to be had there, and refused, allowing the taut rein to bend his neck
but not to guide his limbs. She finally came to regard it as an omen to
be obeyed and allowed him to gallop on toward the farm.

As she neared her home the sun's rays were dying out of the landscape
and the dusk was gathering. Coming to meet her from the house she saw
Charles, and she wondered what had happened, for he never left the field
before sundown; moreover, it struck her that he was walking rapidly, as
if to reach her before she got to the house. He could not be coming to
take the saddle from her horse, for Kenneth or Martin at the stable
could do that. She summoned a smile as she greeted him at the barn-yard
gate and he reached up to catch the bridle-rein. To her surprise he
failed to return it. She had never seen a graver expression on his face
as he held up his strong arms to help her down.

"What is the matter?" she asked, now alarmed.

"Don't get frightened," he said. "After all, it may amount to nothing,
but still, I had to reach you and put you on your guard. I was afraid
you might call out or whistle to your brothers, and that wouldn't do.
After you left, they were so quiet, and remained out of sight so
persistently, that, as the time passed, I became concerned about them.
Usually, you know, they steal out and go into the woods for recreation
or join me at my work. To-day they did not appear, so I went to the barn
about two hours ago. Fortunately I did not whistle, but went directly up
to them in the loft. They explained it. It seems that Kenneth had
observed a strange man moving stealthily in and out of the woods,
sometimes watching me, sometimes the house, and sometimes the barn."

"Oh!" and Mary went white from head to foot. "It is one of the sheriff's
men. Don't you think so?"

"I don't know. Kenneth says he got a good look at him and that he is
sure he is a stranger here. To be plain, Kenneth thinks that the sheriff
has sent for a detective and that the detective may suspect the thing we
are trying to hide - that the boys are not in the West, but here at

Mary said nothing. The deepening pallor of her face rendered it grim and
firm, but it was none the less beautiful in its unwonted lines. He took
off the saddle, opened the gate, and turned the horse into the lot.

"When the boys hear the horse in the stall," he said, "they will know
you are back. Will it be necessary for you to go in to them? I mean - you
see, if the fellow is still watching; in that case he might draw
deductions from your being there. While if you go on to the house now - "

"I understand, and you are right," Mary said, with tight lips. "No, I'll
go to the house. It is awful - awful - awful!"

He closed the gate and walked by her side till they reached the path
leading down to the field. Here he turned to leave her.

"Where are you going?" The tone and words carried an almost desperate
appeal to him not to leave her. In her wonderful eyes something seemed
to burn not unlike the celestial resignation of the ancient saints
before approaching torture. But, withal, she seemed to want to lean on
him for moral or physical support.

"I think I'll go back to work," he answered. "It is still not quite time
for supper. Besides, from the field I can keep a better watch on the
woods while I appear to see nothing."

"Well, well, you are right," she said, sighing, "but please don't be
late, and tell me if you see anything."

As she was nearing the house she saw her father returning home by a
small private road which led to some of the farms north of his property.

"Where have you been?" she asked, as he joined her at the front gate,
gallantly opened it, and stood aside for her to enter before him.

"I went over to see Tankersley," was his answer. "I heard he had some
money he might lend, and - well, I thought maybe I'd get it and send it
to Tobe Keith. But as soon as the old miser heard what I wanted it for
he laughed and sneered in my face. He was very impudent. His standard is
money, and nothing higher. Of course, I couldn't afford to get angry
with a man so low bred, and I came away."

"I didn't know you had thought of raising money for Tobe," Mary said,
wistfully. "In fact, I thought you would oppose my trying to get it."

"I admit I did think we ought not to go that far at first," Rowland
said, as they reached the steps of the veranda, "but after you left this
morning I was talking to Mr. Brown. He is a most remarkable man in many
ways. He is quite a philosopher and has a wonderful vocabulary when he
gets to talking. He swept everything away except the fact of Tobe's life
being at stake, and the terrible consequences his death would have on
the - the future state of mind and ultimate character of the boys. I
confess he set me thinking. He had the courage to scold me pretty
sharply, too, about - well, about my inactivity just at this time. He
said I ought to lay everything aside and think more of you and my sons.
He is right. I don't know who he is or what sort of ancestors he had,
but he is a man of moral convictions, and I respect him. He is a

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Online LibraryWill N. (Will Nathaniel) HarbenThe Hills of Refuge: A Novel → online text (page 16 of 25)