The Place of Refuge

The undulations of the great prairie we were traversing added to its beauty without in any way restricting the distant view, but late in the forenoon there loomed before us an elevation higher than the others and so noticeable as to attract and hold attention. Our companion, indeed, watched it intently from the moment it came into view, and this without speaking or motion of any kind, as if he were enraptured with the view, or saw something not perceptible to Uncle Job or myself. When we at last reached its base, he called to the driver to stop, and excusing himself, got down and made his way to the top of the hill, and reaching its summit, stopped and gazed about him and then upward, as if offering a prayer. Remaining thus for some time, his tall figure outlined against the distant sky, he at last turned and slowly retraced his steps, taking his seat in the stage without speaking. Whether oppressed by his thoughts or interrogating our silence, I know not, but after a while he turned to Uncle Job, as if in apology or explanation, and said:
“You wonder, perhaps, at what I did, but the hill is a sacred spot to me because of the recollections that cluster about it and the memory of a dear friend that is gone.”
“Indeed!” Uncle Job replied, sympathetically; “what you say interests me greatly.”
“Yes,” our companion went on in a melancholy voice; “and except for his courage and knowledge of the prairie, I should have suffered a cruel death near the spot where we now are.”
Saying which he relapsed into silence again, and Uncle Job, who was never curious about other people’s affairs, or bashful about expressing it if he was—which latter is perhaps the more probable of the two—made no further comment, but sat still, gazing stolidly before him. I, not having any modesty, and being stirred by what the stranger said, could not restrain my curiosity, and so spoke up:
“Please, sir, tell us about it, if you will.”
At this he smiled, and after a moment’s reflection, answered:
“Certainly, if you would like to hear it.”
“I should, very much,” I replied; whereupon he turned to Uncle Job, as if to ask his consent, upon which the latter responded, with great heartiness:
“It would be a pleasure indeed to hear the story, if it is agreeable to you to tell it.”
“There is not much to tell, and of little account to any one now save myself,” the gentleman responded, the shadow deepening in his face as he spoke. “It was a new experience to me, however, though not uncommon then or now in our young state. It happened several years ago, when I had occasion, late in the fall, to cross the prairie we are now traversing. Fortunately, as it turned out, I fell in with the friend I speak of, and so was not alone, else I would not be alive to tell it. The night came on cold and cloudy, the wind, which had been strong during the day, increasing almost to a hurricane as the evening advanced. Being well mounted, however, we pushed on, anxious to reach our destination and scarce speaking a word. As we approached the hill we have just passed a rim of light, no wider than your finger, attracted my attention on the edge of the horizon. At first I gave it no thought, attributing it to some atmospheric disturbance; but upon its spreading and increasing in brightness, I turned to my companion to see if he regarded it as important. He, however, was fast asleep, sitting deep in his saddle with his head buried in his greatcoat, and this though we were riding at full speed. Loth to wake him, I said nothing for a while, but the light increasing and our horses showing signs of uneasiness, I took hold of his arm and spoke to him. At this he straightened up, snatching a pistol from his belt with the motion as if attacked. In a moment, however, he was wide-awake, and no sooner did his eyes rest on the lighted horizon than to my surprise he pulled his horse back on its haunches, stopping abruptly as if turned to stone. Gazing anxiously for a moment, he exclaimed, but as if unconscious of my presence:
“‘My God! the prairie’s on fire.’
“The fear his voice evinced alarmed me; but as the light was many miles away, I could not see that we were in any danger, and so expressed myself.
“‘Not in danger!’ he answered, absently; ‘in a quarter of an hour the fire will have passed miles beyond where we are!’
“Even while we waited, the sky reddened and the circle of light grew longer and wider, extending now in both directions as far as the eye could reach. Still it seemed so remote that I could not make myself believe there was any danger. Not so my companion, who sat still, scanning the country about us, now beginning to grow red with the coming conflagration. Looking this way and that, his eyes at last rested on the hill we have passed, and seeing it he put spurs to his horse, crying:
“‘Quick! quick! We may still be in time!’
“Spurring to his side, I called out, ‘If there is danger, why not turn back!’
“‘It is too late,’ he answered, his voice drowned in the hoofbeats of our horses and the rush of the wind as it swept across the wide expanse.
“‘There is still time to reach the forest,’ I cried, following on, distrustful of his action.
“‘No; in ten minutes it will be here, and then the Lord save us!’
“‘If that is so, why go forward?’ I persisted, as we went on at top speed, full in the face of the advancing fire.
“To this he made no response, but pointed upward to the hill we were passing, as if in some way our hope of safety lay there. When we had circled its base and reached the farther side, and that nearest the fire, he threw himself from his saddle, and in a voice so loud and fierce that it sounded high and clear above the shrieking wind, cried:
“‘Blindfold and hobble the horses, and for God’s sake don’t lose time!’
“Saying which, he took from his saddlebags an old-fashioned pistol, and slipping the flint from out its socket, threw himself on the ground, and with its aid and the steel of his weapon sought to ignite the dry grass which covered the plain. Succeeding after a while, he gave a shout, as one might when saved from death, and springing to his feet, gathered a wisp of grass, and igniting it, trailed the flame along the base of the hill, first one way and then the other. In a moment the fierce wind catching the fire whipped it forward and upward, so that while my task was yet half done the flames had swept the sides of the height, and covering it, passed on. Following in a few minutes, we reached the summit, suffering little harm from the smoking and blistered earth. Arriving there, we were none too soon, for now the fire, that a little while before seemed so far away, reached us with leaps and bounds and such deafening roar that had we not restrained our horses we could by no means have kept them under control, so great was their terror. Reaching the edge of the burnt ground on which we stood, the flames leaped high in the air, as if striving to reach the spot whereon we stood, and this again and again, but after a while dying down without doing us any harm whatever.
“As the fire approached, it did not follow any given line, as one would think, but was caught up by the strong wind and thrown forward, and this in such quick succession that the whole plain seemed to take fire at once. It was in some respects like what one may see on the water when a hurricane, sweeping the tops of the rolling waves, carries them upward and forward, to let them drop finally like a deluge of falling rain. So the flames which we stood watching were continually lifted and carried forward by great leaps and bounds, and with such speed that the eye could only faintly trace their progress. At times, indeed, the earth itself seemed to be aflame, and all things about to perish, so fierce and all-pervading was the heat.
“As the fire came on a curious thing happened, for from out the tall grass about the base of the black hill whereon we stood the wild animals that live in the plain, with lolling tongues and bloodshot eyes, burst into the open, and seeing us, mounted to the summit, and crouched at our feet, trembling and panting, as domestic animals might have done, all their wildness clean gone out of them. At last, as the grass about us ignited, a fawn ran into the opening, but only to fall exhausted on its very edge. Seeing this, my companion ran to where it was, and taking the animal in his arms, brought it safely to the top. Afterward, not less curiously, when the fire had passed and we began to stir about, all the animals took fright and fled, their fear of man returning as if by one accord once the danger was gone.
“Thus we were saved, and in the manner I have described. When the fire had died down, and there was no longer any danger, I sought to express my thanks and admiration for my companion’s coolness and bravery. He, however, as if thinking lightly of what had happened, was already preparing the horses for our departure, and with such expedition that ere I had recovered myself they were in readiness for us to mount. Springing into the saddle as if urged to haste by some motive unknown to me, he cried aloud:
“‘Come, quick! the danger is past; I must be off!’
“Mounting my horse without response, we took our way down the side of the hill, and reaching its base, he stopped abruptly, saying:
“‘I can’t go on with you, but must hasten across the country to my home. My wife will have seen the fire and be crazed with fear until she knows I am safe; but if you would like,’ he went on, seeing the look of distress in my face, ‘I should be glad to have you go with me. It will not be much out of your way, and you can ride into town in the morning if you wish.’
“To this I answered that I should be only too glad to do as he said. ‘But how,’ I asked, ‘can we find our way across the country on such a night, with every landmark gone?’
“‘I know the direction, and my horse will take me home without bridle or spur or swerving an inch from the true course.’
“‘Go on, then,’ I answered, and without saying more we started; and after an hour’s ride across the black expanse at a pace I thought only a madman would dare, we reached his home in safety, where we found his wife, as he had thought, prostrate and in tears. Our welcome was such as seldom falls to the lot of men in this world, though Mr. Holmes strove to make light of the risk we had run. She knew better, however, and so what he said did not lessen the shock; and at supper, which was soon spread, she ate nothing, but sat idly by, never taking her eyes off his face. Nor did he succeed in calming her during the evening that followed, though she said little or nothing. Thus we escaped, and alas! brave man, only that you should afterward be overtaken by a fate scarcely less cruel!”
Here our companion brought his story to an end, and leaning forward rested his face in his hands, as if consumed by the sad thoughts the recollection called forth. Waiting a while, Uncle Job spoke up, but with voice so low and broken as to be scarce audible:
“You used a name just now that is dear to us beyond speaking. Perhaps you remember Mr. Holmes’ other name?”
“Yes, Charles; and his wife’s name was Margaret,” he answered without moving.
Hearing this, Uncle Job turned toward me and held up his hand as if in warning, but I overcome by what I had heard, burst into a paroxysm of tears, crying out:
“Father! Mother!” NORFLOXACIN
At this outburst our companion raised his head, his look of melancholy giving place to one of surprise. Thus he continued to regard me for some time, until at last, understanding the meaning of what I said, he reached forward in tender pity, and lifting me up pressed me against his heart. Releasing me after a while, he took my hand, and leaning forward, looked in my face as one might gaze into the face of a friend long mourned as lost.
“Yes, the same; his mother’s face and eyes, and something of his father’s look, too,” he murmured, as if talking to himself. “How strange that in the shadow of this hill I should meet their child. Gone; I thought never to see them again, but here they look out on me as before.”
Overcome, I made no answer, and thus we went on in silence until our little party having in some measure regained its former composure, the gentleman, taking my hand, spoke up again:
“Tell me, my son, where you live, your home, if you do not mind.”
“I’m going to live with Uncle Job,” I answered; “but where, I do not know.”
“I asked, thinking some time to be of service to you. Who knows: It would not be more strange than our meeting here; but this I want to ask of you, my child, that you will treasure the thought that I want to serve you: and that you may always know where I am and how to reach me, take this,” and tearing a leaf from a worn book he took from his pocket, he wrote thereon his name and handed it to me; and I looking, read:
2
A. Lincoln, Springfield, Ills
This precious paper I still have and treasure, and shall transmit to my children, as one might the relic of a saint or the memory of an event in which love mingles and grows stronger with the lapse of time.
NOTE.—Mr. Lincoln at the time of which Gilbert Holmes speaks was in his twenty-ninth year, but already bore in his drawn face the look of melancholy habitual to it in later life. This, as if forecasting in some way the doom that was finally to overtake him in the height of his career; but not, indeed, until his task was done and his country saved through his great wisdom and patriotic effort.—THE AUTHOR.