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A Pagan of the Hills by Charles Neville Buck

Brent looked about for Mallows

Brent shivered and dabbed grudgingly with cold water at the face upon which a stubble of beard had begun to bristle. But the girl carried an icy bucket into her shack and reinforced its forward wall with blanket and rubber coat, not as a protection against the knife-edged sharpness of the air but against prying eyes. Then she bathed unhurriedly and fastidiously.

When she emerged the bloom of her cheeks and the luster of her thick hair would have been the envy of a boudoir where beauty-doctors have done their utmost. And that day too, save for the smouldering eyes of the discomfited Jase Mallows, the wolf-like pack treated her with a cautious deference of bearing.

When at the end of two days the water was dropping as rapidly as it had risen, Alexander announced, "I reckon we've got a right gay chanst now ter put in at ther Coal City boom, hain't we?" And several heads nodded assent. Brent noticed that Jase Mallows' face wore a smile which did not altogether escape malignity, and at the first opportunity he inquired: "What were you smiling about, Mr. Mallows, when they spoke of Coal City?"

The backwoods dandy scowled and gave back the churl's response, "Thet's my business."

"Certainly," Brent acceded coolly. "You don't have to answer me. I didn't suppose it was a matter you were ashamed to talk about."

Mallows bent with a truculent narrowing of his lids and an outthrust chin, but observing that the city man was in no wise cowed by his scowls he amended his attitude. Two days before Brent would have been more cautious of offending this man, whose exploits had run, sometimes, to violence, but a subtle transformation had begun in him. A new disdain for personal risks had caught fire from that flaming quality in the woman.

"Hev ye ever seed Coal City?" inquired Mallows, and when the other shook his head, he continued in a lowered voice. "Wa'al hit's a right rough sort of place. Hit's a coal minin' town with only one tavern--an' things goes forward thar right sensibly similar ter hell on a hot night. With ther flood holdin' up ther mines hit's apt ter kinderly out-do hitself jest now." He paused a moment then capped his prediction with an added detail.

"Thar'll be plentiful drunkenness an' harlotry thar. Alexander couldn't speak civil ter me, but I war jest a studyin' erbout how well she's goin' ter like Coal City."

When the rafts were safe in the boom. Brent looked about for Mallows, but Mallows was already gone. Alexander herself was among the last to start along the ill-lighted and twisting street that climbed along, the broken levels of the town toward the tavern. It was, at best, a squalid village and a tawdry one. Now it was to boot a wholly demoralized town, cut off from the other world by inundated highways and the washing out of its railroad bridge. The kerosene street lamps burned dully and at long intervals and high up the black slopes a few coke furnaces still burned in red patches of inflamed and sullen glare.

Brent had dropped out of sight, meaning to follow the girl as an unofficial body guard. Knowing her impatience at gratuitous services of protection he made no announcement of his purpose, but fell in behind the light of the lantern she carried and followed her in the shadows. When he had gone only a little way, he had the vague feeling that someone else was following him so he halted and wheeled suddenly. After peering vainly through the murk, he told himself that he was letting his imagination play him tricks but the disquieting impression of soft footsteps padding along behind him he could not dispel.

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