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A Pagan of the Hills by Charles Neville Buck

But Halloway meant to learn what he could

Alexander's journey would not have been easy, had she ridden with no prize to safeguard. There were washouts and quicksands; treacherous fords and shelving precipices to be encountered, but here was a fortune guarded only by a woman whose recklessness led her toward disaster.

"She's plum askin' fer hit--beggin' fer hit," grinned Lute Brown who with a single companion strode along a wet and tangled trail shortly after sunrise. "An' I reckon she'll get hit."

Soon after Alexander had taken her departure those interested in town also began drifting toward the outbound trail. There must be, for every campaign, a rear-guard as well as an advance.

But the three to whose earnest advice the young woman from Shoulder-blade had turned a deaf ear, had not been content to accept dismissal--or inactivity. Halloway and Sellers knew that the dangers of which she made little could not be blinked at and they dared not trust to luck nor rely solely upon her dauntlessness to see her through.

As for Halloway he had left Coal City under cover of the dawn's twilight, while the white fog of mountain mornings still veiled the world. He had gone on foot since, with his tireless strength, he could so travel across the "roughs" at better than a mounted pace and be less cumbered. His destination was the telegraph office at Viper. Jerry O'Keefe and a handful of others were to mobolize inconspicuously there--though they were to remain seemingly disconnected and await his instructions. Brent was to come on later and in his command, though not in his immediate company, were to be Bud Sellers and several more.

The chief difficulty, of course, lay in communication. It was rather a matter of groping in the dark, and the only plan which had seemed feasible had been to divide the intervening country into zones and to arrange outwardly innocent signals which should designate the locality in which it might become imperative to gather and strike. Telephones were few, and those that existed purely local in radius, but since mining properties were dotted over the terrain there were, here and there, scattered "talkin' boxes."

By neither telegraph nor 'phone would it be practicable to talk frankly, but Halloway meant to learn what he could, and Brent was to call him up from time to time--if he could. His inquiries would be couched in questions as to possible purchases of timber for next season's cutting and the germ of the reply would be suggestions of locations--which he would understand.

Alexander rode on alone and the ways were, at first, as deserted as though they had never been fashioned for human usage. Between Coal City and Viper lay a distance of ten miles but they were zig-zag and semi-perpendicular miles with torrential waters to be forded. She meant to ride only about four of them before abandoning her mule for the detour on foot. But when she had left the town only a little way two horsemen came up behind her. She knew neither of them, and they were immature boys, with the empty and vacuous faces of almost degenerate illiteracy. They seemed unarmed but since it was vital to Alexander's scheme to ride unwatched it became important to have them either go ahead or to distance them. Accordingly she urged her mule into a lumbering canter and when a turn of the road had been reached slowed down only to discover with a backward glance that the others had galloped too, and were still close in her rear. Crossing a brook, she paused to let her mule drink and they passed her slowly, staring with the unabashed fixity and hanging jaws at the unaccustomed sight of a woman riding astride in the clothing of a man. Then they went forward at a snail's pace.

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