Part of: THE TWO-BAR BRAND
From: The Branding Iron
It is not the people that have led still and uneventful lives who are
best prepared for emergencies. They are not trained to face crises, to
make prompt and just decisions. Joan had made but two such resolutions
in her life; the first when she had followed Pierre, the second when
she had kept Holliwell's books in defiance of her husband's jealousy.
The leaving her father had been the result of long and painful
thought. Now, in a few hours, events had crashed about her so that her
whole life, outer and inner, had been shattered. Beyond the pain and
fever of her wound there was an utter confusion of her faculties.
Before she fainted she had, indeed, made a distinct resolve to leave
Pierre. It was this purpose, working subconsciously on her will, as
much as the urgent pressure of the stranger, that took her past
Pierre's body out into the dawn and sent her on that rash journey of
hers in the footsteps of an unknown man. This being seemed to her then
hardly human. Mysteriously he had stepped in out of the night,
mysteriously he had condemned Pierre, and in self-defense, for Joan
had seen Pierre draw his gun and fire, he had killed her husband. Now,
just as mysteriously, as inevitably it seemed to her, he took command
of her life. She was a passive, shipwrecked thing--a derelict. She had
little thought and no care for her life.
As the silent day slowly brightened through its glare of clouds, she
plodded on, setting her snowshoes in the tracks her leader made. The
pain in her shoulder steadily increased, more and more absorbed her
consciousness. She saw little but the lean, resolute figure that went
before her, turning back now and then with a look and a smile that
were a compelling mixture of encouragement, pity, and command. She did
not know that they were traveling north and west toward the wildest
and most desolate country, that every time she set down her foot she
set it down farther from humanity. She began soon to be a little
light-headed and thought that she was following Pierre.
At noon they entered the woods, and her guide came beside her and led
her through fallen timber and past pitfalls of soft snow. Suddenly, "I
can't go no more," she sobbed, and stopped, swaying. At that he took
her in his arms and carried her a few hundred feet till they entered a
cabin under the shelter of firs.
"It's the ranger-station," said he; "the ranger told me that I could
make use of it on my way back. We can pass the night here."
Joan knew that he had carried her across a strange room and put her on
a strange bed. He took off her snowshoes, and she lay watching him
light a fire in the cold, clean stove and cook a meal from supplies
left by the owner of the house. She was trying now to remember who he
was, what had happened, and why she was in such misery and pain.
Sometimes she knew that he was her father and that she was at home in
that wretched shack up Lone River, and an ineffable satisfaction would
relax her cramped mind; sometimes, just as clearly, she knew that he
was Pierre who had taken her away to some strange place, and, in this
certainty, she was even more content. But always the horrible flame on
her shoulder burnt her again to the confusion of half-consciousness.
He wasn't John Carver, he wasn't Pierre. Who, in God's name, was he?
And why was she here alone with him? She could not frame a question;
she had a fear that, if she began to speak, she would scream and rave,
would tell impossible, secret, sacred things. So she held herself to
silence, to a savage watchfulness, to a battle with delirium.
The man brought her a cup of strong coffee and held up her head so
that she could drink it, but it nauseated her and she thrust it weakly
away, asking for cold water. After she had drunk this, her mind
cleared for an instant and she tried to stand up.
"I must go back to Pierre now," she said, looking about with wild but
"Lie still," said the stranger gently. "You're not fit to stir. Trust
me. It's all right. You're quite safe. Get rested and well, then you
may go wherever you like. I want only to help you."
The reassuring tone, the promising words coerced her and she dropped
back. Presently, in spite of pain, she slept.
She woke and slept in fever for many hours, vaguely aware, at times,
that she was traveling. She felt the motion of a sled under her and
knew that she was lying on the warm hide of some freshly killed beast
and that a blanket and a canvas covering protected her from a swirl of
snow. Then she thought she heard a voice babbling queerly and saw a
face quite terribly different from other human faces. The covering was
taken from her, snowflakes touched her cheek, a lantern shone in her
eyes, and she was lifted and carried into a warm, pleasant-smelling
place from which were magically and completely banished all sound and
bitterness of storm. She tried to see where she was, but her eyes
looked on incredible colors and confusions, so she shut them and
passively allowed herself to be handled by deft hands. She knew only
that delicious coolness, cleanliness, and softness were given to her
body, that the pain in her shoulder was soothed, that dreamlessly she
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