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Flight







Part of: The Estray
From: The Branding Iron

There was a girl named Joan who followed Pierre Landis because he laid
his hand upon her wrist, and there was another Joan who fled up the
mountain-side at sight of him, as though the fire that had once
touched her shoulder had burnt its way into her heart. Then there was
a third Joan, a Joan astray. It was this Joan that had come to Lazy-Y
Ranch and had cooked for and bullied "the outfit"--a Joan of set face
and bitter tongue, whose two years' lonely battle with life had
twisted her youth out of its first comely straightness. In Joan's
brief code of moral law there was one sin--the dealings of a married
woman with another man. When Pierre's living and seeking face looked
up toward her where she stood on the mountain-side above Prosper's
cabin, she felt for the first time that she had sinned, and so, for
the first time, she was a sinner, and the inevitable agony of soul
began.

She fled and hid till dark, then prowled about till she knew that Wen
Ho was alone in the house. She came like a spirit from hell and
questioned him.

"What did the men ask? What did you tell them?"

The men had asked for a lady. He had told them, as Prosper had once
instructed him, that no lady was living there, that the man had just
gone. They had been satisfied and had left. But Joan was still in
terror. Pierre must never find her now. She had accepted the lie of a
stranger, had left her husband for dead, had made no effort to
ascertain the truth, and had "dealings with another man." Joan sat in
judgment and condemned herself to loneliness. She turned herself out
from all her old life as though she had been Cain, and, following Wen
Ho's trail over the mountains, had gone into strange lands to work for
her bread. She called herself "Jane" and her ferocity was the armor
for her beauty. Always she worked in fear of Pierre's arrival, and, as
soon as she had saved money enough for further traveling, she moved
on. She worked by preference on lonely ranches as cook or harvester,
and it was after two years of such life that she had drifted into
Yarnall's kitchen. She was then greatly changed, as a woman who works
to the full stretch of her strength, who suffers privation and
hardship, who gives no thought to her own youth and beauty, and who,
moreover, suffers under a scourge of self-scorn and fear, is bound to
change. Of all the people that had seen her after months of such
living, Jasper Morena was the only one to find her beautiful. But with
his sensitive observation he had seen through the shell to the
sweetness underneath; for surely Joan was sweet, a Friday's child. It
was good that Jasper had torn the skin from her wound, good that he
had broken up the hardness of her heart. She left him and Yarnall that
afternoon and went away to her cabin in the trees and lay face down on
the bare boards of the floor and was young again. Waves of longing for
love and beauty and adventure flooded her. For a while she had been
very beautiful and had been very passionately loved; for a while she
had been surrounded by beauty and taught its meanings. She had fled
from it all. She hated it, yes, but she longed for it with every fiber
of her being. The last two years were scalded away. She was Joan, who
had loved Pierre; Joan, whom Prosper Gael had loved.

Toward morning, dawn feeling with white fingers through the pine
boughs into her uncurtained window, Joan stopped her weeping and stood
up. She was very tired and felt as though all the hardness and
strength had been beaten from her heart. She opened her door and
looked at pale stars and a still, slowly brightening world. In a
hollow below the pines a stream ran and poured its hoarse, hurrying
voice into the silence. Joan bent under the branches, undressed and
bathed. The icy water shocked life back into her spirit. She began to
tingle and to glow. In spite of herself she felt happier. She had been
stony for so long, neither sorrowful nor glad; now, after the night of
sharp pain, she was aware of the gladness of morning. She came up from
her plunge, glowing and beautiful, with loose, wet hair.

In the corral the men were watering their teams; above them on the
edge of a mesa, against the rosy sky, the other ponies, out all night
on the range, were trooping, driven by a cowboy who darted here and
there on his nimble pony, giving shrill cries. In the clear air every
syllable was sharp to the ear, every tint and line sharp to the eye.
It was beautiful, very beautiful, and it was near and dear to her,
native to her--this loveliness of quick action, of inarticulate
calling to dumb beasts, of work, of simple, often repeated beginnings.
She was glad that she was working with her hands. She twisted up her
hair and went over to the ranch-house where she began soberly and
thankfully to light her kitchen fire.

It was after breakfast, two or three mornings later, when a stranger
on a chestnut pony rode into Yarnall's ranch, tied his pony to a tree,
and, striding across the cobbled square, came to knock at the office
door. At the moment, Yarnall, on the other side of the house, was
saying farewell to his guests, and helping the men pile the baggage
into the two-seated wagon, so this other visitor, getting no answer to
his knock, turned and looked about the court. He did not, it was
evident, mind waiting. It was to be surmised from the look of him that
he was used to it; patient and not to be discouraged by delay. He was
a very brown young man of quite astounding beauty and his face had
been schooled to keenness and restraint. He was well-dressed, very
clean, an outdoor man, a rider, but a man who had, in some sense,
arrived. He had the inimitable stamp of achievement. He had been hard
driven--the look of that, too, was there; he had been driven to more
than ordinary effort. One of the men, seeing him, walked over and
spoke respectfully.

"You want to see Mr. Yarnall?"

"Yes, sir." The man's eyes were searching the ranch-house wistfully
again. "I would like to see him if I can. I have some questions to ask
him."

"He's round the house, gettin' rid of a bunch of dudes. Some job. Both
hands tied up. Will you go round or wait?"

The stranger dropped to his heels, squatted, and rolled a cigarette.

"I'll wait," he murmured. "You can let him know when the dudes make
their get-away. He'll get round to me. My name? It won't mean anything
to him--Pierre Landis."

He did not go round the house, and Yarnall, being very busy and
perturbed for some time after the departure of his guests, did not get
round to him till nearly noon. By that time he was sitting on the
step, his back against the wall, still smoking and still wistfully
observant of his surroundings.

He stood up when Yarnall came.

"Sorry," said the latter; "that fool boy didn't tell me you were here
till ten minutes ago. Come in. You'll stop for dinner--if we get any
to-day."

"Thank you," said Pierre.

He came in and talked and stayed for dinner. Yarnall was used to the
Western fashion of doing business. He knew that it would be a long
time before the young man would come to his point. But the Englishman
was in no hurry, for he liked his visitor and found his talk diverting
enough. Landis had been in Alaska--a lumber camp. He had risen to be
foreman and now he was off for a vacation, but had to go back soon. He
had been everywhere. It seemed to Yarnall that the stranger had
visited every ranch in the Rocky Mountain belt.

After dinner, strolling beside his host toward his horse, Pierre
spoke, and before Yarnall had heard a word he knew that the long delay
had been caused by suppressed emotion. Pierre, when he did ask his
question, was white to the lips.

"I've taken a lot of your time," he said slowly. "I came to ask you
about someone. I heard that you had a woman on your ranch, a woman who
came in and didn't give you any history. I want to see her if I may."
He was actually fighting an unevenness of breath, and Yarnall,
unemotional as he was, was gripped with sympathetic suspense. "I
want," stammered the young man, "to know her name."

Yarnall swore. "Her name, as she gave it," said he, "is Jane. But, my
boy, you can't see her. She left this morning."

Pierre raised a white, tense face.

"Left?" He turned as if he would run after her.

"Yes, sir. These people I've had here took her away with them. That
is, they've been urging her to go, but she'd refused. Then, suddenly,
this morning, just as they were putting the trunks in, up came Jane,
white as chalk, asking them to take her with them, said she must go.
Well, sir, they rigged her up with some traveling clothes and drove
away with her. That was six hours ago. By now they're in the train,
bound for New York."

Yarnall's guest looked at him without speaking, and Yarnall nervously
went on, "She's been with us about six months, Landis, and I don't
know anything about her. She was tall, gray eyes, black hair, slow
speaking, and with the kind of voice you'd be apt to notice ... yes, I
see she's the girl you've been looking for. I can give you the New
York people's address, but first, for Jane's sake,--I'm a pretty good
friend of hers, I think a lot of Jane,--I'll have to know what you
want with her--what she is to you."

Pierre's pupils widened till they all but swallowed the smoke-colored
iris.

"She is my wife," he said.

Again Yarnall swore. But he lit a cigarette and took his time about
answering. "Well, sir," he said, "you must excuse me, but--it was
because she saw you, I take it, that Jane cut off this morning. That's
clear. Now, I don't know what would make a girl run off from her
husband. She might have any number of reasons, bad and good, but it
seems to me that it would be a pretty strong one that would make a
girl run off, with a look such as she wore, from a man like you. Did
you treat her well, Landis?"

It had the effect of a lash taken by a penitent. The man shrank a
little, whitened, endured. "I can't tell you how I treated her," he
said in a dangerous voice; "it don't bear tellin'. But--I want her
back. I was--I was--that was three years ago; I am more like a man
now. You'll give me the people's name, their address?..."

Pierre laid his hand on the older man's wrist and gave it a queer
urgent and beseeching shake.

After a moment of searching scrutiny, Yarnall bent his head.

"Very well," said he shortly; "come in."





Next: Luck's Play

Previous: Jane



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