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Joan Reads By Firelight







Part of: THE TWO-BAR BRAND
From: The Branding Iron

There is no silence so fearful, so breathless, so searching as the
night silence of a wild country buried five feet deep in snow. For
thirty miles or so, north, south, east, and west of the small,
half-smothered speck of gold in Pierre Landis's cabin window, there
lay, on a certain December night, this silence, bathed in moonlight.
The cold was intense: below the bench where Pierre's homestead lay,
there rose from the twisted, rapid river, a cloud of steam, above
which the hoar-frosted tops of cottonwood trees were perfectly
distinct, trunk, branch, and twig, against a sky the color of iris
petals. The stars flared brilliantly, hardly dimmed by the full moon,
and over the vast surface of the snow minute crystals kept up a steady
shining of their own. The range of sharp, wind-scraped mountains,
uplifted fourteen thousand feet, rode across the country, northeast,
southwest, dazzling in white armor, spears up to the sky, a sight,
seen suddenly, to take the breath, like the crashing march of
archangels militant.

In the center of this ring of silent crystal, Pierre Landis's logs
shut in a little square of warm and ruddy human darkness. Joan, his
wife, made the heart of this defiant space--Joan, the one mind living
in this ghostly area of night. She had put out the lamp, for Pierre,
starting townward two days before, had warned her with a certain
threatening sharpness not to waste oil, and she lay on the hearth, her
rough head almost in the ashes, reading a book by the unsteady light
of the flames. She followed the printed lines with a strong, dark
forefinger and her lips framed the words with slow, whispering
motions. It was a long, strong woman's body stretched there across the
floor, heavily if not sluggishly built, dressed rudely in warm stuffs
and clumsy boots, and it was a heavy face, too, unlit from within, but
built on lines of perfect animal beauty. The head and throat had the
massive look of a marble fragment stained to one even tone and dug up
from Attic earth. And she was reading thus heavily and slowly, by
firelight in the midst of this tremendous Northern night, Keats's
version of Boccaccio's "Tale of Isabella and the Pot of Basil."

The story for some reason interested her. She felt that she could
understand the love of young Lorenzo and of Isabella, the hatred of
those two brothers and Isabella's horrible tenderness for that young
murdered head. There were even things in her own life that she
compared with these; in fact, at every phrase, she stopped, and,
staring ahead, crudely and ignorantly visualized, after her own
experience, what she had just read; and, in doing so, she pictured her
own life.

Her love and Pierre's--her life before Pierre came--to put herself in
Isabella's place, she felt back to the days before her love, when she
had lived in a desolation of bleak poverty, up and away along Lone
River in her father's shack. This log house of Pierre's was a castle
by contrast. John Carver and his daughter had shared one room between
them; Joan's bed curtained off with gunny-sacking in a corner. She
slept on hides and rolled herself up in old dingy patchwork quilts and
worn blankets. On winter mornings she would wake covered with the snow
that had sifted in between the ill-matched logs. There had been a
stove, one leg gone and substituted for by a huge cobblestone; there
had been two chairs, a long box, a table, shelves--all rudely made by
John; there had been guns and traps and snowshoes, hides, skins, the
wings of birds, a couple of fishing-rods--John made his living by
legal and illegal trapping and killing. He had looked like a trapped
or hunted creature himself, small, furtive, very dark, with long
fingers always working over his mouth, a great crooked nose--a hideous
man, surely a hideous father. He hardly ever spoke, but sometimes,
coming home from the town which he visited several times a year, but
to which he had never taken Joan, he would sit down over the stove and
go over heavily, for Joan's benefit, the story of his crime and his
escape.

Joan always told herself that she would not listen, whatever he said
she would stop her ears, but always the story fascinated her, held
her, eyes widened on the figure by the stove. He had sat huddled in
his chair, gnomelike, his face contorting with the emotions of the
story, his own brilliant eyes fixed on the round, red mouth of the
stove. The reflection of this scarlet circle was hideously noticeable
in his pupils.

"A man's a right to kill his woman if she ain't honest with him," so
the story began; "if he finds out she's ben trickin' of him, playin'
him off fer another man. That was yer mother, gel; she was a bad
woman." There followed a coarse and vivid description of her badness
and the manner of it. "That kinder thing no man can let pass by in his
wife. I found her"--again the rude details of his discovery--"an' I
found him, an' I let him go fer the white-livered coward he was, but
her I killed. I shot her dead after she'd said her prayers an' asked
God's mercy on her soul. Then I walked off, but they kotched me an' I
was tried. They didn't swing me. Out in them parts they knowed I was
in my rights; so the boys held, but 'twas a life sentence. They tuk me
by rail down to Dawson an' I give 'em the slip, handcuffs an' all.
Perhaps 'twas only a half-hearted chase they made fer me. Some of them
fellers mebbe had wives of their own." He always stopped to laugh at
this point. "An' I cut off up country till I come to a smithy at the
edge of a town. I hung round fer a spell till the smith hed gone off
an' I got into his place an' rid me of the handcuffs. 'Twas a job, but
I wasn't kotched at it an' I made myself free." Followed the story of
his wanderings and his hardships and his coming to Lone River and
setting out his traps. "In them days there weren't no law ag'in'
trappin' beaver. A man could make a honest livin'. Now they've tuk an'
made laws ag'in' a man's bread an' butter. I ask ye, if 't ain't wrong
on a Tuesday to trap yer beaver, why, 't ain't wrong the follerin'
Tuesday. I don't see it, jes becos some fellers back there has made a
law ag'in' it to suit theirselves. Anyway, the market fer beaver hides
is still prime. Mebbe I'll leave you a fortin, gel. I've saved you
from badness, anyhow. I risked a lot to go back an' git you, but I
done it. You was playin' out in front of yer aunt's house an' I come
fer you. You was a three-year-old an' a big youngster. Says I, 'What's
yer name?' Says you, 'Joan Carver'; an' I knowed you by yer likeness
to her. By God! I swore I'd save ye. I tuk you off with me, though
you put up a fight an' I hed to use you rough to silence you. 'There
ain't a-goin' to be no man in yer life, Joan Carver,' says I; 'you an'
yer big eyes is a-goin' to be fer me, to do my work an' to look after
my comforts. No pretty boys fer you an' no husbands either to go
a-shootin' of you down fer yer sins.'" He shivered and shook his head.
"No, here you stays with yer father an' grows up a good gel. There
ain't a-goin' to be no man in yer life, Joan."

But youth was stronger than the man's half-crazy will, and when she
was seventeen, Joan ran away.

She found her way easily enough to the town, for she was wise in the
tracks of a wild country, and John's trail townwards, though so rarely
used, was to her eyes plain enough; and very coolly she walked into
the hotel, past the group of loungers around the stove, and asked at
the desk, where Mrs. Upper sat, if she could get a job. Mrs. Upper and
the loungers stared, for there were few women in this frontier country
and those few were well known. This great, strong girl, heavily
graceful in her heavily awkward clothes, bareheaded, shod like a man,
her face and throat purely classic, her eyes gray and wide and as
secret in expression as an untamed beast's--no one had ever seen the
like of her before.

"What's yer name?" asked Mrs. Upper suspiciously. It was Mormon Day in
the town; there were celebrations and her house was full; she needed
extra hands, but where this wild creature was concerned she was
doubtful.

"Joan. I'm John Carver's daughter," answered the girl.

At once comprehension dawned; heads were nodded, then craned for a
better look. Yes, the town, the whole country even, had heard of John
Carver's imprisoned daughter. Sober and drunk, he had boasted of her
and of how there was to be "no man" in her life. It was like dangling
ripe fruit above the mouths of hungry boys to make such a boast in such
a land. But they were lazy. It was a country of lazy, slow-thinking,
slow-moving, and slow-talking adventurers--you will notice this
ponderous, inevitable quality of rolling stones--and though men talked
with humor not too fine of "travelin' up Lone River for John's gel,"
not a man had got there. Perhaps the men knew John Carver for a coward,
that most dangerous animal to meet in his own lair.

Now here stood the "gel," the mysterious secret goal of desire, a
splendid creature, virginal, savage, as certainly designed for man as
Eve. The men's eyes fastened upon her, moved and dropped.

"Your father sent you down here fer a job?" asked Mrs. Upper
incredulously.

"No. I come." Joan's grave gaze was unchanging. "I'm tired of it up
there. I ain't a-goin' back. I'm most eighteen now an' I kinder want a
change."

She had not meant to be funny, but a gust of laughter rattled the
room. She shrank back. It was more terrifying to her than any cruelty
she had fancied meeting her in the town. These were the men her father
had forbidden, these loud-laughing, crinkled faces. She had turned to
brave them, a great surge of color in her brows.

"Don't mind the boys, dear," spoke Mrs. Upper. "They will laff, joke
or none. We ain't none of us blamin' you. It's a wonder you ain't run
off long afore now. I can give you a job an' welcome, but you'll be
green an' unhandy. Well, sir, we kin learn ye. You kin turn yer hand
to chamber-work an' mebbe help at the table. Maud will show you. But,
Joan, what will dad do to you? He'll be takin' after you hot-foot, I
reckon, an' be fer gettin' you back home as soon as he can."

Joan did not change her look.

"I'll not be goin' back with him," she said.

Her slow, deep voice, chest notes of a musical vibration, stirred the
room. The men were hers and gruffly said so. A sudden warmth enveloped
her from heart to foot. She followed Mrs. Upper to the initiation in
her service, clothed for the first time in human sympathies.





Next: Pierre Lays His Hand On A Heart

Previous: The Wild Geese



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