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Pierre Takes Steps To Preserve His Property







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

A log fell forward and Joan lifted her head. She had not come to an
end of Isabella's tragedy nor of her own memories, but something other
than the falling log had startled her; a light, crunching step upon
the snow.

She looked toward the window. For an instant the room was almost dark
and the white night peered in at her, its gigantic snow-peaks pressing
against the long, horizontal window panes, and in that instant she saw
a face. The fire started up again, the white night dropped away, the
face shone close a moment longer, then it too disappeared. Joan came
to her feet with pounding pulses. It had been Pierre's face, but at
the same time, the face of a stranger. He had come back five days too
soon and something terrible had happened. Surely his chancing to see
her with her book would not make him look like that. Besides, she was
not wasting oil. She had stood up, but at first she was incapable of
moving forward. For the first time in her life she knew the paralysis
of unreasoning fear. Then the door opened and Pierre came in out of
the crystal night.

"What brought you back so soon?" asked Joan.

"Too soon fer you, eh?" He strode over to the hearth where she had
lain, took up the book, struck it with his hand as though it had been
a hated face, and flung it into the fire. "I seen you through the
window," he said. "So you been happy readin' while I been away?"

"I'll get you supper. I'll light the lamp," Joan stammered.

Pierre's face was pale, his black hair lay in wet streaks on his
temples. He must have traveled at furious speed through the bitter
cold to be in such a sweat. There was a mysterious, controlled
disorder in his look and there arose from him the odor of strong
drink. But he was steady and sure in all his movements and his eyes
were deadly cool and reasonable--only it was the reasonableness of
insanity, reasonableness based on the wildest premises of unreason.

"I don't want no supper, nor no light," he said. "Firelight's enough
fer you to read parsons' books by, it's enough fer me to do what I
oughter done long afore to-night."

She stood in the middle of the small, log-walled room, arrested in the
act of lighting a match, and stared at him with troubled eyes. She was
no longer afraid. After all, strange as he looked, more strangely as
he talked, he was her Pierre, her man. The confidence of her heart had
not been seriously shaken by his coldness and his moods during this
winter. There had been times of fierce, possessive tenderness. She was
his own woman, his property; at this low counting did she rate
herself. A sane man does no injury to his own possessions. And Pierre,
of course, was sane. He was tired, angry, he had been drinking--her
ignorance, her inexperience led her to put little emphasis on the
effects of the poison sold at the town saloon. When he was warm and
fed and rested, he would be quite himself again. She went about
preparing a meal in spite of his words.

He did not seem to notice this. He had taken his eyes from her at last
and was busy with the fire. She, too, busy and reassured by the
familiar occupation, ceased to watch him. Her pulses were quiet now.
She was even beginning to be glad of his return. Why had she been so
frightened? Of course, after such a terrible journey alone in the
bitter cold, he would look strange. Her father, when he came back
smelling of liquor, had always been more than usually morose and
unlike his every-day self. He would sit over the stove and tell her
the story of his crime. They were horrible home-comings, horrible
evenings, but the next morning they would seem like dreams. To-morrow
this strangeness of Pierre's would be mistlike and unreal.

"I seen your sin-buster in town," said Pierre. He was squatting on his
heels over the fire which he had built up to a great blaze and glow
and he spoke in a queer sing-song tone through his teeth. "He asked
after you real kind. He wanted to know how you was gettin' on with the
edication he's ben handin' out to you. I tell him that you was right
satisfied with me an' my ways an' hed quit his books. I didn't know as
you was hevin' such a good time durin' my absence."

Joan was cruelly hurt. His words seemed to fall heavily upon her
heart. "I wasn't hevin' a good time. I was missin' you, Pierre," said
she in a low tremolo of grieving music. "Them books, they seemed like
they was all the company I hed."

"You looked like you was missin' me," he sneered. "The sin-buster an'
I had words about you, Joan. Yes'm, he give me quite a line of
preachin' about you, Joan, as how you hed oughter develop yer own life
in yer own way--along the lines laid out by him. I told him as how I
knowed best what was right an' fittin' fer my own wife; as how, with a
mother like your'n you needed watchin' more'n learnin'; as how you
belonged to me an' not to him. An', says he, 'She don't belong to any
man, Pierre Landis,' he said, 'neither to you nor to me. She belongs
to her own self.' 'I'll see that she belongs to me,' I said. 'I'll fix
her so she'll know it an' every other feller will.'"

At that he turned from the fire and straightened to his feet.

Joan moved backward slowly to the door. He had made no threatening
sign or movement, but her fear had come overwhelmingly upon her and
every instinct urged her to flight. But before she touched the handle
of the door, he flung himself with deadly, swift force and silence
across the room and took her in his arms. With all her wonderful young
strength, Joan could not break away from him. He dragged her back to
the hearth, tied her elbows behind her with the scarf from his neck,
that very scarf he had worn when the dawn had shed a wistful beauty
upon him, waiting for her on a morning not so very long ago. Joan went
weak.

"Pierre," she cried pitifully, "what are you a-goin' to do to me?"

He roped her to the heavy post of a set of shelves built against the
wall. Then he stood away, breathing fast.

"Now whose gel are you, Joan Carver?" he asked her.

"You know I'm yours, Pierre," she sobbed. "You got no need to tie me
to make me say that."

"I got to tie you to make you do more'n say it. I got to make sure you
are it. Hell-fire won't take the sureness out of me after this."

She turned her head, all that she could turn.

He was bending over the fire, and when he straightened she saw that he
held something in his hand ... a long bar of metal, white at the
shaped end. At once her memory showed her a broad glow of sunset
falling over Pierre at work. "There'll be stock all over the country
marked with them two bars," he had said. "The Two-Bar Brand, don't you
fergit it!" She was not likely to forget it now.

She shut her eyes. He stepped close to her and jerked her blouse down
from her shoulder. She writhed away from him, silent in her rage and
fear and fighting dumbly. She made no appeal. At that moment her heart
was so full of hatred that it was hardened to pride. He lifted his
brand and set it against the bare flesh of her shoulder.

Then terribly she screamed. Again, when he took the metal away, she
screamed. Afterwards there was a dreadful silence.

Joan had not lost consciousness. Her healthy nerves stanchly received
the anguish and the shock, nor did she make any further outcry. She
pressed her forehead against the sharp edge of the shelf, she drove
her nails into her hands, and at intervals she writhed from head to
foot. Circles of pain spread from the deep burn on her shoulder,
spread and shrank, to spread and shrink again. The bones of her
shoulder and arm ached terribly; fire still seemed to be eating into
her flesh. The air was full of the smell of scorched skin so that she
tasted it herself. And hotter than her hurt her heart burned consuming
its own tenderness and love and trust.

When this pain left her, when she was free of her bonds, no force nor
fear would hold her to Pierre. She would leave him as she had left her
father. She would go away. There was no place for her to go to, but
what did that matter so long as she might escape from this horrible
place and this infernal tormentor? She did not look about to see the
actuality of Pierre's silence. She thought that he had dropped the
brand and was sitting near the table with his face hidden. How long
the stillness of pain and fury and horror lasted there was no one to
reckon. It was most startlingly broken by a voice. "Who screamed for
help?" it said, and at the same instant a draught of icy air smote
Joan. The door had opened with suddenness and violence. With
difficulty she mastered her pain and turned her head.

Pierre had staggered to his feet. Opposite him, framed against the
open door filled with the wan whiteness of the snow, stood a spare,
tall figure. The man wore his fur collar turned up about his chin and
ears, his fur cap pulled down about his brow, a sharp aquiline nose
stood out above frozen mustaches, keen and brilliant eyes searched the
room. He carried his gun across his arm in readiness, and snuffed the
air like a suspicious hound. Then he advanced a step toward Pierre.

"What devil's work have you been at?" said he, his voice cutting the
ear in its sharpness of astonished rage, and his hand slid down along
the handle of his gun.

Pierre, watching him like a lynx, side-stepped, crouched, whipped out
his gun, and fired. At almost the same second the other's gun went
off. Pierre dropped.

This time Joan's nerves gave way and the room, with its smell of
scorched flesh, of powder, and of frost, went out from her horrified
senses. For a moment the stranger's stern face and brilliant eyes made
the approaching center of a great cloud of darkness, then it too went
out.





Next: The Judgment Of God

Previous: Pierre Becomes Alarmed About His Property



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