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Prosper Comes To A Decision

From: The Branding Iron

Perhaps, in spite of his gruesome boast as to dead men, it was as much
to satisfy his own spirit as to comfort Joan's that Prosper actually
did undertake a journey to the cabin that had belonged to Pierre. It
was true that Prosper had never been able to stop thinking, not so
much of the tall, slim youth lying so still across the floor, all his
beauty and strength turned to an ashen slackness, as of a brown hand
that stirred. The motion of those fingers groping for life had
continually disturbed him. The man, to Prosper's mind, was an
insensate brute, deserving of death, even of torment, most deserving
of Joan's desertion, nevertheless, it was not easy to harden his
nerves against the picture of a man left, wounded and helpless, to die
slowly alone. Prosper went back expecting to find a dead man, went
back as a murderer visits the scene of his crime. He dubbed himself
more judge than murderer, but there was a restless misery of the
imagination not to be quieted by names. He went back stealthily at
dusk, choosing a dusk of wind-driven snow so that his tracks vanished
as soon as made. It was very desolate--the blank surface of the world
with its flying scud, the blank yellow-gray sky, the range, all iron
and white, the blue-black scars of leafless trees, the green-black
etchings of firs. The wind cut across like a scythe, sharp, but making
no stir above the drift. It was all dead and dark--an underground
world which, Prosper felt, never could have seen the sun, had no
memory of sun nor moon nor stars. The roof of Pierre's cabin made a
dark ridge above the snow, veiled in cloudy drift. He reached it with
a cold heart and slid down to its window, cautiously bending his face
near to the pane. He expected an interior already dark from the snow
piled round the window, so he cupped his hands about his eyes. At once
he let himself drop out of sight below the sill. There was a living
presence in the house. Prosper had seen a bright fire, the smoke of
which had been hidden by the snow-spray, a cot was drawn up before the
fire, and a big, fair young man in tweeds whose face, rosy, sensitive,
and quiet, was bent over the figure on the cot. A pair of large, white
hands were carefully busy.

Prosper, crouched below the window, considered what he had seen. It
was a week now since he had left Landis for a dying man. This big
fellow in tweeds must have come soon after the shooting. Evidently he
was not caring for a dead man. The black head on the pillow had moved.
Now there came the sound of speech, just a bass murmur. This time the
black head turned itself slightly and Prosper saw Pierre's face. He
had seen it only twice before; once when it had looked up, fierce and
crazed, at his first entrance into the house, once again when it lay
with lifted chin and pale lips on the floor. But even after so scarce
a memory, Prosper was startled by the change. Before, it had been the
face of a man beside himself with drink and the lust of animal power
and cruelty; now it was the wistful face of Pierre, drawn into a
tragic mask like Joan's when she came to herself; a miserably haunted
and harrowed face, hopeless as though it, too, like the outside world,
had lost or had never had a memory of sun. Evidently he submitted to
the dressing of his wound, but with a shamed and pitiful look.
Prosper's whole impression of the man was changed, and with the change
there began something like a struggle. He was afflicted by a crossing
of purposes and a stumbling of intention.

He did not care to risk a second look. He crept away and fled into the
windy dusk. He traveled with the wind like a blown rag, and, stopping
only for a few hours' rest at the ranger station, made the journey
home by morning of the second day. And on the journey he definitely
made up his mind concerning Joan.

Prosper Gael was a man of deliberate, though passionate, imagination.
He did not often act upon impulse, though his actions were often those
attempted only by passion-driven or impulsive folk. Prosper could
never plead thoughtlessness. He justified carefully his every action
to himself. Those were cold, dark hours of deliberation as he let the
wind drive him across the desolate land. When the wind dropped and a
splendid, still dawn swept up into the clean sky, he was at peace with
his own mind and climbed up the mountain trail with a half-smile on
his face.

In the dawn, awake on her pillows, Joan was listening for him, and at
the sound of his webs she sat up, pale to her lips. She did not know
what she feared, but she was filled with dread. The restful stupor
that had followed her storm of grief had spent itself and she was
suffering again--waves of longing for Pierre, of hatred for him,
alternately submerged her. All these bleak, gray hours of wind during
which Wen Ho had pattered in and out with meals, with wood for her
stove, with little questions as to her comfort, she had suffered as
people suffer in a dream; a restless misery like the misery of the
pine branches that leaped up and down before her window. The stillness
of the dawn, with its sound of nearing steps, gave her a sickness of
heart and brain, so that when Prosper came softly in at her door she
saw him through a mist. He moved quickly to her side, knelt by her,
took her hands. His touch at all times had a tingling charge of
vitality and will.

"He has been cared for, Joan," said Prosper. "Some friend of his came
and did all that was left to be done."

"Some friend?" In the pale, delicately expanding light Joan's face
gleamed between its black coils of hair with eyes like enchanted
tarns. In fact they had been haunted during his absence by images to
shake her soul. Prosper could see in them reflections of those terrors
that had been tormenting her. His touch pressed reassurance upon her,
his eyes, his voice.

"My poor child! My dear! I'm glad I am back to take care of you! Cry.
Let me comfort you. He has been cared for. He is not lying there
alone. He is dead. Let's forgive him, Joan." He shook her hands a
little, urgently, and a most painful memory of Pierre's beseeching
grasp came upon Joan.

She wrenched away and fell back, quivering, but she did not cry, only
asked in her most moving voice, "Who took care of Pierre--after I went
away and left him dead?"

Prosper got to his feet and stood with his arms folded, looking
wearily down at her. His mouth had fallen into rather cynical lines
and there were puckers at the corners of his eyes. "Oh, a big, fair
young man--a rosy boy-face, serious-looking, blue eyes."

Joan was startled and turned round. "It was Mr. Holliwell," she said,
in a wondering tone. "Did you talk with him? Did you tell him--?"

"No. Hardly." Prosper shook his head. "I found out what he had done
for your Pierre without asking unnecessary questions. I saw him, but
he did not see me."

"He'll be comin' to get me," said Joan. It was an entirely unemotional
statement of certainty.

Prosper pressed his lips into a line and narrowed his eyes upon her.

"Oh, he will?"

"Yes. He'll be takin' after me. He must 'a' ben scairt by somethin'
Pierre said in the town durin' their quarrel an' have come up after
him to look out what Pierre would be doin' to me.... I wisht he'd 'a'
come in time.... What must he be thinkin' of me now, to find Pierre
a-lyin' there dead, an' me gone! He'll be takin' after me to bring me

Prosper would almost have questioned her then, his sharp face was
certainly at that moment the face of an inquisitor, a set of keen and
delicate instruments ready for probing, but so weary and childlike did
she look, so weary and childlike was her speech, that he forbore. What
did it matter, after all, what there was in her past? She had done
what she had done, been what she had been. If the fellow had branded
her for sin, why, she had suffered overmuch. Prosper admitted, that,
unbranded as to skin, he was scarcely fit to put his dirty civilized
soul under her clean and savage foot. Was the big, rosy chap her
lover? She had spoken of a quarrel between him and Pierre? But her
manner of speaking of him was scarcely in keeping with the thought,
rather it was the manner of a child-soul relying on the Shepherd who
would be "takin' after" some small, lost one. Well, he would have to
be a superman to find her here with no trails to follow and no fingers
to point. Pierre by now would have told his story--and Prosper knew
instinctively that he would tell it straight; whatever madness the
young savage might perpetrate under the influence of drink and
jealousy, he would hardly, with that harrowed face, be apt at
fabrications--they would be looking for Joan to come back, to go to
the town, to some neighboring ranch. They would make a search, but
winter would be against them with its teeth bared, a blizzard was on
its way. By the time they found her, thought Prosper,--and he quoted
one of Joan's quaint phrases to himself, smiling with radiance as he
did so,--"she won't be carin' to leave me." In his gay, little,
firelit room, he sat, stretched out, lank and long, in the low, deep,
red-lacquered chair, dozing through the long day, sipping strong
coffee, smoking, reading. He was singularly quiet and content. The
devil of disappointment and of thwarted desire that had wived him in
this carefully appointed hiding-place stood away a little from him and
that wizard imagination of his began to weave. By dusk, he was writing
furiously and there was a glow of rapture on his face.

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