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The Sin-buster







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

In the fall, when the whole country had turned to a great cup of gold,
purple-rimmed under the sky, Pierre went out into the hills after his
winter meat. Joan was left alone. She spent her time cleaning and
arranging the two-room cabin, and tidying up outdoors, and in
"grubbing sagebrush," a gigantic task, for the one hundred and fifty
acres of Pierre's homestead were covered for the most part by the
sturdy, spicy growth, and every bush had to be dug out and burnt to
clear the way for ploughing and planting. Joan worked with the
deliberateness and intentness of a man. She enjoyed the wholesome
drudgery. She was proud every sundown of the little clearing she had
made, and stood, tired and content, to watch the piled brush burn,
sending up aromatic smoke and curious, dull flames very high into the
still air.

She was so standing, hands folded on her rake, when, on the other side
of her conflagration, she perceived a man. He was steadily regarding
her, and when her eyes fell upon him, he smiled and stepped forward--a
tall, broad, very fair young man in a shooting coat, khaki
riding-breeches, and puttees. He had a wide brow, clear, blue eyes and
an eager, sensitive, clean-shaven mouth and chin. He held out a big
white hand.

"Mrs. Landis," he said, in a crisp voice of an accent and finish
strange to the girl "I wonder if you and your husband can put me up
for the night. I'm Frank Holliwell. I'm on a round of parish visits,
and, as my parish is about sixty miles square, my poor old pony has
gone lame. I know you are not my parishioners, though, no doubt, you
should be, but I'm going to lay claim to your hospitality, for all
that, if I may?"

Joan had moved her rake into the grasp of her left hand and had taken
the proffered palm into her other, all warm and fragrantly stained.

"You're the new sin-buster, ain't you?" she asked gravely.

The young man opened his blue and friendly eyes.

"Oh, that's what I am, eh? That's a new one to me. Yes. I suppose I
am. It's rather a fine name to go by--sin-buster," and he laughed very
low and very amusedly.

Joan looked him over and slowly smiled. "You look like you could bust
anything you'd a mind to," she said, and led the way toward the house,
her rake across her shoulder.

"Pierre," she told him when they were in the shining, clean log house,
"is off in the hills after his elk, but I can make you up a bed in the
settin'-room an' serve you a supper an' welcome."

"Oh, thanks," he rather doubtfully accepted.

Evidently he did not know the ways and proprieties of this new
"parish" of his. But Joan seemed to take the situation with an
enormous calm impersonality. He modeled his manner upon hers. They sat
at the table together, Joan silent, save when he forced her to speak,
and entirely untroubled by her silence, Frank Holliwell eating
heartily, helping her serve, and talking a great deal. He asked her a
great many questions, which she answered with direct simplicity. By
the end of dish-washing, he had her history and more of her opinions,
probably, than any other creature she had met.

"What do you do when Landis is away?"

She told him.

"But, in the evenings, I mean, after work. Have you books?"

"No," said Joan; "it's right hard labor, readin'. Pa learned me my
letters an' I can spell out bits from papers an' advertisements an'
what not, but I ain't never read a book straight out. I dunno," she
added presently, "but as I'd like to. Pierre can read," she told him
proudly.

"I'm sure you'd like to." He considered her through the smoke of his
pipe. He was sitting by the hearth now, and she, just through with
clearing up, stood by the corner of the mantel shelf, arranging the
logs. The firelight danced over her face, so beautiful, so unlighted
from within.

"How old are you, Joan Landis?" he asked suddenly, using her name
without title for the first time.

"Eighteen."

"Is that all? You must read books, you know. There's so much empty
space there back of your brows."

She looked up smiling a little, her wide gray eyes puzzled.

"Yes, Joan. You must read. Will you--if I lend you some books?"

She considered. "Yes," she said. "I'd read them if you'd be lendin' me
some. In the evenings when Pierre's away, I'm right lonesome. I never
was lonesome before, not to know it. It'll take me a long time to read
one book, though," she added with an engaging mournfulness.

"What do you like--stories, poetry, magazines?"

"I'd like real books in stiff covers," said Joan, "an' I don't like
pictures."

This surprised the clergyman. "Why not?" said he.

"I like to notion how the folks look myself. I like pictures of real
places, that has got to be like they are"--Joan was talking a great
deal and having trouble with her few simple words--"but I like folks
in stories to look like I want 'em to look."

"Not the way the writer describes them?"

"Yes, sir. But you can make up a whole lot on what the writer
describes. If he says 'her eyes is blue'; you can see 'em dark blue or
light blue or jest blue. An' you can see 'em shaped round or what not,
the way you think about folks that you've heard of an' have never
met."

It was extraordinary how this effort at self-expression excited Joan.
She was rarely self-conscious, but she was usually passive or stolid;
now there was a brilliant flush in her face and her large eyes
deepened and glowed. "I heerd tell of you, Mr. Holliwell. Fellers come
up here to see Pierre once in a while an' one or two of 'em spoke your
name. An' I kinder figured out you was a weedy feller, awful
solemn-like, an' of course you ain't, but it's real hard for me to
notion that there ain't two Mr. Holliwells, you an' the weedy
sin-buster I've ben picturin'. Like as not I'll get to thinkin' of you
like two fellers." Joan sighed. "Seems like when I onct get a notion
in my head it jest sticks there some way."

"Then the more wise notions you get the better. I'll ride up here in a
couple of weeks' time with some books. You may keep them as long as
you will. All winter, if you like. When I can get up here, we can talk
them over, you and Landis and I. I'll try to choose some without
pictures. There will be stories and some poetry, too."

"I ain't never read but one pome," said Joan.

"And that was?"

She had sat down on the floor by the hearth, her head thrown back to
lean against the cobbles of the chimney-piece, her knees locked in her
hands. That magnificent long throat of hers ran up to the black coils
of hair which had slipped heavily down over her ears. The light edged
her round chin and her strongly modeled, regular features; the full,
firm mouth so savagely pure and sensuous and self-contained. The eyes
were mysterious under their thick lashes and dark, long brows. This
throat and face and these strong hands were picked out in their full
value of line and texture from the dark cotton dress she was wearing.

"It's a pome on a card what father had, stuck ag'in' the wall." She
began to recite, her eyes fixed upon him with childlike gravity. "'He
maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the
still waters.... Yea, though I walk through the valley of shadows,
thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.'"

Holliwell had taken the pipe from between his teeth, had straightened
up. Her deep voice, the slight swinging of her body to the rhythm she
had unconsciously given to her lines, the strange glow in her eyes ...
Holliwell wondered why these things, this brief, sing-song recitation,
had given a light thrill to the surface of his skin, had sent a
tingling to his fingertips. He was the first person to wonder at that
effect of Joan's cadenced music. "The valley of the shadow--" she had
missed a familiar phrase and added value to a too often repeated line.

"Joan! Joan!" said the "sin-buster," an exclamation drawn from him on
a deep breath, "what an extraordinary girl you are! What a marvelous
woman you are going to be!"

Joan looked at him in a silence of pure astonishment and that was the
end of their real talk.





Next: Pierre Becomes Alarmed About His Property

Previous: Two Pictures In The Fire



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