The Sin-buster





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.





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