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Pierre Becomes Alarmed About His Property

From: The Branding Iron

The next time Holliwell came, he brought the books, and, finding
Pierre at home, he sat with his host after supper and talked men's
talk of the country; of game, of ranching, a little gossip, stories of
travel, humorous experiences, and Joan sat in her place, the books in
her lap, looking and listening.

John Carver had used a phrase, "When you see her eyes lookin' and
lookin' at another man--" and this phrase had stuck in Pierre's
sensitive and jealous memory. What Joan felt for Holliwell was a sort
of ignorant and respectful tenderness, the excitement of an intelligent
child first moved to a knowledge of its own intelligence; the gratitude
of savage loneliness toward the beautiful feet of exploration. A
consciousness of her clean mind, a consciousness of her young, untamed
spirit, had come slowly to life in her since her talk with Holliwell.
Joan was peculiarly a woman--that is, the passive and receptive being.
Pierre had laid his hand on her heart and she had followed him; now
this young parson had put a curious finger on her brain, it followed
him. Her husband saw the admiration, the gratitude, the tender
excitement in her frank eyes, and the poison seed sown by John Carver's
hand shot out roots and tiny, deadly branches.

But Joan and Holliwell were unaware. Pierre smoked rapidly, rolling
cigarette after cigarette; he listened with a courteous air, he told
stories in his soft, slow voice; once he went out to bring in a fresh
log and, coming back on noiseless feet, saw Joan and her instructor
bent over one of the books and Joan's face was almost that of a
stranger, so eager, so flushed, with sparkles in the usually still,
gray eyes.

It was not till a week or two after this second visit from the clergyman
that Pierre's smouldering jealousy broke into flame. After clearing away
the supper things with an absent air of eager expectation, Joan would
dry her hands on her apron, and, taking down one of her books from their
place in a shelf corner, she would draw her chair close to the lamp and
begin to read, forgetful of Pierre. These had been the happiest hours
for him; he would tell Joan about his day's work, about his plans, about
his past life; wonderful it was to him, after his loneliness, that she
should be sitting there drinking in every word and loving him with her
dumb, wild eyes. Now, there was no talk and no listening. Joan's
absorbed face was turned from him and bent over her book, her lips
moved, she would stop and stare before her. After a long while, he would
get up and go to bed, but she would stay with her books till a restless
movement from him would make her aware of the lamplight shining
wakefulness upon him through the chinks in the partition wall. Then she
would get up reluctantly, sighing, and come to bed.

For ten evenings this went on, Pierre's heart slowly heating itself,
until, all at once, the flame leaped.

Joan had untied her apron and reached up for her book. Pierre had been
waiting, hoping that of her free will she might prefer his company to
the "parson feller's"--for in his ignorance those books were jealously
personified--but, without a glance in his direction, she had turned as
usual to the shelf.

"You goin' to read?" asked Pierre hoarsely. It was a painful effort to

She turned with a childish look of astonishment. "Yes, Pierre."

He stood up with one of his lithe, swift movements, all in one
rippling piece. "By God, you're not, though!" said he, strode over to
her, snatched the volume from her, threw it back into its place, and
pointed her to her chair.

"You set down an' give heed to me fer a change, Joan Carver," he said,
his smoke-colored eyes smouldering. "I didn't fetch you up here to
read parsons' books an' waste oil. I fetched you up here--to--" He
stopped, choked with a sudden, enormous hurt tenderness and sat down
and fell to smoking and staring, hot-eyed, into the fire.

And Joan sat silent in her place, puzzled, wistful, wounded, her idle
hands folded, looking at him for a while, then absently before her,
and he knew that her mind was busy again with the preacher feller's
books. If he had known better how to explain his heart, if she had
known how to show him the impersonal eagerness of her awakening
mind--! But, savage and silent, they sat there, loving each other,
hurt, but locked each into his own impenetrable life.

After that, Joan changed the hours of her study and neglected
housework and sagebrush-grubbing, but, nonetheless, were Pierre's
evenings spoiled. Perfection of intercourse is the most perishable of
all life's commodities. Now, when he talked, he could not escape the
consciousness of having constrained his audience; she could not escape
her knowledge of his jealousy, the remembrance of his mysterious
outbreak, the irrepressible tug of the story she was reading. So it
went on till snow came and they were shut in, man and wife, with only
each other to watch, a tremendous test of good-fellowship. This
searching intimacy came at a bad time, just after Holliwell's third
visit when he had brought a fresh supply of books.

"There's poetry this time," he said. "Get Pierre to read it aloud to

The suggestion was met by a rude laugh from Pierre.

"I wouldn't be wastin' my time," he jeered.

It was the first rift in his courtesy. Holliwell looked up in sharp
surprise. He saw a flash of the truth, a little wriggle of the green
serpent in Pierre's eyes before they fell. He flushed and glanced at
Joan. She stood by the table in the circle of lamplight, looking over
the new books, but in her eagerness there was less simplicity. She
wore an almost timorous air, accepted his remarks in silence, shot
doubtful looks at Pierre before she answered questions, was an
entirely different Joan. Now Holliwell was angry and he stiffened
toward his host and hostess, dropped all his talk about the books and
smoked haughtily. He was young and over-sensitive, no more master of
himself in this instance than Pierre and Joan. But before he left
after supper, refusing a bed, though Pierre conquered his dislike
sufficiently to urge it, Holliwell had a moment with Joan. It was very
touching. He would tell about it afterwards, but, for a long time, he
could not bear to remember it.

She tried to return his books, coming with her arms full of them and
lifting up eyes that were almost tragic with renunciation.

"I can't be takin' the time to read them, Mr. Holliwell," she said,
that extraordinary, over-expressive voice of hers running an octave of
regret; "an' someway Pierre don't like that I should spend my evenin's
on them. Seems like he thinks I was settin' myself up to be knowin'
more than him." She laughed ruefully. "Me--knowin' more'n Pierre! It's
laughable. But anyways I don't want him to be thinkin' that. So take
the books, please. I like them." She paused. "I love them," she said
hungrily and, blinking, thrust them into his hands.

He put them down on the table. "You're wrong, Joan," he said quickly.
"You mustn't give in to such a foolish idea. You have rights of your
own, a life of your own. Pierre mustn't stand in the way of your
learning. You mustn't let him. I'll speak to him."

"Oh, no!" Some intuition warned her of the danger in his doing this.

"Well, then, keep your books and talk to Pierre about them. Try to
persuade him to read aloud to you. I shan't be back now till spring,
but I want you to read this winter, read all the stuff that's there.
Come, Joan, to please me," and he smiled coaxingly.

"I ain't afeared of Pierre," said Joan slowly. Her pride was stung by
the suggestion. "I'll keep the books." She sighed. "Good-bye. When I
see you in the spring, I'll be a right learned school-marm."

She held out her hand and he took and held it, pressing it in his own.
He felt troubled about her, unwilling to leave her in the snowbound
wilderness with that young savage of the smouldering eyes.

"Good-bye," said Pierre behind him. His soft voice had a click.

Holliwell turned to him. "Good-bye, Landis. I shan't see either of you
till the spring. I wish you a good winter and I hope--" He broke off
and held out his hand. "Well," said he, "you're pretty far out of
every one's way here. Be good to each other."

"Damn your interference!" said Pierre's eyes, but he took the hand and
even escorted Holliwell to his horse.

Snow came early and deep that winter. It fell for long, gray days and
nights, and then it came in hurricanes of drift, wrapping the cabin in
swirling white till only one window peered out and one gabled corner
cocked itself above the crust. Pierre had cut and stacked his winter
wood; he had sent his cows to a richer man's ranch for winter feeding.
There was very little for him to do. After he had brought in two
buckets of water from the well and had cut, for the day's consumption,
a piece of meat from his elk hanging outside against the wall, he had
only to sit and smoke, to read old magazines and papers, and to watch
Joan. Then the poisonous roots of his jealousy struck deep. Always his
brain, unaccustomed to physical idleness, was at work, falsely
interpreting her wistful silence--she was thinking of the parson,
hungry to read his books, longing for the open season and his coming
again to the ranch.

In December a man came in on snowshoes bringing "the mail"--one letter
for Pierre, a communication which brought heat to his face. The Forest
Service threatened him with a loss of land; it pointed to some flaw in
his title; part of his property, the most valuable part, had not yet
been surveyed.... Pierre looked up with set jaws, every fighting
instinct sharpened to hold what was his own.

"I hev put in two years' hard work on them acres," he told his
visitor, "an' I'm not plannin' to give them over to the first fool
favored by the Service. My title is as clean as my hand. It'll take
more'n thievery an' more'n spite to take it away from me."

"You better go to Robinson," advised the bearer of the letter; "can't
get after them fellers too soon. It's a country where you can easy
come by what you want, but where it ain't so easy to hold on to it. If
it ain't yer land, it's yer hosses; if it ain't yer hosses, it's yer
wife." He looked at Joan and laughed.

Pierre went white and dumb; the chance shot had inflamed his wound.

He strapped on his snowshoes and bade a grim good-bye to Joan, after
the man had left. "Don't you be wastin' oil while I'm away," he told
her sharply, standing in the doorway, his head level with the steep
wall of snow behind him, and he gave her a threatening look so that
the tenderness in her heart was frozen.

After he had gone, "Pierre, say a real good-bye, say good-bye," she
whispered. Her face cramped and tears came.

She heard his steps lightly crunching across the hard, bright surface
of the snow, they entered into the terrible frozen silence. Then she
turned from the door, dried her eyes with her sleeve like a little
village girl, and ran across the room to a certain shelf. Pierre would
be gone a week. She would not waste oil, but she would read. It was
with the appetite of a starved creature that she fell upon her books.

Next: Pierre Takes Steps To Preserve His Property

Previous: The Sin-buster

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