The Branding Iron (The Two-Bar Brand - Chapter 1 Joan Reads by Firelight , page 1 of 6)


 
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There is no silence so fearful, so breathless, so searching as the
night silence of a wild country buried five feet deep in snow. For
thirty miles or so, north, south, east, and west of the small,
half-smothered speck of gold in Pierre Landis's cabin window, there
lay, on a certain December night, this silence, bathed in moonlight.
The cold was intense: below the bench where Pierre's homestead lay,
there rose from the twisted, rapid river, a cloud of steam, above
which the hoar-frosted tops of cottonwood trees were perfectly
distinct, trunk, branch, and twig, against a sky the color of iris
petals. The stars flared brilliantly, hardly dimmed by the full moon,
and over the vast surface of the snow minute crystals kept up a steady
shining of their own. The range of sharp, wind-scraped mountains,
uplifted fourteen thousand feet, rode across the country, northeast,
southwest, dazzling in white armor, spears up to the sky, a sight,
seen suddenly, to take the breath, like the crashing march of
archangels militant.

In the center of this ring of silent crystal, Pierre Landis's logs
shut in a little square of warm and ruddy human darkness. Joan, his
wife, made the heart of this defiant space--Joan, the one mind living
in this ghostly area of night. She had put out the lamp, for Pierre,
starting townward two days before, had warned her with a certain
threatening sharpness not to waste oil, and she lay on the hearth, her
rough head almost in the ashes, reading a book by the unsteady light
of the flames. She followed the printed lines with a strong, dark
forefinger and her lips framed the words with slow, whispering
motions. It was a long, strong woman's body stretched there across the
floor, heavily if not sluggishly built, dressed rudely in warm stuffs
and clumsy boots, and it was a heavy face, too, unlit from within, but
built on lines of perfect animal beauty. The head and throat had the
massive look of a marble fragment stained to one even tone and dug up
from Attic earth. And she was reading thus heavily and slowly, by
firelight in the midst of this tremendous Northern night, Keats's
version of Boccaccio's "Tale of Isabella and the Pot of Basil."

 
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