From: Riders Of The Purple Sage
As Lassiter had reported to Jane, Venters "went through" safely,
and after a toilsome journey reached the peaceful shelter of
Surprise Valley. When finally he lay wearily down under the
silver spruces, resting from the strain of dragging packs and
burros up the slope and through the entrance to Surprise Valley,
he had leisure to think, and a great deal of the time went in
regretting that he had not been frank with his loyal friend, Jane
But, he kept continually recalling, when he had stood once more
face to face with her and had been shocked at the change in her
and had heard the details of her adversity, he had not had the
heart to tell her of the closer interest which had entered his
life. He had not lied; yet he had kept silence.
Bess was in transports over the stores of supplies and the outfit
he had packed from Cottonwoods. He had certainly brought a
hundred times more than he had gone for; enough, surely, for
years, perhaps to make permanent home in the valley. He saw no
reason why he need ever leave there again.
After a day of rest he recovered his strength and shared Bess's
pleasure in rummaging over the endless packs, and began to plan
for the future. And in this planning, his trip to Cottonwoods,
with its revived hate of Tull and consequent unleashing of fierce
passions, soon faded out of mind. By slower degrees his
friendship for Jane Withersteen and his contrition drifted from
the active preoccupation of his present thought to a place in
memory, with more and more infrequent recalls.
And as far as the state of his mind was concerned, upon the
second day after his return, the valley, with its golden hues and
purple shades, the speaking west wind and the cool, silent night,
and Bess's watching eyes with their wonderful light, so wrought
upon Venters that he might never have left them at all.
That very afternoon he set to work. Only one thing hindered him
upon beginning, though it in no wise checked his delight, and
that in the multiplicity of tasks planned to make a paradise out
of the valley he could not choose the one with which to begin. He
had to grow into the habit of passing from one dreamy pleasure to
another, like a bee going from flower to flower in the valley,
and he found this wandering habit likely to extend to his labors.
Nevertheless, he made a start.
At the outset he discovered Bess to be both a considerable help
in some ways and a very great hindrance in others. Her excitement
and joy were spurs, inspirations; but she was utterly
impracticable in her ideas, and she flitted from one plan to
another with bewildering vacillation. Moreover, he fancied that
she grew more eager, youthful, and sweet; and he marked that it
was far easier to watch her and listen to her than it was to
work. Therefore he gave her tasks that necessitated her going
often to the cave where he had stored his packs.
Upon the last of these trips, when he was some distance down the
terrace and out of sight of camp, he heard a scream, and then the
sharp barking of the dogs.
For an instant he straightened up, amazed. Danger for her had
been absolutely out of his mind. She had seen a rattlesnake--or a
wildcat. Still she would not have been likely to scream at sight
of either; and the barking of the dogs was ominous. Dropping his
work, he dashed back along the terrace. Upon breaking through a
clump of aspens he saw the dark form of a man in the camp. Cold,
then hot, Venters burst into frenzied speed to reach his guns. He
was cursing himself for a thoughtless fool when the man's tall
form became familiar and he recognized Lassiter. Then the
reversal of emotions changed his run to a walk; he tried to call
out, but his voice refused to carry; when he reached camp there
was Lassiter staring at the white-faced girl. By that time Ring
and Whitie had recognized him.
"Hello, Venters! I'm makin' you a visit," said Lassiter, slowly.
"An' I'm some surprised to see you've a--a young feller for
One glance had sufficed for the keen rider to read Bess's real
sex, and for once his cool calm had deserted him. He stared till
the white of Bess's cheeks flared into crimson. That, if it were
needed, was the concluding evidence of her femininity, for it
went fittingly with her sun-tinted hair and darkened, dilated
eyes, the sweetness of her mouth, and the striking symmetry of
her slender shape.
"Heavens! Lassiter!" panted Venters, when he caught his breath.
"What relief--it's only you! How--in the name of all that's
wonderful--did you ever get here?"
"I trailed you. We--I wanted to know where you was, if you had a
safe place. So I trailed you."
"Trailed me," cried Venters, bluntly.
"I reckon. It was some of a job after I got to them smooth rocks.
I was all day trackin' you up to them little cut steps in the
rock. The rest was easy."
"Where's your hoss? I hope you hid him."
"I tied him in them queer cedars down on the slope. He can't be
seen from the valley."
"That's good. Well, well! I'm completely dumfounded. It was my
idea that no man could track me in here."
"I reckon. But if there's a tracker in these uplands as good as
me he can find you."
"That's bad. That'll worry me. But, Lassiter, now you're here I'm
glad to see you. And--and my companion here is not a young
fellow!...Bess, this is a friend of mine. He saved my life once."
The embarrassment of the moment did not extend to Lassiter.
Almost at once his manner, as he shook hands with Bess, relieved
Venters and put the girl at ease. After Venters's words and one
quick look at Lassiter, her agitation stilled, and, though she
was shy, if she were conscious of anything out of the ordinary in
the situation, certainly she did not show it.
"I reckon I'll only stay a little while," Lassiter was saying.
"An' if you don't mind troublin', I'm hungry. I fetched some
biscuits along, but they're gone. Venters, this place is sure the
wonderfullest ever seen. Them cut steps on the slope! That outlet
into the gorge! An' it's like climbin' up through hell into
heaven to climb through that gorge into this valley! There's a
queer-lookin' rock at the top of the passage. I didn't have time
to stop. I'm wonderin' how you ever found this place. It's sure
During the preparation and eating of dinner Lassiter listened
mostly, as was his wont, and occasionally he spoke in his quaint
and dry way. Venters noted, however, that the rider showed an
increasing interest in Bess. He asked her no questions, and only
directed his attention to her while she was occupied and had no
opportunity to observe his scrutiny. It seemed to Venters that
Lassiter grew more and more absorbed in his study of Bess, and
that he lost his coolness in some strange, softening sympathy.
Then, quite abruptly, he arose and announced the necessity for
his early departure. He said good-by to Bess in a voice gentle
and somewhat broken, and turned hurriedly away. Venters
accompanied him, and they had traversed the terrace, climbed the
weathered slope, and passed under the stone bridge before either
Then Lassiter put a great hand on Venters's shoulder and wheeled
him to meet a smoldering fire of gray eyes.
"Lassiter, I couldn't tell Jane! I couldn't," burst out Venters,
reading his friend's mind. "I tried. But I couldn't. She wouldn't
understand, and she has troubles enough. And I love the girl!"
"Venters, I reckon this beats me. I've seen some queer things in
my time, too. This girl--who is she?"
"I don't know."
"Don't know! What is she, then?"
"I don't know that, either. Oh, it's the strangest story you ever
heard. I must tell you. But you'll never believe."
"Venters, women were always puzzles to me. But for all that, if
this girl ain't a child, an' as innocent, I'm no fit person to
think of virtue an' goodness in anybody. Are you goin' to be
square with her?"
"I am--so help me God!"
"I reckoned so. Mebbe my temper oughtn't led me to make sure.
But, man, she's a woman in all but years. She's sweeter 'n the
"Lassiter, I know, I know. And the hell of it is that in spite of
her innocence and charm she's--she's not what she seems!"
"I wouldn't want to--of course, I couldn't call you a liar,
Venters," said the older man.
"What's more, she was Oldring's Masked Rider!"
Venters expected to floor his friend with that statement, but he
was not in any way prepared for the shock his words gave. For an
instant he was astounded to see Lassiter stunned; then his own
passionate eagerness to unbosom himself, to tell the wonderful
story, precluded any other thought.
"Son, tell me all about this," presently said Lassiter as he
seated himself on a stone and wiped his moist brow.
Thereupon Venters began his narrative at the point where he had
shot the rustler and Oldring's Masked Rider, and he rushed
through it, telling all, not holding back even Bess's unreserved
avowal of her love or his deepest emotions.
"That's the story," he said, concluding. "I love her, though I've
never told her. If I did tell her I'd be ready to marry her, and
that seems impossible in this country. I'd be afraid to risk
taking her anywhere. So I intend to do the best I can for her
"The longer I live the stranger life is," mused Lassiter, with
downcast eyes. "I'm reminded of somethin' you once said to Jane
about hands in her game of life. There's that unseen hand of
power, an' Tull's black hand, an' my red one, an' your
indifferent one, an' the girl's little brown, helpless one. An',
Venters there's another one that's all-wise an' all-wonderful.
That's the hand guidin' Jane Withersteen's game of life!...Your
story's one to daze a far clearer head than mine. I can't offer
no advice, even if you asked for it. Mebbe I can help you.
Anyway, I'll hold Oldrin' up when he comes to the village an'
find out about this girl. I knew the rustler years ago. He'll
"Lassiter, if I ever meet Oldring I'll kill him!" cried Venters,
with sudden intensity.
"I reckon that'd be perfectly natural," replied the rider.
"Make him think Bess is dead--as she is to him and that old
"Sure, sure, son. Cool down now. If you're goin' to begin pullin'
guns on Tull an' Oldin' you want to be cool. I reckon, though,
you'd better keep hid here. Well, I must be leavin'."
"One thing, Lassiter. You'll not tell Jane about Bess? Please
"I reckon not. But I wouldn't be afraid to bet that after she'd
got over anger at your secrecy--Venters, she'd be furious once in
her life!--she'd think more of you. I don't mind sayin' for
myself that I think you're a good deal of a man."
In the further ascent Venters halted several times with the
intention of saying good-by, yet he changed his mind and kept on
climbing till they reached Balancing Rock. Lassiter examined the
huge rock, listened to Venters's idea of its position and
suggestion, and curiously placed a strong hand upon it.
"Hold on!" cried Venters. "I heaved at it once and have never
gotten over my scare."
"Well, you do seem uncommon nervous," replied Lassiter, much
amused. "Now, as for me, why I always had the funniest notion to
roll stones! When I was a kid I did it, an' the bigger I got the
bigger stones I'd roll. Ain't that funny? Honest--even now I
often get off my hoss just to tumble a big stone over a
precipice, en' watch it drop, en' listen to it bang an' boom.
I've started some slides in my time, an' don't you forget it. I
never seen a rock I wanted to roll as bad as this one! Wouldn't
there jest be roarin', crashin' hell down that trail?"
"You'd close the outlet forever!" exclaimed Venters. "Well,
good-by, Lassiter. Keep my secret and don't forget me. And be
mighty careful how you get out of the valley below. The rustlers'
canyon isn't more than three miles up the Pass. Now you've
tracked me here, I'll never feel safe again."
In his descent to the valley, Venters's emotion, roused to
stirring pitch by the recital of his love story, quieted
gradually, and in its place came a sober, thoughtful mood. All at
once he saw that he was serious, because he would never more
regain his sense of security while in the valley. What Lassiter
could do another skilful tracker might duplicate. Among the many
riders with whom Venters had ridden he recalled no one who could
have taken his trail at Cottonwoods and have followed it to the
edge of the bare slope in the pass, let alone up that glistening
smooth stone. Lassiter, however, was not an ordinary rider.
Instead of hunting cattle tracks he had likely spent a goodly
portion of his life tracking men. It was not improbable that
among Oldring's rustlers there was one who shared Lassiter's gift
for trailing. And the more Venters dwelt on this possibility the
more perturbed he grew.
Lassiter's visit, moreover, had a disquieting effect upon Bess,
and Venters fancied that she entertained the same thought as to
future seclusion. The breaking of their solitude, though by a
well-meaning friend, had not only dispelled all its dream and
much of its charm, but had instilled a canker of fear. Both had
seen the footprint in the sand.
Venters did no more work that day. Sunset and twilight gave way
to night, and the canyon bird whistled its melancholy notes, and
the wind sang softly in the cliffs, and the camp-fire blazed and
burned down to red embers. To Venters a subtle difference was
apparent in all of these, or else the shadowy change had been in
him. He hoped that on the morrow this slight depression would
have passed away.
In that measure, however, he was doomed to disappointment.
Furthermore, Bess reverted to a wistful sadness that he had not
observed in her since her recovery. His attempt to cheer her out
of it resulted in dismal failure, and consequently in a darkening
of his own mood. Hard work relieved him; still, when the day had
passed, his unrest returned. Then he set to deliberate thinking,
and there came to him the startling conviction that he must leave
Surprise Valley and take Bess with him. As a rider he had taken
many chances, and as an adventurer in Deception Pass he had
unhesitatingly risked his life, but now he would run no
preventable hazard of Bess's safety and happiness, and he was too
keen not to see that hazard. It gave him a pang to think of
leaving the beautiful valley just when he had the means to
establish a permanent and delightful home there. One flashing
thought tore in hot temptation through his mind--why not climb up
into the gorge, roll Balancing Rock down the trail, and close
forever the outlet to Deception Pass? "That was the beast in
me--showing his teeth!" muttered Venters, scornfully. "I'll just
kill him good and quick! I'll be fair to this girl, if it's the
last thing I do on earth!"
Another day went by, in which he worked less and pondered more
and all the time covertly watched Bess. Her wistfulness had
deepened into downright unhappiness, and that made his task to
tell her all the harder. He kept the secret another day, hoping
by some chance she might grow less moody, and to his exceeding
anxiety she fell into far deeper gloom. Out of his own secret and
the torment of it he divined that she, too, had a secret and the
keeping of it was torturing her. As yet he had no plan thought
out in regard to how or when to leave the valley, but he decided
to tell her the necessity of it and to persuade her to go.
Furthermore, he hoped his speaking out would induce her to
unburden her own mind.
"Bess, what's wrong with you?" he asked.
"Nothing," she answered, with averted face.
Venters took hold of her gently, though masterfully, forced her
to meet his eyes.
"You can't look at me and lie," he said. "Now--what's wrong with
you? You're keeping something from me. Well, I've got a secret,
too, and I intend to tell it presently."
"Oh--I have a secret. I was crazy to tell you when you came back.
That's why I was so silly about everything. I kept holding my
secret back--gloating over it. But when Lassiter came I got an
idea--that changed my mind. Then I hated to tell you."
"Are you going to now?"
"Yes--yes. I was coming to it. I tried yesterday, but you were so
cold. I was afraid. I couldn't keep it much longer."
"Very well, most mysterious lady, tell your wonderful secret."
"You needn't laugh," she retorted, with a first glimpse of
reviving spirit. "I can take the laugh out of you in one second."
"It's a go."
She ran through the spruces to the cave, and returned carrying
something which was manifestly heavy. Upon nearer view he saw
that whatever she held with such evident importance had been
bound up in a black scarf he well remembered. That alone was
sufficient to make him tingle with curiosity.
"Have you any idea what I did in your absence?" she asked.
"I imagine you lounged about, waiting and watching for me," he
replied, smiling. "I've my share of conceit, you know."
"You're wrong. I worked. Look at my hands." She dropped on her
knees close to where he sat, and, carefully depositing the black
bundle, she held out her hands. The palms and inside of her
fingers were white, puckered, and worn.
"Why, Bess, you've been fooling in the water," he said.
"Fooling? Look here!" With deft fingers she spread open the black
scarf, and the bright sun shone upon a dull, glittering heap of
"Gold!" he ejaculated.
"Yes, gold! See, pounds of gold! I found it--washed it out of the
stream--picked it out grain by grain, nugget by nugget!"
"Gold!" he cried.
"Yes. Now--now laugh at my secret!"
For a long minute Venters gazed. Then he stretched forth a hand
to feel if the gold was real.
"Gold!" he almost shouted. "Bess, there are hundreds--thousands
of dollars' worth here!"
He leaned over to her, and put his hand, strong and clenching
now, on hers.
"Is there more where this came from?" he whispered.
"Plenty of it, all the way up the stream to the cliff. You know
I've often washed for gold. Then I've heard the men talk. I think
there's no great quantity of gold here, but enough for--for a
fortune for you."
"Yes. I hate gold. For it makes men mad. I've seen them drunk
with joy and dance and fling themselves around. I've seen them
curse and rave. I've seen them fight like dogs and roll in the
dust. I've seen them kill each other for gold."
"Is that why you hated to tell me?"
"Not--not altogether." Bess lowered her head. "It was because I
knew you'd never stay here long after you found gold."
"You were afraid I'd leave you?"
"Listen!...You great, simple child! Listen...You sweet,
wonderful, wild, blue-eyed girl! I was tortured by my secret. It
was that I knew we--we must leave the valley. We can't stay here
much longer. I couldn't think how we'd get away--out of the
country--or how we'd live, if we ever got out. I'm a beggar.
That's why I kept my secret. I'm poor. It takes money to make way
beyond Sterling. We couldn't ride horses or burros or walk
forever. So while I knew we must go, I was distracted over how to
go and what to do. Now! We've gold! Once beyond Sterling, well be
safe from rustlers. We've no others to fear.
"Oh! Listen! Bess!" Venters now heard his voice ringing high and
sweet, and he felt Bess's cold hands in his crushing grasp as she
leaned toward him pale, breathless. "This is how much I'd leave
you! You made me live again! I'll take you away--far away from
this wild country. You'll begin a new life. You'll be happy. You
shall see cities, ships, people. You shall have anything your
heart craves. All the shame and sorrow of your life shall be
forgotten--as if they had never been. This is how much I'd leave
you here alone--you sad-eyed girl. I love you! Didn't you know
it? How could you fail to know it? I love you! I'm free! I'm a
man--a man you've made--no more a beggar!...Kiss me! This is how
much I'd leave you here alone--you beautiful, strange, unhappy
girl. But I'll make you happy. What--what do I care for--your
past! I love you! I'll take you home to Illinois--to my mother.
Then I'll take you to far places. I'll make up all you've lost.
Oh, I know you love me--knew it before you told me. And it
changed my life. And you'll go with me, not as my companion as
you are here, nor my sister, but, Bess, darling!...As my wife!"
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