From: Riders Of The Purple Sage
During all these waiting days Venters, with the exception of the
afternoon when he had built the gate in the gorge, had scarcely
gone out of sight of camp and never out of hearing. His desire to
explore Surprise Valley was keen, and on the morning after his
long talk with the girl he took his rifle and, calling Ring, made
a move to start. The girl lay back in a rude chair of boughs he
had put together for her. She had been watching him, and when he
picked up the gun and called the dog Venters thought she gave a
"I'm only going to look over the valley," he said.
"Will you be gone long?"
"No," he replied, and started off. The incident set him thinking
of his former impression that, after her recovery from fever, she
did not seem at ease unless he was close at hand. It was fear of
being alone, due, he concluded, most likely to her weakened
condition. He must not leave her much alone.
As he strode down the sloping terrace, rabbits scampered before
him, and the beautiful valley quail, as purple in color as the
sage on the uplands, ran fleetly along the ground into the
forest. It was pleasant under the trees, in the gold-flecked
shade, with the whistle of quail and twittering of birds
everywhere. Soon he had passed the limit of his former excursions
and entered new territory. Here the woods began to show open
glades and brooks running down from the slope, and presently he
emerged from shade into the sunshine of a meadow. The shaking of
the high grass told him of the running of animals, what species
he could not tell, but from Ring's manifest desire to have a
chase they were evidently some kind wilder than rabbits. Venters
approached the willow and cottonwood belt that he had observed
from the height of slope. He penetrated it to find a considerable
stream of water and great half-submerged mounds of brush and
sticks, and all about him were old and new gnawed circles at the
base of the cottonwoods.
"Beaver!" he exclaimed. "By all that's lucky! The meadow's full
of beaver! How did they ever get here?"
Beaver had not found a way into the valley by the trail of the
cliff-dwellers, of that he was certain; and he began to have more
than curiosity as to the outlet or inlet of the stream. When he
passed some dead water, which he noted was held by a beaver dam,
there was a current in the stream, and it flowed west. Following
its course, he soon entered the oak forest again, and passed
through to find himself before massed and jumbled ruins of cliff
wall. There were tangled thickets of wild plum-trees and other
thorny growths that made passage extremely laborsome. He found
innumerable tracks of wildcats and foxes. Rustlings in the thick
undergrowth told him of stealthy movements of these animals. At
length his further advance appeared futile, for the reason that
the stream disappeared in a split at the base of immense rocks
over which he could not climb. To his relief he concluded that
though beaver might work their way up the narrow chasm where the
water rushed, it would be impossible for men to enter the valley
This western curve was the only part of the valley where the
walls had been split asunder, and it was a wildly rough and
inaccessible corner. Going back a little way, he leaped the
stream and headed toward the southern wall. Once out of the oaks
he found again the low terrace of aspens, and above that the
wide, open terrace fringed by silver spruces. This side of the
valley contained the wind or water worn caves. As he pressed on,
keeping to the upper terrace, cave after cave opened out of the
cliff; now a large one, now a small one. Then yawned, quite
suddenly and wonderfully above him, the great cavern of the
It was still a goodly distance, and he tried to imagine, if it
appeared so huge from where he stood, what it would be when he
got there. He climbed the terrace and then faced a long, gradual
ascent of weathered rock and dust, which made climbing too
difficult for attention to anything else. At length he entered a
zone of shade, and looked up. He stood just within the hollow of
a cavern so immense that he had no conception of its real
dimensions. The curved roof, stained by ages of leakage, with
buff and black and rust-colored streaks, swept up and loomed
higher and seemed to soar to the rim of the cliff. Here again was
a magnificent arch, such as formed the grand gateway to the
valley, only in this instance it formed the dome of a cave
instead of the span of a bridge.
Venters passed onward and upward. The stones he dislodged rolled
down with strange, hollow crack and roar. He had climbed a
hundred rods inward, and yet he had not reached the base of the
shelf where the cliff-dwellings rested, a long half-circle of
connected stone house, with little dark holes that he had fancied
were eyes. At length he gained the base of the shelf, and here
found steps cut in the rock. These facilitated climbing, and as
he went up he thought how easily this vanished race of men might
once have held that stronghold against an army. There was only
one possible place to ascend, and this was narrow and steep.
Venters had visited cliff-dwellings before, and they had been in
ruins, and of no great character or size but this place was of
proportions that stunned him, and it had not been desecrated by
the hand of man, nor had it been crumbled by the hand of time. It
was a stupendous tomb. It had been a city. It was just as it had
been left by its builders. The little houses were there, the
smoke-blackened stains of fires, the pieces of pottery scattered
about cold hearths, the stone hatchets; and stone pestles and
mealing-stones lay beside round holes polished by years of
grinding maize--lay there as if they had been carelessly dropped
yesterday. But the cliff-dwellers were gone!
Dust! They were dust on the floor or at the foot of the shelf,
and their habitations and utensils endured. Venters felt the
sublimity of that marvelous vaulted arch, and it seemed to gleam
with a glory of something that was gone. How many years had
passed since the cliff-dwellers gazed out across the beautiful
valley as he was gazing now? How long had it been since women
ground grain in those polished holes? What time had rolled by
since men of an unknown race lived, loved, fought, and died
there? Had an enemy destroyed them? Had disease destroyed them,
or only that greatest destroyer--time? Venters saw a long line of
blood-red hands painted low down upon the yellow roof of stone.
Here was strange portent, if not an answer to his queries. The
place oppressed him. It was light, but full of a transparent
gloom. It smelled of dust and musty stone, of age and disuse. It
was sad. It was solemn. It had the look of a place where silence
had become master and was now irrevocable and terrible and could
not be broken. Yet, at the moment, from high up in the carved
crevices of the arch, floated down the low, strange wail of
wind--a knell indeed for all that had gone.
Venters, sighing, gathered up an armful of pottery, such pieces
as he thought strong enough and suitable for his own use, and
bent his steps toward camp. He mounted the terrace at an opposite
point to which he had left. He saw the girl looking in the
direction he had gone. His footsteps made no sound in the deep
grass, and he approached close without her being aware of his
presence. Whitie lay on the ground near where she sat, and he
manifested the usual actions of welcome, but the girl did not
notice them. She seemed to be oblivious to everything near at
hand. She made a pathetic figure drooping there, with her sunny
hair contrasting so markedly with her white, wasted cheeks and
her hands listlessly clasped and her little bare feet propped in
the framework of the rude seat. Venters could have sworn and
laughed in one breath at the idea of the connection between this
girl and Oldring's Masked Rider. She was the victim of more than
accident of fate--a victim to some deep plot the mystery of which
burned him. As he stepped forward with a half-formed thought that
she was absorbed in watching for his return, she turned her head
and saw him. A swift start, a change rather than rush of blood
under her white cheeks, a flashing of big eyes that fixed their
glance upon him, transformed her face in that single instant of
turning, and he knew she had been watching for him, that his
return was the one thing in her mind. She did not smile; she did
not flush; she did not look glad. All these would have meant
little compared to her indefinite expression. Venters grasped the
peculiar, vivid, vital something that leaped from her face. It
was as if she had been in a dead, hopeless clamp of inaction and
feeling, and had been suddenly shot through and through with
quivering animation. Almost it was as if she had returned to
And Venters thought with lightning swiftness, "I've saved
her--I've unlinked her from that old life--she was watching as if
I were all she had left on earth--she belongs to me!" The thought
was startlingly new. Like a blow it was in an unprepared moment.
The cheery salutation he had ready for her died unborn and he
tumbled the pieces of pottery awkwardly on the grass while some
unfamiliar, deep-seated emotion, mixed with pity and glad
assurance of his power to succor her, held him dumb.
"What a load you had!" she said. "Why, they're pots and crocks!
Where did you get them?"
Venters laid down his rifle, and, filling one of the pots from
his canteen, he placed it on the smoldering campfire.
"Hope it'll hold water," he said, presently. "Why, there's an
enormous cliff-dwelling just across here. I got the pottery
there. Don't you think we needed something? That tin cup of mine
has served to make tea, broth, soup--everything."
"I noticed we hadn't a great deal to cook in."
She laughed. It was the first time. He liked that laugh, and
though he was tempted to look at her, he did not want to show his
surprise or his pleasure.
"Will you take me over there, and all around in the
valley--pretty soon, when I'm well?" she added.
"Indeed I shall. It's a wonderful place. Rabbits so thick you
can't step without kicking one out. And quail, beaver, foxes,
wildcats. We're in a regular den. But--haven't you ever seen a
"No. I've heard about them, though. The--the men say the Pass is
full of old houses and ruins."
"Why, I should think you'd have run across one in all your riding
around," said Venters. He spoke slowly, choosing his words
carefully, and he essayed a perfectly casual manner, and
pretended to be busy assorting pieces of pottery. She must have
no cause again to suffer shame for curiosity of his. Yet never in
all his days had he been so eager to hear the details of anyone's
"When I rode--I rode like the wind," she replied, "and never had
time to stop for anything."
"I remember that day I--I met you in the Pass--how dusty you
were, how tired your horse looked. Were you always riding?"
"Oh, no. Sometimes not for months, when I was shut up in the
Venters tried to subdue a hot tingling.
"You were shut up, then?" he asked, carelessly.
"When Oldring went away on his long trips--he was gone for months
sometimes--he shut me up in the cabin."
"Perhaps to keep me from running away. I always threatened that.
Mostly, though, because the men got drunk at the villages. But
they were always good to me. I wasn't afraid."
"A prisoner! That must have been hard on you?"
"I liked that. As long as I can remember I've been locked up
there at times, and those times were the only happy ones I ever
had. It's a big cabin, high up on a cliff, and I could look out.
Then I had dogs and pets I had tamed, and books. There was a
spring inside, and food stored, and the men brought me fresh
meat. Once I was there one whole winter."
It now required deliberation on Venters's part to persist in his
unconcern and to keep at work. He wanted to look at her, to
volley questions at her.
"As long as you can remember--you've lived in Deception Pass?" he
"I've a dim memory of some other place, and women and children;
but I can't make anything of it. Sometimes I think till I'm
"Then you can read--you have books?"
"Oh yes, I can read, and write, too, pretty well. Oldring is
educated. He taught me, and years ago an old rustler lived with
us, and he had been something different once. He was always
"So Oldring takes long trips," mused Venters. "Do you know where
"No. Every year he drives cattle north of Sterling--then does not
return for months. I heard him accused once of living two
lives--and he killed the man. That was at Stone Bridge."
Venters dropped his apparent task and looked up with an eagerness
he no longer strove to hide.
"Bess," he said, using her name for the first time, "I suspected
Oldring was something besides a rustler. Tell me, what's his
purpose here in the Pass? I believe much that he has done was to
hide his real work here."
"You're right. He's more than a rustler. In fact, as the men say,
his rustling cattle is now only a bluff. There's gold in the
"Yes, there's gold, not in great quantities, but gold enough for
him and his men. They wash for gold week in and week out. Then
they drive a few cattle and go into the villages to drink and
shoot and kill--to bluff the riders."
"Drive a few cattle! But, Bess, the Withersteen herd, the red
herd-- twenty-five hundred head! That's not a few. And I tracked
them into a valley near here."
"Oldring never stole the red herd. He made a deal with Mormons.
The riders were to be called in, and Oldring was to drive the
herd and keep it till a certain time--I won't know when--then
drive it back to the range. What his share was I didn't hear."
"Did you hear why that deal was made?" queried Venters.
"No. But it was a trick of Mormons. They're full of tricks. I've
heard Oldring's men tell about Mormons. Maybe the Withersteen
woman wasn't minding her halter! I saw the man who made the deal.
He was a little, queer-shaped man, all humped up. He sat his
horse well. I heard one of our men say afterward there was no
better rider on the sage than this fellow. What was the name? I
"Jerry Card?" suggested Venters.
"That's it. I remember--it's a name easy to remember--and Jerry
Card appeared to be on fair terms with Oldring's men."
"I shouldn't wonder," replied Venters, thoughtfully. Verification
of his suspicions in regard to Tull's underhand work--for the
deal with Oldring made by Jerry Card assuredly had its inception
in the Mormon Elder's brain, and had been accomplished through
his orders--revived in Venters a memory of hatred that had been
smothered by press of other emotions. Only a few days had elapsed
since the hour of his encounter with Tull, yet they had been
forgotten and now seemed far off, and the interval one that now
appeared large and profound with incalculable change in his
feelings. Hatred of Tull still existed in his heart, but it had
lost its white heat. His affection for Jane Withersteen had not
changed in the least; nevertheless, he seemed to view it from
another angle and see it as another thing--what, he could not
exactly define. The recalling of these two feelings was to
Venters like getting glimpses into a self that was gone; and the
wonder of them--perhaps the change which was too illusive for
him--was the fact that a strange irritation accompanied the
memory and a desire to dismiss it from mind. And straightway he
did dismiss it, to return to thoughts of his significant present.
"Bess, tell me one more thing," he said. "Haven't you known any
women-- any young people?"
"Sometimes there were women with the men; but Oldring never let
me know them. And all the young people I ever saw in my life was
when I rode fast through the villages."
Perhaps that was the most puzzling and thought-provoking thing
she had yet said to Venters. He pondered, more curious the more
he learned, but he curbed his inquisitive desires, for he saw her
shrinking on the verge of that shame, the causing of which had
occasioned him such self-reproach. He would ask no more. Still he
had to think, and he found it difficult to think clearly. This
sad-eyed girl was so utterly different from what it would have
been reason to believe such a remarkable life would have made
her. On this day he had found her simple and frank, as natural as
any girl he had ever known. About her there was something sweet.
Her voice was low and well modulated. He could not look into her
face, meet her steady, unabashed, yet wistful eyes, and think of
her as the woman she had confessed herself. Oldring's Masked
Rider sat before him, a girl dressed as a man. She had been made
to ride at the head of infamous forays and drives. She had been
imprisoned for many months of her life in an obscure cabin. At
times the most vicious of men had been her companions; and the
vilest of women, if they had not been permitted to approach her,
had, at least, cast their shadows over her. But--but in spite of
all this--there thundered at Venters some truth that lifted its
voice higher than the clamoring facts of dishonor, some truth
that was the very life of her beautiful eyes; and it was
In the days that followed, Venters balanced perpetually in mind
this haunting conception of innocence over against the cold and
sickening fact of an unintentional yet actual gift. How could it
be possible for the two things to be true? He believed the latter
to be true, and he would not relinquish his conviction of the
former; and these conflicting thoughts augmented the mystery that
appeared to be a part of Bess. In those ensuing days, however, it
became clear as clearest light that Bess was rapidly regaining
strength; that, unless reminded of her long association with
Oldring, she seemed to have forgotten it; that, like an Indian
who lives solely from moment to moment, she was utterly absorbed
in the present.
Day by day Venters watched the white of her face slowly change to
brown, and the wasted cheeks fill out by imperceptible degrees.
There came a time when he could just trace the line of
demarcation between the part of her face once hidden by a mask
and that left exposed to wind and sun. When that line disappeared
in clear bronze tan it was as if she had been washed clean of the
stigma of Oldring's Masked Rider. The suggestion of the mask
always made Venters remember; now that it was gone he seldom
thought of her past. Occasionally he tried to piece together the
several stages of strange experience and to make a whole. He had
shot a masked outlaw the very sight of whom had been ill omen to
riders; he had carried off a wounded woman whose bloody lips
quivered in prayer; he had nursed what seemed a frail, shrunken
boy; and now he watched a girl whose face had become strangely
sweet, whose dark-blue eyes were ever upon him without boldness,
without shyness, but with a steady, grave, and growing light.
Many times Venters found the clear gaze embarrassing to him, yet,
like wine, it had an exhilarating effect. What did she think when
she looked at him so? Almost he believed she had no thought at
all. All about her and the present there in Surprise Valley, and
the dim yet subtly impending future, fascinated Venters and made
him thoughtful as all his lonely vigils in the sage had
Chiefly it was the present that he wished to dwell upon; but it
was the call of the future which stirred him to action. No idea
had he of what that future had in store for Bess and him. He
began to think of improving Surprise Valley as a place to live
in, for there was no telling how long they would be compelled to
stay there. Venters stubbornly resisted the entering into his
mind of an insistent thought that, clearly realized, might have
made it plain to him that he did not want to leave Surprise
Valley at all. But it was imperative that he consider practical
matters; and whether or not he was destined to stay long there,
he felt the immediate need of a change of diet. It would be
necessary for him to go farther afield for a variety of meat, and
also that he soon visit Cottonwoods for a supply of food.
It occurred again to Venters that he could go to the canyon where
Oldring kept his cattle, and at little risk he could pack out
some beef. He wished to do this, however, without letting Bess
know of it till after he had made the trip. Presently he hit upon
the plan of going while she was asleep.
That very night he stole out of camp, climbed up under the stone
bridge, and entered the outlet to the Pass. The gorge was full of
luminous gloom. Balancing Rock loomed dark and leaned over the
pale descent. Transformed in the shadowy light, it took shape and
dimensions of a spectral god waiting--waiting for the moment to
hurl himself down upon the tottering walls and close forever the
outlet to Deception Pass. At night more than by day Venters felt
something fearful and fateful in that rock, and that it had
leaned and waited through a thousand years to have somehow to
deal with his destiny.
"Old man, if you must roll, wait till I get back to the girl, and
then roll!" he said, aloud, as if the stones were indeed a god.
And those spoken words, in their grim note to his ear, as well as
contents to his mind, told Venters that he was all but drifting
on a current which he had not power nor wish to stem.
Venters exercised his usual care in the matter of hiding tracks
from the outlet, yet it took him scarcely an hour to reach
Oldring's cattle. Here sight of many calves changed his original
intention, and instead of packing out meat he decided to take a
calf out alive. He roped one, securely tied its feet, and swung
it over his shoulder. Here was an exceedingly heavy burden, but
Venters was powerful--he could take up a sack of grain and with
ease pitch it over a pack-saddle--and he made long distance
without resting. The hardest work came in the climb up to the
outlet and on through to the valley. When he had accomplished it,
he became fired with another idea that again changed his
intention. He would not kill the calf, but keep it alive. He
would go back to Oldring's herd and pack out more calves.
Thereupon he secured the calf in the best available spot for the
moment and turned to make a second trip.
When Venters got back to the valley with another calf, it was
close upon daybreak. He crawled into his cave and slept late.
Bess had no inkling that he had been absent from camp nearly all
night, and only remarked solicitously that he appeared to be more
tired than usual, and more in the need of sleep. In the afternoon
Venters built a gate across a small ravine near camp, and here
corralled the calves; and he succeeded in completing his task
without Bess being any the wiser.
That night he made two more trips to Oldring's range, and again
on the following night, and yet another on the next. With eight
calves in his corral, he concluded that he had enough; but it
dawned upon him then that he did not want to kill one. "I've
rustled Oldring's cattle," he said, and laughed. He noted then
that all the calves were red. "Red!" he exclaimed. "From the red
herd. I've stolen Jane Withersteen's cattle!...That's about the
strangest thing yet."
One more trip he undertook to Oldring's valley, and this time he
roped a yearling steer and killed it and cut out a small quarter
of beef. The howling of coyotes told him he need have no
apprehension that the work of his knife would be discovered. He
packed the beef back to camp and hung it upon a spruce-tree. Then
he sought his bed.
On the morrow he was up bright and early, glad that he had a
surprise for Bess. He could hardly wait for her to come out.
Presently she appeared and walked under the spruce. Then she
approached the camp-fire. There was a tinge of healthy red in the
bronze of her cheeks, and her slender form had begun to round out
in graceful lines.
"Bess, didn't you say you were tired of rabbit?" inquired
Venters. "And quail and beaver?"
"Indeed I did."
"What would you like?"
"I'm tired of meat, but if we have to live on it I'd like some
"Well, how does that strike you?" Venters pointed to the quarter
hanging from the spruce-tree. "We'll have fresh beef for a few
days, then we'll cut the rest into strips and dry it."
"Where did you get that?" asked Bess, slowly.
"I stole that from Oldring."
"You went back to the canyon--you risked--" While she hesitated
the tinge of bloom faded out of her cheeks.
"It wasn't any risk, but it was hard work."
"I'm sorry I said I was tired of rabbit. Why! How--When did you
get that beef?"
"While I was asleep?"
"I woke last night sometime--but I didn't know."
Her eyes were widening, darkening with thought, and whenever they
did so the steady, watchful, seeing gaze gave place to the
wistful light. In the former she saw as the primitive woman
without thought; in the latter she looked inward, and her gaze
was the reflection of a troubled mind. For long Venters had not
seen that dark change, that deepening of blue, which he thought
was beautiful and sad. But now he wanted to make her think.
"I've done more than pack in that beef," he said. "For five
nights I've been working while you slept. I've got eight calves
corralled near a ravine. Eight calves, all alive and doing fine!"
"You went five nights!"
All that Venters could make of the dilation of her eyes, her slow
pallor, and her exclamation, was fear--fear for herself or for
"Yes. I didn't tell you, because I knew you were afraid to be
"Alone?" She echoed his word, but the meaning of it was nothing
to her. She had not even thought of being left alone. It was not,
then, fear for herself, but for him. This girl, always slow of
speech and action, now seemed almost stupid. She put forth a hand
that might have indicated the groping of her mind. Suddenly she
stepped swiftly to him, with a look and touch that drove from him
any doubt of her quick intelligence or feeling.
"Oldring has men watch the herds--they would kill you. You must
never go again!"
When she had spoken, the strength and the blaze of her died, and
she swayed toward Venters.
"Bess, I'll not go again," he said, catching her.
She leaned against him, and her body was limp and vibrated to a
long, wavering tremble. Her face was upturned to his. Woman's
face, woman's eyes, woman's lips--all acutely and blindly and
sweetly and terribly truthful in their betrayal! But as her fear
was instinctive, so was her clinging to this one and only
Venters gently put her from him and steadied her upon her feet;
and all the while his blood raced wild, and a thrilling tingle
unsteadied his nerve, and something--that he had seen and felt in
her--that he could not understand--seemed very close to him, warm
and rich as a fragrant breath, sweet as nothing had ever before
been sweet to him.
With all his will Venters strove for calmness and thought and
judgment unbiased by pity, and reality unswayed by sentiment.
Bess's eyes were still fixed upon him with all her soul bright in
that wistful light. Swiftly, resolutely he put out of mind all of
her life except what had been spent with him. He scorned himself
for the intelligence that made him still doubt. He meant to judge
her as she had judged him. He was face to face with the
inevitableness of life itself. He saw destiny in the dark,
straight path of her wonderful eyes. Here was the simplicity, the
sweetness of a girl contending with new and strange and
enthralling emotions here the living truth of innocence; here the
blind terror of a woman confronted with the thought of death to
her savior and protector. All this Venters saw, but, besides,
there was in Bess's eyes a slow-dawning consciousness that seemed
about to break out in glorious radiance.
"Bess, are you thinking?" he asked.
"Do you realize we are here alone--man and woman?"
"Have you thought that we may make our way out to civilization,
or we may have to stay here--alone--hidden from the world all our
"I never thought--till now."
"Well, what's your choice--to go--or to stay here--alone with
"Stay!" New-born thought of self, ringing vibrantly in her voice,
gave her answer singular power.
Venters trembled, and then swiftly turned his gaze from her
face--from her eyes. He knew what she had only half divined--that
she loved him.
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