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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

nervous start.



"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

there.



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

cliff-dwellers.



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

life.



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

cliff-dwelling?"



"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

life



"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

cabin."



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."



"What for?"



"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

went on.



"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

weary."



"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

teaching me."



"So Oldring takes long trips," mused Venters. "Do you know where

he goes?"



"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

canyons!"



"Ah!"



"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

forget."



"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

innocence.



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

not.



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

beef."



"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?"



"Last night."



"While I was asleep?"



"Yes."



"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

him.



"Yes. I didn't tell you, because I knew you were afraid to be

left alone."



"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

friend.



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.



"Yes--oh yes!"



"Do you realize we are here alone--man and woman?"



"Yes."



"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

lives?"



"I never thought--till now."



"Well, what's your choice--to go--or to stay here--alone with

me?"



"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.





Next: Faith And Unfaith

Previous: Silver Spruce And Aspens



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