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Silver Spruce And Aspens








From: Riders Of The Purple Sage

The rest of that night seemed to Venters only a few moments of

starlight, a dark overcasting of sky, an hour or so of gray

gloom, and then the lighting of dawn.



When he had bestirred himself, feeding the hungry dogs and

breaking his long fast, and had repacked his saddle-bags, it was

clear daylight, though the sun had not tipped the yellow wall in

the east. He concluded to make the climb and descent into

Surprise Valley in one trip. To that end he tied his blanket upon

Ring and gave Whitie the extra lasso and the rabbit to carry.

Then, with the rifle and saddle-bags slung upon his back, he took

up the girl. She did not awaken from heavy slumber.



That climb up under the rugged, menacing brows of the broken

cliffs, in the face of a grim, leaning boulder that seemed to be

weary of its age-long wavering, was a tax on strength and nerve

that Venters felt equally with something sweet and strangely

exulting in its accomplishment. He did not pause until he gained

the narrow divide and there he rested. Balancing Rock loomed

huge, cold in the gray light of dawn, a thing without life, yet

it spoke silently to Venters: "I am waiting to plunge down, to

shatter and crash, roar and boom, to bury your trail, and close

forever the outlet to Deception Pass!"



On the descent of the other side Venters had easy going, but was

somewhat concerned because Whitie appeared to have succumbed to

temptation, and while carrying the rabbit was also chewing on it.

And Ring evidently regarded this as an injury to himself,

especially as he had carried the heavier load. Presently he

snapped at one end of the rabbit and refused to let go. But his

action prevented Whitie from further misdoing, and then the two

dogs pattered down, carrying the rabbit between them.



Venters turned out of the gorge, and suddenly paused stock-still,

astounded at the scene before him. The curve of the great stone

bridge had caught the sunrise, and through the magnificent arch

burst a glorious stream of gold that shone with a long slant down

into the center of Surprise Valley. Only through the arch did any

sunlight pass, so that all the rest of the valley lay still

asleep, dark green, mysterious, shadowy, merging its level into

walls as misty and soft as morning clouds.



Venters then descended, passing through the arch, looking up at

its tremendous height and sweep. It spanned the opening to

Surprise Valley, stretching in almost perfect curve from rim to

rim. Even in his hurry and concern Venters could not but feel its

majesty, and the thought came to him that the cliff-dwellers must

have regarded it as an object of worship.



Down, down, down Venters strode, more and more feeling the weight

of his burden as he descended, and still the valley lay below

him. As all other canyons and coves and valleys had deceived him,

so had this deep, nestling oval. At length he passed beyond the

slope of weathered stone that spread fan-shape from the arch, and

encountered a grassy terrace running to the right and about on a

level with the tips of the oaks and cottonwoods below. Scattered

here and there upon this shelf were clumps of aspens, and he

walked through them into a glade that surpassed in beauty and

adaptability for a wild home, any place he had ever seen. Silver

spruces bordered the base of a precipitous wall that rose

loftily. Caves indented its surface, and there were no detached

ledges or weathered sections that might dislodge a stone. The

level ground, beyond the spruces, dropped down into a little

ravine. This was one dense line of slender aspens from which came

the low splashing of water. And the terrace, lying open to the

west, afforded unobstructed view of the valley of green treetops.



For his camp Venters chose a shady, grassy plot between the

silver spruces and the cliff. Here, in the stone wall, had been

wonderfully carved by wind or washed by water several deep caves

above the level of the terrace. They were clean, dry, roomy.



He cut spruce boughs and made a bed in the largest cave and laid

the girl there. The first intimation that he had of her being

aroused from sleep or lethargy was a low call for water.



He hurried down into the ravine with his canteen. It was a

shallow, grass-green place with aspens growing up everywhere. To

his delight he found a tiny brook of swift-running water. Its

faint tinge of amber reminded him of the spring at Cottonwoods,

and the thought gave him a little shock. The water was so cold it

made his fingers tingle as he dipped the canteen. Having returned

to the cave, he was glad to see the girl drink thirstily. This

time he noted that she could raise her head slightly without his

help.



"You were thirsty," he said. "It's good water. I've found a fine

place. Tell me--how do you feel?"



"There's pain--here," she replied, and moved her hand to her left

side.



"Why, that's strange! Your wounds are on your right side. I

believe you're hungry. Is the pain a kind of dull ache--a

gnawing?"



"It's like--that."



"Then it's hunger." Venters laughed, and suddenly caught himself

with a quick breath and felt again the little shock. When had he

laughed? "It's hunger," he went on. "I've had that gnaw many a

time. I've got it now. But you mustn't eat. You can have all the

water you want, but no food just yet."



"Won't I--starve?"



"No, people don't starve easily. I've discovered that. You must

lie perfectly still and rest and sleep--for days."



"My hands--are dirty; my face feels--so hot and sticky; my boots

hurt." It was her longest speech as yet, and it trailed off in a

whisper.



"Well, I'm a fine nurse!"



It annoyed him that he had never thought of these things. But

then, awaiting her death and thinking of her comfort were vastly

different matters. He unwrapped the blanket which covered her.

What a slender girl she was! No wonder he had been able to carry

her miles and pack her up that slippery ladder of stone. Her

boots were of soft, fine leather, reaching clear to her knees. He

recognized the make as one of a boot- maker in Sterling. Her

spurs, that he had stupidly neglected to remove, consisted of

silver frames and gold chains, and the rowels, large as silver

dollars, were fancifully engraved. The boots slipped off rather

hard. She wore heavy woollen rider's stockings, half length, and

these were pulled up over the ends of her short trousers. Venters

took off the stockings to note her little feet were red and

swollen. He bathed them. Then he removed his scarf and bathed her

face and hands.



"I must see your wounds now," he said, gently.



She made no reply, but watched him steadily as he opened her

blouse and untied the bandage. His strong fingers trembled a

little as he removed it. If the wounds had reopened! A chill

struck him as he saw the angry red bullet-mark, and a tiny stream

of blood winding from it down her white breast. Very carefully he

lifted her to see that the wound in her back had closed

perfectly. Then he washed the blood from her breast, bathed the

wound, and left it unbandaged, open to the air.



Her eyes thanked him.



"Listen," he said, earnestly. "I've had some wounds, and I've

seen many. I know a little about them. The hole in your back has

closed. If you lie still three days the one in your breast will

close and you'll be safe. The danger from hemorrhage will be

over."



He had spoken with earnest sincerity, almost eagerness.



"Why--do you--want me--to get well?" she asked, wonderingly.



The simple question seemed unanswerable except on grounds of

humanity. But the circumstances under which he had shot this

strange girl, the shock and realization, the waiting for death,

the hope, had resulted in a condition of mind wherein Venters

wanted her to live more than he had ever wanted anything. Yet he

could not tell why. He believed the killing of the rustler and

the subsequent excitement had disturbed him. For how else could

he explain the throbbing of his brain, the heat of his blood, the

undefined sense of full hours, charged, vibrant with pulsating

mystery where once they had dragged in loneliness?



"I shot you," he said, slowly, "and I want you to get well so I

shall not have killed a woman. But--for your own sake, too--"



A terrible bitterness darkened her eyes, and her lips quivered.



"Hush," said Venters. "You've talked too much already."



In her unutterable bitterness he saw a darkness of mood that

could not have been caused by her present weak and feverish

state. She hated the life she had led, that she probably had been

compelled to lead. She had suffered some unforgivable wrong at

the hands of Oldring. With that conviction Venters felt a shame

throughout his body, and it marked the rekindling of fierce anger

and ruthlessness. In the past long year he had nursed resentment.

He had hated the wilderness--the loneliness of the uplands. He

had waited for something to come to pass. It had come. Like an

Indian stealing horses he had skulked into the recesses of the

canyons. He had found Oldring's retreat; he had killed a rustler;

he had shot an unfortunate girl, then had saved her from this

unwitting act, and he meant to save her from the consequent

wasting of blood, from fever and weakness. Starvation he had to

fight for her and for himself. Where he had been sick at the

letting of blood, now he remembered it in grim, cold calm. And as

he lost that softness of nature, so he lost his fear of men. He

would watch for Oldring, biding his time, and he would kill this

great black-bearded rustler who had held a girl in bondage, who

had used her to his infamous ends.



Venters surmised this much of the change in him--idleness had

passed; keen, fierce vigor flooded his mind and body; all that

had happened to him at Cottonwoods seemed remote and hard to

recall; the difficulties and perils of the present absorbed him,

held him in a kind of spell.



First, then, he fitted up the little cave adjoining the girl's

room for his own comfort and use. His next work was to build a

fireplace of stones and to gather a store of wood. That done, he

spilled the contents of his saddle-bags upon the grass and took

stock. His outfit consisted of a small-handled axe, a

hunting-knife, a large number of cartridges for rifle or

revolver, a tin plate, a cup, and a fork and spoon, a quantity of

dried beef and dried fruits, and small canvas bags containing

tea, sugar, salt, and pepper. For him alone this supply would

have been bountiful to begin a sojourn in the wilderness, but he

was no longer alone. Starvation in the uplands was not an

unheard-of thing; he did not, however, worry at all on that

score, and feared only his possible inability to supply the needs

of a woman in a weakened and extremely delicate condition.



If there was no game in the valley--a contingency he doubted--it

would not be a great task for him to go by night to Oldring's

herd and pack out a calf. The exigency of the moment was to

ascertain if there were game in Surprise Valley. Whitie still

guarded the dilapidated rabbit, and Ring slept near by under a

spruce. Venters called Ring and went to the edge of the terrace,

and there halted to survey the valley.



He was prepared to find it larger than his unstudied glances had

made it appear; for more than a casual idea of dimensions and a

hasty conception of oval shape and singular beauty he had not had

time. Again the felicity of the name he had given the valley

struck him forcibly. Around the red perpendicular walls, except

under the great arc of stone, ran a terrace fringed at the

cliff-base by silver spruces; below that first terrace sloped

another wider one densely overgrown with aspens, and the center

of the valley was a level circle of oaks and alders, with the

glittering green line of willows and cottonwood dividing it in

half. Venters saw a number and variety of birds flitting among

the trees. To his left, facing the stone bridge, an enormous

cavern opened in the wall; and low down, just above the

tree-tops, he made out a long shelf of cliff-dwellings, with

little black, staring windows or doors. Like eyes they were, and

seemed to watch him. The few cliff-dwellings he had seen--all

ruins--had left him with haunting memory of age and solitude and

of something past. He had come, in a way, to be a cliff-dweller

himself, and those silent eyes would look down upon him, as if in

surprise that after thousands of years a man had invaded the

valley. Venters felt sure that he was the only white man who had

ever walked under the shadow of the wonderful stone bridge, down

into that wonderful valley with its circle of caves and its

terraced rings of silver spruce and aspens.



The dog growled below and rushed into the forest. Venters ran

down the declivity to enter a zone of light shade streaked with

sunshine. The oak-trees were slender, none more than half a foot

thick, and they grew close together, intermingling their

branches. Ring came running back with a rabbit in his mouth.

Venters took the rabbit and, holding the dog near him, stole

softly on. There were fluttering of wings among the branches and

quick bird-notes, and rustling of dead leaves and rapid

patterings. Venters crossed well-worn trails marked with fresh

tracks; and when he had stolen on a little farther he saw many

birds and running quail, and more rabbits than he could count. He

had not penetrated the forest of oaks for a hundred yards, had

not approached anywhere near the line of willows and cottonwoods

which he knew grew along a stream. But he had seen enough to know

that Surprise Valley was the home of many wild creatures.



Venters returned to camp. He skinned the rabbits, and gave the

dogs the one they had quarreled over, and the skin of this he

dressed and hung up to dry, feeling that he would like to keep

it. It was a particularly rich, furry pelt with a beautiful white

tail. Venters remembered that but for the bobbing of that white

tail catching his eye he would not have espied the rabbit, and he

would never have discovered Surprise Valley. Little incidents of

chance like this had turned him here and there in Deception Pass;

and now they had assumed to him the significance and direction of

destiny.



His good fortune in the matter of game at hand brought to his

mind the necessity of keeping it in the valley. Therefore he took

the axe and cut bundles of aspens and willows, and packed them up

under the bridge to the narrow outlet of the gorge. Here he began

fashioning a fence, by driving aspens into the ground and lacing

them fast with willows. Trip after trip he made down for more

building material, and the afternoon had passed when he finished

the work to his satisfaction. Wildcats might scale the fence, but

no coyote could come in to search for prey, and no rabbits or

other small game could escape from the valley.



Upon returning to camp he set about getting his supper at ease,

around a fine fire, without hurry or fear of discovery. After

hard work that had definite purpose, this freedom and comfort

gave him peculiar satisfaction. He caught himself often, as he

kept busy round the camp-fire, stopping to glance at the quiet

form in the cave, and at the dogs stretched cozily near him, and

then out across the beautiful valley. The present was not yet

real to him.



While he ate, the sun set beyond a dip in the rim of the curved

wall. As the morning sun burst wondrously through a grand arch

into this valley, in a golden, slanting shaft, so the evening

sun, at the moment of setting, shone through a gap of cliffs,

sending down a broad red burst to brighten the oval with a blaze

of fire. To Venters both sunrise and sunset were unreal.



A cool wind blew across the oval, waving the tips of oaks, and

while the light lasted, fluttering the aspen leaves into millions

of facets of red, and sweeping the graceful spruces. Then with

the wind soon came a shade and a darkening, and suddenly the

valley was gray. Night came there quickly after the sinking of

the sun. Venters went softly to look at the girl. She slept, and

her breathing was quiet and slow. He lifted Ring into the cave,

with stern whisper for him to stay there on guard. Then he drew

the blanket carefully over her and returned to the camp-fire.



Though exceedingly tired, he was yet loath to yield to lassitude,

but this night it was not from listening, watchful vigilance; it

was from a desire to realize his position. The details of his

wild environment seemed the only substance of a strange dream. He

saw the darkening rims, the gray oval turning black, the

undulating surface of forest, like a rippling lake, and the

spear-pointed spruces. He heard the flutter of aspen leaves and

the soft, continuous splash of falling water. The melancholy note

of a canyon bird broke clear and lonely from the high cliffs.

Venters had no name for this night singer, and he had never seen

one, but the few notes, always pealing out just at darkness, were

as familiar to him as the canyon silence. Then they ceased, and

the rustle of leaves and the murmur of water hushed in a growing

sound that Venters fancied was not of earth. Neither had he a

name for this, only it was inexpressibly wild and sweet. The

thought came that it might be a moan of the girl in her last

outcry of life, and he felt a tremor shake him. But no! This

sound was not human, though it was like despair. He began to

doubt his sensitive perceptions, to believe that he half-dreamed

what he thought he heard. Then the sound swelled with the

strengthening of the breeze, and he realized it was the singing

of the wind in the cliffs.



By and by a drowsiness overcame him, and Venters began to nod,

half asleep, with his back against a spruce. Rousing himself and

calling Whitie, he went to the cave. The girl lay barely visible

in the dimness. Ring crouched beside her, and the patting of his

tail on the stone assured Venters that the dog was awake and

faithful to his duty. Venters sought his own bed of fragrant

boughs; and as he lay back, somehow grateful for the comfort and

safety, the night seemed to steal away from him and he sank

softly into intangible space and rest and slumber.



Venters awakened to the sound of melody that he imagined was only

the haunting echo of dream music. He opened his eyes to another

surprise of this valley of beautiful surprises. Out of his cave

he saw the exquisitely fine foliage of the silver spruces

crossing a round space of blue morning sky; and in this lacy

leafage fluttered a number of gray birds with black and white

stripes and long tails. They were mocking-birds, and they were

singing as if they wanted to burst their throats. Venters

listened. One long, silver-tipped branch dropped almost to his

cave, and upon it, within a few yards of him, sat one of the

graceful birds. Venters saw the swelling and quivering of its

throat in song. He arose, and when he slid down out of his cave

the birds fluttered and flew farther away.



Venters stepped before the opening of the other cave and looked

in. The girl was awake, with wide eyes and listening look, and

she had a hand on Ring's neck.



"Mocking-birds!" she said.



"Yes," replied Venters, "and I believe they like our company."



"Where are we?"



"Never mind now. After a little I'll tell you."



"The birds woke me. When I heard them--and saw the shiny

trees--and the blue sky--and then a blaze of gold dropping

down--I wondered--"



She did not complete her fancy, but Venters imagined he

understood her meaning. She appeared to be wandering in mind.

Venters felt her face and hands and found them burning with

fever. He went for water, and was glad to find it almost as cold

as if flowing from ice. That water was the only medicine he had,

and he put faith in it. She did not want to drink, but he made

her swallow, and then he bathed her face and head and cooled her

wrists.



The day began with the heightening of the fever. Venters spent

the time reducing her temperature, cooling her hot cheeks and

temples. He kept close watch over her, and at the least

indication of restlessness, that he knew led to tossing and

rolling of the body, he held her tightly, so no violent move

could reopen her wounds. Hour after hour she babbled and laughed

and cried and moaned in delirium; but whatever her secret was she

did not reveal it. Attended by something somber for Venters, the

day passed. At night in the cool winds the fever abated and she

slept.



The second day was a repetition of the first. On the third he

seemed to see her wither and waste away before his eyes. That day

he scarcely went from her side for a moment, except to run for

fresh, cool water; and he did not eat. The fever broke on the

fourth day and left her spent and shrunken, a slip of a girl with

life only in her eyes. They hung upon Venters with a mute

observance, and he found hope in that.



To rekindle the spark that had nearly flickered out, to nourish

the little life and vitality that remained in her, was Venters's

problem. But he had little resource other than the meat of the

rabbits and quail; and from these he made broths and soups as

best he could, and fed her with a spoon. It came to him that the

human body, like the human soul, was a strange thing and capable

of recovering from terrible shocks. For almost immediately she

showed faint signs of gathering strength. There was one more

waiting day, in which he doubted, and spent long hours by her

side as she slept, and watched the gentle swell of her breast

rise and fall in breathing, and the wind stir the tangled

chestnut curls. On the next day he knew that she would live.



Upon realizing it he abruptly left the cave and sought his

accustomed seat against the trunk of a big spruce, where once

more he let his glance stray along the sloping terraces. She

would live, and the somber gloom lifted out of the valley, and he

felt relief that was pain. Then he roused to the call of action,

to the many things he needed to do in the way of making camp

fixtures and utensils, to the necessity of hunting food, and the

desire to explore the valley.



But he decided to wait a few more days before going far from

camp, because he fancied that the girl rested easier when she

could see him near at hand. And on the first day her languor

appeared to leave her in a renewed grip of life. She awoke

stronger from each short slumber; she ate greedily, and she moved

about in her bed of boughs; and always, it seemed to Venters, her

eyes followed him. He knew now that her recovery would be rapid.

She talked about the dogs, about the caves, the valley, about how

hungry she was, till Venters silenced her, asking her to put off

further talk till another time. She obeyed, but she sat up in her

bed, and her eyes roved to and fro, and always back to him.



Upon the second morning she sat up when he awakened her, and

would not permit him to bathe her face and feed her, which

actions she performed for herself. She spoke little, however, and

Venters was quick to catch in her the first intimations of

thoughtfulness and curiosity and appreciation of her situation.

He left camp and took Whitie out to hunt for rabbits. Upon his

return he was amazed and somewhat anxiously concerned to see his

invalid sitting with her back to a corner of the cave and her

bare feet swinging out. Hurriedly he approached, intending to

advise her to lie down again, to tell her that perhaps she might

overtax her strength. The sun shone upon her, glinting on the

little head with its tangle of bright hair and the small, oval

face with its pallor, and dark-blue eyes underlined by dark-blue

circles. She looked at him and he looked at her. In that exchange

of glances he imagined each saw the other in some different

guise. It seemed impossible to Venters that this frail girl could

be Oldring's Masked Rider. It flashed over him that he had made a

mistake which presently she would explain.



"Help me down," she said.



"But--are you well enough?" he protested. "Wait--a little

longer."



"I'm weak--dizzy. But I want to get down."



He lifted her--what a light burden now!--and stood her upright

beside him, and supported her as she essayed to walk with halting

steps. She was like a stripling of a boy; the bright, small head

scarcely reached his shoulder. But now, as she clung to his arm,

the rider's costume she wore did not contradict, as it had done

at first, his feeling of her femininity. She might be the famous

Masked Rider of the uplands, she might resemble a boy; but her

outline, her little hands and feet, her hair, her big eyes and

tremulous lips, and especially a something that Venters felt as a

subtle essence rather than what he saw, proclaimed her sex.



She soon tired. He arranged a comfortable seat for her under the

spruce that overspread the camp-fire.



"Now tell me--everything," she said.



He recounted all that had happened from the time of his discovery

of the rustlers in the canyon up to the present moment.



"You shot me--and now you've saved my life?"



"Yes. After almost killing you I've pulled you through."



"Are you glad?"



"I should say so!"



Her eyes were unusually expressive, and they regarded him

steadily; she was unconscious of that mirroring of her emotions

and they shone with gratefulness and interest and wonder and

sadness.



"Tell me--about yourself?" she asked.



He made this a briefer story, telling of his coming to Utah, his

various occupations till he became a rider, and then how the

Mormons had practically driven him out of Cottonwoods, an

outcast.



Then, no longer able to withstand his own burning curiosity, he

questioned her in turn.



"Are you Oldring's Masked Rider?"



"Yes," she replied, and dropped her eyes.



"I knew it--I recognized your figure--and mask, for I saw you

once. Yet I can't believe it!...But you never were really that

rustler, as we riders knew him? A thief--a marauder--a kidnapper

of women--a murderer of sleeping riders!"



"No! I never stole--or harmed any one--in all my life. I only

rode and rode--"



"But why--why?" he burst out. "Why the name? I understand Oldring

made you ride. But the black mask--the mystery--the things laid

to your hands--the threats in your infamous name--the

night-riding credited to you--the evil deeds deliberately blamed

on you and acknowledged by rustlers--even Oldring himself! Why?

Tell me why?"



"I never knew that," she answered low. Her drooping head

straightened, and the large eyes, larger now and darker, met

Venters's with a clear, steadfast gaze in which he read truth. It

verified his own conviction.



"Never knew? That's strange! Are you a Mormon?"



"No."



"Is Oldring a Mormon?"



"No."



"Do you--care for him?"



"Yes. I hate his men--his life--sometimes I almost hate

him!"



Venters paused in his rapid-fire questioning, as if to brace him

self to ask for a truth that would be abhorrent for him to

confirm, but which he seemed driven to hear.



"What are--what were you to Oldring?"



Like some delicate thing suddenly exposed to blasting heat, the

girl wilted; her head dropped, and into her white, wasted cheeks

crept the red of shame.



Venters would have given anything to recall that question. It

seemed so different--his thought when spoken. Yet her shame

established in his mind something akin to the respect he had

strangely been hungering to feel for her.



"D--n that question!--forget it!" he cried, in a passion of pain

for her and anger at himself. "But once and for all--tell me--I

know it, yet I want to hear you say so--you couldn't help

yourself?"



"Oh no."



"Well, that makes it all right with me," he went on, honestly.

"I--I want you to feel that...you see--we've been thrown

together--and--and I want to help you--not hurt you. I thought

life had been cruel to me, but when I think of yours I feel mean

and little for my complaining. Anyway, I was a lonely outcast.

And now!...I don't see very clearly what it all means. Only we

are here--together. We've got to stay here, for long, surely till

you are well. But you'll never go back to Oldring. And I'm sure

helping you will help me, for I was sick in mind. There's

something now for me to do. And if I can win back your

strength--then get you away, out of this wild country--help you

somehow to a happier life--just think how good that'll be for

me!"





Next: Love

Previous: Surprise Valley



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