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Surprise Valley








From: Riders Of The Purple Sage

Back in that strange canyon, which Venters had found indeed a

valley of surprises, the wounded girl's whispered appeal, almost

a prayer, not to take her back to the rustlers crowned the events

of the last few days with a confounding climax. That she should

not want to return to them staggered Venters. Presently, as

logical thought returned, her appeal confirmed his first

impression--that she was more unfortunate than bad-- and he

experienced a sensation of gladness. If he had known before that

Oldring's Masked Rider was a woman his opinion would have been

formed and he would have considered her abandoned. But his first

knowledge had come when he lifted a white face quivering in a

convulsion of agony; he had heard God's name whispered by

blood-stained lips; through her solemn and awful eyes he had

caught a glimpse of her soul. And just now had come the entreaty

to him, "Don't--take--me--back--there!"



Once for all Venters's quick mind formed a permanent conception

of this poor girl. He based it, not upon what the chances of life

had made her, but upon the revelation of dark eyes that pierced

the infinite, upon a few pitiful, halting words that betrayed

failure and wrong and misery, yet breathed the truth of a tragic

fate rather than a natural leaning to evil.



"What's your name?" he inquired.



"Bess," she answered.



"Bess what?"



"That's enough--just Bess."



The red that deepened in her cheeks was not all the flush of

fever. Venters marveled anew, and this time at the tint of shame

in her face, at the momentary drooping of long lashes. She might

be a rustler's girl, but she was still capable of shame, she

might be dying, but she still clung to some little remnant of

honor.



"Very well, Bess. It doesn't matter," he said. "But this

matters--what shall I do with you?"



"Are--you--a rider?" she whispered.



"Not now. I was once. I drove the Withersteen herds. But I lost

my place--lost all I owned--and now I'm--I'm a sort of outcast.

My name's Bern Venters."



"You won't--take me--to Cottonwoods--or Glaze? I'd be--hanged."



"No, indeed. But I must do something with you. For it's not safe

for me here. I shot that rustler who was with you. Sooner or

later he'll be found, and then my tracks. I must find a safer

hiding-place where I can't be trailed."



"Leave me--here."



"Alone--to die!"



"Yes."



"I will not." Venters spoke shortly with a kind of ring in his

voice.



"What--do you want--to do--with me?" Her whispering grew

difficult, so low and faint that Venters had to stoop to hear

her.



"Why, let's see," he replied, slowly. "I'd like to take you some

place where I could watch by you, nurse you, till you're all

right."



"And--then?"



"Well, it'll be time to think of that when you're cured of your

wound. It's a bad one. And--Bess, if you don't want to live--if

you don't fight for life--you'll never--"



"Oh! I want--to live! I'm afraid--to die. But I'd

rather--die--than go back--to--to--"



"To Oldring?" asked Venters, interrupting her in turn.



Her lips moved in an affirmative.



"I promise not to take you back to him or to Cottonwoods or to

Glaze."



The mournful earnestness of her gaze suddenly shone with

unutterable gratitude and wonder. And as suddenly Venters found

her eyes beautiful as he had never seen or felt beauty. They were

as dark blue as the sky at night. Then the flashing changed to a

long, thoughtful look, in which there was a wistful, unconscious

searching of his face, a look that trembled on the verge of hope

and trust.



"I'll try--to live," she said. The broken whisper just reached

his ears. "Do what--you want--with me."



"Rest then--don't worry--sleep," he replied.



Abruptly he arose, as if words had been decision for him, and

with a sharp command to the dogs he strode from the camp. Venters

was conscious of an indefinite conflict of change within him. It

seemed to be a vague passing of old moods, a dim coalescing of

new forces, a moment of inexplicable transition. He was both cast

down and uplifted. He wanted to think and think of the meaning,

but he resolutely dispelled emotion. His imperative need at

present was to find a safe retreat, and this called for

action.



So he set out. It still wanted several hours before dark. This

trip he turned to the left and wended his skulking way southward

a mile or more to the opening of the valley, where lay the

strange scrawled rocks. He did not, however, venture boldly out

into the open sage, but clung to the right-hand wall and went

along that till its perpendicular line broke into the long

incline of bare stone.



Before proceeding farther he halted, studying the strange

character of this slope and realizing that a moving black object

could be seen far against such background. Before him ascended a

gradual swell of smooth stone. It was hard, polished, and full of

pockets worn by centuries of eddying rain-water. A hundred yards

up began a line of grotesque cedar-trees, and they extended along

the slope clear to its most southerly end. Beyond that end

Venters wanted to get, and he concluded the cedars, few as they

were, would afford some cover.



Therefore he climbed swiftly. The trees were farther up than he

had estimated, though he had from long habit made allowance for

the deceiving nature of distances in that country. When he gained

the cover of cedars he paused to rest and look, and it was then

he saw how the trees sprang from holes in the bare rock. Ages of

rain had run down the slope, circling, eddying in depressions,

wearing deep round holes. There had been dry seasons,

accumulations of dust, wind-blown seeds, and cedars rose

wonderfully out of solid rock. But these were not beautiful

cedars. They were gnarled, twisted into weird contortions, as if

growth were torture, dead at the tops, shrunken, gray, and old.

Theirs had been a bitter fight, and Venters felt a strange

sympathy for them. This country was hard on trees--and men.



He slipped from cedar to cedar, keeping them between him and the

open valley. As he progressed, the belt of trees widened and he

kept to its upper margin. He passed shady pockets half full of

water, and, as he marked the location for possible future need,

he reflected that there had been no rain since the winter snows.

From one of these shady holes a rabbit hopped out and squatted

down, laying its ears flat.



Venters wanted fresh meat now more than when he had only himself

to think of. But it would not do to fire his rifle there. So he

broke off a cedar branch and threw it. He crippled the rabbit,

which started to flounder up the slope. Venters did not wish to

lose the meat, and he never allowed crippled game to escape, to

die lingeringly in some covert. So after a careful glance below,

and back toward the canyon, he began to chase the rabbit.



The fact that rabbits generally ran uphill was not new to him.

But it presently seemed singular why this rabbit, that might have

escaped downward, chose to ascend the slope. Venters knew then

that it had a burrow higher up. More than once he jerked over to

seize it, only in vain, for the rabbit by renewed effort eluded

his grasp. Thus the chase continued on up the bare slope. The

farther Venters climbed the more determined he grew to catch his

quarry. At last, panting and sweating, he captured the rabbit at

the foot of a steeper grade. Laying his rifle on the bulge of

rising stone, he killed the animal and slung it from his belt.



Before starting down he waited to catch his breath. He had

climbed far up that wonderful smooth slope, and had almost

reached the base of yellow cliff that rose skyward, a huge

scarred and cracked bulk. It frowned down upon him as if to

forbid further ascent. Venters bent over for his rifle, and, as

he picked it up from where it leaned against the steeper grade,

he saw several little nicks cut in the solid stone.



They were only a few inches deep and about a foot apart. Venters

began to count them--one--two--three--four--on up to sixteen.

That number carried his glance to the top of his first bulging

bench of cliff-base. Above, after a more level offset, was still

steeper slope, and the line of nicks kept on, to wind round a

projecting corner of wall.



A casual glance would have passed by these little dents; if

Venters had not known what they signified he would never have

bestowed upon them the second glance. But he knew they had been

cut there by hand, and, though age-worn, he recognized them as

steps cut in the rock by the cliff-dwellers. With a pulse

beginning to beat and hammer away his calmness, he eyed that

indistinct line of steps, up to where the buttress of wall hid

further sight of them. He knew that behind the corner of stone

would be a cave or a crack which could never be suspected from

below. Chance, that had sported with him of late, now directed

him to a probable hiding-place. Again he laid aside his rifle,

and, removing boots and belt, he began to walk up the steps. Like

a mountain goat, he was agile, sure-footed, and he mounted the

first bench without bending to use his hands. The next ascent

took grip of fingers as well as toes, but he climbed steadily,

swiftly, to reach the projecting corner, and slipped around it.

Here he faced a notch in the cliff. At the apex he turned

abruptly into a ragged vent that split the ponderous wall clear

to the top, showing a narrow streak of blue sky.



At the base this vent was dark, cool, and smelled of dry, musty

dust. It zigzagged so that he could not see ahead more than a few

yards at a time. He noticed tracks of wildcats and rabbits in the

dusty floor. At every turn he expected to come upon a huge cavern

full of little square stone houses, each with a small aperture

like a staring dark eye. The passage lightened and widened, and

opened at the foot of a narrow, steep, ascending chute.



Venters had a moment's notice of the rock, which was of the same

smoothness and hardness as the slope below, before his gaze went

irresistibly upward to the precipitous walls of this wide ladder

of granite. These were ruined walls of yellow sandstone, and so

split and splintered, so overhanging with great sections of

balancing rim, so impending with tremendous crumbling crags, that

Venters caught his breath sharply, and, appalled, he

instinctively recoiled as if a step upward might jar the

ponderous cliffs from their foundation. Indeed, it seemed that

these ruined cliffs were but awaiting a breath of wind to

collapse and come tumbling down. Venters hesitated. It would be a

foolhardy man who risked his life under the leaning, waiting

avalanches of rock in that gigantic split. Yet how many years had

they leaned there without falling! At the bottom of the incline

was an immense heap of weathered sandstone all crumbling to dust,

but there were no huge rocks as large as houses, such as rested

so lightly and frightfully above, waiting patiently and

inevitably to crash down. Slowly split from the parent rock by

the weathering process, and carved and sculptured by ages of wind

and rain, they waited their moment. Venters felt how foolish it

was for him to fear these broken walls; to fear that, after they

had endured for thousands of years, the moment of his passing

should be the one for them to slip. Yet he feared it.



"What a place to hide!" muttered Venters. "I'll climb--I'll see

where this thing goes. If only I can find water!"



With teeth tight shut he essayed the incline. And as he climbed

he bent his eyes downward. This, however, after a little grew

impossible; he had to look to obey his eager, curious mind. He

raised his glance and saw light between row on row of shafts and

pinnacles and crags that stood out from the main wall. Some

leaned against the cliff, others against each other; many stood

sheer and alone; all were crumbling, cracked, rotten. It was a

place of yellow, ragged ruin. The passage narrowed as he went up;

it became a slant, hard for him to stick on; it was smooth as

marble. Finally he surmounted it, surprised to find the walls

still several hundred feet high, and a narrow gorge leading down

on the other side. This was a divide between two inclines, about

twenty yards wide. At one side stood an enormous rock. Venters

gave it a second glance, because it rested on a pedestal. It

attracted closer attention. It was like a colossal pear of stone

standing on its stem. Around the bottom were thousands of little

nicks just distinguishable to the eye. They were marks of stone

hatchets. The cliff-dwellers had chipped and chipped away at this

boulder fill it rested its tremendous bulk upon a mere pin-point

of its surface. Venters pondered. Why had the little stone-men

hacked away at that big boulder? It bore no semblance to a statue

or an idol or a godhead or a sphinx. Instinctively he put his

hands on it and pushed; then his shoulder and heaved. The stone

seemed to groan, to stir, to grate, and then to move. It tipped a

little downward and hung balancing for a long instant, slowly

returned, rocked slightly, groaned, and settled back to its

former position.



Venters divined its significance. It had been meant for defense.

The cliff-dwellers, driven by dreaded enemies to this last stand,

had cunningly cut the rock until it balanced perfectly, ready to be

dislodged by strong hands. Just below it leaned a tottering crag

that would have toppled, starting an avalanche on an acclivity

where no sliding mass could stop. Crags and pinnacles, splintered

cliffs, and leaning shafts and monuments, would have thundered down

to block forever the outlet to Deception Pass.



"That was a narrow shave for me," said Venters, soberly. "A

balancing rock! The cliff-dwellers never had to roll it. They

died, vanished, and here the rock stands, probably little

changed....But it might serve another lonely dweller of the

cliffs. I'll hide up here somewhere, if I can only find water."



He descended the gorge on the other side. The slope was gradual,

the space narrow, the course straight for many rods. A gloom hung

between the up-sweeping walls. In a turn the passage narrowed to

scarce a dozen feet, and here was darkness of night. But light

shone ahead; another abrupt turn brought day again, and then wide

open space.



Above Venters loomed a wonderful arch of stone bridging the

canyon rims, and through the enormous round portal gleamed and

glistened a beautiful valley shining under sunset gold reflected

by surrounding cliffs. He gave a start of surprise. The valley

was a cove a mile long, half that wide, and its enclosing walls

were smooth and stained, and curved inward, forming great caves.

He decided that its floor was far higher than the level of

Deception Pass and the intersecting canyons. No purple sage

colored this valley floor. Instead there were the white of

aspens, streaks of branch and slender trunk glistening from the

green of leaves, and the darker green of oaks, and through the

middle of this forest, from wall to wall, ran a winding line of

brilliant green which marked the course of cottonwoods and

willows.



"There's water here--and this is the place for me," said Venters.

"Only birds can peep over those walls, I've gone Oldring one

better."



Venters waited no longer, and turned swiftly to retrace his

steps. He named the canyon Surprise Valley and the huge boulder

that guarded the outlet Balancing Rock. Going down he did not

find himself attended by such fears as had beset him in the

climb; still, he was not easy in mind and could not occupy

himself with plans of moving the girl and his outfit until he had

descended to the notch. There he rested a moment and looked about

him. The pass was darkening with the approach of night. At the

corner of the wall, where the stone steps turned, he saw a spur

of rock that would serve to hold the noose of a lasso. He needed

no more aid to scale that place. As he intended to make the move

under cover of darkness, he wanted most to be able to tell where

to climb up. So, taking several small stones with him, he stepped

and slid down to the edge of the slope where he had left his

rifle and boots. He placed the stones some yards apart. He left

the rabbit lying upon the bench where the steps began. Then he

addressed a keen-sighted, remembering gaze to the rim-wall above.

It was serrated, and between two spears of rock, directly in line

with his position, showed a zigzag crack that at night would let

through the gleam of sky. This settled, he put on his belt and

boots and prepared to descend. Some consideration was necessary

to decide whether or not to leave his rifle there. On the return,

carrying the girl and a pack, it would be added encumbrance; and

after debating the matter he left the rifle leaning against the

bench. As he went straight down the slope he halted every few

rods to look up at his mark on the rim. It changed, but he fixed

each change in his memory. When he reached the first cedar-tree,

he tied his scarf upon a dead branch, and then hurried toward

camp, having no more concern about finding his trail upon the

return trip.



Darkness soon emboldened and lent him greater speed. It occurred

to him, as he glided into the grassy glade near camp and head the

whinny of a horse, that he had forgotten Wrangle. The big sorrel

could not be gotten into Surprise Valley. He would have to be

left here.



Venters determined at once to lead the other horses out through

the thicket and turn them loose. The farther they wandered from

this canyon the better it would suit him. He easily descried

Wrangle through the gloom, but the others were not in sight.

Venters whistled low for the dogs, and when they came trotting to

him he sent them out to search for the horses, and followed. It

soon developed that they were not in the glade nor the thicket.

Venters grew cold and rigid at the thought of rustlers having

entered his retreat. But the thought passed, for the demeanor of

Ring and Whitie reassured him. The horses had wandered away.



Under the clump of silver spruces a denser mantle of darkness,

yet not so thick that Venter's night-practiced eyes could not

catch the white oval of a still face. He bent over it with a

slight suspension of breath that was both caution lest he

frighten her and chill uncertainty of feeling lest he find her

dead. But she slept, and he arose to renewed activity.



He packed his saddle-bags. The dogs were hungry, they whined

about him and nosed his busy hands; but he took no time to feed

them nor to satisfy his own hunger. He slung the saddlebags over

his shoulders and made them secure with his lasso. Then he

wrapped the blankets closer about the girl and lifted her in his

arms. Wrangle whinnied and thumped the ground as Venters passed

him with the dogs. The sorrel knew he was being left behind, and

was not sure whether he liked it or not. Venters went on and

entered the thicket. Here he had to feel his way in pitch

blackness and to wedge his progress between the close saplings.

Time meant little to him now that he had started, and he edged

along with slow side movement till he got clear of the thicket.

Ring and Whitie stood waiting for him. Taking to the open aisles

and patches of the sage, he walked guardedly, careful not to

stumble or step in dust or strike against spreading

sage-branches.



If he were burdened he did not feel it. From time to time, when

he passed out of the black lines of shade into the wan starlight,

he glanced at the white face of the girl lying in his arms. She

had not awakened from her sleep or stupor. He did not rest until

he cleared the black gate of the canyon. Then he leaned against a

stone breast-high to him and gently released the girl from his

hold. His brow and hair and the palms of his hands were wet, and

there was a kind of nervous contraction of his muscles. They

seemed to ripple and string tense. He had a desire to hurry and

no sense of fatigue. A wind blew the scent of sage in his face.

The first early blackness of night passed with the brightening of

the stars. Somewhere back on his trail a coyote yelped, splitting

the dead silence. Venters's faculties seemed singularly

acute.



He lifted the girl again and pressed on. The valley better

traveling than the canyon. It was lighter, freer of sage, and

there were no rocks. Soon, out of the pale gloom shone a still

paler thing, and that was the low swell of slope. Venters mounted

it and his dogs walked beside him. Once upon the stone he slowed

to snail pace, straining his sight to avoid the pockets and

holes. Foot by foot he went up. The weird cedars, like great

demons and witches chained to the rock and writhing in silent

anguish, loomed up with wide and twisting naked arms. Venters

crossed this belt of cedars, skirted the upper border, and

recognized the tree he had marked, even before he saw his waving

scarf.



Here he knelt and deposited the girl gently, feet first and

slowly laid her out full length. What he feared was to reopen one

of her wounds. If he gave her a violent jar, or slipped and fell!

But the supreme confidence so strangely felt that night admitted

no such blunders.



The slope before him seemed to swell into obscurity to lose its

definite outline in a misty, opaque cloud that shaded into the

over-shadowing wall. He scanned the rim where the serrated points

speared the sky, and he found the zigzag crack. It was dim, only

a shade lighter than the dark ramparts, but he distinguished it,

and that served.



Lifting the girl, he stepped upward, closely attending to the

nature of the path under his feet. After a few steps he stopped

to mark his line with the crack in the rim. The dogs clung closer

to him. While chasing the rabbit this slope had appeared

interminable to him; now, burdened as he was, he did not think of

length or height or toil. He remembered only to avoid a misstep

and to keep his direction. He climbed on, with frequent stops to

watch the rim, and before he dreamed of gaining the bench he

bumped his knees into it, and saw, in the dim gray light, his

rifle and the rabbit. He had come straight up without mishap or

swerving off his course, and his shut teeth unlocked.



As he laid the girl down in the shallow hollow of the little

ridge with her white face upturned, she opened her eyes. Wide,

staring black, at once like both the night and the stars, they

made her face seem still whiter.



"Is--it--you?" she asked, faintly.



"Yes," replied Venters.



"Oh! Where--are we?"



"I'm taking you to a safe place where no one will ever find you.

I must climb a little here and call the dogs. Don't be afraid.

I'll soon come for you."



She said no more. Her eyes watched him steadily for a moment and

then closed. Venters pulled off his boots and then felt for the

little steps in the rock. The shade of the cliff above obscured

the point he wanted to gain, but he could see dimly a few feet

before him. What he had attempted with care he now went at with

surpassing lightness. Buoyant, rapid, sure, he attained the

corner of wall and slipped around it. Here he could not see a

hand before his face, so he groped along, found a little flat

space, and there removed the saddle-bags. The lasso he took back

with him to the corner and looped the noose over the spur of

rock.



"Ring--Whitie--come," he called, softly.



Low whines came up from below.



"Here! Come, Whitie--Ring," he repeated, this time sharply.



Then followed scraping of claws and pattering of feet; and out of

the gray gloom below him swiftly climbed the dogs to reach his

side and pass beyond.



Venters descended, holding to the lasso. He tested its strength

by throwing all his weight upon it. Then he gathered the girl up,

and, holding her securely in his left arm, he began to climb, at

every few steps jerking his right hand upward along the lasso. It

sagged at each forward movement he made, but he balanced himself

lightly during the interval when he lacked the support of a taut

rope. He climbed as if he had wings, the strength of a giant, and

knew not the sense of fear. The sharp corner of cliff seemed to

cut out of the darkness. He reached it and the protruding shelf,

and then, entering the black shade of the notch, he moved blindly

but surely to the place where he had left the saddle-bags. He

heard the dogs, though he could not see them. Once more he

carefully placed the girl at his feet. Then, on hands and knees,

he went over the little flat space, feeling for stones. He

removed a number, and, scraping the deep dust into a heap, he

unfolded the outer blanket from around the girl and laid her upon

this bed. Then he went down the slope again for his boots, rifle,

and the rabbit, and, bringing also his lasso with him, he made

short work of that trip.



"Are--you--there?" The girl's voice came low from the blackness.



"Yes," he replied, and was conscious that his laboring breast

made speech difficult.



"Are we--in a cave?"



"Yes."



"Oh, listen!...The waterfall!...I hear it! You've brought me

back!"



Venters heard a murmuring moan that one moment swelled to a pitch

almost softly shrill and the next lulled to a low, almost

inaudible sigh.



"That's--wind blowing--in the--cliffs," he panted. "You're far

from Oldring's--canyon."



The effort it cost him to speak made him conscious of extreme

lassitude following upon great exertion. It seemed that when he

lay down and drew his blanket over him the action was the last

before utter prostration. He stretched inert, wet, hot, his body

one great strife of throbbing, stinging nerves and bursting

veins. And there he lay for a long while before he felt that he

had begun to rest.



Rest came to him that night, but no sleep. Sleep he did not want.

The hours of strained effort were now as if they had never been,

and he wanted to think. Earlier in the day he had dismissed an

inexplicable feeling of change; but now, when there was no longer

demand on his cunning and strength and he had time to think, he

could not catch the illusive thing that had sadly perplexed as

well as elevated his spirit.



Above him, through a V-shaped cleft in the dark rim of the cliff,

shone the lustrous stars that had been his lonely accusers for a

long, long year. To-night they were different. He studied them.

Larger, whiter, more radiant they seemed; but that was not the

difference he meant. Gradually it came to him that the

distinction was not one he saw, but one he felt. In this he

divined as much of the baffling change as he thought would be

revealed to him then. And as he lay there, with the singing of

the cliff-winds in his ears, the white stars above the dark, bold

vent, the difference which he felt was that he was no longer

alone.





Next: Silver Spruce And Aspens

Previous: The Daughter Of Withersteen



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