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.
"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
"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."
"I will not." Venters spoke shortly with a kind of ring in his
"What--do you want--to do--with me?" Her whispering grew
difficult, so low and faint that Venters had to stoop to hear
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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?"
"Oh, listen!...The waterfall!...I hear it! You've brought me
Venters heard a murmuring moan that one moment swelled to a pitch
almost softly shrill and the next lulled to a low, almost
"That's--wind blowing--in the--cliffs," he panted. "You're far
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
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