Gold





As Lassiter had reported to Jane, Venters "went through" safely,



and after a toilsome journey reached the peaceful shelter of



Surprise Valley. When finally he lay wearily down under the



silver spruces, resting from the strain of dragging packs and



burros up the slope and through the entrance to Surprise Valley,



he had leisure to think, and a great deal of the time went in



regretting that he had not been frank with his loyal friend, Jane



Withersteen.







But, he kept continually recalling, when he had stood once more



face to face with her and had been shocked at the change in her



and had heard the details of her adversity, he had not had the



heart to tell her of the closer interest which had entered his



life. He had not lied; yet he had kept silence.







Bess was in transports over the stores of supplies and the outfit



he had packed from Cottonwoods. He had certainly brought a



hundred times more than he had gone for; enough, surely, for



years, perhaps to make permanent home in the valley. He saw no



reason why he need ever leave there again.







After a day of rest he recovered his strength and shared Bess's



pleasure in rummaging over the endless packs, and began to plan



for the future. And in this planning, his trip to Cottonwoods,



with its revived hate of Tull and consequent unleashing of fierce



passions, soon faded out of mind. By slower degrees his



friendship for Jane Withersteen and his contrition drifted from



the active preoccupation of his present thought to a place in



memory, with more and more infrequent recalls.







And as far as the state of his mind was concerned, upon the



second day after his return, the valley, with its golden hues and



purple shades, the speaking west wind and the cool, silent night,



and Bess's watching eyes with their wonderful light, so wrought



upon Venters that he might never have left them at all.







That very afternoon he set to work. Only one thing hindered him



upon beginning, though it in no wise checked his delight, and



that in the multiplicity of tasks planned to make a paradise out



of the valley he could not choose the one with which to begin. He



had to grow into the habit of passing from one dreamy pleasure to



another, like a bee going from flower to flower in the valley,



and he found this wandering habit likely to extend to his labors.



Nevertheless, he made a start.







At the outset he discovered Bess to be both a considerable help



in some ways and a very great hindrance in others. Her excitement



and joy were spurs, inspirations; but she was utterly



impracticable in her ideas, and she flitted from one plan to



another with bewildering vacillation. Moreover, he fancied that



she grew more eager, youthful, and sweet; and he marked that it



was far easier to watch her and listen to her than it was to



work. Therefore he gave her tasks that necessitated her going



often to the cave where he had stored his packs.







Upon the last of these trips, when he was some distance down the



terrace and out of sight of camp, he heard a scream, and then the



sharp barking of the dogs.







For an instant he straightened up, amazed. Danger for her had



been absolutely out of his mind. She had seen a rattlesnake--or a



wildcat. Still she would not have been likely to scream at sight



of either; and the barking of the dogs was ominous. Dropping his



work, he dashed back along the terrace. Upon breaking through a



clump of aspens he saw the dark form of a man in the camp. Cold,



then hot, Venters burst into frenzied speed to reach his guns. He



was cursing himself for a thoughtless fool when the man's tall



form became familiar and he recognized Lassiter. Then the



reversal of emotions changed his run to a walk; he tried to call



out, but his voice refused to carry; when he reached camp there



was Lassiter staring at the white-faced girl. By that time Ring



and Whitie had recognized him.







"Hello, Venters! I'm makin' you a visit," said Lassiter, slowly.



"An' I'm some surprised to see you've a--a young feller for



company."







One glance had sufficed for the keen rider to read Bess's real



sex, and for once his cool calm had deserted him. He stared till



the white of Bess's cheeks flared into crimson. That, if it were



needed, was the concluding evidence of her femininity, for it



went fittingly with her sun-tinted hair and darkened, dilated



eyes, the sweetness of her mouth, and the striking symmetry of



her slender shape.







"Heavens! Lassiter!" panted Venters, when he caught his breath.



"What relief--it's only you! How--in the name of all that's



wonderful--did you ever get here?"







"I trailed you. We--I wanted to know where you was, if you had a



safe place. So I trailed you."







"Trailed me," cried Venters, bluntly.







"I reckon. It was some of a job after I got to them smooth rocks.



I was all day trackin' you up to them little cut steps in the



rock. The rest was easy."







"Where's your hoss? I hope you hid him."







"I tied him in them queer cedars down on the slope. He can't be



seen from the valley."







"That's good. Well, well! I'm completely dumfounded. It was my



idea that no man could track me in here."







"I reckon. But if there's a tracker in these uplands as good as



me he can find you."







"That's bad. That'll worry me. But, Lassiter, now you're here I'm



glad to see you. And--and my companion here is not a young



fellow!...Bess, this is a friend of mine. He saved my life once."







The embarrassment of the moment did not extend to Lassiter.



Almost at once his manner, as he shook hands with Bess, relieved



Venters and put the girl at ease. After Venters's words and one



quick look at Lassiter, her agitation stilled, and, though she



was shy, if she were conscious of anything out of the ordinary in



the situation, certainly she did not show it.







"I reckon I'll only stay a little while," Lassiter was saying.



"An' if you don't mind troublin', I'm hungry. I fetched some



biscuits along, but they're gone. Venters, this place is sure the



wonderfullest ever seen. Them cut steps on the slope! That outlet



into the gorge! An' it's like climbin' up through hell into



heaven to climb through that gorge into this valley! There's a



queer-lookin' rock at the top of the passage. I didn't have time



to stop. I'm wonderin' how you ever found this place. It's sure



interestin'."







During the preparation and eating of dinner Lassiter listened



mostly, as was his wont, and occasionally he spoke in his quaint



and dry way. Venters noted, however, that the rider showed an



increasing interest in Bess. He asked her no questions, and only



directed his attention to her while she was occupied and had no



opportunity to observe his scrutiny. It seemed to Venters that



Lassiter grew more and more absorbed in his study of Bess, and



that he lost his coolness in some strange, softening sympathy.



Then, quite abruptly, he arose and announced the necessity for



his early departure. He said good-by to Bess in a voice gentle



and somewhat broken, and turned hurriedly away. Venters



accompanied him, and they had traversed the terrace, climbed the



weathered slope, and passed under the stone bridge before either



spoke again.







Then Lassiter put a great hand on Venters's shoulder and wheeled



him to meet a smoldering fire of gray eyes.







"Lassiter, I couldn't tell Jane! I couldn't," burst out Venters,



reading his friend's mind. "I tried. But I couldn't. She wouldn't



understand, and she has troubles enough. And I love the girl!"







"Venters, I reckon this beats me. I've seen some queer things in



my time, too. This girl--who is she?"







"I don't know."







"Don't know! What is she, then?"







"I don't know that, either. Oh, it's the strangest story you ever



heard. I must tell you. But you'll never believe."







"Venters, women were always puzzles to me. But for all that, if



this girl ain't a child, an' as innocent, I'm no fit person to



think of virtue an' goodness in anybody. Are you goin' to be



square with her?"







"I am--so help me God!"







"I reckoned so. Mebbe my temper oughtn't led me to make sure.



But, man, she's a woman in all but years. She's sweeter 'n the



sage."







"Lassiter, I know, I know. And the hell of it is that in spite of



her innocence and charm she's--she's not what she seems!"







"I wouldn't want to--of course, I couldn't call you a liar,



Venters," said the older man.







"What's more, she was Oldring's Masked Rider!"







Venters expected to floor his friend with that statement, but he



was not in any way prepared for the shock his words gave. For an



instant he was astounded to see Lassiter stunned; then his own



passionate eagerness to unbosom himself, to tell the wonderful



story, precluded any other thought.







"Son, tell me all about this," presently said Lassiter as he



seated himself on a stone and wiped his moist brow.







Thereupon Venters began his narrative at the point where he had



shot the rustler and Oldring's Masked Rider, and he rushed



through it, telling all, not holding back even Bess's unreserved



avowal of her love or his deepest emotions.







"That's the story," he said, concluding. "I love her, though I've



never told her. If I did tell her I'd be ready to marry her, and



that seems impossible in this country. I'd be afraid to risk



taking her anywhere. So I intend to do the best I can for her



here."







"The longer I live the stranger life is," mused Lassiter, with



downcast eyes. "I'm reminded of somethin' you once said to Jane



about hands in her game of life. There's that unseen hand of



power, an' Tull's black hand, an' my red one, an' your



indifferent one, an' the girl's little brown, helpless one. An',



Venters there's another one that's all-wise an' all-wonderful.



That's the hand guidin' Jane Withersteen's game of life!...Your



story's one to daze a far clearer head than mine. I can't offer



no advice, even if you asked for it. Mebbe I can help you.



Anyway, I'll hold Oldrin' up when he comes to the village an'



find out about this girl. I knew the rustler years ago. He'll



remember me."







"Lassiter, if I ever meet Oldring I'll kill him!" cried Venters,



with sudden intensity.







"I reckon that'd be perfectly natural," replied the rider.







"Make him think Bess is dead--as she is to him and that old



life."







"Sure, sure, son. Cool down now. If you're goin' to begin pullin'



guns on Tull an' Oldin' you want to be cool. I reckon, though,



you'd better keep hid here. Well, I must be leavin'."







"One thing, Lassiter. You'll not tell Jane about Bess? Please



don't!"







"I reckon not. But I wouldn't be afraid to bet that after she'd



got over anger at your secrecy--Venters, she'd be furious once in



her life!--she'd think more of you. I don't mind sayin' for



myself that I think you're a good deal of a man."







In the further ascent Venters halted several times with the



intention of saying good-by, yet he changed his mind and kept on



climbing till they reached Balancing Rock. Lassiter examined the



huge rock, listened to Venters's idea of its position and



suggestion, and curiously placed a strong hand upon it.







"Hold on!" cried Venters. "I heaved at it once and have never



gotten over my scare."







"Well, you do seem uncommon nervous," replied Lassiter, much



amused. "Now, as for me, why I always had the funniest notion to



roll stones! When I was a kid I did it, an' the bigger I got the



bigger stones I'd roll. Ain't that funny? Honest--even now I



often get off my hoss just to tumble a big stone over a



precipice, en' watch it drop, en' listen to it bang an' boom.



I've started some slides in my time, an' don't you forget it. I



never seen a rock I wanted to roll as bad as this one! Wouldn't



there jest be roarin', crashin' hell down that trail?"







"You'd close the outlet forever!" exclaimed Venters. "Well,



good-by, Lassiter. Keep my secret and don't forget me. And be



mighty careful how you get out of the valley below. The rustlers'



canyon isn't more than three miles up the Pass. Now you've



tracked me here, I'll never feel safe again."







In his descent to the valley, Venters's emotion, roused to



stirring pitch by the recital of his love story, quieted



gradually, and in its place came a sober, thoughtful mood. All at



once he saw that he was serious, because he would never more



regain his sense of security while in the valley. What Lassiter



could do another skilful tracker might duplicate. Among the many



riders with whom Venters had ridden he recalled no one who could



have taken his trail at Cottonwoods and have followed it to the



edge of the bare slope in the pass, let alone up that glistening



smooth stone. Lassiter, however, was not an ordinary rider.



Instead of hunting cattle tracks he had likely spent a goodly



portion of his life tracking men. It was not improbable that



among Oldring's rustlers there was one who shared Lassiter's gift



for trailing. And the more Venters dwelt on this possibility the



more perturbed he grew.







Lassiter's visit, moreover, had a disquieting effect upon Bess,



and Venters fancied that she entertained the same thought as to



future seclusion. The breaking of their solitude, though by a



well-meaning friend, had not only dispelled all its dream and



much of its charm, but had instilled a canker of fear. Both had



seen the footprint in the sand.







Venters did no more work that day. Sunset and twilight gave way



to night, and the canyon bird whistled its melancholy notes, and



the wind sang softly in the cliffs, and the camp-fire blazed and



burned down to red embers. To Venters a subtle difference was



apparent in all of these, or else the shadowy change had been in



him. He hoped that on the morrow this slight depression would



have passed away.







In that measure, however, he was doomed to disappointment.



Furthermore, Bess reverted to a wistful sadness that he had not



observed in her since her recovery. His attempt to cheer her out



of it resulted in dismal failure, and consequently in a darkening



of his own mood. Hard work relieved him; still, when the day had



passed, his unrest returned. Then he set to deliberate thinking,



and there came to him the startling conviction that he must leave



Surprise Valley and take Bess with him. As a rider he had taken



many chances, and as an adventurer in Deception Pass he had



unhesitatingly risked his life, but now he would run no



preventable hazard of Bess's safety and happiness, and he was too



keen not to see that hazard. It gave him a pang to think of



leaving the beautiful valley just when he had the means to



establish a permanent and delightful home there. One flashing



thought tore in hot temptation through his mind--why not climb up



into the gorge, roll Balancing Rock down the trail, and close



forever the outlet to Deception Pass? "That was the beast in



me--showing his teeth!" muttered Venters, scornfully. "I'll just



kill him good and quick! I'll be fair to this girl, if it's the



last thing I do on earth!"







Another day went by, in which he worked less and pondered more



and all the time covertly watched Bess. Her wistfulness had



deepened into downright unhappiness, and that made his task to



tell her all the harder. He kept the secret another day, hoping



by some chance she might grow less moody, and to his exceeding



anxiety she fell into far deeper gloom. Out of his own secret and



the torment of it he divined that she, too, had a secret and the



keeping of it was torturing her. As yet he had no plan thought



out in regard to how or when to leave the valley, but he decided



to tell her the necessity of it and to persuade her to go.



Furthermore, he hoped his speaking out would induce her to



unburden her own mind.







"Bess, what's wrong with you?" he asked.







"Nothing," she answered, with averted face.







Venters took hold of her gently, though masterfully, forced her



to meet his eyes.







"You can't look at me and lie," he said. "Now--what's wrong with



you? You're keeping something from me. Well, I've got a secret,



too, and I intend to tell it presently."







"Oh--I have a secret. I was crazy to tell you when you came back.



That's why I was so silly about everything. I kept holding my



secret back--gloating over it. But when Lassiter came I got an



idea--that changed my mind. Then I hated to tell you."







"Are you going to now?"







"Yes--yes. I was coming to it. I tried yesterday, but you were so



cold. I was afraid. I couldn't keep it much longer."







"Very well, most mysterious lady, tell your wonderful secret."







"You needn't laugh," she retorted, with a first glimpse of



reviving spirit. "I can take the laugh out of you in one second."







"It's a go."







She ran through the spruces to the cave, and returned carrying



something which was manifestly heavy. Upon nearer view he saw



that whatever she held with such evident importance had been



bound up in a black scarf he well remembered. That alone was



sufficient to make him tingle with curiosity.







"Have you any idea what I did in your absence?" she asked.







"I imagine you lounged about, waiting and watching for me," he



replied, smiling. "I've my share of conceit, you know."







"You're wrong. I worked. Look at my hands." She dropped on her



knees close to where he sat, and, carefully depositing the black



bundle, she held out her hands. The palms and inside of her



fingers were white, puckered, and worn.







"Why, Bess, you've been fooling in the water," he said.







"Fooling? Look here!" With deft fingers she spread open the black



scarf, and the bright sun shone upon a dull, glittering heap of



gold.







"Gold!" he ejaculated.







"Yes, gold! See, pounds of gold! I found it--washed it out of the



stream--picked it out grain by grain, nugget by nugget!"







"Gold!" he cried.







"Yes. Now--now laugh at my secret!"







For a long minute Venters gazed. Then he stretched forth a hand



to feel if the gold was real.







"Gold!" he almost shouted. "Bess, there are hundreds--thousands



of dollars' worth here!"







He leaned over to her, and put his hand, strong and clenching



now, on hers.







"Is there more where this came from?" he whispered.







"Plenty of it, all the way up the stream to the cliff. You know



I've often washed for gold. Then I've heard the men talk. I think



there's no great quantity of gold here, but enough for--for a



fortune for you."







"That--was--your--secret! "







"Yes. I hate gold. For it makes men mad. I've seen them drunk



with joy and dance and fling themselves around. I've seen them



curse and rave. I've seen them fight like dogs and roll in the



dust. I've seen them kill each other for gold."







"Is that why you hated to tell me?"







"Not--not altogether." Bess lowered her head. "It was because I



knew you'd never stay here long after you found gold."







"You were afraid I'd leave you?"







"Yes.







"Listen!...You great, simple child! Listen...You sweet,



wonderful, wild, blue-eyed girl! I was tortured by my secret. It



was that I knew we--we must leave the valley. We can't stay here



much longer. I couldn't think how we'd get away--out of the



country--or how we'd live, if we ever got out. I'm a beggar.



That's why I kept my secret. I'm poor. It takes money to make way



beyond Sterling. We couldn't ride horses or burros or walk



forever. So while I knew we must go, I was distracted over how to



go and what to do. Now! We've gold! Once beyond Sterling, well be



safe from rustlers. We've no others to fear.







"Oh! Listen! Bess!" Venters now heard his voice ringing high and



sweet, and he felt Bess's cold hands in his crushing grasp as she



leaned toward him pale, breathless. "This is how much I'd leave



you! You made me live again! I'll take you away--far away from



this wild country. You'll begin a new life. You'll be happy. You



shall see cities, ships, people. You shall have anything your



heart craves. All the shame and sorrow of your life shall be



forgotten--as if they had never been. This is how much I'd leave



you here alone--you sad-eyed girl. I love you! Didn't you know



it? How could you fail to know it? I love you! I'm free! I'm a



man--a man you've made--no more a beggar!...Kiss me! This is how



much I'd leave you here alone--you beautiful, strange, unhappy



girl. But I'll make you happy. What--what do I care for--your



past! I love you! I'll take you home to Illinois--to my mother.



Then I'll take you to far places. I'll make up all you've lost.



Oh, I know you love me--knew it before you told me. And it



changed my life. And you'll go with me, not as my companion as



you are here, nor my sister, but, Bess, darling!...As my wife!"





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