Silver Spruce And Aspens





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!"





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