Solitude And Storm





In his hidden valley Venters awakened from sleep, and his ears



rang with innumerable melodies from full-throated mockingbirds,



and his eyes opened wide upon the glorious golden shaft of



sunlight shining through the great stone bridge. The circle of



cliffs surrounding Surprise Valley lay shrouded in morning mist,



a dim blue low down along the terraces, a creamy, moving cloud



along the ramparts. The oak forest in the center was a plumed and



tufted oval of gold.







He saw Bess under the spruces. Upon her complete recovery of



strength she always rose with the dawn. At the moment she was



feeding the quail she had tamed. And she had begun to tame the



mocking-birds. They fluttered among the branches overhead and



some left off their songs to flit down and shyly hop near the



twittering quail. Little gray and white rabbits crouched in the



grass, now nibbling, now laying long ears flat and watching the



dogs.







Venters's swift glance took in the brightening valley, and Bess



and her pets, and Ring and Whitie. It swept over all to return



again and rest upon the girl. She had changed. To the dark



trousers and blouse she had added moccasins of her own make, but



she no longer resembled a boy. No eye could have failed to mark



the rounded contours of a woman. The change had been to grace and



beauty. A glint of warm gold gleamed from her hair, and a tint of



red shone in the clear dark brown of cheeks. The haunting



sweetness of her lips and eyes, that earlier had been illusive, a



promise, had become a living fact. She fitted harmoniously into



that wonderful setting; she was like Surprise Valley--wild and



beautiful.







Venters leaped out of his cave to begin the day.







He had postponed his journey to Cottonwoods until after the



passing of the summer rains. The rains were due soon. But until



their arrival and the necessity for his trip to the village he



sequestered in a far corner of mind all thought of peril, of his



past life, and almost that of the present. It was enough to live.



He did not want to know what lay hidden in the dim and distant



future. Surprise Valley had enchanted him. In this home of the



cliff-dwellers there were peace and quiet and solitude, and



another thing, wondrous as the golden morning shaft of sunlight,



that he dared not ponder over long enough to understand.







The solitude he had hated when alone he had now come to love. He



was assimilating something from this valley of gleams and



shadows. From this strange girl he was assimilating more.







The day at hand resembled many days gone before. As Venters had



no tools with which to build, or to till the terraces, he



remained idle. Beyond the cooking of the simple fare there were



no tasks. And as there were no tasks, there was no system. He and



Bess began one thing, to leave it; to begin another, to leave



that; and then do nothing but lie under the spruces and watch the



great cloud-sails majestically move along the ramparts, and dream



and dream. The valley was a golden, sunlit world. It was silent.



The sighing wind and the twittering quail and the singing birds,



even the rare and seldom-occurring hollow crack of a sliding



weathered stone, only thickened and deepened that insulated



silence.







Venters and Bess had vagrant minds.







"Bess, did I tell you about my horse Wrangle?" inquired Venters.







"A hundred times," she replied.







"Oh, have I? I'd forgotten. I want you to see him. He'll carry us



both."







"I'd like to ride him. Can he run?"







"Run? He's a demon. Swiftest horse on the sage! I hope he'll stay



in that canyon.







"He'll stay."







They left camp to wander along the terraces, into the aspen



ravines, under the gleaming walls. Ring and Whitie wandered in



the fore, often turning, often trotting back, open-mouthed and



solemn-eyed and happy. Venters lifted his gaze to the grand



archway over the entrance to the valley, and Bess lifted hers to



follow his, and both were silent. Sometimes the bridge held their



attention for a long time. To-day a soaring eagle attracted them.







"How he sails!" exclaimed Bess. "I wonder where his mate is?"







"She's at the nest. It's on the bridge in a crack near the top.



I see her often. She's almost white."







They wandered on down the terrace, into the shady, sun-flecked



forest. A brown bird fluttered crying from a bush. Bess peeped



into the leaves. "Look! A nest and four little birds. They're not



afraid of us. See how they open their mouths. They're hungry."







Rabbits rustled the dead brush and pattered away. The forest was



full of a drowsy hum of insects. Little darts of purple, that



were running quail, crossed the glades. And a plaintive, sweet



peeping came from the coverts. Bess's soft step disturbed a



sleeping lizard that scampered away over the leaves. She gave



chase and caught it, a slim creature of nameless color but of



exquisite beauty.







"Jewel eyes," she said. "It's like a rabbit--afraid. We won't eat



you. There--go."







Murmuring water drew their steps down into a shallow shaded



ravine where a brown brook brawled softly over mossy stones.



Multitudes of strange, gray frogs with white spots and black eyes



lined the rocky bank and leaped only at close approach. Then



Venters's eye descried a very thin, very long green snake coiled



round a sapling. They drew closer and closer till they could have



touched it. The snake had no fear and watched them with



scintillating eyes.







"It's pretty," said Bess. "How tame! I thought snakes always



ran."







"No. Even the rabbits didn't run here till the dogs chased them."







On and on they wandered to the wild jumble of massed and broken



fragments of cliff at the west end of the valley. The roar of the



disappearing stream dinned in their ears. Into this maze of rocks



they threaded a tortuous way, climbing, descending, halting to



gather wild plums and great lavender lilies, and going on at the



will of fancy. Idle and keen perceptions guided them equally.







"Oh, let us climb there!" cried Bess, pointing upward to a small



space of terrace left green and shady between huge abutments of



broken cliff. And they climbed to the nook and rested and looked



out across the valley to the curling column of blue smoke from



their campfire. But the cool shade and the rich grass and the



fine view were not what they had climbed for. They could not have



told, although whatever had drawn them was well-satisfying.



Light, sure-footed as a mountain goat, Bess pattered down at



Venters's heels; and they went on, calling the dogs, eyes dreamy



and wide, listening to the wind and the bees and the crickets and



the birds.







Part of the time Ring and Whitie led the way, then Venters, then



Bess; and the direction was not an object. They left the



sun-streaked shade of the oaks, brushed the long grass of the



meadows, entered the green and fragrant swaying willows, to stop,



at length, under the huge old cottonwoods where the beavers were



busy.







Here they rested and watched. A dam of brush and logs and mud and



stones backed the stream into a little lake. The round, rough



beaver houses projected from the water. Like the rabbits, the



beavers had become shy. Gradually, however, as Venters and Bess



knelt low, holding the dogs, the beavers emerged to swim with



logs and gnaw at cottonwoods and pat mud walls with their



paddle-like tails, and, glossy and shiny in the sun, to go on



with their strange, persistent industry. They were the builders.



The lake was a mud-hole, and the immediate environment a scarred



and dead region, but it was a wonderful home of wonderful



animals.







"Look at that one--he puddles in the mud," said Bess. "And there!



See him dive! Hear them gnawing! I'd think they'd break their



teeth. How's it they can stay out of the water and under the



water?"







And she laughed.







Then Venters and Bess wandered farther, and, perhaps not all



unconsciously this time, wended their slow steps to the cave of



the cliff-dwellers, where she liked best to go.







The tangled thicket and the long slant of dust and little chips



of weathered rock and the steep bench of stone and the worn steps



all were arduous work for Bess in the climbing. But she gained



the shelf, gasping, hot of cheek, glad of eye, with her hand in



Venters's. Here they rested. The beautiful valley glittered below



with its millions of wind-turned leaves bright-faced in the sun,



and the mighty bridge towered heavenward, crowned with blue sky.



Bess, however, never rested for long. Soon she was exploring, and



Venters followed; she dragged forth from corners and shelves a



multitude of crudely fashioned and painted pieces of pottery, and



he carried them. They peeped down into the dark holes of the



kivas, and Bess gleefully dropped a stone and waited for the



long-coming hollow sound to rise. They peeped into the little



globular houses, like mud-wasp nests, and wondered if these had



been store-places for grain, or baby cribs, or what; and they



crawled into the larger houses and laughed when they bumped their



heads on the low roofs, and they dug in the dust of the floors.



And they brought from dust and darkness armloads of treasure



which they carried to the light. Flints and stones and strange



curved sticks and pottery they found; and twisted grass rope that



crumbled in their hands, and bits of whitish stone which crushed



to powder at a touch and seemed to vanish in the air.







"That white stuff was bone," said Venters, slowly. "Bones of a



cliff-dweller."







"No!" exclaimed Bess.







"Here's another piece. Look!...Whew! dry, powdery smoke! That's



bone."







Then it was that Venters's primitive, childlike mood, like a



savage's, seeing, yet unthinking, gave way to the encroachment of



civilized thought. The world had not been made for a single day's



play or fancy or idle watching. The world was old. Nowhere could



be gotten a better idea of its age than in this gigantic silent



tomb. The gray ashes in Venters's hand had once been bone of a



human being like himself. The pale gloom of the cave had shadowed



people long ago. He saw that Bess had received the same



shock--could not in moments such as this escape her feeling



living, thinking destiny.







"Bern, people have lived here," she said, with wide, thoughtful



eyes.







"Yes," he replied.







"How long ago?"







"A thousand years and more."







"What were they?"







"Cliff-dwellers. Men who had enemies and made their homes high



out of reach."







"They had to fight?"







"Yes."







"They fought for--what?"







"For life. For their homes, food, children, parents--for their



women!"







"Has the world changed any in a thousand years?"







"I don't know--perhaps a little."







"Have men?"







"I hope so--I think so."







"Things crowd into my mind," she went on, and the wistful light



in her eyes told Venters the truth of her thoughts. "I've ridden



the border of Utah. I've seen people--know how they live--but



they must be few of all who are living. I had my books and I



studied them. But all that doesn't help me any more. I want to go



out into the big world and see it. Yet I want to stay here more.



What's to become of us? Are we cliff-dwellers? We're alone here.



I'm happy when I don't think. These--these bones that fly into



dust--they make me sick and a little afraid. Did the people who



lived here once have the same feelings as we have? What was the



good of their living at all? They're gone! What's the meaning of



it all--of us?"







"Bess, you ask more than I can tell. It's beyond me. Only there



was laughter here once--and now there's silence. There was



life--and now there's death. Men cut these little steps, made



these arrow-heads and mealing-stones, plaited the ropes we found,



and left their bones to crumble in our fingers. As far as time is



concerned it might all have been yesterday. We're here to-day.



Maybe we're higher in the scale of human beings--in intelligence.



But who knows? We can't be any higher in the things for which



life is lived at all."







"What are they?"







"Why--I suppose relationship, friendship--love."







"Love!"







"Yes. Love of man for woman--love of woman for man. That's the



nature, the meaning, the best of life itself."







She said no more. Wistfulness of glance deepened into



sadness.







"Come, let us go," said Venters.







Action brightened her. Beside him, holding his hand she slipped



down the shelf, ran down the long, steep slant of sliding stones,



out of the cloud of dust, and likewise out of the pale gloom.







"We beat the slide," she cried.







The miniature avalanche cracked and roared, and rattled itself



into an inert mass at the base of the incline. Yellow dust like



the gloom of the cave, but not so changeless, drifted away on the



wind; the roar clapped in echo from the cliff, returned, went



back, and came again to die in the hollowness. Down on the sunny



terrace there was a different atmosphere. Ring and Whitie leaped



around Bess. Once more she was smiling, gay, and thoughtless,



with the dream-mood in the shadow of her eyes.







"Bess, I haven't seen that since last summer. Look!" said



Venters, pointing to the scalloped edge of rolling purple clouds



that peeped over the western wall. "We're in for a storm."







"Oh, I hope not. I'm afraid of storms."







"Are you? Why?"







"Have you ever been down in one of these walled-up pockets in a



bad storm?"







"No, now I think of it, I haven't."







"Well, it's terrible. Every summer I get scared to death and hide



somewhere in the dark. Storms up on the sage are bad, but nothing



to what they are down here in the canyons. And in this little



valley--why, echoes can rap back and forth so quick they'll split



our ears."







"We're perfectly safe here, Bess."







"I know. But that hasn't anything to do with it. The truth is I'm



afraid of lightning and thunder, and thunder-claps hurt my head.



If we have a bad storm, will you stay close to me?"







"Yes."







When they got back to camp the afternoon was closing, and it was



exceedingly sultry. Not a breath of air stirred the aspen leaves,



and when these did not quiver the air was indeed still. The



dark-purple clouds moved almost imperceptibly out of the west.







"What have we for supper?" asked Bess.







"Rabbit."







"Bern, can't you think of another new way to cook rabbit?" went



on Bess, with earnestness.







"What do you think I am--a magician?" retorted Venters.







"I wouldn't dare tell you. But, Bern, do you want me to turn into



a rabbit?"







There was a dark-blue, merry flashing of eyes and a parting of



lips; then she laughed. In that moment she was naive and



wholesome.







"Rabbit seems to agree with you," replied Venters. "You are well



and strong--and growing very pretty."







Anything in the nature of compliment he had never before said to



her, and just now he responded to a sudden curiosity to see its



effect. Bess stared as if she had not heard aright, slowly



blushed, and completely lost her poise in happy confusion.







"I'd better go right away," he continued, "and fetch supplies



from Cottonwoods."







A startlingly swift change in the nature of her agitation made



him reproach himself for his abruptness.







"No, no, don't go!" she said. "I didn't mean--that about the



rabbit. I--I was only trying to be--funny. Don't leave me all



alone!"







"Bess, I must go sometime."







"Wait then. Wait till after the storms."







The purple cloud-bank darkened the lower edge of the setting sun,



crept up and up, obscuring its fiery red heart, and finally



passed over the last ruddy crescent of its upper rim.







The intense dead silence awakened to a long, low, rumbling roll



of thunder.







"Oh!" cried Bess, nervously.







"We've had big black clouds before this without rain," said



Venters. "But there's no doubt about that thunder. The storms are



coming. I'm glad. Every rider on the sage will hear that thunder



with glad ears."







Venters and Bess finished their simple meal and the few tasks



around the camp, then faced the open terrace, the valley, and the



west, to watch and await the approaching storm.







It required keen vision to see any movement whatever in the



purple clouds. By infinitesimal degrees the dark cloud-line



merged upward into the golden-red haze of the afterglow of



sunset. A shadow lengthened from under the western wall across



the valley. As straight and rigid as steel rose the delicate



spear-pointed silver spruces; the aspen leaves, by nature pendant



and quivering, hung limp and heavy; no slender blade of grass



moved. A gentle splashing of water came from the ravine. Then



again from out of the west sounded the low, dull, and rumbling



roll of thunder.







A wave, a ripple of light, a trembling and turning of the aspen



leaves, like the approach of a breeze on the water, crossed the



valley from the west; and the lull and the deadly stillness and



the sultry air passed away on a cool wind.







The night bird of the canyon, with clear and melancholy notes



announced the twilight. And from all along the cliffs rose the



faint murmur and moan and mourn of the wind singing in the caves.



The bank of clouds now swept hugely out of the western sky. Its



front was purple and black, with gray between, a bulging,



mushrooming, vast thing instinct with storm. It had a dark,



angry, threatening aspect. As if all the power of the winds were



pushing and piling behind, it rolled ponderously across the sky.



A red flare burned out instantaneously, flashed from the west to



east, and died. Then from the deepest black of the purple cloud



burst a boom. It was like the bowling of a huge boulder along the



crags and ramparts, and seemed to roll on and fall into the



valley to bound and bang and boom from cliff to cliff.







"Oh!" cried Bess, with her hands over her ears. "What did I tell



you?"







"Why, Bess, be reasonable!" said Venters.







"I'm a coward."







"Not quite that, I hope. It's strange you're afraid. I love a



storm."







"I tell you a storm down in these canyons is an awful thing. I



know Oldring hated storms. His men were afraid of them. There was



one who went deaf in a bad storm, and never could hear again."







"Maybe I've lots to learn, Bess. I'll lose my guess if this storm



isn't bad enough. We're going to have heavy wind first, then



lightning and thunder, then the rain. Let's stay out as long as



we can."







The tips of the cottonwoods and the oaks waved to the east, and



the rings of aspens along the terraces twinkled their myriad of



bright faces in fleet and glancing gleam. A low roar rose from



the leaves of the forest, and the spruces swished in the rising



wind. It came in gusts, with light breezes between. As it



increased in strength the lulls shortened in length till there



was a strong and steady blow all the time, and violent puffs at



intervals, and sudden whirling currents. The clouds spread over



the valley, rolling swiftly and low, and twilight faded into a



sweeping darkness. Then the singing of the wind in the caves



drowned the swift roar of rustling leaves; then the song swelled



to a mourning, moaning wail; then with the gathering power of the



wind the wail changed to a shriek. Steadily the wind strengthened



and constantly the strange sound changed.







The last bit of blue sky yielded to the on-sweep of clouds. Like



angry surf the pale gleams of gray, amid the purple of that



scudding front, swept beyond the eastern rampart of the valley.



The purple deepened to black. Broad sheets of lightning flared



over the western wall. There were not yet any ropes or zigzag



streaks darting down through the gathering darkness. The storm



center was still beyond Surprise Valley.







"Listen!...Listen!" cried Bess, with her lips close to Venters's



ear. "You'll hear Oldring's knell!"







"What's that?"







"Oldring's knell. When the wind blows a gale in the caves it



makes what the rustlers call Oldring's knell. They believe it



bodes his death. I think he believes so, too. It's not like any



sound on earth....It's beginning. Listen!"







The gale swooped down with a hollow unearthly howl. It yelled and



pealed and shrilled and shrieked. It was made up of a thousand



piercing cries. It was a rising and a moving sound. Beginning at



the western break of the valley, it rushed along each gigantic



cliff, whistling into the caves and cracks, to mount in power, to



bellow a blast through the great stone bridge. Gone, as into an



engulfing roar of surging waters, it seemed to shoot back and



begin all over again.







It was only wind, thought Venters. Here sped and shrieked the



sculptor that carved out the wonderful caves in the cliffs. It



was only a gale, but as Venters listened, as his ears became



accustomed to the fury and strife, out of it all or through it or



above it pealed low and perfectly clear and persistently uniform



a strange sound that had no counterpart in all the sounds of the



elements. It was not of earth or of life. It was the grief and



agony of the gale. A knell of all upon which it blew!







Black night enfolded the valley. Venters could not see his



companion, and knew of her presence only through the tightening



hold of her hand on his arm. He felt the dogs huddle closer to



him. Suddenly the dense, black vault overhead split asunder to a



blue-white, dazzling streak of lightning. The whole valley lay



vividly clear and luminously bright in his sight. Upreared, vast



and magnificent, the stone bridge glimmered like some grand god



of storm in the lightning's fire. Then all flashed black



again--blacker than pitch--a thick, impenetrable coal-blackness.



And there came a ripping, crashing report. Instantly an echo



resounded with clapping crash. The initial report was nothing to



the echo. It was a terrible, living, reverberating, detonating



crash. The wall threw the sound across, and could have made no



greater roar if it had slipped in avalanche. From cliff to cliff



the echo went in crashing retort and banged in lessening power,



and boomed in thinner volume, and clapped weaker and weaker till



a final clap could not reach across the waiting cliff.







In the pitchy darkness Venters led Bess, and, groping his way, by



feel of hand found the entrance to her cave and lifted her up. On



the instant a blinding flash of lightning illumined the cave and



all about him. He saw Bess's face white now with dark, frightened



eyes. He saw the dogs leap up, and he followed suit. The golden



glare vanished; all was black; then came the splitting crack and



the infernal din of echoes.







Bess shrank closer to him and closer, found his hands, and



pressed them tightly over her ears, and dropped her face upon his



shoulder, and hid her eyes.







Then the storm burst with a succession of ropes and streaks and



shafts of lightning, playing continuously, filling the valley



with a broken radiance; and the cracking shots followed each



other swiftly till the echoes blended in one fearful, deafening



crash.







Venters looked out upon the beautiful valley--beautiful now as



never before--mystic in its transparent, luminous gloom, weird in



the quivering, golden haze of lightning. The dark spruces were



tipped with glimmering lights; the aspens bent low in the winds,



as waves in a tempest at sea; the forest of oaks tossed wildly



and shone with gleams of fire. Across the valley the huge cavern



of the cliff-dwellers yawned in the glare, every little black



window as clear as at noonday; but the night and the storm added



to their tragedy. Flung arching to the black clouds, the great



stone bridge seemed to bear the brunt of the storm. It caught the



full fury of the rushing wind. It lifted its noble crown to meet



the lightnings. Venters thought of the eagles and their lofty



nest in a niche under the arch. A driving pall of rain, black as



the clouds, came sweeping on to obscure the bridge and the



gleaming walls and the shining valley. The lightning played



incessantly, streaking down through opaque darkness of rain. The



roar of the wind, with its strange knell and the re-crashing



echoes, mingled with the roar of the flooding rain, and all



seemingly were deadened and drowned in a world of sound.







In the dimming pale light Venters looked down upon the girl. She



had sunk into his arms, upon his breast, burying her face. She



clung to him. He felt the softness of her, and the warmth, and



the quick heave of her breast. He saw the dark, slender, graceful



outline of her form. A woman lay in his arms! And he held her



closer. He who had been alone in the sad, silent watches of the



night was not now and never must be again alone. He who had



yearned for the touch of a hand felt the long tremble and the



heart-beat of a woman. By what strange chance had she come to



love him! By what change--by what marvel had she grown into a



treasure!







No more did he listen to the rush and roar of the thunder-storm.



For with the touch of clinging hands and the throbbing bosom he



grew conscious of an inward storm--the tingling of new chords of



thought, strange music of unheard, joyous bells sad dreams



dawning to wakeful delight, dissolving doubt, resurging hope,



force, fire, and freedom, unutterable sweetness of desire. A



storm in his breast--a storm of real love.





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