<SPAN name="link2HCH0009" id="link2HCH0009">
<!-- H2 anchor --> </SPAN>
<div style="height: 4em;">
<br /><br /><br /><br />
CHAPTER IX. 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
"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?"
"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
"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,
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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?"
"Is Oldring a Mormon?"
"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
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
"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?"
"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!"