Mostly, though, because the men got drunk at the villages. But they were always good to me. I wasn't afraid."
"A prisoner! That must have been hard on you?"
"I liked that. As long as I can remember I've been locked up there at times, and those times were the only happy ones I ever had. It's a big cabin, high up on a cliff, and I could look out.
Then I had dogs and pets I had tamed, and books. There was a spring inside, and food stored, and the men brought me fresh meat. Once I was there one whole winter."
It now required deliberation on Venters's part to persist in his unconcern and to keep at work. He wanted to look at her, to volley questions at her.
"As long as you can remember--you've lived in Deception Pass?" he went on.
"I've a dim memory of some other place, and women and children; but I can't make anything of it. Sometimes I think till I'm weary."
"Then you can read--you have books?"
"Oh yes, I can read, and write, too, pretty well. Oldring is educated. He taught me, and years ago an old rustler lived with us, and he had been something different once. He was always teaching me."
"So Oldring takes long trips," mused Venters. "Do you know where he goes?"
"No. Every year he drives cattle north of Sterling--then does not return for months. I heard him accused once of living two lives--and he killed the man. That was at Stone Bridge."
Venters dropped his apparent task and looked up with an eagerness he no longer strove to hide.
"Bess," he said, using her name for the first time, "I suspected Oldring was something besides a rustler. Tell me, what's his purpose here in the Pass? I believe much that he has done was to hide his real work here."
"You're right. He's more than a rustler. In fact, as the men say, his rustling cattle is now only a bluff. There's gold in the canyons!"
"Yes, there's gold, not in great quantities, but gold enough for him and his men. They wash for gold week in and week out. Then they drive a few cattle and go into the villages to drink and shoot and kill--to bluff the riders."
"Drive a few cattle! But, Bess, the Withersteen herd, the red herd-- twenty-five hundred head! That's not a few. And I tracked them into a valley near here."
"Oldring never stole the red herd. He made a deal with Mormons.
The riders were to be called in, and Oldring was to drive the herd and keep it till a certain time--I won't know when--then drive it back to the range. What his share was I didn't hear."