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Amber Spring








From: Riders Of The Purple Sage

No unusual circumstances was it for Oldring and some of his men

to visit Cottonwoods in the broad light of day, but for him to

prowl about in the dark with the hoofs of his horses muffled

meant that mischief was brewing. Moreover, to Venters the

presence of the masked rider with Oldring seemed especially

ominous. For about this man there was mystery, he seldom rode

through the village, and when he did ride through it was swiftly;

riders seldom met by day on the sage, but wherever he rode there

always followed deeds as dark and mysterious as the mask he wore.

Oldring's band did not confine themselves to the rustling of

cattle.



Venters lay low in the shade of the cottonwoods, pondering this

chance meeting, and not for many moments did he consider it safe

to move on. Then, with sudden impulse, he turned the other way

and went back along the grove. When he reached the path leading

to Jane's home he decided to go down to the village. So he

hurried onward, with quick soft steps. Once beyond the grove he

entered the one and only street. It was wide, lined with tall

poplars, and under each row of trees, inside the foot-path, were

ditches where ran the water from Jane Withersteen's spring.



Between the trees twinkled lights of cottage candles, and far

down flared bright windows of the village stores. When Venters

got closer to these he saw knots of men standing together in

earnest conversation. The usual lounging on the corners and

benches and steps was not in evidence. Keeping in the shadow

Venters went closer and closer until he could hear voices. But he

could not distinguish what was said. He recognized many Mormons,

and looked hard for Tull and his men, but looked in vain.

Venters concluded that the rustlers had not passed along the

village street. No doubt these earnest men were discussing

Lassiter's coming. But Venters felt positive that Tull's

intention toward himself that day had not been and would not be

revealed.



So Venters, seeing there was little for him to learn, began

retracing his steps. The church was dark, Bishop Dyer's home next

to it was also dark, and likewise Tull's cottage. Upon almost any

night at this hour there would be lights here, and Venters marked

the unusual omission.



As he was about to pass out of the street to skirt the grove, he

once more slunk down at the sound of trotting horses. Presently

he descried two mounted men riding toward him. He hugged the

shadow of a tree. Again the starlight, brighter now, aided him,

and he made out Tull's stalwart figure, and beside him the short,

froglike shape of the rider Jerry. They were silent, and they

rode on to disappear.



Venters went his way with busy, gloomy mind, revolving events of

the day, trying to reckon those brooding in the night. His

thoughts overwhelmed him. Up in that dark grove dwelt a woman who

had been his friend. And he skulked about her home, gripping a

gun stealthily as an Indian, a man without place or people or

purpose. Above her hovered the shadow of grim, hidden, secret

power. No queen could have given more royally out of a bounteous

store than Jane Withersteen gave her people, and likewise to

those unfortunates whom her people hated. She asked only the

divine right of all women--freedom; to love and to live as her

heart willed. And yet prayer and her hope were vain.



"For years I've seen a storm clouding over her and the village of

Cottonwoods," muttered Venters, as he strode on. "Soon it'll

burst. I don't like the prospects." That night the villagers

whispered in the street--and night-riding rustlers muffled

horses--and Tull was at work in secret--and out there in the sage

hid a man who meant something terrible--Lassiter!



Venters passed the black cottonwoods, and, entering the sage,

climbed the gradual slope. He kept his direction in line with a

western star. From time to time he stopped to listen and heard

only the usual familiar bark of coyote and sweep of wind and

rustle of sage. Presently a low jumble of rocks loomed up darkly

somewhat to his right, and, turning that way, he whistled softly.

Out of the rocks glided a dog that leaped and whined about him.

He climbed over rough, broken rock, picking his way carefully,

and then went down. Here it was darker, and sheltered from the

wind. A white object guided him. It was another dog, and this one

was asleep, curled up between a saddle and a pack. The animal

awoke and thumped his tail in greeting. Venters placed the saddle

for a pillow, rolled in his blankets, with his face upward to the

stars. The white dog snuggled close to him. The other whined and

pattered a few yards to the rise of ground and there crouched on

guard. And in that wild covert Venters shut his eyes under the

great white stars and intense vaulted blue, bitterly comparing

their loneliness to his own, and fell asleep.



When he awoke, day had dawned and all about him was bright

steel-gray. The air had a cold tang. Arising, he greeted the

fawning dogs and stretched his cramped body, and then, gathering

together bunches of dead sage sticks, he lighted a fire. Strips

of dried beef held to the blaze for a moment served him and the

dogs. He drank from a canteen. There was nothing else in his

outfit; he had grown used to a scant fire. Then he sat over the

fire, palms outspread, and waited. Waiting had been his chief

occupation for months, and he scarcely knew what he waited for

unless it was the passing of the hours. But now he sensed action

in the immediate present; the day promised another meeting with

Lassiter and Lane, perhaps news of the rustlers; on the morrow he

meant to take the trail to Deception Pass.



And while he waited he talked to his dogs. He called them Ring

and Whitie; they were sheep-dogs, half collie, half deerhound,

superb in build, perfectly trained. It seemed that in his fallen

fortunes these dogs understood the nature of their value to him,

and governed their affection and faithfulness accordingly. Whitie

watched him with somber eyes of love, and Ring, crouched on the

little rise of ground above, kept tireless guard. When the sun

rose, the white dog took the place of the other, and Ring went to

sleep at his master's feet.



By and by Venters rolled up his blankets and tied them and his

meager pack together, then climbed out to look for his horse. He

saw him, presently, a little way off in the sage, and went to

fetch him. In that country, where every rider boasted of a fine

mount and was eager for a race, where thoroughbreds dotted the

wonderful grazing ranges, Venters rode a horse that was sad proof

of his misfortunes.



Then, with his back against a stone, Venters faced the east, and,

stick in hand and idle blade, he waited. The glorious sunlight

filled the valley with purple fire. Before him, to left, to

right, waving, rolling, sinking, rising, like low swells of a

purple sea, stretched the sage. Out of the grove of cottonwoods,

a green patch on the purple, gleamed the dull red of Jane

Withersteen's old stone house. And from there extended the wide

green of the village gardens and orchards marked by the graceful

poplars; and farther down shone the deep, dark richness of the

alfalfa fields. Numberless red and black and white dots speckled

the sage, and these were cattle and horses.



So, watching and waiting, Venters let the time wear away. At

length he saw a horse rise above a ridge, and he knew it to be

Lassiter's black. Climbing to the highest rock, so that he would

show against the sky-line, he stood and waved his hat. The almost

instant turning of Lassiter's horse attested to the quickness of

that rider's eye. Then Venters climbed down, saddled his horse,

tied on his pack, and, with a word to his dogs, was about to ride

out to meet Lassiter, when he concluded to wait for him there, on

higher ground, where the outlook was commanding.



It had been long since Venters had experienced friendly greeting

from a man. Lassiter's warmed in him something that had grown

cold from neglect. And when he had returned it, with a strong

grip of the iron hand that held his, and met the gray eyes, he

knew that Lassiter and he were to be friends.



"Venters, let's talk awhile before we go down there," said

Lassiter, slipping his bridle. "I ain't in no hurry. Them's sure

fine dogs you've got." With a rider's eye he took in the points

of Venter's horse, but did not speak his thought. "Well, did

anythin' come off after I left you last night?"



Venters told him about the rustlers.



"I was snug hid in the sage," replied Lassiter, "an' didn't see

or hear no one. Oldrin's got a high hand here, I reckon. It's no

news up in Utah how he holes in canyons an' leaves no track."

Lassiter was silent a moment. "Me an' Oldrin' wasn't exactly

strangers some years back when he drove cattle into Bostil's

Ford, at the head of the Rio Virgin. But he got harassed there

an' now he drives some place else."



"Lassiter, you knew him? Tell me, is he Mormon or Gentile?"



"I can't say. I've knowed Mormons who pretended to be Gentiles."



"No Mormon ever pretended that unless he was a rustler" declared

Venters.



"Mebbe so."



"It's a hard country for any one, but hardest for Gentiles. Did

you ever know or hear of a Gentile prospering in a Mormon

community?"



"I never did."



"Well, I want to get out of Utah. I've a mother living in

Illinois. I want to go home. It's eight years now."



The older man's sympathy moved Venters to tell his story. He had

left Quincy, run off to seek his fortune in the gold fields had

never gotten any farther than Salt Lake City, wandered here and

there as helper, teamster, shepherd, and drifted southward over

the divide and across the barrens and up the rugged plateau

through the passes to the last border settlements. Here he became

a rider of the sage, had stock of his own, and for a time

prospered, until chance threw him in the employ of Jane

Withersteen.



"Lassiter, I needn't tell you the rest."



"Well, it'd be no news to me. I know Mormons. I've seen their

women's strange love en' patience en' sacrifice an' silence en'

whet I call madness for their idea of God. An' over against that

I've seen the tricks of men. They work hand in hand, all

together, an' in the dark. No man can hold out against them,

unless he takes to packin' guns. For Mormons are slow to kill.

That's the only good I ever seen in their religion. Venters, take

this from me, these Mormons ain't just right in their minds. Else

could a Mormon marry one woman when he already has a wife, an'

call it duty?"



"Lassiter, you think as I think," returned Venters.



"How'd it come then that you never throwed a gun on Tull or some

of them?" inquired the rider, curiously.



"Jane pleaded with me, begged me to be patient, to overlook. She

even took my guns from me. I lost all before I knew it," replied

Venters, with the red color in his face. "But, Lassiter, listen.

"Out of the wreck I saved a Winchester, two Colts, and plenty of

shells. I packed these down into Deception Pass. There, almost

every day for six months, I have practiced with my rifle till the

barrel burnt my hands. Practised the draw--the firing of a Colt,

hour after hour!"



"Now that's interestin' to me," said Lassiter, with a quick

uplift of his head and a concentration of his gray gaze on

Venters. "Could you throw a gun before you began that

practisin'?"



"Yes. And now..." Venters made a lightning-swift movement.



Lassiter smiled, and then his bronzed eyelids narrowed till his

eyes seemed mere gray slits. "You'll kill Tull!" He did not

question; he affirmed.



"I promised Jane Withersteen I'd try to avoid Tull. I'll keep my

word. But sooner or later Tull and I will meet. As I feel now, if

he even looks at me I'll draw!"



"I reckon so. There'll be hell down there, presently." He paused

a moment and flicked a sage-brush with his quirt. "Venters,

seein' as you're considerable worked up, tell me Milly Erne's

story."



Venters's agitation stilled to the trace of suppressed eagerness

in Lassiter's query.



"Milly Erne's story? Well, Lassiter, I'll tell you what I know.

Milly Erne had been in Cottonwoods years when I first arrived

there, and most of what I tell you happened before my arrival. I

got to know her pretty well. She was a slip of a woman, and crazy

on religion. I conceived an idea that I never mentioned--I

thought she was at heart more Gentile than Mormon. But she passed

as a Mormon, and certainly she had the Mormon woman's locked

lips. You know, in every Mormon village there are women who seem

mysterious to us, but about Milly there was more than the

ordinary mystery. When she came to Cottonwoods she had a

beautiful little girl whom she loved passionately. Milly was not

known openly in Cottonwoods as a Mormon wife. That she really was

a Mormon wife I have no doubt. Perhaps the Mormon's other wife or

wives would not acknowledge Milly. Such things happen in these

villages. Mormon wives wear yokes, but they get jealous. Well,

whatever had brought Milly to this country-- love or madness of

religion--she repented of it. She gave up teaching the village

school. She quit the church. And she began to fight Mormon

upbringing for her baby girl. Then the Mormons put on the

screws-- slowly, as is their way. At last the child disappeared.

'Lost' was the report. The child was stolen, I know that. So do

you. That wrecked Milly Erne. But she lived on in hope. She

became a slave. She worked her heart and soul and life out to get

back her child. She never heard of it again. Then she sank....I

can see her now, a frail thing, so transparent you could almost

look through her--white like ashes--and her eyes!...Her eyes have

always haunted me. She had one real friend--Jane Withersteen. But

Jane couldn't mend a broken heart, and Milly died."



For moments Lassiter did not speak, or turn his head.



"The man!" he exclaimed, presently, in husky accents.



"I haven't the slightest idea who the Mormon was," replied

Venters; "nor has any Gentile in Cottonwoods."



"Does Jane Withersteen know?"



"Yes. But a red-hot running-iron couldn't burn that name out of

her!"



Without further speech Lassiter started off, walking his horse

and Venters followed with his dogs. Half a mile down the slope

they entered a luxuriant growth of willows, and soon came into an

open space carpeted with grass like deep green velvet. The

rushing of water and singing of birds filled their ears. Venters

led his comrade to a shady bower and showed him Amber Spring. It

was a magnificent outburst of clear, amber water pouring from a

dark, stone-lined hole. Lassiter knelt and drank, lingered there

to drink again. He made no comment, but Venters did not need

words. Next to his horse a rider of the sage loved a spring. And

this spring was the most beautiful and remarkable known to the

upland riders of southern Utah. It was the spring that made old

Withersteen a feudal lord and now enabled his daughter to return

the toll which her father had exacted from the toilers of the

sage.



The spring gushed forth in a swirling torrent, and leaped down

joyously to make its swift way along a willow-skirted channel.

Moss and ferns and lilies overhung its green banks. Except for

the rough-hewn stones that held and directed the water, this

willow thicket and glade had been left as nature had made it.



Below were artificial lakes, three in number, one above the other

in banks of raised earth, and round about them rose the lofty

green-foliaged shafts of poplar trees. Ducks dotted the glassy

surface of the lakes; a blue heron stood motionless on a

water-gate; kingfishers darted with shrieking flight along the

shady banks; a white hawk sailed above; and from the trees and

shrubs came the song of robins and cat-birds. It was all in

strange contrast to the endless slopes of lonely sage and the

wild rock environs beyond. Venters thought of the woman who loved

the birds and the green of the leaves and the murmur of the

water.



Next on the slope, just below the third and largest lake, were

corrals and a wide stone barn and open sheds and coops and pens.

Here were clouds of dust, and cracking sounds of hoofs, and

romping colts and heehawing burros. Neighing horses trampled to

the corral fences. And on the little windows of the barn

projected bobbing heads of bays and blacks and sorrels. When the

two men entered the immense barnyard, from all around the din

increased. This welcome, however, was not seconded by the several

men and boys who vanished on sight.



Venters and Lassiter were turning toward the house when Jane

appeared in the lane leading a horse. In riding-skirt and blouse

she seemed to have lost some of her statuesque proportions, and

looked more like a girl rider than the mistress of Withersteen.

She was brightly smiling, and her greeting was warmly cordial.



"Good news," she announced. "I've been to the village. All is

quiet. I expected--I don't know what. But there's no excitement.

And Tull has ridden out on his way to Glaze."



"Tull gone?" inquired Venters, with surprise. He was wondering

what could have taken Tull away. Was it to avoid another meeting

with Lassiter that he went? Could it have any connection with the

probable nearness of Oldring and his gang?



"Gone, yes, thank goodness," replied Jane. "Now I'll have peace

for a while. Lassiter, I want you to see my horses. You are a

rider, and you must be a judge of horseflesh. Some of mine have

Arabian blood. My father got his best strain in Nevada from

Indians who claimed their horses were bred down from the original

stock left by the Spaniards."



"Well, ma'am, the one you've been ridin' takes my eye," said

Lassiter, as he walked round the racy, clean-limbed, and

fine-pointed roan.



"Where are the boys?" she asked, looking about. "Jerd, Paul,

where are you? Here, bring out the horses."



The sound of dropping bars inside the barn was the signal for the

horses to jerk their heads in the windows, to snort and stamp.

Then they came pounding out of the door, a file of thoroughbreds,

to plunge about the barnyard, heads and tails up, manes flying.

They halted afar off, squared away to look, came slowly forward

with whinnies for their mistress, and doubtful snorts for the

strangers and their horses.



"Come--come--come," called Jane, holding out her hands. "Why,

Bells-- Wrangle, where are your manners? Come, Black Star--come,

Night. Ah, you beauties! My racers of the sage!"



Only two came up to her; those she called Night and Black Star.

Venters never looked at them without delight. The first was soft

dead black, the other glittering black, and they were perfectly

matched in size, both being high and long-bodied, wide through

the shoulders, with lithe, powerful legs. That they were a

woman's pets showed in the gloss of skin, the fineness of mane.

It showed, too, in the light of big eyes and the gentle reach of

eagerness.



"I never seen their like," was Lassiter's encomium, "an' in my

day I've seen a sight of horses. Now, ma'am, if you was wantin'

to make a long an' fast ride across the sage--say to

elope--"



Lassiter ended there with dry humor, yet behind that was meaning.

Jane blushed and made arch eyes at him.



"Take care, Lassiter, I might think that a proposal," she

replied, gaily. "It's dangerous to propose elopement to a Mormon

woman. Well, I was expecting you. Now will be a good hour to show

you Milly Erne's grave. The day-riders have gone, and the

night-riders haven't come in. Bern, what do you make of that?

Need I worry? You know I have to be made to worry."



"Well, it's not usual for the night shift to ride in so late,"

replied Venters, slowly, and his glance sought Lassiter's.

"Cattle are usually quiet after dark. Still, I've known even a

coyote to stampede your white herd."



"I refuse to borrow trouble. Come," said Jane.



They mounted, and, with Jane in the lead, rode down the lane,

and, turning off into a cattle trail, proceeded westward.

Venters's dogs trotted behind them. On this side of the ranch the

outlook was different from that on the other; the immediate

foreground was rough and the sage more rugged and less colorful;

there were no dark-blue lines of canyons to hold the eye, nor any

uprearing rock walls. It was a long roll and slope into gray

obscurity. Soon Jane left the trail and rode into the sage, and

presently she dismounted and threw her bridle. The men did

likewise. Then, on foot, they followed her, coming out at length

on the rim of a low escarpment. She passed by several little

ridges of earth to halt before a faintly defined mound. It lay in

the shade of a sweeping sage-brush close to the edge of the

promontory; and a rider could have jumped his horse over it

without recognizing a grave.



"Here!"



She looked sad as she spoke, but she offered no explanation for

the neglect of an unmarked, uncared-for grave. There was a little

bunch of pale, sweet lavender daisies, doubtless planted there by

Jane.



"I only come here to remember and to pray," she said. "But I

leave no trail!"



A grave in the sage! How lonely this resting-place of Milly Erne!

The cottonwoods or the alfalfa fields were not in sight, nor was

there any rock or ridge or cedar to lend contrast to the

monotony. Gray slopes, tinging the purple, barren and wild, with

the wind waving the sage, swept away to the dim

horizon.



Lassiter looked at the grave and then out into space. At that

moment he seemed a figure of bronze.



Jane touched Venters's arm and led him back to the horses.



"Bern!" cried Jane, when they were out of hearing. "Suppose

Lassiter were Milly's husband--the father of that little girl

lost so long ago!"



"It might be, Jane. Let us ride on. If he wants to see us again

he'll come."



So they mounted and rode out to the cattle trail and began to

climb. From the height of the ridge, where they had started down,

Venters looked back. He did not see Lassiter, but his glance,

drawn irresistibly farther out on the gradual slope, caught sight

of a moving cloud of dust.



"Hello, a rider!"



"Yes, I see," said Jane.



"That fellow's riding hard. Jane, there's something wrong."



"Oh yes, there must be....How he rides!"



The horse disappeared in the sage, and then puffs of dust marked

his course.



"He's short-cut on us--he's making straight for the corrals."



Venters and Jane galloped their steeds and reined in at the

turning of the lane. This lane led down to the right of the

grove. Suddenly into its lower entrance flashed a bay horse. Then

Venters caught the fast rhythmic beat of pounding hoofs. Soon his

keen eye recognized the swing of the rider in his saddle.



"It's Judkins, your Gentile rider!" he cried. "Jane, when Judkins

rides like that it means hell!"





Next: Deception Pass

Previous: Cottonwoods



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