Black Star And Night
From: Riders Of The Purple Sage
The time had come for Venters and Bess to leave their retreat.
They were at great pains to choose the few things they would be
able to carry with them on the journey out of Utah.
"Bern, whatever kind of a pack's this, anyhow?" questioned Bess,
rising from her work with reddened face.
Venters, absorbed in his own task, did not look up at all, and in
reply said he had brought so much from Cottonwoods that he did
not recollect the half of it.
"A woman packed this!" Bess exclaimed.
He scarcely caught her meaning, but the peculiar tone of her
voice caused him instantly to rise, and he saw Bess on her knees
before an open pack which he recognized as the one given him by
"By George!" he ejaculated, guiltily, and then at sight of Bess's
face he laughed outright.
"A woman packed this," she repeated, fixing woeful, tragic eyes
"Well, is that a crime?'
"There--there is a woman, after all!"
"You've lied to me!"
Then and there Venters found it imperative to postpone work for
the present. All her life Bess had been isolated, but she had
inherited certain elements of the eternal feminine.
"But there was a woman and you did lie to me," she kept
repeating, after he had explained.
"What of that? Bess, I'll get angry at you in a moment. Remember
you've been pent up all your life. I venture to say that if you'd
been out in the world you d have had a dozen sweethearts and have
told many a lie before this."
"I wouldn't anything of the kind," declared Bess,
"Well--perhaps not lie. But you'd have had the sweethearts--You
couldn't have helped that--being so pretty."
This remark appeared to be a very clever and fortunate one; and
the work of selecting and then of stowing all the packs in the
cave went on without further interruption.
Venters closed up the opening of the cave with a thatch of
willows and aspens, so that not even a bird or a rat could get in
to the sacks of grain. And this work was in order with the
precaution habitually observed by him. He might not be able to
get out of Utah, and have to return to the valley. But he owed it
to Bess to make the attempt, and in case they were compelled to
turn back he wanted to find that fine store of food and grain
intact. The outfit of implements and utensils he packed away in
"Bess, we have enough to live here all our lives," he said once,
"Shall I go roll Balancing Rock?" she asked, in light speech, but
with deep-blue fire in her eyes.
"Ah, you don't forget the gold and the world," she sighed.
"Child, you forget the beautiful dresses and the travel--and
"Oh, I want to go. But I want to stay!"
"I feel the same way."
They let the eight calves out of the corral, and kept only two of
the burros Venters had brought from Cottonwoods. These they
intended to ride. Bess freed all her pets--the quail and rabbits
The last sunset and twilight and night were both the sweetest and
saddest they had ever spent in Surprise Valley. Morning brought
keen exhilaration and excitement. When Venters had saddled the
two burros, strapped on the light packs and the two canteens, the
sunlight was dispersing the lazy shadows from the valley. Taking
a last look at the caves and the silver spruces, Venters and Bess
made a reluctant start, leading the burros. Ring and Whitie
looked keen and knowing. Something seemed to drag at Venters's
feet and he noticed Bess lagged behind. Never had the climb from
terrace to bridge appeared so long.
Not till they reached the opening of the gorge did they stop to
rest and take one last look at the valley. The tremendous arch of
stone curved clear and sharp in outline against the morning sky.
And through it streaked the golden shaft. The valley seemed an
enchanted circle of glorious veils of gold and wraiths of white
and silver haze and dim, blue, moving shade--beautiful and wild
and unreal as a dream.
"We--we can--th--think of it--always--re--remember," sobbed Bess.
"Hush! Don't cry. Our valley has only fitted us for a better life
They entered the gorge and he closed the willow gate. From rosy,
golden morning light they passed into cool, dense gloom. The
burros pattered up the trail with little hollow-cracking steps.
And the gorge widened to narrow outlet and the gloom lightened to
gray. At the divide they halted for another rest. Venters's keen,
remembering gaze searched Balancing Rock, and the long incline,
and the cracked toppling walls, but failed to note the slightest
The dogs led the descent; then came Bess leading her burro; then
Venters leading his. Bess kept her eyes bent downward. Venters,
however, had an irresistible desire to look upward at Balancing
Rock. It had always haunted him, and now he wondered if he were
really to get through the outlet before the huge stone thundered
down. He fancied that would be a miracle. Every few steps he
answered to the strange, nervous fear and turned to make sure the
rock still stood like a giant statue. And, as he descended, it
grew dimmer in his sight. It changed form; it swayed it nodded
darkly; and at last, in his heightened fancy, he saw it heave and
roll. As in a dream when he felt himself falling yet knew he
would never fall, so he saw this long-standing thunderbolt of the
little stone-men plunge down to close forever the outlet to
And while he was giving way to unaccountable dread imaginations
the descent was accomplished without mishap.
"I'm glad that's over," he said, breathing more freely. "I hope
I'm by that hanging rock for good and all. Since almost the
moment I first saw it I've had an idea that it was waiting for
me. Now, when it does fall, if I'm thousands of miles away, I'll
With the first glimpses of the smooth slope leading down to the
grotesque cedars and out to the Pass, Venters's cool nerve
returned. One long survey to the left, then one to the right,
satisfied his caution. Leading the burros down to the spur of
rock, he halted at the steep incline.
"Bess, here's the bad place, the place I told you about, with the
cut steps. You start down, leading your burro. Take your time and
hold on to him if you slip. I've got a rope on him and a
half-hitch on this point of rock, so I can let him down safely.
Coming up here was a killing job. But it'll be easy going
Both burros passed down the difficult stairs cut by the
cliff-dwellers, and did it without a misstep. After that the
descent down the slope and over the mile of scrawled, ripped, and
ridged rock required only careful guidance, and Venters got the
burros to level ground in a condition that caused him to
"Oh, if we only had Wrangle!" exclaimed Venters. "But we're
lucky. That's the worst of our trail passed. We've only men to
fear now. If we get up in the sage we can hide and slip along
They mounted and rode west through the valley and entered the
canyon. From time to time Venters walked, leading his burro. When
they got by all the canyons and gullies opening into the Pass
they went faster and with fewer halts. Venters did not confide in
Bess the alarming fact that he had seen horses and smoke less
than a mile up one of the intersecting canyons. He did not talk
at all. And long after he had passed this canyon and felt secure
once more in the certainty that they had been unobserved he never
relaxed his watchfulness. But he did not walk any more, and he
kept the burros at a steady trot. Night fell before they reached
the last water in the Pass and they made camp by starlight.
Venters did not want the burros to stray, so he tied them with
long halters in the grass near the spring. Bess, tired out and
silent, laid her head in a saddle and went to sleep between the
two dogs. Venters did not close his eyes. The canyon silence
appeared full of the low, continuous hum of insects. He listened
until the hum grew into a roar, and then, breaking the spell,
once more he heard it low and clear. He watched the stars and the
moving shadows, and always his glance returned to the girl's
dimly pale face. And he remembered how white and still it had
once looked in the starlight. And again stern thought fought his
strange fancies. Would all his labor and his love be for naught?
Would he lose her, after all? What did the dark shadow around her
portend? Did calamity lurk on that long upland trail through the
sage? Why should his heart swell and throb with nameless fear? He
listened to the silence and told himself that in the broad light
of day he could dispel this leaden-weighted dread.
At the first hint of gray over the eastern rim he awoke Bess,
saddled the burros, and began the day's travel. He wanted to get
out of the Pass before there was any chance of riders coming
down. They gained the break as the first red rays of the rising
sun colored the rim.
For once, so eager was he to get up to level ground, he did not
send Ring or Whitie in advance. Encouraging Bess to hurry pulling
at his patient, plodding burro, he climbed the soft, steep
Brighter and brighter grew the light. He mounted the last broken
edge of rim to have the sun-fired, purple sage-slope burst upon
him as a glory. Bess panted up to his side, tugging on the halter
of her burro.
"We're up!" he cried, joyously. "There's not a dot on the sage
We're safe. We'll not be seen! Oh, Bess--"
Ring growled and sniffed the keen air and bristled. Venters
clutched at his rifle. Whitie sometimes made a mistake, but Ring
never. The dull thud of hoofs almost deprived Venters of power to
turn and see from where disaster threatened. He felt his eyes
dilate as he stared at Lassiter leading Black Star and Night out
of the sage, with Jane Withersteen, in rider's costume, close
For an instant Venters felt himself whirl dizzily in the center
of vast circles of sage. He recovered partially, enough to see
Lassiter standing with a glad smile and Jane riveted in
"Why, Bern!" she exclaimed. "How good it is to see you! We're
riding away, you see. The storm burst--and I'm a ruined
woman!...I thought you were alone."
Venters, unable to speak for consternation, and bewildered out of
all sense of what he ought or ought not to do, simply stared at
"Son, where are you bound for?" asked Lassiter.
"Not safe--where I was. I'm--we're going out of Utah--back East,"
he found tongue to say.
"I reckon this meetin's the luckiest thing that ever happened to
you an' to me--an' to Jane--an' to Bess," said Lassiter, coolly.
"Bess!" cried Jane, with a sudden leap of blood to her pale
It was entirely beyond Venters to see any luck in that
Jane Withersteen took one flashing, woman's glance at Bess's
scarlet face, at her slender, shapely form.
"Venters! is this a girl--a woman?" she questioned, in a voice
"Did you have her in that wonderful valley?"
"Yes, but Jane--"
"All the time you were gone?"
"Yes, but I couldn't tell--"
"Was it for her you asked me to give you supplies? Was it for her
that you wanted to make your valley a
"Oh, you liar!" And with these passionate words Jane Withersteen
succumbed to fury. For the second time in her life she fell into
the ungovernable rage that had been her father's weakness. And it
was worse than his, for she was a jealous woman--jealous even of
As best he could, he bore the brunt of her anger. It was not only
his deceit to her that she visited upon him, but her betrayal by
religion, by life itself.
Her passion, like fire at white heat, consumed itself in little
time. Her physical strength failed, and still her spirit
attempted to go on in magnificent denunciation of those who had
wronged her. Like a tree cut deep into its roots, she began to
quiver and shake, and her anger weakened into despair. And her
ringing voice sank into a broken, husky whisper. Then, spent and
pitiable, upheld by Lassiter's arm, she turned and hid her face
in Black Star's mane.
Numb as Venters was when at length Jane Withersteen lifted her
head and looked at him, he yet suffered a pang.
"Jane, the girl is innocent!" he cried.
"Can you expect me to believe that?" she asked, with weary,
"I'm not that kind of a liar. And you know it. If I lied--if I
kept silent when honor should have made me speak, it was to spare
you. I came to Cottonwoods to tell you. But I couldn't add to
your pain. I intended to tell you I had come to love this girl.
But, Jane I hadn't forgotten how good you were to me. I haven't
changed at all toward you. I prize your friendship as I always
have. But, however it may look to you--don't be unjust. The girl
is innocent. Ask Lassiter."
"Jane, she's jest as sweet an' innocent as little Fay," said
Lassiter. There was a faint smile upon his face and a beautiful
Venters saw, and knew that Lassiter saw, how Jane Withersteen's
tortured soul wrestled with hate and threw it--with scorn doubt,
suspicion, and overcame all.
"Bern, if in my misery I accused you unjustly, I crave
forgiveness," she said. "I'm not what I once was. Tell me--who is
"Jane, she is Oldring's daughter, and his Masked Rider. Lassiter
will tell you how I shot her for a rustler, saved her life--all
the story. It's a strange story, Jane, as wild as the sage. But
it's true--true as her innocence. That you must believe,"
"Oldring's Masked Rider! Oldring's daughter!" exclaimed Jane "And
she's innocent! You ask me to believe much. If this girl is--is
what you say, how could she be going away with the man who killed
"Why did you tell that?" cried Venters, passionately.
Jane's question had roused Bess out of stupefaction. Her eyes
suddenly darkened and dilated. She stepped toward Venters and
held up both hands as if to ward off a blow.
"Did--did you kill Oldring?"
"I did, Bess, and I hate myself for it. But you know I never
dreamed he was your father. I thought he'd wronged you. I killed
him when I was madly jealous."
For a moment Bess was shocked into silence.
"But he was my father!" she broke out, at last. "And now I must
go back--I can't go with you. It's all over--that beautiful
dream. Oh, I knew it couldn't come true. You can't take me now."
"If you forgive me, Bess, it'll all come right in the end!"
"It can't be right. I'll go back. After all, I loved him. He was
good to me. I can't forget that."
"If you go back to Oldring's men I'll follow you, and then
they'll kill me," said Venters, hoarsely.
"Oh no, Bern, you'll not come. Let me go. It's best for you to
forget mot I've brought you only pain and dishonor."
She did not weep. But the sweet bloom and life died out of her
face. She looked haggard and sad, all at once stunted; and her
hands dropped listlessly; and her head drooped in slow, final
acceptance of a hopeless fate.
"Jane. look there!" cried Venters, in despairing grief. "Need you
have told her? Where was all your kindness of heart? This girl
has had a wretched, lonely life. And I'd found a way to make her
happy. You've killed it. You've killed something sweet and pure
and hopeful, just as sure as you breathe."
"Oh, Bern! It was a slip. I never thought--I never thought!"
replied Jane. "How could I tell she didn't know?"
Lassiter suddenly moved forward, and with the beautiful light on
his face now strangely luminous, he looked at Jane and Venters
and then let his soft, bright gaze rest on Bess.
"Well, I reckon you've all had your say, an' now it's Lassiter's
turn. Why, I was jest praying for this meetin'. Bess, jest look
Gently he touched her arm and turned her to face the others, and
then outspread his great hand to disclose a shiny, battered gold
"Open it," he said, with a singularly rich voice.
Bess complied, but listlessly.
"Jane--Venters--come closer," went on Lassiter. "Take a look at
the picture. Don't you know the woman?"
Jane, after one glance, drew back.
"Milly Erne!" she cried, wonderingly.
Venters, with tingling pulse, with something growing on him,
recognized in the faded miniature portrait the eyes of Milly
"Yes, that's Milly," said Lassiter, softly. "Bess, did you ever
see her face--look hard--with all your heart an' soul?"
"The eyes seem to haunt me," whispered Bess. "Oh, I can't
remember-- they're eyes of my dreams--but--but--"
Lassiter's strong arm went round her and he bent his head.
"Child, I thought you'd remember her eyes. They're the same
beautiful eyes you'd see if you looked in a mirror or a clear
spring. They're your mother's eyes. You are Milly Erne's child.
Your name is Elizabeth Erne. You're not Oldring's daughter.
You're the daughter of Frank Erne, a man once my best friend.
Look! Here's his picture beside Milly's. He was handsome, an' as
fine an' gallant a Southern gentleman as I ever seen. Frank came
of an old family. You come of the best of blood, lass, and blood
Bess slipped through his arm to her knees and hugged the locket
to her bosom, and lifted wonderful, yearning eyes.
"Thank God, lass, it is true," replied Lassiter. "Jane an' Bern
here--they both recognize Milly. They see Milly in you. They're
so knocked out they can't tell you, that's all."
"Who are you?" whispered Bess.
"I reckon I'm Milly's brother an' your uncle!...Uncle Jim! Ain't
"Oh, I can't believe--Don't raise me! Bern, let me kneel. I see
truth in your face--in Miss Withersteen's. But let me hear it
all--all on my knees. Tell me how it's true!"
"Well, Elizabeth, listen," said Lassiter. "Before you was born
your father made a mortal enemy of a Mormon named Dyer. They was
both ministers an' come to be rivals. Dyer stole your mother away
from her home. She gave birth to you in Texas eighteen years ago.
Then she was taken to Utah, from place to place, an' finally to
the last border settlement--Cottonwoods. You was about three
years old when you was taken away from Milly. She never knew what
had become of you. But she lived a good while hopin' and prayin'
to have you again. Then she gave up an' died. An' I may as well
put in here your father died ten years ago. Well, I spent my time
tracin' Milly, an' some months back I landed in Cottonwoods. An'
jest lately I learned all about you. I had a talk with Oldrin'
an' told him you was dead, an' he told me what I had so long been
wantin' to know. It was Dyer, of course, who stole you from
Milly. Part reason he was sore because Milly refused to give you
Mormon teachin', but mostly he still hated Frank Erne so
infernally that he made a deal with Oldrin' to take you an' bring
you up as an infamous rustler an' rustler's girl. The idea was to
break Frank Erne's heart if he ever came to Utah--to show him his
daughter with a band of low rustlers. Well--Oldrin' took you,
brought you up from childhood, an' then made you his Masked
Rider. He made you infamous. He kept that part of the contract,
but he learned to love you as a daughter an' never let any but
his own men know you was a girl. I heard him say that with my own
ears, an' I saw his big eyes grow dim. He told me how he had
guarded you always, kept you locked up in his absence, was always
at your side or near you on those rides that made you famous on
the sage. He said he an' an old rustler whom he trusted had
taught you how to read an' write. They selected the books for
you. Dyer had wanted you brought up the vilest of the vile! An'
Oldrin' brought you up the innocentest of the innocent. He said
you didn't know what vileness was. I can hear his big voice
tremble now as he said it. He told me how the men--rustlers an'
outlaws--who from time to time tried to approach you
familiarly--he told me how he shot them dead. I'm tellin' you
this 'specially because you've showed such shame--sayin' you was
nameless an' all that. Nothin' on earth can be wronger than that
idea of yours. An' the truth of it is here. Oldrin' swore to me
that if Dyer died, releasin' the contract, he intended to hunt up
your father an' give you back to him. It seems Oldrin' wasn't all
bad, en' he sure loved you."
Venters leaned forward in passionate remorse.
"Oh, Bess! I know Lassiter speaks the truth. For when I shot
Oldring he dropped to his knees and fought with unearthly power
to speak. And he said: 'Man--why--didn't--you--wait? Bess was--'
Then he fell dead. And I've been haunted by his look and words.
Oh, Bess, what a strange, splendid thing for Oldring to do! It
all seems impossible. But, dear, you really are not what you
"Elizabeth Erne!" cried Jane Withersteen. "I loved your mother
and I see her in you!"
What had been incredible from the lips of men became, in the
tone, look, and gesture of a woman, a wonderful truth for Bess.
With little tremblings of all her slender body she rocked to and
fro on her knees. The yearning wistfulness of her eyes changed to
solemn splendor of joy. She believed. She was realizing
happiness. And as the process of thought was slow, so were the
variations of her expression. Her eyes reflected the
transformation of her soul. Dark, brooding, hopeless
belief--clouds of gloom--drifted, paled, vanished in glorious
light. An exquisite rose flush--a glow--shone from her face as
she slowly began to rise from her knees. A spirit uplifted her.
All that she had held as base dropped from her.
Venters watched her in joy too deep for words. By it he divined
something of what Lassiter's revelation meant to Bess, but he
knew he could only faintly understand. That moment when she
seemed to be lifted by some spiritual transfiguration was the
most beautiful moment of his life. She stood with parted,
quivering lips, with hands tightly clasping the locket to her
heaving breast. A new conscious pride of worth dignified the old
wild, free grace and poise.
"Uncle Jim!" she said, tremulously, with a different smile from
any Venters had ever seen on her face.
Lassiter took her into his arms.
"I reckon. It's powerful fine to hear that," replied Lassiter,
Venters, feeling his eyes grow hot and wet, turned away, and
found himself looking at Jane Withersteen. He had almost
forgotten her presence. Tenderness and sympathy were fast hiding
traces of her agitation. Venters read her mind--felt the reaction
of her noble heart--saw the joy she was beginning to feel at the
happiness of others. And suddenly blinded, choked by his
emotions, he turned from her also. He knew what she would do
presently; she would make some magnificent amend for her anger;
she would give some manifestation of her love; probably all in a
moment, as she had loved Milly Erne, so would she love Elizabeth
"'Pears to me, folks, that we'd better talk a little serious
now," remarked Lassiter, at length. "Time flies."
"You're right," replied Venters, instantly. "I'd forgotten
time--place-- danger. Lassiter, you're riding away. Jane's
leaving Withersteen House?"
"Forever," replied Jane.
"I fired Withersteen House," said Lassiter.
"Dyer?" questioned Venters, sharply.
"I reckon where Dyer's gone there won't be any kidnappin' of
"Ah! I knew it. I told Judkins--And Tull?" went on Venters,
"Tull wasn't around when I broke loose. By now he's likely on our
trail with his riders."
"Lassiter, you're going into the Pass to hide till all this storm
"I reckon that's Jane's idea. I'm thinkin' the storm'll be a
powerful long time blowin' over. I was comin' to join you in
Surprise Valley. You'll go back now with me?"
"No. I want to take Bess out of Utah. Lassiter, Bess found gold
in the valley. We've a saddle-bag full of gold. If we can reach
"Man! how're you ever goin' to do that? Sterlin' is a hundred
"My plan is to ride on, keeping sharp lookout. Somewhere up the
trail we'll take to the sage and go round Cottonwoods and then
hit the trail again."
"It's a bad plan. You'll kill the burros in two days."
"Then we'll walk."
"That's more bad an' worse. Better go back down the Pass with
"Lassiter, this girl has been hidden all her life in that lonely
place," went on Venters. "Oldring's men are hunting me. We'd not
be safe there any longer. Even if we would be I'd take this
chance to get her out. I want to marry her. She shall have some
of the pleasures of life--see cities and people. We've
gold--we'll be rich. Why, life opens sweet for both of us. And,
by Heaven! I'll get her out or lose my life in the attempt!"
"I reckon if you go on with them burros you'll lose your life all
right. Tull will have riders all over this sage. You can't get
out on them burros. It's a fool idea. That's not doin' best by
the girl. Come with me en' take chances on the
Lassiter's cool argument made Venters waver, not in determination
to go, but in hope of success.
"Bess, I want you to know. Lassiter says the trip's almost
useless now. I'm afraid he's right. We've got about one chance in
a hundred to go through. Shall we take it? Shall we go on?"
"We'll go on," replied Bess.
"That settles it, Lassiter."
Lassiter spread wide his hands, as if to signify he could do no
more, and his face clouded.
Venters felt a touch on his elbow. Jane stood beside him with a
hand on his arm. She was smiling. Something radiated from her,
and like an electric current accelerated the motion of his blood.
"Bern, you'd be right to die rather than not take Elizabeth out
of Utah--out of this wild country. You must do it. You'll show
her the great world, with all its wonders. Think how little she
has seen! Think what delight is in store for her! You have gold,
You will be free; you will make her happy. What a glorious
prospect! I share it with you. I'll think of you--dream of
you--pray for you."
"Thank you, Jane," replied Venters, trying to steady his voice.
"It does look bright. Oh, if we were only across that wide, open
waste of sage!"
"Bern, the trip's as good as made. It'll be safe--easy. It'll be
a glorious ride," she said, softly.
Venters stared. Had Jane's troubles made her insane? Lassiter,
too, acted queerly, all at once beginning to turn his sombrero
round in hands that actually shook.
"You are a rider. She is a rider. This will be the ride of your
lives," added Jane, in that same soft undertone, almost as if she
were musing to herself.
"Jane!" he cried.
"I give you Black Star and Night!"
"Black Star and Night!" he echoed.
"It's done. Lassiter, put our saddle-bags on the burros."
Only when Lassiter moved swiftly to execute her bidding did
Venters's clogged brain grasp at literal meanings. He leaped to
catch Lassiter's busy hands.
"No, no! What are you doing?" he demanded, in a kind of fury. "I
won't take her racers. What do you think I am? It'd be monstrous.
Lassiter! stop it, I say!...You've got her to save. You've miles
and miles to go. Tull is trailing you. There are rustlers in the
Pass. Give me back that saddle-bag!"
"Son--cool down," returned Lassiter, in a voice he might have
used to a child. But the grip with which he tore away Venters's
grasping hands was that of a giant. "Listen--you fool boyl Jane's
sized up the situation. The burros'll do for us. Well sneak along
an' hide. I'll take your dogs an' your rifle. Why, it's the
trick. The blacks are yours, an' sure as I can throw a gun you're
goin' to ride safe out of the sage."
"Jane--stop him--please stop him," gasped Venters. "I've lost my
strength. I can't do--anything. This is hell for me! Can't you
see that? I've ruined you--it was through me you lost all. You've
only Black Star and Night left. You love these horses. Oh! I know
how you must love them now! And--you're trying to give them to
me. To help me out of Utah! To save the girl I love!"
"That will be my glory."
Then in the white, rapt face, in the unfathomable eyes, Venters
saw Jane Withersteen in a supreme moment. This moment was one
wherein she reached up to the height for which her noble soul had
ever yearned. He, after disrupting the calm tenor of her peace,
after bringing down on her head the implacable hostility of her
churchmen, after teaching her a bitter lesson of life--he was to
be her salvation. And he turned away again, this time shaken to
the core of his soul. Jane Withersteen was the incarnation of
selflessness. He experienced wonder and terror, exquisite pain
and rapture. What were all the shocks life had dealt him compared
to the thought of such loyal and generous friendship?
And instantly, as if by some divine insight, he knew himself in
the remaking--tried, found wanting; but stronger, better,
surer--and he wheeled to Jane Withersteen, eager, joyous,
passionate, wild, exalted. He bent to her; he left tears and
kisses on her hands.
"Jane, I--I can't find words--now," he said. "I'm beyond words.
Only--I understand. And I'll take the blacks."
"Don't be losin' no more time," cut in Lassiter. "I ain't
certain, but I think I seen a speck up the sage-slope. Mebbe I
was mistaken. But, anyway, we must all be movin'. I've shortened
the stirrups on Black Star. Put Bess on him."
Jane Withersteen held out her arms.
"Elizabeth Erne!" she cried, and Bess flew to her.
How inconceivably strange and beautiful it was for Venters to see
Bess clasped to Jane Withersteen's breast!
Then he leaped astride Night.
"Venters, ride straight on up the slope," Lassiter was saying,
"'an if you don't meet any riders keep on till you're a few miles
from the village, then cut off in the sage an' go round to the
trail. But you'll most likely meet riders with Tull. Jest keep
right on till you're jest out of gunshot an' then make your
cut-off into the sage. They'll ride after you, but it won't be no
use. You can ride, an' Bess can ride. When you're out of reach
turn on round to the west, an' hit the trail somewhere. Save the
hosses all you can, but don't be afraid. Black Star and Night are
good for a hundred miles before sundown, if you have to push
them. You can get to Sterlin' by night if you want. But better
make it along about to-morrow mornin'. When you get through the
notch on the Glaze trail, swing to the right. You'll be able to
see both Glaze an' Stone Bridge. Keep away from them villages.
You won't run no risk of meetin' any of Oldrin's rustlers from
Sterlin' on. You'll find water in them deep hollows north of the
Notch. There's an old trail there, not much used, en' it leads to
Sterlin'. That's your trail. An' one thing more. If Tull pushes
you--or keeps on persistent-like, for a few miles--jest let the
blacks out an' lose him an' his riders."
"Lassiter, may we meet again!" said Venters, in a deep
"Son, it ain't likely--it ain't likely. Well, Bess
Oldrin'--Masked Rider--Elizabeth Erne--now you climb on Black
Star. I've heard you could ride. Well, every rider loves a good
horse. An', lass, there never was but one that could beat Black
"Ah, Lassiter, there never was any horse that could beat Black
Star," said Jane, with the old pride.
"I often wondered--mebbe Venters rode out that race when he
brought back the blacks. Son, was Wrangle the best hoss?"
"No, Lassiter," replied Venters. For this lie he had his reward
in Jane's quick smile.
"Well, well, my hoss-sense ain't always right. An' here I'm
talkie' a lot, wastin' time. It ain't so easy to find an' lose a
pretty niece all in one hour! Elizabeth--good-by!"
"Oh, Uncle Jim!...Good-by!"
"Elizabeth Erne, be happy! Good-by," said
"Good-by--oh--good-by!" In lithe, supple action Bess swung up to
Black Star's saddle.
"Jane Withersteen!...Good-by!" called Venters hoarsely.
"Bern--Bess--riders of the purple sage--good-by!"
Next: Riders Of The Purple Sage
Previous: Lassiter's Way