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Lassiter








From: Riders Of The Purple Sage

A sharp clip-crop of iron-shod hoofs deadened and died away, and

clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over

the sage.



Jane Withersteen gazed down the wide purple slope with dreamy and

troubled eyes. A rider had just left her and it was his message

that held her thoughtful and almost sad, awaiting the churchmen

who were coming to resent and attack her right to befriend a

Gentile.



She wondered if the unrest and strife that had lately come to the

little village of Cottonwoods was to involve her. And then she

sighed, remembering that her father had founded this remotest

border settlement of southern Utah and that he had left it to

her. She owned all the ground and many of the cottages.

Withersteen House was hers, and the great ranch, with its

thousands of cattle, and the swiftest horses of the sage. To her

belonged Amber Spring, the water which gave verdure and beauty to

the village and made living possible on that wild purple upland

waste. She could not escape being involved by whatever befell

Cottonwoods.



That year, 1871, had marked a change which had been gradually

coming in the lives of the peace-loving Mormons of the border.

Glaze--Stone Bridge--Sterling, villages to the north, had risen

against the invasion of Gentile settlers and the forays of

rustlers. There had been opposition to the one and fighting with

the other. And now Cottonwoods had begun to wake and bestir

itself and grown hard.



Jane prayed that the tranquillity and sweetness of her life would

not be permanently disrupted. She meant to do so much more for

her people than she had done. She wanted the sleepy quiet

pastoral days to last always. Trouble between the Mormons and the

Gentiles of the community would make her unhappy. She was

Mormon-born, and she was a friend to poor and unfortunate

Gentiles. She wished only to go on doing good and being happy.

And she thought of what that great ranch meant to her. She loved

it all--the grove of cottonwoods, the old stone house, the

amber-tinted water, and the droves of shaggy, dusty horses and

mustangs, the sleek, clean-limbed, blooded racers, and the

browsing herds of cattle and the lean, sun-browned riders of the

sage.



While she waited there she forgot the prospect of untoward

change. The bray of a lazy burro broke the afternoon quiet, and

it was comfortingly suggestive of the drowsy farmyard, and the

open corrals, and the green alfalfa fields. Her clear sight

intensified the purple sage-slope as it rolled before her. Low

swells of prairie-like ground sloped up to the west. Dark, lonely

cedar-trees, few and far between, stood out strikingly, and at

long distances ruins of red rocks. Farther on, up the gradual

slope, rose a broken wall, a huge monument, looming dark purple

and stretching its solitary, mystic way, a wavering line that

faded in the north. Here to the westward was the light and color

and beauty. Northward the slope descended to a dim line of

canyons from which rose an up-Hinging of the earth, not

mountainous, but a vast heave of purple uplands, with ribbed and

fan-shaped walls, castle-crowned cliffs, and gray escarpments.

Over it all crept the lengthening, waning afternoon shadows.



The rapid beat of hoofs recalled Jane Withersteen to the question

at hand. A group of riders cantered up the lane, dismounted, and

threw their bridles. They were seven in number, and Tull, the

leader, a tall, dark man, was an elder of Jane's church.



"Did you get my message?" he asked, curtly.



"Yes," replied Jane.



"I sent word I'd give that rider Venters half an hour to come

down to the village. He didn't come."



"He knows nothing of it;" said Jane. "I didn't tell him. I've

been waiting here for you."



"Where is Venters?"



"I left him in the courtyard."



"Here, Jerry," called Tull, turning to his men, "take the gang

and fetch Venters out here if you have to rope him."



The dusty-booted and long-spurred riders clanked noisily into the

grove of cottonwoods and disappeared in the shade.



"Elder Tull, what do you mean by this?" demanded Jane. "If you

must arrest Venters you might have the courtesy to wait till he

leaves my home. And if you do arrest him it will be adding insult

to injury. It's absurd to accuse Venters of being mixed up in

that shooting fray in the village last night. He was with me at

the time. Besides, he let me take charge of his guns. You're only

using this as a pretext. What do you mean to do to

Venters?"



"I'll tell you presently," replied Tull. "But first tell me why

you defend this worthless rider?"



"Worthless!" exclaimed Jane, indignantly. "He's nothing of the

kind. He was the best rider I ever had. There's not a reason why

I shouldn't champion him and every reason why I should. It's no

little shame to me, Elder Tull, that through my friendship he has

roused the enmity of my people and become an outcast. Besides I

owe him eternal gratitude for saving the life of little Fay."



"I've heard of your love for Fay Larkin and that you intend to

adopt her. But--Jane Withersteen, the child is a Gentile!"



"Yes. But, Elder, I don't love the Mormon children any less

because I love a Gentile child. I shall adopt Fay if her mother

will give her to me."



"I'm not so much against that. You can give the child Mormon

teaching," said Tull. "But I'm sick of seeing this fellow Venters

hang around you. I'm going to put a stop to it. You've so much

love to throw away on these beggars of Gentiles that I've an idea

you might love Venters."



Tull spoke with the arrogance of a Mormon whose power could not

be brooked and with the passion of a man in whom jealousy had

kindled a consuming fire.



"Maybe I do love him," said Jane. She felt both fear and anger

stir her heart. "I'd never thought of that. Poor fellow! he

certainly needs some one to love him."



"This'll be a bad day for Venters unless you deny that," returned

Tull, grimly.



Tull's men appeared under the cottonwoods and led a young man out

into the lane. His ragged clothes were those of an outcast. But

he stood tall and straight, his wide shoulders flung back, with

the muscles of his bound arms rippling and a blue flame of

defiance in the gaze he bent on Tull.



For the first time Jane Withersteen felt Venters's real spirit.

She wondered if she would love this splendid youth. Then her

emotion cooled to the sobering sense of the issue at stake.



"Venters, will you leave Cottonwoods at once and forever?" asked

Tull, tensely.



"Why?" rejoined the rider.



"Because I order it."



Venters laughed in cool disdain.



The red leaped to Tull's dark cheek.



"If you don't go it means your ruin," he said, sharply.



"Ruin!" exclaimed Venters, passionately. "Haven't you already

ruined me? What do you call ruin? A year ago I was a rider. I had

horses and cattle of my own. I had a good name in Cottonwoods.

And now when I come into the village to see this woman you set

your men on me. You hound me. You trail me as if I were a

rustler. I've no more to lose--except my life."



"Will you leave Utah?"



"Oh! I know," went on Venters, tauntingly, "it galls you, the

idea of beautiful Jane Withersteen being friendly to a poor

Gentile. You want her all yourself. You're a wiving Mormon. You

have use for her--and Withersteen House and Amber Spring and

seven thousand head of cattle!"



Tull's hard jaw protruded, and rioting blood corded the veins of

his neck.



"Once more. Will you go?"



"NO!"



"Then I'll have you whipped within an inch of your life," replied

Tull, harshly. "I'll turn you out in the sage. And if you ever

come back you'll get worse."



Venters's agitated face grew coldly set and the bronze changed



Jane impulsively stepped forward. "Oh! Elder Tull!" she cried.

"You won't do that!"



Tull lifted a shaking finger toward her.



"That'll do from you. Understand, you'll not be allowed to hold

this boy to a friendship that's offensive to your Bishop. Jane

Withersteen, your father left you wealth and power. It has turned

your head. You haven't yet come to see the place of Mormon women.

We've reasoned with you, borne with you. We've patiently waited.

We've let you have your fling, which is more than I ever saw

granted to a Mormon woman. But you haven't come to your senses.

Now, once for all, you can't have any further friendship with

Venters. He's going to be whipped, and he's got to leave Utah!"



"Oh! Don't whip him! It would be dastardly!" implored Jane, with

slow certainty of her failing courage.



Tull always blunted her spirit, and she grew conscious that she

had feigned a boldness which she did not possess. He loomed up

now in different guise, not as a jealous suitor, but embodying

the mysterious despotism she had known from childhood--the power

of her creed.



"Venters, will you take your whipping here or would you rather go

out in the sage?" asked Tull. He smiled a flinty smile that was

more than inhuman, yet seemed to give out of its dark aloofness a

gleam of righteousness.



"I'll take it here--if I must," said Venters. "But by God!--Tull

you'd better kill me outright. That'll be a dear whipping for you

and your praying Mormons. You'll make me another Lassiter!"



The strange glow, the austere light which radiated from Tull's

face, might have been a holy joy at the spiritual conception of

exalted duty. But there was something more in him, barely hidden,

a something personal and sinister, a deep of himself, an

engulfing abyss. As his religious mood was fanatical and

inexorable, so would his physical hate be merciless.



"Elder, I--I repent my words," Jane faltered. The religion in

her, the long habit of obedience, of humility, as well as agony

of fear, spoke in her voice. "Spare the boy!" she

whispered.



"You can't save him now," replied Tull stridently.



Her head was bowing to the inevitable. She was grasping the

truth, when suddenly there came, in inward constriction, a

hardening of gentle forces within her breast. Like a steel bar it

was stiffening all that had been soft and weak in her. She felt a

birth in her of something new and unintelligible. Once more her

strained gaze sought the sage-slopes. Jane Withersteen loved that

wild and purple wilderness. In times of sorrow it had been her

strength, in happiness its beauty was her continual delight. In

her extremity she found herself murmuring, "Whence cometh my

help!" It was a prayer, as if forth from those lonely purple

reaches and walls of red and clefts of blue might ride a fearless

man, neither creed-bound nor creed-mad, who would hold up a

restraining hand in the faces of her ruthless people.



The restless movements of Tull's men suddenly quieted down. Then

followed a low whisper, a rustle, a sharp exclamation.



"Look!" said one, pointing to the west.



"A rider!"



Jane Withersteen wheeled and saw a horseman, silhouetted against

the western sky, coming riding out of the sage. He had ridden

down from the left, in the golden glare of the sun, and had been

unobserved till close at hand. An answer to her prayer!



"Do you know him? Does any one know him?" questioned Tull,

hurriedly.



His men looked and looked, and one by one shook their heads.



"He's come from far," said one.



"Thet's a fine hoss," said another.



"A strange rider."



"Huh! he wears black leather," added a fourth.



With a wave of his hand, enjoining silence, Tull stepped forward

in such a way that he concealed Venters.



The rider reined in his mount, and with a lithe forward-slipping

action appeared to reach the ground in one long step. It was a

peculiar movement in its quickness and inasmuch that while

performing it the rider did not swerve in the slightest from a

square front to the group before him.



"Look!" hoarsely whispered one of Tull's companions. "He packs

two black-butted guns--low down--they're hard to see--black akin

them black chaps."



"A gun-man!" whispered another. "Fellers, careful now about

movin' your hands."



The stranger's slow approach might have been a mere leisurely

manner of gait or the cramped short steps of a rider unused to

walking; yet, as well, it could have been the guarded advance of

one who took no chances with men.



"Hello, stranger!" called Tull. No welcome was in this greeting

only a gruff curiosity.



The rider responded with a curt nod. The wide brim of a black

sombrero cast a dark shade over his face. For a moment he closely

regarded Tull and his comrades, and then, halting in his slow

walk, he seemed to relax.



"Evenin', ma'am," he said to Jane, and removed his sombrero with

quaint grace.



Jane, greeting him, looked up into a face that she trusted

instinctively and which riveted her attention. It had all the

characteristics of the range rider's--the leanness, the red burn

of the sun, and the set changelessness that came from years of

silence and solitude. But it was not these which held her, rather

the intensity of his gaze, a strained weariness, a piercing

wistfulness of keen, gray sight, as if the man was forever

looking for that which he never found. Jane's subtle woman's

intuition, even in that brief instant, felt a sadness, a

hungering, a secret.



"Jane Withersteen, ma'am?" he inquired.



"Yes," she replied.



"The water here is yours?"



"Yes."



"May I water my horse?"



"Certainly. There's the trough."



"But mebbe if you knew who I was--" He hesitated, with his glance

on the listening men. "Mebbe you wouldn't let me water

him--though I ain't askin' none for myself."



"Stranger, it doesn't matter who you are. Water your horse. And

if you are thirsty and hungry come into my house."



"Thanks, ma'am. I can't accept for myself--but for my tired

horse--"



Trampling of hoofs interrupted the rider. More restless movements

on the part of Tull's men broke up the little circle, exposing

the prisoner Venters.



"Mebbe I've kind of hindered somethin'--for a few moments,

perhaps?" inquired the rider.



"Yes," replied Jane Withersteen, with a throb in her voice.



She felt the drawing power of his eyes; and then she saw him look

at the bound Venters, and at the men who held him, and their

leader.



"In this here country all the rustlers an' thieves an'

cut-throats an' gun-throwers an' all-round no-good men jest

happen to be Gentiles. Ma'am, which of the no-good class does

that young feller belong to?"



"He belongs to none of them. He's an honest boy."



"You KNOW that, ma'am?"



"Yes--yes."



"Then what has he done to get tied up that way?"



His clear and distinct question, meant for Tull as well as for

Jane Withersteen, stilled the restlessness and brought a

momentary silence.



"Ask him," replied Jane, her voice rising high.



The rider stepped away from her, moving out with the same slow,

measured stride in which he had approached, and the fact that his

action placed her wholly to one side, and him no nearer to Tull

and his men, had a penetrating significance.



"Young feller, speak up," he said to Venters.



"Here stranger, this's none of your mix," began Tull. "Don't try

any interference. You've been asked to drink and eat. That's more

than you'd have got in any other village of the Utah border.

Water your horse and be on your way."



"Easy--easy--I ain't interferin' yet," replied the rider. The

tone of his voice had undergone a change. A different man had

spoken. Where, in addressing Jane, he had been mild and gentle,

now, with his first speech to Tull, he was dry, cool, biting.

"I've lest stumbled onto a queer deal. Seven Mormons all packin'

guns, an' a Gentile tied with a rope, an' a woman who swears by

his honesty! Queer, ain't that?"



"Queer or not, it's none of your business," retorted Tull.



"Where I was raised a woman's word was law. I ain't quite

outgrowed that yet."



Tull fumed between amaze and anger.



"Meddler, we have a law here something different from woman's

whim-- Mormon law!...Take care you don't transgress it."



"To hell with your Mormon law!"



The deliberate speech marked the rider's further change, this

time from kindly interest to an awakening menace. It produced a

transformation in Tull and his companions. The leader gasped and

staggered backward at a blasphemous affront to an institution he

held most sacred. The man Jerry, holding the horses, dropped the

bridles and froze in his tracks. Like posts the other men stood

watchful-eyed, arms hanging rigid, all waiting.



"Speak up now, young man. What have you done to be roped that

way?"



"It's a damned outrage!" burst out Venters. "I've done no wrong.

I've offended this Mormon Elder by being a friend to that woman."



"Ma'am, is it true--what he says?" asked the rider of Jane, but

his quiveringly alert eyes never left the little knot of quiet

men.



"True? Yes, perfectly true," she answered.



"Well, young man, it seems to me that bein' a friend to such a

woman would be what you wouldn't want to help an' couldn't

help....What's to be done to you for it?"



"They intend to whip me. You know what that means--in Utah!"



"I reckon," replied the rider, slowly.



With his gray glance cold on the Mormons, with the restive

bit-champing of the horses, with Jane failing to repress her

mounting agitations, with Venters standing pale and still, the

tension of the moment tightened. Tull broke the spell with a

laugh, a laugh without mirth, a laugh that was only a sound

betraying fear.



"Come on, men!" he called.



Jane Withersteen turned again to the rider.



"Stranger, can you do nothing to save Venters?"



"Ma'am, you ask me to save him--from your own people?"



"Ask you? I beg of you!"



"But you don't dream who you're askin'."



"Oh, sir, I pray you--save him!"



These are Mormons, an' I..."



"At--at any cost--save him. For I--I care for him!"



Tull snarled. "You love-sick fool! Tell your secrets. There'll be

a way to teach you what you've never learned....Come men out of

here!"



"Mormon, the young man stays," said the rider.



Like a shot his voice halted Tull.



"What!"



"Who'll keep him? He's my prisoner!" cried Tull, hotly.

"Stranger, again I tell you--don't mix here. You've meddled

enough. Go your way now or--"



"Listen!...He stays."



Absolute certainty, beyond any shadow of doubt, breathed in the

rider's low voice.



"Who are you? We are seven here."



The rider dropped his sombrero and made a rapid movement,

singular in that it left him somewhat crouched, arms bent and

stiff, with the big black gun-sheaths swung round to the fore.



"LASSITER!"



It was Venters's wondering, thrilling cry that bridged the

fateful connection between the rider's singular position and the

dreaded name.



Tull put out a groping hand. The life of his eyes dulled to the

gloom with which men of his fear saw the approach of death. But

death, while it hovered over him, did not descend, for the rider

waited for the twitching fingers, the downward flash of hand that

did not come. Tull, gathering himself together, turned to the

horses, attended by his pale comrades.





Next: Cottonwoods

Previous: At The End Of The Road



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