The Masked Rider
From: Riders Of The Purple Sage
Venters looked quickly from the fallen rustlers to the canyon
where the others had disappeared. He calculated on the time
needed for running horses to return to the open, if their riders
heard shots. He waited breathlessly. But the estimated time
dragged by and no riders appeared. Venters began presently to
believe that the rifle reports had not penetrated into the
recesses of the canyon, and felt safe for the immediate present.
He hurried to the spot where the first rustler had been dragged
by his horse. The man lay in deep grass, dead, jaw fallen, eyes
protruding--a sight that sickened Venters. The first man at whom
he had ever aimed a weapon he had shot through the heart. With
the clammy sweat oozing from every pore Venters dragged the
rustler in among some boulders and covered him with slabs of
rock. Then he smoothed out the crushed trail in grass and sage.
The rustler's horse had stopped a quarter of a mile off and was
When Venters rapidly strode toward the Masked Rider not even the
cold nausea that gripped him could wholly banish curiosity. For
he had shot Oldring's infamous lieutenant, whose face had never
been seen. Venters experienced a grim pride in the feat. What
would Tull say to this achievement of the outcast who rode too
often to Deception Pass?
Venters's curious eagerness and expectation had not prepared him
for the shock he received when he stood over a slight, dark
figure. The rustler wore the black mask that had given him his
name, but he had no weapons. Venters glanced at the drooping
horse, there were no gun-sheaths on the saddle.
"A rustler who didn't pack guns!" muttered Venters. "He wears no
belt. He couldn't pack guns in that rig....Strange!"
A low, gasping intake of breath and a sudden twitching of body
told Venters the rider still lived.
"He's alive!...I've got to stand here and watch him die. And I
shot an unarmed man."
Shrinkingly Venters removed the rider's wide sombrero and the
black cloth mask. This action disclosed bright chestnut hair,
inclined to curl, and a white, youthful face. Along the lower
line of cheek and jaw was a clear demarcation, where the brown of
tanned skin met the white that had been hidden from the sun.
"Oh, he's only a boy!...What! Can he be Oldring's Masked Rider?"
The boy showed signs of returning consciousness. He stirred; his
lips moved; a small brown hand clenched in his blouse.
Venters knelt with a gathering horror of his deed. His bullet had
entered the rider's right breast, high up to the shoulder. With
hands that shook, Venters untied a black scarf and ripped open
the blood-wet blouse.
First he saw a gaping hole, dark red against a whiteness of skin,
from which welled a slender red stream. Then the graceful,
beautiful swell of a woman's breast!
"A woman!" he cried. "A girl!...I've killed a girl!"
She suddenly opened eyes that transfixed Venters. They were
fathomless blue. Consciousness of death was there, a blended
terror and pain, but no consciousness of sight. She did not see
Venters. She stared into the unknown.
Then came a spasm of vitality. She writhed in a torture of
reviving strength, and in her convulsions she almost tore from
Ventner's grasp. Slowly she relaxed and sank partly back. The
ungloved hand sought the wound, and pressed so hard that her
wrist half buried itself in her bosom. Blood trickled between her
spread fingers. And she looked at Venters with eyes that saw him.
He cursed himself and the unerring aim of which he had been so
proud. He had seen that look in the eyes of a crippled antelope
which he was about to finish with his knife. But in her it had
infinitely more--a revelation of mortal spirit. The instinctive
bringing to life was there, and the divining helplessness and the
terrible accusation of the stricken.
"Forgive me! I didn't know!" burst out Venters.
"You shot me--you've killed me!" she whispered, in panting gasps.
Upon her lips appeared a fluttering, bloody froth. By that
Venters knew the air in her lungs was mixing with blood. "Oh, I
knew--it would--come--some day!...Oh, the burn!...Hold me--I'm
sinking--it's all dark....Ah, God!...Mercy--"
Her rigidity loosened in one long quiver and she lay back limp,
still, white as snow, with closed eyes.
Venters thought then that she died. But the faint pulsation of
her breast assured him that life yet lingered. Death seemed only
a matter of moments, for the bullet had gone clear through her.
Nevertheless, he tore sageleaves from a bush, and, pressing them
tightly over her wounds, he bound the black scarf round her
shoulder, tying it securely under her arm. Then he closed the
blouse, hiding from his sight that blood-stained, accusing
"What--now?" he questioned, with flying mind. "I must get out of
here. She's dying--but I can't leave her."
He rapidly surveyed the sage to the north and made out no animate
object. Then he picked up the girl's sombrero and the mask. This
time the mask gave him as great a shock as when he first removed
it from her face. For in the woman he had forgotten the rustler,
and this black strip of felt-cloth established the identity of
Oldring's Masked Rider. Venters had solved the mystery. He
slipped his rifle under her, and, lifting her carefully upon it,
he began to retrace his steps. The dog trailed in his shadow. And
the horse, that had stood drooping by, followed without a call.
Venters chose the deepest tufts of grass and clumps of sage on
his return. From time to time he glanced over his shoulder. He
did not rest. His concern was to avoid jarring the girl and to
hide his trail. Gaining the narrow canyon, he turned and held
close to the wall till he reached his hiding-place. When he
entered the dense thicket of oaks he was hard put to it to force
a way through. But he held his burden almost upright, and by
slipping side wise and bending the saplings he got in. Through
sage and grass he hurried to the grove of silver spruces.
He laid the girl down, almost fearing to look at her. Though
marble pale and cold, she was living. Venters then appreciated
the tax that long carry had been to his strength. He sat down to
rest. Whitie sniffed at the pale girl and whined and crept to
Venters's feet. Ring lapped the water in the runway of the
Presently Venters went out to the opening, caught the horse and,
leading him through the thicket, unsaddled him and tied him with
a long halter. Wrangle left his browsing long enough to whinny
and toss his head. Venters felt that he could not rest easily
till he had secured the other rustler's horse; so, taking his
rifle and calling for Ring, he set out. Swiftly yet watchfully he
made his way through the canyon to the oval and out to the cattle
trail. What few tracks might have betrayed him he obliterated, so
only an expert tracker could have trailed him. Then, with many a
wary backward glance across the sage, he started to round up the
rustler's horse. This was unexpectedly easy. He led the horse to
lower ground, out of sight from the opposite side of the oval
along the shadowy western wall, and so on into his canyon and
The girl's eyes were open; a feverish spot burned in her cheeks
she moaned something unintelligible to Venters, but he took the
movement of her lips to mean that she wanted water. Lifting her
head, he tipped the canteen to her lips. After that she again
lapsed into unconsciousness or a weakness which was its
counterpart. Venters noted, however, that the burning flush had
faded into the former pallor.
The sun set behind the high canyon rim, and a cool shade darkened
the walls. Venters fed the dogs and put a halter on the dead
rustlers horse. He allowed Wrangle to browse free. This done,
he cut spruce boughs and made a lean-to for the girl. Then, gently
lifting her upon a blanket, he folded the sides over her. The other
blanket he wrapped about his shoulders and found a comfortable seat
against a spruce-tree that upheld the little shack. Ring and Whitie
lay near at hand, one asleep, the other watchful.
Venters dreaded the night's vigil. At night his mind was active,
and this time he had to watch and think and feel beside a dying
girl whom he had all but murdered. A thousand excuses he invented
for himself, yet not one made any difference in his act or his
It seemed to him that when night fell black he could see her
white face so much more plainly.
"She'll go, presently," he said, "and be out of agony--thank
Every little while certainty of her death came to him with a
shock; and then he would bend over and lay his ear on her breast.
Her heart still beat.
The early night blackness cleared to the cold starlight. The
horses were not moving, and no sound disturbed the deathly
silence of the canyon.
"I'll bury her here," thought Venters, "and let her grave be as
much a mystery as her life was."
For the girl's few words, the look of her eyes, the prayer, had
strangely touched Venters.
"She was only a girl," he soliloquized. "What was she to Oldring?
Rustlers don't have wives nor sisters nor daughters. She was
bad--that's all. But somehow...well, she may not have willingly
become the companion of rustlers. That prayer of hers to God for
mercy!...Life is strange and cruel. I wonder if other members of
Oldring's gang are women? Likely enough. But what was his game?
Oldring's Mask Rider! A name to make villagers hide and lock
their doors. A name credited with a dozen murders, a hundred
forays, and a thousand stealings of cattle. What part did the
girl have in this? It may have served Oldring to create
Hours passed. The white stars moved across the narrow strip of
dark-blue sky above. The silence awoke to the low hum of insects.
Venters watched the immovable white face, and as he watched, hour
by hour waiting for death, the infamy of her passed from his
mind. He thought only of the sadness, the truth of the moment.
Whoever she was--whatever she had done--she was young and she was
The after-part of the night wore on interminably. The starlight
failed and the gloom blackened to the darkest hour. "She'll die
at the gray of dawn," muttered Venters, remembering some old
woman's fancy. The blackness paled to gray, and the gray
lightened and day peeped over the eastern rim. Venters listened
at the breast of the girl. She still lived. Did he only imagine
that her heart beat stronger, ever so slightly, but stronger? He
pressed his ear closer to her breast. And he rose with his own
"If she doesn't die soon--she's got a chance--the barest chance
to live," he said.
He wondered if the internal bleeding had ceased. There was no
more film of blood upon her lips. But no corpse could have been
whiter. Opening her blouse, he untied the scarf, and carefully
picked away the sage leaves from the wound in her shoulder. It
had closed. Lifting her lightly, he ascertained that the same was
true of the hole where the bullet had come out. He reflected on
the fact that clean wounds closed quickly in the healing upland
air. He recalled instances of riders who had been cut and shot
apparently to fatal issues; yet the blood had clotted, the wounds
closed, and they had recovered. He had no way to tell if internal
hemorrhage still went on, but he believed that it had stopped.
Otherwise she would surely not have lived so long. He marked the
entrance of the bullet, and concluded that it had just touched
the upper lobe of her lung. Perhaps the wound in the lung had
also closed. As he began to wash the blood stains from her breast
and carefully rebandage the wound, he was vaguely conscious of a
strange, grave happiness in the thought that she might live.
Broad daylight and a hint of sunshine high on the cliff-rim to
the west brought him to consideration of what he had better do.
And while busy with his few camp tasks he revolved the thing in
his mind. It would not be wise for him to remain long in his
present hiding-place. And if he intended to follow the cattle
trail and try to find the rustlers he had better make a move at
once. For he knew that rustlers, being riders, would not make
much of a day's or night's absence from camp for one or two of
their number; but when the missing ones failed to show up in
reasonable time there would be a search. And Venters was afraid
"A good tracker could trail me," he muttered. "And I'd be
cornered here. Let's see. Rustlers are a lazy set when they're
not on the ride. I'll risk it. Then I'll change my hiding-place."
He carefully cleaned and reloaded his guns. When he rose to go he
bent a long glance down upon the unconscious girl. Then ordering
Whitie and Ring to keep guard, he left the camp
The safest cover lay close under the wall of the canyon, and here
through the dense thickets Venters made his slow, listening
advance toward the oval. Upon gaining the wide opening he decided
to cross it and follow the left wall till he came to the cattle
trail. He scanned the oval as keenly as if hunting for antelope.
Then, stooping, he stole from one cover to another, taking advantage
of rocks and bunches of sage, until he had reached the thickets
under the opposite wall. Once there, he exercised extreme caution
in his surveys of the ground ahead, but increased his speed when
moving. Dodging from bush to bush, he passed the mouths of two
canyons, and in the entrance of a third canyon he crossed a wash
of swift clear water, to come abruptly upon the cattle trail.
It followed the low bank of the wash, and, keeping it in sight,
Venters hugged the line of sage and thicket. Like the curves of a
serpent the canyon wound for a mile or more and then opened into
a valley. Patches of red showed clear against the purple of sage,
and farther out on the level dotted strings of red led away to
the wall of rock.
"Ha, the red herd!" exclaimed Venters.
Then dots of white and black told him there were cattle of other
colors in this inclosed valley. Oldring, the rustler, was also a
rancher. Venters's calculating eye took count of stock that
outnumbered the red herd.
"What a range!" went on Venters. "Water and grass enough for
fifty thousand head, and no riders needed!"
After his first burst of surprise and rapid calculation Venters
lost no time there, but slunk again into the sage on his back
trail. With the discovery of Oldring's hidden cattle-range had
come enlightenment on several problems. Here the rustler kept his
stock, here was Jane Withersteen's red herd; here were the few
cattle that had disappeared from the Cottonwoods slopes during
the last two years. Until Oldring had driven the red herd his
thefts of cattle for that time had not been more than enough to
supply meat for his men. Of late no drives had been reported from
Sterling or the villages north. And Venters knew that the riders
had wondered at Oldring's inactivity in that particular field. He
and his band had been active enough in their visits to Glaze and
Cottonwoods; they always had gold; but of late the amount gambled
away and drunk and thrown away in the villages had given rise to
much conjecture. Oldring's more frequent visits had resulted in
new saloons, and where there had formerly been one raid or
shooting fray in the little hamlets there were now many. Perhaps
Oldring had another range farther on up the pass, and from
there drove the cattle to distant Utah towns where he was little
known But Venters came finally to doubt this. And, from what he
had learned in the last few days, a belief began to form in
Venters's mind that Oldring's intimidations of the villages and
the mystery of the Masked Rider, with his alleged evil deeds, and
the fierce resistance offered any trailing riders, and the
rustling of cattle-- these things were only the craft of the
rustler-chief to conceal his real life and purpose and work in
And like a scouting Indian Venters crawled through the sage of
the oval valley, crossed trail after trail on the north side, and
at last entered the canyon out of which headed the cattle trail,
and into which he had watched the rustlers disappear.
If he had used caution before, now he strained every nerve to
force himself to creeping stealth and to sensitiveness of ear. He
crawled along so hidden that he could not use his eyes except to
aid himself in the toilsome progress through the brakes and ruins
of cliff-wall. Yet from time to time, as he rested, he saw the
massive red walls growing higher and wilder, more looming and
broken. He made note of the fact that he was turning and
climbing. The sage and thickets of oak and brakes of alder gave
place to pinyon pine growing out of rocky soil. Suddenly a low,
dull murmur assailed his ears. At first he thought it was
thunder, then the slipping of a weathered slope of rock. But it
was incessant, and as he progressed it filled out deeper and from
a murmur changed into a soft roar.
"Falling water," he said. "There's volume to that. I wonder if
it's the stream I lost."
The roar bothered him, for he could hear nothing else. Likewise,
however, no rustlers could hear him. Emboldened by this and sure
that nothing but a bird could see him, he arose from his hands
and knees to hurry on. An opening in the pinyons warned him that
he was nearing the height of slope.
He gained it, and dropped low with a burst of astonishment.
Before him stretched a short canyon with rounded stone floor bare
of grass or sage or tree, and with curved, shelving walls. A
broad rippling stream flowed toward him, and at the back of the
canyon waterfall burst from a wide rent in the cliff, and,
bounding down in two green steps, spread into a long white sheet.
If Venters had not been indubitably certain that he had entered
the right canyon his astonishment would not have been so great.
There had been no breaks in the walls, no side canyons entering
this one where the rustlers' tracks and the cattle trail had
guided him, and, therefore, he could not be wrong. But here the
canyon ended, and presumably the trails also.
"That cattle trail headed out of here," Venters kept saying to
himself. "It headed out. Now what I want to know is how on earth
did cattle ever get in here?"
If he could be sure of anything it was of the careful scrutiny he
had given that cattle track, every hoofmark of which headed
straight west. He was now looking east at an immense round boxed
corner of canyon down which tumbled a thin, white veil of water,
scarcely twenty yards wide. Somehow, somewhere, his calculations
had gone wrong. For the first time in years he found himself
doubting his rider's skill in finding tracks, and his memory of
what he had actually seen. In his anxiety to keep under cover he
must have lost himself in this offshoot of Deception Pass, and
thereby in some unaccountable manner, missed the canyon with the
trails. There was nothing else for him to think. Rustlers could
not fly, nor cattle jump down thousand-foot precipices. He was
only proving what the sage-riders had long said of this
labyrinthine system of deceitful canyons and valleys--trails led
down into Deception Pass, but no rider had ever followed them.
On a sudden he heard above the soft roar of the waterfall an
unusual sound that he could not define. He dropped flat behind a
stone and listened. From the direction he had come swelled
something that resembled a strange muffled pounding and splashing
and ringing. Despite his nerve the chill sweat began to dampen
his forehead. What might not be possible in this stonewalled maze
of mystery? The unnatural sound passed beyond him as he lay
gripping his rifle and fighting for coolness. Then from the open
came the sound, now distinct and different. Venters recognized a
hobble-bell of a horse, and the cracking of iron on submerged
stones, and the hollow splash of hoofs in water.
Relief surged over him. His mind caught again at realities, and
curiosity prompted him to peep from behind the rock.
In the middle of the stream waded a long string of packed burros
driven by three superbly mounted men. Had Venters met these
dark-clothed, dark-visaged, heavily armed men anywhere in Utah,
let alone in this robbers' retreat, he would have recognized them
as rustlers. The discerning eye of a rider saw the signs of a
long, arduous trip. These men were packing in supplies from one
of the northern villages. They were tired, and their horses were
almost played out, and the burros plodded on, after the manner of
their kind when exhausted, faithful and patient, but as if every
weary, splashing, slipping step would be their last.
All this Venters noted in one glance. After that he watched with
a thrilling eagerness. Straight at the waterfall the rustlers
drove the burros, and straight through the middle, where the
water spread into a fleecy, thin film like dissolving smoke.
Following closely, the rustlers rode into this white mist,
showing in bold black relief for an instant, and then they
Venters drew a full breath that rushed out in brief and sudden
"Good Heaven! Of all the holes for a rustler!...There's a cavern
under that waterfall, and a passageway leading out to a canyon
beyond. Oldring hides in there. He needs only to guard a trail
leading down from the sage-flat above. Little danger of this
outlet to the pass being discovered. I stumbled on it by luck,
after I had given up. And now I know the truth of what puzzled me
most--why that cattle trail was wet!"
He wheeled and ran down the slope, and out to the level of the
sage-brush. Returning, he had no time to spare, only now and
then, between dashes, a moment when he stopped to cast sharp eyes
ahead. The abundant grass left no trace of his trail. Short work
he made of the distance to the circle of canyons. He doubted that
he would ever see it again; he knew he never wanted to; yet he
looked at the red corners and towers with the eyes of a rider
picturing landmarks never to be forgotten.
Here he spent a panting moment in a slow-circling gaze of the
sage-oval and the gaps between the bluffs. Nothing stirred except
the gentle wave of the tips of the brush. Then he pressed on past
the mouths of several canyons and over ground new to him, now
close under the eastern wall. This latter part proved to be easy
traveling, well screened from possible observation from the north
and west, and he soon covered it and felt safer in the deepening
shade of his own canyon. Then the huge, notched bulge of red rim
loomed over him, a mark by which he knew again the deep cove
where his camp lay hidden. As he penetrated the thicket, safe
again for the present, his thoughts reverted to the girl he had
left there. The afternoon had far advanced. How would he find
her? He ran into camp, frightening the dogs.
The girl lay with wide-open, dark eyes, and they dilated when he
knelt beside her. The flush of fever shone in her cheeks. He
lifted her and held water to her dry lips, and felt an
inexplicable sense of lightness as he saw her swallow in a slow,
choking gulp. Gently he laid her back.
"Who--are--you?" she whispered, haltingly.
"I'm the man who shot you," he replied.
"When you get better--strong enough--I'll take you back to the
canyon where the rustlers ride through the waterfall."
As with a faint shadow from a flitting wing overhead, the marble
whiteness of her face seemed to change.
Next: The Mill-wheel Of Steers
Previous: Deception Pass