Riders Of The Purple Sage





Black Star and Night, answering to spur, swept swiftly westward



along the white, slow-rising, sage-bordered trail. Venters heard



a mournful howl from Ring, but Whitie was silent. The blacks



settled into their fleet, long-striding gallop. The wind sweetly



fanned Venters's hot face. From the summit of the first



low-swelling ridge he looked back. Lassiter waved his hand; Jane



waved her scarf. Venters replied by standing in his stirrups and



holding high his sombrero. Then the dip of the ridge hid them.



From the height of the next he turned once more. Lassiter, Jane,



and the burros had disappeared. They had gone down into the Pass.



Venters felt a sensation of irreparable loss.







"Bern--look!" called Bess, pointing up the long slope.







A small, dark, moving dot split the line where purple sage met



blue sky. That dot was a band of riders.







"Pull the black, Bess."







They slowed from gallop to canter, then to trot. The fresh and



eager horses did not like the check.







"Bern, Black Star has great eyesight."







"I wonder if they're Tull's riders. They might be rustlers. But



it's all the same to us."







The black dot grew to a dark patch moving under low dust clouds.



It grew all the time, though very slowly. There were long periods



when it was in plain sight, and intervals when it dropped behind



the sage. The blacks trotted for half an hour, for another



half-hour, and still the moving patch appeared to stay on the



horizon line. Gradually, however, as time passed, it began to



enlarge, to creep down the slope, to encroach upon the



intervening distance.







"Bess, what do you make them out?" asked Venters. "I don't think



they're rustlers."







"They're sage-riders," replied Bess. "I see a white horse and



several grays. Rustlers seldom ride any horses but bays and



blacks."







"That white horse is Tull's. Pull the black, Bess. I'll get down



and cinch up. We're in for some riding. Are you afraid?"







"Not now," answered the girl, smiling.







"You needn't be. Bess, you don't weigh enough to make Black Star



know you're on him. I won't be able to stay with you. You'll



leave Tull and his riders as if they were standing still."







"How about you?"







"Never fear. If I can't stay with you I can still laugh at



Tull."







"Look, Bern! They've stopped on that ridge. They see us."







"Yes. But we're too far yet for them to make out who we are.



They'll recognize the blacks first. We've passed most of the



ridges and the thickest sage. Now, when I give the word, let



Black Star go and ride!"







Venters calculated that a mile or more still intervened between



them and the riders. They were approaching at a swift canter.



Soon Venters recognized Tull's white horse, and concluded that



the riders had likewise recognized Black Star and Night. But it



would be impossible for Tull yet to see that the blacks were not



ridden by Lassiter and Jane. Venters noted that Tull and the line



of horsemen, perhaps ten or twelve in number, stopped several



times and evidently looked hard down the slope. It must have been



a puzzling circumstance for Tull. Venters laughed grimly at the



thought of what Tull's rage would be when he finally discovered



the trick. Venters meant to sheer out into the sage before Tull



could possibly be sure who rode the blacks.







The gap closed to a distance to half a mile. Tull halted. His



riders came up and formed a dark group around him. Venters



thought he saw him wave his arms and was certain of it when the



riders dashed into the sage, to right and left of the trail. Tull



had anticipated just the move held in mind by Venters.







"Now Bess!" shouted Venters. "Strike north. Go round those riders



and turn west."







Black Star sailed over the low sage, and in a few leaps got into



his stride and was running. Venters spurred Night after him. It



was hard going in the sage. The horses could run as well there,



but keen eyesight and judgment must constantly be used by the



riders in choosing ground. And continuous swerving from aisle to



aisle between the brush, and leaping little washes and mounds of



the pack-rats, and breaking through sage, made rough riding. When



Venters had turned into a long aisle he had time to look up at



Tull's riders. They were now strung out into an extended line



riding northeast. And, as Venters and Bess were holding due



north, this meant, if the horses of Tull and his riders had the



speed and the staying power, they would head the blacks and turn



them back down the slope. Tull's men were not saving their



mounts; they were driving them desperately. Venters feared only



an accident to Black Star or Night, and skilful riding would



mitigate possibility of that. One glance ahead served to show him



that Bess could pick a course through the sage as well as he. She



looked neither back nor at the running riders, and bent forward



over Black Star's neck and studied the ground ahead.







It struck Venters, presently, after he had glanced up from time



to time, that Bess was drawing away from him as he had expected.



He had, however, only thought of the light weight Black Star was



carrying and of his superior speed; he saw now that the black was



being ridden as never before, except when Jerry Card lost the



race to Wrangle. How easily, gracefully, naturally, Bess sat her



saddle! She could ride! Suddenly Venters remembered she had said



she could ride. But he had not dreamed she was capable of such



superb horsemanship. Then all at once, flashing over him,



thrilling him, came the recollection that Bess was Oldring's



Masked Rider.







He forgot Tull--the running riders--the race. He let Night have a



free rein and felt him lengthen out to suit himself, knowing he



would keep to Black Star's course, knowing that he had been



chosen by the best rider now on the upland sage. For Jerry Card



was dead. And fame had rivaled him with only one rider, and that



was the slender girl who now swung so easily with Black Star's



stride. Venters had abhorred her notoriety, but now he took



passionate pride in her skill, her daring, her power over a



horse. And he delved into his memory, recalling famous rides



which he had heard related in the villages and round the



camp-fires. Oldring's Masked Rider! Many times this strange



rider, at once well known and unknown, had escaped pursuers by



matchless riding. He had to run the gantlet of vigilantes down



the main street of Stone Bridge, leaving dead horses and dead



rustlers behind. He had jumped his horse over the Gerber Wash, a



deep, wide ravine separating the fields of Glaze from the wild



sage. He had been surrounded north of Sterling; and he had broken



through the line. How often had been told the story of day



stampedes, of night raids, of pursuit, and then how the Masked



Rider, swift as the wind, was gone in the sage! A fleet, dark



horse--a slender, dark form--a black mask--a driving run down the



slope--a dot on the purple sage--a shadowy, muffled steed



disappearing in the night!







And this Masked Rider of the uplands had been Elizabeth Erne!







The sweet sage wind rushed in Venters's face and sang a song in



his ears. He heard the dull, rapid beat of Night's hoofs; he saw



Black Star drawing away, farther and farther. He realized both



horses were swinging to the west. Then gunshots in the rear



reminded him of Tull. Venters looked back. Far to the side,



dropping behind, trooped the riders. They were shooting. Venters



saw no puffs or dust, heard no whistling bullets. He was out of



range. When he looked back again Tull's riders had given up



pursuit. The best they could do, no doubt, had been to get near



enough to recognize who really rode the blacks. Venters saw Tull



drooping in his saddle.







Then Venters pulled Night out of his running stride. Those few



miles had scarcely warmed the black, but Venters wished to save



him. Bess turned, and, though she was far away, Venters caught



the white glint of her waving hand. He held Night to a trot and



rode on, seeing Bess and Black Star, and the sloping upward



stretch of sage, and from time to time the receding black riders



behind. Soon they disappeared behind a ridge, and he turned no



more. They would go back to Lassiter's trail and follow it, and



follow in vain. So Venters rode on, with the wind growing sweeter



to taste and smell, and the purple sage richer and the sky bluer



in his sight; and the song in his ears ringing. By and by Bess



halted to wait for him, and he knew she had come to the trail.



When he reached her it was to smile at sight of her standing with



arms round Black Star's neck.







"Oh, Bern! I love him!" she cried. "He's beautiful; he knows; and



how he can run! I've had fast horses. But Black Star!...Wrangle



never beat him!"







"I'm wondering if I didn't dream that. Bess, the blacks are



grand. What it must have cost Jane--ah!--well, when we get out of



this wild country with Star and Night, back to my old home in



Illinois, we'll buy a beautiful farm with meadows and springs and



cool shade. There we'll turn the horses free--free to roam and



browse and drink--never to feel a spur again--never to be



ridden!"







"I would like that," said Bess.







They rested. Then, mounting, they rode side by side up the white



trail. The sun rose higher behind them. Far to the left a low



fine of green marked the site of Cottonwoods. Venters looked once



and looked no more. Bess gazed only straight ahead. They put the



blacks to the long, swinging rider's canter, and at times pulled



them to a trot, and occasionally to a walk. The hours passed, the



miles slipped behind, and the wall of rock loomed in the fore.



The Notch opened wide. It was a rugged, stony pass, but with



level and open trail, and Venters and Bess ran the blacks through



it. An old trail led off to the right, taking the line of the



wall, and his Venters knew to be the trail mentioned by Lassiter.







The little hamlet, Glaze, a white and green patch in the vast



waste of purple, lay miles down a slope much like the Cottonwoods



slope, only this descended to the west. And miles farther west a



faint green spot marked the location of Stone Bridge. All the



rest of that world was seemingly smooth, undulating sage, with no



ragged lines of canyons to accentuate its wildness.







"Bess, we're safe--we're free!" said Venters. "We're alone on the



sage. We're half way to Sterling."







"Ah! I wonder how it is with Lassiter and Miss



Withersteen."







"Never fear, Bess. He'll outwit Tull. He'll get away and hide her



safely. He might climb into Surprise Valley, but I don't think



he'll go so far."







"Bern, will we ever find any place like our beautiful valley?"







"No. But, dear, listen. Well go back some day, after years--ten



years. Then we'll be forgotten. And our valley will be just as we



left it."







"What if Balancing Rock falls and closes the outlet to the Pass?"







"I've thought of that. I'll pack in ropes and ropes. And if the



outlet's closed we'll climb up the cliffs and over them to the



valley and go down on rope ladders. It could be done. I know just



where to make the climb, and I'll never forget."







"Oh yes, let us go back!"







"It's something sweet to look forward to. Bess, it's like all the



future looks to me."







"Call me--Elizabeth," she said, shyly.







"Elizabeth Erne! It's a beautiful name. But I'll never forget



Bess. Do you know--have you thought that very soon--by this time



to-morrow--you will be Elizabeth Venters?"







So they rode on down the old trail. And the sun sloped to the



west, and a golden sheen lay on the sage. The hours sped now; the



afternoon waned. Often they rested the horses. The glisten of a



pool of water in a hollow caught Venters's eye, and here he



unsaddled the blacks and let them roll and drink and browse. When



he and Bess rode up out of the hollow the sun was low, a crimson



ball, and the valley seemed veiled in purple fire and smoke. It



was that short time when the sun appeared to rest before setting,



and silence, like a cloak of invisible life, lay heavy on all



that shimmering world of sage.







They watched the sun begin to bury its red curve under the dark



horizon.







"We'll ride on till late," he said. "Then you can sleep a little,



while I watch and graze the horses. And we'll ride into Sterling



early to-morrow. We'll be married!...We'll be in time to catch



the stage. We'll tie Black Star and Night behind--and then--for a



country not wild and terrible like this!"







"Oh, Bern!...But look! The sun is setting on the sage--the last



time for us till we dare come again to the Utah border. Ten



years! Oh, Bern, look, so you will never forget!"







Slumbering, fading purple fire burned over the undulating sage



ridges. Long streaks and bars and shafts and spears fringed the



far western slope. Drifting, golden veils mingled with low,



purple shadows. Colors and shades changed in slow, wondrous



transformation.







Suddenly Venters was startled by a low, rumbling roar--so low



that it was like the roar in a sea-shell.







"Bess, did you hear anything?" he



whispered.







"No."







"Listen!...Maybe I only imagined--Ah!"







Out of the east or north from remote distance, breathed an



infinitely low, continuously long sound--deep, weird, detonating,



thundering, deadening--dying.





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