: Riders Of The Purple Sage
Venters appeared too deeply moved to speak the gratitude his face
expressed. And Jane turned upon the rescuer and gripped his
hands. Her smiles and tears seemingly dazed him. Presently as
something like calmness returned, she went to Lassiter's weary
"I will water him myself," she said, and she led the horse to a
trough under a huge old cottonwood. With nimble fingers she
loosened the bridle and removed the bit. The horse snorted and
bent his head. The trough was of solid stone, hollowed out,
moss-covered and green and wet and cool, and the clear brown
water that fed it spouted and splashed from a wooden pipe.
"He has brought you far to-day?"
"Yes, ma'am, a matter of over sixty miles, mebbe seventy."
"A long ride--a ride that--Ah, he is blind!"
"Yes, ma'am," replied Lassiter.
"What blinded him?"
"Some men once roped an' tied him, an' then held white-iron close
to his eyes."
"Oh! Men? You mean devils....Were they your
"To take revenge on a horse! Lassiter, the men of my creed are
unnaturally cruel. To my everlasting sorrow I confess it. They
have been driven, hated, scourged till their hearts have
hardened. But we women hope and pray for the time when our men
"Beggin' your pardon, ma'am--that time will never come."
"Oh, it will!...Lassiter, do you think Mormon women wicked? Has
your hand been against them, too?"
"No. I believe Mormon women are the best and noblest, the most
long-sufferin', and the blindest, unhappiest women on earth."
"Ah!" She gave him a grave, thoughtful look. "Then you will break
bread with me?"
Lassiter had no ready response, and he uneasily shifted his
weight from one leg to another, and turned his sombrero round and
round in his hands. "Ma'am," he began, presently, "I reckon your
kindness of heart makes you overlook things. Perhaps I ain't well
known hereabouts, but back up North there's Mormons who'd rest
uneasy in their graves at the idea of me sittin' to table with
"I dare say. But--will you do it, anyway?" she asked.
"Mebbe you have a brother or relative who might drop in an' be
offended, an' I wouldn't want to--"
"I've not a relative in Utah that I know of. There's no one with
a right to question my actions." She turned smilingly to Venters.
"You will come in, Bern, and Lassiter will come in. We'll eat and
be merry while we may."
"I'm only wonderin' if Tull an' his men'll raise a storm down in
the village," said Lassiter, in his last weakening stand.
"Yes, he'll raise the storm--after he has prayed," replied Jane.
She led the way, with the bridle of Lassiter's horse over her
arm. They entered a grove and walked down a wide path shaded by
great low-branching cottonwoods. The last rays of the setting sun
sent golden bars through the leaves. The grass was deep and rich,
welcome contrast to sage-tired eyes. Twittering quail darted
across the path, and from a tree-top somewhere a robin sang its
evening song, and on the still air floated the freshness and
murmur of flowing water.
The home of Jane Withersteen stood in a circle of cottonwoods,
and was a flat, long, red-stone structure with a covered court in
the center through which flowed a lively stream of amber-colored
water. In the massive blocks of stone and heavy timbers and solid
doors and shutters showed the hand of a man who had builded
against pillage and time; and in the flowers and mosses lining
the stone-bedded stream, in the bright colors of rugs and
blankets on the court floor, and the cozy corner with hammock and
books and the clean-linened table, showed the grace of a daughter
who lived for happiness and the day at hand.
Jane turned Lassiter's horse loose in the thick grass. "You will
want him to be near you," she said, "or I'd have him taken to the
alfalfa fields." At her call appeared women who began at once to
bustle about, hurrying to and fro, setting the table. Then Jane,
excusing herself, went within.
She passed through a huge low ceiled chamber, like the inside of
a fort, and into a smaller one where a bright wood-fire blazed in
an old open fireplace, and from this into her own room. It had
the same comfort as was manifested in the home-like outer court;
moreover, it was warm and rich in soft hues.
Seldom did Jane Withersteen enter her room without looking into
her mirror. She knew she loved the reflection of that beauty
which since early childhood she had never been allowed to forget.
Her relatives and friends, and later a horde of Mormon and
Gentile suitors, had fanned the flame of natural vanity in her.
So that at twenty-eight she scarcely thought at all of her
wonderful influence for good in the little community where her
father had left her practically its beneficent landlord, but
cared most for the dream and the assurance and the allurement of
her beauty. This time, however, she gazed into her glass with
more than the usual happy motive, without the usual slight
conscious smile. For she was thinking of more than the desire to
be fair in her own eyes, in those of her friend; she wondered if
she were to seem fair in the eyes of this Lassiter, this man
whose name had crossed the long, wild brakes of stone and plains
of sage, this gentle-voiced, sad-faced man who was a hater and a
killer of Mormons. It was not now her usual half-conscious vain
obsession that actuated her as she hurriedly changed her
riding-dress to one of white, and then looked long at the stately
form with its gracious contours, at the fair face with its strong
chin and full firm lips, at the dark-blue, proud, and passionate
"If by some means I can keep him here a few days, a week--he will
never kill another Mormon," she mused. "Lassiter!...I shudder
when I think of that name, of him. But when I look at the man I
forget who he is--I almost like him. I remember only that he
saved Bern. He has suffered. I wonder what it was--did he love a
Mormon woman once? How splendidly he championed us poor
misunderstood souls! Somehow he knows--much."
Jane Withersteen joined her guests and bade them to her board.
Dismissing her woman, she waited upon them with her own hands. It
was a bountiful supper and a strange company. On her right sat
the ragged and half-starved Venters; and though blind eyes could
have seen what he counted for in the sum of her happiness, yet he
looked the gloomy outcast his allegiance had made him, and about
him there was the shadow of the ruin presaged by Tull. On her
left sat black-leather-garbed Lassiter looking like a man in a
dream. Hunger was not with him, nor composure, nor speech, and
when he twisted in frequent unquiet movements the heavy guns that
he had not removed knocked against the table-legs. If it had been
otherwise possible to forget the presence of Lassiter those
telling little jars would have rendered it unlikely. And Jane
Withersteen talked and smiled and laughed with all the dazzling
play of lips and eyes that a beautiful, daring woman could summon
to her purpose.
When the meal ended, and the men pushed back their chairs, she
leaned closer to Lassiter and looked square into his eyes.
"Why did you come to Cottonwoods?"
Her question seemed to break a spell. The rider arose as if he
had just remembered himself and had tarried longer than his wont.
"Ma'am, I have hunted all over the southern Utah and Nevada for--
somethin'. An' through your name I learned where to find it--here
"My name! Oh, I remember. You did know my name when you spoke
first. Well, tell me where you heard it and from whom?"
"At the little village--Glaze, I think it's called--some fifty
miles or more west of here. An' I heard it from a Gentile, a
rider who said you'd know where to tell me to find--"
"What?" she demanded, imperiously, as Lassiter broke off.
"Milly Erne's grave," he answered low, and the words came with a
Venters wheeled in his chair to regard Lassiter in amazement, and
Jane slowly raised herself in white, still wonder.
"Milly Erne's grave?" she echoed, in a whisper. "What do you know
of Milly Erne, my best-beloved friend--who died in my arms? What
were you to her?"
"Did I claim to be anythin'?" he inquired. "I know
people--relatives-- who have long wanted to know where she's
buried, that's all."
"Relatives? She never spoke of relatives, except a brother who
was shot in Texas. Lassiter, Milly Erne's grave is in a secret
burying-ground on my property."
"Will you take me there?...You'll be offendin' Mormons worse than
by breakin' bread with me."
"Indeed yes, but I'll do it. Only we must go unseen. To-morrow,
"Thank you, Jane Withersteen," replied the rider, and he bowed to
her and stepped backward out of the court.
"Will you not stay--sleep under my roof?" she asked.
"No, ma'am, an' thanks again. I never sleep indoors. An' even if
I did there's that gatherin' storm in the village below. No, no.
I'll go to the sage. I hope you won't suffer none for your
kindness to me."
"Lassiter," said Venters, with a half-bitter laugh, "my bed too,
is the sage. Perhaps we may meet out there."
"Mebbe so. But the sage is wide an' I won't be near. Good night."
At Lassiter's low whistle the black horse whinnied, and carefully
picked his blind way out of the grove. The rider did not bridle
him, but walked beside him, leading him by touch of hand and
together they passed slowly into the shade of the cottonwoods.
"Jane, I must be off soon," said Venters. "Give me my guns. If
I'd had my guns--"
"Either my friend or the Elder of my church would be lying dead,"
"Tull would be--surely."
"Oh, you fierce-blooded, savage youth! Can't I teach you
forebearance, mercy? Bern, it's divine to forgive your enemies.
'Let not the sun go down upon thy wrath.'"
"Hush! Talk to me no more of mercy or religion--after to-day.
To-day this strange coming of Lassiter left me still a man, and
now I'll die a man!...Give me my guns."
Silently she went into the house, to return with a heavy
cartridge-belt and gun-filled sheath and a long rifle; these she
handed to him, and as he buckled on the belt she stood before him
in silent eloquence.
"Jane," he said, in gentler voice, "don't look so. I'm not going
out to murder your churchman. I'll try to avoid him and all his
men. But can't you see I've reached the end of my rope? Jane,
you're a wonderful woman. Never was there a woman so unselfish
and good. Only you're blind in one way....Listen!"
From behind the grove came the clicking sound of horses in a
"Some of your riders," he continued. "It's getting time for the
night shift. Let us go out to the bench in the grove and talk
It was still daylight in the open, but under the spreading
cottonwoods shadows were obscuring the lanes. Venters drew Jane
off from one of these into a shrub-lined trail, just wide enough
for the two to walk abreast, and in a roundabout way led her far
from the house to a knoll on the edge of the grove. Here in a
secluded nook was a bench from which, through an opening in the
tree-tops, could be seen the sage-slope and the wall of rock and
the dim lines of canyons. Jane had not spoken since Venters had
shocked her with his first harsh speech; but all the way she had
clung to his arm, and now, as he stopped and laid his rifle
against the bench, she still clung to him.
"Jane, I'm afraid I must leave you."
"Bern!" she cried.
"Yes, it looks that way. My position is not a happy one--I can't
feel right--I've lost all--"
"I'll give you anything you--"
"Listen, please. When I say loss I don't mean what you think. I
mean loss of good-will, good name--that which would have enabled
me to stand up in this village without bitterness. Well, it's too
late....Now, as to the future, I think you'd do best to give me
up. Tull is implacable. You ought to see from his intention
to-day that--But you can't see. Your blindness--your damned
religion!...Jane, forgive me--I'm sore within and something
rankles. Well, I fear that invisible hand will turn its hidden
work to your ruin."
"Invisible hand? Bern!"
"I mean your Bishop." Venters said it deliberately and would not
release her as she started back. "He's the law. The edict went
forth to ruin me. Well, look at me! It'll now go forth to compel
you to the will of the Church."
"You wrong Bishop Dyer. Tull is hard, I know. But then he has
been in love with me for years."
"Oh, your faith and your excuses! You can't see what I know--and
if you did see it you'd not admit it to save your life. That's
the Mormon of you. These elders and bishops will do absolutely
any deed to go on building up the power and wealth of their
church, their empire. Think of what they've done to the Gentiles
here, to me--think of Milly Erne's fate!"
"What do you know of her story?"
"I know enough--all, perhaps, except the name of the Mormon who
brought her here. But I must stop this kind of talk."
She pressed his hand in response. He helped her to a seat beside
him on the bench. And he respected a silence that he divined was
full of woman's deep emotion beyond his understanding.
It was the moment when the last ruddy rays of the sunset
brightened momentarily before yielding to twilight. And for
Venters the outlook before him was in some sense similar to a
feeling of his future, and with searching eyes he studied the
beautiful purple, barren waste of sage. Here was the unknown and
the perilous. The whole scene impressed Venters as a wild,
austere, and mighty manifestation of nature. And as it somehow
reminded him of his prospect in life, so it suddenly resembled
the woman near him, only in her there were greater beauty and
peril, a mystery more unsolvable, and something nameless that
numbed his heart and dimmed his eye.
"Look! A rider!" exclaimed Jane, breaking the silence. "Can that
Venters moved his glance once more to the west. A horseman showed
dark on the sky-line, then merged into the color of the sage.
"It might be. But I think not--that fellow was coming in. One of
your riders, more likely. Yes, I see him clearly now. And there's
"I see them, too."
"Jane, your riders seem as many as the bunches of sage. I ran
into five yesterday 'way down near the trail to Deception Pass.
They were with the white herd."
"You still go to that canyon? Bern, I wish you wouldn't. Oldring
and his rustlers live somewhere down there."
"Well, what of that?"
"Tull has already hinted to your frequent trips into Deception
"I know." Venters uttered a short laugh. "He'll make a rustler of
me next. But, Jane, there's no water for fifty miles after I
leave here, and the nearest is in the canyon. I must drink and
water my horse. There! I see more riders. They are going out."
"The red herd is on the slope, toward the Pass."
Twilight was fast falling. A group of horsemen crossed the dark
line of low ground to become more distinct as they climbed the
slope. The silence broke to a clear call from an incoming rider,
and, almost like the peal of a hunting-horn, floated back the
answer. The outgoing riders moved swiftly, came sharply into
sight as they topped a ridge to show wild and black above the
horizon, and then passed down, dimming into the purple of the
"I hope they don't meet Lassiter," said Jane.
"So do I," replied Venters. "By this time the riders of the night
shift know what happened to-day. But Lassiter will likely keep
out of their way."
"Bern, who is Lassiter? He's only a name to me--a terrible name."
"Who is he? I don't know, Jane. Nobody I ever met knows him. He
talks a little like a Texan, like Milly Erne. Did you note that?"
"Yes. How strange of him to know of her! And she lived here ten
years and has been dead two. Bern, what do you know of Lassiter?
Tell me what he has done--why you spoke of him to
Tull--threatening to become another Lassiter yourself?"
"Jane, I only heard things, rumors, stories, most of which I
disbelieved. At Glaze his name was known, but none of the riders
or ranchers I knew there ever met him. At Stone Bridge I never
heard him mentioned. But at Sterling and villages north of there
he was spoken of often. I've never been in a village which he had
been known to visit. There were many conflicting stories about
him and his doings. Some said he had shot up this and that Mormon
village, and others denied it. I'm inclined to believe he has,
and you know how Mormons hide the truth. But there was one
feature about Lassiter upon which all agree--that he was what
riders in this country call a gun-man. He's a man with a
marvelous quickness and accuracy in the use of a Colt. And now
that I've seen him I know more. Lassiter was born without fear. I
watched him with eyes which saw him my friend. I'll never forget
the moment I recognized him from what had been told me of his
crouch before the draw. It was then I yelled his name. I believe
that yell saved Tull's life. At any rate, I know this, between
Tull and death then there was not the breadth of the littlest
hair. If he or any of his men had moved a finger downward--"
Venters left his meaning unspoken, but at the suggestion Jane
The pale afterglow in the west darkened with the merging of
twilight into night. The sage now spread out black and gloomy.
One dim star glimmered in the southwest sky. The sound of
trotting horses had ceased, and there was silence broken only by
a faint, dry pattering of cottonwood leaves in the soft night
Into this peace and calm suddenly broke the high-keyed yelp of a
coyote, and from far off in the darkness came the faint answering
note of a trailing mate.
"Hello! the sage-dogs are barking," said Venters.
"I don't like to hear them," replied Jane. "At night, sometimes
when I lie awake, listening to the long mourn or breaking bark or
wild howl, I think of you asleep somewhere in the sage, and my
"Jane, you couldn't listen to sweeter music, nor could I have a
"Just think! Men like Lassiter and you have no home, no comfort,
no rest, no place to lay your weary heads. Well!...Let us be
patient. Tull's anger may cool, and time may help us. You might
do some service to the village--who can tell? Suppose you
discovered the long-unknown hiding-place of Oldring and his band,
and told it to my riders? That would disarm Tull's ugly hints and
put you in favor. For years my riders have trailed the tracks of
stolen cattle. You know as well as I how dearly we've paid for
our ranges in this wild country. Oldring drives our cattle down
into the network of deceiving canyons, and somewhere far to the
north or east he drives them up and out to Utah markets. If you
will spend time in Deception Pass try to find the trails."
"Jane, I've thought of that. I'll try."
"I must go now. And it hurts, for now I'll never be sure of
seeing you again. But to-morrow, Bern?"
"To-morrow surely. I'll watch for Lassiter and ride in with him."
Then she left him and moved away, a white, gliding shape that
soon vanished in the shadows.
Venters waited until the faint slam of a door assured him she had
reached the house, and then, taking up his rifle, he noiselessly
slipped through the bushes, down the knoll, and on under the dark
trees to the edge of the grove. The sky was now turning from gray
to blue; stars had begun to lighten the earlier blackness; and
from the wide flat sweep before him blew a cool wind, fragrant
with the breath of sage. Keeping close to the edge of the
cottonwoods, he went swiftly and silently westward. The grove was
long, and he had not reached the end when he heard something that
brought him to a halt. Low padded thuds told him horses were
coming this way. He sank down in the gloom, waiting, listening.
Much before he had expected, judging from sound, to his amazement
he descried horsemen near at hand. They were riding along the
border of the sage, and instantly he knew the hoofs of the horses
were muffled. Then the pale starlight afforded him indistinct
sight of the riders. But his eyes were keen and used to the dark,
and by peering closely he recognized the huge bulk and
black-bearded visage of Oldring and the lithe, supple form of the
rustler's lieutenant, a masked rider. They passed on; the
darkness swallowed them. Then, farther out on the sage, a dark,
compact body of horsemen went by, almost without sound, almost
like specters, and they, too, melted into the night.