Riders of the Purple Sage (6 of 6)

Uploaded by The16thCavern on 28.10.2012

Footprints told the story of little Fay's abduction. In anguish Jane
Withersteen turned speechlessly to Lassiter, and, confirming her fears,
she saw him gray-faced, aged all in a moment, stricken as if by a mortal
Then all her life seemed to fall about her in wreck and ruin.
"It's all over," she heard her voice whisper. "It's ended. I'm
going—I'm going—"
"Where?" demanded Lassiter, suddenly looming darkly over her.
"To—to those cruel men—"
"Speak names!" thundered Lassiter.
"To Bishop Dyer—to Tull," went on Jane, shocked into obedience.
"Well—what for?"
"I want little Fay. I can't live without her. They've stolen her as they
stole Milly Erne's child. I must have little Fay. I want only her. I
give up. I'll go and tell Bishop Dyer—I'm broken. I'll tell him I'm
ready for the yoke—only give me back Fay—and—and I'll marry Tull!"
"Never!" hissed Lassiter.
His long arm leaped at her. Almost running, he dragged her under the
cottonwoods, across the court, into the huge hall of Withersteen House,
and he shut the door with a force that jarred the heavy walls. Black
Star and Night and Bells, since their return, had been locked in this
hall, and now they stamped on the stone floor.
Lassiter released Jane and like a dizzy man swayed from her with a
hoarse cry and leaned shaking against a table where he kept his rider's
accoutrements. He began to fumble in his saddlebags. His action brought
a clinking, metallic sound—the rattling of gun-cartridges. His fingers
trembled as he slipped cartridges into an extra belt. But as he buckled
it over the one he habitually wore his hands became steady. This second
belt contained two guns, smaller than the black ones swinging low, and
he slipped them round so that his coat hid them. Then he fell to swift
action. Jane Withersteen watched him, fascinated but uncomprehending and
she saw him rapidly saddle Black Star and Night. Then he drew her into
the light of the huge windows, standing over her, gripping her arm with
fingers like cold steel.
"Yes, Jane, it's ended—but you're not goin' to Dyer!... I'm goin'
Looking at him—he was so terrible of aspect—she could not comprehend
his words. Who was this man with the face gray as death, with eyes
that would have made her shriek had she the strength, with the strange,
ruthlessly bitter lips? Where was the gentle Lassiter? What was this
presence in the hall, about him, about her—this cold, invisible
"Yes, it's ended, Jane," he was saying, so awfully quiet and cool and
implacable, "an' I'm goin' to make a little call. I'll lock you in here,
an' when I get back have the saddle-bags full of meat an bread. An' be
ready to ride!"
"Lassiter!" cried Jane.
Desperately she tried to meet his gray eyes, in vain, desperately she
tried again, fought herself as feeling and thought resurged in torment,
and she succeeded, and then she knew.
"No—no—no!" she wailed. "You said you'd foregone your vengeance. You
promised not to kill Bishop Dyer."
"If you want to talk to me about him—leave off the Bishop. I don't
understand that name, or its use."
"Oh, hadn't you foregone your vengeance on—on Dyer?
"But—your actions—your words—your guns—your terrible looks!... They
don't seem foregoing vengeance?"
"Jane, now it's justice."
"You'll—kill him?"
"If God lets me live another hour! If not God—then the devil who drives
"You'll kill him—for yourself—for your vengeful hate?"
"For Milly Erne's sake?"
"For little Fay's?"
"Oh—for whose?"
"For yours!"
"His blood on my soul!" whispered Jane, and she fell to her knees.
This was the long-pending hour of fruition. And the habit of years—the
religious passion of her life—leaped from lethargy, and the long months
of gradual drifting to doubt were as if they had never been. "If you
spill his blood it'll be on my soul—and on my father's. Listen."
And she clasped his knees, and clung there as he tried to raise her.
"Listen. Am I nothing to you?"
"Woman—don't trifle at words! I love you! An' I'll soon prove it."
"I'll give myself to you—I'll ride away with you—marry you, if only
you'll spare him?"
His answer was a cold, ringing, terrible laugh.
"Lassiter—I'll love you. Spare him!"
She sprang up in despairing, breaking spirit, and encircled his neck
with her arms, and held him in an embrace that he strove vainly to
loosen. "Lassiter, would you kill me? I'm fighting my last fight for
the principles of my youth—love of religion, love of father. You don't
know—you can't guess the truth, and I can't speak ill. I'm losing
all. I'm changing. All I've gone through is nothing to this hour. Pity
me—help me in my weakness. You're strong again—oh, so cruelly, coldly
strong! You're killing me. I see you—feel you as some other Lassiter!
My master, be merciful—spare him!"
His answer was a ruthless smile.
She clung the closer to him, and leaned her panting breast on him, and
lifted her face to his. "Lassiter, I do love you! It's leaped out of my
agony. It comes suddenly with a terrible blow of truth. You are a man!
I never knew it till now. Some wonderful change came to me when you
buckled on these guns and showed that gray, awful face. I loved you
then. All my life I've loved, but never as now. No woman can love like
a broken woman. If it were not for one thing—just one thing—and yet! I
can't speak it—I'd glory in your manhood—the lion in you that means to
slay for me. Believe me—and spare Dyer. Be merciful—great as it's in
you to be great.... Oh, listen and believe—I have nothing, but I'm a
woman—a beautiful woman, Lassiter—a passionate, loving woman—and I
love you! Take me—hide me in some wild place—and love me and mend my
broken heart. Spare him and take me away."
She lifted her face closer and closer to his, until their lips nearly
touched, and she hung upon his neck, and with strength almost spent
pressed and still pressed her palpitating body to his.
"Kiss me!" she whispered, blindly.
"No—not at your price!" he answered. His voice had changed or she had
lost clearness of hearing.
"Kiss me!... Are you a man? Kiss me and save me!"
"Jane, you never played fair with me. But now you're blisterin' your
lips—blackenin' your soul with lies!"
"By the memory of my mother—by my Bible—no! No, I have no Bible! But
by my hope of heaven I swear I love you!"
Lassiter's gray lips formed soundless words that meant even her love
could not avail to bend his will. As if the hold of her arms was that of
a child's he loosened it and stepped away.
"Wait! Don't go! Oh, hear a last word!... May a more just and merciful
God than the God I was taught to worship judge me—forgive me—save me!
For I can no longer keep silent!... Lassiter, in pleading for Dyer I've
been pleading more for my father. My father was a Mormon master, close
to the leaders of the church. It was my father who sent Dyer out to
proselyte. It was my father who had the blue-ice eye and the beard of
gold. It was my father you got trace of in the past years. Truly, Dyer
ruined Milly Erne—dragged her from her home—to Utah—to Cottonwoods.
But it was for my father! If Milly Erne was ever wife of a Mormon that
Mormon was my father! I never knew—never will know whether or not she
was a wife. Blind I may be, Lassiter—fanatically faithful to a false
religion I may have been but I know justice, and my father is beyond
human justice. Surely he is meeting just punishment—somewhere. Always
it has appalled me—the thought of your killing Dyer for my father's
sins. So I have prayed!"
"Jane, the past is dead. In my love for you I forgot the past. This
thing I'm about to do ain't for myself or Milly or Fay. It's not because
of anythin' that ever happened in the past, but for what is happenin'
right now. It's for you!... An' listen. Since I was a boy I've never
thanked God for anythin'. If there is a God—an' I've come to believe
it—I thank Him now for the years that made me Lassiter!... I can reach
down en' feel these big guns, en' know what I can do with them. An',
Jane, only one of the miracles Dyer professes to believe in can save
Again for Jane Withersteen came the spinning of her brain in darkness,
and as she whirled in endless chaos she seemed to be falling at the feet
of a luminous figure—a man—Lassiter—who had saved her from herself,
who could not be changed, who would slay rightfully. Then she slipped
into utter blackness.
When she recovered from her faint she became aware that she was lying on
a couch near the window in her sitting-room. Her brow felt damp and cold
and wet, some one was chafing her hands; she recognized Judkins, and
then saw that his lean, hard face wore the hue and look of excessive
"Judkins!" Her voice broke weakly.
"Aw, Miss Withersteen, you're comin' round fine. Now jest lay still a
little. You're all right; everythin's all right."
"Where is—he?"
"You needn't worry none about him."
"Where is he? Tell me—instantly."
"Wal, he's in the other room patchin' up a few triflin' bullet holes."
"Ah!... Bishop' Dyer?"
"When I seen him last—a matter of half an hour ago, he was on his
knees. He was some busy, but he wasn't prayin'!"
"How strangely you talk! I'll sit up. I'm—well, strong again. Tell me.
Dyer on his knees! What was he doing?"
"Wal, beggin' your pardon fer blunt talk, Miss Withersteen, Dyer was
on his knees an' not prayin'. You remember his big, broad hands? You've
seen 'em raised in blessin' over old gray men an' little curly-headed
children like—like Fay Larkin! Come to think of thet, I disremember
ever hearin' of his liftin' his big hands in blessin' over a woman. Wal,
when I seen him last—jest a little while ago—he was on his knees,
not prayin', as I remarked—an' he was pressin' his big hands over some
bigger wounds."
"Man, you drive me mad! Did Lassiter kill Dyer?"
"Did he kill Tull?"
"No. Tull's out of the village with most of his riders. He's expected
back before evenin'. Lassiter will hev to git away before Tull en' his
riders come in. It's sure death fer him here. An' wuss fer you, too,
Miss Withersteen. There'll be some of an uprisin' when Tull gits back."
"I shall ride away with Lassiter. Judkins, tell me all you saw—all you
know about this killing." She realized, without wonder or amaze, how
Judkins's one word, affirming the death of Dyer—that the catastrophe
had fallen—had completed the change whereby she had been molded or
beaten or broken into another woman. She felt calm, slightly cold,
strong as she had not been strong since the first shadow fell upon her.
"I jest saw about all of it, Miss Withersteen, an' I'll be glad to tell
you if you'll only hev patience with me," said Judkins, earnestly. "You
see, I've been pecooliarly interested, an' nat'rully I'm some excited.
An' I talk a lot thet mebbe ain't necessary, but I can't help thet.
"I was at the meetin'-house where Dyer was holdin' court. You know he
allus acts as magistrate an' judge when Tull's away. An' the trial
was fer tryin' what's left of my boy riders—thet helped me hold your
cattle—fer a lot of hatched-up things the boys never did. We're used to
thet, an' the boys wouldn't hev minded bein' locked up fer a while,
or hevin' to dig ditches, or whatever the judge laid down. You see, I
divided the gold you give me among all my boys, an' they all hid it,
en' they all feel rich. Howsomever, court was adjourned before the judge
passed sentence. Yes, ma'm, court was adjourned some strange an' quick,
much as if lightnin' hed struck the meetin'-house.
"I hed trouble attendin' the trial, but I got in. There was a good many
people there, all my boys, an' Judge Dyer with his several clerks. Also
he hed with him the five riders who've been guardin' him pretty close of
late. They was Carter, Wright, Jengessen, an' two new riders from Stone
Bridge. I didn't hear their names, but I heard they was handy men with
guns an' they looked more like rustlers than riders. Anyway, there they
was, the five all in a row.
"Judge Dyer was tellin' Willie Kern, one of my best an' steadiest
boys—Dyer was tellin' him how there was a ditch opened near Willie's
home lettin' water through his lot, where it hadn't ought to go. An'
Willie was tryin' to git a word in to prove he wasn't at home all the
day it happened—which was true, as I know—but Willie couldn't git a
word in, an' then Judge Dyer went on layin' down the law. An' all to
onct he happened to look down the long room. An' if ever any man turned
to stone he was thet man.
"Nat'rully I looked back to see what hed acted so powerful strange on
the judge. An' there, half-way up the room, in the middle of the wide
aisle, stood Lassiter! All white an' black he looked, an' I can't think
of anythin' he resembled, onless it's death. Venters made thet same room
some still an' chilly when he called Tull; but this was different. I
give my word, Miss Withersteen, thet I went cold to my very marrow. I
don't know why. But Lassiter had a way about him thet's awful. He spoke
a word—a name—I couldn't understand it, though he spoke clear as a
bell. I was too excited, mebbe. Judge Dyer must hev understood it, an' a
lot more thet was mystery to me, for he pitched forrard out of his chair
right onto the platform.
"Then them five riders, Dyer's bodyguards, they jumped up, an' two of
them thet I found out afterward were the strangers from Stone Bridge,
they piled right out of a winder, so quick you couldn't catch your
breath. It was plain they wasn't Mormons.
"Jengessen, Carter, an' Wright eyed Lassiter, for what must hev been a
second an' seemed like an hour, an' they went white en' strung. But they
didn't weaken nor lose their nerve.
"I hed a good look at Lassiter. He stood sort of stiff, bendin' a
little, an' both his arms were crooked an' his hands looked like a
hawk's claws. But there ain't no tellin' how his eyes looked. I know
this, though, an' thet is his eyes could read the mind of any man about
to throw a gun. An' in watchin' him, of course, I couldn't see the
three men go fer their guns. An' though I was lookin' right at
Lassiter—lookin' hard—I couldn't see how he drawed. He was quicker 'n
eyesight—thet's all. But I seen the red spurtin' of his guns, en' heard
his shots jest the very littlest instant before I heard the shots of the
riders. An' when I turned, Wright an' Carter was down, en' Jengessen,
who's tough like a steer, was pullin' the trigger of a wabblin' gun. But
it was plain he was shot through, plumb center. An' sudden he fell with
a crash, an' his gun clattered on the floor.
"Then there was a hell of a silence. Nobody breathed. Sartin I didn't,
anyway. I saw Lassiter slip a smokin' gun back in a belt. But he hadn't
throwed either of the big black guns, an' I thought thet strange. An'
all this was happenin' quick—you can't imagine how quick.
"There come a scrapin' on the floor an' Dyer got up, his face like lead.
I wanted to watch Lassiter, but Dyer's face, onct I seen it like thet,
glued my eyes. I seen him go fer his gun—why, I could hev done better,
quicker—an' then there was a thunderin' shot from Lassiter, an' it
hit Dyer's right arm, an' his gun went off as it dropped. He looked at
Lassiter like a cornered sage-wolf, an' sort of howled, an' reached down
fer his gun. He'd jest picked it off the floor an' was raisin' it when
another thunderin' shot almost tore thet arm off—so it seemed to me.
The gun dropped again an' he went down on his knees, kind of flounderin'
after it. It was some strange an' terrible to see his awful earnestness.
Why would such a man cling so to life? Anyway, he got the gun with left
hand an' was raisin' it, pullin' trigger in his madness, when the third
thunderin' shot hit his left arm, an' he dropped the gun again. But
thet left arm wasn't useless yet, fer he grabbed up the gun, an' with
a shakin' aim thet would hev been pitiful to me—in any other man—he
began to shoot. One wild bullet struck a man twenty feet from Lassiter.
An' it killed thet man, as I seen afterward. Then come a bunch of
thunderin' shots—nine I calkilated after, fer they come so quick I
couldn't count them—an' I knew Lassiter hed turned the black guns loose
on Dyer.
"I'm tellin' you straight, Miss Withersteen, fer I want you to know.
Afterward you'll git over it. I've seen some soul-rackin' scenes on this
Utah border, but this was the awfulest. I remember I closed my eyes, an'
fer a minute I thought of the strangest things, out of place there, such
as you'd never dream would come to mind. I saw the sage, an' runnin'
hosses—an' thet's the beautfulest sight to me—an' I saw dim things
in the dark, an' there was a kind of hummin' in my ears. An' I remember
distinctly—fer it was what made all these things whirl out of my mind
an' opened my eyes—I remember distinctly it was the smell of gunpowder.
"The court had about adjourned fer thet judge. He was on his knees, en'
he wasn't prayin'. He was gaspin' an' tryin' to press his big,
floppin', crippled hands over his body. Lassiter had sent all those last
thunderin' shots through his body. Thet was Lassiter's way.
"An' Lassiter spoke, en' if I ever forgit his words I'll never forgit
the sound of his voice.
"'Proselyter, I reckon you'd better call quick on thet God who reveals
Hisself to you on earth, because He won't be visitin' the place you're
goin' to!"
"An' then I seen Dyer look at his big, hangin' hands thet wasn't big
enough fer the last work he set them to. An' he looked up at Lassiter.
An' then he stared horrible at somethin' thet wasn't Lassiter, nor
anyone there, nor the room, nor the branches of purple sage peepin'
into the winder. Whatever he seen, it was with the look of a man who
discovers somethin' too late. Thet's a terrible look!... An' with a
horrible understandin' cry he slid forrard on his face."
Judkins paused in his narrative, breathing heavily while he wiped his
perspiring brow.
"Thet's about all," he concluded. "Lassiter left the meetin'-house an' I
hurried to catch up with him. He was bleedin' from three gunshots,
none of them much to bother him. An' we come right up here. I found you
layin' in the hall, an' I hed to work some over you."
Jane Withersteen offered up no prayer for Dyer's soul.
Lassiter's step sounded in the hall—the familiar soft, silver-clinking
step—and she heard it with thrilling new emotions in which was a vague
joy in her very fear of him. The door opened, and she saw him, the old
Lassiter, slow, easy, gentle, cool, yet not exactly the same Lassiter.
She rose, and for a moment her eyes blurred and swam in tears.
"Are you—all—all right?" she asked, tremulously.
"I reckon."
"Lassiter, I'll ride away with you. Hide me till danger is past—till
we are forgotten—then take me where you will. Your people shall be my
people, and your God my God!"
He kissed her hand with the quaint grace and courtesy that came to him
in rare moments.
"Black Star an' Night are ready," he said, simply.
His quiet mention of the black racers spurred Jane to action. Hurrying
to her room, she changed to her rider's suit, packed her jewelry, and
the gold that was left, and all the woman's apparel for which there
was space in the saddle-bags, and then returned to the hall. Black Star
stamped his iron-shod hoofs and tossed his beautiful head, and eyed her
with knowing eyes.
"Judkins, I give Bells to you," said Jane. "I hope you will always keep
him and be good to him."
Judkins mumbled thanks that he could not speak fluently, and his eyes
Lassiter strapped Jane's saddle-bags upon Black Star, and led the racers
out into the court.
"Judkins, you ride with Jane out into the sage. If you see any riders
comin' shout quick twice. An', Jane, don't look back! I'll catch up
soon. We'll get to the break into the Pass before midnight, an' then
wait until mornin' to go down."
Black Star bent his graceful neck and bowed his noble head, and his
broad shoulders yielded as he knelt for Jane to mount.
She rode out of the court beside Judkins, through the grove, across
the wide lane into the sage, and she realized that she was leaving
Withersteen House forever, and she did not look back. A strange, dreamy,
calm peace pervaded her soul. Her doom had fallen upon her, but, instead
of finding life no longer worth living she found it doubly significant,
full of sweetness as the western breeze, beautiful and unknown as the
sage-slope stretching its purple sunset shadows before her. She became
aware of Judkins's hand touching hers; she heard him speak a husky
good-by; then into the place of Bells shot the dead-black, keen, racy
nose of Night, and she knew Lassiter rode beside her.
"Don't—look—back!" he said, and his voice, too, was not clear.
Facing straight ahead, seeing only the waving, shadowy sage, Jane held
out her gauntleted hand, to feel it enclosed in strong clasp. So she
rode on without a backward glance at the beautiful grove of Cottonwoods.
She did not seem to think of the past of what she left forever, but of
the color and mystery and wildness of the sage-slope leading down to
Deception Pass, and of the future. She watched the shadows lengthen down
the slope; she felt the cool west wind sweeping by from the rear; and
she wondered at low, yellow clouds sailing swiftly over her and beyond.
"Don't look—back!" said Lassiter.
Thick-driving belts of smoke traveled by on the wind, and with it came a
strong, pungent odor of burning wood.
Lassiter had fired Withersteen House! But Jane did not look back.
A misty veil obscured the clear, searching gaze she had kept steadfastly
upon the purple slope and the dim lines of canyons. It passed, as passed
the rolling clouds of smoke, and she saw the valley deepening into the
shades of twilight. Night came on, swift as the fleet racers, and stars
peeped out to brighten and grow, and the huge, windy, eastern heave of
sage-level paled under a rising moon and turned to silver. Blanched
in moonlight, the sage yet seemed to hold its hue of purple and was
infinitely more wild and lonely. So the night hours wore on, and Jane
Withersteen never once looked back.
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 Jane.
"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 on him.
"Well, is that a crime?'
"There—there is a woman, after all!"
"Now Bess—"
"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, indignantly.
"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 another cave.
"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 and foxes.
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
somewhere. Come!"
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 change.
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 Deception Pass.
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 hear it."
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
"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 down."
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 congratulate himself.
"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 like coyotes."
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 trail.
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 beside them.
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 astonishment.
"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 Jane.
"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 cheek.
It was entirely beyond Venters to see any luck in that meeting.
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 that
"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 paradise?"
"Answer me."
"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 her friends.
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, bitter eyes.
"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 light.
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 this girl?"
"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 her father?"
"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!" implored
"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
me. 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
"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 here."
Gently he touched her arm and turned her to face the others, and then
outspread his great hand to disclose a shiny, battered gold locket.
"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 Erne.
"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 tells."
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 that
"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 thought."
"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
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 Erne.
"'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 girls."
"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 blows
"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 Sterling—"
"Man! how're you ever goin' to do that? Sterlin' is a hundred miles."
"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
"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 me."
"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
"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 rustlers."
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
"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
"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 boy! 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 voice.
"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 Star."
"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 Jane.
"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!"
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
"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
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
"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
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.
"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,
Through tear-blurred sight Jane Withersteen watched Venters and
Elizabeth Erne and the black racers disappear over the ridge of sage.
"They're gone!" said Lassiter. "An' they're safe now. An' there'll never
be a day of their comin' happy lives but what they'll remember Jane
Withersteen an'—an' Uncle Jim!... I reckon, Jane, we'd better be on our
The burros obediently wheeled and started down the break with little
cautious steps, but Lassiter had to leash the whining dogs and lead
them. Jane felt herself bound in a feeling that was neither listlessness
nor indifference, yet which rendered her incapable of interest. She was
still strong in body, but emotionally tired. That hour at the entrance
to Deception Pass had been the climax of her suffering—the flood of
her wrath—the last of her sacrifice—the supremity of her love—and the
attainment of peace. She thought that if she had little Fay she would
not ask any more of life.
Like an automaton she followed Lassiter down the steep trail of dust and
bits of weathered stone; and when the little slides moved with her or
piled around her knees she experienced no alarm. Vague relief came to
her in the sense of being enclosed between dark stone walls, deep hidden
from the glare of sun, from the glistening sage. Lassiter lengthened the
stirrup straps on one of the burros and bade her mount and ride close
to him. She was to keep the burro from cracking his little hard hoofs on
stones. Then she was riding on between dark, gleaming walls. There were
quiet and rest and coolness in this canyon. She noted indifferently that
they passed close under shady, bulging shelves of cliff, through patches
of grass and sage and thicket and groves of slender trees, and over
white, pebbly washes, and around masses of broken rock. The burros
trotted tirelessly; the dogs, once more free, pattered tirelessly; and
Lassiter led on with never a stop, and at every open place he looked
back. The shade under the walls gave place to sunlight. And presently
they came to a dense thicket of slender trees, through which they passed
to rich, green grass and water. Here Lassiter rested the burros for a
little while, but he was restless, uneasy, silent, always listening,
peering under the trees. She dully reflected that enemies were behind
them—before them; still the thought awakened no dread or concern or
At his bidding she mounted and rode on close to the heels of his burro.
The canyon narrowed; the walls lifted their rugged rims higher; and
the sun shone down hot from the center of the blue stream of sky above.
Lassiter traveled slower, with more exceeding care as to the ground
he chose, and he kept speaking low to the dogs. They were now
hunting-dogs—keen, alert, suspicious, sniffing the warm breeze.
The monotony of the yellow walls broke in change of color and smooth
surface, and the rugged outline of rims grew craggy. Splits appeared
in deep breaks, and gorges running at right angles, and then the Pass
opened wide at a junction of intersecting canyons.
Lassiter dismounted, led his burro, called the dogs close, and proceeded
at snail pace through dark masses of rock and dense thickets under the
left wall. Long he watched and listened before venturing to cross the
mouths of side canyons. At length he halted, fled his burro, lifted a
warning hand to Jane, and then slipped away among the boulders, and,
followed by the stealthy dogs, disappeared from sight. The time he
remained absent was neither short nor long to Jane Withersteen.
When he reached her side again he was pale, and his lips were set in a
hard line, and his gray eyes glittered coldly. Bidding her dismount, he
led the burros into a covert of stones and cedars, and tied them.
"Jane, I've run into the fellers I've been lookin' for, an' I'm goin'
after them," he said.
"Why?" she asked.
"I reckon I won't take time to tell you."
"Couldn't we slip by without being seen?"
"Likely enough. But that ain't my game. An' I'd like to know, in case I
don't come back, what you'll do."
"What can I do?"
"I reckon you can go back to Tull. Or stay in the Pass an' be taken off
by rustlers. Which'll you do?"
"I don't know. I can't think very well. But I believe I'd rather be
taken off by rustlers."
Lassiter sat down, put his head in his hands, and remained for a few
moments in what appeared to be deep and painful thought. When he lifted
his face it was haggard, lined, cold as sculptured marble.
"I'll go. I only mentioned that chance of my not comin' back. I'm pretty
sure to come."
"Need you risk so much? Must you fight more? Haven't you shed enough
"I'd like to tell you why I'm goin'," he continued, in coldness he had
seldom used to her. She remarked it, but it was the same to her as if he
had spoken with his old gentle warmth. "But I reckon I won't. Only, I'll
say that mercy an' goodness, such as is in you, though they're the grand
things in human nature, can't be lived up to on this Utah border. Life's
hell out here. You think—or you used to think—that your religion made
this life heaven. Mebbe them scales on your eyes has dropped now. Jane,
I wouldn't have you no different, an' that's why I'm going to try to
hide you somewhere in this Pass. I'd like to hide many more women, for
I've come to see there are more like you among your people. An' I'd like
you to see jest how hard an' cruel this border life is. It's bloody.
You'd think churches an' churchmen would make it better. They make it
worse. You give names to things—bishops, elders, ministers, Mormonism,
duty, faith, glory. You dream—or you're driven mad. I'm a man, an'
I know. I name fanatics, followers, blind women, oppressors, thieves,
ranchers, rustlers, riders. An' we have—what you've lived through these
last months. It can't be helped. But it can't last always. An' remember
his—some day the border'll be better, cleaner, for the ways of ten like
She saw him shake his tall form erect, look at her strangely and
steadfastly, and then, noiselessly, stealthily slip away amid the rocks
and trees. Ring and Whitie, not being bidden to follow, remained with
Jane. She felt extreme weariness, yet somehow it did not seem to be of
her body. And she sat down in the shade and tried to think. She saw a
creeping lizard, cactus flowers, the drooping burros, the resting dogs,
an eagle high over a yellow crag. Once the meanest flower, a color,
the flight of the bee, or any living thing had given her deepest joy.
Lassiter had gone off, yielding to his incurable blood lust, probably
to his own death; and she was sorry, but there was no feeling in her
Suddenly from the mouth of the canyon just beyond her rang out a clear,
sharp report of a rifle. Echoes clapped. Then followed a piercingly
high yell of anguish, quickly breaking. Again echoes clapped, in grim
imitation. Dull revolver shots—hoarse yells—pound of hoofs—shrill
neighs of horses—commingling of echoes—and again silence! Lassiter
must be busily engaged, thought Jane, and no chill trembled over her,
no blanching tightened her skin. Yes, the border was a bloody place.
But life had always been bloody. Men were blood-spillers. Phases of the
history of the world flashed through her mind—Greek and Roman wars,
dark, mediaeval times, the crimes in the name of religion. On sea, on
land, everywhere—shooting, stabbing, cursing, clashing, fighting men!
Greed, power, oppression, fanaticism, love, hate, revenge, justice,
freedom—for these, men killed one another.
She lay there under the cedars, gazing up through the delicate lacelike
foliage at the blue sky, and she thought and wondered and did not care.
More rattling shots disturbed the noonday quiet. She heard a sliding of
weathered rock, a hoarse shout of warning, a yell of alarm, again the
clear, sharp crack of the rifle, and another cry that was a cry of
death. Then rifle reports pierced a dull volley of revolver shots.
Bullets whizzed over Jane's hiding-place; one struck a stone and whined
away in the air. After that, for a time, succeeded desultory shots; and
then they ceased under long, thundering fire from heavier guns.
Sooner or later, then, Jane heard the cracking of horses' hoofs on the
stones, and the sound came nearer and nearer. Silence intervened until
Lassiter's soft, jingling step assured her of his approach. When he
appeared he was covered with blood.
"All right, Jane," he said. "I come back. An' don't worry."
With water from a canteen he washed the blood from his face and hands.
"Jane, hurry now. Tear my scarf in two, en' tie up these places. That
hole through my hand is some inconvenient, worse 'n this at over my ear.
There—you're doin' fine! Not a bit nervous—no tremblin'. I reckon I
ain't done your courage justice. I'm glad you're brave jest now—you'll
need to be. Well, I was hid pretty good, enough to keep them from
shootin' me deep, but they was slingin' lead close all the time. I used
up all the rifle shells, an' en I went after them. Mebbe you heard. It
was then I got hit. Had to use up every shell in my own gun, an' they
did, too, as I seen. Rustlers an' Mormons, Jane! An' now I'm packin'
five bullet holes in my carcass, an' guns without shells. Hurry, now."
He unstrapped the saddle-bags from the burros, slipped the saddles and
let them lie, turned the burros loose, and, calling the dogs, led the
way through stones and cedars to an open where two horses stood.
"Jane, are you strong?" he asked.
"I think so. I'm not tired," Jane replied.
"I don't mean that way. Can you bear up?"
"I think I can bear anything."
"I reckon you look a little cold an' thick. So I'm preparin' you."
"For what?"
"I didn't tell you why I jest had to go after them fellers. I couldn't
tell you. I believe you'd have died. But I can tell you now—if you'll
bear up under a shock?"
"Go on, my friend."
"I've got little Fay! Alive—bad hurt—but she'll live!"
Jane Withersteen's dead-locked feeling, rent by Lassiter's deep,
quivering voice, leaped into an agony of sensitive life.
"Here," he added, and showed her where little Fay lay on the grass.
Unable to speak, unable to stand, Jane dropped on her knees. By that
long, beautiful golden hair Jane recognized the beloved Fay. But Fay's
loveliness was gone. Her face was drawn and looked old with grief. But
she was not dead—her heart beat—and Jane Withersteen gathered strength
and lived again.
"You see I jest had to go after Fay," Lassiter was saying, as he knelt
to bathe her little pale face. "But I reckon I don't want no more
choices like the one I had to make. There was a crippled feller in that
bunch, Jane. Mebbe Venters crippled him. Anyway, that's why they were
holding up here. I seen little Fay first thing, en' was hard put to it
to figure out a way to get her. An' I wanted hosses, too. I had to take
chances. So I crawled close to their camp. One feller jumped a hoss with
little Fay, an' when I shot him, of course she dropped. She's stunned
an' bruised—she fell right on her head. Jane, she's comin' to! She
ain't bad hurt!"
Fay's long lashes fluttered; her eyes opened. At first they seemed
glazed over. They looked dazed by pain. Then they quickened, darkened,
to shine with intelligence—bewilderment—memory—and sudden wonderful
"Muvver—Jane!" she whispered.
"Oh, little Fay, little Fay!" cried Jane, lifting, clasping the child to
"Now, we've got to rustle!" said Lassiter, in grim coolness. "Jane, look
down the Pass!"
Across the mounds of rock and sage Jane caught sight of a band of riders
filing out of the narrow neck of the Pass; and in the lead was a white
horse, which, even at a distance of a mile or more, she knew.
"Tull!" she almost screamed.
"I reckon. But, Jane, we've still got the game in our hands. They're
ridin' tired hosses. Venters likely give them a chase. He wouldn't
forget that. An' we've fresh hosses."
Hurriedly he strapped on the saddle-bags, gave quick glance to girths
and cinches and stirrups, then leaped astride.
"Lift little Fay up," he said.
With shaking arms Jane complied.
"Get back your nerve, woman! This's life or death now. Mind that. Climb
up! Keep your wits. Stick close to me. Watch where your hoss's goin' en'
Somehow Jane mounted; somehow found strength to hold the reins, to spur,
to cling on, to ride. A horrible quaking, craven fear possessed her
soul. Lassiter led the swift flight across the wide space, over washes,
through sage, into a narrow canyon where the rapid clatter of hoofs
rapped sharply from the walls. The wind roared in her ears; the gleaming
cliffs swept by; trail and sage and grass moved under her. Lassiter's
bandaged, blood-stained face turned to her; he shouted encouragement; he
looked back down the Pass; he spurred his horse. Jane clung on, spurring
likewise. And the horses settled from hard, furious gallop into a
long-striding, driving run. She had never ridden at anything like that
pace; desperately she tried to get the swing of the horse, to be of some
help to him in that race, to see the best of the ground and guide
him into it. But she failed of everything except to keep her seat the
saddle, and to spur and spur. At times she closed her eyes unable to
bear sight of Fay's golden curls streaming in the wind. She could not
pray; she could not rail; she no longer cared for herself. All of life,
of good, of use in the world, of hope in heaven entered in Lassiter's
ride with little Fay to safety. She would have tried to turn the
iron-jawed brute she rode, she would have given herself to that
relentless, dark-browed Tull. But she knew Lassiter would turn with her,
so she rode on and on.
Whether that run was of moments or hours Jane Withersteen could not
tell. Lassiter's horse covered her with froth that blew back in white
streams. Both horses ran their limit, were allowed slow down in time to
save them, and went on dripping, heaving, staggering.
"Oh, Lassiter, we must run—we must run!"
He looked back, saying nothing. The bandage had blown from his head,
and blood trickled down his face. He was bowing under the strain
of injuries, of the ride, of his burden. Yet how cool and gay he
looked—how intrepid!
The horses walked, trotted, galloped, ran, to fall again to walk. Hours
sped or dragged. Time was an instant—an eternity. Jane Withersteen felt
hell pursuing her, and dared not look back for fear she would fall from
her horse.
"Oh, Lassiter! Is he coming?"
The grim rider looked over his shoulder, but said no word. Fay's golden
hair floated on the breeze. The sun shone; the walls gleamed; the sage
glistened. And then it seemed the sun vanished, the walls shaded, the
sage paled. The horses walked—trotted—galloped—ran—to fall again
to walk. Shadows gathered under shelving cliffs. The canyon turned,
brightened, opened into a long, wide, wall-enclosed valley. Again the
sun, lowering in the west, reddened the sage. Far ahead round, scrawled
stone appeared to block the Pass.
"Bear up, Jane, bear up!" called Lassiter. "It's our game, if you don't
"Lassiter! Go on—alone! Save little Fay!"
"Only with you!"
"Oh!—I'm a coward—a miserable coward! I can't fight or think or hope
or pray! I'm lost! Oh, Lassiter, look back! Is he coming? I'll not—hold
"Keep your breath, woman, an' ride not for yourself or for me, but for
A last breaking run across the sage brought Lassiter's horse to a walk.
"He's done," said the rider.
"Oh, no—no!" moaned Jane.
"Look back, Jane, look back. Three—four miles we've come across this
valley, en' no Tull yet in sight. Only a few more miles!"
Jane looked back over the long stretch of sage, and found the narrow gap
in the wall, out of which came a file of dark horses with a white horse
in the lead. Sight of the riders acted upon Jane as a stimulant. The
weight of cold, horrible terror lessened. And, gazing forward at the
dogs, at Lassiter's limping horse, at the blood on his face, at the
rocks growing nearer, last at Fay's golden hair, the ice left her veins,
and slowly, strangely, she gained hold of strength that she believed
would see her to the safety Lassiter promised. And, as she gazed,
Lassiter's horse stumbled and fell.
He swung his leg and slipped from the saddle.
"Jane, take the child," he said, and lifted Fay up. Jane clasped her
arms suddenly strong. "They're gainin'," went on Lassiter, as he watched
the pursuing riders. "But we'll beat 'em yet."
Turning with Jane's bridle in his hand, he was about to start when he
saw the saddle-bag on the fallen horse.
"I've jest about got time," he muttered, and with swift fingers that
did not blunder or fumble he loosened the bag and threw it over his
shoulder. Then he started to run, leading Jane's horse, and he ran, and
trotted, and walked, and ran again. Close ahead now Jane saw a rise of
bare rock. Lassiter reached it, searched along the base, and, finding
a low place, dragged the weary horse up and over round, smooth stone.
Looking backward, Jane saw Tull's white horse not a mile distant, with
riders strung out in a long line behind him. Looking forward, she saw
more valley to the right, and to the left a towering cliff. Lassiter
pulled the horse and kept on.
Little Fay lay in her arms with wide-open eyes—eyes which were still
shadowed by pain, but no longer fixed, glazed in terror. The golden
curls blew across Jane's lips; the little hands feebly clasped her arm;
a ghost of a troubled, trustful smile hovered round the sweet lips. And
Jane Withersteen awoke to the spirit of a lioness.
Lassiter was leading the horse up a smooth slope toward cedar trees of
twisted and bleached appearance. Among these he halted.
"Jane, give me the girl en' get down," he said. As if it wrenched him he
unbuckled the empty black guns with a strange air of finality. He then
received Fay in his arms and stood a moment looking backward. Tull's
white horse mounted the ridge of round stone, and several bays or blacks
followed. "I wonder what he'll think when he sees them empty guns. Jane,
bring your saddle-bag and climb after me."
A glistening, wonderful bare slope, with little holes, swelled up and
up to lose itself in a frowning yellow cliff. Jane closely watched her
steps and climbed behind Lassiter. He moved slowly. Perhaps he was only
husbanding his strength. But she saw drops of blood on the stone, and
then she knew. They climbed and climbed without looking back. Her breast
labored; she began to feel as if little points of fiery steel were
penetrating her side into her lungs. She heard the panting of Lassiter
and the quicker panting of the dogs.
"Wait—here," he said.
Before her rose a bulge of stone, nicked with little cut steps, and
above that a corner of yellow wall, and overhanging that a vast,
ponderous cliff.
The dogs pattered up, disappeared round the corner. Lassiter mounted
the steps with Fay, and he swayed like a drunken man, and he too
disappeared. But instantly he returned alone, and half ran, half slipped
down to her.
Then from below pealed up hoarse shouts of angry men. Tull and several
of his riders had reached the spot where Lassiter had parted with his
"You'll need that breath—mebbe!" said Lassiter, facing downward, with
glittering eyes.
"Now, Jane, the last pull," he went on. "Walk up them little steps. I'll
follow an' steady you. Don't think. Jest go. Little Fay's above. Her
eyes are open. She jest said to me, 'Where's muvver Jane?'"
Without a fear or a tremor or a slip or a touch of Lassiter's hand Jane
Withersteen walked up that ladder of cut steps.
He pushed her round the corner of the wall. Fay lay, with wide staring
eyes, in the shade of a gloomy wall. The dogs waited. Lassiter picked
up the child and turned into a dark cleft. It zigzagged. It widened.
It opened. Jane was amazed at a wonderfully smooth and steep incline
leading up between ruined, splintered, toppling walls. A red haze
from the setting sun filled this passage. Lassiter climbed with slow,
measured steps, and blood dripped from him to make splotches on the
white stone. Jane tried not to step in his blood, but was compelled, for
she found no other footing. The saddle-bag began to drag her down; she
gasped for breath, she thought her heart was bursting. Slower, slower
yet the rider climbed, whistling as he breathed. The incline widened.
Huge pinnacles and monuments of stone stood alone, leaning fearfully.
Red sunset haze shone through cracks where the wall had split. Jane did
not look high, but she felt the overshadowing of broken rims above.
She felt that it was a fearful, menacing place. And she climbed on in
heartrending effort. And she fell beside Lassiter and Fay at the top of
the incline in a narrow, smooth divide.
He staggered to his feet—staggered to a huge, leaning rock that rested
on a small pedestal. He put his hand on it—the hand that had been shot
through—and Jane saw blood drip from the ragged hole. Then he fell.
"Jane—I—can't—do—it!" he whispered.
"Roll the—stone!... All my—life I've loved—to roll stones—en' now
"What of it? You talk strangely. Why roll that stone?"
"I planned to—fetch you here—to roll this stone. See! It'll smash the
crags—loosen the walls—close the outlet!"
As Jane Withersteen gazed down that long incline, walled in by crumbling
cliffs, awaiting only the slightest jar to make them fall asunder,
she saw Tull appear at the bottom and begin to climb. A rider followed
him—another—and another.
"See! Tull! The riders!"
"Yes—they'll get us—now."
"Why? Haven't you strength left to roll the stone?"
"Jane—it ain't that—I've lost my nerve!"
"You!... Lassiter!"
"I wanted to roll it—meant to—but I—can't. Venters's valley is down
behind here. We could—live there. But if I roll the stone—we're shut
in for always. I don't dare. I'm thinkin' of you!"
"Lassiter! Roll the stone!" she cried.
He arose, tottering, but with set face, and again he placed the bloody
hand on the Balancing Rock. Jane Withersteen gazed from him down the
passageway. Tull was climbing. Almost, she thought, she saw his dark,
relentless face. Behind him more riders climbed. What did they mean for
Fay—for Lassiter—for herself?
"Roll the stone!... Lassiter, I love you!"
Under all his deathly pallor, and the blood, and the iron of seared
cheek and lined brow, worked a great change. He placed both hands on the
rock and then leaned his shoulder there and braced his powerful body.
It stirred, it groaned, it grated, it moved, and with a slow grinding,
as of wrathful relief, began to lean. It had waited ages to fall, and
now was slow in starting. Then, as if suddenly instinct with life, it
leaped hurtingly down to alight on the steep incline, to bound more
swiftly into the air, to gather momentum, to plunge into the lofty
leaning crag below. The crag thundered into atoms. A wave of air—a
splitting shock! Dust shrouded the sunset red of shaking rims; dust
shrouded Tull as he fell on his knees with uplifted arms. Shafts and
monuments and sections of wall fell majestically.
From the depths there rose a long-drawn rumbling roar. The outlet to
Deception Pass closed forever.
End of Chapter XXIII This concludes Riders of the Purple Sage
by Zane Grey �