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Riders of the Purple Sage

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The little hamlet, Glaze, a white and green patch in the vast
waste of purple, lay miles down a slope much like the Cottonwoods
slope, only this descended to the west. And miles farther west a
faint green spot marked the location of Stone Bridge. All the
rest of that world was seemingly smooth, undulating sage, with no
ragged lines of canyons to accentuate its wildness.

"Bess, we're safe--we're free!" said Venters. "We're alone on the
sage. We're half way to Sterling."

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

"Never fear, Bess. He'll outwit Tull. He'll get away and hide her
safely. He might climb into Surprise Valley, but I don't think
he'll go so far."

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

"No. But, dear, listen. Well go back some day, after years--ten
years. Then we'll be forgotten. And our valley will be just as we
left it."

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

"I've thought of that. I'll pack in ropes and ropes. And if the
outlet's closed we'll climb up the cliffs and over them to the
valley and go down on rope ladders. It could be done. I know just
where to make the climb, and I'll never forget."

"Oh yes, let us go back!"

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

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

"Elizabeth Erne! It's a beautiful name. But I'll never forget
Bess. Do you know--have you thought that very soon--by this time
to-morrow--you will be Elizabeth Venters?"

So they rode on down the old trail. And the sun sloped to the
west, and a golden sheen lay on the sage. The hours sped now; the
afternoon waned. Often they rested the horses. The glisten of a
pool of water in a hollow caught Venters's eye, and here he
unsaddled the blacks and let them roll and drink and browse. When
he and Bess rode up out of the hollow the sun was low, a crimson
ball, and the valley seemed veiled in purple fire and smoke. It
was that short time when the sun appeared to rest before setting,
and silence, like a cloak of invisible life, lay heavy on all
that shimmering world of sage.

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

"We'll ride on till late," he said. "Then you can sleep a little,
while I watch and graze the horses. And we'll ride into Sterling
early to-morrow. We'll be married!...We'll be in time to catch
the stage. We'll tie Black Star and Night behind--and then--for a
country not wild and terrible like this!"

"Oh, Bern!...But look! The sun is setting on the sage--the last
time for us till we dare come again to the Utah border. Ten
years! Oh, Bern, look, so you will never forget!"

Slumbering, fading purple fire burned over the undulating sage
ridges. Long streaks and bars and shafts and spears fringed the
far western slope. Drifting, golden veils mingled with low,
purple shadows. Colors and shades changed in slow, wondrous
transformation.

Suddenly Venters was startled by a low, rumbling roar--so low
that it was like the roar in a sea-shell.

"Bess, did you hear anything?" he
whispered.

"No."

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

Out of the east or north from remote distance, breathed an
infinitely low, continuously long sound--deep, weird, detonating,
thundering, deadening--dying.

CHAPTER XXIII. THE FALL OF BALANCING ROCK

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 way."

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 interest.

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 blood?"

"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 Lassiter!"

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 sorrow.

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
joy.

"Muvver--Jane!" she whispered.

"Oh, little Fay, little Fay!" cried Jane, lifting, clasping the
child to her.

"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' ride!"

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-stridng, 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 weaken."

"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 out--"

"Keep your breath, woman, an' ride not for yourself or for me,
but for Fay!"

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 guns.

"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.

"What?"

"Roll the--stone!...All my--life I've loved--to roll stones--en'
now I--can't!"

"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.

ROLL THE STONE!

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.

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