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Riders of the Purple Sage

Zane Grey

  Produced by Bill Brewer and Rick Fane


  By Zane Grey


  A sharp clip-crop of iron-shod hoofs deadened and died away, and cloudsof yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over the sage.

  Jane Withersteen gazed down the wide purple slope with dreamy andtroubled eyes. A rider had just left her and it was his message thatheld her thoughtful and almost sad, awaiting the churchmen who werecoming to resent and attack her right to befriend a Gentile.

  She wondered if the unrest and strife that had lately come to thelittle village of Cottonwoods was to involve her. And then she sighed,remembering that her father had founded this remotest border settlementof southern Utah and that he had left it to her. She owned all theground and many of the cottages. Withersteen House was hers, and thegreat ranch, with its thousands of cattle, and the swiftest horses ofthe sage. To her belonged Amber Spring, the water which gave verdureand beauty to the village and made living possible on that wild purpleupland waste. She could not escape being involved by whatever befellCottonwoods.

  That year, 1871, had marked a change which had been gradually comingin the lives of the peace-loving Mormons of the border. Glaze--StoneBridge--Sterling, villages to the north, had risen against theinvasion of Gentile settlers and the forays of rustlers. There had beenopposition to the one and fighting with the other. And now Cottonwoodshad begun to wake and bestir itself and grown hard.

  Jane prayed that the tranquillity and sweetness of her life would not bepermanently disrupted. She meant to do so much more for her people thanshe had done. She wanted the sleepy quiet pastoral days to last always.Trouble between the Mormons and the Gentiles of the community wouldmake her unhappy. She was Mormon-born, and she was a friend to poorand unfortunate Gentiles. She wished only to go on doing good and beinghappy. And she thought of what that great ranch meant to her. She lovedit all--the grove of cottonwoods, the old stone house, the amber-tintedwater, and the droves of shaggy, dusty horses and mustangs, the sleek,clean-limbed, blooded racers, and the browsing herds of cattle and thelean, sun-browned riders of the sage.

  While she waited there she forgot the prospect of untoward change. Thebray of a lazy burro broke the afternoon quiet, and it was comfortinglysuggestive of the drowsy farmyard, and the open corrals, and the greenalfalfa fields. Her clear sight intensified the purple sage-slope as itrolled before her. Low swells of prairie-like ground sloped up tothe west. Dark, lonely cedar-trees, few and far between, stood outstrikingly, and at long distances ruins of red rocks. Farther on, up thegradual slope, rose a broken wall, a huge monument, looming dark purpleand stretching its solitary, mystic way, a wavering line that fadedin the north. Here to the westward was the light and color and beauty.Northward the slope descended to a dim line of canyons from which rosean up-flinging of the earth, not mountainous, but a vast heave of purpleuplands, with ribbed and fan-shaped walls, castle-crowned cliffs, andgray escarpments. Over it all crept the lengthening, waning afternoonshadows.

  The rapid beat of hoofs recalled Jane Withersteen to the question athand. A group of riders cantered up the lane, dismounted, and threwtheir bridles. They were seven in number, and Tull, the leader, a tall,dark man, was an elder of Jane's church.

  "Did you get my message?" he asked, curtly.

  "Yes," replied Jane.

  "I sent word I'd give that rider Venters half an hour to come down tothe village. He didn't come."

  "He knows nothing of it;" said Jane. "I didn't tell him. I've beenwaiting here for you."

  "Where is Venters?"

  "I left him in the courtyard."

  "Here, Jerry," called Tull, turning to his men, "take the gang and fetchVenters out here if you have to rope him."

  The dusty-booted and long-spurred riders clanked noisily into the groveof cottonwoods and disappeared in the shade.

  "Elder Tull, what do you mean by this?" demanded Jane. "If you mustarrest Venters you might have the courtesy to wait till he leaves myhome. And if you do arrest him it will be adding insult to injury. It'sabsurd to accuse Venters of being mixed up in that shooting fray in thevillage last night. He was with me at the time. Besides, he let me takecharge of his guns. You're only using this as a pretext. What do youmean to do to Venters?"

  "I'll tell you presently," replied Tull. "But first tell me why youdefend this worthless rider?"

  "Worthless!" exclaimed Jane, indignantly. "He's nothing of the kind.He was the best rider I ever had. There's not a reason why I shouldn'tchampion him and every reason why I should. It's no little shame to me,Elder Tull, that through my friendship he has roused the enmity of mypeople and become an outcast. Besides I owe him eternal gratitude forsaving the life of little Fay."

  "I've heard of your love for Fay Larkin and that you intend to adopther. But--Jane Withersteen, the child is a Gentile!"

  "Yes. But, Elder, I don't love the Mormon children any less because Ilove a Gentile child. I shall adopt Fay if her mother will give her tome."

  "I'm not so much against that. You can give the child Mormon teaching,"said Tull. "But I'm sick of seeing this fellow Venters hang around you.I'm going to put a stop to it. You've so much love to throw away onthese beggars of Gentiles that I've an idea you might love Venters."

  Tull spoke with the arrogance of a Mormon whose power could not bebrooked and with the passion of a man in whom jealousy had kindled aconsuming fire.

  "Maybe I do love him," said Jane. She felt both fear and anger stir herheart. "I'd never thought of that. Poor fellow! he certainly needs someone to love him."

  "This'll be a bad day for Venters unless you deny that," returned Tull,grimly.

  Tull's men appeared under the cottonwoods and led a young man out intothe lane. His ragged clothes were those of an outcast. But he stood talland straight, his wide shoulders flung back, with the muscles of hisbound arms rippling and a blue flame of defiance in the gaze he bent onTull.

  For the first time Jane Withersteen felt Venters's real spirit. Shewondered if she would love this splendid youth. Then her emotion cooledto the sobering sense of the issue at stake.

  "Venters, will you leave Cottonwoods at once and forever?" asked Tull,tensely.

  "Why?" rejoined the rider.

  "Because I order it."

  Venters laughed in cool disdain.

  The red leaped to Tull's dark cheek.

  "If you don't go it means your ruin," he said, sharply.

  "Ruin!" exclaimed Venters, passionately. "Haven't you already ruined me?What do you call ruin? A year ago I was a rider. I had horses and cattleof my own. I had a good name in Cottonwoods. And now when I come intothe village to see this woman you set your men on me. You hound me. Youtrail me as if I were a rustler. I've no more to lose--except my life."

  "Will you leave Utah?"

  "Oh! I know," went on Venters, tauntingly, "it galls you, the idea ofbeautiful Jane Withersteen being friendly to a poor Gentile. You wanther all yourself. You're a wiving Mormon. You have use for her--andWithersteen House and Amber Spring and seven thousand head of cattle!"

  Tull's hard jaw protruded, and rioting blood corded the veins of hisneck.

  "Once more. Will you go?"


  "Then I'll have you whipped within an inch of your life," replied Tull,harshly. "I'll turn you out in the sage. And if you ever come backyou'll get worse."

  Venters's agitated face grew coldly set and the bronze changed

  Jane impulsively stepped forward. "Oh! Elder Tull!" she cried. "Youwon't do that!"

  Tull lifted a shaking finger toward her.

  "That'll do from you. Understand, you'll not be allowed to hold this boyto a friendship that's offensive to yo
ur Bishop. Jane Withersteen, yourfather left you wealth and power. It has turned your head. You haven'tyet come to see the place of Mormon women. We've reasoned with you,borne with you. We've patiently waited. We've let you have your fling,which is more than I ever saw granted to a Mormon woman. But you haven'tcome to your senses. Now, once for all, you can't have any furtherfriendship with Venters. He's going to be whipped, and he's got to leaveUtah!"

  "Oh! Don't whip him! It would be dastardly!" implored Jane, with slowcertainty of her failing courage.

  Tull always blunted her spirit, and she grew conscious that she hadfeigned a boldness which she did not possess. He loomed up now indifferent guise, not as a jealous suitor, but embodying the mysteriousdespotism she had known from childhood--the power of her creed.

  "Venters, will you take your whipping here or would you rather go outin the sage?" asked Tull. He smiled a flinty smile that was morethan inhuman, yet seemed to give out of its dark aloofness a gleam ofrighteousness.

  "I'll take it here--if I must," said Venters. "But by God!--Tull you'dbetter kill me outright. That'll be a dear whipping for you and yourpraying Mormons. You'll make me another Lassiter!"

  The strange glow, the austere light which radiated from Tull's face,might have been a holy joy at the spiritual conception of exalted duty.But there was something more in him, barely hidden, a something personaland sinister, a deep of himself, an engulfing abyss. As his religiousmood was fanatical and inexorable, so would his physical hate bemerciless.

  "Elder, I--I repent my words," Jane faltered. The religion in her, thelong habit of obedience, of humility, as well as agony of fear, spoke inher voice. "Spare the boy!" she whispered.

  "You can't save him now," replied Tull stridently.

  Her head was bowing to the inevitable. She was grasping the truth,when suddenly there came, in inward constriction, a hardening of gentleforces within her breast. Like a steel bar it was stiffening all thathad been soft and weak in her. She felt a birth in her of something newand unintelligible. Once more her strained gaze sought the sage-slopes.Jane Withersteen loved that wild and purple wilderness. In timesof sorrow it had been her strength, in happiness its beauty was hercontinual delight. In her extremity she found herself murmuring, "Whencecometh my help!" It was a prayer, as if forth from those lonely purplereaches and walls of red and clefts of blue might ride a fearless man,neither creed-bound nor creed-mad, who would hold up a restraining handin the faces of her ruthless people.

  The restless movements of Tull's men suddenly quieted down. Thenfollowed a low whisper, a rustle, a sharp exclamation.

  "Look!" said one, pointing to the west.

  "A rider!"

  Jane Withersteen wheeled and saw a horseman, silhouetted against thewestern sky, coming riding out of the sage. He had ridden down from theleft, in the golden glare of the sun, and had been unobserved till closeat hand. An answer to her prayer!

  "Do you know him? Does any one know him?" questioned Tull, hurriedly.

  His men looked and looked, and one by one shook their heads.

  "He's come from far," said one.

  "Thet's a fine hoss," said another.

  "A strange rider."

  "Huh! he wears black leather," added a fourth.

  With a wave of his hand, enjoining silence, Tull stepped forward in sucha way that he concealed Venters.

  The rider reined in his mount, and with a lithe forward-slippingaction appeared to reach the ground in one long step. It was a peculiarmovement in its quickness and inasmuch that while performing it therider did not swerve in the slightest from a square front to the groupbefore him.

  "Look!" hoarsely whispered one of Tull's companions. "He packs twoblack-butted guns--low down--they're hard to see--black akin them blackchaps."

  "A gun-man!" whispered another. "Fellers, careful now about movin' yourhands."

  The stranger's slow approach might have been a mere leisurely manner ofgait or the cramped short steps of a rider unused to walking; yet, aswell, it could have been the guarded advance of one who took no chanceswith men.

  "Hello, stranger!" called Tull. No welcome was in this greeting only agruff curiosity.

  The rider responded with a curt nod. The wide brim of a black sombrerocast a dark shade over his face. For a moment he closely regarded Tulland his comrades, and then, halting in his slow walk, he seemed torelax.

  "Evenin', ma'am," he said to Jane, and removed his sombrero with quaintgrace.

  Jane, greeting him, looked up into a face that she trusted instinctivelyand which riveted her attention. It had all the characteristics ofthe range rider's--the leanness, the red burn of the sun, and the setchangelessness that came from years of silence and solitude. But it wasnot these which held her, rather the intensity of his gaze, a strainedweariness, a piercing wistfulness of keen, gray sight, as if the manwas forever looking for that which he never found. Jane's subtle woman'sintuition, even in that brief instant, felt a sadness, a hungering, asecret.

  "Jane Withersteen, ma'am?" he inquired.

  "Yes," she replied.

  "The water here is yours?"


  "May I water my horse?"

  "Certainly. There's the trough."

  "But mebbe if you knew who I was--" He hesitated, with his glance onthe listening men. "Mebbe you wouldn't let me water him--though I ain'taskin' none for myself."

  "Stranger, it doesn't matter who you are. Water your horse. And if youare thirsty and hungry come into my house."

  "Thanks, ma'am. I can't accept for myself--but for my tired horse--"

  Trampling of hoofs interrupted the rider. More restless movements onthe part of Tull's men broke up the little circle, exposing the prisonerVenters.

  "Mebbe I've kind of hindered somethin'--for a few moments, perhaps?"inquired the rider.

  "Yes," replied Jane Withersteen, with a throb in her voice.

  She felt the drawing power of his eyes; and then she saw him look at thebound Venters, and at the men who held him, and their leader.

  "In this here country all the rustlers an' thieves an' cut-throatsan' gun-throwers an' all-round no-good men jest happen to be Gentiles.Ma'am, which of the no-good class does that young feller belong to?"

  "He belongs to none of them. He's an honest boy."

  "You KNOW that, ma'am?"


  "Then what has he done to get tied up that way?"

  His clear and distinct question, meant for Tull as well as for JaneWithersteen, stilled the restlessness and brought a momentary silence.

  "Ask him," replied Jane, her voice rising high.

  The rider stepped away from her, moving out with the same slow, measuredstride in which he had approached, and the fact that his action placedher wholly to one side, and him no nearer to Tull and his men, had apenetrating significance.

  "Young feller, speak up," he said to Venters.

  "Here stranger, this's none of your mix," began Tull. "Don't try anyinterference. You've been asked to drink and eat. That's more than you'dhave got in any other village of the Utah border. Water your horse andbe on your way."

  "Easy--easy--I ain't interferin' yet," replied the rider. The tone ofhis voice had undergone a change. A different man had spoken. Where, inaddressing Jane, he had been mild and gentle, now, with his first speechto Tull, he was dry, cool, biting. "I've lest stumbled onto a queerdeal. Seven Mormons all packin' guns, an' a Gentile tied with a rope,an' a woman who swears by his honesty! Queer, ain't that?"

  "Queer or not, it's none of your business," retorted Tull.

  "Where I was raised a woman's word was law. I ain't quite outgrowed thatyet."

  Tull fumed between amaze and anger.

  "Meddler, we have a law here something different from woman'swhim--Mormon law!... Take care you don't transgress it."

  "To hell with your Mormon law!"

  The deliberate speech marked the rider's further change, this time fromkindly interest to an awakening menace. It produced a transformation inTu
ll and his companions. The leader gasped and staggered backward ata blasphemous affront to an institution he held most sacred. The manJerry, holding the horses, dropped the bridles and froze in his tracks.Like posts the other men stood watchful-eyed, arms hanging rigid, allwaiting.

  "Speak up now, young man. What have you done to be roped that way?"

  "It's a damned outrage!" burst out Venters. "I've done no wrong. I'veoffended this Mormon Elder by being a friend to that woman."

  "Ma'am, is it true--what he says?" asked the rider of Jane, but hisquiveringly alert eyes never left the little knot of quiet men.

  "True? Yes, perfectly true," she answered.

  "Well, young man, it seems to me that bein' a friend to such a womanwould be what you wouldn't want to help an' couldn't help.... What's tobe done to you for it?"

  "They intend to whip me. You know what that means--in Utah!"

  "I reckon," replied the rider, slowly.

  With his gray glance cold on the Mormons, with the restive bit-champingof the horses, with Jane failing to repress her mounting agitations,with Venters standing pale and still, the tension of the momenttightened. Tull broke the spell with a laugh, a laugh without mirth, alaugh that was only a sound betraying fear.

  "Come on, men!" he called.

  Jane Withersteen turned again to the rider.

  "Stranger, can you do nothing to save Venters?"

  "Ma'am, you ask me to save him--from your own people?"

  "Ask you? I beg of you!"

  "But you don't dream who you're askin'."

  "Oh, sir, I pray you--save him!"

  "These are Mormons, an' I..."

  "At--at any cost--save him. For I--I care for him!"

  Tull snarled. "You love-sick fool! Tell your secrets. There'll be a wayto teach you what you've never learned.... Come men out of here!"

  "Mormon, the young man stays," said the rider.

  Like a shot his voice halted Tull.


  "Who'll keep him? He's my prisoner!" cried Tull, hotly. "Stranger, againI tell you--don't mix here. You've meddled enough. Go your way now or--"

  "Listen!... He stays."

  Absolute certainty, beyond any shadow of doubt, breathed in the rider'slow voice.

  "Who are you? We are seven here."

  The rider dropped his sombrero and made a rapid movement, singular inthat it left him somewhat crouched, arms bent and stiff, with the bigblack gun-sheaths swung round to the fore.


  It was Venters's wondering, thrilling cry that bridged the fatefulconnection between the rider's singular position and the dreaded name.

  Tull put out a groping hand. The life of his eyes dulled to the gloomwith which men of his fear saw the approach of death. But death, whileit hovered over him, did not descend, for the rider waited for thetwitching fingers, the downward flash of hand that did not come. Tull,gathering himself together, turned to the horses, attended by his palecomrades.