(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Riders of the Purple Sage begins in Cottonwoods, a little Utah border settlement where life is made possible by Amber Spring, belonging to Jane Withersteen. Although her father has left her a fortune and she owns most of Cottonwoods, her fellow Mormons, led by the evil Bishop Dyer and Elder Tull, try to dominate her. They especially dislike her friendship with Berne Venters, a young rider who does not share their faith. When they attempt to whip Venters and drive him out of Utah, Jim Lassiter, a Texas gunfighter, intervenes.

For years, Lassiter has been searching for his sister, Millie Erne, spirited away from her husband by Mormons. He now learns she is dead and vows to wreak vengeance upon the Mormon who ruined her life. Jane has taken in a non-Mormon orphan girl named Fay Larkin. She has continued her friendship with Venters and is romantically drawn to Lassiter. Elder Tull—who wants to make Jane one of his wives—Bishop Dyer, and their accomplices attempt to break Jane’s spirit by stampeding her cattle and intimidating her riders. She hires Lassiter to ride for her but attempts to discourage his use of violence.

A gang of rustlers, under the leadership of the outlaw Oldring, is operating in the area. One member of Oldring’s band never appears without disguise and is known only as the “masked rider.” On the range, Venters comes upon Oldring and his rustlers, one of whom is the masked rider. Oldring escapes beneath a canyon wall, but Venters shoots two of his companions, killing one rustler and wounding the masked rider. He discovers to his amazement that the masked rider is a girl named Bess. He nurses her for several weeks, during which time he falls in love with her. Later, the young lovers discover a hidden valley, which Venters names Surprise Valley. The entrance is guarded by a great balancing rock, probably put there by some ancient peoples. Venters and Bess...

(The entire section is 782 words.)