Jane Withersteen represents the force of established legal and religious law in Cottonwoods. From the beginning, Zane Grey describes the characteristics of Jane, "Trouble between the Mormons and the Gentiles of the community would make her unhappy… Jane prayed that the tranquility and sweetness of her life would not be permanently disrupted". This identifies her as a lover of tranquility and peace, topics that seemed foreign to the other Mormons in 1871, a time of change when the Mormon communities struggled against the invasion of Gentilesettlers and the forays of rustlers.
Likewise, Jane’s wealth has made her stubborn in her efforts to preserve the peace, which on several occasions lack logic and common sense. This is evident in her effort to disarm Lassiter despite her knowledge that he is persecuted by her townsmen, as well as her intent to relinquish her struggle and consent to marry Tull when the peace is on the verge of breaking. Lassiter had said, "The blindness I mean is blindness that keeps you from seein' the truth. I've known many good Mormons. But some are blacker than hell. You won't see that even when you know it". Nonetheless, she is able to understand, in theend, the importance of questioning the authority of her spiritual guides, that misdeeds can be hidden in a disguise of goodness, and that violence is sometimes required in the absence of established law.
Throughout the story her perception of family changes, as she is able to acknowledge the wrongs committed by her father, and is able to speak more candidly about the guilt of her Elders to Lassiter. "Truly, Dyer ruined Milly Erne—dragged her from her home—to Utah—to Cottonwoods. But it was for my father! Blind I may be ... 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". After her tribulations, Jane also loses her vanity; in the beginning, she "cared most for the dream and the assurance and the allurement of her beauty ... Hordes of Mormon and Gentile suitors had fanned the flame of natural vanity in her". This transformation eventually allows her to abandon her townsmen and many Mormon customs,and in the end, she is left only with the two Gentiles—Lassiter and Fay Larkin—that constitute her new family.
"Jim" Lassiter symbolically enters the story as an answer to Jane’s prayer to spare Bern Venters of his fate. "She found herself murmuring, 'Whence cometh my help!' It was a prayer, as if forth from those lonely purple reaches 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 hand in the faces of her ruthless people". Lassiter’s black clothing represents his personality as an anti-hero. He is thus similar to the depictions of Shane and Zorro in later works and closely presages Chris in The Magnificent Seven. His act of saving Venters and his other characteristics (e.g., watering his horse before allowing himself to drink, honorable treatment of Jane, and frankness in honestly revealing his identity) quickly affirm his status as an enigmatic protagonist.
Zane Grey describes him as a gentle-voiced, sad-faced man who was a hater and killer of Mormons; together, these characteristics appear to be a paradox for the people around him. He is in his late thirties, and he has spent nearly half of his life riding into the West in search of his proselyte sister Milly Erne, who was forced to abandon her family and join the Mormon sect under the influence of Bishop Dyer and the elder Withersteen. Due to this tragedy and his experience as a gunman in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska, Lassiter showed no compassion to the Mormons that he deemed to be guilty but treated all others, like Jane Withersteen, with respect.
Nonetheless, he continues to doubt the Mormon way of life, and believes that its teachings are constructed from mal-intent. When Jane tells him, "The men of my creed have been driven in hate, up until they've become cruel, but we women pray for the time when their hearts will soften", he responds, "That time will never come". The disdain for Mormonism is social, instead of religious, in nature. Lassiter says, "These Mormons ain't just right in their minds. Else could a Mormon marry one woman when he already has a wife, an' call it duty?” Indeed, Lassiter takes little heed of religion but follows his own system of values that places his dedication for justice/vengeance above all other things. This system is briefly disrupted by his love for Jane, but when Fay Larkin is abducted by the Mormon Elders, he regains his dedication andkills Bishop Dyer. His dedication toward his work is also shown when he single-handedly saves Jane's stampeding White Herd.
Elizabeth "Bess" Erne is Milly Erne’s daughter and Lassiter’s niece, whom Oldring had sheltered for nearly two decades under the terms of a business deal with the Mormon Elders. She possesses more of a Western personality than her companion Bern Venters, having been born in Texas and raised by cattle rustlers. She also became themost skillful equestrian in the region after Jerry Card’s death. While riding was enjoyable for her, she loved stability the most. When Venters asks her of her history, she says, "As long as I can remember I’ve been locked up there at times, and those times were the only happy ones I ever had.It’s a big cabin high up on a cliff, and I could look out. Then I had dogs and pets I had tamed, and books. There was a spring inside, and food stored, and the men brought me fresh meat. Once I was there one whole winter".
Elizabeth brings optimism to the story and helps Zane Grey emphasize that men are easily changed by women; through Jane’s influence, Lassiter became more peaceful, and through Elizabeth’s company, Venters becomes more human. He realizes, "We can’t be any higher in the things for which life is lived at all…. relationship, friendship—love". Throughout the novel, Elizabeth remains very static when compared tothe other protagonists, and she only changes psychologically to accommodate the new love that she has for Venters. Even after recovering from her wounds, she appears very submissive to Venters while her personality remains childlike (e.g. fear of thunder even though she has lived in the West for all her life, regard for most of Venters' schemes with enthusiasm, etc.). Even after she learns that Venters had killed Oldring, the man who had protected her, she quickly forgives him for the mere reason that Oldring was not her biological father.
Nonetheless, through love for Venters and freedom from the rustlers, Elizabeth does learn more about herself, "I’ve discovered myself—too. I’m young—I’m alive—I’m so full—oh! I’m a woman!” The change is physical as well, "She no longer resembled a boy. No eye could have failed to mark the rounded contours of a woman". Though she had been raised by rustlers, her innocence and love for Venters allows her to join the list of the novel’s protagonists. At the end of the story, she again expresses her spirit as a Western woman who is saddened to enter civilization, "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… Oh, Bern, look, so you will never forget!”
Bern Venters is Jane’s young Gentile rider who also embodies some traits of the Western hero and lives by his own code of honor. He and Lassiter share many parallels, and Venters is eager to learn from and follow the famous gunman, but Venters' history is essentially in the East. He reveals his own respect of animals, which is often a protagonist trait, through favors for his dogs, Ring and Whitie. "Whitie watched him with somber eyes of love, and Ring, crouched on the little rise of ground above, kept tireless guard. When the sun rose, the white dog took the place of the other, and Ring went to sleep at his master’s feet". He displays his chivalrous code when he shoots Oldring’s Masked Rider and nurses her back to health upon discovering that the rider was a female. Venters is described to stand tall and straight with a "blue flame of defiance" in his eyes.
To readers, Venters has been persecuted and ruined with his people by the Mormons. From the start, his anger with Tull is apparent, "Haven't you already ruined me? What do you call ruin? A year ago I was a rider. I had horses and cattle of my own. I had a good name in Cottonwoods. And now when I come into the village to see this woman you set your men on me. You hound me. You trail me as if I were a rustler. I've no more to lose—except my life". Although he has been protected and sheltered by Jane and later Lassiter, his people, whom the Mormons classify as "nonbelievers", are left impoverished and uneducated. The Mormon Elders eliminate all opportunities for the Gentiles to rise to prosperity, and they thwart Jane’s efforts to bring equality into the region.
Venters' relationship with Bess transforms his personality. At the start of the novel, he claims that his "position is not a happy one", saying, "I can’t feel right—I’ve lost all… I mean loss of good-will, good name—that which would have enabled me to stand up in this village without bitterness. Well, it's too late ...” After loving Bess, he regains his determination and confidence. Of this Grey writes, "He climbed a great yellow rockraising its crest among the spruces, and there he sat down to face the valley and the west. 'I love her!’ Aloud he spoke—unburdened his heart—confessed his secret. For an instant the golden valley swam before his eyes, and the walls waved, and all about him whirled with tumult within. 'I loveher! I understand now.'”
Bishop Dyer is a corrupt Mormon minister who shows that fallibility of religion in a lawless society. Lassiter described the situation with anger, "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". Instead, religion has become an excuse for exercising tyrannous power. In the story, Dyeroperates the "invisible hand", representing the law of the region, and assuming a position similar to Fletcher’s in Shane.
Dyer is physically described to possess a stern demeanor, "The Bishop was rather tall, of stout build, with iron-gray hair and beard, and eyes of light blue. They were merry now; but Jane had seen them when they were not, and then she feared him as she had feared her father". As a bishop, he practices plural marriage; despite already having several wives, he informs Jane of his own intent to marry her if Tull did not. All of Cottonwoods' Mormons were taught to love and revere the bishop investing alls of their "religious fidelity" and "acceptance of mysterious and holy Mormon truths" in him. As a result, he was valued as an "entity ... next to God. He was God’s mouthpiece to the little Mormon community… God revealed himself in secret to this mortal".
Bishop Dyer is also known to have fallible characteristics, sometimes "forgetting the minister in the fury of a common man". With his authority, he could declare any person a heretic, and with the threat of excommunication from the Mormon sect (causing them to "face the damning of [their] soul to perdition"), force them to act in ways that would benefit the Mormon Council. To Jane he had said, "Remember, you're a born Mormon. There have been Mormons who turned heretic—damn their souls!—but no born Mormon ever left us yet". Despite his transgressions, Dyer was a true believer of his faith, but according to Judkins, he had realized the weight of his wrongs too late to find salvation.
Elder Tull is another member of the Mormon Council who utilizes the "invisible hand" against those such as Jane Withersteen who rebelled against the Mormon faith. As a character, Tull is portrayed cowardly. Ideologically, he is an "empire builder", but physically, he relies on strength in numbers, and he is unable to face Lassiter or Venters alone. His cowardly demeanor is shown early in the story, when he, with the help of seven others, threaten to beat Venters. Yet, despite their superiority in numbers, they flee at the sight of Lassiter. Instead, Tull, who has been "in love with [Jane] for years", uses his authority to attempt to convince her to marry him or risk damnation. His goal is to control her inherited wealth and prevent it from being used to aid the region’s impoverished Gentiles.
In Grey’s descriptions, he said of Tull, "[He] spoke with the arrogance of a Mormon whose power could not be brooked and with the passion of a man in whom jealousy had kindled a consuming fire". Like Dyer, Tull is able to use his power for his selfish needs "[Tull] loomed up now in different guise, not as a jealous suitor, but embodying the mysterious despotism she had known from childhood—the power of her creed". Dyer and Tull both remain unchanged in the story, being representations of unredeemable evil in Cottonwoods. However, Tull is presented even more lowly than Dyer. Where Dyer had calmness, Tull possessed reckless and violent rage.
In a literary perspective, Tull represents a pestilence that cannot be avoided. Jane Withersteen constantly reminds Lassiter and Venters to avoid Tull in order to prevent violence. However, stereotypical of a Western, readers understand that either Jane’s words will one day be ignored by Lassiter and Venters, or Jane one day will change her position regarding the topic to facilitate for the deaths of Dyer and Tull in a final showdown. By the end of the novel, both Elders had been killed by Lassiter—who ignored Jane’s pleas to kill Dyer, andwho obeyed her command to "roll the stone" to kill Tull—who reaffirms his position as the Western hero who carries out his own forms of justice.
Oldring, rustlers, et al. rustled cattle and aided the Mormon Elders in their "invisible hand" campaigns. Therefore, they acted as antagonists by creating obstacles for the protagonists. In this respect, Oldring’s rustlers resemble hired mercenaries, whose existences are only tolerated due to their willingness to act for the Mormon Elders. In short, the Elders allow the rustlers to inhabit the valleys and steal cattle from nearby villages, a disguise for their living off the gold in the streams, in return for action against rebellious persons. This act, in itself, reveals corruption on the part of the Mormon Elders, as their actions cause them to victimize the only people wealthy enough to possess cattle: the Mormon followers of their own faith.
Those oblivious to the invisible hand speak of Oldring with anger, "For years my riders have trailed the tracks of stolen cattle. You know as well as I how dearly we've paid for our ranges in this wild country. Oldring drives our cattle down into the network of deceiving canyons, and somewhere far to the north or east he drives them up and out to Utah markets". Similar to the other antagonists in the novel, the rustlers do not change their lifestyle or their ideology. The only disruption of their social order occurs when Oldring, Dyer, and Tull are killed. Despite this, readers do not learn the impact that these events had on the rustlers. It is assumed that the institution of cattle rustling will continue in the region until it becomes civilized with a legitimate government.
The final twist in plot regarding the rustlers is Oldring’s capability of honor and pity, "[Bess] was the rustler's nameless daughter. Oldring had loved her. He had so guarded her, so kept her from women and men and knowledge of life that her mind was as a child's. That was part of the secret—part of the mystery. That was the wonderful truth". Yet, Oldring’s sudden death creates guilt in Venters for his rash murder and shrouds forever the human characteristics of Oldring.