A CATTLE KING’S ROMANCE
BERTRAND W. SINCLAIR
JOHNNY FEE and Pete Malone jogged along the pair of wheel-tracks which passed for a trail from Big Sandy to points east and south. They had been in town. They had looked on the wine when it was red. They had played a little poker. Now they were headed for the Cross Seven round-up, lying inactive on a creek below the home ranch. They rode in silence. It was hot. They were in the midst of an arid stretch where grass was sparse, sagebrush thin; on a flat where jackrabbits were said to pack a canteen of water when they crossed its twenty-mile breadth. The Bear Paw Mountains loomed ten miles south east. In the clear thin air that ten miles seemed but a hop, skip, and a jump. Shade and cold water, and the restful green of pine timber were in those hills, which rose abruptly out of the gray-green level of the Montana plains.
Ephraim B. Marks didn't exactly appreciate being put in irons for a matter of six weeks or so but the experience taught him a thing or two about shackles. It would have been rather awkward, however, if Johnny Fee's remedial measures had not been based on a correct diagnosis.
As they topped a low rise a rider came trotting toward them leading a packhorse. They met, exchanged greetings. The rider was young, long-limbed. Besides the usual cowpuncher’s garb, he wore a troubled expression on a face that was otherwise pleasant to look at, because it had a pair of very blue eyes, a straight, fine-nostrilled nose, and a mouth made for smiling. He nodded to Pete, flicked his head sidewise to Johnny Fee and said:
“Step your horse over here. I want to augur with you.” Pete Malone stared off across the burned earth for a minute. Then his gaze returned to the others. Joe Mullen was talking. Johnny Fee listened, nodding occasionally. Pete noted gestures. He grew curious as to why Joe Mullen, range boss of the Cross Sèven, should be riding townward with his private horses and his bed packed and that peculiar tensity in his manner. If Pete had been a mule instead of a man he would certainly have pricked up his ears when he saw Johnny Fee unbuckle his gunbelt and pass it over to Joe, who belted the armament about his own hips. He saw them shake hands. Mullen loped away.
r>ETE sidled his mount over beside Johnny Fee. *■ Johnny sat sidewise in his saddle staring after the two dark objects whose hoofs unrolled a wavering banner of whitish dust across an alkali flat. Johnny’s eye had a speculative cast.
“What’s up?” Pete inquired. “Has Joe quit the Cross Seven? Looks like he reckoned on meetin’ up with a ferocious ground squirrel that he borrowed your gun.” “Curiosity killed the cat, Peter,” Johnny Fee replied.
“Oh, well,” Pete shrugged his shoulders. “Tain’t my business.”
• Johnny rested both hands on his saddle-horn.
“I wonder who’ll be wagon-boss, now?” he murmured.
Pete waited. He knew Johnny Fee’s whimsical way.
“Once upon a time,” Johnny said after a minute in his slow drawling voice, “in a country where they grew both cows and corn there was a cowman named Potiphar and Potiphar had a wife. Potiphar was the biggest cattle owner in the country. His stock ranged in a big valley that was a great grazing place except that it flooded like blazes every spring. Old Potiphar run a brand called the Pyramid. They say all his riders had silver mounted rigs and thought a heap of themselves.
“Anyway old Pot had a top hand name of Joe something or other. Joe was a humdinger. He could ride anything that stood on four legs and he savvied handling stock. Old Potiphar thought a heap of him. He’d been on the Pyramid range, Joe had, ever since he was a kid and skipped out from home to be a cowboy.
“Potiphar likewise had a wife. He was old, and the Missus was young—and a high-stepper. Potiphar had picked her up on a trip east to some big city. Joe was young, too, but he was no high-stepper. At least not the way Mrs. Potiphar wanted him to be. So she got sore at him giving her the cold shoulder that way. What is it the Good Book says: Pete: ‘Hell holds no fury like woman scorned.’ ”
“Talk sense,” Pete grunted.
Johnny Fee sifted flakes of tobacco into a brown paper, and continued.
“So Mrs. Potiphar got boilin’ mad. Maybe Josephus didn’t cotton to her because hi had his eye on a girl that didn’t have no husband. I dos’t know. I wasn’t there myself when this happened. But the story goes that Mrs. Potiphar comes surging up to Old Man Potiphar one day and tells him this top cowhand of his had got fresh with her and was he going to let a defenceless female be insulted by any common puncher that took the notion?
“And old Potiphar, not bein’ so handy with a .45 as he used to be, give Joseph twenty-four hours to leave the country. But while Joe’s getting ready to drift, Old Potiphar frames up a story that Joe’s been rustling calves on the Pyramid range and has him throwed into the county jail, where he languishes a long time and has some queer dreams.”
The August sun beat down on them. The low rise on
AS THEY rode, the hills drew nearer. Sagebrush gave way to short buffalo grass. The brown mat of this merged into bunchgrass that stood like a wheat field prime for the reaper. They slowed to a walk in the rolling hills, came to a trickle of water on a bed of gravel, dismounted and drank.
The foothills ended abruptly against a mountain slope cleft by a wide-floored canyon. The sides of this were clothed by lodge-pole pine. The flat bottom was carpeted with rich grass. Willows bordered a murmuring stream. Turning a sharp bend Johnny and Pete came into camp and unsaddled.
The chuck-wagon was drawn up beside the creek. The bed-tent loomed white beside the other wagon. Two hundred saddle-horses grazed under the horse-wrangler’s eye, to the music of tinkling bells. Eph Marks' round-up crew loafed about the camp, ears cocked for the supper call. A fancy buggy stood near. The lively sorrel trotters that habitually drew it were tied to a wagon wheel. On a rolled-up bed in the shade of the chuck-wagon sat Mrs. Ephraim Marks, her hands idle in her lap, looking straight ahead with dark eyes fixed on something remote, unseen Her elderly husband stood talking to one of his riders.
Johnny Fee looked at his boss with a mild wonder— which had stirred other men in times gone by and caused them to arrive at unwarranted conclusions. It was a
which they had stopped their horses stood like a small island, yellow with withered grass, in a sea of sparse sagebrush flowing interminably across alkali flats. Pete ran his tongue over parched lips and lookedlongingly at the Bear Paws.
“You’re crazy with the heat,” said he. “Let’s ride. I’m chokin’ for a cold drink.”
They bore on toward the mountains, rode half a mile in silence.
“What was you drivin’ at?” Pete demanded irritably. “You’re like the fellow who couldn’t read,” Johnny laughed. “You need pictures with a story.”
“You’re gettin’ at somethin’,” Pete complained. “Untangle yourself out of all them words.”
“Did you never read the Bible, Pete?” Johnny asked.
Pete shook his head.
Johnny rode another hundred yards. A frown appeared on his youthful, sun-browned face. “Marks fired Joe to-day,” he said. “And he went farther. He give Joe twenty-four hours to leave the country. The trouble is all over that black-eyed heifer old Marks was fool enough to marry two years ago. She’s half-stuck on Joe. Has been. Everybody in the outfit has noticed it. I’ve seen her making plays at him myself. Joe’s side-stepped her consistent. He ain’t got eyes for nobody but that Santerre girl. So this jealous female has sicced old man Marks onto him with some cock-and-bull story which the old fool took serious. You know what’ll happen. Either he'll kill Joe, or Joe’ll kill him, first time they meet—or old Marks’ll decide it ain’t wmrth gun-play, and cook up some sort of deal to make it so Joe can’t stay in this country. It’s a case of Potiphar’s wife.”
Pete ruminated on this awhile.
“Maybe so,” said he. “I don’t know how you know ali this except Joe told you, an’ there’s two sides to every story, they say. I know it ain’t healthy for you to make no such breaks about old man Marks and young Mrs. Marks an’ Joe Mullen.”
“I don’t have to worry about my health,” Johnny returned moodily. “But I was partners with Joe Mullen when w'e come to this country, two owd-headed kids together. I don’t like this Mrs. Potiphar mix-up. Joe’s too square a hombre to get that sort of deal.”
“Let ’er slide,” Pete counseled. “It’s bad policy to horn into domestic squabbles.”
Johnny Fee snorted at this very practical suggestion.
natural query which arose in the mind of a man beholding Mr. Marks for the first time: how could so inoffensivelooking, indeed so ineffectual-looking, a person as Ephraim B. Marks be the sort of individual his wealth, prestige and reputation attested him to be?
Old Eph had cut a sizable swath all the way from Texas to Montana. As a youth of twenty he had punched cows for the Cross Seven in the south. Now he owned the Cross Seven, and a goodly slice of Northern Montana besides. Men had stepped on Eph's toes, physically, financially, gone up against bim in contest for cattle, water, range control, power in various forms, sometimes for no reason at all except pure cussedness. Most of them were still wondering how it happened, and one or two never had time to wonder about anything—and old Eph Marks at fifty-nine was still hale and going strong.
Johnny scrutinized him with a renewed interest in the light of what Joe Mullen had told him that day. He saw a comparatively small man who looked his age, whose back and shoulders were bent a trifle from years leaning over a saddle-horn. Old Eph’s face was thin, his graying hair was thin; so was his curved nose, and his mouth was a tight-lipped slit eternally nursing a cigarette or the stub of a cigar. Only his eyes betokened the quality that had made him a cattle king with a few respectful enemies and a score of riders who served him with fanatical devotion. Old Ephraim Marks’ eyes were bright and keen. They could burn like coals or twinkle with deep, inner amusement. Yet when he chose to draw the curtain of expression he had the best poker face north of Texas and west of the corn states.
He turned now as Johnny Fee drew near.
“Where in hell you been this last three days?” he demanded.
Johnny stopped dead in his tracks. The tone was harsh, not to say belligerent. Between roundups, short of an allotted task, a cowpuncher’s time was his own. He came and went as he pleased, gave no account of his comings and goings. In his work he was judged by results, not by hours on the job. And cattlemen and range-bosses, at all times and places spoke softly to their cowpunchers, even in anger. It was not only a custom of the range, but a necessity in dealing with highspirited voung men who nursed a keen sense of personal dignity.
Johnny Fee could scarcely believe his ears.
“Were you speaking to me?” he inquired politely.
“Did it sound like I was talkin’ to myself?” Marks growled.
“I thought maybe you were singing a tune,” Johnny retorted. He took a couple of steps nearer. He had forgotten for the moment that his gun was belted about Joe Mullen’s midriff. “It sounded like you wanted somebody to dance for you. I got two Methodist feet, myself.”
They matched glances for two seconds. Johnny’s face had gone red and then white under the coat of tan. It looked to Johnny as if old Eph was picking on him, and he was properly resentful. Then the old cowman’s scowling face cleared, became expressionless, became an elderly mask. He turned to the man he had been speaking with.
“Pay him off an’ let him go,” he jerked his head toward Johnny Fee and stalked away.
“Joe Mullen was wagon-boss when I went to town,” Johnny addressed his fellow puncher.
“Now you seem to be doin’ the act, eh?”
“Temporary,” the rider answered gravely. "Damn temporary, if he horns in like this again. If I run the Cross Seven I’ll do my own hirin’ an’ firin’—even if he does sign the checks. I don’t like to pay you off, Johnny, but you see how it is. It’s an order.”
“Gosh, I wouldn’t turn another cow for him if his tongue was stickin’ out a foot, after bein’ bawled at like that,” Johnny said indignantly. “So don’t let that worry you, Tom. Give me my time and I’ll hit the trail as soon as I eat and catch my own horses.”
JOHNNY turned toward the cook-tent. His gaze came to rest on Mrs. Ephraim Marks and if Johnny had known less about her he might have mustered up a smile to match the one she gave him—it was so sympathetic. Mrs. Marks had a magnificent pair of large dark eyes which she knew how to use. Johnny couldn’t deny her an imperious, high-colored sort of beauty. She was hardly thirty. Married to fifty-nine! Johnny wouldn’t have blamed her in the least for liking Joe Mullen either wisely or well—if she hadn’t lied to her husband and deliberately got young Joe into what was apt to be real trouble. “Mrs. Potiphar—darn her soul!” was what popped into Johnny Fee’s mind.
And then something in the woman’s smile and attitude illuminated Johnny’s mind like a flash of lightning making a landscape brilliant against the black of night. So that instead of continuing on into the chuck-tent he sat down beside her on the bed-roll. Johnny was not shy of either men or women, good or bad. His eyes were still snapping from his brief encounter with the lady’s husband.
“Too bad that you have to lose your job,” she said in a discreet tone, “just because Mr. Marks happens to be sore about something else.”
“Country’s full of jobs,” Johnny said peevishly. “What riles me is him yelping at me like I was somebody’s sheep-dog.”
He looked at her intently, looked as fierce as he knew how.
“For two pins I’d make you a widow,” he whispered with well-simulated viciousness.
Mrs. Marks looked at him, looked down at the ground. Her brown eyes came back to Johnny’s, dilating a trifle. “I don’t knpw that I’d mind,” she murmured.
Johnny hitched himself a little nearer.
“He’s old and homely and he’s got one foot in the grave
and I don’t like him nohow,” he whispered spitefully. “Nobody can talk to me like that and get away with it. I could make it a clear case of self-defence.”
“I could be mighty nice to a nice boy like you,” Mrs. Marks breathed, “—if I was free.”
“What’s a black crepe bonnet worth, anyhow?” Johnnv asked casually.
Her face seemed to glow with a'sudden eagerness. One of her hands closed momentarily into a small whiteknuckled fist.
“I never bought one,” she confessed. “Still, I think
one—that I could wear—would be cheap at—well a
“Can I depend on that? If I brought you one, one of these days, could I collect?” Johnny fixed her with his eye, and a frown.
“Yes, yes,” she whispered with a savage tensity. “I’d pay that. I promise. Cross my heart and hope to die.”
She made a quick sign over her breast.
“It’s a go,” Johnny said crisply. “I’m hitting the trail soon as I eat. I’ll play four aces when I get in the game You watch my smoke. Mum’s the word.”
She gave him a last glance in which fear and hope and eagerness mingled, as Johnny rose in answer to the racket made by the cook with an iron spoon and a dishpan.
Late that night Johnny Fee rode back into the town he had quitted only that morning. He led a packhorse bearing all his worldly goods. With his livestock stabled he sought Joe Mullen. Big Sandy could be covered by an active man in the space of ten minutes. He found Joe playing solitaire in the Exchange saloon. His hat was pulled down over his eyes. He occupied a strategic position in one corner, whence he commanded both the front door and the back. For a healthy young man with curly hair and an engaging countenance Joe didn’t seem happy. Johnny remarked the absence of artillery.
“Ain’t you organized?” said he. “Where’s my gun?”
War-bag,” Joe replied. “Bought me a new one. She’s tucked inside the waistband of my pants. I don’t aim to be slaughtered without resistance.”
S pose you and me quit this neck of the woods altogether, Johnny observed cheerfully.
Uh-uh, said he. “I never was a gun-toter, and I never burned no powder in personal combat. But no hatchetfaced old rannie’s goin’ to put me on the run for a—a—” Mullen failed to find a term suitable to Mrs. Ephraim Marks.
Then she goes as she lays for the present,” Johnny remarked. “So come along with me while I get something to eat. I got an idea.”
“Ideas is some people’s downfall,” Joe commented. “As well as lack of ’em. I’d like to know what that Jezebel’s idea was.”
Johnny Fee’s idea met with complete disapproval as he unfolded it over a cold, pickup meal in a hotel where food outside of regular hours was a distinct concession. Johnny’s idea was comprehensive, a plan indeed, almost a plot. Joe demurred, hesitated, succumbed at last to persuasion.
“Sounds to me like a dime novel undertakin’,” he said doubtfully. “But it might
work. It’s a long chance.”
“If you never play anything but a cinch,” Johnny Fee asserted, “you don’t often cash in winner.”
BIG SANDY contained one general store, one hotel.
four saloons, and perhaps three dozen other nondescript habitations. The store opened for business at seven a.m. Johnny and Joe were camped on the porch when the doors opened. Within an hour they had Continued on page 62
A Cattle King’s Romance
Continued from page 15
purchased, packed, saddled and were on their way. They rode south-east till the August sun was near its zenith. Thus they arrived at a deserted horse-ranch which Johnny Fee had investigated on his way to town. They picketed their horses. Johnny led the way to an outbuilding. It contained a forge, an anvil, some rusty tools,, odd bits of iron, a pile of coal in one corner.
Out of his pack Johnny produced a strange item for a cowpuncher to be lugging about with him, namely, about eight feet of three-inch chain. In the course of an hour’s labor Johnny proved himself a capable blacksmith. He fashioned a ring-bolt with a sharp eight inch point, and made it secure to one end of the chain; to the other he affixed a thing which he had made like the two halves of a small collar. From his pocket he took a stout padlock and fitted it to hold the two halves together. Whereupon he surveyed his handiwork with pride and said to Mullen:
“The king’s armorer couldn’t make a better job if he took all day for it.”
“It’s plumb crazy,” Mullen observed.
“It’ll be an A Number One stroke of business for everybody concerned,” Fee prophesied. “Unless we get cold feet.”
After which they fried bacon, boiled coffee, and rode on.
AT ABOUT eleven o’clock of a moonless night some time later Mr. Ephraim B. Marks stepped down off his front porch and walked slowly across a patch of grass toward a thicket-like hedge of wild roses and serviceberry mixed with privet which he had planted with his own hands years before. His head was bent in thought and the tip of a cigarette made a faint glow in the darkness. That evening stroll was a habit. Weather permitting he seldom failed to make a couple of trips across the lawn before he went to bed.
The second time Mr. Marks drew up to the hedge he stood looking southward a moment and a soft enveloping fold of heavy woollen material dropped over his head. It muffled any outcry he might have made. It hampered sadly the frantic movements of his aged hands. So that presently he was borne to earth by two dark forms, silent save for heavy breathing—since Mr. Marks was old but far from decrepit.
Deft, strong hands pinned him while a rope was passed and knotted. With arms bound and head muffled so that he was blind and at the point of suffocation Mr. Marks was lifted to his feet. Since his underpinning was free he moved under powerful impulsion by two pairs of hands.
For some distance he walked. Then he was picked up bodily and felt himself in a saddle. For half an hour he rode, hearing nothing, seeing nothing, but thinking hard. He was in a saddle that felt familiar enough to be his own. It was all very mysterious, very disturbing to Old Eph. Fie had seen a lot of wild west in his day, but nothing like this outrageous proceeding.
There came a halt. The blanket was removed from his head, to his great relief, because it smelled rather strongly of horse. His hands were left bound at his back.
“I expect you’d relish fresh air,” a voice came from one of the two dark forms that flanked him. “And if you feel like hollerin’ it won’t do no harm.”
Old Eph said nothing. Long ago he had learned that in a tight place a close mouth was good policy. He could make out two riders, two packhorses. The stars gave him a sense of direction. He craned his head this way and that, trying to get his bearings. But this was cut short by one rider leaning over and tying a bandana tightly across Mr. Marks’ eyes. Then they rode again, sometimes at a walk, trotting here, loping rapidly there. Hours passed. Mr. Marks grew weary. His old bones ached. He was glad indeed when another halt came. Through the bandana he detected a lightening which betokened dawn. He was helped off the horse.
“Sit down for a spell if you like,” he was told. Eph was glad to obey. There was a jingling of riding-gear for a little. Then comparative silence.
“Wonder if they’ve left me here alone, hog-tied like a maverick?” he muttered. “Uh-uuh.”
That grunt was certainly familiar. Mr. Marks knowing it was broad day now laid down on his side and removed the bandana by the simple expedient of rubbing his head sharply on the hard soil. His astonished old eyes beheld Joe Mullen at arm’s length. Forty feet away Johnny Fee sat on his haunches, knees apart and his elbows resting on them. His hands clasped the butt of a poised six-shooter. His artillery was not trained on Mr. Marks, however; it pointed in the opposite direction.
“Well, by the nine gods of war!” the ejaculation was fairly wrung from Mr. Marks by combined astonishment and a burning sense of outrage.
“He’s got his blinders off,” Joe said.
“Don’t matter right now,” Johnny Fee returned without troubling to look around. “Shut up, both of you!”
His tone was peremptory.
Old Eph cast a lightning glance about him. He was in the bottom of a deep gulch. Small pines grew on the upper rim. That was all he could see, the gully and high banks above. No landmark to tell him where he was. His gaze came back to Johnny Fee. That youth’s expression was watchful. His eyes were intent on the opposite bank.
The gun in his hand barked. Johnny sprang to his feet, ran a few yards and came back wdth the carcass of a badger in his hand.
Subsequent proceeding puzzled Mr. Marks for a minute. He saw Johnny take the dead animal and liberally besmear with blood the saddle and forequarters of Mr. Marks’ bay horse. Then he looped up the bridle reins and turned the horse loose with a flick of his quirt to hasten the beast on his way.
Old Eph understood then. The homing instinct would lead the bay back to the Cross Seven. Riderless, with a bloodstained saddle, the logical deduction would be that someone had potted Mr. Marks. The Cross Seven riders would go abroad searching for his body.
It was too much for Mr. Marks. He was kidnapped.
And while he cogitated they bundled him up on Johnny Fee’s horse. Johnny climbed aboard a pack-horse. They blindfolded him again, and got under way.
Uphill and down. Across small streams. Through pine scrub that brushed his face annoyingly. The sun grew blistering hot. Old Eph’s lips were dry.
They led him into what he felt was a house, bade him be seated. He listened to the clink of chain, and the ringing blows of an axe-head on iron.
He was gently but firmly moved a few steps.
Mr. Ephraim B. Marks had become a successful cowman by the exercise of exceptional energy both of body and brain. From childhood he had never hesitated to take action where action was indicated, nor needed to be told that two and two make four. He had even succeeded in making two and two foot up greater numbers, to his own profit and other men’s dismay.
Hence with the clank of chain and the feel of cold iron being clamped about his right ankle old Eph grasped the situation and acted. His protest was both vocal and muscular. He swore a great oath in his anger and kicked wildly, almost catching Johnny Fee fair in the stomach. But since his hands were still tied and he was still blindfolded they wrestled him to the floor as easily as if he were a Cross Seven calf to be branded. And there he lay with a hundred and seventy pounds of Mullen astride his elderly frame.
There was a click. Joe dismounted, removed the blindfold. Very carefully they undid the rope that bound up old Eph’s arms. Mr. Marks took his face out of the dirt floor and sat up.
He was chained like a felon to a ringbolt driven in the log wall of a roomy cabin. Johnny’s forged anklet fitted tightly. Mr. Marks had eight feet of chain to run on. From beyond the radius of this iron tether his twTo ex-stockhands surveyed him with a dubious sort of satisfaction. He sat on his haunches and glared at them.
“You’ll hang for this,” old Ep exploded at last, “if you ain’t shot first.”
“It hurts us worse’n it does you,” Johnny Fee asserted with the utmost
solemnity. “It’s all for your own good, Eph.”
Mr. Marks again became speechless with rage.
“Now,” Johnny continued, “we’re at home. Let’s eat.”
MR. MARKS alternately watched them preparing food and took stock of the scene of his captivity. He was in a log cabin about fourteen feet by eighteen. A rough stone fireplace took the place of a stove. There were two bunks, one in his corner. When he stared out the two small windows old Eph saw the tops of pine trees and a patch of blue sky. That told him nothing. Pine trees and blue sky were indigenous to a lot of North America.
He didn’t know where he was, nor what was in store for him. He had already suffered great personal indignity and he hungered for reprisal. But also he was weary, and somewhat bruised from two bouts of scuffling so he crawled up on his bunk, which had a comfortable filling of grass and pine needles. The smell of frying bacon made his mouth water. In addition he became aware of another burning desire.
“Gimme a smoke,” he barked suddenly. “Sure,” Joe Mullen tossed him a sack of Durham and a book of wheatstraw papers. Eph rolled himself a pill and felt somewhat soothed.
Afterward, picking his teeth with a match and drinking his third cup of coffee, he reflected:
“They don’t aim to make me uncomfortable or starve me, it looks like. They don’t seem noway hostile about nothin’. Wonder what their hole card is, anyhow?” Fie continued to wonder fruitlessly until weariness and a full stomach overcame him and he slept.
Johnny Fee had vanished when he awoke. The sun had gone west. Joe Mullen was starting the fire.
“Where are we at? Mind tellin’?”
“Not a bit,” Joe grinned. “Outside of Johnny Fee an’ Robin Tyler nobody’s seen this place for two years. It’s darned hard to locate. Remember the time Shinin’ Mark Steele was rustlin’ calves off the Block S? Well this was a hangout he built in the Bad Lands.”
Mr. Marks grew morose. He had heard of this rustling hangout deep in the weirdest part of the Bad Lands.
“I shore will nail your hides to the barn door,” he muttered to himself. “Both of you.”
He glowered at Mullen.
“How long you goin’ to keep me here staked by the off leg?” he inquired sullenly.
“Dunno,” Joe replied. “Wait till Johnny Fee comes back.”
Johnny Fee didn’t come back for a matter of ten days. Privately Eph welcomed his return. Joe Mullen was naturally quiet. Lately he had taken to silent brooding for hours at a time with occasional glances, at Mr. Marks which somehow disturbed that gentleman. Marks knew him as a loyal and efficient stockhand. Further than that, Mr. Marks decided he knew very little of Joe’s capacity. He might be nursing a grievance. Certainly he was neither talkative nor high-spirited. Johnny Fee was both. And Mr. Marks in his confinement was beginning to desire a measure of sociability. The jingle of bit and spurs and the trample of hoofs at the door pleased him greatly.
His jailers held a lengthy confab outside.
“It’s workin’,” Johnny declared. "You better amble out and see for yourself.” “They don’t suspicion us?”
“Naw,” Johnny snorted. “The talk is that whoever put old Eph’s light out— they figure that's a cinch—must V planted the body. They ain’t even pretendin’ to look for him now. Everybody, includin’ Mrs. Potiphar is attending strictly to his own knitting.”
He grinned at Joe.
IT WAS near sundown. By dark Joe had saddled up and ridden forth. Johnny Fee attended to his horses and rustled some wmod before he entered the cabin.
“Hello, old-timer,” he greeted cheerfully. “Did they use you good while I was gone?”
"I been fed an’ I slept,” old Eph grumbled. “But if I could slip this chain I'd make you hard to catch.”
Johnny disregarded that. He threw a package to the old man.
“There's a box of your favorite cigars,” Continued on page 61,
Continued from page 62 said he. “And a pack of cards. Thought you might like to play solitaire whilst I’m doing the housework.”
Ephraim had been fed his supper, but Johnny hadn’t. When he had attended to his wants he lit a cigarette and dragged an axe-hewn chair just outside the radius of the chain.
“They’re mournin’ for you, Eph,” said he.
Mr. Marks, who had a spread of solitaire on his blankets, bunched the cards.
“Look here,” he said peevishly, “how much more of this damn nonsense I got to stand? Fall roundup’s on. I got business to ’tend to. Who’s goin’ to run things? I got to be there to look after my interests.”
“Don’t you worry, Eph,” Johnny replied soothingly. “The Missus is attending to the welfare of the Cross Seven. The steers’ll be gathered and shipped. The ranch’ll be run. Your wife’s got an eye to business, I’m here to tell you.”
“You don’t say,” old Eph murmured gently. “You don’t say! She’s givin’ orders, eh? The Cross Seven don’t miss me, eh?”
“I’d tell a man she gives orders,” Johnny assured him. “She’s makin’ things hum.”
Mr. Marks seemed to ruminate on this for a long time. Then he gathered up the cards.
“If you’d drag that table over here,” said he pleasantly, “I’d skin you at seven-up for two-bits a game.”
“Good, but the skinnin’s going to be the other way,” Johnny agreed promptly. “It’s sensible to be sociable.”
He took the precaution, however, of getting Mr. Marks at the very end of bis chain. Thus they faced each other across a rude table and played cards by the light of a bit of rag tied over a button and floating in a saucer of bacon grease.
In the course of an hour Mr. Marks had beaten Johnny Fee out of a dollar seventy-five at seven-up.
“That ain’t skill,” Johnny protested. “That’s just bull luck.”
“Your money’s a gift to me,” old Eph taunted.
He riffled the deck, smiling genially across the table. A card flew out. Mr. Marks stooped to pick it up. Instead of salvaging the card he took a death grip on Johnny Fee’s legs. The improvised lamp went out in the sudden overturning of the table. For a half minute or so Johnny, Mr. Ephraim B. Marks, the table and two chairs were considerably agitated. In the end Johnny tore himself loose, rather out of breath.
“There now, darn your hide,” said he reproachfully. “You spoiled the game and the light and tore my pants and like as not busted some of this elegant furniture. That ain’t no way for an old feller like you to act.”
There was no answer. Old Eph clanked his chain briefly. Johnny struck a match. By the flickering light he saw Mr. Marks climb into his bunk a disappointed man. for he turned his face to the wall.
A few days after that, Johnny, down at the spring getting a bucket of water, heard a sound that caused him to dash back to the cabin. Mr. Marks had somehow secured the axe and he was chopping the ringbolt out of the log. Johnny snatched the reata off his saddle, flipped a noose over old Eph’s head and jerked him flat on the earthen floor, nimbly retrieving the axe. Mr. Marks cast off the loop and registered both disappointment and disapproval.
Johnny very thoughtfully set the axe as nearly as he could recall its position beside the fireplace. He stepped outside to a point where he could see the axe without himself being seen. Presently he observed a hand straining toward this edged tool. Johnny stepped back in. By lying flat on the floor, stretching the chain, stretching his leg and his body and his arm to an extreme, Mr. Marks could just about get his fingers on the axe. Johnny hastily removed it well beyond his reach.
“Naughty, naughty,” he reproved. “Mustn’t play with nassy old axe. Gosh, you sure got a long arm for a short man, Eph.”
“You’ll know how long it is some day,” Old Eph promised savagely.
AND so a week stretched to ten days, to a fortnight, to nearly three weeks before Joe Mullen returned, a little after sunrise one morning. He and Johnny Fee sat down on the eool earth to compare
notes. Johnny eyed the extra horse Joe had necked to his pack animal.
“Where’d you get the pony?”
“Picked him up on Birch Creek.” “What for?”
“Well, I figured it’s time to turn old Eph loose, and it’s a long walk to the Cross Seven.”
“Yeah, I guess it’s time,” Johnny agreed. “Pm tired haying around here myself. By Heck, I’d like to be at the Cross Seven when old Eph rides in.”
They grinned widely at each other. “We’ll kiss him good-bye to-night at sundown,” said he. “Since we’d better do some riding after dark ourselves, you ought to lay down and have a sleep.”
Joe stretched himself on the bunk inside. Noon came, and presently the sun was dipping to the western sky-line, at which time they packed their entire outfit, saddled their mounts, and approached Mr. Ephraim Marks.
“We’re going to restore you to your sorrowing family, Eph,” Johnny informed him.
Mr. Marks produced a cigar.
“I been savin’ this to celebrate on,” he declared sardonically. “I’ll light up when you unshackle me off’n this here chain.” “I got something to give you first.” Johnny produced the key to the padlock from one pocket, a roll of bills from the other.
“First rattle out of the box,” said he, “I don’t suppose you’ll make yourself ridiculous by telling how we kidnapped you and kept you chained up by the off hind leg for near a month. You got only your word for it, and there’s two of us to swear black’s white and white’s no color at all. If you want to declare a private war you’ll have to chase us. We aim to move over into Canada for a spell.
“In the second place,” Johnny regarded the roll in his palm for a moment, “you’re supposed to be dead, Eph. Alive you were worth probably a quarter of a million. That,” he tossed Mr. Marks the money, ^ “is what you’re worth dead. Count it. There’s a thousand dollars even.”
Johnny made a dramatic pause.
“Give it to the Missus when you get home. Tell black-eyed Susan I sent it back to her—crepe comes higher than that.”
“What you mean?” Marks demanded. “Ask your wife,” Johnny replied.
Old Eph sat silent for a minute.
"All right,” he said calmly. “I will.” “Your word was always good,” Johnny continued. "Will you promise not to camp on our trail?”
“If I got to promise you two highbinders that,” old Eph bellowed in a sudden rage, “I’ll rot here first.”
“Oh, all right. You don’t have to,” Joe Mullen put in. “Go on. Turn him loose, Johnny.”
Johnny Fee approached old Eph warily. But that elderly fire-eater made no overt move while the key turned in the padlock. He walked outside, sniffed the evening í¿r’ bearings. The ragged crest of
the Bear Paws loomed faintly blue in the north-west.
, 0,'í\pose * got to S° 6ffy miles afoot, eh? he snarled.
“H°There’s a cayuse. Sorry there’s no saddle, but a blanket’ll have to do you, Joe Mullen said. “Pile on. He’s gentle.”
Mr. Marks “piled on.” The cabin stood on the edge of a little meadow ringed about by a belt of pines, an oasis in that gashed and torn desolation so graphically termed the Bad Lands. He rode away without a word. At a distance of a‘-‘hundred yards he turned to shake his fist, a last gesture of defiance and an implied promise of reprisal. Then he vanished into the farther belt of conifers, just as the upper segment of a ruddy sun dipped below the horizon.
TF JOE MULLEN and Johnny Fee \ really aimed at the Canada line their sights were badly aligned, because the following spring found them both on the payroll of a cow outfit in Southern Wyoming.
They rode through the spring roundup and the fall, were stationed at a line-camp together as a reward for merit—and to make sure they would be bn hand when the spring work began, for in those days a good cowpuncher was a jewel worn proudly in a cattle king’s crown.
In this holdout they had nothing to do but eat, sleep, ride afar to dances,
and draw wages until green grass came.
One late November afternoon a solitary horseman approached their camp.
They eyed him with speculative interest. They had suffered no uneasiness over that episode in Montana, but they did occasionally bestow close scrutiny on strangers who appeared to seek them out.
Not until the man was actually dismounting at the door did they recognize him through a frosty window. Simultaneously they reached for the .45’s that reposed under their respective pillows. They buckled on their cartridge belts. Side by each they stepped out to face Mr. Ephraim B. Marks. And that worthy man, when he noted their state of preparedness held up both hands, palms out. A broad grin overspread his thin face.
“ ‘O, come ye in peace or come ye in war?’” asked Johnny Fee-
“Do I look like I was organized for war?” ^ old Eph asked reproachfully. “Certainly not. I ain’t see-nile yet.” “Then you better put up your horse and come in and have something to eat,” Joe Mullen invited. “It’s a long way between meals on this range.”
“Yeah. I found that out gittin’ here,” old Eph agreed.
He unbuckled his belt and slung it over the horn of his saddle, led his nag away to the log stable Joe indicated. Then he ambled into the house, into the joint presence of two cowpunchers fairly burning with curiosity while they cooked food for him.
Old Eph smacked his lips over a steak, and gulped hot coffee. He sat back and produced cigars. Through the triple wreaths of smoke he said:
“I’ve had a heap of trouble locatin’ you two?”
“You don’t say?” Johnny Fee commented.
“You said you was headin’ for the Canada line,” old Eph’s tone seemed reproachful.
“We changed our minds,” Johnny said. “And we didn’t think you’d be interested, so we didn’t write and tell you.”
“I got to get even with you fellers, somehow.” Mr. Marks continued. “So I guess you better both come back to the Cross Seven. That there Santerre girl’s been makin’ my life miserable this last while, askin’ when you was cornin’ back, Mullen.”
“Oh, ho,” Joe remarked frowning. “That’s how you located us, eh? You found out I was writin’ to her an’ pumped her, eh, you old highbinder?”
“I ain’t sayin’ I didn’t,” old Eph grinned. “But that’s neither here nor there. What I want is for you fellows to come back an’ work for me. I’ll stake you each to a wagon-boss’s job. An’ I’ll brand a thousand calves apiece for you if you’ll stay with the Cross Sevenan’ behave yourselves.”
“The dickens you say!” Johnny Fee murmured in amazement. “You sure make a liberal proposition, Eph. You been studyin’ the Scriptures in your old age and decided to return good for evil?” Old Eph grinned broadly, while Joe Mullen gazed at him with open mouth.
“You done me a good turn,” said Mr. Marks reminiscently.
“We aimed to,” Johnny muttered. “But it didn’t seem to be appreciated at the time.”
“You was a trifle abrupt in the proceeding,” Eph reminded him. “However, that there woman showed her hand plenty. I’d made a will when I was foolish about her. She was tryin’ to git it probated on a presumption of death. She was diggin’ hard on the bank-roll. She sold two trainloads of beef in Chicago, an’ put the money in her sock. She’d shipped in a lily-fingered lover from back where I got her. Gosh, yes, she sure was ambitious, that woman, tbinkin’ I’d cashed in an’ she had a free hand. It was a awful blow to her when I come alive. She just naturally faded away. I helped her git a divorce, without alimony, on the grounds of neglect, cruelty an’ desertion.
“So the Cross Seven’s a bachelor camp once more,” old Eph concluded with visible satisfaction. “It was cheap at the price.”
As they rode away from the line-camp, three abreast, in the dawn of a frosty morning, headed for the railroad and points north, Johnny Fee turned in his saddle and said to Mullen, with a twinkle in his eye:
“Mrs. Potiphar done her darndest, Joseph, but there’s corn in Egypt yet.”