THE ROUND-UP AT ROLLING RIVER
BY FRANK V. WEBSTER
AUTHOR OF "ONLY A FARM BOY," "BOB THE CASTAWAY," "COMRADES OF THE SADDLE," "AIRSHIP ANDY," "TOM TAYLOR AT WEST POINT," ETC.
BOOKS FOR BOYS By FRANK V. WEBSTER
ONLY A FARM BOY TOM, THE TELEPHONE BOY THE BOY FROM THE RANCH THE YOUNG TREASURER HUNTER BOB, THE CASTAWAY THE YOUNG FIREMEN OF LAKEVILLE THE NEWSBOY PARTNERS THE BOY PILOT OF THE LAKES THE TWO BOY GOLD MINERS JACK, THE RUNAWAY COMRADES OF THE SADDLE THE BOYS OF BELLWOOD SCHOOL THE HIGH SCHOOL RIVALS BOB CHESTER'S GRIT AIRSHIP ANDY DARRY, THE LIFE SAVER DICK, THE BANK BOY BEN HARDY'S FLYING MACHINE THE BOYS OF THE WIRELESS HARRY WATSON'S HIGH SCHOOL DAYS THE BOY SCOUTS OF LENOX TOM TAYLOR AT WEST POINT COWBOY DAVE THE BOYS OF THE BATTLESHIP JACK OF THE PONY EXPRESS
I. AFTER STRAY CATTLE II. THE TAUNT III. A CONFESSION IV. A SMALL STAMPEDE V. TREACHERY VI. A CRY FOR HELP VII. THE RESCUE VIII. MR. BELLMORE IX. DAVE MEETS LEN X. DAVE WONDERS XI. HAZARDOUS WORK XII. THE FIGHT XIII. SOME NEWS XIV. A WARNING XV. RETALIATION XVI. UNAVAILING EFFORTS XVII. THE ROUND-UP XVIII. A MIDNIGHT BLAZE XIX. FIGHTING FIRE XX. THE CHASE XXI. THE ESCAPE XXII. TANGLES XXIII. THE CLUE XXIV. BROTHERS XXV. THE NEW RANCH
AFTER STRAY CATTLE
"Hi! Yi! Yip!"
"Woo-o-o-o! Wah! Zut!"
"Here we come!"
What was coming seemed to be a thunderous cloud of dust, from the midst of which came strange, shrill sounds, punctuated with sharp cries, that did not appear to be altogether human.
The dust-cloud grew thicker, the thunder sounded louder, and the yells were shriller.
From one of a group of dull, red buildings a sun-bronzed man stepped forth.
He shaded his eyes with a brown, powerful hand, gazed for an instant toward the approaching cloud of animated and vociferous dust and, turning to a smiling Chinese who stood near, with a pot in his hand, remarked in a slow, musical drawl:
"Well Hop Loy, here they are, rip-roarin' an' snortin' from th' round-up!"
"Alle samee hungly, too," observed the Celestial with unctious blandness.
"You can sure make a point of that Hop Loy," went on the other. "Hungry is their middle name just now, and you'd better begin t' rustle th' grub, or I wouldn't give an empty forty-five for your pig-tail."
"Oi la!" fairly screamed the Chinese, as, with a quick gesture toward his long queue, he scuttled toward the cook house, which stood in the midst of the other low ranch buildings. "Glub leady alle samee light now!" Hop Loy cried over his shoulder.
"It better be!" ominously observed Pocus Pete, foreman of the Bar U ranch, one of the best-outfitted in the Rolling River section. "It better be! Those boys mean business, or I miss my guess," the foreman went on. "Hard work a-plenty, I reckon. Wonder how they made out?" he went on musingly as he started back toward the bunk house, whence he had come with a saddle strap to which he was attaching a new buckle. "If things don't take a turn for th' better soon, there won't any of us make out," and, with a gloomy shake of his head, Pocus Pete, to give him the name he commonly went by, tossed the strap inside the bunk house, and went on toward the main building, where, by virtue of his position as head of the cowboys, he had his own cot.
Meanwhile the crowd of yelling, hard-riding sand dust-stirring punchers, came on faster than ever.
"Hi! Yi! Yip!"
"Here we come!"
"Keep th' pot a-bilin'! We've got our appetites With us!"
Some one fired his big revolver in the air, and in another moment there was an echo of many shots, the sharp crack of the forty-fives mingling with the thunder of hoofs, the yells, and the clatter of stirrup leathers.
"The boys coming back, Pete?" asked an elderly man, who came to the door of the main living room of the principal ranch house.
"Yes, Mr. Carson, they're comin' back, an' it don't need a movin' picture operator an' telegraphic despatch t' tell it, either."
"No, Pete. They seem to be in good spirits, too."
"Yes, they generally are when they get back from round-up. I want to hear how they made out, though, an' what th' prospects are."
"So do I, Pete," and there was an anxious note in the voice of Mr. Randolph Carson, owner of the Bar U ranch. Matters had not been going well with him, of late.
With final yells, and an increase in the quantity of dust tossed up as the cowboys pulled their horses back on their haunches, the range-riding outfit of the ranch came to rest, not far away from the stable. The horses, with heaving sides and distended nostrils that showed a deep red, hung their heads from weariness. They had been ridden hard, but not unmercifully, and they would soon recover. The cowboys themselves tipped back their big hats from their foreheads, which showed curiously white in contrast to their bronzed faces, and beat the dust from their trousers. A few of them wore sheepskin chaps.
One after another the punchers slung their legs across the saddle horns, tossed the reins over the heads of their steeds, as an intimation that the horses were not to stray, and then slid to the ground, walking with that peculiarly awkward gait that always marks one who has spent much of his life in the saddle.
"Grub ready, Hop Loy?" demanded one lanky specimen, as he used his blue neck kerchief to remove some of the dust and sweat from his brown face.
"It better be!" added another, significantly; while still another said, quietly:
"My gal has been askin' me for a long, long time to get her a Chinaman's pig-tail, an' I'm shore goin' t'get one now if I don't have my grub right plenty, an' soon!"
"Now you're talkin'!" cried a fourth, with emphasis.
There was no need of saying anything further. The Celestial had stuck his head out of the cook house to hear these ominous words of warning, and now, with a howl of anguish, he drew it inside again, wrapping his queue around his neck. Then followed a frantic rattling of pots and pans.
"You shore did get him goin', Tubby!" exclaimed a tall, lanky cowboy, to a short and squatty member of the tribe.
"Well, I aimed to Skinny," was the calm reply. "I am some hungry."
The last of the cowboys to alight was a manly youth, who might have been in the neighborhood of eighteen or nineteen years of age. He was tall and slight, with a frank and pleasing countenance, and his blue eyes looked at you fearlessly from under dark brows, setting off in contrast his sunburned face. Had any one observed him as he rode up with the other cowboys, it would have been noticed that, though he was the youngest, he was one of the best riders.
He advanced from among the others, pausing to pet his horse which stuck out a wet muzzle for what was evidently an expected caress. Then the young man walked forward, with more of an air of grace than characterized his companions. Evidently, though used to a horse, he was not so saddle-bound as were his mates.
As he walked up to the ranch house he was met by Mr. Carson and Pocus Pete, both of whom looked at him rather eagerly and anxiously.
"Well, son," began the ranch owner, "how did you make out?"
"Pretty fair, Dad," was the answer. "There were more cattle than you led us to expect, and there were more strays than we calculated on. In fact we didn't get near all of them."
"Is that so, Dave?" asked Pocus Pete, quickly. "Whereabouts do you reckon them strays is hidin'?"
"The indications are they're up Forked Branch way. That's where we got some, and we saw more away up the valley, but we didn't have time to go for them, as we had a little trouble; and Tubby and the others thought we'd better come on, and go back for the strays to-morrow."
"Trouble, Dave?" asked Mr. Carson, looking up suddenly.
"Well, not much, though it might have been. We saw some men we took to be rustlers heading for our bunch of cattle, but they rode off when we started for them. Some of the boys wanted to follow but it looked as though it might storm, and Tubby said we'd better move the bunch while we could, and look after the rustlers and strays later."
"Yes, I guess that was best," the ranch owner agreed. "But where were these rustlers from, Dave?"
"Hard to say, Dad. Looked to be Mexicans."
"I reckon that'd be about right," came from Pocus Pete. "We'll have to be on th' watch, Mr. Carson."
"I expect so, Pete. Things aren't going so well that I can afford to lose any cattle. But about these strays, Dave. Do you think we'd better get right after them?"
"I should say so, Dad."
"Think there are many of them?"
"Not more than two of us could drive in. I'll go to-morrow with one of the men. I know just about where to look for them."
"All right, Dave. If you're not too much done out I'd like to have you take a hand."
"Done out, Dad! Don't you think I'm making a pretty good cowpuncher?"
"That's what he is, Mr. Carson, for a fact!" broke in Pete, with admiration. "I'd stake Cowboy Dave ag'in' any man you've got ridin' range to-day. That's what I would!"
"Thanks, Pete," said the youth, with a warm smile.
"Well, that's the truth, Dave. You took to this business like a duck takes to water, though the land knows there ain't any too much water in these parts for ducks."
"Yes, we could use more, especially at this season," Mr. Carson admitted. "Rolling River must be getting pretty dry; isn't it, Dave?"
"I've seen it wetter, Dad. And there's hardly any water in Forked Branch. I don't see how the stray cattle get enough to drink."
"It is queer they'd be off up that way," observed Pete. "But that might account for it," he went on, as though communing with himself.
"Account for what?" asked Dave, as he sat down in a chair on the porch.
"Th' rustlers. If they were up Forked Branch way they'd stand between th' strays and th' cattle comin' down where they could get plenty of water in Rolling River. That's worth lookin' into. I'll ride up that way with you to-morrow, Dave, an' help drive in them cattle."
"Will you, Pete? That will be fine!" the young cowboy exclaimed. Evidently there was a strong feeling of affection between the two. Dave looked to Mr. Carson for confirmation.
"Very well," the ranch owner said, "you and Pete may go, Dave. But don't take any chances with the rustlers if you encounter them."
"We're not likely to," said Pocus Pete, significantly.
From the distant cook house came the appetizing odor of food and Dave sniffed the air eagerly.
"Hungry?" asked Mr. Carson.
"That's what I am, Dad!"
"Well, eat heartily, get a good rest, and tomorrow you can try your hand at driving strays."
Evening settled down over the Bar U ranch; a calm, quiet evening, in spite of the earlier signs of a storm. In the far west a faint intermittent light showed where the elements were raging, but it was so far off that not even the faintest rumble of thunder came over Rolling River, a stream about a mile distant, on the banks of which were now quartered the cattle which the cowboys had recently rounded up for shipment.
The only sounds that came with distinctness were the occasional barking and baying of a dog, as he saw the rising moon, and the dull shuffle of the shifting cattle, which were being guarded by several cowboys who were night-riding.
Very early the next morning Dave Carson and Pocus Pete, astride their favorite horses, and carrying with them a substantial lunch, set off after the strays which had been dimly observed the day before up Forked Branch way.
This was one of the tributaries of Rolling River, the valley of which was at one time one of the most fertile sections of the largest of our Western cattle states. The tributary divided into two parts, or branches, shortly above its junction with Rolling River. Hence its name. Forked Branch came down from amid a series of low foot-hills, forming the northern boundary of Mr. Randolph Carson's ranch.
"We sure have one fine day for ridin'," observed Pocus Pete, as he urged his pony up alongside Dave's.
"That's right," agreed the youth.
For several miles they rode on, speaking but seldom, for a cowboy soon learns the trick of silence—it is so often forced on him.
As they turned aside to take a trail that led to Forked Branch, Dave, who was riding a little ahead, drew rein. Instinctively Pocus Pete did the same, and then Dave, pointing to the front, asked:
"Is that a man or a cow?"
Pocus Pete shaded his eyes with his hand and gazed long and earnestly in the direction indicated by Dave Carson. The two cow-ponies, evidently glad of the little rest, nosed about the sun-baked earth for some choice morsel of grass.
"It might be either—or both," Pete finally said.
"Either or both?" repeated Dave. "How can that be?"
"Don't you see two specks there, Dave? Look ag'in."
Dave looked. His eyes were younger and perhaps, therefore, sharper than were those of the foreman of Bar U ranch, but Dave lacked the training that long years on the range had given the other.
"Yes, I do see two," the youth finally said, "But I can't tell which is which."
"I'm not altogether sure myself," Pete said, quietly and modestly. "We'll ride a little nearer," he suggested, "an' then we can tell for sure. I guess we're on th' track of some strays all right."
"Some strays, Pete? You mean our strays; don't you?" questioned Dave.
"Well, some of 'em 'll be, probably," was the quiet answer. "But you've got t' remember, Dave, that there's a point of land belongin' t' Centre O ranch that comes up there along the Forked Branch trail. It may be some of Molick's strays."
"That's so. I didn't think of that, Pete. There's more to this business than appears at first sight."
"Yes, Dave; but you're comin' on first-rate. I was a leetle opposed to th' Old Man sendin' you East to study, for fear it would knock out your natural instincts. But when you picked up that man as soon as you did," and he waved his hand toward the distant specks, "when you did that, I know you've not been spoiled, an' that there's hope for you."
"That's good, Pete!" and Dave laughed.
"Yes, I didn't agree with th' Old Man at first," the foreman went on, "but I see he didn't make any mistake."
Mr. Carson was the "Old Man" referred to, but it was not at all a term of disrespect as applied to the ranch owner. It was perfectly natural to Pete to use that term, and Dave did not resent it.
"Yes, I'm glad dad did send me East," the young man went on, as they continued on their way up the trail. "I was mighty lonesome at first, and I felt—well, cramped, Pete. That's the only way to express it."
"I know how you felt, Dave. There wasn't room to breathe in th' city."
"That's the way I felt. Out here it—it's different."
He straightened up in the saddle, and drew in deep breaths of the pure air of the plains; an air so pure and thin, so free from mists, that the very distances were deceiving, and one would have been positive that the distant foot-hills were but half an hour's ride away, whereas the better part of a day must be spent in reaching them.
"Yes, this is livin'—that's what it is," agreed Pocus Pete." You can make them out a little better now, Dave," and he nodded his head in the direction of the two distant specks. They were much larger now.
"It's a chap on a horse, and he's going in the same direction we are," Dave said, after a moment's observation.
"That's right. And it ain't every cowpuncher on Bar U who could have told that."
"I can see two—three—why, there are half a dozen cattle up there Pete."
"Yes, an' probably more. I reckon some of th' Centre O outfit has strayed, same as ours. That's probably one of Molick's men after his brand," Pete went on.
The Bar U ranch (so called because the cattle from it were branded with a large U with a straight mark across the middle) adjoined, on the north, the ranch of Jason Molick, whose cattle were marked with a large O in the centre of which was a single dot, and his brand consequently, was known as Centre O.
"Maybe that's Len," suggested Dave, naming the son of the adjoining ranch owner.
"It may be. I'd just as soon it wouldn't be, though. Len doesn't always know how to keep a civil tongue in his head."
"That's right, Pete. I haven't much use for Len myself."
"You an' he had some little fracas; didn't you?"
"Oh, yes, more than once."
"An' you tanned him good and proper, too; didn't you Dave?" asked the foreman with a low chuckle.
"Yes, I did." Dave did not seem at all proud of his achievement." But that was some time ago," he added." I haven't seen Len lately."
"Well, you haven't missed an awful lot," said Pete, dryly.
The two rode on in silence again, gradually coming nearer and nearer to the specks which had so enlarged themselves, by reason of the closing up of the intervening distance, until they could be easily distinguished as a number of cattle and one lone rider. The latter seemed to be making his way toward the animals.
"Is he driving them ahead of him?" asked Dave, after a long and silent observation.
"That's the way it looks," said Pocus Pete. "It's Len Molick all right," he added, after another shading of his eyes with his hand.
"Are you sure?" Dave asked.
"Positive. No one around here rides a horse in that sloppy way but him."
"Then he must have found some of his father's strays, and is taking them to the ranch."
"I'm not so sure of that," Pete said.
"Not so sure of what?"
"That the cattle are all his strays. I wouldn't be a bit surprised but what some of ours had got mixed up with 'em. Things like that have been known to happen you know."
"Do you' think—-" began Dave.
"I'm not goin' to take any chances thinkin'," Pete said significantly. "I'm going to make sure."
"Look here, Dave," he went on, spurring his pony up alongside of the young cowboy's. "My horse is good an fresh an' Len's doesn't seem to be in such good condition. Probably he's been abusin' it as he's done before. Now I can take this side trail, slip around through the bottom lands, an' get ahead of him."
"But it's a hard climb up around the mesa, Pete."
"I know it. But I can manage it. Then you come on up behind Len, casual like. If he has any of our cattle—by mistake," said Pete, significantly, "we'll be in a position to correct his error. Nothin' like correctin' errors right off the reel, Dave. Well have him between two fires, so to speak."
"All right, Pete. I'll ride up behind him, as I'm doing now, and you'll head him off; is that it?"
"That's it. You guessed it first crack out of th' box. If nothin's wrong, why we're all right; we're up this way to look after our strays. And if somethin' is wrong, why we'll be in a position to correct it—that's all."
"I see." There was a smile on Dave's face as his cowboy partner, with a wave of his hand, turned his horse into a different trail, speeding the hardy little pony up so as to get ahead of Len Molick.
Dave rode slowly on, busy with many thoughts, some of which had to do with the youth before him. Len Molick was about Dave's own age, that is apparently, for, strange as it may seem, Dave was not certain of the exact number of years that had passed over his head.
It was evident that he was about eighteen or nineteen. He had recently felt a growing need of a razor, and the hair on his face was becoming wiry. But once, when he asked Randolph Carson, about a birthday, the ranch owner had returned an evasive answer.
"I don't know exactly when your birthday does come, Dave," he had said. "Your mother, before she—before she died, kept track of that. In fact I somtimes forget when my own is. I think yours is in May or June, but for the life of me I can't say just which month. It doesn't make a lot of difference, anyhow."
"No, Dad, not especially. But just how old am I?"
"Well, Dave, there you've got me again. I think it's around eighteen. But your mother kept track of that, too. I never had the time. Put it down at eighteen, going on nineteen, and let it go at that. Now say, about that last bunch of cattle we shipped—"
Thus the ranchman would turn the subject. Not that Dave gave the matter much thought, only now, somehow or other, the question seemed to recur with increased force.
"Funny I don't know just when my birthday is," he mused. "But then lots of the cowboys forget theirs."
The trail was smooth at this point, and Dave soon found himself close to Len, who was driving ahead of him a number of cattle. With a start of surprise Dave saw two which bore the Bar U brand.
"Hello, Len," he called.
Len Molick turned with a start. Either he had not heard Dave approach, or he had pretended ignorance.
"Well, what do yon want?" demanded the surly bully.
"Oh, out after strays, as you are," said Dave, coolly. "Guess your cattle and ours have struck up an acquaintance," he added, with assumed cheerfulness.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean they're traveling along together just as if they belonged to the same outfit."
"Huh! I can't help it, can I, if your cows tag along with our strays?" demanded Len with a sneer.
"That's what I'm here for—to help prevent it," Dave went on, and his voice was a trifle sharp. "The Bar U ranch can't afford to lose any strays these days," he resumed. "The Carson outfit needs all it can get, and, as representative of the Carson interests I'll just cut out those strays of ours, Len, and head them the other way."
"Huh! What right have you got to do it?"
"What right? Why my father sent me to gather up our strays. I saw some of them up here yesterday."
"Your father?" The sneer in Len's voice was unmistakable.
"Yes, of course," said Dave, wondering what was the matter with Len. "My father, Randolph Carson."
"He isn't your father!" burst out Len in angry tones. "And you aren't his son! You're a nameless picked-up nobody, that's what you are! A nobody! You haven't even a name!"
And with this taunt on his lips Len spurred his horse away from Dave's.
Something seemed to strike Dave Carson a blow in the face. It was as though he had suddenly plunged into cold water, and, for the moment, he could not get his breath. The sneering words of Len Molick rang in his ears:
"You're a nameless, picked-up nobody!"
Having uttered those cruel words, Len was riding on, driving before him some of his father's stray cattle, as well as some belonging to the Bar U ranch. The last act angered Dave, and anger, at that moment, was just what was needed to arouse him from the lethargy in which he found himself. It also served, in a measure, to clear away some of the unpleasant feeling caused by the taunt.
"Hold on there a minute, Len Molick!" called Dave, sharply.
Len never turned his head, and gave no sign of hearing.
A dull red spot glowed in each of Dave's tanned cheeks. With a quick intaking of his breath he lightly touched the spurs to his horse—lightly, for that was all the intelligent beast needed. Dave passed his taunting enemy on the rush, and planting himself directly in front of him on the trail, drew rein so sharply that his steed reared. The cows, scattered by the sudden rush, ambled awkwardly on a little distance, and then stopped to graze.
"What do you mean by getting in my way?" growled Len.
"I mean to have you stop and answer a few questions," was the calm retort.
"If it's about these cattle I tell you I'm not trying to drive off any of yours," said Len, in whining tones. He knew the severe penalty attached to this in a cow country, and Dave was sufficiently formidable, as he sat easily on his horse facing the bully, to make Len a little more respectful.
"I'm not going to ask you about these cattle—at least not right away," Dave went on. "This is about another matter. You said something just now that needs explaining."
"I say a good many things," Len admitted, and again there sounded in his voice a sneer. "I don't have to explain to you everything I say; do I?"
"You do when it concerns me," and Dave put his horse directly across the trail, which, at this point narrowed and ran between two low ranges of hills. "You said something about me just now—you called me a nameless, picked-up nobody!"
Dave could not help wincing as he repeated the slur.
"Well, what if I did?" demanded the bully.
"I want to know what you mean. You insinuated that Mr. Carson was not my father."
"Why do you say that, and how do you know?" Dave asked. In spite of his dislike of Len, and the knowledge that the bully was not noted for truth- telling, Dave could not repress a cold chill of fear that seemed to clutch his heart.
"I say that because it's so, and how I know it is none of your affair," retorted Len.
"Oh yes, it is my affair, too!" Dave exclaimed. He was fast regaining control of himself. "It is very much my affair. I demand an explanation. How do you know Mr. Carson isn't my father?"
"Well, I know all right. He picked you up somewhere. He doesn't know what your name is himself. He just let you use his, and he called you Dave. You're a nobody I tell you!"
Dave spurred his horse until it was close beside that of Len's. Then leaning over in the saddle, until his face was very near to that of the bully's, and with blazing eyes looking directly into the shrinking ones of the other rancher's son, Dave said slowly, but with great emphasis:
There was menace in his tone and attitude, and Len shrank back.
"Oh, don't be afraid!" Dave laughed mirthlessly. "I'm not going to strike you—not now."
"You—you'd better not," Len muttered.
"I want you first to answer my questions," Dave went on. "After that I'll see what happens. It's according to how much truth there is in what you have said."
"Oh, it's true all right," sneered the bully.
"Then I demand to know who told you!"
Dave's hand shot out and grasped the bridle of the other's horse, and Len's plan of flight was frustrated.
"Let me go!" he whiningly demanded.
"Not until you tell me who said I am a nobody—that Mr. Carson is not my father," Dave said, firmly.
"I—I——" began the shrinking Len, when the sound of another horseman approaching caused both lads to turn slightly in their saddles. Dave half expected to see Pocus Pete, but he beheld the not very edifying countenance of Whitey Wasson, a tow-headed cowpuncher belonging to the Centre O outfit. Whitey and Len were reported to be cronies, and companions in more than one not altogether pleasant incident.
"Oh, here you are; eh; Len?" began Whitey. "And I see you've got the strays."
"Yes, I've got 'em," said Len, shortly.
"Any trouble?" went on Whitey, with a quick glance at Dave. The position of the two lads—Dave with his hand grasping Len's bridle—was too significant to be overlooked.
"Trouble?" began Len. "Well, he—he—"
"He made a certain statement concerning me," Dave said, quietly, looking from Len to Whitey, "and I asked him the source of his information. That is all."
"What did he say?"
"He said I was a nameless, picked-up nobody, and that Mr. Carson was not my father. I asked him how he knew, and he said some one told him that."
"So he did!" exclaimed Len.
"Then I demand to know who it was!" cried Dave.
For a moment there was silence, and then Whitey Wasson, with a chuckle said:
"I told Len myself!"
"You did?" cried Dave.
"Yes, he did! Now maybe you won't be so smart!" sneered Len. "Let go my horse!" he cried, roughly, as he swung the animal to one side. But no force was needed; as Dave's nerveless hand fell away from the bridle. He seemed shocked—stunned again.
"You—you—how do you know?" he demanded fiercely, raising his sinking head, and looking straight at Whitey.
"Oh, I know well enough. Lots of the cowboys do. It isn't so much of a secret as you think. If you don't believe me ask your father—no, he ain't your father—but ask the Old Man himself. Just ask him what your name is, and where you came from, and see what he says."
Whitey was sneering now, and he chuckled as he looked at Len. Dave's face paled beneath his tan, and he did not answer.
A nameless, picked-up nobody! How the words stung! And he had considered himself, proudly considered himself, the son of one of the best-liked, best-known and most upright cattle raisers of the Rolling River country. Now who was he?
"Come on, Len," said Whitey. "If you've got the strays we'll drive them back. Been out long enough as 'tis."
He wheeled his horse, Len doing the same, and they started after the straying cattle.
"Hold on there, if you please," came in a drawling voice. "Jest cut out them Bar U steers before you mosey off any farther, Whitey," and riding around a little hillock came Pocus Pete.
"Um!" grunted Whitey.
"Guess you'll be needin' a pair of specks, won't you, Whitey?" went on the Bar U foreman, without a glance at Len or Dave. "A Centre O brand an' a Bar U looks mighty alike to a feller with poor eyes I reckon," and he smiled meaningly.
"Oh, we can't help it, if some of the Randolph cattle get mixed up with our strays," said Len.
"Who's talkin' to you?" demanded Pocus Pete, with such fierceness that the bully shrank back.
"Now you cut out what strays belong to you, an' let ours alone, Mr. Wasson," went on Pocus Pete with exaggerated politeness. "Dave an' I can take care of our own I reckon. An' move quick, too!" he added menacingly.
Whitey did not answer, but he and Len busied themselves in getting together their own strays. Pocus Pete and Dave, with a little effort, managed to collect their own bunch, and soon the two parties were moving off in opposite directions. Dave sat silent on his horse. Pete glanced at him from time to time, but said nothing. Finally, however, as they dismounted to eat their lunch, Pete could not help asking:
"Have any trouble with them, Dave?"
"Trouble? Oh no."
Dave relapsed into silence, and Pete shook his head in puzzled fashion. Something had happened, but what, he could not guess.
In unwonted silence Dave and Pete rode back to the Bar U ranch, reaching it at dusk with the bunch of strays. They were turned in with the other cattle and then Dave, turning his horse into the corral, walked heavily to the ranch house. All the life seemed to have gone from him.
"Well, son, did you get the bunch?" asked Mr. Carson as he greeted the youth.
"Yes—I did," was the low answer. Mr. Carson glanced keenly at the lad, and something he saw in his face caused the ranch owner to start.
"Was there any trouble?" he asked. It was the same question Pocus Pete had propounded.
"Well, Len Molick and Whitey Wasson had some of our cattle in with theirs."
"Yes, but Pete and I easily cut 'em out. But—Oh, Dad!" The words burst from Dave's lips before he thought. "Am I your son?" he blurted out. "Len and Whitey said I was a picked-up nobody! Am I? Am I not your son?"
He held out his hands appealingly.
A great and sudden change came over Mr. Carson. He seemed to grow older and more sorrowful. A sigh came from him.
Gently he placed one arm over the youth's drooping shoulders.
"Dave," he said gently. "I hoped this secret would never come out—that you would never know. But, since it has, I must tell you the truth. I love you as if you were my own son, but you are not a relative of mine."
The words seemed to cut Dave like a knife.
"Then if I am not your son, who am I?" Dave asked in a husky voice.
The ticking of the clock on the mantle could be plainly, yes, loudly heard, as Mr. Carson slowly answered in a low voice:
"Dave, I don't know!"
A SMALL STAMPEDE
Dave Carson—to use the name by which we must continue to call him, at least for a time—may have hoped for a different answer from the ranchman. Doubtless he did so hope, but now he was doomed to disappointment, for the words of Mr. Carson seemed final.
"Dave, I don't know," he repeated. "I don't know who you are, who your parents are, or even what your name is. I wish I did!"
Dave sank down in a chair. He seemed crushed. Mr. Carson, too, was somewhat overcome.
"There—there must be some explanation," said the lad at length, slowly.
"There is," was the reply. "I'll tell you all I know. I suppose I should have done it before, but I have been putting it off, I hoped there would be no need.
"I don't know just how Len and Whitey found it out," went on Mr. Carson. "If they had only kept still a little longer you might never have known, for I intended to go away from here soon."
"Go away from here, Dad?"
The endearing name slipped out before Dave was aware of it. A surge of red sprang up into his cheeks, under their tan.
"Don't stop calling me that, Dave," begged Mr. Carson in a low voice. I have been a father to you—at least I've tried to be."
"And you've succeeded," Dave said, affectionately.
"And I want to keep on in the same way," said the man, softly. "So don't stop calling me dad, Dave. I—I couldn't bear that, even though I have no right to it. But you asked me a question just now. I'll answer that before I go on with the story.
"I did plan to leave here. I'm not making this ranch go, Dave, as I'd like to see it. I have been thinking of giving it up. But that was before I knew that my secret about you was known."
"Then you're not going now,—Dad?"
Dave hesitated just a moment over the name.
"No. It would look like desertion—cowardice—as if I went because this matter became known. It will get out soon enough now, since the Molick outfit knows it. But that's just the reason I'm going to stick. I won't fly in the face of the enemy. I won't desert!
"The real reason why I intended to go, though, Dave, is because the ranch isn't making money enough. It is holding its own, but that is not enough. As you know, I was, up to a year or so ago, pretty well off. But those unfortunate cattle speculations pulled me down, so now I am really, what would be called poor, as ranchmen go.
"But I'll make good!" declared the cattle owner. "I'm going to stick now, until something happens. It may be for the best, or it may be for the worst. But I'll stick until I'm fairly beaten!
"The ranch needs more water, that's the main trouble. I haven't control of the water rights I need. I can't go into the cattle business on a large enough scale because of the lack of water. Rolling River and Forked Branch, while well enough in their way, aren't big enough to stand the dry years.
"That was the reason I was going to sell out, Dave, but I'm not now. I'm going to stick. And now I'll tell you the secret concerning you—that is as much of it as I know. It isn't much, for I know so little myself, so you will not be much wiser than you are now."
"Won't I know who I am?" Dave asked in a low voice.
"No, Dave, for I can't tell you myself. I wish I could. I wish I could either really find your parents, or know that I had a good legal claim on you. But that is impossible.
"Some years ago, Dave, I was in business in Missouri. I was doing fairly well, but I always had a hankering to get out West and raise cattle. I had lived on a ranch when I was a small lad—in fact all my people were ranchers—and I longed for the life of which I had had only a little taste.
"So I planned to sell out, raise all the money I could, and buy a ranch. I had my plans all made when one spring there came a big flood that practically wiped out the town where I was then living, as well as a number of others along that part of the Missouri River. There was rescue work to be done, and I did my share, I guess.
"Among the others whom I saved from the wreckage of houses, barns and other debris that rushed down the river was a little baby boy."
Dave caught his breath sharply.
"You were that little chap, Dave," went on the ranchman, after a pause. "As cute a little chap as I ever saw. I fell in love with you right away, and so did a number of women folks who were helping in the rescue work. They all wanted you, but I said if no one who had a legal claim on you came for you, that I would keep you.
"And that's what happened. I could not find out where you came from, nor who your folks were, though I made many inquiries. I had been about to start for the West when the flood came, but I delayed a bit, wanting to give your parents, if they were alive, a fair show. But no one claimed you, so I brought you out West with me, and here we've been ever since, living just like father and son."
"And do you think my parents are—are dead?" Dave faltered.
"I am afraid so," was the low answer. "There were many grown folk and children who perished in the flood. At any rate, Dave, I have kept you ever since.
"How this Whitey Wasson learned the secret I can not say. I did hope it would never be brought to your knowledge, though I made no effort, at the time I rescued you, to conceal the fact that I had, in a measure, adopted you. I suppose Whitey must have heard the story from some one who was in the flooded Missouri district at the time and who has since come West.
"But that is how the matter stands. You are not really my son, though you are as dear to me as though you were. I hope this will make no difference to you—knowing this secret. I want you to continue living here just as you always have. In fact it would break my heart if you were to leave me after all these years. You will stay; won't you?" and he held out his hands appealingly.
"Why—yes," said Dave, after a moment. "I have no other place to go. And I certainly owe you a deep debt of gratitude for your care of a nameless orphan for so many years."
"Don't say that, Dave! Don't call yourself nameless. You can have my name, and welcome! You know that. I want you to have it. I will legally adopt you if necessary. And as for owing me—don't name it! You were welcome to all I could do, and more. Why, you have been like a son to me. I wouldn't know how to get along without you at the ranch here. You must stay!"
"Oh, yes, I'll stay," said Dave. And then he added, with, perhaps, the least tinge of bitterness in his voice: "I have no where else to go."
"Then stay!" was the eager invitation. "I need you, Dave! And if those skunks bother you any more—"
"Oh, I'm not worrying about them," Dave said, quickly. "I don't mind their taunts. After all, it is no disgrace not to know who I am under the circumstances. Perhaps, some day, I may find out."
"Perhaps," said Mr. Carson, softly, but he did not really believe that such an event would happen.
"Is that all you can tell about me—Dad?" asked Dave.
"That's right! Don't forget to call me dad!" exclaimed the ranchman, and his tone showed more delight than at any time since the talk. "For I am just the same as your father. But, Dave, I'm afraid I can't give you any clews. You were only a baby at the time, and I don't even remember just now, much as to how you were dressed. You came down the flood in part of a wrecked house. You were in a cradle in the exposed upper story when I got you out. I was going around in a boat doing what rescue work I could. I turned you over to some women, temporarily, and claimed you later. That's about all there is to it. I came out West with you and—here we are now. And now, since the secret is out, I'm going to make it known to all who care to listen. There is no use trying to keep it under cover any more."
"What do you mean, Dad?"
"I mean I'll tell every one connected with Bar U ranch. We'll take the wind out of the sails of Molick, Wasson and their like. We won't have them sneering at us. I'll tell the men here."
"I fancy Pocus Pete knows something about it," Dave said. "He must have heard what Whitey and Len said to me."
"Well, we'll tell him the whole story. It's no disgrace."
And this was done. Soon all the cowboys on Bar U ranch knew the story, and talk buzzed around concerning it. But no one thought the less of Dave. In fact his friends and those of Mr. Carson were warmer than before. Then the matter was tacitly dropped, and was never mentioned among the cowboys of Bar U ranch.
For a time the knowledge hurt Dave cruelly. Then he grew more accustomed to it. But though he called Mr. Carson "Dad" there was more or less of reserve. And Dave found himself many times, wondering who his real parents could be.
"Some day I may find out," he said.
There was much to do at the ranch, from rounding up cattle, looking after strays and branding, to making shipments. Dave found his time fully occupied, and he saw little of Len and his crony. But one day Len and Dave had a "run-in." Dave, who was riding range, came upon Len in the act of beating his horse. It seems the animal had stepped into a hole and thrown the bully, who, in retaliation, mistreated the animal shamefully.
"Here! You quit that!" ordered Dave, riding up.
"What for?" sneered Len.
"Because I say so!"
"He isn't your horse."
"That may be, but I'm not going to see you abuse him that way. You quit, or I'll give you the worst licking you ever had."
"You will; eh? Mr. Nobody!" sneered Len. "You will?"
"Yes, I will!" and Dave strode forward with such a fierce look on his face that Len hastily left off beating his poor steed and fled.
"Oh5 I'll fix you yet!" Len cried, when, at a safe distance, he paused to turn and shake his fist at Dave.
"The mean hound!" muttered Dave.
It was about a week after this that Dave rode over to a small corral where some choice cattle were quartered. These had been cut out and herded by themselves, to get ready for a special shipment. Dave wanted to see if the fence and gate were sufficiently strong.
He rode around the corral, and was soon satisfied that all was right. He was riding away over the plain, glad to be able to report to Mr. Carson that the cattle were in fine shape for shipment, when a sudden noise caused him to turn around.
To Dave's surprise he saw the cattle, in a small stampede, rushing from the corral, straight toward him in an overwhelming mass.
Dave hesitated but a moment, and then clapping spurs to his horse he wheeled and rode straight at the oncoming steers, shouting and waving his hat in one hand, while with the other he fired shot after shot from his big revolver.
"Don't fall now, Crow! Don't you dare to stumble!" breathed Dave, leaning over to speak into the very ear of his coal-black steed. "Don't step in any holes and throw me. For if you do, it's all up with both of us!"
Yet, knowing that danger as he did, Dave never for an instant faltered. He was going to stop that stampede and drive back the valuable cattle before they could stray and get far out on the range or among the wild hills where they would lose much of their prime condition that would insure a good price. Dave was going to stop that stampede though he took his life in his hands to do it.
And for what? he might have reflected. To save the property of a man who was no relation to him.
Yet never for an instant did Dave ask this question of himself. It never entered his mind. For the time being he had forgotten that Mr. Carson was not his father.
"I'm going to save those cattle!" Dave murmured over and over again, as he neared the frightened, tumultous mass of steers. "But don't you stumble with me, Crow!"
For to stumble meant, very likely, the death of horse and rider. Cattle on the range are used to seeing mounted men—in fact they seldom see them otherwise, and for a mounted cowpuncher it is perfectly safe to ride in front of even a wildly running mass of steers.
But once let a man be on foot, while the cattle do not actually attack him, they seem to lose all fear of him, and may trample ruthlessly over him. Then is when a cowpuncher's life depends on his steed. The cattle seem to regard horse and man as one and as a superior being to whom they must give place. That is why Dave did not want his horse to stumble and throw him. For his life, and that of his fine steed, Crow, would not have lasted a minute under the pounding rush of those sharp hoofs.
While thus riding wildly at the rushing steers Dave had many thoughts in his mind.
"How did they get out?" he mused. "The gate and fastenings were all right five minutes ago. And I wonder if I can turn them and drive them back alone? I've got to, that's all, for I don't see any help coming."
Dave rose in his stirrups and gave a quick frightened, tumultuous mass of steers. "But don't glance ahead of him and over the backs of the steers. He saw no one in sight, and settling in the saddle again, prepared for the work ahead of him.
"Got to have some more shots, anyhow," Dave reasoned. His revolver was empty.
Fortunately Dave had trained Crow so that he could ride him without the use of the reins—merely by the pressure of the knees on either side of his neck. Dropping the leather, Dave broke his gun, scattered the empty shells out on the ground, and filled the chamber with fresh cartridges.
He depended upon the thundering reports of his forty-five, as much as on his voice and his fearless riding straight at the oncoming steers, to drive them back. Now again he was ready for his task, and it was high time, for he was almost at the front line of advancing cattle.
Shouting, waving his big hat with one hand, and with the other working the trigger of his gun, Dave sought to drive back the maddened animals. He put into his action all the energy of which he was capable, rising in his stirrups as though he would hurl himself over the head of his horse at the beasts.
"Steady now, Crow!" he called into the ear of his faithful pony, leaning over far on its neck. The front line of cattle began to divide to let Dave through, or, rather, to pass around him. But he did not want that. He wanted to turn the animals back.
"Oh, if I only had some one to help me!" he cried aloud.
Once more his gaze swept over the backs of the cattle. Yes, there was a figure on horseback, but it was riding away, straight toward the foot- hills.
"Here!" cried Dave. "Come back! Give me a hand here, whoever you are! Come back!"
But the figure did not turn, and then Dave, with anger and disgust showing in his face, thought he recognized in the peculiar style of the rider something familiar.
"Len Molick!" he exclaimed, as he wheeled his horse to ride out of the press of cattle and once more to get ahead of them.
"If that wasn't Len Molick I'll eat my hat!" he soliloquized. "But what is he doing here, and why is he riding away instead of helping me out? I'd help him out if he was in this pickle!"
It was queer to see Len riding away at top speed, providing that it was Len, and Dave felt pretty sure it was. Scarcely a cowpuncher but would render even his enemy help in an emergency of this kind. He might be on just as unfriendly terms as before, after the work was done, but he would give help.
"But that isn't Len's way, evidently," mused Dave, bitterly.
However he had his own work marked out for him, and no time for idle speculation. Somehow or other he must get ahead of the freed cattle and drive them back.
Whooping, yelling, waving his hat and shooting, Dave took after the escaping steers.
"Oh for one man to help," he cried aloud, and it seemed as if his cry was answered. For, riding toward him, and toward the bunch of stampeded cattle, he descried a figure that made his heart leap with joy.
"Pocus Pete!" he cried. "Now we'll get you beasts back!"
And indeed it was the efficient foreman of Bar U ranch who rode up at top speed, his hat off, his revolver spitting fire, and his horse lending itself to the game with all its energies.
"Off to the left, Dave! Bear off to the left!" yelled Pete, indicating that his friend was to head in that direction. Pete himself took the right, and a moment later the two were riding along the front of the steers who were not running so fast now, being somewhat exhausted.
The object of Pete, seconded by Dave, was to turn the stream of cattle—to swing around the front ranks, and so bring those in the rear to a halt.
Often in a cattle stampede the front rank becomes exhausted, and the animals in it would willingly give up and cease running, but there is an irresistible pressure from those in the rear. And if those in front stop they know they will be trampled under foot. So they must keep on or be killed.
This bunch, however, was comparatively small, and easy to handle. Soon, with the help of Pete, Dave had brought the animals down to a walk, and then it was an easy matter to turn them and drive them back toward the corral.
"Whew!" cried Dave, when he had a chance to get his breath. "That was some job, Pete!"
"Yes, all alone, I reckon it was."
"How'd you happen to know about it?"
"I didn't. I just come over here on an errand. Your dad—"
He stopped in some confusion.
"That's all right, Pete," Dave said. "I'm going to call Mr. Carson dad until I find my real one—if I ever do. No matter what happens, even if I do find my real folks, I can't forget that he has been as good as a father to me."
"That's what he has, Dave," said the foreman, solemnly. "An' I hope you don't ever forget that. There's not many folks—not even a fellow's real ones—who can beat th' Old Man. He's th' real stuff an' twenty-four carats fine every time."
Together they urged the now quieted cattle toward the corral.
"As I was sayin'," resumed Focus Pete, "I come over here on a little errand for th' Old Man, an' I thought I'd take a run out here an' see about the prize bunch. It's good I did."
"I should say so!" Dave exclaimed, fervently.
"Wasn't there any one to help you?" asked Pocus Pete.
"Not a soul. I did see Len Molick riding off—sneaking away. I called to him, but he didn't answer."
"How did they break out?" Pete asked next.
"That's what's puzzling me," replied the younger cowboy.
"Say! Look there!" suddenly called Pete, pointing. "That's how they got out. A section of th' corral fence is down."
"The gate didn't come open at all," said Dave. "The steers pushed down the fence."
"Drive 'em through the opening," directed Pete, and this was done. As the last of the cattle passed in, Pete and Dave stood on guard astride their ponies to prevent the animals stampeding out again, and Dave looked at the broken fence. What he saw caused him to cry out:
"Look here, Pete! Some of those posts have been sawed almost through!"
"By the great side saddle!" exclaimed the foreman. "You're right, Dave! There's been treachery here!"
A CRY FOR HELP
Together, Dave and Pocus Pete examined the posts of the corral fence. There was no doubt but that some of them had been partly sawed through, in order to weaken them so that only a moderate pressure was required to break them off short, close to the ground.
"So that was his game; eh?" exclaimed Dave in a justifiably angry voice.
"Whose game?" asked Pocus Pete.
"Len's! That's why he wouldn't stop to help me. He had been here sawing through the posts so our best bunch of cattle would get out and be spoiled. The hound! Wait until I get hold of him!"
"Better go a bit slow," advised Pocus Pete, in his drawling tones.
"Slow! What do you mean?"
"Well, I mean it isn't a good thing t' go around makin' accusations like that, without somethin' t' back 'em up. In this country you've got t' back up what you say, Dave."
"I know that, but—"
"An' what evidence have you got that Len did this mean trick? For mean trick it is, as shore as guns is guns. What evidence have you?"
"Why, didn't I see him riding away as fast as his horse could gallop just a little while ago?"
"Well, s'posin' you did. That's no evidence in a court of law. You didn't see him saw the posts; did you?"
"No, of course not. But look! Here's some fresh sawdust on the ground! The posts have been sawed within a few hours—perhaps even inside an hour. Maybe just before I came." Dave pointed to the moist earth under some of the splintered posts and boards. There was the fine sawdust where it had been preserved from the trampling hoofs of the steers.
"Yes, th' job's been done recent," admitted Pocus Pete, "but that doesn't prove anythin'. Now if we could find a saw with Len's name on it, that might be some law-evidence. But I don't see any; do you?"
There was no saw in sight. The cattle had retreated to the far side of the corral, leaving the part next the broken fence free for examination. But as Pete had said, there was no saw lying about.
"He could easily have carried it away with him when he rode off," Dave said, following up his suspicion.
"Yes, he could, an' he'd be foolish if he didn't—provided it was him as did this," agreed Pete.
"Well, I'm sure he did," Dave insisted. "And I'll take it out of him for trying to spoil dad's best bunch of cattle."
The word slipped from Dave almost before he knew it. But he did not care. As he had told Pocus Pete he was going to regard Mr. Carson as his father —he had thought of him so many years in that relationship that it was difficult to think otherwise.
"Well, you be careful of what you do, Dave; that's my advice t' you," said Pete.
"Why so? I'm not afraid of Len Molick," was Dave's quick response.
"No, maybe not. Yet Len trails in with a middlin' mean crowd, an' though you are pretty good, you're no match for Whitey Wasson an' his bunch of cowpunchers."
"But my quarrel is with Len, for I'm sure he did this."
"That's all right. I have a sneakin' suspicion that way myself, but Len is a coward, as well as a bully, an' he'd howl for help if you went at him. An' Whitey is just th' kind t' pitch in on you if he saw you givin' Len a drubbin'. So you take my advice, an' go a bit slow."
"I will. I won't have it out with Len until I can get him alone somewhere, and then I'll put it up to him."
"Well, maybe that's a good way, though I don't approve of fightin' as a rule."
"Oh, no! You don't!" laughed Dave, for it was a well known fact that Pocus Pete was considered the best man with his fists in that section of the country.
"Oh, of course I'll fight when I have to. But I'm not goin' out of my way t' look for trouble."
This was strictly true, and Dave knew it. Pocus Pete would never needlessly quarrel with any one, but once he had started on what he regarded as a right course, nothing would turn him aside until he had either vanquished or been beaten. And the latter was seldom the outcome.
"Well, that's my case," said Dave. "I'm not going to put this on Len until I give him a chance to defend himself. But now, Pete, what are we going to do? We can't leave these choice cattle here in a broken corral. They'll stray all over the range."
"That's right. We've got to fix that fence, and we'll need help. Some new posts will have to be set, and it's got to be done before dark. Tell you what to do. You ride back to the ranch, and get some of the boys."
"What will you do?"
"I'll stay here and guard the cattle. It won't take long, and your horse is faster than mine."
"All right, I'll go. But first let's make what repairs we can. That will make it easier for you to hold in the cattle."
There was some wire at the corral, and with this, and by using some of the broken posts and boards, the gap in the fence was made smaller so the cattle would not be so likely to try to rush through it.
This done, Pete prepared to mount guard while Dave leaped to the back of Crow and started for the ranch on the gallop, to bring help and to tell the story of the broken corral.
"I wonder if I'd better mention Len?" thought Dave, as he rode on. "I'm pretty sure he did the trick, but I don't want to accuse any one unjustly, even him."
After thinking it over Dave decided that it would be better not to say anything about Len just yet. He would let matters take their own course.
"But I'll be on the watch for him," he made up his mind.
Dave's mind was busy with many thoughts, and his body was weary with the exertions through which he had just passed. But there was a certain sense of exhilaration after all. He had done a good piece of work, and he realized it. Of course Pocus Pete had helped, but Dave was in a fair way to stop the stampede when the old foreman came along.
"I'll get to be a regular cowboy after a while," thought Dave, not without a little smile of gratification.
To get to the ranch more quickly the young cowpuncher took a trail that led through a patch of rocky woodland. It was a curious formation in the midst of the flat cattle country, being a patch several miles square, consisting of some rocky hills, well wooded, with a number of deep gullies in them. More than once cattle had wandered in among them and been lost. And it was said that at one time a noted band of cattle rustlers, or thieves, had made their headquarters in this wood, and had held out a long time against the attacks of the cattlemen.
Dave rode through this not very cheerful place. He had been keeping his eyes open for a sight of Len Molick, but had caught no further glimpse of the bully whom he suspected.
"Hit it up, Crow! Hit it up!" Dave called to his black horse, who was going along a not very safe trail amid the rocks and stones.
Dave was about half way through the place when the silence, undisturbed save by the rattle of Crow's hoofs, was suddenly broken by a cry.
"Help! Help!" Dave heard uttered in somewhat weak accents. "Help!"
The young cowboy was startled for a moment. He reined in his horse sharply, and looked about. He could see nothing, and the silence seemed more pronounced after the echo of the appeal for aid had died away.
"Hello!" Dave called. "Who are you, and what do you want? Where are you?" he asked, for he could see no one.
"Over here. To your right. I can see you, but you can't see me. I'm down behind a rock. I'm caught, and hanging over a gully. Wait, I'll toss up my handkerchief. Watch for it!"
Dave looked as nearly as he could tell in the direction of the voice. An instant later something white flashed up in the air, and fell down softly. Crow started violently.
"Whoa there, old boy! Steady!" Dave spoke to his horse, and the animal, that had been frightened by the sudden throwing into the air of the handkerchief, stood still.
"I see where you are!" Dave called to the unknown and unseen one—a man, evidently, by the tones of his voice. "I'll be with you in a minute!"
"Be careful of yourself," was the caution. "I had a bad fall in here, and I don't want to see any one else get into trouble. Go a bit slow."
"Thanks, I will," Dave said "But I know this ground pretty well. Stand still now, old fellow," he went on to his horse. "I don't want you falling, and breaking your leg or neck."
Crow whinnied as though he understood, and Dave, slipping the reins over the neck of the intelligent animal as a further intimation that he was to stay where he was without wandering, climbed from the saddle, a bit wearily it must be confessed, and started for the rock, behind which lay the injured man, and from which point the young cattleman had observed the white handkerchief.
"Careful now." cautioned the voice again.
"All right, don't worry about me," said Dave, easily.
A moment later he had turned around the intervening rock, and saw, stretched out on the ground, hanging half way over a deep and rock-filled gully, a man about twenty-seven years of age. Dave guessed this much though he could see only a part of the man's body, for his head and shoulders were hanging down over the ledge,
"What are you doing there?" was Dave's first question. "Why don't you get up?"
For it was exactly as if the man were lying face downward on top of a cliff, looking down.
"I can't get up," the man answered, his voice being a bit muffled because his head was hanging over the cliff. "My foot is caught in a cleft in the rocks, and I'm afraid to move for fear it will pull loose. If it does I'll lose my balance and topple, for I'm hanging more than half-way over this cliff now. And it doesn't look like a good place into which to fall."
This was true enough, as Dave knew, for the bottom of the gully was covered with jagged rocks. More than one straying steer had fallen over there and had been dashed to pieces.
"Steady!" called Dave. "I see how it is. I'll soon have you out of that. I'm going back for my rope."
"Are you a puncher?" asked the man.
"Yes," answered Dave, briefly. "But don't talk. Save your strength. I'll have you out in a jiffy."
He hurried back to where he had left his horse, and took from the horn of the saddle the rope which no cowboy is ever without. With this Dave took a turn about the man's waist, passing the rope under him. He then carried an end back to a stout tree and tied it there, working, the while, deftly and swiftly.
"That will hold you in case you slip when I loosen the rocks and free your foot," Dave explained. "You are pretty well overbalanced. But I'll get you up, all right."
The man was in a peculiar and perilous position, but Dave thought that he could cope with the situation. His life on the plains, and amid the perils of the range had made him resourceful, and quick to take advantage of all the chances for safety.
Dave looked at the man's foot. It was firmly wedged in between two rocks that came together in the form of a large V. Considerable pressure must have forced the man's foot there, for Dave could see that the stout leather of his riding boot was cut and scraped. The foot was twisted, and Dave remarked, in a low voice:
"If you haven't a badly sprained ankle I'll miss my guess!"
"Watch yourself now," David cautioned the man. "You can't fall, even if you slip over, for the rope's strong enough to hold you; but you may get a bad jerk when you bring up suddenly if you fall after I release your foot."
"I'm ready," said the man.
Dave looked at the two stones between which the man's foot was wedged. Then with a heavy tree branch, inserted in such a way as not to bring any crushing force on the stranger's leg, Dave used the branch as a lever and pressed down with all his might.
"It's giving!" the man cried. "I can feel it giving!"
"Look out for yourself!" Dave shouted.
Once more he pressed down hard on the tree lever.
The rocks were pried apart. The man's foot slipped free. Dave, seeing this, dropped the branch, made a grab for the leg, for the man's body was going over the cliff. Of course he could not fall far, as the rope would hold him, but Dave wanted to save him this jerk if possible.
The young cowboy caught the stranger's boot. Dave was aware of a cry of pain from the man, and realized that the ankle must be severely injured.
"I can't help it," thought Dave, grimly. "I've got to hurt him some to save him more," and he held on desperately.
Dave was strong, and the man, now that his foot was free, was able to use his hands to push himself back, up over the edge of the cliff. After a few seconds of rather strenuous struggle Dave, with the help of the man himself, was able to get him to a sitting position on the edge of the cliff that overhung the gully.
The man was pale, and his face was scratched and bleeding. His clothing was disheveled, and he showed many signs of the struggle through which he had gone.
"Thank—thanks," he gasped, weakly.
"Now don't try to talk until you get your breath," Dave advised him. "Here, drink some of this. It's warm, but it's wet."
Dave carried with him a water canteen, and this he now put to the lips of the man. The latter drank greedily.
"That's good," he whispered. He lay back weakly, Dave supporting him in his arms. The man's eyes closed, and Dave feared he was about to faint. Quickly the young cowboy whipped off his coat, and folding it in pillow shape, put it on the rocks, and laid the man's head down on it.
The stranger opened his eyes.
"Don't be alarmed," he said. "I'm not going to die. I'm just getting my breath back. I was hanging there a good while I guess."
He closed his eyes again, and moved his foot—the one that had been caught between the rocks.
A groan came through his clenched teeth and tightly pressed lips, and, accompanied by a sudden wave of whiteness that made his face paler than before, a shudder passed over him.
"He's fainted this time, for keeps," decided Dave, grimly.
Dave Carson had some knowledge of rough and ready first-aid work. There was often occasion for it on the ranch, and though fainting men were not common sights, still, now and again, such a contingency would arise. Cowboys often get severely hurt, and it is not always within the nerve power of a man to hold back when a deathly faintness overcomes him.
"I've got to get help to tote you back to the ranch," Dave said, as he sprinkled some water from his canteen in the face of the stranger.
"You've got to be looked after. Maybe the ankle's broken."
He glanced at the injured foot, but did not offer to touch it, for he knew how sensitive it must be, when even a slight movement sent the man off in a faint.
The water had the desired effect, or perhaps the faint was only a slight one, for presently the man opened his eyes, looked about him in some wonder, and murmured:
"Oh, I remember now. Was it last year I tried to fall over the cliff?" He smiled wanly.
"No, it was only a little while ago-or at least it was only a little while ago that I pulled you back," Dave said. "I don't know how long you had been hanging there, though."
"It seemed ten years," was the answer given with another wan smile. "Well, what's the next move? I hope it isn't mine, for I don't know how I can manage it. My ankle is either broken, or badly sprained."
"I'm afraid so," Dave answered. "Now I don't know where you came from, or where you're going, but our ranch—Bar U—is the nearest place you can get help. I can put you on my horse—I guess I can manage that—and walk with you, but it will take a long time. Crow won't carry double, I'm afraid. Certainly not with the way I'd have to put you on."
"I had a horse," said the stranger. "He can't have gone very far. I left him beside the trail while I came in here to look about. He must have wandered off a way."
"A horse!" cried Dave, eagerly. "That's good, if I can find him. We'll not have any trouble getting you to the ranch in that case, Mr.—er—"
Dave paused significantly, adding, after a moment's thought:
"My names is Dave—Dave Carson." He had hesitated, and then quickly reflected that this was no time to enter into explanations about his lack of parentage. "My father, Randolph Carson, owns Bar U ranch."
"Yes, I have heard of him," the man said. "In fact I was going to call on him within a few days in regard to a certain matter. I am afraid I can't reach my card case, but my name is Bellmore—Benjamin Bellmore. I'm from Chicago, but I'm out here representing the Rolling Valley Water Company."
"Never heard of them," Dave said. "They don't deal in cattle; do they?"
"No, they hope to deal in water; that is later on. But I'll go into details after a bit."
"Pardon me, Mr. Bellmore!" burst out Dave. "Here I am keeping you talking, when I ought to be looking for your animal, and helping you to our ranch. I don't know what's got into me. But I just had some trouble with a bunch of our cattle, and I guess I'm thinking of that yet.
"I was on my way to the ranch to get help, when I took this short cut and heard you call. I'll go and see if I can find your horse. If I can't we'll use mine, and I can walk. It won't be the first time, though we cowpunchers are more used to a saddle than we are to our own legs."
He gave Mr. Bellmore another drink from the canteen, and then seeing that the man was as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, went back to the trail to look for the missing horse. Dave saw his own steed contentedly munching some of the scanty herbage, &and, speaking to him, passed on.
Reaching a point where he could look down into the valley below, Dave peered long and earnestly for a sight of a riderless horse. To his delight he saw the animal almost at once.
"Well, you didn't run far," he murmured, "and if you don't get a tantrum, and gallop off when I come up, I'll soon have you."
Going back to where he had left Mr. Bellmore, Dave reported:
"Your horse is down in the valley. I'll jump on mine and try to catch him for you. If I can, we'll not have any trouble, and I'll soon have you at our ranch."
"Thanks," murmured the representative of the water company. "His name is Kurd," he added. "My horse's, I mean," he explained, with a smile. "He generally comes when I call him, but here are some lumps of sugar I give him. He'll be sure to come if you hold these out to him."
Dave took the sweets, which Mr. Bellmore extracted from his pocket, and hurried back to where he had left Crow. A moment later Dave was moving off down the trail toward the valley.
"Careful, old boy," he cautioned his steed, for the going was anything but good. "It won't do for you to slip and stumble now."
But Crow had no intention of doing anything of the sort, and a little later Dave was galloping rapidly—across the grassy plain toward the lone horse.
"I hope he doesn't bolt and give me a chase," reflected the young cowboy. "I haven't much time," and he looked at the declining sun, and thought of Pocus Pete on guard at the corral, waiting for help to mend the broken fence.
"It's all Len's fault, too—the mean skunk!" said Dave. "If it hadn't been for him the cattle wouldn't have gotten loose. Though I suppose if they hadn't I wouldn't have ridden home this way, and I wouldn't have discovered that man. Maybe it'll be a good thing, in the end."
Just how "good" this chance was to prove to Dave, the young cowboy little dreamed.
"Here Kurd! Kurd!" he called, as he approached the horse. Dave wondered how Mr. Bellmore had hit on that odd name. "Here, Kurd!" the youth called.
The horse, a beautiful and intelligent beast, raised his head, and looked at Dave approaching on Crow.
"Here you are, old boy. Kurd!" called the young ranchman again.
The other pony, who had been cropping the grass, moved off a short distance.
"That won't do!" Dave murmured. "If he once starts he'll keep going. Looks as if he had speed, too, but I think you can beat him, Crow, old boy," and he patted the neck of his faithful beast.
Kurd continued to amble slowly away. Then Dave thought of the sugar. He took the lumps out of his pocket and held them in the palm of his hand, at the same time bringing Crow to a stop.
Kurd raised his head, whinnied once or twice, stretched out his velvet muzzle, as though to smell what Dave held out, and then came slowly toward the youth.
"That's more like it," Dave murmured. "Now if you don't take a sudden notion, and bolt off just as I reach for your reins, I'll be all right. Steady boy! Come on Kurd!"
The strange horse seemed to have cast his suspicions to the wind, and came fearlessly. A moment later he and Crow were sniffing at each other, and then Kurd took the sugar from Dave's palm. Then the lad grasped the reins, and, turning about, riding his own horse and leading Kurd, made for the place where he had left Mr. Bellmore.
"Good luck!" Dave called as he came in sight of the prostrate man. "I've got your horse, and now we'll soon be at the ranch."
"Fine! Now I'm going to ask you to do something else for me. This foot of mine is paining worse every minute, but I think if I could get my boot off, to allow room for that swelling to expand, it would ease me."
"I'll try," Dave said.
However, it was found impossible to pull off the footgear without so yanking on the injured foot that Mr. Bellmore nearly fainted again.
"Guess I'll have to cut it," Dave said, dubiously.
"It's a pity to spoil a good boot."
"Well, the chances are I won't be able to wear one again for a few weeks, and I simply can't stand this pain."
"Here goes," Dave said. With his keen knife he slit the leather. A sigh of relief came from the man.
"That's better-a whole lot better," he murmured.
It was no easy matter to get him astride his horse, but Dave finally managed it, and wrapped the swollen ankle in his own coat to prevent its striking against the side of Kurd as they rode off.
"How did you come to fall?" asked Dave, as he got into his own saddle, ready for the trip to the ranch.
"I'll explain later. I can't talk very well now. But I was prospecting around, looking at the rock formation, when I slipped. I thought it was all up with me, but my foot caught, and I was held suspended over the gully."
"I see," Dave replied. "Well, we'll doctor you up."
Carefully they made their way out of the rocky woodland, and started across the plain, toward Bar U ranch. As Dave took the lead, making as much speed as was possible under the circumstances, he saw, some distance in advance, a solitary horseman.
Again something in the peculiar saddle position of the rider attracted his attention.
"There's Len Molick again!" he exclaimed aloud. "I suppose he's hanging around to see how his trick worked!"
"Len Molick!" exclaimed Mr. Bellmore. "Why I want to see him. I have been looking for him!"
DAVE MEETS LEN
Dave looked curiously at the man he had rescued. From him he glanced toward the figure of the young bullying cowboy whom he suspected of having been instrumental in causing the stampede.
"Do you know Len Molick?" asked Dave slowly, as he guided his horse along the trail.
"No, but I want to know him," was the answer. "I have a letter to him, and I understand that he is one of the influential cattle raisers in this vicinity."
Dave breathed easier. It was evident a mistake had been made.
"I guess it's Len's father, Mr. Jason Molick you want to meet," Dave said.
"That's right. Jason is the name!" admitted Mr. Bellmore. "I heard you mention the name Molick and I didn't pay much attention to the first part. So there are two of them?"
"Yes, Len and his father,"
"Do you know them?"
"Oh, yes, every one around here knows them."
"You don't speak very enthusiastically," said Mr. Bellmore, with a strange look at the boy. "Is it possible that some error has been made on the part of those who gave me letters of introduction? Is not Mr. Molick influential in these parts?"
"Oh, yes, that's all right," assented Dave, and still his voice had no ring to it. "Mr. Molick is influential all right—too much so, at times."
"You don't seem to like him," said Mr. Bellmore. "I wish you would be frank with me. I am a stranger in these parts, and I have to depend on residents here for my information, and, in a large part, for my success. I know nothing about the Molicks."
"Well, since you asked me to be frank," went on Dave, "I will be, and I'll say you haven't missed much by not knowing the Molicks—especially Len. I'm after him now, for I suspect him of having tried to do us a serious injury."
"Is that so! That's too bad. If I had known that—"
"Oh, don't let me prejudice you against them," Dave went on." Mr. Molick may be able to do business with you in the way you want. I am not speaking from the business end of it. Personally I don't like the Molicks," and Dave mentioned the cattle stampede.
"Well, if he did that I should say he wasn't a person to be trusted," said the Chicago man. "But still—"
"Of course. I'm not certain of it," Dave continued. "I'm going to find out about the sawed posts, though. But see Mr. Molick yourself, and make up your own mind about him"
"I will, but I shall be on my guard on account of what you have said. It is well to know the character of the man one is dealing with. I'm afraid though," he added as a spasm of pain crossed his face," that I sha'n't be able to do any active business for a while," and he glanced down at his injured foot.
"We'll soon be at the ranch," Dave remarked. "The rest of the trail is easy."
Dave was thinking of many things as his pony ambled on, followed by Mr. Bellmore's horse. It was strange, the manner in which he had come to help the injured man, and it was stranger still that the latter should be seeking to do business with the Molicks of whom the members of the Bar U ranch had no very high opinion.
"I was on my way to Mr. Molick's place, when I got off the trail to look after that rock formation resumed Mr. Bellmore after a pause." Rocks always interest me, for I am always looking to see what the possibilities are for striking a supply of water."
"Why water?" asked Dave.
"Because I am an irrigation engineer," was the reply. "That is my business. I have been sent out here by a concern, recently formed, called the Rolling Valley Water Company. Our concern has acquired rights in the valley of the Rolling River, and I have been sent out to see what the chances are for getting the ranchmen and other land-owners interested."
"I thought irrigation schemes had only to do with farming," said Dave.
"No, irrigation takes in much more than that. Of course farmers need water, and we hope to develop some big farms out here. But ranchmen also need water for their cattle."
"Yes, that's true," said Dave. "; My—my father was saying only the other day, that he could do a lot more if we had a better water supply."
"Then he's one of the men I need to see!" exclaimed Mr. Bellmore. "Perhaps he already has some rights in the water supply of this valley that we could negotiate for.
"You see our idea is," he continued, "to get the whole water supply under one head in a big company, of course giving those who sell us their rights, a certain control. Then we intend to build a big dam to conserve the water supply. As it is here now I imagine, from what I know of other places, at one time you have too much water, and at another you don't have enough."
"That's just it," Dave admitted. "It isn't even."
"Well, that's what we irrigation engineers are aiming to do—make the water supply even the year around. I certainly must talk with your father. Maybe, after all, it's a good thing I sprained my ankle, though it certainly does hurt!" he exclaimed, with a sharp indrawing of his breath.
"Well, of course I'll be glad to have you see Mr. Carson—my father," and again Dave rather hesitated and stumbled over the word. "But, as a matter of fact, some of the rights he has in Rolling River are subject to some agreement with Mr. Molick. I know my father doesn't like it, for it makes him too dependent on this man, but he could do nothing else. He had to have water for his stock."
"Of course," agreed Mr. Bellmore. "Well, perhaps we can get together and form a company so he can have more water and will not have to worry about it."
"I hope so," Dave said.
A little later they came within sight of the ranch buildings, which were glowing in the rays of the setting sun.
"What a fine place!" exclaimed Mr. Bellmore.
"Yes, I like it," Dave made answer. Then a pang seemed to shoot through him. What if he had to leave the place? He could not count on always staying there, as he might have done had he been Mr. Carson's son. Even though the ranchman might love Dave as one of his own blood, when Mr. Carson died there would be other heirs very likely, who would step in and claim the place. Dave was not legally adopted. He might inherit nothing.
He had always counted on taking up as his life work, the cattle business. But now, since the disclosure had been made, this was, perhaps, impossible. And He sighed again as he looked at the group of buildings set down in a little valley, with Rolling River in the distance glistening in the slanting rays of the setting sun. On all sides stretched the vast prairies on which grazed the hundreds of cattle—not only from the Bar U ranch, but from the Centre O, and others.
"Yes, that's our place," said Dave. For the present, at least, this man need not know his secret, though he might find it out soon enough. "And I guess you'll be glad of a chance to lie down; won't you?"
"Indeed I will," was the answer.
A moment later the two rode up toward the main ranch buildings. The cowboys had come in from their day's labors, and were washing themselves at their bunk houses, in readiness for supper. From the quarters of Hop Loy, the Chinese cook, came a grateful odor.
"That certainly smells good!" exclaimed Mr. Bellmore.
The cowpunchers looked curiously at the drooping figure on the horse that followed Dave. It needed but a glance from their sharp eyes to tell that the man was hurt. Mr. Carson came out.
"Well, Dave," he began, "I was just wondering where you were. Are the cattle all right?"
"They are now, Dad, but they weren't for a time. They got out of the corral, but Pocus Pete and I got them back again. I'll tell you about that later.
"Here's a gentleman who needs help. He's a Mr. Bellmore from Chicago interested in irrigation. He was in the rock-grove, caught by the foot. I got him out. You look after him, Dad. I've got to get some of the boys, with fence material, and go back to relieve Pete. He's on guard there."
"Say! It takes you to tell it!" exclaimed Mr. Carson with a smile. "Welcome to Bar U, Mr. Bellmore. I don't exactly understand all that boy of mine has gotten off, but it's all right. We will look after you. Sprained ankle; eh? Well, I know something about them. Come boys, one of you help Mr. Bellmore down, and make him comfortable.
"You'll stop and get something to eat, Dave, won't you, before you go back?"
"Yes, just a bite, Dad. We haven't much time."
A little later Mr. Bellmore was comfortably installed in the ranch house, while Dave and two other cowboys, after a hasty meal, were on their way back to relieve Pocus Pete, and repair the broken fence.
This work was soon under way. While Pocus Pete had been on guard a cattleman, passing, had given him an important message for Mr. Carson.
"So you'd better ride back and tell him, Dave," Pete said, as he and the other punchers began to work on the fence, a snack having been brought for Pete's supper.
"But I want to stay and help you," objected Dave.
"You'll do better work by getting back with that message," the foreman said, and once more Dave turned his horse's head toward Bar U ranch.
It was getting dusk now, but it was not so dark but that Dave could make out, after he had ridden some distance, the figure of a horseman just ahead of him.
"Len again!" he murmured. "I'm going to see what he has to say, and why he's hanging around here. We may have to guard those cattle all night."
At a word Crow leaped forward in a gallop, and in another moment, though Len made an effort to spur on ahead, Dave had ridden alongside of him.
"Trying to see how your trick worked?" asked Dave, with a sharp look at his enemy."
"Are you speaking to me?" demanded Len.
"I certainly am."
"Well, I don't want to talk to a nobody!" was the retort.
Giving utterance to this sneering remark Len Molick began to urge his horse forward, but, though his face flushed, and a sense of anger choked him, Dave remained cool as he put out a hand and caught the bridle of the other's steed.
"Not so fast, Len Molick!" Dave exclaimed.
"You may not want to talk to a nobody—that's your business—but you're going to talk to a somebody right now, and that somebody is I!"
"Huh! you don't even know your name!" Len sneered, but he did not try to break away.
"Names don't matter," said Dave, trying to retain his calmness. "You can call me Injun Jack if you like, but I want to ask you a few questions."
"Well, I'm not going to answer them," snapped Len, "and I want you to let me go! If you don't—"
He raised a riding quire he carried, and seemed about to lash it into Dave's face.
"Look here!" Dave cried. "If you try to strike me with that I'll pull you off your pony and give you the best drubbing you ever had." He snatched the quirt from Len's wrist, breaking the thong, and flung the little whip far out on the prairie.
"Oh!" mumbled Len, and he shrunk away in fear.
"I won't touch you—at least not now—if you don't try any more of your underhand work," promised Dave. "But I'm going to converse with you right here and now. Why did you cut the posts of our special corral? Answer me that!"
"I didn't cut any posts!" was the sullen answer.
"You didn't; eh? Well, I think you did, and I'll prove it too, sooner or later. What are you hanging around here for now?"
"Isn't this a free range? Haven't I a right to ride it if I want to?"
"Yes, you have, but you must have some object in it, and I believe you want to see our cattle stampede. But I fooled you that time, Len Molick, and I'll fool you again. Now I want to know something else. Is Whitey Wasson the only one who told you I—that I wasn't Mr. Carson's son?"
For the life of him Dave could not help the falter that crept into his voice.
"Yes; he's the only one who told me," was Len's sullen answer.
"How did he find out about it?"
"Huh! How should I know? Ask him!"
"I intend to after I get through with you."
Len winced again.
"Oh, don't worry. I'm not going to thrash you—at least not now" said Dave, grimly. He was willing that Len should get what satisfaction he could out of that promise.
"Well, if you're through with me, you let me go!" the bully demanded. "You haven't any right to hold me up this way."
"I've just as much right as you have to take a saw and cut through our fence posts, so that the least pressure by the cattle would crack 'em off short," retorted Dave.
"I didn't saw any of your posts, I tell you!" insisted Len.
Dave was working his horse around to get closer to Len. Before the bully suspected it Dave had suddenly slipped his hand in under Len's coat, and had pulled out a short saw.
For a moment Len was too surprised to utter a word. Then he cried:
"Here! Give me that!"
"No, I don't think I will," Dave said, coolly. "I may need it as evidence. I thought you said you didn't saw any posts."
"Then Whitey Wasson, or some of your crowd, did. I suppose they passed the saw to you to get rid of, which you would have done if you were wise."
"I—I found that saw on the plains," stammered Len.
"Probably where Whitey dropped it," Dave retorted. "Now look here Len Molick," he went on. "You say you didn't saw those posts, but I think you did, and I'm going to try to prove it. This saw is part of the proof. I guess I'll just keep it.
"And one thing more. If I catch you hanging around our special corral, even if you are on free range land, I'll tackle you. Don't forget that!"
"If you dare to touch me!" fairly screamed Len, for he was very angry now, "if you dare to touch me I'll have you arrested! My father knows the sheriff—"
"You can't scare me by any talk like that," Dave said, coolly. "You know I'm a nobody, and I can't be disgraced like any one who bears the name of Molick!" and he laughed mockingly, though there was a sore spot in his heart.
After all it is small satisfaction to be a "nobody."
Dave released his hold on the bridle of Len's horse, and urged his own steed back toward Bar U ranch.
"You just wait! I'll fix you for this" Len threatened.
"I'm a good waiter," Dave told him. Then, speaking to Crow, he galloped off through the gathering darkness.
On reaching the ranch Dave found that Mr. Bellmore was very comfortable. Mr. Carson had applied rough and ready, but effective treatment to the injured ankle, and the two men were deep in a talk of irrigation matters when Dave entered the room.
"Back again, son?" remarked Mr. Carson, and there was no hesitancy in his endearing tone. For of course he had known, all along, that Dave was not his son, though, as he had said, he so loved and so regarded him.
"Yes—Dad, back. Perkins sent word about that bunch he was speaking of," and he delivered the message left with Pocus Pete.
"Well, Dave, you have done a good day's work since morning," commented Mr. Carson.
"You saved that valuable bunch of special cattle, and you bring me as a guest a man, who, I think, can do me a lot of good."
"I'm glad to hear it, Dad!"
"Yes, your father and I have been talking irrigation, Dave," said Mr. Bellmore, who had taken a sudden liking to the young cowboy. And to himself Dave could not but admit that the more he saw of Mr. Bellmore the better he liked him. "We think we can get together on this irrigation project," the Chicago man went on.
"Of course that is if we can deal with Molick," suggested the ranchman.
"Oh, yes, it depends a great deal on Molick," Mr. Bellmore admitted.
"I wish it didn't," Dave said.
"Why, son?" asked Mr. Carson.
Then Dave told his story, which was received with rather ominous shakes of the head on the part of Mr. Carson.
"Well," said the owner of Bar U ranch, when Dave had finished, "there's no two ways about it! I wish it hadn't happened, and I think as you do, Dave, that Molick, or some of his friends, had a hand in it. However, that isn't proof, and we can't move until we get better evidence than just a saw.
"Another thing I'm sorry for—this may make more bad feeling between Mr. Molick and myself. There's not much love lost between us as it is," he went on, "and this will only add to his feeling."
"I'm sorry, Dad," Dave began.
"Oh, it isn't your fault," said Mr. Carson, quickly. "You acted as you thought best, and I haven't a word of fault to find. It just had to be so, I reckon. But I'll know how to act—that's one thing sure. I'll be on my guard from now on."
"It will be best so," said Mr. Bellmore.
A little later Pocus Pete and one of the cowboys returned, to report that the fence had been repaired.
"Where's Gimp?" asked Dave, referring to the other cowpuncher who had ridden with him.
"Oh, he stayed there on guard. Thought it best t' leave him there—to- night anyhow," the foreman said to Mr. Carson.
"I understand," was the answer. "We can't afford to lose any of those steers."
They were all up late at Bar U ranch that night, for the day had been a momentous one. Then, too, the visit of Mr. Bellmore had created a little diversion. He and Mr. Carson sat up for some time after the others had retired, talking irrigation matters,
"I wonder if I'll ever have a part in them?" reflected Dave, as he went to his room. "How long can I stay here, now that I know I am not Dave Carson —but somebody else? And who am I?"
Dave's wonderings were not of the most cheerful sort as he fell into an uneasy slumber.
Cowboys rushing here and there. Dust arising in clouds, settling into a hazy mist, only to be shattered again, as some rushing rider rode recklessly through it. Yells, shouts, the snapping of whips, the barking of heavy calibred revolvers, now and then the shrill neigh of a cow-pony.
Above all a deep resonant note—a sort of distant thunder—a pounding of the earth as thousands of hoofs smote it at once.
That was the scene on which Dave Carson gazed, as he rose in his saddle, his breath coming in quicker measures, while a fierce light shone in his eyes, for he was having a part in it all.
It was one of the many round-ups on the Bar U range, and there was work for all, more than enough.
"Hi there, Gimp! Watch where yo-all are a-ridin'!"
"Swing him over there! I'll handle that critter!"
"What's the matter with your fire? Can't git no kind of an impression with irons as cold as a chunk of ice!"
"Look out for that cayuse! He's shore a bad 'un!"
"Over this way now!"
This was only some of the talk, part of the shouts, a few of the yells that were bandied back and forth, as the cowboys rounded up the herd, cut out the designated steers or cows, branded the new ones that had never yet felt the touch of the hot iron, and generally did the work that falls to every ranch at certain times of the year.
Dave had been among the busiest, now roping some refractory steer, now helping a cowboy heat the big irons, with their mark "Bar U.", now scudding out of the way on the back of his fleet pony, Crow. Now finding a moment of respite, he galloped up to where Mr. Bellmore was sitting in the shade of the chuck wagon, as the cooking outfit is known.
"Well, what do you think of it?" asked the young cowboy, as he pulled his horse back sharply, so that Crow reared. But he was used to that, and Dave was exceptionally gentle with him.
"It's just great!" exclaimed the man who had been a semi-invalid since coming to Bar U ranch. "I never imagined there was so much work attached to a round-up."
"Oh, there's work all right," said Dave, removing his big hat and wiping the sweat from his brow with a big handkerchief. "It isn't much like locating a water trail, I expect?"
"Not much," assented the visitor, who had now been at the ranch about a week, and who was progressing favorably. His ankle would not yet permit him to step on it, but he managed to get about with the help of his horse. To-day he had ridden out in the chuck wagon to witness the round-up.
"Locating a good place to plant an irrigation scheme is child's play compared to this cattle business" went on Mr. Bellmore. "Still I suppose you get more or less used to it."
"In a way, yes," said Pocus Pete, who rode up just then. "But there are always some things you never can count on. Gimp's horse just broke his leg," he added, more to Dave than to the visitor.
"You don't say!" exclaimed the lad. "That will make Gimp feel bad."
"Well, it's all in the game," added the foreman with a shrug of his shoulders. "That's the end of him," he went on as a shot rang out. There had been little firing of late, for the work of branding the strays and other cattle was almost over.
"Did he shoot him?" asked Mr. Bellmore.
"Th' horse? yes!" said Pete sententiously.
"That's all we can do for a horse when he breaks a leg. He ain't no good to anybody. That's the law of th' range. Yo've got t' make good or quit!"
"Poor Star," murmured Dave. "He was a good horse."
"While he lasted," added Pete. "But Gimp pulled him around too sudden like, I'm thinkin', t' get out of the way of an onery steer. Well, that's th' way it goes!"
And Dave, as he thought of his own new and peculiar position, wondered if that was to be his way. He was really no one now. Would he be thrust aside, and not counted as one of the family?
And yet, as he reflected on the fact that Mr. Carson had always known of their relation—or, rather their lack of relation—he would not be likely to change.