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- Cowboy Dave - 2/28 -


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?"

CHAPTER II

THE TAUNT

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.


Cowboy Dave - 2/28

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