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- Cowboy Dave - 3/28 -
"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.
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