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- Cowboy Dave - 5/28 -
"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
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