Betty Gordon in the Land of Oil
The Farm That Was Worth a Fortune
ALICE B. EMERSON
AUTHOR OF "BETTY GORDON AT BRAMBLE FARM," "BETTY GORDON IN WASHINGTON," "THE RUTH FIELDING SERIES," ETC.
NEW YORK CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY PUBLISHERS
Books for Girls
BY ALICE B. EMERSON
12mo. Cloth. Illustrated.
BETTY GORDON SERIES
BETTY GORDON AT BRAMBLE FARM BETTY GORDON IN WASHINGTON BETTY GORDON IN THE LAND OF OIL
RUTH FIELDING SERIES
RUTH FIELDING OF THE RED MILL RUTH FIELDING AT BRIARWOOD HALL RUTH FIELDING AT SNOW CAMP RUTH FIELDING AT LIGHTHOUSE POINT RUTH FIELDING AT SILVER RANCH RUTH FIELDING ON CLIFF ISLAND RUTH FIELDING AT SUNRISE FARM RUTH FIELDING AND THE GYPSIES RUTH FIELDING IN MOVING PICTURES RUTH FIELDING DOWN IN DIXIE RUTH FIELDING AT COLLEGE RUTH FIELDING IN THE SADDLE RUTH FIELDING IN THE RED CROSS RUTH FIELDING AT THE WAR FRONT RUTH FIELDING HOMEWARD BOUND RUTH FIELDING DOWN EAST
CUPPLES & LEON CO., PUBLISHERS, NEW YORK.
COPYRIGHT, 1920, BY CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY
BETTY GORDON IN THE LAND OF OIL
Printed in U. S. A.
I BREAKFAST EN ROUTE 1
II THINKING BACKWARD 9
III WHAT BOB HEARD 17
IV BLOCKED TRAFFIC 25
V BETWEEN TRAINS 33
VI QUICK ACTION 41
VII A YANKEE FRIEND 49
VIII FLAME CITY 58
IX OLD INDIAN LORE 67
X BOB LEARNS SOMETHING 74
XI AN OIL FIRE 83
XII IN THE FIELDS 91
XIII THE THREE HILLS 100
XIV TWO INVALIDS 108
XV UNEXPECTED NEWS 117
XVI HOUSEKEEPER AND NURSE 126
XVII SICK FANCIES 134
XVIII STRANGE VISITORS 143
XIX LOOKING BACKWARD 152
XX BETTY IS STOPPED 160
XXI WHERE IS BOB? 169
XXII OFF FOR HELP 177
XXIII SELLING THE FARM 186
XXIV UNCLE DICK'S BUYER 195
XXV HAPPY DAYS 204
BETTY GORDON IN THE LAND OF OIL
BREAKFAST EN ROUTE
"There, Bob, did you see that? Oh, we've passed it, and you were looking the other way. It was a cowboy. At least he looked just like the pictures. And he was waving at the train."
Betty Gordon, breakfasting in the dining-car of the Western Limited, smiled happily at Bob Henderson, seated on the opposite side of the table. This was her first long train trip, and she meant to enjoy every angle of it.
"I wonder what kind of cowboy you'd make, Bob?" Betty speculated, studying the frank, boyish face of her companion. "You'd have to be taller, I think."
"But not much thinner," observed Bob cheerfully. "Skinny cowboys are always in demand, Betty. They do more work. Well, what do you know about that!" He broke off his speech abruptly and stared at the table directly behind Betty.
Betty paid little attention to his silence. She was busy with her own thoughts, and now, pouring golden cream into her coffee, voiced one of them.
"I'm glad we're going to Oklahoma," she announced. "I think it is heaps more fun to stop before you get to the other side of the continent. I want to see what is in the middle. The Arnolds, you know, went direct to California, and now they'll probably never know what kind of country takes up the space between Pineville and Los Angeles. Of course they saw some of it from the train, but that isn't like getting off and staying. Is it, Bob?"
"I suppose not," agreed Bob absently. "Betty Gordon," he added with a change of tone, "is that coffee you're drinking?"
Betty nodded guiltily.
"When I'm traveling," she explained in her defense, "I don't see why I can't drink coffee for breakfast. And when I'm visiting—that's the only two times I take it, Bob."
Bob had been minded to read her a lecture on the evils of coffee drinking for young people, but his gaze wandered again to the table behind Betty, and his scientific protest remained unspoken.
"For goodness sake, Bob," complained Betty, "what can you be staring at?"
"Don't turn around," cautioned Bob in a low tone. "When we go back to our car I'll tell you all about it."
Bob gave his attention more to his breakfast after this, and seemed anxious to keep Betty from asking any more questions. He noticed a package of flat envelopes lying under her purse and asked if she had letters she wished mailed.
"Those aren't letters," answered Betty, taking them out and spreading them on the cloth for him to see. "They're flower seeds, Bob. Hardy flowers."
"You haven't planned your garden yet, have you?" cried the astonished boy. "When you haven't the first idea of the kind of place you're going to live in? Your uncle wrote, you know, that living in Flame City was so simplified people didn't take time to look around for rooms or a house—they took whatever they could get, sure that that was all there was. How do you know you'll have a place to plant a garden?"
Betty buttered another roll.
"I'm not planning for a garden," she said mildly. "You're going to help me plant these seeds, and we're going to do it right after breakfast—just as soon as we can get out on the observation platform."
Bob stared in bewilderment.
"I read a story once," said Betty with seeming irrelevance. "It was about some woman who traveled through a barren country, mile after mile. She was on an accommodation train, too, or perhaps it was before they had good railroad service. And every so often her fellow-passengers saw that she threw something out of the window. They couldn't see what it was, and she never told them. But the next year, when some of these same passengers made that trip again, the train rolled through acres and acres of the most gorgeous red poppies. The woman had been scattering the seed. She said, whether she ever rode over that ground again or not, she was sure some of the seeds would sprout and make the waste places beautiful for travelers."
"I should think it would take a lot of seed," said the practical Bob, his eyes following two men who were leaving the dining-car. "Did you get poppies, too?"
"Yellow and red ones," declared Betty. "The dealer said they were very hardy, and, anyway, I do want to try, Bob. We've been through such miles of prairie, and it's so deadly monotonous. Even if none of my seed grows near the railroad, the wind may carry some off to some lonely farm home and then they'll give the farmer's wife a gay surprise. Let's fling the seed from the observation car, shall we?"
"All right; though I must say I don't think a bit of it will grow," said Bob. "But first, come back into our coach with me; I want to tell you about those two men who sat back of you."
"Is that what you were staring about?" demanded Betty, as they found their seats and Bob picked up his camera preparatory to putting in a new roll of film. "I wondered why you persisted in looking over my shoulder so often."
Bob Henderson's boyish face sobered and unconsciously his chin hardened a little, a sure sign that he was a bit worried.
"I don't know whether you noticed them or not," he began. "They went out of the diner a few minutes ahead of us. One is tall with gray hair and wears glasses, and the other is thin, too, but short and has very dark eyes. No glasses. They're both dressed in gray—hats, suits, socks, ties—everything."
"No, I didn't notice them," said Betty dryly. "But you seem to have done so."
"I couldn't help hearing what they said," explained Bob. "I was up early this morning, trying to read, and they were talking in their berths. And when I was getting my shoes shined before breakfast, they were awaiting their turn, and they kept it right up. I suppose because I'm only a boy they think it isn't worth while to be careful."
"But what have they done?" urged Betty impatiently.
"I don't know what they've done," admitted Bob. "I'll tell you what I think, though. I think they're a pair of sharpers, and out to take any money they can find that doesn't have to be earned."
"Why, Bob Henderson, how you do talk!" Betty reproached him reprovingly. "Do you mean to say they would rob anybody?"
"Well, probably not through a picked lock, or a window in the dead of night," answered Bob. "But taking money that isn't rightfully yours can not be called by a very pleasant name, you know. Mind you, I don't say these men are dishonest, but judging from what I overheard they lack only the opportunity.
"They're going to Oklahoma, too, and that's what interested me when I first heard them," he went on. "The name attracted my attention, and then the older one went on to talk about their chances of getting the best of some one in the oil fields.
"'The way to work it,' he said, 'is to get hold of a woman farm-owner; some one who hasn't any men folks to advise her or meddle with her property. Ten to one she won't have heard of the oil boom, or if she has, it's easy enough to pose as a government expert and tell her her land is worthless for oil. We'll offer her a good price for it for straight farming, and we'll have the old lady grateful to us the rest of her life.'
"If that doesn't sound like the scheming of a couple of rascals, I miss my guess," concluded Bob. "You see the trick, don't you, Betty? They'll take care to find a farm that's right in the oil section, and then they'll bully and persuade some timid old woman into selling her farm to them for a fraction of its worth."
"Can't you expose 'em?" said Betty vigorously. "Tell the oil men about them! I guess there must be people who would know how to keep such men from doing business. What are you going to do about it, Bob?"
The boy looked at her in admiration.
"You believe in action, don't you?" he returned. "You see, we can't really do anything yet, because, so far as we know, the men have merely talked their scheme over. If people were arrested for merely plotting, the world might be saved a lot of trouble, but free speech would be a thing of the past. As long as they only talk, Betty, we can't do a thing."
"Here those men come now, down the aisle," whispered Betty excitedly. "Don't look up—pretend to be fixing the camera."
Bob obediently fumbled with the box, while Betty gazed detachedly across the aisle. The two men glanced casually at them as they passed, opened the door of the car, and went on into the next coach.
"They're going to the smoker," guessed Bob, correctly as it proved. "I'm going to follow them, Betty, and see if I can hear any more. Perhaps there will be something definite to report to the proper authorities. From what Mr. Littell told us, the oil field promoters would like all the crooks rounded up. They're the ones that hurt the name of reputable oil stocks. You don't care if I go, do you?"
"I did want you to help me scatter seeds," confessed Betty candidly. "However, go ahead, and I'll do it myself. Lend me the camera, and I'll take my sweater and stay out a while. If I'm not here when you come back, look for me out on the observation platform."
Bob hurried after the two possible sharpers, and Betty went through the train till she came to the last platform, railed in and offering the comforts of a porch to those passengers who did not mind the breeze. This morning it was deserted, and Betty was glad, for she wanted a little time to herself.
Betty leaned over the rail, flinging the contents of the seed packets into the air and breathing a little prayer that the wind might carry them far and that none might "fall on stony ground."
"If I never see the flowers, some one else may," she thought. "I remember that old lady who lived in Pineville, poor blind Mrs. Tompkins. She was always telling about the pear orchard she and her husband planted the first year of their married life out in Ohio. Then they moved East, and she never saw the trees. 'But somebody has been eating the pears these twenty years,' she used to say. I hope my flowers grow for some one to see."
When she had tossed all the seeds away, Betty snuggled into one of the comfortable reed chairs and gave herself up to her own thoughts. Since leaving Washington, the novelty and excitement of the trip had thoroughly occupied her mind, and there had been little time for retrospection.
This bright morning, as the prairie land slipped past the train, Betty Gordon's mind swiftly reviewed the incidents of the last few months and marveled at the changes brought about in a comparatively short time. She was an orphan, this dark-eyed girl of thirteen, and, having lost her mother two years after her father's death, had turned to her only remaining relative, an uncle, Richard Gordon. How he came to her in the little town of Pineville, her mother's girlhood home, and arranged to send her to spend the summer on a farm with an old school friend of his has been told in the first volume of this series, entitled "Betty Gordon at Bramble Farm; or, The Mystery of a Nobody." At Bramble Farm Betty had met Bob Henderson, a lad a year or so older than herself and a ward from the county poorhouse. The girl and boy had become fast friends, and when Bob learned enough of his mother's family to make him want to know all and in pursuit of that knowledge had fled to Washington, it seemed providential that Betty's uncle should also be in the capital so that she, too, might journey there.
That had been her first "real traveling," mused Betty, recalling her eagerness to discover new worlds. Bob had been the first to leave the farm, and Betty had made the trip to Washington alone. This morning she vividly remembered every detail of the day-long journey and especially of the warm reception that awaited her at the Union Station. This has been described in the second book of this series, entitled "Betty Gordon in Washington; or, Strange Adventures in a Great City." If Betty should live to be an old lady she would probably never cease to recall the peculiar circumstances under which she made friends with the three Littell girls and their cousin from Vermont and came to spend several delightful weeks at the hospitable mansion of Fairfields. The Littell family had grown to be very fond of Betty and of Bob, whose fortunes seemed to be inextricably mixed up with hers, and when the time came for them to leave for Oklahoma, fairly showered them with gifts.
No sooner did word reach Betty that her uncle awaited her in the oil regions than Bob announced that he was going West, too. He had succeeded in getting trace of two sisters of his mother, and presumably they lived somewhere in the section where Betty's uncle was stationed.
"I'll never forget how lovely the Littells were to us," thought Betty, a mist in her eyes blurring the sage brush. "Wasn't Bob surprised when Mr. Littell gave him that camera? And Mrs. Littell must have known he didn't have a nice bag, because she gave him that beauty all fitted with ebony toilet articles. And the girls clubbed together and gave each of us a signet ring—that was dear of them. I thought they had done everything for me friends could, keeping me there so long and entertaining me as though they had invited me as a special guest; so when Mr. and Mrs. Littell gave me that string of gold beads I was just about speechless. There never were such people! Heigho! Four months ago I was living in a little village, discontented because Uncle Dick wouldn't take me with him. And now I've made lots of new friends, seen Washington, and am speeding toward the wild and woolly West. I guess it never pays to complain."
With this philosophical conclusion, Betty pulled a letter from her pocket and fell to reading it. Bobby Littell had written a letter for each day of the journey and Betty had derived genuine pleasure from these gay notes so like the cheerful, sunny Roberta herself. This morning's letter was taken up with school plans for the fall, and the writer expressed a wish that Betty might go with them to boarding school.
"Libbie thinks perhaps her mother will send her, and just think what fun we could have," wrote Bobby, referring to the Vermont cousin.
Betty dismissed the school question lightly from her mind. She would certainly enjoy going to school with the Littell girls, and boarding school was one of her day-dreams, as it is of most girls her age. After she had seen her uncle and spent some time with him—he was very dear to her, was this Uncle Dick—she thought she might be ready to go back East and take up unceremoniously. But there was the subject of the probable cost—something that never bothered the Littell girls. Betty knew nothing of her uncle's finances, beyond the fact that he had been very generous with her, sending her checks frequently and never stinting her by word or suggestion. Still, boarding school, especially a school selected by the Littells, would undoubtedly be expensive. Betty wisely decided to let the matter drop for the time being.
Sage brush and prairie was now left behind, and the train was rattling through a heavy forest. Betty was glad that the rather nippy breeze had apparently kept every one else indoors, or else the monotony of a long train journey. The platform continued to be deserted, and, wondering what delayed Bob, she took up the camera to try again for a picture of the receding track. She and Bob had used up perhaps half a dozen films on this one subject, and the gleaming point where the rails came together in the distance had an inexhaustible fascination for the girl.
"How it does blow!" she gasped. "I remember now when we stopped at that water-station Bob spoke of—I didn't notice it at the time, I was so busy thinking, but the breeze didn't die down with the motion of the train. I shouldn't wonder if there was a strong wind to-day."
As a matter of fact, there was a gale, but Betty, accustomed to the wind from the back platform of a train in motion, thought that it could be nothing unusual. To be sure, the branches of the tall trees were crashing about and the sky over the cleared space on each side of the tracks was gray and ominous (the sun had disappeared as Betty mused) but the girl, comfortable in sweater and small, close hat, paid slight attention to these signs.
"I can't see what is keeping Bob," she repeated, putting the camera down. "Maybe I'd better go back into the car. How those trees do swish about! I don't believe if I shouted, I'd be heard above the noise of the wind and the train."
This was an alluring thought, and Betty acted upon it, cautiously at first, and then, gaining confidence, more freely. It is exhilarating to contend with the rush of the wind, to pitch one's voice against a torrent of sound, and Betty stood at the rail singing as loudly as she could, her tones lost completely in a grander chorus. Her cheeks crimsoned, and she fairly shouted, feeling to her finger tips the joy and excitement of the powerful forces with which she competed—those of old nature and man's invention, the thing of smoke and fire and speed we call a train.
Suddenly the brakes went down, there was an uneasy screeching as they gripped the wheels, and the long train jarred to a standstill.
"How funny!" puzzled Betty. "There's no station. We're right out in the woods. Oh, I can hear the wind now—how it does howl!"
She picked up her belongings and made her way back to the car. As she passed through the coaches every one was asking the cause of the stop, and an immigrant woman caught hold of Betty as she went through a day coach.
"Is it wrong?" she asked nervously, and in halting English. "Must we get off here?"
"I don't know what the matter is," answered Betty, thankful that she was asked nothing more difficult. "But whatever happens, don't get off; this isn't a station, it is right in the woods. If you get off and lose some of your children, you'll never get them together again and the train will go off and leave you. Don't get off until the conductor tells you to."
The woman sank back in her seat and called her children around her, evidently resolved to follow this advice to the last letter.
"She looks as if an earthquake wouldn't blow her from her seat," thought Betty, proceeding to her own car. "Well, at that, it's safer for her than trying to find out what the matter is and not being able to find her way aboard again. I remember the conductor told Bob and me these poor immigrants have such trouble traveling. It must be awful to make your way in a strange country where you can not understand what people say to you."
No Bob was to be seen when Betty reached her seat, but excited passengers were apparently trying to fall head-first from the car windows.
"I think we've run over some one," announced a fussy little man with a monocle and a flower in his buttonhole.
With a warning toot of the whistle, the train began to move slowly forward. It went a few feet, apparently hit something solid, and stopped with a violent jar.
"Oh, my goodness!" wailed a woman who was clearly the wife of the fussy little man. "Won't some one please go and find out what the matter is?"
Betty looked toward the car door and saw Bob pushing his way toward her.
WHAT BOB HEARD
When Bob entered the smoking-car he saw the two men he had pointed out to Betty seated near the door at the further end of the car. The boy wondered for the first time what he could do that would offer an excuse for his presence in the car, for of course he had never smoked. However, walking slowly down the aisle he saw several men deep in their newspapers and not even pretending to smoke. No one paid the slightest attention to him. Bob took the seat directly behind the two men in gray, and, pulling a Chicago paper from his pocket, bought that morning on the train, buried himself behind it.
The noise made by the train had evidently lulled caution, or else the suspected sharpers did not care if their plans were overheard. Their two heads were very close together, and they were talking earnestly, their harsh voices clearly audible to any one who sat behind them.
"I tell you, Blosser," the older man was saying as Bob unfolded his paper, "it's the niftiest little proposition I ever saw mapped out. We can't fail. Best of all, it's within the law—I've been reading up on the Oklahoma statutes. There's been a lot of new legislation rushed through since the oil boom struck the State, and we can't get into trouble. What do you say?"
The man called Blosser flipped his cigar ash into the aisle.
"I don't like giving a lease," he objected. "You know as well as I do, Jack, that putting anything down in black and white is bound to be risky. That's what did for Spellman. He had more brains than the average trader, and what happened? He's serving seven years in an Ohio prison."
Bob was apparently intensely interested in an advertisement of a new collar button.
"Spellman was careless," said the gray-haired man impatiently. "In this case we simply have to give a lease. The man's been coached, and he won't turn over his land without something to show for it. I tell you we'll get a lawyer we can control to draw the papers, and they won't bind us, whatever they exact of the other fellow. Don't upset the scheme by one of your obstinate fits."
"Call me stubborn, if you like," said Blosser. "For my part, I think you're crazy to consider any kind of papers. A mule-headed farmer, armed with a lease, can put us both out of business if the thing's managed right; and trust some smart lawyer to be on hand to give advice at an unlucky moment. Hello!" he broke off suddenly, "isn't that Dan Carson over there on the other side, smoking a cigarette?"
Bob peeped over his paper and saw the dark-eyed man spring from his seat and hurry across the aisle where a large, fat, jovial-looking individual was puffing contentedly on a cigarette.
"Cal Blosser!" boomed the big man in a voice heard over the car. "Well, well, if this isn't like old times! Glad to see you, glad to see you. What's that? Jack Fluss with you? Lead me to the boy, bless his old heart!"
The two came back to the seat ahead of Bob, and there was a great handshaking, much slapping on the back, and a general chorus of, "Well, you're looking great," and "How's the world been treating you?" before the man called Dan Carson tipped over the seat ahead and sat down facing the two gray-clad men.
"I'm glad to see you for more reasons than one," said Blosser, passing around fresh cigars. "Who's behind us, Dan?" He lowered his voice. "Only a kid? Oh, all right. Well, Jack here, has been working on an oil scheme for the last two weeks, and this morning he comes out with the bright idea of giving some desert farmer a lease for his property. Can you get over that?"
Three spirals of tobacco smoke curled above the seats, and when Bob lifted his gaze from the paper he could see the round, good-natured face of the fat man beaming through the gray veil.
"What you want to go to that trouble for?" he drawled, after a pause. Clearly he was never hurried into an answer. "Seems to me, Jack, this is a case where the youngster shows good judgment. Where you fixing to operate?"
"Oklahoma," was the comprehensive answer. "Oil's the thing to-day. There's more money being made in the fields over night than we used to think was in the United States mint."
"Oil's good," said the fat man judicially. "But why the lease? Plenty of farms still owned by widows or old maids, and they'll fairly throw the land at you if you handle 'em right."
There was an exclamation from the dark-eyed man.
"Just what I was telling Jack this morning," he chortled. "Buy a farm, for farming purposes only, from some old lady. Pay her a good price, but get your land in the oil section. Old lady happy, we strike oil, sell out to big company, everybody happy. Simple, after all. Good schemes always are."
Jack Fluss grunted derisively.
"Lovely schemes, yours always are," he commented sarcastically. "Only thing missing from the scenario, as stated, is the farm. Where are you going to pick up an oil farm for a song? Old maids are sure to have a nephew or something hanging round to keep 'em posted."
"Now you mention it——" Carson fumbled in his pocket. "Now you mention it, boys, I believe I've got the very place for you. I've been prospecting around quite a bit in Oklahoma, and this summer I ran across a farm that for location can't be beat. Right in the heart of the oil section. Like this——"
He took an envelope from his pocket and, resting it on his knee, began to draw a rough diagram. The three heads bent close together and the busy tongues were silent save for a muttered question or a word or two of explanation.
Bob began to think that he had heard all he was to hear, and certainly he was no longer in doubt as to the character of the men he had followed. He had decided to go back to Betty when the older of the two gray-suited men, leaning back and taking off his glasses to polish them, addressed a question to Carson.
"Widow own this place?" he asked casually.
"No, couple of old maids," was the answer. "Last of their line, and all that. The neighbors know it as the Saunders place, but I didn't rightly get whether that was the name of the old ladies or not."
The Saunders place!
Bob sat up with a jerk, and then, remembering, sank back and turned a page, though his hands shook with excitement.
"Faith Henderson, born a Saunders—" The words of the old bookshop man, Lockwood Hale, who had told Bob about his mother's people, came back to him.
"I do believe it is the very same place," he said to himself. "There couldn't be two farms in the oil section owned by different families of the name of Saunders. If it is the right farm, and they're my aunts, perhaps Betty's uncle will know where it is."
He strained his ears, hoping to gather more information, but having heard of this desirable farm, Fluss and Blosser were apparently unwilling to discuss it further. In reality, had Bob only known, they were mulling the situation over in their respective minds, and Carson knew they were. That night, over a game of cards, a finished proposition would doubtless be perfected, and a partnership formed.
"What about you?" Fluss did say.
"Who? Me?" asked Carson inelegantly. "Oh, I'm sorry, but I can't go in with you. I'm going right on through to the coast. Oklahoma isn't healthy for me for a couple of months. All I'll charge you for the information is ten per cent. royalty, payable when your first well flows. My worst enemy couldn't call me mean."
"Got something to show you, Carson," said the man with eye-glasses. "Come on back into the sleeper and I'll unstrap the suitcase."
The three rose, tossed away their cigar butts, and went up the aisle. Bob waited till they had gone into the next car, intending then to go back to Betty. His intentions were frustrated by a lanky individual who dropped into the seat beside him.
"Smoke?" he said in friendly fashion, offering Bob a cigarette. "No? Well, that's right. I didn't smoke at your age, either. Fact is, I was most twenty-three before I knew how tobacco tasted. Slick-looking posters went up the aisle just now, what?"
Bob admitted that there was something peculiar about them.
"Sharpers, if I ever saw any," said the lanky one. "We're overrun with 'em. They come out from the East, and because they can dress and know how to sling language——Say," he suddenly became serious, "you'd be surprised the way the girls fall for 'em. My girl thinks if a man's clothes are all right he must be a Wall Street magnate, and the rest of the girls are just like her. They're the men that give the oil fields a shady side."
In spite of his roughness, Bob liked the freckle-faced person, and he had proved that he was far from stupid.
"You've evidently seen tricky oil men," he said guardedly. "Do you work in the oil fields? I'm going to Oklahoma."
"Me for Texas," announced his companion. "I change at the next junction. No, the nearest I ever come to working in the oil fields is filling tanks for the cars in my father's garage. But o' course I know oil—the streets run with it down our way, and they use it to flush the irrigation system. And I've seen some of the raw deals these sharpers put through—doing widows and orphans out of their land. Makes you have a mighty small opinion of the law, I declare it does."
As he spoke the train slowed up, then stopped.
"No station," puzzled the Texan. "Let's go and find out the trouble."
He started for the door, and then the train started, bumped, and came to a standstill again.
"You go ahead!" shouted Bob. "I have to go back and see that my friend is all right."
All was uproar and confusion in the coaches through which Bob had to pass to reach the car where he knew Betty was. Distracted mothers with frightened, crying children charged up and down the aisles, excited men ran through, and the wildest guesses flew about. The consensus of opinion was that they had hit something!
"Oh, Bob!" Betty greeted him with evident relief when he at last reached her. "What has happened? Is any one hurt? Will another train come up behind us and run into us?"
This last was a cheerful topic broached by the fussy little man whose capacity for going ahead and meeting trouble was boundless.
"Of course not!" Bob's scorn was more reassuring than the gentlest answer. "As soon as a train stops they set signals to warn traffic. What a horrible racket every one is making! They're all screeching at once. Get your hat, Betty, and we'll go and find out something definite. I don't know any more than you do, but I can't stand this noise."
Betty was glad to get away from the babble of sound, and they went down the first set of steps and joined the procession that was picking its way over the ties toward the engine.
"Express due in three minutes," said a brakeman warningly, hurrying past them. "Stand well back from the tracks."
He went on, cautioning every one he passed, and a majority of the passengers swerved over to the wide cinder path on the other side of the second track. A few persisted in walking the ties.
"Here she comes! Look out!" Bob shouted, as a trail of smoke became visible far up the track.
He had insisted that Betty stand well away from the track, and now the few persistent ones who had remained on the cleared track scrambled madly to reach safety. A woman who walked with a cane, and who had overridden her young-woman attendant's advice that she stay in the coach until news of the accident, whatever it was, could be brought to her, was almost paralyzed with nervous fright. Bob went to her distressed attendant's aid, and between them they half-carried, half-dragged the stubborn old person from the shining rails.
"Toto!" she gasped.
Bob stared, but Betty's quick eye had seen. There, in the middle of the track, sat a fluffy little dog, its eyes so thickly screened with hair that it is doubtful if it could see three inches before its shining black nose. This was Toto, and the rush of events had completely bewildered him. The dog was accustomed to being held on its mistress' lap or carried about in a covered basket, but she had decided that a short walk would give the little beast needed exercise, and it had pantingly tagged along after her, obedient, as usual, to her whims. Now she had suddenly disappeared. Well, Toto must sit down and wait for her to come back. Perhaps she might miss him and come after him right away.
The thundering noise of the train was clearly audible when Betty swooped down on the patient Toto, grabbed him by his fluffy neck, and sprang back. Bob, turning from his charge, had caught a glimpse of the girl as she dashed toward something on the track, and now as she jumped he grasped her arm and pulled her toward him. He succeeded in dragging her back several rods, but they both stumbled and fell. There was a yelp of protest from Toto, drowned in the mighty shriek and roar of the train. The great Eastern Limited swept past them, rocking the ground, sending out a cloud of black smoke shot with sparks, and letting fall a rain of gritty cinders.
"Don't you ever let me catch you doing anything like that again!" scolded Bob, getting to his feet and helping Betty up. "Of all the foolish acts! Why, you would have been struck if you'd made a misstep. What possessed you, Betty?"
"Toto," answered Betty, dimpling, brushing the dirt from her skirts and daintily shaking out the fluffy dog. "See what a darling he is, Bob. Do you suppose I could let a train run over him?"
Bob admitted, grudgingly, for he was still nervous and shaken, that Toto was a "cute mutt," and then, when they had restored him to his grateful mistress, they went on to their goal. No one had noticed Betty's narrow escape, for all had been concerned with their own safety. Betty herself was inclined to minimize the danger, but Bob knew that she might easily have been drawn under the wheels by the suction, if not actually overtaken on the track.
There was a crowd about the engine, and the grimy-faced engineer leaned from his cab, inspecting them impassively. His general attitude was one of boredom, tinged with disgust.
"Guess they've all been telling him what to do," whispered Bob, who, while only a lad, had a trick of correctly estimating situations.
Pressing their way close in, he and Betty were at last able to see what had stopped the train. The high wind, which was still blowing with undiminished force, had blown down a huge tree. It lay directly across the track, and barely missed the east-bound rails.
"Another foot, and she'd have tied up traffic both ways," said the brakeman who had warned the passengers of the approach of the express. "What you going to do, Jim?"
The engineer sighed heavily.
"Got to wait till it's sawed in pieces small enough for a gang to handle," he answered. "We've sent to Tippewa for a cross-cut saw. Take us from now till the first o' the month to saw that trunk with the emergency saws."
"Where's Tippewa?" called out an inquisitive passenger. "Any souvenirs there?"
"Sure. Indian baskets and that kind of truck," volunteered the young brakeman affably, as the engineer did not deign to answer. "'Bout a mile, maybe a mile and a half, straight up the track. We don't stop there. You'll have plenty of time, won't he, Jim?"
"We'll be here a matter of three hours or more," admitted the engineer.
"Let's walk to the town, Betty," suggested Bob. "We don't want to hang around here for three hours. All this country looks alike."
Apparently half the passengers had decided that a trip to the town promised a break in the monotony of a long train trip, and the track resembled the main street of Pineville on a holiday. Every one walked on the track occupied by the stalled train, and so felt secure.
"Bob," whispered Betty presently, "look. Aren't those the two men you followed this morning? Just ahead of us—see the gray suits? And did you hear anything to report?"
"Why, I haven't told you, have I?" said Bob contritely. "The train stopping put it out of my mind. What do you think, Betty, they were talking about the Saunders place! Can you imagine that?"
"The Saunders place?" echoed Betty, stopping short. "Why, Bob, do you suppose—do you think——"
"Sure! It must be the farm my aunts live on," nodded Bob. "Saunders isn't such a common name, you know. Besides, the one they call Dan Carson—he isn't with them, guess he is too fat to enjoy walking—said it was owned by a couple of old maids. Oh, it is the right place, I'm sure of it. And I count on your Uncle Dick's knowing where it is, since they spoke of the farm being in the heart of the oil section."
"Where do you suppose they're going now?" speculated Betty.
"Oh, I judge they want to see the sights, same as we do," replied Bob carelessly. "Perhaps they count on fleecing some confiding Tippewa citizen out of his hard-earned wealth. They can't do much in three hours, though, and I think they're booked to go right on through to Oklahoma. Of course I don't know how crooks work their schemes, but it seems to me if you want to make money, honestly or dishonestly, in oil, you go where oil is."
Betty Gordon was not given to long speeches, but when she did speak it was usually to the point.
"I don't think they're going back to the train," she announced quietly. "They're carrying their suitcases."
"Well, what do you know about that!" Bob addressed a telegraph pole. "Here I am making wild guesses, and she takes one look at the men themselves and tells their plans. Do I need glasses? I begin to think I do."
"I don't guess their plans," protested Betty. "Anyway, perhaps they were afraid to leave their bags in the car."
"No, it looks very much to me as though they had said farewell to the Western Limited," said Bob. "They wouldn't carry those heavy cases a mile unless they meant to leave for good. Let's keep an eye on them, because if they are going to 'work' the Saunders place, I'd like to see how they intend to go about it."
For some time the boy and girl tramped in silence, keeping Blosser and Fluss in view. A large billboard, blown flat, was the first sign that they were approaching Tippewa.
"I hope there is a soda fountain," said Betty thirstily. "The wind's worse now we're out of the woods, isn't it? Do you suppose those sharpers think they can get another train from here?"
"Tippewa doesn't look like a town with many trains," opined Bob. "I confess I don't see what they expect to do, or where they can go. Here comes an automobile, though. Can't be such an out-of-date town after all."
The automobile was driven by a man in blue-striped overalls, and, to the surprise of Bob and Betty, Blosser and Fluss hailed him from the road. There was a minute's parley, the suitcases were tossed in, and the two men followed. The automobile turned sharply and went back along the route it had just come over.
Bob looked at Betty, and Betty stared at Bob.
"What do you know about that!" gasped the boy. "They couldn't have arranged for the car to meet them, because the tree blowing down was an accident pure and simple. Where can they be going?"
"I don't know," said Betty practically. "But here's a drug store and I must have something cold to drink. My throat feels dried with dust. Why don't you ask the drug clerk whose car that was?"
Bob acted upon this excellent suggestion, and while Betty was recovering from her disappointment in finding no ice-cream for sale and doing her best to quench her thirst with a bottle of lukewarm lemon soda, Bob interviewed the grizzled proprietor of the store.
"A small car painted a dull red you say?" this individual repeated Bob's question. "Must 'a' been Fred Griggs. He hires out whenever he can get anybody to tote round."
"But where does anybody go?" asked Bob, feeling that his query was not couched in the most complimentary terms, but unable to amend it quickly.
The drug store owner was not critical.
"Oh, folks go over to Xville," he said indifferently. "That's a new town fifteen miles back. They say oil was discovered there some twenty years ago, but others claim nothing but water ever flowed. That's how it came to be called Xville. I guess if the truth was known, the wells wasn't oil—we're a little out of the belt here."
That was as far as Bob was able to follow the sharpers. He had no way of knowing certainly whether they had gone to Xville, or whether they had hired the car to take them to some other place nearer or further on. Betty finished her soda and they strolled about the single street for a half hour, buying three collapsible Indian baskets for the Littell girls, since they would easily pack into Betty's bag.
They reached the train to find the last section of the big tree being lifted from the track, and half an hour later, all passengers aboard, the train resumed its journey. Bob and Betty had eaten lunch in the town, and they spent the afternoon on the observation platform, Betty tatting and Bob trying to write a letter to Mr. Littell. They were glad to have their berths made up early that night, for both planned to be up at six o'clock the next morning when the train, the conductor told them, crossed the line into Oklahoma. Betty cherished an idea that the State in which she was so much interested would be "different" in some way from the country through which they had been passing.
The good-natured conductor was on hand the next morning to point out to them the State line, and Betty, under his direct challenge, had to admit that she could see nothing distinguishing about the scenery.
"Wait till you see the oil wells," said the conductor cheerfully. "You'll know you're in Oklahoma then, little lady."
Bob and Betty were to change at Chassada to make connections for Flame City, where Betty's Uncle Dick was stationed, and soon after breakfast the brakeman called the name of the station and they descended from the train. As it rolled on they both were conscious of a momentary feeling of loneliness, for in the long journey from Washington they had grown accustomed to their comfortable quarters and to the kindly train crew.
They had an hour to wait in Chassada, and Bob suggested that they leave their bags at the station and walk around the town.
"I believe they have oil wells near here," he said. "Some one on the train—oh, I know who it was, that lanky chap from Texas—was telling me that from the outskirts of the place you can see oil wells. Or perhaps we can get a bus to take us out to the fields and bring us back."
"Oh, no," protested Betty. "I know Uncle Dick is counting on showing us the wells and explaining them to us, Bob. Don't let us bother about going up close to a well—we can see enough from the town limits. Look, there's one now!"
They had reached the edge of the narrow, straggling group of streets that was all of Chassada, and now Betty pointed toward the west where tall iron framework rose in the air. There were six of these structures, and, even at that distance, the boy and girl could see men working busily about at the base of the frames.
"Looks just like the postcards your uncle sent, doesn't it?" said Bob delightedly. "Gee! I'd like to see just how they drive them. Well, I suppose before we're a week older we'll know how to drive a well and what to do with the oil when it finally flows. You'll be talking oil as madly as any of them then, Betty."
"I suppose I shall," admitted Betty. "Do you know, I'm hungry. I wonder if there is any place we can eat?"
"Must be," said the optimistic Bob. "Come on, we'll go up this street. Perhaps there will be some kind of a restaurant. Never heard of a town without a place to eat."
But Bob began to think presently that perhaps Chassada differed in more ways than one from the towns to which he was accustomed. In the first place, though every one seemed to have plenty of money—there was a neat and attractive jewelry store conspicuous between a barber shop and a grain store—no one seemed to have to work. The streets were unpaved, the sidewalks of rough boards in many places, in others no walks at all were attempted. Many of the buildings were mere shacks incongruously painted in brilliant colors, and there were more dogs than were ever before gathered into one place. Of that Bob was sure.
"Do you suppose they've all made fortunes in oil?" Betty ventured, scanning the groups of men and boys that filled every doorway and lounged at the corners. "No one is working, Bob. Who runs the wells?"
"Different shifts, I suppose," answered Bob. "I declare, Betty, I'm not so sure that you'll get anything to eat after all. We'll go back to the station; they may have sandwiches or cake or something like that on sale there."
They turned down another street that led to the station, Bob in the lead. He heard a little cry from Betty, and turned to find that she had disappeared.
"The lady fell down that hole!" shouted a man, hurrying across the street. "There go the barrels! I told Zinker he ought to have braced that dirt!"
Bob, still not understanding, saw four large barrels that had stood on the sidewalk slowly topple over the side of an excavation and roll out of sight.
"She went in, too," cried the man, scrambling over the edge. "Are you hurt, lady?" he called.
"Betty!" shouted Bob. "Betty, are you hurt?" He took a flying leap to the edge of the hole, and, having miscalculated the distance, slid over after the barrels.
Over and over he rolled, bringing up breathless against something soft.
"I knew you'd come to get me," giggled Betty, "but you needn't have hurried. Are there any more barrels coming?"
Bob was immensely relieved to find that she was unhurt. The barrels had luckily been empty and had rolled over and into her harmlessly.
"Well, looks like you're all right," grinned the Chassada citizen who had followed Bob more leisurely. "Let me help you up this grade. There now, you're fine and dandy, barring a little dirt that will wash off. George Zinker excavated last winter for a house, and then didn't build. I always told him the walk was shifty. You're strangers in town, aren't you?"
Bob explained that they were only waiting over between trains.
"So you're going to Flame City!" exclaimed their new friend with interest when Bob mentioned their destination. "I hear they've struck it rich in the fields. Buying up everything in sight, they say. We had a well come in last week. Hope you have a place to stay, though; Flame City isn't much more than a store and a post-office."
Betty looked up from rubbing her skirt with her clean handkerchief in an endeavor to remove some of the gravel stains.
"Isn't Flame City larger than Chassada?" she demanded.
"Larger? Why, Chassada is four or five years ahead," explained the Chassada man. "We've got a hotel and three boarding houses, and next month they're fixing to put up a movie theater. Flame City wasn't on the map six months ago. That's why I say I hope you have a place to go—you'll have to rough it, anyway, but accommodations is mighty scarce."
Bob assured him that some one was to meet them, and then asked about a restaurant.
"If you can stand Jake Hill's cooking, turn in at that white door down the street," was the advice, emphasized by a graphic forefinger. "Lay off the custard pie, 'cause he generally makes it with sour milk. Apple pie is fair, and his doughnuts is good. No thanks at all—glad to accommodate a stranger."
The white door indicated opened into a little low, dark room that smelled of all the pies ever baked and several dishes besides. There were several oilcloth-topped tables scattered about, and one or two patrons were eating. As Bob and Betty entered a great gust of laughter came from a corner table where a group of men were gathered.
"Guess that was good advice about the custard pie," whispered Bob mischievously. "Think you can stand it, Betty?"
"I'm so hungry, I could stand anything," declared Betty with vigor. "I'd like a couple of sandwiches and a glass of milk. I guess you have to go up to that counter and bring your orders back with you—I don't see any waiters."
Bob went up to the counter, and Betty sat down at a vacant table and looked about her.
A dirty-faced clock on the wall told Betty that it was within twenty minutes of the time their train was due. However, they were within sight of the station, so, provided Bob was quickly waited upon, there was no reason to worry about missing the connection.
Bob came back, balancing the sandwiches and milk precariously, and they proceeded to make a hearty lunch, their appetites sharpened by the clear Western air, in a measure compensating for the sawdust bread and the extreme blueness of the milk.
"What are those men laughing about, I wonder," commented Betty idly, as a fresh burst of laughter came from the table in the corner of the room. "What a noise they make! Bob, do I imagine it, or does this bread taste of oil?"
Bob laughed, and glanced over his shoulder to make sure the counter-man could not hear.
"Do you know, I thought that very thing," he confessed. "I wasn't going to mention it, for fear you'd think I was obsessed with the notion of oil. To tell you the truth, Betsey, I think this bread has been near the kerosene oil can, not an oil well."
"Well, we can drink the milk," said Betty philosophically. "It's lucky one sandwich apiece was good. Oh, won't it be fine to get to Flame City and see Uncle Dick! I want to get where we are going, Bob!"
"Sure you do," responded Bob sympathetically, frowning with annoyance as another hoarse burst of laughter came from the corner table. "But I'm afraid Flame City isn't going to be much of a place after all."
"I don't care what kind of place it is," declared Betty firmly. "All I want is to see Uncle Dick and be with him. And I want you to find your aunts. And I'd like to go to school with the Littell girls next fall. And that's all."
Bob smiled, then grew serious.
"I'd like to go to school myself," he said soberly. "Precious little schooling I've had, Betty. I've read all I could, but you can't get anywhere without a good, solid foundation. Well, there'll be time enough to worry about that when school time comes. Just now it is vacation."
"Bob!"—Betty spoke swiftly—"look what those men are doing—teasing that poor Chinaman. How can they be so mean!"
Sure enough, one of the group had slouched forward in his chair, and over his bent shoulders Bob and Betty could see an unhappy Chinaman, clutching his knife and fork tightly and looking with a hunted expression in his slant eyes from one to another of his tormentors. They were evidently harassing him as he ate, for while they watched he took a forkful of the macaroni on the plate before him, and attempted to convey it to his mouth. Instantly one of the men surrounding him struck his arm sharply, and the food flew into the air. Then the crowd laughed uproariously.
"Isn't that perfectly disgusting!" scolded Betty. "How any one can see anything funny in doing that is beyond me. Oh, now look—they've got his slippers."
The unfortunate Chinaman's loose flat slippers hurtled through the air, narrowly missing Betty's head.
"Come on, we're going to get out of this," said Bob determinedly, rising from his seat. "Those chaps once start rough-housing, no telling where they'll bring up. We want to escape the dishes, and besides we haven't any too much time to make our train."
He had paid for their food when he ordered it, so there was nothing to hinder their going out. Bob started for the door, supposing that Betty was following. But she had seen something that roused her anger afresh.
The poor Celestial was essaying an ineffectual protest at the treatment of his slippers, when a man opposite him reached over and snatched his plate of food.
"China for Chinamen!" he shouted, and with that clapped the plate down on the unfortunate victim's head with so much force that it shivered into several pieces.
Betty could never bear to see a person or an animal unfairly treated, and when, as now, the odds were all against one, she became a veritable little fury. As Bob had once said in a mixture of admiration and despair she wasn't old enough to be afraid of anything or anybody.
"How dare you treat him like that!" she cried, running to the table where the Chinaman sat in a daze. "You ought to be arrested! If you must torment some one, why don't you get somebody who can fight back?"
The men stared at her open-mouthed, bewildered by her unexpected championship of their bait. Then a great, coarse, blowzy-faced man, with enormous grease spots on his clothes, winked at the others.
"My eye, we've a visitor," he drawled. "Sit down, my dear, and John Chinaman shall bring you chop suey for lunch."
Betty drew back as he put out a huge hand.
"You leave her alone!" Bob had come after Betty and stood glaring at the greasy individual. "Anybody who'll treat a foreigner as you've treated that Chinaman isn't fit to speak to a girl!"
A concerted growl greeted this statement.
"If you're looking for a fight," snarled a younger man, "you've struck the right place. Come on, or eat your words."
Now Bob was no coward, but there were five men arrayed against him with a probable sixth in the form of the counter-man who was watching the turn of affairs with great interest from the safe vantage-point of his high counter. It was too much to expect that any men who had dealt with a defenceless and handicapped stranger as these had dealt with the Chinaman would fight fair. Besides, Bob was further hampered by the terrified Betty who clung tightly to his arm and implored him not to fight. It seemed to the lad that the better part of valor would be to take to his heels.
"You cut for the station," he muttered swiftly to Betty. "Get the bags—train's almost due. I'll run up the street and lose 'em somewhere on the way. They won't touch you."
He said this hardly moving his lips, and Betty did not catch every word. But she heard enough to understand what was expected of her and what Bob planned to do. She loosened her hold on his arm.
Like a shot, Bob made for the door, banged the screen open wide (Betty heard it hit the side of the building), and fled up the straggling, uneven street. Instantly the five toughs were in pursuit.
Betty heard the counter-man calling to her, but she ran from the place and sped toward the station. It was completely deserted, and a written sign proclaimed that the 1:52 train was ten minutes late. Betty judged that the ticket agent, with whom they had left their bags, would return in time to check them out, and she sat down on one of the dusty seats in the fly-specked waiting-room to wait for the arrival of Bob.
That young man, as he ran, was racking his brains for a way to elude his pursuers. There were no telegraph poles to climb, and even if there had been, he wanted to get to Betty and the station, not be marooned indefinitely. He glanced back. The hoodlums, for such they were, were gaining on him. They were out of training, but their familiarity with the walks gave them a decided advantage. Bob had to watch out for holes and sidewalk obstructions.
He doubled down a street, and then the solution opened out before him. There was a grocery store, evidently a large shop, for he had noticed the front door on the street where the restaurant was situated. Now he was approaching the rear entrance and a number of packing cases cluttered the walk, and excelsior was lying about. A backward glance showed him that the enemy had not yet rounded the corner. Bob dived into the store.
"Hide me!" he gasped, running plump into a white-haired man in overalls who was whistling "Ben Bolt" and opening cases of canned peaches with pleasant dexterity. "Hide me quick. There's a gang after me—five of 'em!"
"Under the counter, Sonny," said the groceryman, hardly looking at Bob. "Just lay low, and trust Micah Davis to 'tend to the scamps."
Bob crawled under the nearest counter and in a few minutes he heard the men at the door.
"'Lo, Davis," said one conciliatingly. "Seen anything of a fresh kid—freckled, good clothes, right out of the East? He tried to pass some bad money at Jake Hill's. Seen him?"
Bob nearly denounced this lie, but common sense saved him. Small use in seeking protection and then refusing it.
"Haven't seen anybody like that," said the groceryman positively. "Quit bruising those tomatoes, Bud."
"Well, he won't get out of town," stated Bud sourly. "There's a girl with him, and they're figuring on taking the one-fifty-two. We're going down and picket the station. If Mr. Smarty gets on that train at all, his face won't look so pretty."
They tramped off, and Bob came out from his hiding place.
"They're a nice bunch!" he declared bitterly. "I got into a row with 'em because they were teasing a poor Chinaman and Betty Gordon landed on them for that. Then I tried to get her away from the place, and of course that started a fight. But I suppose they can dust the station with me if they're set on it—only I'll register a few protests."
"Now, now, we ain't a-going to have no battle," announced the genial Mr. Davis. "I knew Bud was lying soon as I looked at him. Why? 'Cause I never knew him to tell the truth. As for picketing the station, well, there's more ways than one to skin a cat."
A YANKEE FRIEND
Micah Davis was a Yankee, as he proudly told Bob, "born and raised in New Hampshire," and his shrewd common sense and dry humor stood him in good stead in the rather lawless environment of Chassada. He was well acquainted with the unlovely characteristics of the five who had chased Bob, and when he heard the whole story he promised to look up the Chinaman and see what he could do for him.
"If he's out of a job, I'd like to hire him," he said. "They're good, steady workers, and born cooks. He can have the room back of the store and do his own housekeeping. I'll stop in at Jake's this afternoon."
Bob was in a fever of fear that he would miss the train, and it was now a quarter of two. But Mr. Davis assured him that that special train was always late and that there was "all the time in the world to get to the station."
"I'm expecting some canned goods to come up from Wayne," he declared, "and I often go down after such stuff with my wheelbarrow. Transportation's still limited with us, as you may have guessed. I calculate the best way to fool those smart Alecs is to put you in an empty packing case and tote you down. Comes last minute, you can jump out and there you are!"
Bob thought this a splendid plan, and said so.
"Then here's the very case, marked 'Flame City' on purpose-like," was the cheery rejoinder. "Help me lift it on the barrow, and then you climb in, and we'll make tracks. Comfortable? All right, we're off."
He adjusted the light lid over the top of the box, which was sufficiently roomy to allow Bob to sit down, and the curious journey began. Apparently it was a common occurrence for Mr. Davis to take a shipment of goods that way, for no one commented. As the wheelbarrow grated on the crushed stone that surrounded the station, Bob heard the voice of the man called Bud.
"One-fifty-two's late, as usual," he called. "That young scalawag hasn't turned up, either. Guess he's going to keep still till the last minute and figure on getting away with a dash. The girl's in the waiting-room."
"I'm surprised you're not in there looking in her suitcase for the young reprobate," said Mr. Davis with thinly veiled sarcasm. "What happened? Did Carl order you out?"
Carl, the listening Bob judged, must be the ticket agent.
"I'd like to see that whippersnapper order me out!" blustered Bud. "There's a whole raft of women in there, waiting for the train."
Mr. Davis carefully lowered the wheelbarrow and leaned carelessly against the box.
"Guess I'll go in and see the girl—like to know how she looks," he observed a bit more loudly than was necessary.
Bob understood that he was going to explain to Betty and he thanked him silently with all his heart.
The friendly Mr. Davis strolled into the waiting-room and had no difficulty in recognizing Betty Gordon. She was the only girl in the room, in the first place, and she sat facing the door, a bag on either side of her, and a world of anxiety in her dark eyes. The groceryman crossed the floor and took the vacant seat at her right. There was no one within earshot.
"Don't you be scared, Miss," he said quietly. "I'm Micah Davis, and I just want to tell you that everything's all right with that Bob boy. I've got him out here in a box, and when the train comes he's a-going to hop on board before you can say Jack Robinson."
"Oh, you dear!" Betty turned upon the astonished Mr. Davis with a radiant smile. "I was worried to death about him, because those dreadful men have been hanging around the station, and they keep peering in here. You're so good to help Bob!"
Mr. Davis stammered confusedly that he had done nothing, and then hurried on to advise Betty to pay no attention to anything that might happen, but to let the conductor help her on the train.
"I've got to wheel the lad down toward the baggage car," he explained, "so's they won't suspect. You see, Miss, this is an oil town and folks do pretty much as they please. If a gang want to beat up a stranger they don't find much opposition. In a few years we'll have better order, but just now the toughs have it. Sorry you had to have this experience."
"I'll always remember Chassada pleasantly because of you," said Betty impulsively. "Hark! Isn't that the train? Yes, it is. Don't mind me—go back to Bob. I'm all right, honestly I am!"
They shook hands hurriedly, and Betty followed the other passengers out to the platform. She caught a glimpse of Mr. Davis placidly trundling his wheelbarrow down the platform, and then the train pulled in and the conductor helped her aboard.
"Express?" called the baggage car man as the wheelbarrow was halted beside the truck on which he was tumbling a pile of boxes.
"Sure, express," retorted Mr. Davis. "Live stock this time. A passenger for you, with his ticket and all. Let him go through to the coaches, George. It's all right. He'll explain."
He lifted the lid of the box and Bob stepped out. The baggage man stared, but he knew and trusted Mr. Davis.
"Don't thank me, lad," said the groceryman kindly as Bob tried to pour out his thanks. "You're from my part of the country, and any boy in trouble claims my help. There, there, for goodness' sake, are you going to miss the train after all the trouble I've taken?"
He pushed Bob gently toward the door of the baggage car and the boy scrambled in. Then, and not until then, did the vociferous Bud see what was going on. He dared not tackle the groceryman, but he came running pellmell down the platform to bray at Bob.
"You big coward!" he yelled. "Sneaking away, aren't you? Just let me catch you in this town again, and I'll make it so hot for you you'll wish you'd never left your kindergarten back East."
He was so angry he fairly danced with rage, and Bob and the baggage man both had to laugh.
"Laugh, you big boob!" howled Bud. "You wouldn't think it so funny if I had you by the collar. 'Fraid to fight, aren't you? You wait! Some day I'll get you and I'll—I'll drown you!"
Bud had made an unfortunate choice of punishment, for his words carried a suggestion to Bob. Mail and express was still being unloaded, and beside the track was a large puddle of oily, dirty water apparently from a leaky pipe, for there were no indications of a recent rain.
With a swift spring, Bob was on his feet beside the surprised Bud, and, seizing him, whirled him sharply about. Then with a strong push he sent him flat into the puddle.
Sputtering, gasping, and actually crying with rage, the bully stumbled to his feet and charged blindly for Bob. That agile youth had turned and dashed for the train, which was now slowly moving. He caught the steps of the baggage car and drew himself up. Once on the platform he turned to wave to Mr. Davis, but that good citizen was holding back the foaming Bud from dashing himself against the wheels and did not see Bob's farewell.
"Whew!" gasped Bob, making his way to Betty, after going through an apparently endless number of cars, "our Western adventures begin with a rush, don't they? I'm hoping Flame City will be peaceful, for I've had enough excitement to last me a week."
"I wish Mr. Davis lived in Flame City," said Betty warmly. "I never knew any one to be kinder. Imagine all the trouble he took for you, Bob."
Bob agreed that the groceryman was a living example of the Golden Rule, and then the sight of oil derricks in the distance changed the trend of their thoughts.
"Where do you suppose those two sharpers—what were their names?—could have gone?" said Betty. "Seems to me, there are a lot of unpleasant people out here, after all."
"You mean Blosser and Fluss," replied Bob. "I don't know where they went, but I'm certain they are not up to anything good. Still, it isn't fair to say we've come in contact with a lot of unpleasant people, Betty. All new developments have to fight against the undesirable element, Mr. Littell says. You see, the prospect of making money would naturally attract them, and that, coupled with the possibility of meeting trusting and ignorant souls who have a little and want to make more, draws the crooks. It has always been that way. Haven't you read about the things that happened in California when there was the rush of gold seekers?"
Betty was not especially interested in the gold seekers, but the glimpses she had had of the oil industry fascinated her. She hoped that her Uncle Dick would have time to take them around, and she was divided between an automobile and a horse as the choicest medium of sightseeing.
"Well, I'd like to ride," declared Bob when she sought his opinion. "I've always wanted to. But I don't intend to see the sights, altogether, Betty. I want to find my aunts, and then, if possible, I'd like to get a job. There must be plenty for a boy to do out here."
"But you've been working all summer," protested Betty. "You're as thin as a rail now. I know Uncle Dick won't let you go to work. Why, Bob, I counted on your going around with me! We can have such fun together."
"Well, of course, there will be lots of odd hours," Bob comforted her. "I don't intend to borrow any more money, Betty, that's flat. And if I don't get my share in the farm, that is, if it proves my mother never had any sisters and never was entitled to a share of anything, I don't intend to let that be the end of my ambitions. I'm going to school, if it takes an arm!"
Betty gazed at him respectfully. Bob, when in earnest, was a very convincing talker. She wondered for a moment what he would be when he grew up.
"We're coming into Flame City," he warned her before she could put this thought into words. "Tip your hat straight, Betsey, and take the camera. I can manage both bags."
"Oh, I hope Uncle Dick will meet us!" Betty was so excited she bumped her nose against the glass trying to see out of the window. "Look, Bob, just see those derricks! This is surely an oil town!"
The brakes went down, and the brakeman at the end of the car flung the door open.
"Flame City!" he shouted. "All out for Flame City!"
Bob and Betty descended the steps and found themselves on a rough platform with an unpainted shelter in the center that evidently did duty as a station. There were a few straggling loungers about, a team or two backed up to the platform, and a small automobile of the runabout type, red with rust.
"Well, bless her heart, how she's grown!" cried a cordial voice, and Mr. Richard Gordon had Betty in his arms.
"Uncle Dick! You don't know how glad I am to see you!" Betty hugged him tight, thankful that the worry and anxiety and uncertainty of the last few weeks, while she had waited in Washington to hear from him, was at last over. "How tanned you are!" she added.
"Oh, I'm a regular Indian," was the laughing response. "This must be Bob? Glad to see you, my boy. I feel that I already know you."
He and Bob shook hands heartily. Mr. Gordon was tall and muscular, with closely-cropped gray hair and quizzical gray eyes slightly puckered at the corners from much staring in the hot sun. His face and hands were very brown, and he looked like a man who lead an outdoor life and liked it.
Bob took to him at once, and the feeling seemed to be mutual, for Mr. Gordon kept a friendly hand on the boy's shoulder while he continued to scan him smilingly.
"Began to look as though we were never going to get together, didn't it?" Mr. Gordon said. "Last week there was a rumor that I might have to go to China for the firm, and I thought if that happened Betty would be in despair. However, that prospect is not immediate. Well, young folks, what do you think of Flame City, off-hand?"
Betty stared. From the station she could see half a dozen one-story shacks and, beyond, the outline of oil well derricks. A straggling, muddy road wound away from the buildings. Trolley cars, stores and shops, brick buildings to serve as libraries and schools—there seemed to be none.
"Is this all of it?" she ventured.
"You see before you," declared Mr. Gordon gravely, "the rapidly growing town of Flame City. Two months ago there wasn't even a station. We think we've done rather well, though I suppose to Eastern eyes the signposts of a flourishing town are conspicuous by their absence."
"But where do people live?" demanded Betty, puzzled. "If they come here to work or to buy land, isn't there a hotel to live in? Where do you live, Uncle Dick?"
"Mostly in my tin boat," was the answer. "Many's the night I've slept in the car. But of course I have a bunk out at the field. Accommodations are extremely limited, Betty, I will admit. The few houses that take in travelers are over-crowded and dirty. If some one had enterprise enough to start a good hotel he'd make a fortune. But like all oil towns, the fever is to sink one's money in wells."
Betty's eyes turned to the horizon where the steel towers reared against the sky.
"Can we go to see the oil fields now?" she asked. "We're not a bit tired, are we, Bob?"
Mr. Gordon surveyed his niece banteringly.
"What is your idea of an oil field?" he teased. "A bit of pasture neatly fenced in, say two or three acres in area? Did you know that our company at present holds leases for over four thousand acres? The nearest well is ten miles from this station. No, child, I don't think we'll run out and look around before supper. I want to take you and Bob to a place I've found where I think you'll be comfortable. Have you trunk checks? We'll have to take all baggage with us, because I'm leaving to-morrow for a three-day inspection trip, and the Watterbys can't be expected to do much hauling."
Bob had the checks, one for Betty's trunk and another for a small old-fashioned "telescope" he had bought cheaply in Washington and which held his meagre supply of clothing.
"We'll stow everything in somehow," promised Mr. Gordon cheerily, as he and Bob carried the baggage over to the rusty little automobile. "You wouldn't think this machine would hold together an hour on these roads," he continued, "but she's the best friend I have. Never complains as long as the gasoline holds out. There! I think that will stay put, Bob. Now in with you, Betty, and we'll be off."
Bob perched himself upon the trunk, and Mr. Gordon took his place at the wheel. With a grunt and a lurch, the car started.
"I suppose you youngsters would like to know where you're going," said Mr. Gordon, deftly avoiding the ruts in the miserable road. "Well, I'll warn you it is a farm, and probably Bramble Farm will shine in contrast. But Flame City is impossible, and when everybody is roughing it, you'll soon grow used to the idea. The Watterbys are nice folks, native farmers, and what they lack in initiative they make up in kindness of heart. I'm sorry I have to leave to-morrow morning, but every minute counts, and I have no right to put personal business first."
He turned to Bob.
"You don't know what a help you are going to be," he said heartily. "I really doubt if I should have had Betty come, if at the last moment she had not telegraphed me you were coming, too. It's no place out here for a girl—Oh, you needn't try to wheedle me, my dear, I know what I'm saying," he interpolated in answer to an imploring look from his niece. "No place for a girl," he repeated firmly. "I shall have no time to look after her, and she can't roam the country wild. Grandma Watterby is too old to go round with her, and the daughter-in-law has her hands full. I'd like nothing better, Bob, than to take you with me to-morrow, and you'd learn a lot of value to you, too, on a trip of this kind. But I honestly want you to stay with Betty; a brother is a necessity now if ever one was."
Bob flushed with pleasure. That Mr. Gordon, who had never seen him and knew him only through Betty's letters and those the Littells had written, should put this trust in him touched the lad mightily. What did he care about a tour of the oil fields if he could be of service to a man like this? And he knew that Mr. Gordon was honest in his wish to have his niece protected. Betty was high-spirited and headstrong, and, having lived in settled communities all her life, was totally ignorant of any other existence.
"Listen, Uncle Dick," broke in Betty at this point. "Do you know anybody around here by the name of Saunders?"
"Saunders?" repeated her uncle thoughtfully. "Why, no, I don't recollect ever having heard the name. But then, you see, I know comparatively little about the surrounding country. I've fairly lived at the wells this summer. I only stumbled on the Watterbys by chance one day when my car broke down. Why? Do you know a family by that name?"
So Betty, helped out by Bob, explained their interest in the mythical "Saunders place," and Mr. Gordon listened in astonishment.
"Guess they're the aunts you're looking for, Bob," he said briefly, when he was in possession of the facts. "Couldn't be many families of that name around here, not unless they were related. Do you know, there's a lot of that tricky business afoot right here in Flame City? People have lost their heads over oil, and the sight of a handful of bills drives them crazy. The Watterby farm is one of the few places that hasn't been rushed by oil prospectors. That's one reason why I chose it."
They were now on a lonely stretch of road with gently rolling land on either side of them, dotted with a scrubby growth of trees. Not a house was in sight, and they had passed only one team, a pair of mules harnessed to a wagon filled with lengths of iron pipe.
"You'll know all about oil before you're through," said Mr. Gordon suddenly. Then he laughed.
"It's in the very air," he explained. "We talk oil, think oil, and sometimes I think, we eat oil. Leastways I know I've tasted it in the air on more than one occasion."
Betty had been silently turning something over in her mind.
"Isn't there danger from fire?" she asked presently.
"There certainly is," affirmed her uncle. "We've had one bad fire this season, and I don't suppose the subject is ever out of our minds very long at a time. Sandbags are always kept ready, but let a well get to burning once, and all the sandbags in the world won't stop it."
"I wouldn't want a well to burn," said Bob slowly, "but if one should, I shouldn't mind seeing it."
"You wouldn't see much but thick smoke," rejoined Mr. Gordon. "I've some pictures of burning wells I'll show you when I can get them out. Nothing but huge columns of heavy black smoke that smudges up the landscape."
"Like the lamp that smoked one night when Mrs. Peabody turned it down too low—remember, Bob?" suggested Betty. "Next morning everything in the room was peppered with greasy soot."
"Look ahead, and you'll see the Watterby farm—'place,' in the vernacular of the countryside," announced Mr. Gordon. "Unlike the Eastern farms, very few homes are named. There's Grandma Watterby watching for us."
Bob and Betty looked with interest. They saw a gaunt, plain house, two stories in height, without window blinds or porch of any sort, and if ever painted now so weather-beaten that the original color was indistinguishable. A few flowers bloomed around the doorstep but there was no attempt at a lawn. A huddle of buildings back of the house evidently made up the barns and out-houses, and chickens stalked at will in the roadside.
These fled, squawking, when Mr. Gordon ran the car into the ditch and an old woman hobbled out to greet him.
"Well, Grandma," he called cheerily, raising his voice, for she was slightly deaf, "I've brought you two young folks bag and baggage, just as I promised. I suspect they've brought appetites with them, too."
"Glad to see you," said the old woman, putting out a gnarled hand. Her eyes were bright and clear as a bird's, and she had a quick, darting way of glancing at one that was like a bird, too. "Emma's got the supper on," she announced. "She's frying chicken."
"I'll go in and tell Mrs. Watterby that she may count on me," declared Mr. Gordon jovially, as Bob jumped down and helped Betty out. "I never miss a chance to eat fried chicken, never. I wonder if it will be fried in oil?"
"Emma uses lard," said Grandma Watterby placidly.
OLD INDIAN LORE
Mr. Gordon stayed over night, but was off early in the morning. Bob and Betty watched his rickety car out of sight, and then, determined to keep busy and happy, set out to explore the Watterby farm.
The family, they had discovered at supper the night before, consisted of Grandma Watterby, her son Will, a man of about forty-five, and the daughter-in-law, Emma, a tall, silent woman with a wrinkled, leathery skin, a harsh voice, and the kindest heart in the world. An Indian helped Mr. Watterby run the farm. In addition there were two boarders, a man and his wife who had come West for the latter's health and who, for the sake of the glorious air, put up with many minor inconveniences. They were very homesick for the East, and asked Bob and Betty many questions.
"Just think, Bob," said Betty, as she and Bob went out to the barn (they had been told that they were free to go anywhere), "there's no running water in the house. Mrs. Watterby carries in every bit that's used for drinking and washing. She was up at four o'clock this morning, carrying water to fill the tubs; she is doing the washing now."
"Water's as hard as a rock, too," commented Bob. "I suppose that's the alkali. Did you notice how harsh and dry Mrs. Watterby's face looks? Seems to me I'd rather drill for water than for oil, and the first thing I'd do would be to pump a line into the house. They've lived on this farm for sixty years, your uncle said. At least Grandma Watterby has. And I don't believe they've done one thing to it, that could be called an improvement."
"Here's the Indian," whispered Betty. "Make him talk, Bob. I like to hear him."
The Indian had eaten at the same table with the family, after the farm fashion, and Betty had been fascinated by the monosyllabic replies he had given to questions asked him. He was patching a harness in the doorway of the barn and glanced up unsmilingly at them. Nevertheless he did not seem hostile or unfriendly.
"You come to see oil fields?" he asked unexpectedly. "You help uncle own big well, yes? Indians know about oil hundreds of years ago."
"Uncle Dick is working for a big oil company," explained Betty. "I don't think he owns any wells himself. Tell us something about the Indians? Are there many around here?"
There was an old sawhorse beside the door, and she sat down comfortably on that, while Bob, picking up a handy stick of wood, drew a knife from his pocket and began to whittle.
The Indian was silent for a few minutes. Then he spoke slowly, his needle stabbing the heavy leather at regular intervals.
"Wherever there is oil, there were Indians once," he announced. "Ask any oil man and he will tell you. At Lake Erie, in Pennsylvania and some parts of New York State, where dwelt the Iroquois, many years after oil was found. It is true, for I have read and heard it."
"Were the Iroquois in New York State?" asked Bob interestedly. "I've always read of the Mohawks, but not about them."
The Indian glanced at him gravely.
"The Mohawks were an Iroquois tribe," he explained courteously. "Mohawks, Senecas, Tionontati, Cayuga, Oneida—all were tribes of the Iroquois. Yes I see you recognize those names—many places in this country have been named for Indians."
"Are you an Iroquois?" asked Betty, rather timidly, for she feared lest the question should be considered impolite.
"I am a Kiowa," announced the redman proudly. "Oklahoma and Kansas were the home of the Kiowas, the Pawnees and the Comanches. And you see oil has been found here. In Texas, where the big oil fields are, once roved Wichitas. The Dakotas, some tribes of which were the Biloxi, the Opelousas and the Pascagoulas, lived on the gulf plains of Louisiana. Out in southern California, where the oil wells now flow, the Yokut Indians once owned the land. They tell me that where oil had been discovered in Central America, petroleum seeps to the surface of the land where once the Indian tribes were found."
"Did the Indians use the oil?" asked Bob. He, like Betty, was fascinated with the musical names of the mysterious tribes as they rolled easily from the Kiowa's tongue.
"Not as the white man does," was the answer. "The Senecas skimmed the streams for oil and sometimes spread blankets over the water till they were heavy with the oil. They used oil for cuts and burns and were famed for their skill in removing the water from the oil by boiling. Dances and religious rites were observed with the aid of oil. The Siouan Indians, who lived in West Virginia and Virginia, knew, too, of natural gas. They tossed in burning brands and watched the flames leap up from pits they themselves had dug.
"You will find," the Indian continued, evidently approving of the rapt attention of his audience, "many wells now owned by Indians and leased to white-men companies. The Osage have big holdings. They are reservation Indians, mostly—perhaps they can not help that. I must go to the plowing."
He gathered up his harness and went off to the field, and Bob and Betty resumed their explorations, talking about him with interest. Their tour of the shabby outbuildings was soon completed, and just in time for a huge bell rung vigorously announced that dinner was on the table.
That afternoon they found Grandma Watterby braiding rugs under the one large tree in the side yard, and she welcomed them warmly.
"I was just wishing for some one to talk to," she said cheerfully. "Can't you sit a while? There isn't much for young 'uns to do, and I says to your uncle it was a good thing there was two of you—at least you can talk."
"What lovely rugs!" exclaimed Betty, examining the old woman's work. "See, Bob, they're braided, just like the colonial rag rugs you see in pictures. Can't I do some?"
"Sure you can braid," said the old woman. "It's easy. I'll show you, and then I'll sew some while you braid."
"Let me braid, too," urged Bob. "My fingers aren't all thumbs, if I am a boy."
"Well now," fluttered Grandma Watterby, pleased as could be, "I don't know when I've had somebody give me a lift. Working all by yourself is tedious-like, and Emma don't get a minute to set down. My brother used to make lots of mats to sell; he could braid 'em tighter than I can."
She showed Betty how to braid and then started Bob on three strips. Then she took up the sewing of strips already braided.
"We were talking to the Indian this morning," said Betty idly. "He told us a lot about Indians—how wherever they have been oil has been discovered. Does he really know?"
"Ki has been to Government school, and knows a heap," nodded Grandma Watterby. "What he tells you's likely to be so. I don't rightly know myself about what they have to do with the oil, but Will was saying only the other night that the Osage Indians have been paid millions of dollars within the last few years."
Her keen old eyes were sparkling, and she was sewing with the quick, darting motion that they soon learned was characteristic of everything she did. She must be very old, Bob decided, watching her shriveled hands, knotted by rheumatism, and the idea of age put another thought into his head.
"Mr. Gordon said you'd lived on this farm for sixty years, Grandma," the boy said suddenly. It had been explained to them that the old lady liked every one to use that title. "You must know 'most every one in the neighborhood."
"Fred Watterby brought me here the day we were married," the old woman replied, letting her sewing fall into her lap. "Sixty years ago come next October. I was married on my seventeenth birthday."
She sat in a little reverie, and Bob and Betty braided quietly, unwilling to disturb her, although the same question was in their minds. Then Grandma Watterby took up her sewing with a sigh, and the spell was broken.
"Know everybody in the neighborhood?" she echoed Bob's statement. "Yes, I used to. But with so many moving in and such a lot of oil folks, why, there's days when I don't see a rig pass the house I know."
Betty and Bob spoke simultaneously.
"Do you know any one named Saunders?" they chorused.
BOB LEARNS SOMETHING
Grandma Watterby considered gravely.
"Saunders? Saunders?" she repeated reflectively, while Betty squeezed Bob's arm in an agony of hopeful excitement. "Seems to me—now wait a minute, and don't hurry me. When you hurry me, I get mixed in my mind."
Betty and Bob waited in respectful silence. The old woman rubbed her forehead fretfully, but gradually her expression cleared.
"There was a Saunders family," she murmured, half to herself. "Three girls, wasn't there—or was it four? No, three, and only one of 'em married. What was her name—Faith? Yes, that's it, Faith. A pretty girl she was, with eyes as blue as a lake and ripply hair she wore in a big knot. I always did want to see that hair down her back, and one day I told her so.
"'How long is it, Faith?' I asked her. 'When I was a girl we wore our hair down our backs in a braid and was thankful to our Creator for the blessing of a heavy head of hair.'
"Faith laughed and laughed. I can see her now; she had a funny way of crinkling up her eyes when she laughed.
"'I'll take it down for you, Mrs. Watterby,' she says; and, my land, if she didn't pull out every pin and let her hair tumble down her back. It was a foot below her waist, too. I never saw such a head o' hair."
Bob looked up at the old woman with shining eyes.
"That was my mother," he said quietly.
"Your mother!" Grandma Watterby's tone was startled. Then her face broke into a wrinkled smile.
"Well, now, ain't I stupid?" she demanded eagerly. "My head isn't what it used to be. Course you are Faith Saunders' son. She married David Henderson, a likely young carpenter. Dear, dear, to think you're Faith's boy. My, wouldn't your grandma have been proud to see you!"
"Did you know her?" asked Bob hungrily. Deprived of kin for so many years, even the claim to relatives, he was pathetically starved for the details taken for granted by the average boy.
"Your grandpa and your grandma," pronounced Grandma Watterby, "died 'bout a year after your ma was married. I guess they never saw you. Your aunties was all of twenty years older than she was. Your ma was the youngest of a large family of children, but they all died babies 'cept the two oldest and the youngest. Funny wasn't it?"
Betty waved her braiding wildly.
"Bob was told he had two aunts," she cried excitedly. "They're still living, aren't they, Grandma Watterby? Do they live near here?"
"I dunno whether they're living or not," said the old woman cautiously. "Seems like I would 'a' heard if they had died, but mebbe not. I don't go out much any more, and Emma's no hand for news. Mebbe they died. I ain't heard a word 'bout the Saunders family for years and years. Where's your father, boy?"
"He died," said Bob simply. "He was killed in a railroad wreck, and I guess my mother nearly lost her mind. They found her wandering around the country, with only her wedding certificate and a few other papers in a little tin box. And she was sent to the poorhouse. That night I was born, and she died."
"Dear! dear!" mourned Grandma Watterby, a mist gathering on her spectacles. "Poor, pretty Faith Saunders! In the poorhouse! The Saunders was never what you might call rich, but I guess none of 'em ever saw the inside of the almshouse. And David Henderson was as fine a young man as you'd want to see. When Faith married him and he took her away from here, folks thought they'd go far in the world. I wonder if Hope and Charity ever tried to find out what became of her?"
"Hope and Charity?" repeated Bob. "Are those my aunts?"
"Yes, Hope and Charity Saunders—they was twins," said the old lady. "Nice girls, too; and they thought everything of Faith. She was so much younger and so pretty, and they were like mothers to her. And she died in the poorhouse! Why didn't they send her baby back to the girls? They'd 'a' taken care of you and brought you up like their own."
Bob explained that his mother's mental condition had baffled the endeavors of the authorities to get information from her regarding her home and friends, and that she had evidently walked so many miles from the scene of the wreck that no attempt was made to identify his father's body. A baby was no novelty in the poorhouse, and no one was greatly interested in establishing a circle of relatives for him, and, except for a happy coincidence, he might have remained in ignorance of his mother's people all his life.
"I must find out where my aunts live," he concluded. "I overheard some chaps on the train talking about the Saunders place, and Betty and I decided that that must be the homestead farm. They may not live there now, but surely whoever does, could give me a clue. Do you know of a place so called around here? Or would Mr. Watterby?"
"I don't know where the Saunders place is," replied Grandma Watterby, genuinely troubled. "Will wouldn't know, 'cause he's only farmed here five years, having his own place till his pa died. If I recollect right, the Saunders didn't live round here, not right round here, that is. Let's see, it's all of fifteen years since Faith was married. I lost sight of the girls after she left, and they stopped driving in to see us. Where was their place? I know I went to old Mrs. Saunders' funeral. Well, anyway, I got this much straight—there was three hills right back of the house. I'd know 'em if I saw 'em in Japan—them three hills! You watch for 'em, boy, and when you lay eyes on 'em you'll know you've found the Saunders place!"
And that was the most definite direction Bob could hope for. Grandma Watterby had the weight of years upon her, and she could not remember the road that led to the farm she had often visited. Though in the days that followed she recollected various bits of information about Bob's mother and her life as a girl, to which he listened eagerly, she was utterly unable to locate the farm. She kept mentioning the three hills, however, and her son, overhearing, smiled a little.
"Mother never did pay much attention to roads and like-a-that," he commented dryly. "She always found her way around like the Babes in the Wood—by remembering something she had passed coming over."
The Watterby place was a curious mixture of primitive farming methods, ranching tactics, and Indian folklore, with a sprinkling of furtherest East and West for good measure. Will Watterby attributed his cosmopolitan plan of work to the influence of the ever-changing hired man.
"They come and they go, mostly go," he was fond of saying. "It's easier for me to do the hired man's way, 'cause I can't go off when things don't suit me. Our place seems to be a half-way station for all the tramps in creation. I reckon they get off at Flame City, and, headed east or west, have to earn the money for the rest of their trip. Well, anyway, I don't believe in being narrow; if a man can show me a better way to do a job, I'm willing to be shown."
"I simply have to have a clean middy blouse to wear to-morrow when Uncle Dick gets back," Betty confided to Bob. "And I don't intend to let Mrs. Watterby wash and iron it for me. Can't you fix me a tub of water somewhere out in the barn? I'll do it myself and spread it on the grass to dry. Then, when she's getting supper, I can heat an iron and press it."
Bob was willing; indeed he needed clean collars himself, and had reached the decision that there was only one way to get them. Inquiry had established the fact that there was no laundry in Flame City, and the genus washwoman was practically unknown.
Betty went in to get her middy blouse, and Bob pumped pail after pail of water and carried it to the barn. One pump supplied the whole farm, house and barns. The two cows, three horses, and the pigs and chickens were watered thrice daily by the patient Ki.
Cold water was not the only difficulty Betty encountered when she came to the actual washing. The soap would not lather, and a thick white scum formed on the water when she tried to churn up a suds.
"Hard," said Bob laconically. "Got to have something to put in to soften it. Borax is good; know where there is any?"