Betty Gordon in the Land of Oil/Chapter 10

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CHAPTER X


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 co-incidence, 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?"

Betty remembered having seen a box of borax on the kitchen shelf, and Bob volunteered to go for it. When he returned with it, he brought the news that there was a peddler at the back door with a bewildering "assortment of everything," Bob said.

"Put a lot of this in," he directed, handing the box to Betty, who obediently shook in half the contents. "Now we'll put the stuff to soak, and go and look at this fellow's stuff. When you come back to wash, all you'll have to do will be to rinse 'em out and put them out to dry."

This sounded plausible, and the middy blouse and collars were left to soak themselves clean.

The peddler proved to have a horse and wagon, and he carried dress goods, notions, kitchen wear, books, stationery and candy. Bob and Betty had never seen a wagon fitted up like this, and they thought it far better than a store.

"I might buy that dotted swiss shirtwaist," whispered Betty, as Mrs. Watterby ordered five yards of apron gingham measured off. "My middy blouse might not dry in time."

"All right. And I'll get a clean collar," agreed Bob. "These aren't much and I suppose they're too cheap to last long, but at any rate they're clean."

The peddler drove on at last, and then Bob and Betty hurried back to their washing. Alas, the tub had disappeared. At supper that night, Mrs. Watterby had missed it and demanded of her husband if he had seen it.

"Sure, I had Ki spraying the henhouse this afternoon," Watterby rejoined. "Thought you'd mixed the soapsuds and washing soda for him. It was standing in the barn."

Betty explained. Of her blouse and Bob's collars, there remained a few ragged shreds, for she had poured enough washing powder in to eat the fabric full of holes. She took her loss good-naturedly and was thankful she had the new blouse to wear.

Uncle Dick, when he heard the story, went into gales of laughter.

"Tough luck, Kitten," he comforted her. "We'll go to see an oil fire this afternoon and that'll take your mind off your troubles."