Betty Gordon in the Land of Oil/Chapter 11

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CHAPTER XI


AN OIL FIRE


Mr. Gordon had arrived the night of the disastrous laundry experiment, and made his announcement at the supper table.

"An oil fire!" ejaculated Betty. "Where is it? Won't it burn the offices and houses? Perhaps they'll have it put out before we get there!"

Mr. Gordon did not seem to be at all excited, and continued to eat his supper placidly. He looked tired, and he later admitted that he had slept little the night before, having spent the time discussing ways of putting out the fire with the well foreman.

"No, we'll get to it in plenty of time in the morning," he assured his niece. "An oil fire is less dangerous than expensive, my dear. We've got a man coming up from beyond Tippewa with a sand blast on the first train. Telegraphed for him to-night. It will cost fifteen hundred dollars to put the fire out, but it's worth it."

"Fifteen hundred dollars!" Betty stared aghast.

"Well, think of the barrels of oil burning up," returned her uncle. "The fire's been going since yesterday afternoon. The normal output of that well is round about three thousand barrels a day. Every twenty-four hours she burns, that much oil is lost to us. So we count the fifteen hundred cheap."

The Watterby household had the farm habit of retiring early, and to-night Betty and Bob were anxious to get to sleep early, too, that they might have a good start in the morning. Mr. Gordon was glad to turn in when the rest did and make up for lost sleep, so by nine o'clock the house was wrapped in slumber.

An hour or two later Betty was awakened by what sounded like a shot. Startled, she listened for a moment, and then, hearing no further commotion, went to sleep again.

She was the first one down in the morning, barring Mrs. Watterby, who, winter and summer, rose at half-past four or earlier. Going out to the pump for a drink of water she saw Ki bending over something beside the woodshed.

"Hey!" he hailed her, without getting up. "Come see what I got."

Ki and Betty were now excellent friends, the taciturn Indian apparently recognizing that her interest in his stories and Indian tales was unfeigned.

"Why, what is it?" she asked, stopping in amazement as her foot touched a furry body. "Is it a dog? Oh, Ki, you didn't kill a dog?"

"No, not a dog," said the Indian showing his white teeth in a grin which was the nearest he ever permitted himself to come to a laugh. "Not a dog—a fox. I shot him last night. He would eat Mis' Watterby's chickens."

"So that was what I heard," Betty said, recalling the noise that had wakened her. "Bob, come and see the fox Ki shot."

Bob came running over to the woodshed, and appraised the reddish yellow body admiringly.

"Gee, he was a big one, wasn't he?" he murmured. "When'd you shoot him, Ki? Last night? I didn't hear anything. Stealing chickens, I'll bet a feather."

Ki nodded, and displayed a shining knife.

"You watch," he told them. "I skin him, and cure the fur—then I give it to Miss Betty. Make her a nice what you call neck-piece next winter."

"Oh, don't skin him!" Betty involuntarily shuddered. "I couldn't bear to watch you do that. He will bleed, and I'll think it hurts him. Poor little fox—I hate to see dead things!"

Her lips quivered, and Ki looked hurt.

"You no want a neck-piece?" he asked, bewildered. "Very nice young ladies wear them. I have seen."

Betty smiled at him through the tears that would come.

"I would love to have the fur," she explained. "Only I'm such a coward I can't bear to see you skin the fox. I heard a man say once that women are all alike—we don't care if animals are killed to give us clothes, but we want some one else to do the killing."

Somewhat to her surprise, Ki seemed to understand.

"Bob help me skin him," he announced quietly. "You go in. When the fur is dry and clean, you have it for your neck-piece."

Betty thanked him and ran away to tell Mr. Gordon and Grandma Watterby of her present. A handsome fox skin was not to be despised, and Betty was all girl when it came to pretty clothes and furs.

Ki and Bob came in to breakfast, and the talk turned to the oil fire. Mr. Gordon generously invited as many as could get into his machine to go, but Mrs. Price could not stand excitement and the Watterbys were too busy to indulge in that luxury. Will Watterby offered to let Ki go, but the Indian had a curious antipathy to oil fields. Grandma Watterby always insisted it was because he was not a Reservation Indian and, unlike many of them, owned no oil lands.

"I'd go with you myself," she declared brightly, "if the misery In my back wasn't a little mite onery this mornin'. Racketing about in that contraption o' yours, I reckon, wouldn't be the best kind of liniment for cricks like mine."

So only Mr. Gordon, Betty and Bob started for the fields.

"I saw a horse that I think will about suit you, Betty," said her uncle when they were well away from the house. "I'm having it sent out to-morrow. She is reputed gentle and used to being ridden by a woman. Then, if we can pick up some kind of a nag for Bob, you two needn't be tied down to the farm. All the orders I have for you is that you're to keep away from the town. Ride as far into the country as you like."

"But, Mr. Gordon," protested Bob, "I don't want you to get a horse for me! I'd rather have a job. Isn't there something I can do out at the oil fields? I'm used to looking out for myself."

"Look here, young man," came the reply with mock severity, "I thought I told you you had a job on your hands looking after Betty. I meant it. I can't go round on these inspection trips unless I can feel that she is all right. And, by the way, have you any objection to calling me Uncle Dick? I think I rather fancy the idea of a nephew."

Bob, of course, felt more at ease then, and Betty, too, was pleased. The boy found it easy to call Mr. Gordon "Uncle Dick," and as time went on and they became firmer friends it seemed most natural that he should do so.

They were approaching the oil fields gradurally, the road, which was full of treacherous ruts, being anything but straight. Whenever they met a team or another car, which was infrequently, they had to stop far to one side and let the other vehicle pass. Betty was much impressed with her first near view of the immense derricks.

"What a lot of them!" she said. "Just like a forest, isn't it, Uncle Dick?"

Her uncle frowned preoccupiedly.

"Those are not our fields," he announced curtly. "They're mostly the property of small leaseholders. It is mighty wasteful, Betty, to drill like that, cutting up the land into small holdings, and is bound to make trouble. They have no storage facilities, and if the pipe lines can't take all the oil produced, there is congestion right away. Also many of the leases are on short terms, and that means they've the one idea of getting all the oil out they can while they hold the land. So they tend to exhaust the sands early, and violate the principles of conservation."

They were following the road through the oil fields now, and presently Mr. Gordon announced that they were on his company's holdings. At the same time they saw a column of dense black smoke towering toward the sky.

"There's the firel" cried Betty, "Do hurry, Uncle Dick!"

Obediently the little car let out a notch, and they drew up beside a group of men, still some distance from the fire.

"Chandler's come," said one of these respectfully to Mr. Gordon. "The five-ton truck brought up a load of sand, and they're only waiting for you to give the word."

The speaker was introduced to Betty and Bob as Dave Thorne, a well foreman, and at a word from Mr. Gordon he jumped on the running board of the car and they proceeded another mile. This brought them to the load of sand dumped on one side of the road and the powerful high-pressure hose that had been brought up on the train that morning. The heat from the burning well was intense, though they were still some distance from the actual fire.

"Now, Betty, watch and you'll see a fire put out," commanded her uncle, getting out of the car and going forward, first cautioning both young people to stay where they were and not get in any one's way.

A half dozen men lifted the heavy hose, turned the nozzle toward the column of smoke, and a shower of fine sand curved high in the air. For perhaps five minutes nothing could be noticed; then, ahnost imperceptibly, the smoke began to die down. Lower, lower, and lower it fell, and at last died away. The men continued to pump in sand for an extra ten minutes as a matter of precaution, then stopped. The fire was out.

"That fire wasn't no accident. Boss," proclaimed Dave Thorne, wiping his perspiring face with a red handkerchief. "She was set. And, believe me, where there's one, there'll be others. The north section keeps me awake nights. If a fire started there where that close drilling's going on, it couldn't help but spread. You can fight fire in a single well, but let half a dozen of 'em flare up and there'll be more than oil lost.

"What a croaker you are, Dave," said Mr. Gordon lightly. "Don't lose sleep about any section. A night's rest is far too valuable to be squandered. These young folks want to see the sights, and I'll take them around for an hour or so. Then I'll go over that bill of lading with you. Come, Betty and Bob, we'll leave the machine and take the trail on foot. Mind your clothes and shoes—there's oil on everything you touch."