Betty Gordon in the Land of Oil/Chapter 1

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"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 semming 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.