Betty Gordon in the Land of Oil/Chapter 13
THE THREE HILLS
Betty saw an upheaval of sand, followed by a column of oil, heard a shout of victory from the men, and then Clover, who had been shivering with apprehension, snorted loudly, took the bit between her teeth and began to run. MacDuffy, resting securely in the assurance Betty had given that the horse would not be frightened, was occupied with the men, and horse and rider were rapidly disappearing from sight before he realized what had happened.
"Clover, Clover!" Betty put her arms around the maddened creature's neck and spoke to her softly. "It's all right, dear. Don't be afraid. I thought you had been brought up in an oil country, or I wouldn't have let you stand where you could see the well."
But Clover's nerves had been sadly shaken, and she was not yet in a state to listen to reason. Betty was now an excellent horsewoman, and had no difficulty in remaining in the saddle. She did not try to pull the horse in, rather suspecting that the animal had a hard mouth, but let the reins lie loosely on her neck, speaking reassuringly from time to time. Gradually Clover slackened her wild lope, dropped to a gentle gallop, and then into a canter and from that to a walk.
"Well, now, you silly horse, I hope you feel that you're far enough from danger," said Betty conversationally. "I'm sure I haven't the slightest idea where we are. Bob and I have never ridden this far, and from the looks of the country I don't think it is what the geographies call 'densely populated'. Mercy, what a lonesome place!"
Clover had gone contentedly to cropping grass, and that reminded Betty that she was hungry.
Far away she saw the outlines of oil derricks, but the horse seemed to have taken her out of the immediate vicinity of the oil fields. Not a house was in sight, not a moving person or animal. The stillness was unbroken save for the hoarse call of a single bird flying overhead.
Suddenly Betty's eyes widened in astonishment. She jerked up Clover's head so sharply that that pampered pet shook it angrily. Why should she be treated like that?
"The three hills!" gasped Betty. "Grandma Watterby's three hills! 'Joined together like hands' she always says, and right back of the Saunders' house. Clover! do you suppose we've found the three hills and Bob's aunts?"
Clover had no opinion to offer. She had been rudely torn from her enjoyment of the herbage, and she resented that plainly. Betty, however, was too excited to consider the subject of lunch, even though a moment before she had been very hungry.
She turned the horse's head toward the three hills, and with every step that brought her nearer the conviction grew that she had found the Saunders' place. To be sure, she had seen nothing of a house as yet, but, like the name of Saunders, three hills were not a common phenomenon in Oklahoma, at least not within riding distance of the oil fields.
"It's an awful long way," sighed Betty, when after half an hour's riding, the hills seemed as far away as before. "I suppose the air is so clear that they seemed nearer than they are. And I guess we came the long way around. There must be a road from the Watterby farm that cuts off some of the distance."
Betty did not worry about what Bob or the men at the wells might be thinking. They knew her for a good rider, and Clover for a comparatively easily managed horse. No one in the West considers a good gallop anything serious, even when it assumes the proportions of a runaway. Betty was sure that they would expect her to ride back when Clover had had her run, and, barring a misstep, no harm would be likely to befall the rider.
After a full hour and a half of steady going, the three hills obligingly moved perceptibly nearer. Betty could see the ribbon of road that lay at their base, and the outline of a rambling farmhouse.
"Grandma Watterby said the hills were right back of the house!" repeated Betty ecstatically. "Oh, I'm sure this must be the place. If only Bob had come with me!"
She laughed a little at the notion of such an accommodating runaway, and then pulled Clover up short as they came to a rickety fence that apparently marked the boundary line of a field.
"We go straight across this field to the road, I think," said Betty aloud. "I don't believe there is anything planted. Clover, can you jump that fence?"
The fence was not very high, and at the word Clover gracefully cleared it. The field was a tangled mass of corn stubble and weeds, and a good farmer would have known that it had not been under cultivation that year. At the further side Betty found a pair of bars, and, taking these down, found herself in a narrow, deserted road, facing a lonely farmhouse.
The house was set back several yards from the road and even to the casual observer presented a melancholy picture. The paint was peeling from the clapboards, leaders were hanging in rusty shreds, and the fence post to which Betty tied her horse was rotten and worm-eaten.
"My goodness, I'm afraid the aunts are awfully poor," sighed Betty, who had cherished a dream that Bob might find his relatives rich and ready to help him toward the education he so ardently desired. "Even Bramble Farm didn't look as bad as this."
She went up the weedy path to the house, and then for the first time noticed that all the shades were drawn and the doors and windows closed. It was a warm day and there was every reason for having all the fresh air that could be obtained.
"They must be away from home!" thought Betty. "Or—doesn't anybody live here?"
A cackle from the hen yard answered her question and put her mind at ease. Where there were chickens, there would be people as a matter of course. They might have gone away to spend the day.
"I'll take Clover out to the barn and give her a drink of water," decided Betty. "No one would mind that. Grandma Watterby says a farmer's barn is always open to his neighbor's stock."
So, Clover's bridle over her arm, Betty proceeded out to the barnyard.
"Why—how funny!" she gasped.
The unearthly stillness which had reigned was broken at her approach by the neighing of a horse, and at the sound the chickens began to beat madly against the wire fencing of their yard, cows set up a bellowing, and a wild grunting came from the pig-pen.
Betty hurried to the barn. Three cows in their stanchions turned imploring eyes on her, and a couple of old horses neighed loudly. Something prompted Betty to look in the feed boxes. They were empty.
"I believe they're hungry!" she exclaimed. "Clover, I don't believe they've been fed or watered for several days! They wouldn't act like this if they had."
There wasn't a drop of water anywhere in or about the barn, and a hasty investigation of the pig troughs and the drinking vessels in the chicken yard showed the same state of affairs.
"I don't know how much to feed you," Betty told the suffering animals compassionately, "but at any rate I know what to feed you. And you shall have some water as fast as I can pump it."
She was thankful for the weeks spent at Bramble Farm as she set about her heavy tasks. She was tired from her long ride and the excitement of the morning, but it never entered her head to go away and leave the neglected farm stock. There was no other house within sight where she could go for help, and if the animals were fed and watered that day it was evidently up to her to do it.
She worked valiantly, heaping the horses' mangers with hay, carrying cornstalks to the cows and feeding the ravenous pigs and chickens corn on the cob, for there was no time to run the sheller. She had some difficulty in discovering the supplies, and then, when all were served, she discovered that not one of the animals had touched the food.
"Too thirsty," she commented wisely.
Watering them was hard, tiresome work, for one big tub in the center of the yard evidently served the whole barn. When she had pumped that full—and how her arms ached!—she led the horses out, and after them, the cows. She was afraid to let either horses or cows have all they wanted, and jerking them back to their stalls before they had finished was not easy. She carried pailful after pailful of water to the pigs and the chickens and it was late in the afternoon before she had the satisfaction of knowing that every animal, If not content, was much more comfortable than before her arrival.
"Now I think I've earned something to eat!" she confided to Clover, when, hot and tired and flushed with the heat, she had filled the last chicken yard pan. "And I'm going up to the house and help myself from the pantry. I'm 'most sure the kitchen door is unlocked; no one around here ever locks the back door."
She was very hungry by this time, having had nothing since an early breakfast, and she had no scruples about helping herself to whatever edibles she might find.
"I begin to sympathize with all the hired men," she thought, making her way to the kitchen door. "I don't wonder they eat huge meals when they have to do such hard work."
The door, as she had expected, was not locked. A slight turn on the knob opened it easily, and Betty stepped cautiously into the kitchen. The drawn shades made it dark, but it was not the darkness that caused Betty to jump back a step.
She listened intently. Would she hear the noise again, or had it been only her nervous imagination?
No—there it was again, plain and unmistakable. Some one had groaned!