Betty Gordon in the Land of Oil/Chapter 20

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"Doctor Morrison, maybe," said Bob carelessly. "Gee, Betty, you certainly are nervous! I'll run around the house and see if there's any one about."

He dashed out, and though he hunted thoroughly, reported that he could find no one.

"It wasn't the doctor, that's sure," he said. "And the grocer's boy would have gone to the back of the house. Are you sure you saw anything, Betty?"

"I saw a man's shadow," averred Betty positively. "I was sitting facing the window, you know, and watching the million little motes dancing in the shaft of light, when a shadow, full length, fell on the floor. It was for only a second, as though some one had stepped across the porch. Then I told you. Bob, I know I shan't sleep a wink to-night."

"Nonsense," said Bob stoutly. "Who could it have been? Goodness knows, there's nothing worth stealing in the house."

"Those sharpers," whispered Betty. "They might have come back and be hanging around hoping they can make your aunts sell the farm to them."

"I'd like to see them try it," bristled Bob. "Isn't it funny, Betty, we can't make the aunts believe there is oil here? I think Aunt Charity might, but Aunt Hope is so positive she rides right over her. Well, I hope that Uncle Dick comes back from the fields mighty quick and persuades them that they have a fortune ready for the spending."

Despite Bob's assurances that he could find no one, Betty was uneasy, and she passed a restless night. The next day and the next passed without incident, save for a visit from Doctor Morrison in the late afternoon. He did not come every day now, and this call, he announced, was more in the nature of a social call. He had been told of Bob's relationship to the old ladies and was interested and pleased, for he had known them for as long as he had lived in that section. He carried the good news to Grandma Watterby, too, and that kind soul, as an expression of her pleasure, insisted on sending the aunts two of her best braided rugs.

"I have a note for you from your uncle, Betty," said the doctor, after he had delivered the rugs.

People often intrusted him with messages and letters and packages, for his work took him everywhere. He had been to the oil fields and seen Mr. Gordon and had been able to give him a full account of Betty's and Bob's activities. In a postscript Mr. Gordon had added his congratulations and good wishes for "my nephew Bob." The body of the letter, addressed to Betty, praised her for her service to the aunts and said that the writer hoped to get back to the Watterbys within three or four days.

"I'll need a little rest by then," he went on to say, "for I've been in the machine night and day for longer than I care to think about. We're clearing away the debris of the fire, and drilling two new wells."

The doctor was persuaded to stay to supper, which was a meal to be remembered, for Miss Hope was a famous cook and she spared neither eggs nor butter, a liberality which the close-fisted Joseph Peabody would have blamed for her poverty.

There was no mistaking the strained financial circumstances of the two old women. Every day that Bob spent with them disclosed some new makeshift to avoid the expenditure of money, and both house and barns were sadly in need of repairs. Bob himself was able to do many little odd jobs, a nail driven here, a bit of plastering there, that tended to make the premises more habitable, and he worked incessantly and gladly, determined that his aunts should never do another stroke of work outside the house.

They were normal in health again and Betty had suggested that she go back to the Watterbys. But they looked so stricken at the mention of such a plan, and seemed so genuinely anxious to have her stay, that she promised not to leave till her uncle came for her. Bob, too, was relieved by her decision, for his promise to Mr. Gordon still held good, and yet he felt that his place was with his aunts.

The shades all over the house were up now, and the four bedrooms on the second floor in use once more. They were sparsely furnished, like those downstairs, but everything was neat and clean. Miss Charity confided to Betty that she and her sister had been forced to sell their best furniture, some old-fashioned mahogany pieces included, to meet a note they had given to a neighbor. The two poor sisters seemed to have been the prey of unscrupulous sharpers since the death of their parents, and Betty fervently hoped that Bob would be able to stave off the pseudo real-estate men till her uncle could advise them.

A few days after the doctor's call Betty decided that what she needed was a good gallop on Clover. She had had little time for riding since she had been nurse and housekeeper, and the little horse was becoming restive from too much confinement.

"A ride will do you good," declared Miss Hope, in her eager, positive fashion. "I suppose you'll stop in at Grandma Watterby's? Tell her Charity and I thank her very much for the rugs and for the beef-tea she sent us."

The road from the Saunders farm was the main highway to Flame City, and Bob, who in his capacity of guardian felt his responsibility keenly, saw no harm in Betty's riding it alone. It was morning, and she would have lunch with the Watterbys and come back in the early afternoon. Everything looked all right, and he bade her a cheerful good-bye.

"Isn't it great, Clover, to be out for fun?" Betty asked, as the horse snuffed the fresh air in great delight. "I guess you thought you were going to have to stay in the stable, or be turned out to grass like an old lady, for the rest of your life, didn't you?"

Clover snorted, and settled down into her favorite canter. Betty enjoyed the sense of motion and the rush of the wind, and horse and girl had a glorious hour before they drew rein at the Watterby gate.

"Well, bless her heart, did she come to see us at last!" cried Grandma Watterby, hurrying down to greet her. "Emma!" she called. "Emma! Just see who's come to stay with us."

The old woman was greatly disappointed when Betty explained that she must go back after lunch, dinner, as the noon meal was made at the Watterby table, but the girl was not to be persuaded to stay over night. She had promised Bob.

Every one, from Grandma Watterby to the Prices, had an innocent curiosity, wholly friendly, to hear about Bob and his aunts, and Betty was glad to gratify it. She told the whole story, only omitting the portion that dealt with the death of Bob's mother in the poorhouse, rightly reasoning that the Misses Saunders would want to keep this fact from old neighbors and friends. The household rejoiced with Bob that he had found his kindred, and Grandma Watterby expressed the sentiments of all when she said that "Bob will take care of them two old women and be a prop to 'em for their remaining years."

Ki, the Indian, had the fox skin cured, and proudly showed It to Betty. She was delighted with the silky pelt and ran upstairs to put it in her trunk while Ki saddled Clover for the return trip. She knew that a good furrier would make her a stunning neck-piece for the winter from the fur.

It was slightly after half past one when Betty started for the Saunders farm, and as the day was warm and the patches of shade few and far between, she let Clover take her own time. In a lonely stretch of road, out of sight of any house or building, two men stepped quietly from some bushes at the side of the road, and laid hands on Clover's bridle. Betty recognized them as the two men dressed in gray whom Bob had followed on the train, and who had interviewed him while the aunts were ill.

"Don't scream!" warned the man called Blosser. "We don't go to hurt you, and you'll be all right if you don't make trouble. All we want you to do is to answer a few questions."

Betty was trembling, more through nervousness than fright, though she w^as afraid, too. But she managed to stammer that if she could answer their questions, she would.

"That fresh kid we saw with you the other day, back at the Saunders farm," said Blosser, jerking his thumb in the general direction of the three hills. "Is he going to be there long?"

Betty did not know whether anything she might say would injure Bob or not, and she wisely concluded that the best plan would be to answer as truthfully as possible.

"I suppose he will live there," she said quietly. "He is their nephew, you know."

Fluss looked disgustedly at his companion.

"Can you beat that?" he demanded in an undertone. "The kid has to turn up just when he isn't wanted. The old ladles never had a nephew to my knowledge, and now they allow themselves to be imposed on by—"

A look from Blosser restrained him.

"Well," Fluss addressed himself to Betty, "do you know anything about how the farm was left? Where's the kid's mother? Disinherited? Was the place left to these old maids? It was, wasn't it?"

"What he means," interrupted Blosser, "is, do you know whether this boy would come in for any of the money if some one bought the farm? We've a client who would like to buy and farm it, as I was saying the other day."

"Bob is entitled to one-third," said Betty coolly, having in a measure recovered her composure.

"Oh, he is, is he?" snarled the older man. "I thought he had a good deal to say about the place. Did the old maids get well? Are they up and about?"

"Miss Hope and Miss Charity are much better," answered Betty, flushing indignantly. "And now will you let me go?"

"Not yet," grinned Fluss. "We haven't got this relation business all straightened out. What I want you to tell me—"

But Betty had seen the opportunity for which she had been waiting. Fluss had removed his hand from the bridle for an instant, and Betty pulled back on the reins. Ki had taught Clover to rear at this signal and strike out with her forefeet. She obeyed beautifully, and involuntarily the two men fell back. Betty urged Clover ahead and they dashed down the road.

Betty forced her mount to gallop all the way home and startled Bob by dashing into the yard like a whirlwind. The horse was flecked with foam and Betty was white-faced and wild-eyed.

"Oh, Bob!" she gasped hysterically, tumbling from the saddle, "those sharpers are still here! They stopped me down the road!"