Betty Gordon in the Land of Oil/Chapter 22

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Betty's heart thumped, but she managed to control her voice. She was now convinced that the sharpers had something to do with Bob's disappearance.

Miss Hope was so beside herself with grief and fear that Betty thought, with the practical wisdom that was far beyond her years, that it would be better for her to occupy herself with searching than to remain in the house and let her imagination run riot.

Miss Charity came tremblingly out with a lantern, and after the milk was strained—for the habits of every day living hold even in times of trouble and distress—they set out, an old lady on either side of Betty, who had taken the lantern.

It was a weird performance, that tramp over the uneven fields with a flickering lantern throwing dim shadows before them and the bushes and trees assuming strange and terrifying shapes, fantastic beyond the power of clear daylight to make them. More than once Miss Charity started back in fright, and Miss Hope, who was stronger, shook so with nervousness that she found it difficult to walk. Betty, too, was much overwrought, and it is probable that if either a jack rabbit or a white owl had crossed the path of the three there would have been instant flight. However, they saw nothing more alarming than their own shadows and a few harmless little insects that the glow of the lantern attracted.

"Suppose the poor, dear boy is lying somewhere with a broken leg!" Miss Hope kept repeating. "How would we get a doctor for him? Could we get him back to the house?"

"Think how selfish we were to sit down and eat supper—we ought to have known something was wrong with him," grieved Miss Charity. "I'd rather have lost both cows than have anything happen to Bob."

Betty could not share their fear that Bob was injured. The memory of that one bar down, haunted her, though she could give no explanation. Then the cow had come back. Betty had positive proof that the animal had not wandered to the half of the farm she had explored, and Bob's section had been nearer the house. Why had Daisy stayed away till almost dark, when milking time was at half past five? And the cow had been milked! Betty forebore to call the aunts' attention to this, and they were too engrossed in their own conjectures to have noticed the fact.

"Well, he isn't on the farm." Miss Hope made this reluctant admission after they had visited every nook and cranny. "What can have become of him?"

Miss Charity was almost in a state of collapse, and her sister and Betty both saw that she must be taken home. It was hard work, going back without Bob, and once in the kitchen. Miss Charity was hysterical, clinging to her sister and sobbing that first Faith had died and now her boy was missing.

"But we'll find him, dear," urged Miss Hope. "He can't be lost. A strong boy of fourteen can't be lost; can he, Betty?"

"Of course we'll find him," asserted Betty stoutly. "I'm going to ride to the Watterbys in the morning and telephone to Uncle Dick. He will know what to do. You won't mind staying alone for a couple of hours, will you?"

"Not in the daytime," quavered Miss Charity. "But my, I'm glad you're here to-night, Betty. Sister and I never used to be afraid, but you and Bob have spoiled us. We don't like to stay alone."

Betty slept very little that night. Aside from missing Bob's protection—and how much she had relied on him to take care of them she did not realize until she missed him—there were the demands made on her by the old ladies, who both suffered from bad dreams. During much of the night Betty's active mind insisted on going over and over the most trivial points of the day. Always she came back to the two mysteries that she could not discuss with the aunts: Who had put the single bar down, and who had milked the cow?

Breakfast was a sorry pretense the next morning, and Betty was glad to hurry out to the barn and feed and water the stock and milk the two cows. It was hard and heavy work and she was not skilled at it, and so took twice as long a time as Bob usually did. Then, when she had saddled Clover and changed to her riding habit, she sighted the mail car down the road and waited to see if the carrier had brought her any later news of her uncle. The Watterbys promptly sent her any letters that came addressed to her there.

There was no news, but the delay was fifteen minutes or so, and when Betty finally started for the Watterbys it was after nine o'clock. She had no definite plan beyond telephoning to her uncle and imploring him to come and help them hunt for Bob.

"Where could he be?" mourned poor Miss Hope, with maddening persistency. "We looked all over the farm, and yet where could he be? If he went to any of the neighbors to inquire, and was taken sick, he'd send us word. I don't see where he can be!"

Betty hurried Clover along, half-dreading another encounter with the men who had stopped her. She passed the place where she had been stopped, and a bit further on met Doctor Morrison on his way to a case, his car raising an enormous cloud of dust in the roadway. He pulled out to allow her room, recognized her, and waved a friendly hand as he raced by. By this token Betty knew he was in haste, for he always stopped to talk to her and ask after the Saunders sisters.

The Watterby place, when she reached it, seemed deserted. The hospitable front door was closed, and the shining array of milk pans on the back porch was the only evidence that some one had been at work that morning. No Grandma Watterby came smiling down to the gate, no busy Mrs. Will Watterby came to the window with her sleeves rolled high.

"Well, for pity's sake!" gasped Betty, completely astounded. "I never knew them to go off anywhere all at once. Never! Mrs. Watterby is always so busy. I wonder if anything has happened."

"Hello! Hello!" A shout from the roadway made her turn. "You looking for Mr. Watterby?"

"I'm looking for any one of them," explained Betty, smiling at the tow-haired boy who stood grinning at her. "Are they all away?"

"Yep. They're out riding in an automobile," announced the boy importantly. "Grandma Watterby's great-nephew, up to Tippewa, died and left her two thousand dollars. And she says she always wanted a car, and now she's going to have one. A different agent has been here trying to sell her one every week. They took me last time."

In spite of her anxiety, Betty laughed at the picture she had of the hard-working family leaving their cares and toil to go riding about the country in a demonstrator's car. She hoped that Grandma would find a car to her liking, one whose springs would be kind to her rheumatic bones, and that there would be enough left of the little legacy to buy the valiant old lady some of the small luxuries she liked.

"Ki's home," volunteered the boy. "He's working 'way out in the cornfield. Want to see him? I'll call him for you."

"No thanks," said Betty, uncertain what to do next. "I don't suppose there's a telephone at your house, is there?" she asked, smiling.

The urchin shook his head quickly.

"No, we ain't got one," he replied. "Was you wanting to use Mis' Watterby's? It's out of order. Been no good for two days. My ma had to go to Flame City yesterday to telephone my dad."

"I'll have to go to Flame City, too, I think," decided Betty. "I hope you'll take the next automobile ride," she added, mounting Clover.

"Gee, Grandma Watterby says if they buy a car I can have all the rides I want," grinned the towhead engagingly. "You bet I hope they buy!"

All her worry about Bob shut down on Betty again as she urged the horse toward the town. Suppose Uncle Dick were not within reach of the telephone! Suppose he were off on a long inspection trip!

Flame City had not improved, and though Betty could count her visits to it on the fingers of one hand, she thought it looked more unattractive than ever. The streets were dusty and not over clean, and were blocked with trucks and mule teams on their way to the fields with supplies. Here and there a slatternly woman idled at the door of a shop, but for the most part men stood about in groups or waited for trade in the dirty, dark little shops.

"I wonder where the best place to telephone is," said Betty to herself, shrinking from pushing her way through any of the crowds that seemed to surround every doorway. "I'll ask them in the post-office."

The post-office was a yellow-painted building that leaned for support against a blue cigar store. Like the majority of shacks in the town, it boasted of only one story, and a long counter, whittled with the initials of those who had waited for their mail, was its chief adornment.

Betty hitched Clover outside and entered the door to find the postmaster rapidly thumbing over a bunch of letters while a tall man in a pepper-and-salt suit waited, his back to the room.

"Can you tell me where to find a public telephone?" asked Betty, and at the sound of her voice, the man turned.

"Betty!" he ejaculated. "My dear child, how glad I am to see you!"

Mr. Gordon took the package of mail the postmaster handed him and thrust it into his coat pocket.

"The old car is outside," he assured his niece. "Let's go out and begin to get acquainted again."

Betty, beyond a radiant smile and a furtive hug, had said nothing, and when Mr. Gordon saw her in the sunlight he scrutinized her sharply.

"Everything all right, Betty?" he demanded, keeping his voice low so that the loungers should not overhear. "I'd rather you didn't come over to town like this. And where is Bob?"

"Oh, Uncle Dick!" The words came with a rush. "That's why I'm here. Bob has disappeared! We can't find him anywhere, and I'm afraid those awful men have carried him off."

Mr. Gordon stared at her in astonishment. In a few words she managed to outline for him her fears and what had taken place the day before. Mr. Gordon had made up his mind as she talked.

"We'll leave Clover at the hotel stable. It won't kill her for a few hours," he observed. "You and I can make better time in the car, rickety as it is. Hop in, Betty, for we're going to find Bob. Not a doubt of it. It's all over but the shouting."