Betty Gordon in the Land of Oil/Chapter 3

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When Bob entered the smoking-car he saw the two men he had pointed out to Betty seated near the door at the further end of the car. The boy wondered for the first time what he could do that would offer an excuse for his presence in the car, for of course he had never smoked. However, walking slowly down the aisle he saw several men deep in their newspapers and not even pretending to smoke. No one paid the slightest attention to him. Bob took the seat directly behind the two men in gray, and, pulling a Chicago paper from his pocket, bought that morning on the train, buried himself behind it.

The noise made by the train had evidently lulled caution, or else the suspected sharpers did not care if their plans were overheard. Their two heads were very close together, and they were talking earnestly, their harsh voices clearly audible to any one who sat behind them.

"I tell you, Blosser," the older man was saying as Bob unfolded his paper, "it's the niftiest little proposition I ever saw mapped out. We can't fail. Best of all, it's within the law—I've been reading up on the Oklahoma statutes. There's been a lot of new legislation rushed through since the oil boom struck the State, and we can't get into trouble. What do you say?"

The man called Blosser flipped his cigar ash into the aisle.

"I don't like giving a lease," he objected. "You know as well as I do. Jack, that putting anything down in black and white is bound to be risky. That's what did for Spellman. He had more brains than the average trader, and what happened? He's serving seven years in an Ohio prison."

Bob was apparently intensely interested in an advertisement of a new collar button.

"Spellman was careless," said the gray-haired man impatiently. "In this case we simply have to give a lease. The man's been coached, and he won't turn over his land without something to show for it. I tell you we'll get a lawyer we can control to draw the papers, and they won't bind us, whatever they exact of the other fellow. Don't upset the scheme by one of your obstinate fits."

"Call me stubborn, if you like," said Blosser. "For my part, I think you're crazy to consider any kind of papers. A mule-headed farmer, armed with a lease, can put us both out of business if the thing's managed right; and trust some smart lawyer to be on hand to give advice at an unlucky moment. Hello!" he broke off suddenly, "isn't that Dan Carson over there on the other side, smoking a cigarette?"

Bob peeped over his paper and saw the dark-eyed man spring from his seat and hurry across the aisle where a large, fat, jovial-looking individual was puffing contentedly on a cigarette.

"Cal Blosser!" boomed the big man in a voice heard over the car. "Well, well, if this isn't like old times! Glad to see you, glad to see you. What's that? Jack Fluss with you? Lead me to the boy, bless his old heart!"

The two came back to the seat ahead of Bob, and there was a great handshaking, much slapping on the back, and a general chorus of, "Well, you're looking great," and "How's the world been treating you?" before the man called Dan Carson tipped over the seat ahead and sat down facing the two gray-clad men.

"I'm glad to see you for more reasons than one," said Blosser, passing around fresh cigars. "Who's behind us, Dan?" He lowered his voice. "Only a kid? Oh, all right. Well, Jack here, has been working on an oil scheme for the last two weeks, and this morning he comes out with the bright idea of giving some desert farmer a lease for his property. Can you get over that?"

Three spirals of tobacco smoke curled above the seats, and when Bob lifted his gaze from the paper he could see the round, good-natured face of the fat man beaming through the gray veil.

"What you want to go to that trouble for?" he drawled, after a pause. Clearly he was never hurried into an answer. "Seems to me, Jack, this is a case where the youngster shows good judgment. Where you fixing to operate?"

"Oklahoma," was the comprehensive answer. "Oil's the thing to-day. There's more money being made in the fields over night than we used to think was in the United States mint."

"Oil's good," said the fat man judicially. "But why the lease? Plenty of farms still owned by widows or old maids, and they'll fairly throw the land at you if you handle 'em right."

There was an exclamation from the dark-eyed man.

"Just what I was telling Jack this morning," he chortled. "Buy a farm, for farming purposes only, from some old lady. Pay her a good price, but get your land in the oil section. Old lady happy, we strike oil, sell out to big company, everybody happy. Simple, after all. Good schemes always are."

Jack Fluss grunted derisively.

"Lovely schemes, yours always are," he commented sarcastically. "Only thing missing from the scenario, as stated, is the farm. Where are you going to pick up an oil farm for a song? Old maids are sure to have a nephew or something hanging round to keep 'em posted."

"Now you mention it—" Carson fumbled in his pocket. "Now you mention it, boys, I believe I've got the very place for you. I've been prospecting around quite a bit in Oklahoma, and this summer I ran across a farm that for location can't be beat. Right in the heart of the oil section. Like this—"

He took an envelope from his pocket and, resting it on his knee, began to draw a rough diagram. The three heads bent close together and the busy tongues were silent save for a muttered question or a word or two of explanation.

Bob began to think that he had heard all he was to hear, and certainly he was no longer in doubt as to the character of the men he had followed. He had decided to go back to Betty when the older of the two gray-suited men, leaning back and taking off his glasses to polish them, addressed a question to Carson.

"Widow own this place?" he asked casually.

"No, couple of old maids," was the answer. "Last of their line, and all that. The neighbors know it as the Saunders place, but I didn't rightly get whether that was the name of the old ladies or not."

The Saunders place!

Bob sat up with a jerk, and then, remembering, sank back and turned a page, though his hands shook with excitement.

"Faith Henderson, born a Saunders—" The words of the old bookshop man, Lockwood Hale, who had told Bob about his mother's people, came back to him.

"I do believe it is the very same place," he said to himself. "There couldn't be two farms in the oil section owned by different families of the name of Saunders. If it is the right farm, and they're my aunts, perhaps Betty's uncle will know where it is."

He strained his ears, hoping to gather more information, but having heard of this desirable farm, Fluss and Blosser were apparently unwilling to discuss it further. In reality, had Bob only known, they were mulling the situation over in their respective minds, and Carson knew they were. That night, over a game of cards, a finished proposition would doubtless be perfected, and a partnership formed.

"What about you?" Fluss did say.

"Who? Me?" asked Carson inelegantly. "Oh, I'm sorry, but I can't go in with you. I'm going right on through to the coast. Oklahoma isn't healthy for me for a couple of months. All I'll charge you for the information is ten per cent. royalty, payable when your first well flows. My worst enemy couldn't call me mean."

"Got something to show you, Carson," said the man with eye-glasses. "Come on back into the sleeper and I'll unstrap the suit-case."

The three rose, tossed away their cigar butts, and went up the aisle. Bob waited till they had gone into the next car. Intending then to go back to Betty. His intentions were frustrated by a lanky individual who dropped into the seat beside him.

"Smoke?" he said in friendly fashion, offering Bob a cigarette. "No? Well, that's right. I didn't smoke at your age, either. Fact is, I was most twenty-three before I knew how tobacco tasted. Slick-looking posters went up the aisle just now, what?"

Bob admitted that there was something peculiar about them.

"Sharpers, if I ever saw any," said the lanky one. "We're overrun with 'em. They come out from the East, and because they can dress and know how to sling language— Say," he suddenly became serious, "you'd be surprised the way the girls fall for 'em. My girl thinks if a man's clothes are all right he must be a Wall Street magnate, and the rest of the girls are just like her. They're the men that give the oil fields a shady side."

In spite of his roughness, Bob liked the freckle-faced person, and he had proved that he was far from stupid.

"You've evidently seen tricky oil men," he said guardedly. "Do you work in the oil fields? I'm going to Oklahoma."

"Me for Texas," announced his companion. "I change at the next junction. No, the nearest I ever come to working in the oil fields is filling tanks for the cars in my father's garage. But o' course I know oil—the streets run with it down our way, and they use it to flush the irrigation system. And I've seen some of the raw deals these sharpers put through—doing widows and orphans out of their land. Makes you have a mighty small opinion of the law, I declare it does."

As he spoke the train slowed up, then stopped.

"No station," puzzled the Texan. "Let's go and find out the trouble."

He started for the door, and then the train started, bumped, and came to a standstill again.

"You go ahead!" shouted Bob. "I have to go back and see that my friend is all right."