Betty Gordon in the Land of Oil/Chapter 6
A dirty-faced clock on the wall told Betty that it was within twenty minutes of the time their train was due. However, they were within sight of the station, so, provided Bob was quickly waited upon, there was no reason to worry about missing the connection.
Bob came back, balancing the sandwiches and milk precariously, and they proceeded to make a hearty lunch, their appetites sharpened by the clear Western air, in a measure compensating for the sawdust bread and the extreme blueness of the milk.
"What are those men laughing about, I wonder," commented Betty idly, as a fresh burst of laughter came from the table in the corner of the room. "What a noise they make! Bob, do I imagine it, or does this bread taste of oil?"
Bob laughed, and glanced over his shoulder to make sure the counter-man could not hear.
"Do you know, I thought that very thing," he confessed. "I wasn't going to mention it, for fear you'd think I was obsessed with the notion of oil. To tell you the truth, Betsey, I think this bread has been near the kerosene oil can, not an oil well."
"Well, we can drink the milk," said Betty philosophically. "It's lucky one sandwich apiece was good. Oh, won't it be fine to get to Flame City and see Uncle Dick! I want to get where we are going, Bob!"
"Sure you do," responded Bob sympathetically, frowning with annoyance as another hoarse burst of laughter came from the corner table. "But I'm afraid Flame City isn't going to be much of a place after all."
"I don't care what kind of place it is," declared Betty firmly. "All I want is to see Uncle Dick and be with him. And I want you to find your aunts. And I'd like to go to school with the Littell girls next fall. And that's all."
Bob smiled, then grew serious.
"I'd like to go to school myself," he said soberly. "Precious little schooling I've had, Betty. I've read all I could, but you can't get anywhere without a good, solid foundation. Well, there'll be time enough to worry about that when school time comes. Just now it is vacation."
"Bob!"—Betty spoke swiftly—"look what those men are doing—teasing that poor Chinaman. How can they be so mean!"
Sure enough, one of the group had slouched forward in his chair, and over his bent shoulders Bob and Betty could see an unhappy Chinaman, clutching his knife and fork tightly and looking with a hunted expression in his slant eyes from one to another of his tormentors. They were evidently harassing him as he ate, for while they watched he took a forkful of the macaroni on the plate before him, and attempted to convey it to his mouth. Instantly one of the men surrounding him struck his arm sharply, and the food flew into the air. Then the crowd laughed uproariously.
"Isn't that perfectly disgusting!" scolded Betty. "How any one can see anything funny in doing that is beyond me. Oh, now look—they've got his slippers."
The unfortunate Chinaman's loose flat slippers hurtled through the air, narrowly missing Betty's head.
"Come on, we're going to get out of this," said Bob determinedly, rising from his seat. "Those chaps once start rough-housing, no telling where they'll bring up. We want to escape the dishes, and besides we haven't any too much time to make our train."
He had paid for their food when he ordered it, so there was nothing to hinder their going out. Bob started for the door, supposing that Betty was following. But she had seen something that roused her anger afresh.
The poor Celestial was essaying an ineffectual protest at the treatment of his slippers, when a man opposite him reached over and snatched his plate of food.
"China for Chinamen!" he shouted, and with that clapped the plate down on the unfortunate victim's head with so much force that it shivered into several pieces.
Betty could never bear to see a person or an animal unfairly treated, and when, as now, the odds were all against one, she became a veritable little fury. As Bob had once said in a mixture of admiration and despair she wasn't old enough to be afraid of anything or anybody.
"How dare you treat him like that!" she cried, running to the table where the Chinaman sat in a daze. "You ought to be arrested! If you must torment some one, why don't you get somebody who can fight back?"
The men stared at her open-mouthed, bewildered by her unexpected championship of their bait. Then a great, coarse, blowzy-faced man, with enormous grease spots on his clothes, winked at the others.
"My eye, we've a visitor," he drawled. "Sit down, my dear, and John Chinaman shall bring you chop suey for lunch."
Betty drew back as he put out a huge hand.
"You leave her alone!" Bob had come after Betty and stood glaring at the greasy individual. "Anybody who'll treat a foreigner as you've treated that Chinaman isn't fit to speak to a girl!"
A concerted growl greeted this statement.
"If you've looking for a fight," snarled a younger man, "you're struck the right place. Come on, or eat your words."
Now Bob was no coward, but there were five men arrayed against him with a probable sixth in the form of the counter-man who was watching the turn of affairs with great interest from the safe vantage-point of his high counter. It was too much to expect that any men who had dealt with a defenceless and handicapped stranger as these had dealt with the Chinaman would fight fair. Besides, Bob was further hampered by the terrified Betty who clung tightly to his arm and implored him not to fight. It seemed to the lad that the better part of valor would be to take to his heels.
"You cut for the station," he muttered swiftly to Betty. "Get the bags—train's almost due. I'll run up the street and lose 'em somewhere on the way. They won't touch you."
He said this hardly moving his lips, and Betty did not catch every word. But she heard enough to understand what was expected of her and what Bob planned to do. She loosened her hold on his arm.
Like a shot, Bob made for the door, banged the screen open wide (Betty heard it hit the side of the building), and fled up the straggling, uneven street. Instantly the five toughs were in pursuit.
Betty heard the counter-man calling to her, but she ran from the place and sped toward the station. It was completely deserted, and a written sign proclaimed that the 1:52 train was ten minutes late. Betty judged that the ticket agent, with whom they had left their bags, would return in time to check them out, and she sat down on one of the dusty seats in the fly-specked waiting room to wait for the arrival of Bob.
That young man, as he ran, was racking his brains for a way to elude his pursuers. There were no telegraph poles to climb, and even if there had been, he wanted to get to Betty and the station, not be marooned indefinitely. He glanced back. The hoodlums, for such they were, were gaining on him. They were out of training, but their familiarity with the walks gave them a decided advantage. Bob had to watch out for holes and sidewalk obstructions.
He doubled down a street, and then the solution opened out before him. There was a grocery store, evidently a large shop, for he had noticed the front door on the street where the restaurant was situated. Now he was approaching the rear entrance and a number of packing cases cluttered the walk, and excelsior was lying about. A backward glance showed him that the enemy had not yet rounded the corner. Bob dived into the store.
"Hide me!" he gasped, running plump into a white-haired man in overalls who was whistling "Ben Bolt" and opening cases of canned peaches with pleasant dexterity. "Hide me quick. There's a gang after me—five of 'em!"
"Under the counter, Sonny," said the grocery-man, hardly looking at Bob. "Just lay low, and trust Micah Davis to 'tend to the scamps."
Bob crawled under the nearest counter and in a few minutes he heard the men at the door.
"'Lo, Davis," said one conciliatingly. "Seen anything of a fresh kid—freckled, good clothes, right out of the East? He tried to pass some bad money at Jake Hill's. Seen him?"
Bob nearly denounced this lie, but common sense saved him. Small use in seeking protection and then refusing it.
"Haven't seen anybody like that," said the groceryman positively. "Quit bruising those tomatoes, Bud."
"Well, he won't get out of town," stated Bud sourly. "There's a girl with him, and they're figuring on taking the one-fifty-two. We're going down and picket the station. If Mr. Smarty gets on that train at all, his face won't look so pretty."
They tramped off, and Bob came out from his hiding place.
"They're a nice bunch!" he declared bitterly. "I got into a row with 'em because they were teasing a poor Chinaman and Betty Gordon landed on them for that. Then I tried to get her away from the place, and of course that started a fight. But I suppose they can dust the station with me if they're set on it—only I'll register a few protests."
"Now, now, we ain't a-going to have no battle," announced the genial Mr. Davis. "I knew Bud was lying soon as I looked at him. Why? 'Cause I never knew him to tell the truth. As for picketing the station, well, there's more ways than one to skin a cat."