Betty Gordon in the Land of Oil/Chapter 8
Bob and Betty descended the steps and found themselves on a rough platform with an unpainted shelter in the center that evidently did duty as a station. There were a few straggling loungers about, a team or two backed up to the platform, and a small automobile of the runabout type, red with rust.
"Well, bless her heart, how she's grown!" cried a cordial voice, and Mr. Richard Gordon had Betty in his arms.
"Uncle Dick! You don't know how glad I am to see you!" Betty hugged him tight, thankful that the worry and anxiety and uncertainty of the last few weeks, while she had waited in Washington to hear from him, was at last over, "How tanned you are!" she added.
"Oh, I'm a regular Indian," was the laughing response. "This must be Bob? Glad to see you, my boy. I feel that I already know you."
He and Bob shook hands heartily. Mr. Gordon was tall and muscular, with closely-cropped gray hair and quizzical gray eyes slightly puckered at the corners from much staring in the hot sun. His face and hands were very brown, and he looked like a man who lead an outdoor life and liked it.
Bob took to him at once, and the feeling seemed to be mutual, for Mr. Gordon kept a friendly hand on the boy's shoulder while he continued to scan him smilingly.
"Began to look as though we were never going to get together, didn't it?" Mr. Gordon said. "Last week there was a rumor that I might have to go to China for the firm, and I thought if that happened Betty would be in despair. However, that prospect is not immediate. Well, young folks, what do you think of Flame City, off-hand?"
Betty stared. From the station she could see half a dozen one-story shacks and, beyond, the outline of oil-well derricks. A straggling, muddy road wound away from the buildings. Trolley cars, stores and shops, brick buildings to serve as libraries and schools—there seemed to be none.
"Is this all of it?" she ventured.
"You see before you," declared Mr. Gordon gravely, "the rapidly growing town of Flame City. Two months ago there wasn't even a station. We think we've done rather well, though I suppose to Eastern eyes the signposts of a flourishing town are conspicuous by their absence."
"But where do people live?" demanded Betty, puzzled. "If they come here to work or to buy land, isn't there a hotel to live in? Where do you live, Uncle Dick?"
"Mostly in my tin boat," was the answer. "Many's the night I've slept in the car. But of course I have a bunk out at the field. Accommodations are extremely limited, Betty, I will admit. The few houses that take in travelers are over-crowded and dirty. If some one had enterprise enough to start a good hotel he'd make a fortune. But like all oil towns, the fever is to sink one's money in wells."
Betty's eyes turned to the horizon where the steel towers reared against the sky.
"Can we go to see the oil fields now?" she asked. "We're not a bit tired, are we, Bob?"
Mr. Gordon surveyed his niece banteringly.
"What is your idea of an oil field?" he teased. "A bit of pasture neatly fenced in, say two or three acres in area? Did you know that our company at present holds leases for over four thousand acres? The nearest well is ten miles from this station. No, child, I don't think we'll run out and look around before supper. I want to take you and Bob to a place I've found where I think you'll be comfortable. Have you trunk checks? Well have to take all baggage with us, because I'm leaving to-morrow for a three-day inspection trip, and the Watterbys can't be expected to do much hauling."
Bob had the checks, one for Betty's trunk and another for a small old-fashioned "telescope" he had bought cheaply In Washington and which held his meagre supply of clothing.
"We'll stow everything in somehow," promised Mr. Gordon cheerily, as he and Bob carried the baggage over to the rusty little automobile. "You wouldn't think this machine would hold together an hour on these roads," he continued, "but she's the best friend I have. Never complains as long as the gasoline holds out. There! I think that will stay put, Bob. Now in with you, Betty, and we'll be off."
Bob perched himself upon the trunk, and Mr. Gordon took his place at the wheel. With a grunt and a lurch, the car started.
"I suppose you youngsters would like to know where you're going," said Mr. Gordon, deftly avoiding the ruts In the miserable road. "Well, I'll warn you it is a farm, and probably Bramble Farm will shine in contrast. But Flame City is impossible, and when everybody is roughing it, you'll soon grow used to the idea. The Watterbys are nice folks, native farmers, and what they lack in initiative they make up in kindness of heart. Im sorry I have to leave to-morrow morning, but every minute counts, and I have no right to put personal business first."
He turned to Bob.
"You don't know what a help you are going to be," he said heartily. "I really doubt if I should have had Betty come, if at the last moment she had not telegraphed me you were coming, too. It's no place out here for a girl—Oh, you needn't try to wheedle me, my dear, I know what I'm saying," he interpolated in answer to an imploring look from his niece. "No place for a girl," he repeated firmly. "I shall have no time to look after her, and she can't roam the country wild. Grandma Watterby is too old to go round with her, and the daughter-in-law has her hands full. I'd like nothing better, Bob, than to take you with me to-morrow, and you'd learn a lot of value to you, too, on a trip of this kind. But I honestly want you to stay with Betty; a brother is a necessity now if ever one was."
Bob flushed with pleasure. That Mr. Gordon, who had never seen him and knew him only through Betty's letters and those the Littells had written, should put this trust in him touched the lad mightily. What did he care about a tour of the oil fields if he could be of service to a man like this? And he knew that Mr. Gordon was honest in his wish to have his niece protected. Betty was high-spirited and headstrong, and, having lived in settled communities all her life, was totally ignorant of any other existence.
"Listen, Uncle Dick," broke in Betty at this point. "Do you know anybody around here by the name of Saunders?"
"Saunders?" repeated her uncle thoughtfully. "Why, no, I don't recollect ever having heard the name. But then, you see, I know comparatively little about the surrounding country. I've fairly lived at the wells this summer. I only stumbled on the Watterbys by chance one day when my car broke down. Why? Do you know a family by that name?"
So Betty, helped out by Bob, explained their interest in the mythical "Saunders place," and Mr. Gordon listened in astonishment.
"Guess they're the aunts you're looking for, Bob," he said briefly, when he was in possession of the facts. "Couldn't be many families of that name around here, not unless they were related. Do you know, there's a lot of that tricky business afoot right here in Flame City? People have lost their heads over oil, and the sight of a handful of bills drives them crazy. The Watterby farm is one of the few places that hasn't been rushed by oil prospectors. That's one reason why I chose it."
They were now on a lonely stretch of road with gently rolling land on either side of them, dotted with a scrubby growth of trees. Not a house was in sight, and they had passed only one team, a pair of mules harnessed to a wagon filled with lengths of iron pipe.
"You'll know all about oil before you're through," said Mr. Gordon suddenly. Then he laughed.
"It's in the very air," he explained. "We talk oil, think oil, and sometimes I think, we eat oil. Leastways I know I've tasted it in the air on more than one occasion."
Betty had been silently turning something over in her mind.
"Isn't there danger from fire?" she asked presently.
"There certainly is," affirmed her uncle. "We've had one bad fire this season, and I don't suppose the subject is ever out of our minds very long at a time. Sandbags are always kept ready, but let a well get to burning once, and all the sandbags in the world won't stop it."
"I wouldn't want a well to burn," said Bob slowly, "but if one should, I shouldn't mind seeing it."
"You wouldn't see much but thick smoke," rejoined Mr. Gordon. "I've some pictures of burning wells I'll show you when I can get them out. Nothing but huge columns of heavy black smoke that smudges up the landscape."
"Like the lamp that smoked one night when Mrs. Peabody turned it down too low—remember, Bob?" suggested Betty. "Next morning everything in the room was peppered with greasy soot."
"Look ahead, and you'll see the Watterby farm—'place,' in the vernacular of the countryside," announced Mr. Gordon. "Unlike the Eastern farms, very few homes are named. There's Grandma Watterby watching for us."
Bob and Betty looked with interest. They saw a gaunt, plain house, two stories in height, without window blinds or porch of any sort, and if ever painted now so weather-beaten that the original color was indistinguishable. A few flowers bloomed around the doorstep but there was no attempt at a lawn. A huddle of buildings back of the house evidently made up the barns and out-houses, and chickens stalked at will in the road-side.
These fled, squawking, when Mr. Gordon ran the car into the ditch and an old woman hobbled out to greet him.
"Well, Grandma," he called cheerily, raising his voice, for she was slightly deaf, "I've brought you two young folks bag and baggage, just as I promised. I suspect they've brought appetites with them, too."
"Glad to see you," said the old woman, putting out a gnarled hand. Her eyes were bright and clear as a bird's, and she had a quick, darting way of glancing at one that was like a bird, too. "Emma's got the supper on," she announced. "She's frying chicken."
"I'll go in and tell Mrs. Watterby that she may count on me," declared Mr. Gordon jovially, as Bob jumped down and helped Betty out. "I never miss a chance to eat fried chicken, never. I wonder if it will be fried in oil?"
"Emma uses lard," said Grandma Watterby placidly.