The Man Who Overplayed His Hand

If he hadn't pawned his vest in Western Ontario, Ben Furlong might never have found the opportunity to woo Betty Durham and to “bring in" such an oil well.

REX BEACH December 15 1924

The Man Who Overplayed His Hand

If he hadn't pawned his vest in Western Ontario, Ben Furlong might never have found the opportunity to woo Betty Durham and to “bring in" such an oil well.

REX BEACH December 15 1924

The Man Who Overplayed His Hand

BEN FURLONG came to the Petrolia oil fields looking for work. He found it promptly. Seldom, it may be said, did any newcomer land a job more quickly than he, for inside of eighteen hours after his arrival he was doing time, and living at the expense of a none too generous country. It all came about because of Mr. Furlong’s vest.

Ben stepped off the train with sixty dollars upon his person, capital sufficient for any practical oil man in any producing field, but that very evening some new acquaintances invited him into a crap game. Now in Pennsylvania, where Ben hailed from, craps was a pastime, a game of chance indulged in by amateurs purely for purposes of amusement; it was not an exact science nor a means of livelihood as here. Asa result of that free, expansive hospitality Mr. Furlong spent the still and sleepy hours of his first night on a bench in the railroad station.

In the morning he pawned his vest. Vests are useless adornments in the warm summer days, but he finally found a second-hand shop the proprietor of which agreed to advance him “two bits” on this one. It was a trifling transaction but important to the visitor, who badly felt the need of a cup of coffee.

The owner of that vest had explored its pockets at least a dozen times during the night; what was his surprise, therefore, when the nimble-fingered purchaser found in it a twenty-five cent pieee that somehow had worked through a rip in the pocket lining and into a resting place that had entirely escaped the clumsy digits of its wearer.

Enthusiastically Mr. Furlong thanked the discoverer and held out his hand, but the latter grinned derisively and pocketed the coin. Thereupon an argument developed. The oil man contended that be had pawned the vest, not its contents; the merchant advanced the ancient common law doctrine of “finders keepers, losers weepers.”

Eventually Furlong went over the counter after his money and got it. The tussle was brief, but when he emerged from the pawn-shop a moment later he walked directly into the arms of a policeman, proving that his pressure upon the pawnbroker’s wind-pipe had not been sufficient totally to paralyze the latter’s vocal cords.

After hearing both sides of the story, the guardian of the peace decided that his timely arrival had broken up a mild case of highway robbery complicated with incipient assault and battery, and later the police magistrate concurred in some such view. At any rate Furlong soon found himself a member of the sheltered community that dwelt behind barred windows spending his days in keeping the court-house lawn in order and in sundry less pleasant tasks. The weather was hot and he did not feel the need of his vest.

This experience soured Furlong upon his immediate surroundings and when at last he was free to go where he wished he left town. He begged a ride from the friendly driver of a pipe truck bound out into the country and by nightfall he was among the oil derricks. Chance led him to the little town of Opportunity.

REX BEACH

If he hadn't pawned his vest in Western Ontario, Ben Furlong might never have found the opportunity to woo Betty Durham and to “bring in" such an oil well.

Opportunity was a product of the recent petroleum excitement. Originally it had consisted of a general store, a black-smith shop, a church and a few farmhouses clustered about a dusty cross-roads; but following the discovery of liquid gold it had grown into something uncommon, something quite extraordinary as towns go. To begin with, it was amazingly ugly. Oil derricks were everywhere, for the town site lay directly over a pool of exceeding richness, and in places these structures stood so close together that their straddling legs interlocked and

necessity had compelled the owners to board them in to prevent the oil from spraying over their neighbors.

The town itself was stained and spattered with it—streets, houses, residents alike— and three times the place had been wiped out by fire when some pipe-line had burst or a gusher had been ignited. It was built upon the ashes of itself, its yards were paved with cinders and when the midday sun shone upon them they radiated a cruel heat. Back of every store and residence was a dug-out—a dirt-covered storm cellar—fashioned as a refuge against the next conflagration.

No, there was nothing alluring about Opportunity except its name. Places of entertainment it had, to be sure, for on Saturday nights when the crews came in it resembled some frontier mining camp at the height of its boom and relaxation was a necessity, but the Temperance Act had come and in Western Ontario the law rode bard on all recognized forms of vice. In consequence its pleasures were denatured. Instead of palaces of sin it had soft drink stands, each one enveloped in a swarm of flies; for pure amusement it maintained a roller skating rink. The rumble issuing from this latter sink of iniquity during its busy hours could be heard for half a mile and resembled the roar of a stamp mill or the sound of a heavy surf.

Ben Furlong canvassed this town for w'ork but he was unsuccessful. After a day or so he went afield. He managed somehow to eat and to find places in which to sleep, but nowhere did he encounter a job. He was very dusty and quite hungry when at last he stopped in at Durham house.

Experience had taught him by this time that it was more profitable to beg favors from the permanent residents of the country than from the visitors such as well drillers, casing crews and the like, for in the farmhouses there were women and Ben had good luck with women. They liked him. Usually also there was a barn to sleep in and odd jobs which needed doing and which paid for a meal.

THIS was rather a better looking place than the average homestead and when he knocked at the kitchen door a girl appeared who was very much better looking than the average homesteader. She was, in fact, a very pretty girl.

She readily fetched Ben a drink of water and while he rested she talked to him. That was no doubt because of his smile. He informed her that he had been raised in the Pennsylvania fields and was a good, practical oil man; then noting her expression of doubt he warned her: “Never judge a horse by his harness! These pants are on their last legs but that’s the fault of the vest.” With unquenchable cheerfulness he recounted his unfortunate experience with the pawnbroker, and his manner of telling the story made the girl laugh. That led to food. There being no chores to do, Ben sat in the kitchen and chatted

with the girl while she cooked something for him, and in the course of their conversation he learned that her name was Betty Durham, that her parents were dead and that the farm belonged to her aunt, with whom she had lived ever since she was a little girl. The aunt had gone to Opportunity in the family flivver.

“Funny, you cooking for a tramp driller like me and your aunt owning acreage like this,” Ben remarked. “Isn’t this land on the structure?”

“Sure! It’s worth a lot of money. That well over yonder”—fork in hand Miss Durham indicated a derrick not far away—

"“belongs to us.”

From where he sat Furlong could see that the timbers of the tower were still bright and unstained, thus advertising the melancholy fact that the wrell itself was not a producer, so he inquired: “What’s wrong with it? Dry?” ’.;~

“Dry nothing! They’re not down yet.

They’ve got a fishing job—been at it for a couple of weeks.”

“Gee!” The visitor shook his head.

“That’s running somebody in debt.”

“I reckon we know it. Aunt Mary’s crazy. Maddox sent her to town for a new fishing tool. Tiller Maddox, he’s our driller.

It’s Aunt Mary’s well.”

Furlong opened his eyes in genuine astonishment. “You mean your aunt is putting it down with her own money?” “I mean just that.”

“This is like a dream, having ham and eggs cooked by an heiress!”

Miss Durham laughed lightly. “Sudden money certainly makes a change in people and we’ll probably do like the others when we get ours. A lot of folks in this country are too good to cook ham and eggs nowadays, but they weren’t a while back. Most of them -were lucky to have the ham. Of course we’re not rich yet but— It’s this way: when the first oil tank commenced we’d of been glad to get the farm drilled on most any kind of royalty, but nobody would lease it. When they finally got ready Aunt Mary wanted a bonus—two bits an acre—and she wouldn’t listen to Uncle Joe’s arguments.

“By and by they offered two bits, but by that time she -wanted a dollar. When they offered a dollar she changed her mind and asked ten and then when they were willing to pay ten she jumped to a hundred. She’s awfully ambitious that way. That’s what this talk of quick money did to her. Then the companies got together, or the boom kind of petered out or something, and it began to look as if Uncle Joe would be lucky to make any kind of a deal. He finally laid his ears back and leased a small block. Then he up and got killed.”

“That’s too bad.”

“It was an accident. A powder wagon let go.” The speaker’s face grew wistful, she stared out across the arid countryside for a moment or two. “Uncle Joe loved me but—Aunt Mary’s his second wife; we’re not really kinsfolk. It might just as well have been Maddox who got killed; he was as close to the wagon as Uncle Joe and yet he wasn’t touched. Funny, too, because he’s always been afraid of the stuff and has a hunch he’ll be blown up. All

you have to say to him is ‘powder’ and--”

“How’d your aunt come to put down this new well?” “Tiller drilled the one on that block we leased and after Uncle Joe was killed he quit the company and sort of took charge of things for Aunt Mary. It wasn’t a big well, but the royalty is enough to pay for this one. If it comes inwell, I won’t cook any more ham and eggs, so you’d better make the most of these. Yes, and you’d better come and get them; they’re done.” Miss Durham set a plate on the table and Furlong drew up his chair.

With the curiosity natural to his calling the visitor inquired more specifically about the nature of the mishap that had halted Maddox’s progress, but he learned little. He inferred, however, that the royalties from the first well were dwindling at an alarming rate and that any considerable delay in completing the new well might therefore result in ruin to the owner. It was a prospect that naturally gave Betty and her aunt grave concern.

When Ben had finished eating he said: “Maybe I can give this driller of yours some help. I’ve worked On a good many fishing jobs. D’you think he’d let me try?”

“He will if I tell him to,” the girl declared. “He’s tried everything anybody has told him to try. Who knows? Maybe you can do it.”

The speaker put on her sunbonnet and together she and Furlong went across the valley to the well.

' I 'ILLER MADDOX was a swarthy man of about thirty-five; his eyes were bold and black and set close together. He greeted the Durham girl with an easy familiarity, a suggestion of proprietorship that gave the visitor cause for thought, but towards Furlong he was none too cordial and when Betty explained the reason for the latter’s presence Maddox frowned.

“Another wise guy, eh? Every rope choker in ten miles has been tryin’ to show us how smart he is. What d’you know about fishin’, stranger?”

“Not much,” Ben confessed, “but I’ve had some

luck.”

“Oh, I’ve had plenty of luck myself!” Maddox asserted. “But I never had any good luck lettin’ strangers monkey with my work. If you jim up the well, I take the blame.” “I won’t jim anything.”

“What’ll you charge for this here miracle of yours?” Impatiently Miss Durham exclaimed: “What’s the

difference how much he

charges if he can do--

“I’ve been paid for any *

help I can give you,” Furí

long declared. “Probably I can’t do anything, but so far I don’t even know what’s wrong. Do you mind telling me?”

“We’ve got a bolt in the hole.”

‘‘A bolt?”

“Sure! A six-inch steel bolt. It worked loose and dropped out of a tool.”

“That’s a new one,” Ben admitted. “Why don’t you drill it out, pound it to pieces?”

Maddox grinned. “That’s what we been tryin’ to do but it’s tempered harder that the bit. It dulls every tool we use and all we been doin’ for two weeks is sharpen steel.”

“Can’t you drill past it?”

“How you goin’ to sidetrack a six-inch bolt loose in the bottom of a hole?”

“You can drive it into the wall.”

“Oh, you can, can you? We’re into a stratter of iron pyrites an’ the rock’s dam’ near as hard as the bolt. It’s much as ever a tool will cut it at all. That bolt just shifts around in the bottom of the hole like it was in a steel cup an’ it’s too small to grapple. I s’pose we could get hold of it with some fancy kind of a magnet if we could get hold of some fancy kind of magnet that would get holt of it.” Again Maddox grinned.

Betty Durham was staring at Furlong with an apprehensive pucker between her brows. “Ain’t that our luck, for a little bitty old bolt to ruin everything? Can you think of any way?”

“I can think of one way that won’t cost much to try.” “I don’t want any strangers experimentin’ around— Maddox began, but the girl exclaimed sharply:

“You’ve been experimenting for two weeks at a hundred dollars a day, haven’t you? It’s our well. Let Mr. Furlong have a go at it.”

The driller executed an exaggerated gesture of acquiescence. “Right you are, Betty! But if this feller puts it on the bum, don’t blame me.” Then to Ben he announced: “Help yourself, pardner. You heard the boss.” When Furlong had fully satisfied himself as to conditions, he took off his coat and went to work. He knew of no fishing tool so designed as to pick up an object as small and as easily movable as a six-inch bolt, therefore he made one. He took a short length of steel casing of a diameter small enough to slip into the well and in one end of this he cut teeth several inches long. It was a labor that consumed time; he was still at it when Betty reappeared at the well about dark and advised him that his supper was waiting.

Mrs. Durham had returned from town. She was a woman of indeterminate age; her eyes were pale; her nose was hooked like the beak of a hawk; her lips were thin and set in avaricious lines. Immediately upon meeting Furlong she wanted to know whether he believed his experiment

would succeed, how he proposed to go about it, how long it would take and the like. Ben was non-committal and he refused to raise her hopes. Before he had finished his meal he had convinced himself that the woman stood in some sort of dread of Tiller Maddox and that her fear of antagonizing him almost equalled her anxiety for Furlong’s success. Ben wondered why. Another fact he discovered: Betty and her aunt were not on the best of terms.

After supper, by the light of a gasoline torch, Furlong resumed his work the while Maddox vainly tried with the new device which his employer had brought out from town to grapple that obstinate piece of steel a fifth of a mile beneath his feet. But it was blind work, monotonous work, dispiriting work; time after time the clumsy fishing tool was raised and lowered but its jaws refused to seize the troublesome bolt. It was a job as hopeless and as baffling as trying to pick up a pin with a pair of fire-tongs attached to a string.

The engineer of the rig watched Furlong’s work with the interest of a fellow machinist and of him the latter inquired finally: “Say! How come Mr. Durham to get killed?”

“He was blowed up. It was when the Planet Company was getting ready to put down that well on the northeast corner. Maddox was workin’ for the company then— movin’ the rig onto the ground. A powder wagon came by an’ the driver stopped to ask his way. You’ve seen them trucks—six hundred odd quarts of nitroglycerin in square cans all set in felt-lined racks to keep ’em from jarring. I alius been scared of ’em, but them drivers pound their wagons over these rough roads like it’s so much molasses they got. Old man Durham went across to the road and give him directions—Re stood there watchin’ the wagon as it drove on. The driver was trottin’ his hosses an’ when he crossed the railroad track it let go. Jar set it off, I s’pose. Tiller says he saw it all but he don’t remember hearin’ a sound or feelin’ a shock of any sort. All

he seen was a big black cloud, an’ when he looked for old man Durham he wasn’t there.

The fence was gone, too.”

“What happened to the driver?”

“What d’you reckon happened? All the trace they ever found of him or the outfit was part of a hoss’s leg hangin’ on a telegraph cross-arm about a hundred yards up the grade. There was a hole thirty foot wide where the wagon had been and the railroad iron was cork-screwed for a quarter of a mile. They found quite a bit of Mr. Durham; enough to hold a funeral over.”

“And Maddox wasn’t scratched! That stuff certainly acts queer at times.”

“They figgered some air current was responsible. Kind of a godsend for Tiller, wasn’t it?” # ƒ

“Not to be killed?--Sure.”

“Naw! To get in with the widder an’ Betty.

Lucky for them, too, that he took to lookin’ out for ’em.

If he makes this well, they’ll be movin’ into one of them Petrolia mansions with marble bedsteads.”

“Humph! He’ll never make a well if he keeps dropping hardware in it. In my country a driller that’s careless would lose his job.”

“Tiller won’t lose his job,” the engineer asserted positively. “He don’t lose anything he goes after.”

TN THE course of time Furlong finished cutting the end

of his steel casing into a series of teeth and these teeth he then bent slightly inward. This done, he attached the device to a tool and lowered it into the hole. Even Betty Durham and her Aunt Mary, who looked on with growing suspense, understood now how he proposed to pick up that bolt : he had shaped those tapering teeth so that they resembled the curving fingers of a hand and his delicate task was to drive the casing home against the steel-hard bottom of the well until those fingers closed, until he clinched them over the obstacle. It was a task less difficult than it sounds.

Furlong himself handled the rig during this operation and even Maddox could find no fault with the way he did

jammed together by the blows from above; inside the basket thus formed and tightly bitten between two of those prongs was a battered six-inch piece of steel.

When Furlong had finished washing up, he found Betty Durham waiting for him.

“Come over to the house,” she said. “You must be tired.”

“I told you I was lucky,” the young man declared with a grin.

“Lucky nothing. You’ve got sense.”

“Simple, wasn’t it? I wonder Maddox never thought of it.”

Betty stirred; impatiently she exclaimed: “Oh, he’s too busy thinking about something! Say! We’ve got an extra room, but Aunt Mary says it wouldn’t look right for you to sleep there. Don’t that make you sick?”

“That’s what she proposed. Come on, we’ll fix it somehow.”

It was dark; the trail through the briars and the scrub bush was dim, but Betty knew it by heart and where its meanderings were indistinguishable she took Furlong’s hand and guided him.

it. When, after what seemed an interminable time, the w ire cable began to stream up out of the depths and wind itself in smooth black layers upon the drum, the two women pressed in upon the derrick floor.

Out of the well mouth finally slid the fishing tool; it stopped, hung motionless with the lower end at the evel of their eyes. The teeth had been bent inward,

“I suppose you think Aunt Mary’s crazy, risking all her money like this,” she said.

“I sure do,” the man admitted. “This thing will show you the chances she’s taking. Suppose that bolt had been something else, something we couldn’t get hold of? There’s a thousand things can happen to a well.”

“I know. But she’s—greedy. She always was. Tiller talked her into it after Uncle Joe died and she wouldn’t listen to me.”

“It’s a lot safer to let the big companies do the drilling and be satisfied with a royalty.”

“Some people can’t be satisfied,” the girl said quietly.

Then after a moment, “Uncle Joe never intended to leave the whole farm to her. They didn’t hitch very well. He said he was going to leave part of it to me, but —I guess he never got around to do it. I’ll bet Aunt Mary’s sorry by this time that she listened to Tiller; there’s so many things a driller can do to a well.”

“Pshaw! Is he that kind of a man?” “What kind of a man? Men are all alike, aren’t they—when they’ve got reason to be?”

“She better fire him.”

“I guess she can’t, or dassent . . . Funny my talking this way to you and not knowing you only a few hours. I’d better mind my own business. Here we are; you wait while I get a light.”

They had arrived at the house and the girl left her companion outside. She reappeared in a few minutes with a lantern and a couple of patchwork comforters. These latter she surrendered to Ben, then led the way to the barn.

Like most farms in the oil country, this one had been allowed to run down and with the exception of some chickens and a few dispirited cattle there was no livestock left upon it. There still remained, however, some old fodder; it was dusty and musty, but suitable enough for a bed, and Furlong announced that he was delighted with these sleeping arrangements. He set the lantern down and walked to the door with Betty. There he said:

“You’ve been mighty nice to me. I wish that fishing job had been harder.” ,

“It would have taken longer.”

The girl’s face was dimly illuminated as she smiled up at Furlong. She was the prettiest girl he had ever known, and he felt a great liking, a great sympathy, for her. The clasp of her warm hand as she had guided him along the dark trail had affected him in an unaccountable manner, and now it affected him again in the same way when she laid it in his. A sudden recklessness overwhelmed him and before he knew what he was doing he had bent forward and kissed her.

The girl was startled, but she did not recoil; curiously she inquired: “Why did you do that?”

“I don’t know. I—couldn’t help it, I guess. I didn’t

intend to but--” Ben floundered, he felt his face

“Tiller tried that and I slapped him. I’ve known him a long time too.” Miss Durham shook her head, apparently more perplexed at her own lack of resentment than surprised at Furlong’s boldness. “I must like you pretty well.”

“I wish you would—did. I—think you’re wonderful.”

“Queer!” Betty turned to go. A moment later she called back through the gloom, “I’ll call you when breakfast is ready.”

FURLONG was not altogether surprised when, on the following morning, Tiller Maddox offered him a job. Maddox, it was plain, was acting upon orders and he took no pains to conceal his dislike for the new hand; nevertheless Ben accepted the proffer. Aside from the fact that he needed work his interest in Betty Durham was now sufficient to make almost any sacrifice worth while.

In the days thereafter he tried to fathom the peculiar relationship existing between Maddox and the two women, but he did not succeed very well. The driller, it was evident, had his heart set upon Betty and in his attempt to win her Mrs. Durham was his ally; nevertheless for some unknown reason the aunt disliked and distrusted the man. About all that Ben could make sure of was the fact that in some manner not readily apparent the oil well was being used by Maddox as a weapon, that somehow it had become the stake in a three-cornered game.

Furlong and Betty meanwhile managed to see a good deal of each other, but they met clandestinely. Neither of them openly referred to this fact and although the girl pretended that it was her aunt whom she feared, Ben very well knew that it was Maddox. No longer, by the way, did he apologize when he kissed her and their stolen moments Continued on page 56

The Man Who Overplayed His Hand

Continued from vage 17

together had become poignantly sweet.

Work on the well progressed as rapidly as could be expected; inch by inch, foot by foot the heavy steel bits cut through the rock; length after length was added to the casing and as it neared the level of the oil-bearing structure, “indications” became evident, occasional sighs and gurgles issued from the well mouth as gas gathered and released itself. Its odor was at times quite strong.

It was at this time that Maddox and Furlong clashed.

Some new tackle was being slung and Ben had been sent up aloft while the foreman issued directions from below. It was heavy work. Ben was forced to cling to the derrick timbers or to balance himself upon a narrow plank and his progress at times did not suit the elder man. Maddox was in a surly mood anyhow and he became profane. Furlong was hot and irritable; he answered back, whereupon the man below flared out angrily:

“You do like I tell you an’ don’t argue or I’ll come up there an’ give you a dam’ good beating!”

The rigging was finally secured in place and Maddox was occupying himself with something else when he felt a hand upon his shoulder. He turned to find-Furlong at his side. The latter’s eyes were blazing; in a voice ominously harsh and vibrant with fury he said:

“I came down to get that beating. I want it now.”

The other members of the crew froze in various attitudes of startled suspense; the two men stared at each other.

Furlong was a burly, thick-necked youth; he was as hard as iron and in his gaze at this moment was an evil quality quite unexpected. His enmity for the driller had finally foamed over. In proximity to this flaming passion Maddox’s smoldering dislike gave off no heat; nor at short notice could he fan its embers into a blaze. After a brief survey, pregnant with possibilities, he turned his head and winked at the other men. In a feeble effort at jocularity he said:

“I told you I’d come up there and give it to you. I never ast you to come down here an’ get it.” He guffawed loudly at his own humor and walked away. Furlong stood shaking in his tracks.

That evening Maddox went over to the farmhouse. The evenings were cool, refreshing, beautiful. The brazen sky cooled, a blessed breeze played through the scrubby bush and brought faint fragrances unnoticed at other hours; the harsh outlines of unlovely objects were softened, birds twittered, nature filled her lungs and took on new vigor.

Mrs. Durham was rocking upon the little front porch, and of her the man inquired: “Where’s Betty?”

“Her and Ben have gone to town.” Maddox scowled. “I allowed they had.” He s gone in to buy himself some

clothes and she took the car--”

“He won’t need no more clothes than s got, on this job,” asserted the driller. He’s all through an’ washed up.”

“What’s happened, Tiller?”

“We had a row. I was a fool to put him on in the first place, but his week’s up Friday.”

Mrs. Durham ceased rocking; her sallow face became more yellow; with an efiort she said: “He’s a right smart hand, t hior-' 1 d ruther you didn’t fire him.” ‘The hell you’d ruther!” Maddox exclaimed angrily. “What you got to say about it?”

“Wliy, it’s my prop’ty, my well—”

I ain’t sayin’ it is or it isn’t. But, remember, if this well ain’t a producer you’re blowed up, and it ain’t agoin’ to produce till there’s a Mrs. Tiller Maddox to see it. And to get her share! We bargained that all out long ago. Yes, an’ i a!n of you goin’ back on our

deal, either; you don’t dast.”

(¡I—I’ll try again.”

“You better do more’n try. I’ll give you just one more chance. If she don’t come across I want you to go visit your folks Saturday evenin’ an’ leave her here. Understand?”

For a moment Mrs. Durham stared at • the speaker, then she said: “Tiller Maddox, you’re a dirty dog!”

“Say! I’ve took all the back talk I can ständ for one day. You heard me. You ao like I tell you an’ you needn’t to get back from your visit till Monday.

That’ll give her all Sunday to cry. She’s sensible. She’ll come around when she’s had time to think it over an’ do a lot of cryin’.”

NOT until Ben and Betty had finished their shopping and were on their way home did he tell her about the trouble he had had with Maddox that morning.

“He let on he was fooling, but of course he’ll fire me the first chance he gets,” Furlong predicted.

“Oh, Ben! Why did you do it?”

“We were bound to tie into each other sooner or later. You can’t choose a time to get fighting mad; it’s as much as you can do to pick good footing.”

“Aunt Mary won’t let him fire you. She doesn’t trust him any more than I do.”

“Say! What has he got on her?”

The girl did not look up from her driving. She fetched a deep breath as she said: “I’d dearly love to know. There’s something queer about it . . . Uncle Joe was a sweet, easy-going man and she rode him with a Spanish bit. She never would have let him take me in when my folks died, only I did all the work. But he sure loved me. When the the oil excitement came they rowed and fought for months—whenever he got an offer she claimed he was trying to give farm away and threatened to go to law. I told you about that. He stood it as long as he could, then he up and announced that I’d been more of a daughter to him than she’d been a wife and he aimed to give most of his money to me anyhow, and then he made that lease with the Planet people. That’s how Maddox came. I think she’d have poisoned me if she dared, after what Uncle said. When he was killed I supposed^ of course she’d throw me out, but she didn’t. No use to do it, I suppose, inasmuch as he hadn’t left any writing. As a matter of fact, she was better to me than she’d ever been. That’s what makes

me wonder sometimes--

“Wonder what?”

“If he didn’t tell Tiller something. Something that makes her scared of him. Sometimes she acts like it’s only because of him that she’s nice to me ... I don’t know what I’d do if she sent me away.

I haven’t got a red cent; there isn’t a

living soul I could--”

Ben passed his arm around the slim, girlish figure and drew it to him. “That’ll be about all, for you!” He kissed the cheek next to his and Betty hungrily pressed her face_ closer. “Good thing you aren’t an heiress—and me with less than a hundred dollars!”

“You behave yourself or you’ll wreck this car,” the girl warned him.

Maddox carried out his intention. He discharged Furlong on Friday night, explaining that the well was down, and the next morning Ben broke the news to his sweetheart. Betty was indignant; she was for appealing to her aunt, but he refused to permit her. He now had money in his pocket, there were better jobs to be had and he intended to find one in the immediate neighborhood where he could see her often. He promised to let her hear from him in a day or so.

Betty’s face was flushed; her eyes were shining when she entered the house after he had gone. She was surprised to find her aunt awaiting her.

“Tiller came over the other night while you was in town,” Mrs. Durham began. ‘‘Did he?”

“He talked a lot about you. Tiller’s a

fine man, dearie--”

Betty broke out irritably, “Don’t let’s start that, all over again.”

“Oh, hush up and let me finish! We

alius fight like this--Your Uncle Joe

cared a lot for you and—and I want to respect_ his wishes. When that well comes in this farm’ll be worth—I don’t know what. Anyhow my heart’s set on seeing you get a good home and have everything.^ flow’d you like to live in a fine house in Toronto or somewhere, and have a big car and a piano and money in

the bank and di’mond rings and--■”

“What ails you? Are you losing your mind, Aunt Mary?”

“You can have ’em if you marry Tiller. Marry Furlong and you’ll spend your life over a cook-stove.”

“How can Tiller give me things like that?”

“I’ll give ’em to you.”

After a moment Betty inquired curiously, “How much will you give?”

It was Mrs. Durham’s turn to hesitate, her words came with an effort. “I don’t know—mebbe a quarter interest.” “Humph!” The exclamation was one of scorn.

“There’s gratitude for you! Mebbe if it’s a real big well I’d do better. You—■ you’ve got to do it, Betty!” the widow cried in distraction. “If you don’t he’ll ruin everything. He said so. If that well

don’t come in the farm ain’t worth--•”

“So! That’s why you’re so generous. Now you listen to me: I wouldn’t marry Tiller Maddox, not for all the oil in the world, not if it was to save your life.” “Then you’ll get out of my house.” “All right, I’ll get out this minute.” Betty turned away, whereupon the elder woman exclaimed:

“Wait! Don’t make up your mind in a hurry. I—I’m going over to Cousin

Al‘‘When? What for?”

“Right after dinner. You think it over while I’m gone, dearie. I feel like you was my own kin; I want to do right by

you and--”

“Rats!” said the girl.

OPPORTUNITY lay hot and gasping

under the sun. There was no shade out of doors.

Late in the afternoon Ben Furlong entered the skating rink, paid his admission at the turnstile and went through. Here at least was a place to sit down out of the sun. An amazingly discordant mechanical piano was playing, and in time with it sweating men in overalls were skating arm in arm with hard-faced girls in khaki knickerbockers and soiled shirtwaists.

Out of the whirling throng upon the floor shot a figure; it was Ben’s friend, the engineer of the Maddox rig. He rolled up to the bench where Furlong sat and collapsed upon it; he still wore the grease and the grime of his calling, but his exertions had blended them, run them together.

“Whew! It’s hard work havin’ a good time in this town,” he panted. “Landed a job yet?”

“I’ve got some prospects lined up. What’s the matter? You fired too?” “Naw! Maddox laid us off for the day, Miz Durham brought us in.”

“Did Betty come with her?” Ben eagerly inquired.

The engineer shook his head, a grin spread over his face. “Say! You know how scared Tiller is of nitroglycerin? When we left he was hidin’ out in the brush like a quail. The powder wagon came an’ he took it on the run.”

“Powder wagon? What’s a powder wagon doing there?” Ben inquired.

“Why, he aims to shoot the well. He got a permit an’ the stuff’s on the ground ready for the men.”

“He’s crazy if he shoots that well!” Furlong declared. “What’s he thinking about?”

“So I told him: ‘Leave her alone an’ she’ll blow herself in,’ I says to him. She’s coughin’ now, an’ I bet as many wells has been ruined by that stuff as they is wells that’s been made. You know that, Ben. But he tells me to mind my own business.”

“I’m going to see Mrs. Durham.” Ben rose but the other explained:

“She’s gone away over Sunday to visit her kinsfolk.”

“Who’s looking out for Betty?”

“I dunno. Tiller, I reckon.”

Furlong frowned; for a while he listened inattentively to his companion, then he rose and left the rink.

It was considerably after dark when Furlong left Opportunity; he had to walk the last three miles so it was late bedtime when he finally arrived at the Durham homestead.

Evidently Betty was asleep; at any rate, the farmhouse windows were dark and Ben wondered how he could best awaken her without causing alarm. Visitors in the country at this time of night were not common. He decided to call softly from outside her window, so he closed the gate quietly behind him and made his way around the house.

He paused in surprise when he had turned the corner of the building, for the kitchen door was open. A momentary panic swept over him, then he drew a breath of relief, for at that moment he heard the girl’s muffled voice.

“Who’s there?” she cried.

He opened his lips to speak reassuringly, but the sound died in his throat for inside Betty’s room he heard a man’s voice, then a stir, a movement. This was followed by a crash, as if a chair had been overturned, then a scream.

Furlong uttered a shout; he leaped forward. Some marauder had entered the house just ahead of him; incredible as it seemed, he had arrived barely in time. He plunged in through the kitchen door and fetched up sprawling across the table. There was a crash of crockery.

“Betty!” he yelled. “Betty!” He made for the door beyond.

That throaty clamor from the girl’s room meanwhile continued; there were hasty movements, the sounds of a struggle.

Furlong had never been inside the front part of the house, but its plan was simple and he was guided by those shrieks of terror. The door to Betty’s room was closed, but it opened when he found the knob; he glimpsed the dim square of a window opposite and silhoutted against it he saw the girl herself. Then of a sudden he felt the floor fall away beneath his feet and realized that he had been projected headlong into a bottomless abyss.

THE next he knew Betty Durham was holding his head in her lap and splashing water into his face. It struck him as queer that the lamp should be burning when only the fraction of an instant before all had been darkness.

Mechanically he made an effort to rise but could not manage it.

“Must have hit on my head,” he mumbled thickly and raised groping fingers. Then he sat up. He knew now that he had not fallen into a pit.

“Where are they? What’s—happened?’’ Betty was sobbing wildly, her hair hung in a cascade about her shoulders, she was clad only in her night-dress and it was soaked with the water she had poured over Ben to revive him.

Bpside the open door to the hall lay the wreck of a chair; two of its legs were splintered, broken off; Ben realized more clearly now what it was that had crashed down upon his head. With an effort he scrambled dizzily to his feet. Water was trickling into his eyes and blinding him; he brushed it away, then discovered to his great surprise that it was not water at all but blood, bis own blood. His head felt numb and twice its normal size; his brain did not function clearly and his limbs refused to obey him.

Betty’s voice came to him as if from a long distance; she was telling him something, trying to make him understand that they were alone in the house and that their assailant had fled. When this became plain to Furlong, he sat down.

It was some time before the girl succeeded in staunching that flow of blood from Ben’s scalp and in binding up the wound, for she was scarcely in condition to render help to anybody. By the time her task was completed Ben had managed to get a pretty clear idea of what had happened. She had been awakened by a sound and had realized that somebody was in her room; she had uttered a frightened challenge only to feel groping hands upon her, to find herself in the grasp of some unseen person. She retained no very clear recollection of anything; after that the rest was a hideous nightmare.

Not until the miscreant had bolted out of the house and she had finally managed somehow to strike a light was she made aware of the reason for his flight. Then she had stumbled over Ben and had realized that it was his voice she had heard calling to her, that it was the sound of his coming that had interrupted the attack. His plight had done a good deal to bring her back to herself, but now she threatened again to abandon her self-control.

Furlong checked this by saying: “Betty Durham! You’ve got nothing on but your nightie!”

It was some time later when the girl emerged from her room, dressed after a fashion, to find her deliverer waiting in the kitchen with a scowl upon his face. “You got a gun?” he inquired harshly. “No, Ben. Why?”

“I’m going to kill Maddox.”

For a moment Betty stared at the speaker; with shaking fingers she plucked

at her dress. It was in a thin, reedy voice that she said: “It wasn’t Maddox.” “How do you know?”

“Oh, I know! It wasn’t Maddox.” “Are you sure?” The girl nodded, and Ben bowed his throbbing head in his hands. “I’m glad,” he groaned. “Providence certainly brought me back. _ It wouldn’t happen that way once in a thousand times. Whoever it was, I’ll find him.”

Both the man and the girl were in wretched condition; the rest of the night they sat together watching the clock and listening for a possible return of the marauder, waiting for the day to break. It was a considerable relief to hear the members of the drilling crew when they passed about two o’clock. Thereafter they felt more secure.

It was shortly after they had finished breakfast that Furlong was surprised to discover signs of activity, movements, goings-on at the well which caused him to stare fixedly, then to announce incredulously: “Say! I believe Maddox is fixing to shoot the well!”

Betty took her place at his side. “Why—he can’t. He dassent! The powder men won’t be here till tomorrow.”

“All the same he’s doing something queer—see those cans; those shiny things?”

“You couldn’t hire Tiller to touch nitroglycerin. He’s scared of it—■—” Ben uttered an oath. “I tell you he’s filling those cartridges. He’s crazy! You’ve got to stop him!”

Betty turned white; she shook her head. “I won’t go near the place. It’s —it’s Aunt Mary’s well.”

“Then I’ll stop him. Why, it’s ten to one he’ll sear the rock, ruin the whole job and—damned if I don’t believe he’s trying to do that very thing!”

Furlong started for the door, but Betty clung to him. When he pushed on past her she followed him. Together they hurried across the field and took the path through to the well ; as they went the girl continued to implore him not to interfere.

Half-way to the drilling camp they met the engineer hastening towards the farmhouse and the latter announced breathlessly: “Tiller’s gone plumb off his nut! He’s goin’ to shoot the well himself. You better stay clear.”

Furlong dashed past the speaker and emerged from the shelter of the bushes in time to see Maddox gingerly swing a long cylindrical tin over the well mouth and guide it into the opening. A new manila rope had been run through a block on the derrick and with this he lowered the charge.

Ben yelled at him, he waved his arms; Maddox glanced over his shoulder then let the line slide smoothly through his hands.

“Take my tip an’ don’t go too close,” the engineer shouted. “He ain’t no powder man an’ that well’s makin’ gas. She blows off every few minutes.”

Betty seconded this warning in frantic tones of appeal. “Let him go, Ben. He knows what he’s doing. You’ve got no right stopping him. You’ll just make trouble—-—”

“It’s none of my business,” the latter agreed impatiently, “but there’s something crooked--7” He ceased speaking,

then he seized Betty and whirled her around with the sharp command: “Run! Gel bg,ck!”

HP HEY were still perhaps a hundred A yards from the well, but Furlong’s Practised eye had seen something that suddenly raised the hair upon his head. That rope from which was suspended the heavy charge of liquid death no longer hung vertically, it no longer ran over the block and into the casing; instead it was falling in loops about Maddox. It was coming up out of the well'.

Maddox himself was alive to what had happened. That which he most greatly feared had come upon him, and he also turned to flee. But the platform was slippery or else he tripped over the rope and fell. The others heard his cry of terror. He quickly regained his feet, but to hurlong it seemed as if his movements thereafter were maddeningly slow and deliberate, as if the whole scene before him were being photographed upon his brain by a slow motion moving picture camera.

The engineer’s apprehensions had been well grounded. Once again gas had been

released far down in the earth, and now like breath forced from the lungs of some tortured giant it rose, propelling the smoothly fitting cartridge of nitroglycerin ahead of it as a pea is propelled out of a pea-shooter. It was a phenomenon by no means unusual in a well as unstable in its balance of forces as this one. In fact, under like conditions, none but a madman would have dared to risk Maddox’s manoeuver.

The latter had not put fifty feet behind him when up out of the well mouth shot the gleaming tin cylinder. Directly above and in its path hung the massive fortyfoot steel bit suspended from its wire cable.

What happened next the observers were never able to agree upon, but the world dissolved into an inferno of smoke and flame and the suddenness of it rocked the sky, upheaved the earth. The two came together with a cataclysmic roar. Furlong and Betty Durham were tossed headlong, flung down like straws. When they scrambled to their feet, dazed, shaken, terrified, it was to find themselves enveloped in a mighty dust cloud. The eighty-foot tower of heavy timbers was gone; in an instant it had utterly vanished; where it had stood was a shallow smoking crater. Splinters of planking, debris of every sort was scattered far and wide, particles of earth and gravel were raining from the heavens with the sound of a heavy hail-storm; nothing in the neighborhood of the well remained except the boiler and engine, and the former lay upon its side. Even the bushes had been whipped out, uprooted, shaved off as by a sweeping scythe.

That afternoon Furlong’s friend the engineer came over to the farmhouse with a considerable bundle in his arms.

“How’s Betty? he inquired.

“She’s all right, but pretty well bruised, of course.”

“Well, I guess there’s nothin’ more us boys can do, so we’re going into town.”

“Right. I’ll stay here until Mrs. Durham gets back.”

“Here’s all of Tiller’s stuff that we could find. I reckon you better look after it.”

“Anything besides clothes?”

“Not much. A few letters an’ things we found in his bunk. Miz Durham can keep ’em in case he’s got relatives. There’s one suit of clothes that would fit me; no use to throw ’em away. Say! It’s funny how scared he was of powder. It musta been a hunch.”

Shortly after the engineer had left Ben came to Betty with a queer light in his eyes. In his hand he held a soiled sheet of foolscap paper.

“Feel strong enough to stand another explosion?” he inquired with an effort to suppress his agitation. “Well, the

queerest thing--This farm doesn’t

belong to your Aunt Mary, after all; it belongs to you!” The girl gasped, she voiced some breathless query, but Ben ran on: “Your Uncle Joe left it to you, just as he promised. He left everything to you except a thousand dollars to her. This is his will and Maddox had it. I guess it’s a good will, even though your uncle wrote it himself; anyhow it’s witnessed by two people—Maddox and another. From the date I figure it must have been signed just a day or so before he was killed.”

“Where did it come from? How did Maddox--”

“I’ve figured that out* too. Mr. Durham must have had it in his' pocket when Maddox found him. That would explain everything; how he made your aunt do just what he wanted and why she didn’t dare to fire him.”

“That’s why she said I’d have to marry him! That’s why—oh, Ben!” Betty rose suddenly and clutched Furlong. “I knew she was a mean, selfish old thing, but I never thought she was so— wicked. This oil is a curse to poor people. I hate it!”

“Why, Betty!” Furlong exclaimed. “You’re the wicked one to quarrel—-—” “She’s the only kin I’ve got left and I tried my best to love her. But she was so greedy for quick money that nothing mattered. Maddox too! It made beasts of them. I almost wish we’d never heard of oil.” After a moment the speaker continued more quietly: “I lied to you last night. It was Tiller who came here.” Furlong’s body stiffened, he breathed an oath, then he muttered, “I thought so. .Why didn’t you tell me?”

“What’s more, shé kriéw hé was— coming! They arranged it. She as good as sent him! That’s how he got the kitchen key.”

This announcement the man greeted with the growl of an animal. He began to pace about the room; his face grown black and threatening; his fingers were working as he stormed:

“Wait! Wait till she gets back here!” “You can’t lay your hands on a

woman--”

“Can’t I?” he breathed.

Betty shook her head; S moment, then a new expression slowly crept into her eyes; her chin set itself firmly. “No!” she declared. “But you can lay ’em on her trunk and drag it out here where I can pack it.”

“I sure can,” Ben agreed. “And what’s more, when you get it packed I can lug it out to the gate where it will be nice and handy for her.” As he finished speaking his frown disappeared; it was replaced by a grin and he said; “Say, Betty! What d’you think? I’m going to marry an heiress after all.”