Chapter XXX. Ben "Goes West"
 

Undisturbed by the thought that his departure was viewed with joy by Conrad and his mother, Ben set out on his Western journey.

His destination was Centerville, in Western Pennsylvania. I may as well say that this is not the real name of the place, which, for several reasons, I conceal.

Though Ben was not an experienced traveler, he found no difficulty in reaching his destination, having purchased a copy of "Appleton's Railway Guide," which afforded him all the information he required. About fifty miles this side of Centerville he had for a seat companion a man of middle age, with a pleasant face, covered with a brown beard, who, after reading through a Philadelphia paper which he had purchased of the train-boy, seemed inclined to have a social chat with Ben.

"May I ask your destination, my young friend?" he asked.

Ben felt that it was well for him to be cautious, though he was pleasantly impressed with the appearance of his companion.

"I think I shall stop over at Centerville," he said.

"Indeed! That is my destination."

"Do you live there?" asked Ben.

"No," said the other, laughing. "Do I look like it? I thought you would read 'New York' in my face and manner."

"I am not an experienced observer," said Ben modestly.

"Centerville has a prosperous future before it," said the stranger.

"Has it? I don't know much about the place. I never was there."

"You know, of course, that it is in the oil region?"

"I didn't even know that."

"A year ago," resumed the stranger, "it was a humdrum farming town, and not a very prosperous one either. The land is not of good quality, and the farmers found it hard work to get a poor living. Now all is changed."

Ben's attention was aroused. He began to understand why Mr. Jackson wished to buy the farm he rented from Mrs. Hamilton.

"This is all new to me," he said. "I suppose oil has been found there?"

"Yes; one old farm, which would have been dear at three thousand dollars, is now yielding hundreds of barrels daily, and would fetch fifty thousand dollars easily."

Ben began to be excited. If he could only sell Mrs. Hamilton's farm for half that he felt that he would be doing an excellent thing.

"I suppose you are interested in some of the petroleum wells?" he said.

"Not yet, but I hope to be. In fact, I don't mind confessing that I represent a New York syndicate, and that my object in making this journey is to purchase, if I can, the Jackson farm."

"The Jackson farm!" repeated Ben, his breath almost taken away by his surprise.

"Yes; do you know anything about it?" asked his companion.

"I have heard of a farmer in Centerville named Peter Jackson."

"That is the man."

"And his farm is one of the lucky ones, then?"

"It promises to be."

"I suppose, then, you will have to pay a large sum for it?" said Ben, trying to speak calmly.

"Jackson is very coy, and, I think, grasping. He wants fifty thousand dollars."

"Of course you won't pay so much?"

"I should hardly feel authorized to do so. I may go as high as forty thousand dollars."

Ben was dazzled. If he could effect a sale at this price he would be doing a splendid stroke of business, and would effectually defeat the plans of Mr. Jackson, who, it appeared, had pretended that he was the owner of the farm, hoping to obtain it from Mrs. Hamilton at a valuation which would have been suitable before the discovery of oil, but now would be ludicrously disproportionate to its real value.

"Shall or shall I not, tell this gentleman the truth?" he reflected.

He thought over the matter and decided to do so. The discovery must be made sooner or later, and there would be no advantage in delay.

"I don't think Jackson will sell," he said.

"Why not?" asked the stranger, in surprise. "Do you know him?"

"I never saw him in my life."

"Then how can you form any opinion on the subject?"

Ben smiled.

"The answer is easy enough," he said. "Mr. Jackson can't sell what he doesn't own."

"Do you mean to say that he is not the owner of the farm which he proposes to sell us?"

"That is just what I mean. He is no more the owner than you or I."

"You speak confidently, young man. Perhaps you can tell me who is the owner?"

"I can. The owner is Mrs. Hamilton, of New York."

"Indeed! That is a genuine surprise. Can you give me her address? I should like to communicate with her."

"I will cheerfully give you her address, but it won't be necessary, for I represent her."

"You!" exclaimed the stranger incredulously.

"Yes; and I am going out to Centerville now as her agent. This Jackson, who is her tenant, has been urging her to sell him the farm for some time. He has offered a sum larger than the farm would be worth but for the discovery of petroleum, but has taken good care not to speak of this."

"How much does he offer?"

"Five thousand dollars."

"The rascal!" He offers five thousand, and expects us to pay him fifty thousand dollars for his bargain. What an unmitigated swindle it would have been if he had carried out his scheme!"

"Perhaps you would like to see his last letter?" said Ben.

"I should. I want to see what the old rascal has to say for himself."

Ben took from his pocket the letter in question, and put it into the hands of his new acquaintance.

It was dated at Centerville, October 21. It was written in a cramped hand, showing that the farmer was not accustomed to letter-writing.

It ran thus:

"Respected Madam:

"As I have already wrote you, I would like to buy the farm, and will give you more than anybody else, because I am used to living on it, and it seems like home. I am willing to pay five thousand dollars, though I know it is only worth four, but it is worth more to me than to others. I offer you more because I know you are rich, and will not sell unless you get a good bargain. Please answer right away.

"Yours respectfully,
Peter Jackson.

"P.S.--My offer will hold good for only two weeks."

"He seems to be very much in earnest," said Ben.

"He has reason to be so, as he hopes to make forty-five thousand dollars on his investment."

"He will be bitterly disappointed," said Ben.

"I don't care anything about Jackson," said the stranger. "I would just as soon negotiate with you. Are you authorized to sell the farm?"

"No," answered Ben; "but Mrs. Hamilton will probably be guided by my advice in the mater."

"That amounts to the same thing. I offer you forty thousand dollars for it."

"I think favorably of your proposal, Mr. ----"

"My name is Taylor."

"Mr. Taylor; but I prefer to delay answering till I am on the ground and can judge better of the matter."

"You are right. I was surprised at first that Mrs. Hamilton should have selected so young an agent. I begin to think her choice was a judicious one."