This is the fortieth part of a fiction serial, in 773 words.
It was true that I might have lost the spark needed to carry on as a newspaper man, but I had found something inside to replace that. I wanted to tell Phin’s story, and in doing so tell the story of my own family too. I asked Brad James to let my lawyer’s office know that they should just go through with the sale, and they could contact me at Phin’s house if need be. Then I got some more clothes, a portable typewriter and lots of paper, and finished up by buying a tape recorder and plenty of tapes.
I wanted to live that story through Phin’s own voice and expressions.
Mrs Mallory had laid it out for me. After breakfast, we could sit on the porch in good weather, but Phin should have his blanket anyway. Then no more than three hours before he had a rest before lunch, followed by his afternoon nap. Then one more hour before dinner, before he got too tired after eating.
I had to marvel at his memory. His great age hadn’t diminished that in any way at all, even his recall of all the names, and small details like what he called the horses, or whether a woman he encountered had missing teeth. For the next month, I ran the tape machine, and just let him talk. When he was resting, I wrote the notes up in my room upstairs, making sure to have the door closed, so the noise from the tapes and typing didn’t carry down to where he slept.
It was enjoyable living there too. Mrs Mallory was an excellent cook, and I was putting on weight rapidly. Phin acted like he had always known me, and I was a grandson visiting like it was nothing unusual. Walking around the property was eye-opening too. I tried to picture it as he described it when they first built the homestead. And the row of graves, still carefully tended, brought home the loss that still left him misty-eyed, even now. Though on the other side of the creek, rows of identical smart houses had replaced the grazing land that had caused so much dispute in his younger days.
Using my newspaper connections, I gained an introduction to the editor of the main newspaper in Wichita. He was happy to let me spend time browsing in his archives for research, though I admit I found some of the newspapers of Phin’s time to be rather scant on fact, and high on sensationalism. But I did find references to Wyatt Earp, who lost his job after a little more than a year, because of his ‘Tendency to bash people’. He was also involved in a scandal over the election of a new marshal, and decided to look for a new job in Dodge City.
Jessie Fuller, Phin, Henry, and all the others never once made the paper back then. Just as well, as most of the features were about gunfights, and gamblers killed in shootouts.
Over the course of those thirty-one days, Phin told me about how Jessie had fought in the war to protect his older son, but he had been killed anyway. Then his mother’s tragic death in the outhouse, and Jessie’s return from the war in sixty-five. How they intended to make a new life in Colorado, but only got as far as Kansas before his daddy decided to end his journey there. I wanted to know why he had never heard news of me, and something of the family rift that had meant so many decades of separation.
Finally, I just came out and asked him.
He rubbed his chin, much like his father might have rubbed his beard. “Weren’t no rift, Julian. Nothing like that. Sophia got married to your daddy, and went north to New York State. That was her choice, and her life to live. When she died, your daddy sent me a letter telling me the news. My one regret was that I couldn’t bury her on the homestead, with the others. But he sent me a small photo of you, and the address of the newspaper he was running. I had to hope that you had taken it over, just as he had. But I didn’t get in touch then. You had your life to live, just as your mama had done”.
We continued the story right up until Henry fell from a ladder and was diagnosed with a broken neck. I pushed the time allowed a little, asking, “What happened then?”
But Mrs Mallory stopped me at that moment. “That’s enough for today, Julian”.