This is the forty-second part of a fiction serial, in 804 words.
I waited until after dinner to remind Phin. Mrs Mallory had allowed him a small whiskey, heavily diluted with water, and as he sipped it, I turned on the tape recorder.
“Did I tell you about my forty-four, Julian? That was a good pistol. Short barrel, easy to hide. I still have that, my daddy’s old bayonet, and the Henry Rifle. Well, they’re yours now. Never found out what happened to daddy’s Hawken though. Might turn up one of these days”. He was going over old ground, so I tried to bring him back to the conversation from earlier that day. “What about the offer you mentioned? Who were those men?”
“There was a war in Europe then, just started that summer. We got into it you know, much later though”. I stopped him recalling world war one, trying to get him back on track. “I remember that war, Phin. I was ten years old when it ended. What about the men? What did they want?” He looked over his shoulder, in case Mrs Mallory was around. Then he extended the arm holding the glass and nodded at the whiskey bottle on the table next to me. I splashed a little more into his glass, and he carried on talking.
“Oil, Julian. There were a lot of automobiles around by then. No interest to me at all. I never did bother with one. But all those vehicles needed oil, and those men guessed the war would come to us, and we would need more oil. They wanted to drill on my property. Test-boring, they called it. It would mean losing a couple of the crop fields, and cutting down some of the trees on the northern boundary. But they offered me a lot of money, just to dig some holes. Susan was dead against it, but I had a feeling about it, a good feeling”. He swallowed some more whiskey and nodded to himself, as if recalling that day like it was yesterday.
“Something my daddy said once came to mind. Cash is all very well, but you have to think about the future. Cash tends to pass through your hands, and before you know it, it’s gone. So I tried a deal with those fellas. Some money up front to cover the disruption of all that hole-boring, but I also wanted some shares in that company. I had the idea that they were right. The world needed oil, and lots of it. They needed it in Europe to fight the war, and America needed it for al those automobiles. But those men said no, and went away”.
Raising the glass halfway to his mouth again, he stopped and started to chuckle, his bony shoulders moving up and down. “But they came back, Julian. You bet they came back. The next summer, before I turned sixty-two, they came and offered me a better deal, and included the shares. We had some papers drawn up, all legal like, and then they came with a contraption for drilling their bore holes. The money they gave me up front was enough to make up for the loss of a couple of fields, the trees that got felled, and a whole lot more besides. I had a notion that they must have raised a lot of money to get that venture going, but I didn’t have to do no wood working after that year, no sir”.
Sensing it was getting close to his usual bedtime, I hurrried him along. “There’s no trace of oil exploration here now though, Phin. The property looks good. You have all that nice planting still, and it is very pleasant to stroll around the edge of the woodland, and down by the creek”. Phin started to laugh, and the shaking that accompanied it made me reach over and take his drink away, in case he spilled it.
“They didn’t find nothing, Julian. No oil, not even gas. Hole after hole they tried, but there was nothing. They even sent soil samples away to Kansas City, but there was no oil on this property, not even a trace. One of them came to tell me, even said he was sorry. But I didn’t mind none. All I had to do was fill in the holes, and the place would be back to normal again. ‘Cept I now had shares in that company. I was sure they would find oil somewheres, and they did”.
He started laughing again, but this time it became a long wheeze, and that turned into a cough. Mrs Mallory heard that, and came bustling in from whatever she had been doing. She looked at me like a teacher looks at a naughty boy in class.
“Come now, Julian. You should know better than to get him excited like this”.