Edwin spotted them the moment he stepped off the train. There were dozens of folks here to meet the Atlantic and Pacific in Tulsa, but those two stood out for their lack of any sign of that sweet anticipation friends and family usually bring to a depot. The taller one had the haughty, pinched-back shoulders of a man showing off his crimson vest to the ladies. The other, slouching on a bench, was slack-jawed and dirty, the kind of simpleton who only acted on another man’s ideas. Edwin took a long breath. He wouldn’t have come except these were his cousins and he needed money. It was 1895.
Edwin hadn’t seen these boys since they’d all spent a long summer at their uncle’s ranch in ‘84. By then Uncle Cedric had already lived in Indian Territory for over 20 years, running a general store. He had married a Cherokee woman and thereby been allowed by tribal law to claim as much land as he could fence. Over years with the help of his new Indian brothers and profits from the store he’d managed to acquire well over ten thousand acres.
The telegram had said, Cedric dead. Problem will. Come soonest.
“Rupert,” Edwin said approaching his cousin.
“Hello, scholar-boy.” Rupert smiled, showing a gold tooth, and lifted the hand he’d been resting on a holstered pearl-handled pistol. They shook. “Pellie,” Edwin said. The man on the bench nodded.
“What’s this about?” Edwin asked.
Rupert whispered, “We can’t talk here.” He had brought a horse for Edwin, and they rode out to the ranch. All the way Edwin’s mind sifted memories of the house—the feather beds, the fine carpets that made horse play with his cousins a soft affair, the beady eyes of the stuffed armadillo, the smell of corn bread from the big kitchen. With no children of her own, Lone Deer had spoiled Cedric’s nephews.
Cora, Edwin’s wife, had gone wild when the telegram arrived. He himself felt uneasy, sure that the cunning ways of Cousin Rupert had not mellowed. He couldn’t blame her though. The school where he’d taught had recently closed, and he had only one lead on another job.
Edwin was not prepared for the ghostly emptiness of the house. Not even a dog to welcome them. It looked like the occupants had left, taking their valuables with them. The kitchen shelves and cupboards were full, but the glass china closets that flanked the fireplace in the dining room were empty. The Seth Thomas clock Edwin remembered chiming from the parlor mantle was missing as was most of the furniture. Edwin felt a wave of guilt. No powerful grief had weighed on him because he believed his uncle had died prosperous after a life of accomplishment, but now it was clear that something had gone wrong, and he hadn’t been there to help.
“What happened?” he called.
Rupert came in from the kitchen. “Look here what I found behind the pie safe,” he said as he poured whiskey into a cut glass goblet. He looked around as if noticing the room for the first time. “You mean all the stuff? I guess he sold it. After Little Deer died in ‘89, he went downhill.”
“The usual, drinking and gambling down in New Orleans.”
“That doesn’t sound like Uncle Cedric.”
“I live just up the road. I could see it.”
“And you didn’t think to help him? You could at least have written me. And speaking of that. Why in the name of God did you wait three weeks after his death to get in touch. I might have paid respects. As it is, I’ve just showed up for the reading of the will.”
Rupert sank into the only chair left in the room. “I was too shocked to think straight.”
Edwin stared hard. “You were too shocked?”
“It’s the will that was the shock.”
“So the will’s already been read?”
“Not officially, but I have a friend in the lawyer’s office.” Rupert winked. “The stenographer.” Then his face hardened. “Here’s the problem. Sally didn’t have a chance to read the whole thing, but she said all we get is what’s in the safe. Not one God damned acre of land.” Rupert stood up. “All the land he owns, and he gives us none of it.” He began to pace. “It’s the Indians. He was always snug with Little Deer’s people. I figure she made him leave it all to her relatives when she knew she wasn’t going to be around to get it.”
“They did fence a lot of it.”
“I tell you there better be something pretty damn priceless in that safe. If we aren’t made right, there’s going to be a fight. I’m not going to let a bunch of dirty, ignorant Cherokees have one penny of my rightful inheritance.” Rupert sank down again and picked up his glass. “Fitzhugh, the lawyer, said we couldn’t have the reading of the will without you. Don’t suppose you know how to open a combination safe?”
That night Edwin wrote to Cora to say he had arrived, but there might not be much inheritance. He wanted to prepare her, so if there was a silver coffee pot or a ruby pin in the safe, she would feel like celebrating when he came back with it. He’d noticed that the one chair in the living room was very fine, fringed and tufted, something that would greatly improve their modest home. Early the next morning he posted the letter in town.
In the afternoon the three nephews rode into town to sit in a dusty office. Fitzhugh’s portly figure and gray mustache reminded Edwin of President Cleveland. Pellie gazed out the long window and chewed on his jacket cuff while Fitzhugh made considerable show of making sure they were who they said they were. Edwin tried to keep a straight face as each ended up having their identity sworn by the other two. He realized now why Rupert kept Pellie close. Rupert would control twice whatever he, Edwin, would receive.
The will was short and in plain language, and Edwin could hear his uncle’s voice in the commonsense wording. “My three nephews inherit the contents of the safe to share and share alike.”
Rupert sprang up. “Who gets the land?”
“The land’s gone.”
Rupert lunged across the desk. “Whadda ya mean, gone?”
Fitzhugh had jumped up to elude the angry heir. “Sold. He sold it all. I’m sure you’ll find all the proper bills-of-sale in his safe. He couldn’t get rid of the land fast enough. Sold whole sections at a go. Land is God out here in cattle country.”
“So why would Uncle sell his?”
“To pay his debts.”
“What debts?” Rupert snarled. “He was the richest man in The Territory.”
The lawyer sat back down, leaned his soft cheek on his fist, and gave out a long sigh. “May he rest in peace at last. Your uncle claimed to be of sound mind in this document. And that was all right. He’d had a fine mind. There wasn’t much left of his estate, anyway. The preponderance of his debt was accrued in the gambling dens of New Orleans. Debt shamed him. He seemed to be part of a whole society down there where he wished to be well thought of. And, in his desperation he sold the land very cheaply, pennies on the acre. Sold his horses, cattle, chickens, china. Folks around here, trying to get set up, are crazy for stock and furniture or any kind of knick knack to make their sod houses and lean-tos feel like the places they left.”
The lawyer straightened. “One other item. The house was sold to a man from Delaware just last month. Going to use it as a hunting lodge. You’ll probably find a bill of sales for that in the safe as well.”
“I don’t believe it,” said Rupert.
“I don’t believe it,” parroted Pellie.
“Do you have the combination to the safe?” asked Edwin.
The odor of soiled clothes, vomit, and a full slop jar choked Edwin as they opened the door to their uncle’s large dark bedroom. Rupert held a candle while Edwin attempted to open the safe, which was bolted to the closet floor. There were many shiny scratches in the bronze door where Rupert admitted he had tried to open the safe with the hammer and chisel that still lay beside it. After nearly an hour of Edwin and then Rupert’s turning the knob to the right and to the left following the instructions from the lawyer, the door did not open, and Edwin suspected that Rupert’s blows had bent some sensitive internal mechanism. Rupert was lefthanded, so Edwin took the hammer and banged the lock from the right. That did it. The shelves of the safe were stacked high with documents. No cash. No silver coffeepot. No ruby pin.
Dusk was coming on, and they carried the documents to the kitchen table and lit the kerosene lamp. They ate cold beans while Edwin sorted the papers. Rupert sat at his elbow and urged him not to read every word, but to get the gist and move on. One heavy piece of paper was Cedric’s Indian marriage license to Little Deer, solemnized by Yellow Robe.
There were many receipts for all the fine things bought for the house, sundry, faded lists in pencil; but most of it was Bills of Sale. Oceans of land, Edwin mused, 640 acres to each one square mile section.
“That’s it,” Edwin said. “Nothing of any value.” He rubbed his eyes.
“Christ Amighty!” Rupert yelled, marched into the parlor, and seizing the chair, smashed it to pieces against the floor.
So now there was less than nothing. Cora would be furious.
Rupert retired with a bottle of whiskey. Pellie, whining about the dark, followed him. Edwin knew he wouldn’t get any sleep and must start for home on the first train north. What little money there was from his last pay he had left with Cora who would have already spent it. He wished he had a book to read, a good J.F. Cooper yarn would be nice, but there was nothing to distract him, so he turned up the lamp’s wick and began to read the fine print on one of the Bills of Sale. Eventually, he blew out the lamp and put his head down on his arms.
In the morning Edwin stood over the range and scraped the remaining beans from the jar with one hand while he rubbed the crick in his neck with the other. Maybe in the morning light he should take another look at what had stumped him in that fine print. As he studied the Bills of Sale, he accepted that there still was no inheritance, but he felt a spot in his heart warming for his uncle who had left his nephews something—nothing they could buy food with or pay rent, but something they could dream on. Of course, Cora would never buy it.
“Hey, Rupert, wake up. I’m leaving to catch the train.”
Rupert moaned and covered his eyes.
“Listen! I’ll leave the horse at that stable near the depot.”
“That’s what I’m doing. I found something interesting in those papers we were looking at. I’ll write you about it.”
Rupert sat up, hair cockeyed and breath reeking. “The hell you’ll write me. I’m not letting you sneak off.”
“It’s not money. Uncle Cedric sold the land but he retained the rights to any minerals that might be discovered.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Well. It means that if gold or silver are discovered on the land he sold, he or we, have the rights to it.”
“Gold or silver?”
“Or coal, I guess.”
“I’d rather it be gold.”
“Well sure, but I think the gold is out in California.”
“We don’t know. There might be gold. You stay a few more days.”
“No, Rupert. We’d have to be rich men with equipment just to try to find minerals. These rights don’t mean anything in practical terms. They’re just nice to think about.”
“Stay one more day. We got to go over this place good to see if there ain’t something of value somewhere, and you’ll want to stay for that.”
Edwin desperately wanted something for Cora. Rupert took off for town as soon as he could get his clothes on, and when he returned in the evening, before even dismounting, he reported to Edwin on the porch that there was a rumor flying around Tulsa that gold had been discovered in a streambed near the Arkansas border. Or maybe it was along the Caney River. Hard to say.
“Aren’t you the starchy one.” Rupert grinned and dismounted.
“I figured it all out. We don’t hafta wait around for a mine. We can get money right now. All we have to do is locate the people who bought the land, sell them the rights, and let them spend their lives waiting for gold.”
Edwin grabbed him by the collar. “Listen you sonovabitch. I’m not going to be any part of this fraud.”
With surprising force Rupert pushed him, and he fell back in the dust, banging his head on the hitching post. Edwin tried to focus. Rupert had pulled out his pistol and aimed it at Edwin.
“Nooo!” shouted Pellie who was pulling on his arm as if to drag him out of range of Rupert’s pistol.
“Oh, shut up. I’m not going to kill ‘im.” Rupert holstered his gun. “Come on. Let’s search the house. Pellie and I’ll go through his clothes. You look around down here.”
The living room and dining room were empty, so Edwin searched the back of the kitchen drawers and the upper cabinets where he hoped to find some fine bit of silver or china. He could hear Rupert bossing Pellie upstairs as they rummaged through drawers and the pockets of the dead man’s clothes. They might find a silk handkerchief or a gold watch fob, but Edwin didn’t care. His heart wasn’t in this. Dread of disappointing Cora weighed like a sack of feed on his shoulders. Nothing, short of a fortune, was going to be good enough.
Finally, wedged in the back of a drawer full of sacking towels, he found a sugar spoon, clearly old and tarnished, but a bit of rubbing showed a solid plating of silver. He put it in his pocket, then got a fire going in the big iron stove that had provided great stews and cornbread in the past. He heated some beans.
Pellie came barreling down the stairs. “Guess what we found.”
“Pellie!” Rupert shouted. “You know we didn’t find shit.”
“We didn’t find shit,” Pellie said softly.
They ate in silence. Rupert sat back in his chair sinking into darkness, becoming little more than the glint of his gold tooth. He poured more whiskey into the cut glass goblet, and the flame from the lamp passed through the crystal glancing lights on Rupert’s smug face as he drank.
This extravagant display of satisfaction made it clear to Edwin that Rupert and Pellie may have found a gold piece or some silver buttons, but no great treasure.
The important thing now for Edwin was to separate himself from the fraud that Rupert had already begun to perpetrate. Then he would go home to face Cora. He had married her in hopes that her liveliness would dispel the gloom he’d lived with since leaving his parents’ home, but now his loneliness returned with the growing darkness. He had never had Cora’s devotion. A schoolteacher with a steady salary had only looked acceptable to her in comparison to her lazy, hard-drinking father.
“I have a proposition for you two,” Edwin said. “You can have all the land that’s around here. I’ll take my third from those sections that lie to the North. I’ll stick around until the lawyer has drawn up the papers, but after that I’ll make a home away from here. There’s a little settlement up there called Bartlesville that needs a teacher. If you ever need me, you can find me there.”
At home he reported everything to Cora including Rupert’s scheme of spreading a rumor about there being gold under land Uncle Cedric had sold. He was right about the sugar spoon. She stared at it like she wanted to spit, but she dropped it in her pocket. Within a week she had left him.
Two years later Edwin, a teacher again, received two letters within one week. He tore open the one from Cora to read a spiteful account of her and Rupert’s “grand success” at selling all of their mineral rights to the greenhorns who had believed the rumor about there being gold under their land. He laid aside the letter and marveled at his lack of surprise and grief. Had he known all along she would go to Rupert? Had he tempted her with the talk of gold? What he was certain of was that the knife she was trying to twist in his heart felt duller than it used to.
The official-looking Tulsa return address on the second letter worried Edwin that he might be summoned as part of the fraud. Quickly scanning it he judged this to be a request to drill a well on land to which he held the mineral rights. Why would strangers be drilling for water up here in Bartlesville? He began to study the fine print.
Louise Farmer Smith grew up in Oklahoma. Her stories have appeared in magazines including Virginia Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train, and Bellevue Literary Review which published “Return to Lincoln,” a 2005 Pushcart nominee. Her work has been supported by The Ragdale Foundation and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She lives in Washington, DC , always a good source of material.