They met before midnight at the house of the richest man in Mississippi, and left shortly with a dark old leather country doctor’s satchel that was bulging with money, bulging as if trying to breathe, swollen like a dying fish’s gills: they were unable to even shut it all the way. There wasn’t a moon, and they had to drive slowly, because one of the dogs was sick, and the old man had to urinate every forty minutes, and the truck was old, because they did not want to appear conspicuous. They had coffee in Starkville, urinated in Columbus, and crossed over the state line of Alabama at dawn. The sun was orange and promising as they came down through the tall pines; no traffic was out on the road yet, and there was smoke in only a few of the chimneys, rising slow and straight. It was October.
“I like to be traveling at this time of day,” Harry told Jack. Harry had slept between his stops, the entire drive. Soft fog was out over the lowest meadows; Holsteins, and Angus, grazed. It had rained in the night, lightly, before their arrival: that smell was in the air. The road was black and narrow, and wound down through the heavy trees and there was greenness, in the small meadows: cleared by hand, and mule, all stumps burned, the meadows had field stones stacked around their boundaries. There were old tool sheds.
“You can rip up those old nasty barns and make picture frames of ’em,” Harry told Jack, and laughed. “People in the city’ll pay money for those things.” He eyed the occasional ancient sheds with a steady, labored look as they passed each one, pausing in his heavy breathing, not even hawking phlegm, so that Jack was alarmed into picturing them driving out into the field, hooking up to the porch or a window frame with a rope, and driving off, pulling the scatter of wood and building down like dominoes. Stacking the wood in the back of the truck. Driving on, deeper into the heart of Alabama, to enter, to take. Harry was seventy-two, the boss. The peace and freshness of the morning made Jack not mind anything. His life was set before him. The dogs awoke and began tumbling about in the back: jawing, yipping, fighting. The poor one feeling better.
The orange sun rose above the hills as they reached the Vernon city limits: trees, dark green, pines. Harry said he was hungry. They were on an expense account. He ate six eggs and three biscuits. Jack fed and watered the dogs, and scratched their ears. Dudley had said the dogs would be as valuable as the satchel. People still thought Dudley could find oil. It was the last hurrah.
The dogs had been purchased late the afternoon before from the Animal Rescue League, and were along because there was a man who was already working up in north Alabama, a man named Wallis Featherston, who had worked in a menial job for Dudley Estes for several years, but who was now on his own, taking small bits and pieces of leases and then telling his ideas to other, larger companies, larger than even Old Dudley—companies that Dudley wanted someday to equal: Shell, Phillips, Texaco—who would go in and buy the remaining leases in the prospect, and drill the wells, and Wallis would be able to participate for a percent or two or three. It was said that Wallis was getting his leases very cheaply, because he was country, like the people be was leasing from — bone raw and country, rusty and gravel, a people of cold winters, rainy springs, and hard farming—and Wallis had a dog that rode around with him everywhere. Wallis had a plane, too: he flew around, looking at things.
So they. Old Dudley, had decided to go with what worked. Old Dudley was sixty years old, a billionaire, and for some reason was chasing this ex-clerk: trying to catch up with him and pass him. Wallis was twenty-eight, and slept in a field, in his sleeping bag, or in the truck when it rained. He hadn’t participated in a dry bole yet. He’d hit on thirteen straight wells. He had named his dog Dudley.
Jack ordered ham for breakfast. The sausages and hams were good, up in these hills. The farmers wore overalls and straw bats and were nasal, and still used mules, red championship ones from Tennessee. The country was too tough for tractors. There were also sawmills, a few.
Jack smiled at one of the waitresses. None of the girls were pretty, and they all looked the same, like a hundred plain sisters. He would find one, though, an outsider, passing through, like himself. She would be smitten with the promise of youth and his existence. There was a heavy chain around the satchel, padlocked. The key to the lock was on a necklace over Jack’s chest. The key against his skin felt like a woman’s band, sometimes; the heat. It made him dizzy. He wanted to do good, for Dudley. He wanted to do so good. The dogs barked, and played, outside. People went to the window, and asked what kind they were.
Wallis sat out in the field where he camped, with his maps in his lap, checking leases. A woman brought him some lunch: chicken, cream corn, biscuits, all of it still hot. It was in a straw basket with a cloth over the top. People were discovering the basin: it hadn’t been drilled for over seventy years. The day was bright, and there was newness; you could smell oil in the air, too. No one knew where it was coming from—there were no wells in the area, hunters bad never found any seeps along the creeks —but it had the heady smell of live oil, black. Dudley had drilled eight dry holes in the little valley. Wallis loved to lunch there often. He had saved the dog Dudley from being killed by a bird hunter: speechless, furious at the dog’s ineptitude, his inability to point birds, the man bad been aiming his gun at the dog when Wallis, out walking, came up on them. Wallis bought the dog for all the money be had in his pocket, a dollar and sixty-seven cents, and named him Dudley, because he couldn’t hunt.
“It’s a hot summer,” Wallis said aloud, to himself. It was mid-October. Coldness seemed it would never come, in the days. Everything tasted good, in the warmth. He shut his eyes. There had to be some trick; he bad to be missing something. He was too happy. There was very much the urge to be cautious: to suspect a pratfall.
He flew: long, lazy circles around the towns, over the woods, flying low and slow: peeling an apple as be flew, sometimes. Looking for the thing, the thing no one else knew to look for yet, though he knew they would find it, and rip it into shreds. He considered falling in love.