They had spent a week digging the shaft, building a derrick of four beams, each crossing seventy-feet high, snarled with ties and braces and rope stretched through pulleys, around valve-wheels ready for the moment, now: an overalled man with a greasy beard and bald head, who Neils watched as he pulled a crank with muscles of a circus strongman—like the one he had seen in Nesterville—raising the cable to the top of the frame and, for a moment, letting it hover above the hole, before he let go, before the cable scratched downward with a crack like an arrow, quick to where no one really noticed until it was long past, and there was a splash of mud and the splintering of limestone. The oilmen gathered as they gazed down the shaft. Wearily. For if there was oil, it would gather there, in the same way as a freshwater spring, or—with enough pressure—explode past the top of the derrick and arc far into the sky.
Neils, with his red hair and white shirt loosely tucked into trousers, had joined the prospect after seeing a notice on the town’s bulletin. He was twenty-two and had moved west with his family a year ago from Auburn. He was one of two men in the group who knew little English, so once everyone gathered, waiting near the shaft, he stood a few feet away, alone, hypothesizing on the origins of oil. Whether it was fish fat or percolated water, the distillation of plant or animal remains—he didn’t know. But his mind wandered to a passage he had read in his Bible, where Noah coated the ark in oil as a water-proofer. And that at every point in human history, someone must have found it valuable.
As time passed, the other men pointed at the turning cable that pulled clay to the surface. No oil. They ran questions across each other: “Oh, I heard the crack, a muffled one, and it had to been breakin’ through the limestone.” And, “Hold on a minute. We’re sure the noise came from down there and not out somewhere yonder?” “We were too agreeably occupied to know.” “Has to have oil.” “Found some twenty miles south. Outside Sanaco.”
The contractor in his pinstriped suit nodded and since it was Neils’ first time working the rig, the contractor pointed and motioned him toward the shaft. Several men tied a rope to one of the braces and they ran the slack into a hole bored through a wooden block. “There’s your horse,” the strongman said, as Neils straddled it, barely able to find a good angle to balance his weight before the strongman lowered him down with a hold that faltered every few feet. Soon, he could see nothing but a square of white light at the surface. He heard noises above, though. Men talking. The rope’s creaking grip on the brace. A few feet more and they would become muffled and synthesized. He could no longer feel the dry heat, but instead just cold, and began to shiver, hair raising across his arms like something had moved him. But nothing had. Still, something worried him. Not that the strongman would lose his grip and drop him fifteen-feet down, nor that the oil would blowout, or the shaft would collapse. No. Once he reached the bottom, and pressed his hand into the mud: What would he find? And would he scream upward?
His feet touched the ground and he stepped off the horse. He tried to dislodge the cable in the dark, hearing the sound of clay expelled from below. This went on for some time and, in a moment of childlike curiosity, he took off his boots and felt something wet bubble between his toes, unsure if it was water or oil, but he reached down with cupped hands, and let the space fill until he noticed a slickness dripping from his knuckles. It ran slower than water.
“Oil!” he shouted.
With two tugs as a warning, the strongman began to lift Neils to the surface.
The trip up seemed shorter. At the top, the men gathered around the pit and Neils reached his hands out toward them. With the smile of a confidence man, the contractor scooped his fingers into the black puddle and pressed them together, feeling its thickness and telling the other men to touch it. Soon, everyone had reached their hands into Neils’, and marked each other as if it were paint, all while patting him on the back and laughing. Neils looked at his hands. He felt bad wiping the oil across his trousers, but as he stepped off the horse and walked back to the camp, he pondered on the rarity of the moment: that they had found fuel to heat their homes, burn their lamps, and, still, no one knew what it was made of, or where it came from. To them, it didn’t matter. They could call it valuable, make a profit, trade their ragged clothes for clean ones. They could take the land above it and make it home. It was strange to him: to build a life from something no one understood. But as he walked through camp toward the creek, where he would wash himself, he threw his hands against his trousers as if giving up. Maybe it is best not to overthink it.
Briley Jones was born in Lawton, Oklahoma. His work has previously appeared in Night Picnic Journal, where he was nominated for a 2019 Pushcart Prize. He is currently pursuing his MFA at the University of South Carolina. Jones is a member of the Comanche Tribe.