He sank into the red leather chair as if he lacked the energy to stand. As he did so, his rail-thin body seemed to shrink to a child-like size. In his hands he held a stained and battered felt hat, cowboy-style, as old and as tired as he looked. Upon closer inspection, his face revealed a weariness and age rendered not so much by the passage of time but by the day to day battle which was his existence. In the world filled with fine art and hand-crafted furniture, he stood out like a stain on the carpet.
"You're late," said the man across the room.
"I know," he replied. "I am sorry." And this, at least, appeared to be true.
In the center of the office, dividing the two men, was a desk as formidable as the man behind it. It was large enough that it took on the feel of a wall, dividing the room and separating its occupants. Like the man it sought to protect, the desk denoted a sure confidence and certain strength. Sprayed across its vast glass surface were papers of various types - the inevitable by-product of the large man's existence. Placed carefully in the middle, so that he could reach it with the slightest of movements, was a brown leather folder tied securely with a piece of faded red twine.
Indeed, the placement of this folder suggested its contents were the reason for the meeting. To prove this implication, the man sitting behind the wall of a desk now reached out with a heavy hand and picked it up.
"Are you prepared to sign?" he asked his visitor, who had not moved since sinking into the chair.
"I guess I am," was the reply. "As ready as I'll ever be."
The fat man's face revealed no emotion what so ever - neither to his credit or against it. Instead, his fingers moved nimbly across the twine that bound the folder and then pulled out a sheaf of papers, some of which were yellow with age.
"As you know," he said, arranging the contents of the file atop the other papers on his desk, "our office prepared these documents years ago when Stanford first offered to purchase your ranch. You may recall that my father was still alive at that time."
"So was mine," the other said.
"Yes, your father was alive and was prepared to sell all 300 acres of his ranch to Stanford for a fair price - even, for that time, a princely sum. My father prepared this Contract for Sale, the deeds - everything necessary to close the sale. And then your father died."
The lean man dropped his eyes to the top of his hat. "Nineteen years ago."
"Nineteen years ago." The heavy man nodded his head judiciously. "Naturally, you inherited the ranch." He paused, eyes suddenly narrowing. "And then you refused to sell."
Nodding, he never looked up from the top of his hat. "It was all I had in the world. I had to make a go of it."
"A go of it?" The man behind the desk finally moved, leaning forward onto his elbows as if he would rise out of the chair. "A go of it - for nineteen years?"
Another slow nod but no response.
"Nineteen years," he continued, his voice dropping to suggest just a hint of wonder. "How you managed it I cannot say. Certainly Stanford didn't make it easy for you. Buying up all the property surrounding you, acquiring the water rights and then limiting your use, shooting your cattle if they happened onto his land." He started to say more but stopped and his silence suggested evils of which he would not speak. "Anyway, Stanford didn't make it easy for you."
"No, he didn't. But it wasn't just Stanford."
"No," he agreed, "there was a drought or two in there and the outbreak of BSE . . . you ended up mortgaging the ranch, if I remember correctly." The other didn't respond; they both knew and understood about the mortgage.
They sat in silence for several minutes; one studying the other, the other studying his hat. Finally, the heavy man asked in gentler tone, "Why now? Why after nineteen years would give up?"
"I don't want to give up. I can't pay the mortgage and the bank's foreclosing. If I don't sell now, I won't have anything."
Again they sat in silence. Then came the moment when there was simply nothing more to say and they could no longer sit in silence and so, with a sigh, the man behind the desk began pulling pages from the yellowed documents. He picked up a heavy pen from one of the several on his desk. "Please sign here and here," he said, marking the places with an X. "And here also. Do you need a pen?"
The other shook his head. "I brought my own." He reached inside his pocket and brought forth a leather pouch. From within its soft interior he withdrew the pen.
It was as out of place in his hands as he was in the office. Thin and silver, it gleamed in his hands like a jewel amid gravel. Even from across the desk, there was no mistaking the floral patterns wrought into the silver. With trembling fingers, he gently removed the cap and placed it on the end of the pen. As he reached forward to complete a sale his father had started two decades before, the man across the desk suddenly pulled back.
"That," he said, "is a remarkable pen." He leaned forward, eyes narrowing. "May I ask how you came by it?"
"It belonged to my grandmother. Granddad gave it to her as wedding present. My dad gave it to me just before he died." He leaned forward, his hand reaching again for the documents.
"Well . . ." A frown slipped onto the heavy face. "Do you mind? I mean, may I see it?" He hated that his voice sounded so anxious but from across the room it looked as if . . . no, it couldn't be.
But he had to be sure.
The pen passed over the great paper wasteland and exchanged hands. He leaned back in his chair, his fingers cradling the pen, turning it slowly, memorizing every silver petal, every leaf. It couldn't possible be true.
But it was true. A Waterman Repousse, circa 1904, possibly as late as 1908.
He weighted the pen with his fingers like an expert. He noted the telltale signs - the squat nib (which appeared to be the original, glory be), the cylindrical shape of the end, the distinctive narrow shape adorned with silver roses. There was always doubt, always the chance it was simply a clever fake, an artistic knock-off.
"I've thought of selling it," came the voice from across the desk, "but it just didn't seem right. You know, parting with a family heirloom and all."
He gently lowed the pen to an envelope on his desk and let a line flow across the paper as perfect as a rose petal. As he watched the ink dry into the paper, he knew he was going to take the risk.
"You . . ." the words almost caught in his throat, "considered selling it?"
The thin man leaned back slowly, letting caution slip into his eyes. "Well, as I said it's a family heirloom. I don't know, it just doesn't seem right selling it. I wouldn't even know what to ask for it."
The heavy man nodded thoughtfully. "You might ask, say, fifteen hundred dollars." He paused, trusting himself to finally smile across the desk. "I would pay that much."
"I see that," came the quick reply. "But, while your offer is generous, I do have a certain sentimental attachment to the pen."
"Two thousand dollars, then. In cash and today."
"I'm sorry, I just not sure I can . . ."
"Twenty-five hundred - and that's my final offer."
The tired eyes dropped again to the top of the faded hat and silence slipped into the room like an uninvited guest. The heavy man waited, eyes blinking once, and again. When the other finally looked up, there was a new, sharp edge to his eyes. "A man," he said, "who will pay two and a half thousand might easily pay three."
The smile vanished from the heavy face. "Well, he certainly wouldn't pay a penny more."
And again, silence.
Then, for the first time since he entered the office and fell into the chair, the lean man smiled. "I guess you just bought yourself a pen."
The heavy man turned and picked up a telephone from its place on his desk, speaking quietly and precisely into the receiver. Finished, he replaced the receiver and leaned back in his chair.
They sat in silence, each considering his own good fortune.
The door opened suddenly and a young woman marched across the office to the wall of a desk. In her hand was a thick stack of bills which she handed to across the desk to the heavy man. Then she marched back out the door, closing it behind her.
"Here you are," he said, extending the money across the top of the desk. "Three thousand dollars."
The money exchanged hands and the lean man folded the bills carefully, not counting them, but slipping them into the same pocket from which he had withdrawn the pen. Then he leaned forward again.
"Now," said the heavy man briskly, "we'll finish here and you can be on your way." He picked up the papers and held them out again.
But the lean man didn't take them. Instead, he came up out of the chair with a new energy, his thin frame towering over the desk.
The heavy man eyed him closely. "Well? Are you going to sign or aren't you?"
He shook his head slowly, a smile flaming across his face. He looked younger by five years, possibly ten. "Don't need to now." He chuckled softly. "Now I can pay the mortgage." He turned and walked slowly towards the door.
The heavy man leaned back slowly, his face impassive - almost. Only those who had known him many years, who had carefully studied his face across that great desk and who had come to understand the subtle expressions that sometimes crossed it, might have noticed and appreciated the slight smile that now played across his thin lips. As the lean man reached the door, he said quietly, "I will see you next year."
"Not if I can help it," was the reply. And he was gone.
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