It was all a gamble, and oil was always fickle.
November 21, 2013
An excerpt from Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk.
He was forty years old, had hair turning gray long before its time, and stood six feet, four inches tall. Some of the ladies thought he had a boyish face, and others thought he was down right handsome, and none paid a lot of attention to the oil dirt buried beneath his fingernails. He was a working man. That’s all. A working man with the face of a boy and the hardened eyes of a man who understood the tribulations of disappointment.
Chuck Alcorn could be white collar when he needed to be, even put on a pin-stripe business suit when necessary, but he felt more at home in his khaki shirt, khaki pants, and brown cowboy boots, usually crusted with dried mud. In the field, he wore a battered cowboy hat with a narrow, curled brim and drove a four-door Ford pickup truck. Good on the road, off the road, in cow pastures, from one creek bank to another, and into terrain where only the brave dared to go and only the lucky came back out again with their sanity intact. Pot holes. Chug holes. Post holes. Didn’t matter. Chuck Alcorn, sooner or later, drove across them all.
It was not the best of days, growing dark, and the sun hadn’t even set. Chilly even for October. And the clouds above the narrow Lee County road were gray and beginning to turn black, fringed with shades of purple, and full of wind. He waited for the rains to fall and figured he wouldn’t have to wait long. Chuck Alcorn was the son of an independent drilling contractor, a third generation interloper in the Texas oil patch. He had graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in geology, dutifully paying for his education by working long hours as a roughneck during the summer months.
Chuck Alcorn remained a fixture in the oilfield even when times grew hard and virtually impossible for men who hitched their dreams and borrowed money to a frayed hole in the ground. He watched the world around him become glutted with foreign oil. He saw the price of crude tumble to four dollars a barrel and sensed a serious shift in the economy, for the worst, always the worst, when drilling activity sank to a twenty-year low. Major oil companies were re-thinking their long-range strategies and casting their hopes and a bulk of their dwindling finances on offshore drilling, content to sell their onshore operations for pennies on the dollar and suffer the losses and the consequences.
Work was difficult to find. New and old fields alike were dying for lack of funds, lack of interest, lack of gumption. A man might be willing to gamble, but only as long as he still had a few chips left to wager. The only difference between a wildcatter and a bum was the number of empty beer bottles sitting on the table in front of him. The wildcatter didn’t have any.
Chuck Alcorn was grateful for any scrap of salvage business that came his way. Someone had drilled on promise and potential. Someone had gone broke. Dry hole. Disappointing hole. The money ran short. The money ran out.
The phone call came. The well would be his baby now, provided he wanted it, and Chuck Alcorn hated to ever say he didn’t. Some of the wells he bought outright. Some he bought on credit, hoping to turn a profit before the note came due. Some he bought so low he felt like he had stolen them.
In some, the oil was so scarce he felt as though he had been swindled. No time to fret. No reason to worry. All in a day’s work. Chuck Alcorn understood simple realities. He hadn’t lost the dream. He still wanted an oil well. Any well. Any place. As long as it kept on producing. He wasn’t a greedy man. One good well just might be enough, although enough was never enough in the oil patch where, during tough times, a man could run out of money and friends at about the same time.
That was the reason why Chuck Alcorn was heading in the general direction of Giddings on such a dreary afternoon. He turned on the radio in his pickup truck, and, amongst the static, the news kept spitting out bursts of information about the Israeli and Arab war. Deadly. Brutal. Frightening consequences. Only the Good Lord had any idea about what the conflict might do to the oil business, which was already hanging on with broken fingernails. Chuck Alcorn shook his head. The business had always been a sordid kind of gamble where men bet their lives, their fortunes, their futures on a stacked deck. Now he had begun to wonder if there was anyone left who could afford the ante. A pair of deuces in a game of two-handed poker was no hand at all.
Chuck Alcorn passed the rolling hills, the hardwood timber stands, the grazing cattle, the peanut fields that needed the rain a lot more than he did. The oilfield business was difficult enough dry. Wet, it could be a nightmare unless, of course, it was wet with oil. Early that morning, his tool pusher, Alfred Baros, had called to let him know that the Halliburton crew he had hired was on site and getting ready to pump acid down the gullet of the old City of Giddings No. 1 that afternoon. The well, for better or worse, now belonged to Chuck Alcorn, lock, stock and barrel. He had already spent as much money as the salvage was worth. Good money. Maybe even good money after bad. Did he have any interest in driving up and seeing for himself whether or not a heavy dose of acidized mud could awaken the last, best, and probably only hope in the Giddings field?
“What do you think?” Alcorn asked.
“Might be pretty good.”
“It’s in the chalk.”
“They think it has a little promise.”
“No, just a little promise.”
Chuck Alcorn laughed and didn’t know why.
“The chalk’s fickle.”
“It blew a lot of oil before.”
“Maybe she spit out all she’s had, and there’s nothing left.”
“I got a good feeling about this one.”
“The chalk will lie to you.”
“Today might be different.”
Chuck Alcorn grinned. In the oil business, every day was always different. Good, maybe. Bad, perhaps. But always different. In recent months, however, the bad days had far outnumbered the good ones, and he had no reason to raise his expectations about the drive to Giddings. So often, the bottom of the hole revealed little more than the bottom of a hole. The task awaiting him was, at best, just another routine salvage job. Another day. Another dollar. Nothing more. Probably less.
Please click the book cover image to read more about Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk.