What lies beneath the Devil’s Chalk?

The howling of the condemned will sometimes keep you awake at night. Read an excerpt from Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk.

Reinhardt Richter was a man of the earth. If nothing else, he knew and understood the curious mysteries that lay beneath the Texas farmlands sprawling at his feet. He had studied the good earth and could read the empty landscape as easily as last year’s edition of the Farmer’s Almanac.

Every furrow, crop row, creek bottom, bald knob, and ravine was as familiar as the lines in the palm of his hand. Richter had knelt in his pastures on many an early morning and held up a fistful of dirt, watching as the winds slowly and surely separated the sand from the rocks.

The rocks scattered across the undulating pasturelands just north of Giddings and south of Dime Box intrigued him. They were of the ages, as ancient and as common as time itself, and the stories they could tell remained, more or less, untold.

The dirt was an old friend indeed. It buried, then nourished, his seed, gave him a harvest and grew the tall grasses that kept his cattle fed, often with sunburnt stalks. Dirt ran shallow above those great folds of Austin Chalk, hiding the complexities of a puzzle that only he and he alone had been able to unravel.

Reinhardt Richter was known by many and understood by few, none of whom ever admitted it. There were those in Lee County who said privately and over a beer or two that Richter was a little different, not quite like the rest of the folks, and not all of them were quite right either.

He was not a tall man, standing only about five feet and ten inches, but he was wide, broad-shouldered, and carved with solid muscle, known far and wide for his ungodly strength.

Richter lived on a farm that had been in his family for more than a century, and by the 1970s, he was working on a vacuum truck that generally took at least two and more likely three men to load. Richter would wander on down to the road in the early morning hours and load it by himself. Didn’t ask for any help. Didn’t need to. Didn’t particularly want it. Never complained. Never showed up late or sick. He had already been on the earth for more than seven decades.

Reinhardt Richter might or might not have a lot, depending entirely on who happened to be talking down at the City Meat Market in Giddings, but he had his land, and God had given him enough, probably as much as he deserved, and, what’s more, he possessed a secret so vital, so crucial that others dared not believe it even when he slowly and carefully explained it to them.

Why, he said, a bunch of damn good preachers had made a damn good living for a long damn time sermonizing on the fate of mankind that Reinhardt Richter knew was absolute gospel. But preachers did not really know the source of their anguish and admonitions. Reinhardt Richter did.

He had devoted himself to demystifying the strange enigma of those boiling masses of fire and brimstone bristling with fury and damnation far beneath the crust of the earth. He wasn’t interested in the eruptions or the cinder-cone craters left behind when flames and smoke, dust and ash, lava and magma came bursting violently through those fractures and fissures in a great subterranean vault, flowing like molten molasses down the side of a mountain suddenly rising above a crevice on flat ground.

No, he said, others seemed to have a pretty good grasp on whatever geologic explosion happened to be occurring on top of the landscape. Reinhardt Richter was drawn to the underworld. That was his fate. That was the one lingering circumstance of his life. Hard work. German beer.

Harder work. More beer. Couldn’t outwork him. Couldn’t out-think him. Couldn’t out drink him. The sum of it all gave him, Richter said, a vast wealth of geologic knowledge unknown to lesser men in the field, and he kept his faith and his studies directed toward places he had never seen and certainly never gone – the deep and hidden sanctuaries far below the earth.

Volcanologists believed there was no way to define an active volcano, which could raise its ugly head in a lifespan ranging from several months to several million years. Richter knew better. Volcanoes, he said, never lost their fire, and they were all connected – every last one of them – by an inner linking network of tunnels filled with molten lava that spread throughout the netherworld. They wormed their way like a maze through the hard-rock recesses of the earth, and together they possessed more energy, more radiation, and certainly more heat than the sun.

Thousands of volcanoes from every corner of the globe were emptying their assorted magma into one great ocean of fire and brimstone that was near enough to the surface of the ground for mankind to reach down and touch it.

Only Reinhardt Richter knew the location. It’s there, he said, nodding as astutely as any scholar would.

Where?

He grinned, an old man with an old and wizened grin. In the ground beneath my farm, he said. You can hear them rattle sometimes when the day grows dark.

What?

The gates of hell, he said, and the grin lost its bite. The howling of the condemned will sometimes keep you awake at night.

His face turned to stone.

Then again, it might have been the beer.

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