The Storyteller: Death in the Oilfield
July 15, 2019
Looking for a story? Just walk the streets of your hometown, big or small, listen to the gossip down at the post office.
As far as I’m concerned, every great story has these elements:
A love story.
Authors sit around for days, holding their breath, banging their heads against the wall, snapping No. 2 pencils with their fingers, searching through the maze that winds through the back of their minds, slamming into one dead end after another, trying desperately to nail together a plot that reaches out, grabs the reader by the throat, and won’t let go.
It’s an exercise better off forgotten.
Just walk the streets of your hometown, big or small, listen to the gossip down at the post office, real or imagined, read archived issues of the newspaper from years past.
The stories are there. They’ve been waiting a long time. They’ve been waiting for you to find them.
My hometown was no different.
Tragedy, during the year of our Lord 1939, lurked like a grim shadow in the presence of M. W. McVey, an independent oilman and president of the Kilgore Chamber of Commerce. He had been described in the newspaper as a sportsman from California, was one of the town’s social elite, a man of prominence, an oilman who had the honor of drilling the oilfield’s twenty-five thousandth well in a lot downtown behind the Longhorn Drug.
McVey had borrowed a quarter of a million dollars to drill several wells on town lots, only twenty feet wide and forty feet long, no more than ragged scraps of land barely large enough to hold a derrick.
His wells were jammed together and pumping for all they were worth. But new federal regulations ushered in a new and compromising problem for the oilfield. No one saw it coming, but a revised law ruled that wells must be spaced five to ten acres away from each other if an oilman had any hopes of receiving the money owed him for the oil he produced.
So many of McVey’s oil wells were suddenly earning only a scant fraction of their production. All he had were a bunch of holes in the ground. And his cash flow began drying up. He began to fear that he would never be able to pay off his debts. He could no longer look at his friends, eye to eye. Frustration set in like poison from a snake bite. He was dying inside but had no place hide. Not in a small town anyway.
So many wells.
So much money.
And none of it his, not anymore.
He grew despondent.
His honor had been attacked as only a bad debt could assault it. His pride had been struck down and stepped on. M. W. McVey had been Mr. Kilgore. Now he was a financial outcast.
McVey’s wife and her maid found him unconscious in the bedroom of his home. A bullet had shattered his skull. A .38 automatic pistol lay at his side.
Kilgore was stunned. The questions were the same on every street corner, spoken in hushed tones, particularly among the morning gossips at the post office.
Was his death a suicide?
He left no note.
Or was it murder?
A shroud of stoic silence draped itself around Kilgore, leaving that night a mystery that would never be fully understood. Those who may have known the truth weren’t talking, and those who were talking didn’t know the truth.
In later years, an accountant who had worked closely with the family indicated that McVey had pulled the trigger himself so that his wife could live comfortably on his life insurance. His death, however, could have been an accident, a mistake, or intentional. It still remains an enigma.
Surrounded by the rigors of the boom and the echoes of approaching war, McVey was quickly forgotten, nothing but a faded name in a faded obituary, a story that no one talked about anymore.
The mound of dirt had barely settled down around his grave before the regulations were modified and returned to the way they had originally been before a bullet ended the life of M. W. McVey’s. He had been only six months away from being a rich man again.
The claims on his debts had already been settled for ten cents on the dollar. His creditors no longer had any right to McVey’s oil money.
And the wife he left behind suddenly became a very wealthy widow.
The secret behind her smile has never been answered. Then again, perhaps she smiled only to erase the strain of loneliness, the pain of a broken heart.
It was, of course, a time when the poor went to jail, strangers rode the rails out of town, drifters didn’t hang around for very long, and the rich walked free. A rich widow would never go to prison. She couldn’t What would she do with her fur coat?
The elements are all there for a great story.
A love story.
And a mystery.
If I don’t write the damn thing, I should be shot myself.
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