The chalk might well be the death of them all.
December 4, 2013
An excerpt from Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk: the fight for oil in the field of broken dreams.
Max Williams adjusted his sunglasses and stared down an empty road. It appeared to him that he could well be the only living soul around, not counting the cattle, the goats, the coyotes or the turkey vultures hanging on a power line. Williams wasn’t quite sure what he was searching for or exactly where it might be located, but he had been told that somewhere out there within the near reaches of the town limits was the big chalk well, the damndest well any of them had ever heard about. If the rumors were right, the well sat upon an uncharted and unforgiving field that had broken the hearts and emptied the pocket books of wildcatters for generations.
All alone, it sat. A single well. The one-in-a-million well. Remote. Isolated. An orphan. If he could track down the big chalk well, Max Williams reasoned, he might be able to drill another one just like it, provided, of course, he could raise the funds and there was any oil encased in the thick, unyielding creases of the Austin Chalk.
Geologists swore there was. Geologists said the chalk was rife with oil. But geologists, at least the smart ones, never spent their hard-earned money to drill and find out. A few wildcatters, too stubborn to listen to reason, had discovered just enough crude to tempt them, taunt them, and condemn their worthless souls to wander an oil patch perched just on the sane side of purgatory. The oil struck with fury, then, a few days later, barely leaked out of the hole in the chalk. A promise. A disappointment. A lie. The great lie. Max Williams was undeterred. He no longer had any interest in Dallas real estate ventures. Those days had passed him by. Those days were dead. The market had cured him. But there were investors still around in the financial shadows who understood the burgeoning potential of the oil business. Well, perhaps they did not really understand the complex, complicated, and unpredictable inner workings of mapping anomalies and anticlines beneath the ground with odd little voodoo boxes and drilling an oil well.
But, make no mistake, they were quite aware of the riches that could be attained by coaxing crude by the barrel from the holy inner sanctum of the earth. And they liked the gamble. No. They were obsessed with the gamble. The roll of the loaded dice. The turn of a roulette wheel, which was little different from the rotation of a drill bit down amidst the final resting place of the dinosaur. Deep sand. Shallow sand. Quicksand. Mud. Clay. Rock. And the Austin Chalk.
The chalk just might be the death of them all. It was all the same. That final spin of the wheel, that final five- and six-figure bet, always triggered within them a greater sense of exhilarating fear than those first coins on a poker table. But that last dollar, good or bad, was the only one remembered. But then again, it was only money.
Max Williams gently tapped the brakes of his Blazer as he eased into downtown Giddings, dissected sharply by the crossing of Highway 290, which connected Austin to Houston, and Highway 77, which connected somewhere north with somewhere south and not much to speak of in between, including Giddings. The past had not deserted the town. The past had never left at all.
Giddings looked much as it had in the 1950s when it looked much as it had in the 1930s. Not a lot had changed except the license plates, the red light hanging above the intersection and, of course, the price of barbecued ribs. Giddings was a typical small-town Texas farming community, a down-home concoction of pickup trucks, gimme caps, cowboy hats, tobacco cans stuffed in the back pocket of patched and faded denim jeans, and frayed overalls, bleached by the sun. Stooped shoulders. Hard eyes. Square jaws. Boots shuffling along the edge of a dusty street. Backbones that were gun barrel straight. Burnt, rawboned faces that bore the unmistakable scars of long hours and hard work in the glare of the blistering heat.
Driving past them, as they walked along the sidewalk, Max Williams could not tell the rich from the poor if, perhaps, there was any difference between the two. They all looked alike and dressed alike, and a few could hit a moving cat at twenty-five paces with a well-timed spit of tobacco juice.
Giddings may not have been dying, but decay had set in, and its farmers were too worried about today to be concerned with tomorrow or, God forbid, any day beyond that. They were the salt of the earth, the roots of Lee County, the sweaters. They sweated over the price of hogs and cattle. They sweated over their peanut crops. They sweated over the lack of rain that condemned their crops and the hailstones that ruined them. They sweated over the cost of a second-hand pickup truck, a tractor that had plowed its last field and burned out its last engine, a water well gone dry, and another business closing its doors. Sweat and work. Sweat and worry. That was pretty much all they did. In Giddings, there was enough sweat to go around for them all.
A highway stretched out belly flat in all four directions, straight lines and main lines across the gardens of chalk. Max Williams glanced ahead, then into his rearview mirror, and only an occasional oak or pecan tree blocked his line of sight. No derrick. No rig. No stack of pipe. No truck stained the color of crude. Surely, he thought, the reliable and unreliable sources hadn’t all been wrong or mistaken. Those unregulated rumors passed along in the cafes and bars of Frio County described a big chalk well in terms usually reserved for rainbows and pots of gold.
Were all of them talking about the same well? Was one real and one a myth? Which one had been drilled below the rocky landscape of Giddings? Or would the big chalk well turn out to be a myth, too?
The big well.
If it were as good, as predictable, as productive as the report indicated it was, the big well could change his luck and his fortune. Max Williams was sure of it. But where in hell was it? And what was the well of the world doing down in the gardens of chalk, out on a God-forsaken patch of ground that hovered above the howling innards of hell itself?