What kind of story can you find in a dying town?

All around him was an empty land, but it was full of stories. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford.
All around him was an empty land, but it was full of stories. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford.

HE WAS A WRITER looking for a story when he drove into town.

He was lost.

He had missed his turn twenty miles back, and he was running low on gas.

He pulled into the little two-pump service station, climbed out of his Jeep Wrangler, and looked around.

When the world ends, he decided, this little town would be the last to know.

In fact, this little town might never find out.

It had one street that cut straight through town.

There were six buildings on one side of the road, four on the other.

Half of them were empty.

The town was old.

It was rundown.

It was obviously broke.

If a person didn’t sell gasoline, ham and eggs for breakfast, a bed for the night, a few groceries, jeans, flannel shirts, and occasional boots, he didn’t have any business being in business.

Some little towns by the side of the road were dying.

This one had already had a funeral.

The writer doubted if anyone showed up.

Those still breathing were still waiting for a gray dust and caliche grave.

He filled up his Wrangler. It took a tick under eight gallons.

He walked inside to pay and found a young woman behind the cash register.

She was smiled easily.

Her blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail.

She was thin, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt.

Her face had been tanned by the sun and burned by the wind.

“You lost?” she asked.

He nodded.

“If I don’t recognize a face when someone walks in,” she said, “he’s lost.”

He smiled.

Her voice was lyrical.

“Where does this road lead?” the writer asked.


“Any town at the end of it?”

“Not till you find the Interstate.”

“How far is that?”

“You’ll be there by dark.”

“That’s a long time.”

“It’s a slow road.”

She laughed.

He handed her two twenties.

“Not much of a town,” he said.

“It used to be.” She shrugged. The smile faded. “We had a couple of thousand people,” she said. “An outsider was drilling for oil. We had a few new folks showing up every day, looking for an oilfield job. I couldn’t keep enough gas in the pumps. Edith down at the Circle Stop would run out of ham and eggs by Thursday. We were a booming place.”

“What happened?”

“The oilman wanted to lease the land,” she said. “The ranchers wouldn’t lease it.”

“Why not?”

“We don’t have a lot of water out here,” she said. “The cattle need the water. Drilling ruined the ponds. The oilman drilled anyway.”

“Somebody take him to court.”

“Look around you,” the blonde said.

The writer did.

“You see a courthouse anywhere?”

“I don’t.”

“You see any law offices?”


“Nobody sued.” She laughed bitterly. “There was nobody left to sue,” she said.

“Why not?”

“The oilman was found face down in a pond.”

“He drown?”

“Gunshots,” she said. “Twenty two of them. In the back.”


“Max said it was suicide.”

“Who’s Max?”

“He’s the justice of the peace.”

“I guess he rules on a lot of homicides.”

“No,” the blonde said. “But he owns a lot of ponds.”

The writer took his change and used it to buy a Snickers and big orange for the road.

He took the same road west that the oilfield workers did.

His gaze swept over the landscape.

No oil wells.

A lot of cattle.

The writer drove into town looking for a story.

He drove out of town and still didn’t have one.

He didn’t have a prayer as a writer.

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  • When you miss one story you miss a bunch of ’em.
    Everybody can’t be a writer. Who would read.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Unfortunately Bert, everybody these days thinks he or she is a writer and there’s nobody left to read.

  • Don Newbury

    Yep, puts me in mind of O’Donnell, TX, where Dan Blocker (Hoss Cartwright of Bonanza TV fame) grew up. Late in life, he said if he had it to do over, he’d be teaching school in O’Donnell, where he would KNOW he was making a difference…..

    • Caleb Pirtle

      On Bonanza, Dan reached more people but taught them less.

  • I have always been amazed by people who can shoot themselves more than once. I’m such a coward that if I ever managed to put one shot into myself, it would hurt so much I’d never be able to do it again.

    Good for him. The driller. Not the pond owner.

  • Carol Toberny

    Sometimes I think the “old West” way of dealing with problems was the best. Great story and great photograph.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Carol, I bet there are a lot of secrets buried in the Texas badlands.

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