What Little There Is In The Ground
by Paul Hunter of Seattle, WA
Old Brick Whittaker had sold off eleven frontage lots along the county road to the east, to fund his retirement. Three acres apiece. He was sick of watching sunrise crawl over that pasture, that made his blinded cattle turn head to the wind, that was fogged in some mornings spring and fall. He figured houses there might break the glare and give him something besides the paper over coffee to consider. So it was by happenstance and consequence that he finally had what amounted to neighbors out this far, that at first he’d run off when they came by wanting the loan of a shovel or garden hose. He’d say Do I look like a hardware store? Get your own damn hose. But then his old cow dog Rebel died, then in short order his wife Muncie, of a bad heart valve they somehow missed, and he lightened up. Muncie had been a good old girl with a sweet sashay about her, how she launched her wide hips and solid self deep into everything, and he missed her sorely. They couldn’t have kids but had shared everything else large and small. Besides, what did a garden hose matter? It was no skin off his nose, as his buddy Cosgrove used to say down at the service station before he sold out and moved to Arizona where he said it was hot as blazes and everything green seemed to bite you then die. So he bought cheaper hoses and left them hanging on nails in the shed in their plastic packaging, for when somebody mowing their yard ran over theirs.
Lord knows Brick was no saint, though for his whole life hereabouts he had resisted the allure of oil. It had always been easy to say no. He didn’t crave that dirty kind of money. He was one of those who needed hay and oats and corn to feed his livestock through the winter, and water when it got dry. And he did what he needed to get it, mostly grew his own. He knew good and well how horses didn’t mix with oil, how they balked at the smell and feel of it. In the early days of cars there had been stories of people who parked their shiny new contraption in the stall next to their horses, and woke in the morning to find a dead animal. Sometimes with injuries from trying to climb the walls, sometimes dead without a mark. All of which told you something, but not exactly what.
The hands who could work on cars said it was the old updraft carburetors, dogleg things with bad gaskets and seals that leaked gas, and they might have been right. But these old rutted back roads could dismantle an engine while they shook the teeth from your head. Pretty quick it got to be that nobody who cared about a horse would keep it in a shed or garage that had been used to house cars, that all sweated gas and grease and oil and antifreeze right from day one. Even under a foot of bedding or fodder, there were poisons a good horse shouldn’t have to stand for, and who didn’t know they slept standing.
These days Brick worked his place singlehanded, but for several times a year trading work with a couple neighbors who were in the same fix. Haying he used to get Muncie to drive the tractor that pulled the flatbed wagon, and she could steer a row with the best of ‘em while he bucked bales. He used to have a couple hired hands who lived in the bunkhouse he built, that cooked for themselves every day but Sundays, and helped him do a little of everything on his 1200 acres. But no more. He was still ashamed to say he ran out of the what-for to pay them. So at first he hated doing it all by himself, as if he was trying to prove something, if only to Muncie and Rebel. But with them both gone he cut back on the herd, especially during the recent drought when he had to sell off most of his breeding stock, and all but two of his mares. By then it got so he savored the quiet in the fields and barn, that at least let him carry on with his loopy old daydreamy ways.
Then one spring morning two small skinny boys wandered across the pasture while he was out digging a hole in the yard. Crossing the field they dodged the cows, didn’t spook or bother them or step in anything, came to stand around the hole and look in, said hi, then overcoming their shyness commenced to ask him all manner of questions about what he was up to—could he really dig clear to China, for example, that seemed obvious till all at once he remembered the kind of kid he had been. So he slowed down, doubled back to introduce himself, gravely shook hands with Ike and Mo Mosley, short for Isaac and Moses, showed them how he kept the black dirt and the yellow clay in two separate piles, answered their questions and chatted for hours while the hole got deep enough to get watered, the tree planted. The two of them held the rooted slip of a peach tree straight while he filled in the hole with topsoil and a sprinkling of compost, then tamped it gently down.
So word got out. It seemed like all at once the neighbor kids noticed he had animals, and started feeding the calves and horses handfuls of grass through the fence. Which was fine with Brick, though he told the kids stay on their own side of the wire so they wouldn’t get stepped on, cows’ and horses’ eyesight didn’t work the same as theirs, and these critters were no way pets.
But then came the oil anyhow. The last of the lots on the far end was bought by a man with two grown sons. He figured all three worked off somewhere in town—little did he know, since they’d paid cash. Big rough old man Maximillian Donnelly and his two big roughneck boys cut of the same cloth, Whit and Brat. When they banged up a house in eight days in one corner of the lot, in a big hurry right through the nights with halogen lights and a boom-box playing Tex-Mex music, right next to the road rather than set back in the middle like all the others going up, he should have known. By the time they moved into the house they already had a drilling rig set up, over the lot’s exact center.
And if he thought they’d framed and closed in the house in a hurry, that wasn’t a patch to how they worked the rig, that soon had the boombox and lights and drill clanking and banging all through the night. It seemed they couldn’t wait to get at it, and sleeping neighbors be damned. So Brick talked to them twice, straining to keep it polite, then on the third night he called Sheriff Hanrahan, who came out an hour later and put on his specs to study their paperwork. He told the Donnellys to hold down the noise between six at night and seven in the morning. To which Maximillian said You can’t expect a man to pussyfoot around an oil rig, but the sheriff stopped him right there, said I am done talking. Clean out your ears. This land is not zoned industrial. You will bygod keep it down. One more complaint, you’re gonna talk to the judge. And bygod in his woodshed you’ll talk nice. So the nightly boom-box stopped, and the clanging quieted as the hole deepened, though the drilling ran on through the summer nights, clear into fall.
And Brick quickly saw there was nothing much he could do. There were no oil wells hereabouts, for a couple hundred miles. Not all of Texas was an oil patch. The Donnellys had bought the last lot on the lowest land, and they had the mineral rights, that they’d never said a word about, but down at the courthouse he learned they’d researched and filed on their own little piece, most likely by the old man Max who served as the brains of the outfit.
For a cattleman, Brick knew more than he cared to about wildcatters and roughnecks. How they’d leave a smelly damn lagoon with no fence around it, that innocent livestock might wander into and get stuck. But it was mostly the attitude, how laws didn’t matter, so long as they could find the stuff, somehow pump it out, and how the money always worked to buy you clean. You’d come off a two-week stint on the rig, go get a steam-bath, shave and haircut and a new suit of clothes, a big thick steak dripping blood with a frosty mug alongside, and there you set sassy as a jaybird, and it’s like that slippery smelly rig never even was.
Wildcatters hoped to crack the nut and get all the meat for themselves. And why not? They worked rusty jury-rigged equipment, felt they took all the risk, and mostly drilled dry holes. The big boys at Texaco and Sunoco, Atlantic Richfield, Exxon Mobil and the rest had their experts, took their soundings and measurements, so more often struck a gusher. But it was still a smelly, risky business mostly spent sniffing around in the dark a mile or two underground. They checked the bit once or twice a shift to see what they were cutting through, and tried to keep careful notes—what and where and how deep down, never knowing when or if the stuff might come spouting up.
A wildcatter was always selling some widow or tired old farm couple the dream, never a word about how it would likely come up empty, this invisible, long-buried promise. Of course he had to make a mess to find out if the black gold was even there. But then if it was, he stood ready to sell the idea of a regular income where you never lifted a finger, pumped up by the barrel as long as it might last. The only down-side was the pumpjack, that ugly iron insect thing out in the field with its screeling sound, that went on up and down round the clock.
So as the fall went on, Brick kept hoping what for him might as well have been a miracle, though for them the normal course of business—a dry hole. Their equipment was worn-out, old and slow, and they’d been drilling eighty-four days round the clock when early one morning the ground shook and up it came, splashing and splattering black gold. The Donnellys would have to pay to have the nearest neighbor’s new house pressure-washed, when the wind shifted while they were capping it off. But they were laughing as they said they were sorry and would get right on it, called it just the cost of doing business. And of course the oil seeped under the fence onto Brick’s land, and he had to get them to help him fence the puddle so his livestock wouldn’t get into it. At the fencing they were still laughing off and on as they ran off his cattle and horses, that just wanted to study the fuss.
That first few days’ yield was pretty light, maybe a dozen barrels a day, but then it picked up. After the second month Maximillian bought himself a new red truck, and a white Mustang convertible for his boys to tear around in. The place by then was a nonstop party with music and dancing, barbecue and kegs, and stray girls with big hair and long nails and short skirts. Brick had no idea what kinda money that rig might be pumping, but the Donnellys were doing their damnedest to keep up with it. When they were flush, the Donnellys could be open-handed, so the neighbors all along the county road had no complaints. Once they brought in what they called the walkin’ bug, which was the pumpjack to pull up the oil it got almost quiet, and when they threw a party everyone was invited. Brick even got to meet Eva and Clinton Mosley, who were the parents of those two solemn little boys who’d helped him plant that peach that was growing nicely toward yielding a few annual pies. He said he’d noticed the boys weren’t around to watch the drilling rig work, and both parents said they’d been warned, and if he saw them there to shake a stick at them and send them home.
Then all at once it was done. The pumpjack was sucking foul-smelling gases and sand. The Donnellys went around and let the neighbors know they’d be drilling again, then they set up and started the rig and said they’d give it another few weeks. They went down another 800 feet before they called it quits and shut down for good. One near neighbor offered to let them try a hole on his lot if they’d go in halves on whatever turned up. Max gave a pained smile and said No thanks, then tried selling his three acres back to Brick, asking ten grand for the unpainted house they’d thrown up, saying at that he’d almost break even. Though he couldn’t afford it, Brick bought the place back just to see them gone.
On Maximillian’s last day, the wildcatter came up on Brick’s porch and pointed across the pasture at where the iron grasshopper was cycling up and down in slow motion. He looked Brick in the eye and said She’s still pumping a couple barrels a week. I could give you a deal on that pumpjack, that over time would always pay you a little something. Brick shook his head before the man was done. Said Cap the well and take that damn thing with you. When Max said What about the oil, the old man said Leave what little there is in the ground.
Halfway down the steps Donnelly turned around, and said No hard feelings. I’m a natural born boomer is all. Follow where the work goes and the lights is bright and the pay’s good. I got into wildcatting only because this one old boy practically owed me his life’s blood, and the one thing he had worth a thing was that rig. It was that or nothin’, so I took it, and it’s been up and down ever since. Guess you could say I got hooked. Never sure what we’ll hit or how much, but it sure gets your attention when she blows. Then the two men shook their hard calloused hands in goodbye.
When the Donnellys pulled out at dawn the next morning, all their trailers and gear strung out in a caravan, they left the keys in the mailbox like Brick said. After his morning coffee he went over for a looksee, and wasn’t in the least surprised by the mess he found. Caged weasels could have done no worse chewing through sofas, tin cans and wall board. He shoveled it all out into the yard with his aluminum grain scoop, burned up what would burn and took the rest into town to recycle. Late that afternoon he ground off the threaded rods that had held the pumpjack down to its concrete pad, scrubbed off the oil stain he found with powdered laundry soap till it come halfway clean, then got the father of those big-eyed little boys to give him a hand moving his picnic table over to cover the eyesore of a rusty wellhead that no one around here would likely forget just where it had stood. The deal he made with Ike and Mo’s dad Clinton Mosely was that he’d give the boys a riding lesson the first day they were free, which turned out to be next morning early, when he woke to two stout little knocks on his door.