The Great Slant Hole Conspiracy
April 12, 2012
Caleb Pirtle III
The judge certainly wasn’t sitting where he was supposed to be. The judge always sat behind the bench in his black robe, perched on his throne of authority with a mask of judicial dignity carved onto a stone face.
He ruled on the law. He often interpreted the law. Those who stood before him knew one thing for certain. The judge was the law.
He was no longer behind the bench. Another had replaced him. The judge was in his own courtroom, but he was sitting in the defendant’s chair. His black robe was missing. He had traded in his traditional look of judicial dignity for one of awkward defiance.
The judge was no longer the law. He was the accused.
And all of East Texas was staring at him with stilted expressions of disbelief and possibly disgust. A touch of scandal had reached down and tainted the oilfield. Operators were no longer drilling straight down to Woodbine sand for their oil. They were drilling directional holes. That’s the legal term. In reality, they were drilling crooked holes. These operators weren’t after oil beneath their own leases. They were going after somebody else’s oil at the bottom of somebody else’s well.
They’re damn thieves.
That was the consensus at cafes, beer joints, hotel lobbies, and on most of the church pews in town.
They’re damn crooks.
They’re damn pirates.
Even newspaper reporters around the country were headed to Gregg County and digging deeper to expose the culprits behind the blatant and bitter larceny. Time Magazine even reported: “State investigators – with 30 Texas Rangers on hand to protect them from reprisals – were turning up case after case of outright piracy in the East Texas field.”
The oil-bearing sands had almost as many slant holes as down holes.
Let a man spend the money and make a well.
That was the thought.
Then we’ll go in and help him pump it. And we’ll all get rich.
And so they did. Millions of dollars worth of illegal oil money has found their way into bank accounts where they didn’t belong. Nobody knew exactly how many millions – some said it might total a billion dollars, which was a lot of money in 1960 – but the piracy had been going on for a long, long time. It might have never ended.
The big oil companies were wealthy. Those little shoestring independents with their second-hand coffee pot rigs could steal a little oil every now and then, and chances were, the big boys would never miss it.
They had their suspicions. A few had even hired private investigators from time to time to see if there was any validity to the whispered rumors about slant holes and dummy wells and penny ante operators growing quite wealthy on stolen oil.
The investigators poked around for a few weeks. They could prove that there were indeed rumors making their way around town. But they had not been able to prove the theft. Oh, they might be able to do it, they said, but it would take a helluva lot of money to go out, hire crews, and test every well in the field.
Then on a glorious day when no one had a care to worry about and all was right with the world, it happened. It was a million-to-one shot. But it happened.
In 1960, a Shell Oil Company well on the west side of the field began pumping fresh drilling mud. Old wells did not possess new mud. A roughneck climbed a small pine-clad hill and spotted a drilling rig a thousand feet away. And the mud belonged to the drill stem of the well. An oilman didn’t prove it. A Texas Ranger did.
It hadn’t been an accident. It hadn’t been bad luck. The mud could not have been in the Shell hole unless somebody else had, with malice aforethought, drilled straight in the wellbore with a scheme to blatantly steal Shell oil. All he wanted to do was hit the pool of oil. He hit a two-inch pipe deep in the ground. He had the whole world in front of his drill bit. He missed the big ball of earth and struck the pipe. When the driller packed for work that day, he packed the wrong luck. He left the good behind and brought the bad with him to the field.
The lid rattled. The scandal blew. And all hell broke loose.
They’re damn thieves.
That was the consensus.
They’re damn crooks.
They’re damn pirates.
More than five hundred and fifty wells were shut in because they occupied leases containing slanted shafts. It was estimated that three million barrels of oil a year – worth about nine million dollars – had been taken from crooked and deviated holes. A Grand Jury brought more than two hundred indictments against forty-four slant-hole defendants. One was the District Judge. And now he sat in the courtroom at the mercy of someone else’s law.
The prosecutor grinned. He had the judge exactly where he wanted him – dead to rights. The facts were solid and undeniable. The testimony had been irrefutable. The case was solid. It had neither holes nor leaks. The case was, he told himself, as cut and dried as he had ever seen one.
Guilty. It could be the only verdict. Justice would be swift and without mercy.
The trial was swift all right. So was the verdict.
The prosecutor was stunned. He shouldn’t have been. He should have begun suspecting something with the District Attorney excused himself from prosecuting the judge. It seems that the D.A. owned a little working interest in an oil well. He might need to stay as far removed from the trial as possible.
In the great oilfield piracy trials of 1960, many were tried, many were sued, many faced a jury, many heard the prosecutors condemn them as thieves and crooks and pirates. But no one went to jail. No one went to prison.
When it came time for a jury of twelve good men to make a decision that would forever affect the lives of their community, they no longer talked about the thieves and crooks and pirates. They felt a close kinship with a bunch of good, hard-working, and unfortunate neighbors, businessmen, and church deacons who weren’t guilty of anything but hauling out a little black gold that the Good Lord had put in the earth. And, besides, the oil didn’t have anybody’s name attached to it. The oil belonged to anybody who was stubborn enough and bright enough and bold enough to bring it to the surface of the ground, stick it in a pipeline, and bank it.
Crooks stole man’s possessions.
Thieves lifted an occasional wallet or drove away with somebody else’s car.
Pirates plundered and took everything that a man owned, maybe even his life.
All these gentlemen did was make a living for themselves and their families. They didn’t steal anything. They had to work long and hard to get it. Drilling down or sideways didn’t make any difference. Not to the jury, it didn’t.
So what if the little independents grew rich? Shell and Texaco and Humble weren’t suffering any. And, besides, there was enough damn oil in the ground for all of them.
There might be a few people mad, they reasoned. But there wasn’t nobody going broke.
Originally published for The Writers Collection under the prompt: Pirates