Authors: Mark Campbell
This is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
© 2015 Mark D. Campbell
Author: Mark. D. Campbell
Editor: Alex P. Jackson
Layout: Nancy G. Grit
Cover Designed by Artistic Delights ®
Published by: Darkest Hour Publications ™
Ranching built the town, but oil destroyed it.
That was the thought John Oliver had running through his head as he vacantly stared out at Main Street through the window in that cramped passenger van. At the age of forty-two, he was a burly man with tussled brown hair, light blue eyes, and a face full of stubble. He was wearing his usual blue boiler suit uniform with his scuffed Triburton hardhat sitting on his lap and an unlit cigarette between his lips.
Even with eight people riding, his vanpool was always eerily quiet. Nobody really talked to him but considering that most of the riders were either Hispanic who couldn’t speak a word of English or people with questionable criminal records he figured that it was probably for the best.
John ignored the blaring Tejano music and simply stared out the window.
With a population of about two-thousand souls, Tres Rios, Texas would’ve been hard to place on a map before the recent oil boom. Located halfway between San Antonio and Corpus Christi along I-37, it mainly served as a place for travelers between the two cities to stop, refuel, use the restroom, and grab a quick bite to eat.
Despite the deceiving name, Tres Rios didn’t have a single river. It was a town with an arid climate and very little rainfall. Summers were dreadfully hot and there was no real winter. Ever since the drought the only thing that grew in the area was thorn bushes and mesquite trees.
Needless to say it wasn’t exactly an exotic family getaway location.
Sure, there was a state park with a lake, but since the lake was nearly dry and the fish weren’t biting, people just didn’t bother to go there anymore.
For the wandering tourist the town was always a waypoint but never the destination.
John didn’t mind the tourists and truckers since they mainly kept to the Love’s Travel Center right off of the interstate. They didn’t venture into town and they didn’t bother anyone.
After all, why would they bother to travel the eight extra miles just to visit a town that had nothing to offer?
Before the boom, Tres Rios consisted of a bar, a few mom and pop shops, an overpriced gas station, a Dollar General, a flea-bag motel, a church, and a Dairy Queen.
It wasn’t much, but it was home.
The ranches were what the town was all about anyway, not the sights.
John, like his father and his father before him, was once a rancher. In fact, most of the families in Tres Rios were ranchers. The community was woven together with a single thread that stretched back generations. Everyone knew everyone and nobody hesitated to help someone who needed it. There were no such things as strangers.
Things started their downward spiral a few years ago.
Robins, a man who lived on a stretch of farmland about twenty miles away from John, thought that he struck gold one morning when he discovered oil bubbling up from his land. Instead of listening to other’s advice, the man wasted no time trying to find a buyer. He wasn’t the brightest individual though so he didn’t even bother reading through the old weathered documents he had locked away in his safety deposit box. He owned the land, yes, but he didn’t own the mineral rights.
He was left with land that wasn’t safe for cattle and too arid to farm. He could’ve leased it, but he was greedy and impatient so he chose to sell it.
Triburton, a major multi-billion dollar energy conglomerate, purchased the land for pennies on the dollar and Robins moved out to Reno.
The last rumor that John heard was that Robins ended up killing himself in the biggest little city in the world. He died broke, alone, and drunk.
Unfortunately, things inside Tres Rios changed forever as soon as Triburton moved in.
Once they sucked Robin’s land dry they started buying up large parcels of land for next to nothing. Those who didn’t sell were forced out by contaminated groundwater and dying cattle all courtesy of Triburton’s drilling operations.
As rig after rig went up, entire generations of families left in droves.
Multiple ragtag motels, greasy diners, RV communities, bars, and fast food joints flooded the town and drove most of the mom and pop shops out of business. The company even built a hospital to address the countless injuries suffered from the oilfield workers. The few poorly maintained streets in the town became clogged with oilfield traffic and riddled with numerous pot holes from the heavy semi-trucks. Deadly car accidents became an everyday occurrence.
John stared at a group of scantily clad women standing in front of one of the motels as his van rolled past. He simply shook his head, disappointed.
It just wasn’t the same town he remembered.
Suddenly prostitution, meth, and gang violence started to become a problem in a town where such things were unheard of before. Most of the new hires were brought in from out of state with no background investigations and little experience. All that the company wanted were bodies that wouldn’t mind a very dangerous job with long hours that paid handsomely. As a result, numerous undocumented aliens, ex-cons, and delinquents descended on a town that rarely locked its doors.
The town tried to keep up with and even address the issues. They beefed up the police department and even purchased new cruisers and equipment with the money that the oilfields provided. Town officials added a few stoplights and lowered the speed limit, but it was too little too late.
John didn’t think that the town cared much about anything except their ever fattening coffers.
He frowned as they drove past a boarded-up diner covered with graffiti.
His father used to take him there all the time when he was little.
Next to the closed diner, a McDonalds was being built.
He sighed and looked down at the hardhat in his lap.
The hat and everything it symbolized was what bothered him most of all.
The locals who stayed in Tres Rios ended up working for the very same company that broke their community.
John was no exception since he was literally wearing their uniform.
He looked down shamefully at his calloused hands.
His fingernails had old dirt and oil underneath them, but that wasn’t what he was staring at.
He stared at a tarnished wedding band as it glistened in the hazy morning sun.
The plan he had was simple.
He’d continue to work there for a year, keep saving, keep clocking the overtime, and eventually move his family up north to Austin, far away from that cesspool of a town.
His wife was doing her part, but at the rate she was going it would take years to save enough to relocate.
“You really should take that off,” the guy sitting next to John said.
John, surprised that someone on the van actually spoke to him, looked over at the man.
The man was just a kid no older than twenty. His blue uniform was equally as clean as his hardhat. He had pale skin and thick brown hair. His clean-shaved face was fresh and his eyes were full of aspirations and dreams.
It was glaringly obvious that the kid was a new hire.
The new hires came and went so often that John didn’t really keep track anymore. It seemed that once they figured out the nature of the work actually involved, they rode off into the sunset before collecting their first check.
“Excuse me?” John asked as he stared at the kid.
The kid smiled and pointed down at John’s ring.
“Your ring,” the kid said. “It’s going to get messed up.” He paused and chuckled. “I’m sorry, but I just saw you staring at it and figured I’d say something.”
“I appreciate your concern but I’d rather take my chances. If I take it off and leave it at home, she’d kill me,” John said as the unlit cigarette bobbed between his lips. “Besides, it helps me remember why the hell I keep coming here every morning.”
The kid nodded and grinned.
“Well in orientation they said that we should keep stuff like that in our pockets,” he beamed.
“That’s because the suits who run orientation don’t know jack shit about what it’s like to work in the field,” John said. “If you put something in your kangaroo pocket, it’ll get lost. I can’t even tell you how many lighters I went through that way.”
John reached into his pocket and pulled out a disposable lighter. He spun the spark wheel and lit his cigarette. He cracked his window and blew the smoke outside as he put the lighter away.
The kid coughed a little and waved a hand in front of his face.
“They also said that you shouldn’t smoke onsite,” the kid added.
John smirked and took another drag.
“We’re not onsite yet though, are we?” He looked over at the kid and extended his hand. “I’m John by the way. John Oliver.”
The kid shook his hand and smiled.
John noticed that his hands were soft. He figured that the kid probably hadn’t seen a day of hard work in his life.
“I’m Mike. Today’s my first day.”
“You don’t say?” he asked with a sarcastic tone and a grin. “Where are you from, Mike?”
“Denton, just north of Dallas. Ever been?”
John shook his head.
“Nah, I’m afraid that we don’t get to travel much. I’ve been to Houston a few times but nothing outside of that I reckon.”
Mike gestured towards the window.
“Well, I’m sure Houston had better scenery than this dump. Where ya from?”
John took another drag and blew the smoke out the cracked window. He noticed that they had pulled off of the main road and were turning onto the dirt road that led to the jobsite.
“This dump,” John replied with a grin.
Mike’s face flushed, embarrassed.
The ride became bumpy as the van sped down the dirt road. The entire van rattled and the radio station struggled to keep a signal.
“I, uh, didn’t mean any offense,” Mike said.
“None taken. It is what it is, but it wasn’t always this way. What brought you down here? I know this must be a change of pace compared to Dallas.”
John glanced at the kid. He knew that he wasn’t an ex-con; he looked too soft. If he had to bet, he’d wager that the kid came south looking for some fast cash.
He also figured that the kid wouldn’t last a week breaking his back underneath the harsh south Texas sun.
It was sad really since the kid seemed decent enough.
Mike stared out the window at the passing mesquite trees and dry shrubs, pondering on it for a moment.
“Well, to be honest, I’m after the money,” Mike laughed. “I didn’t go to college, so it was either do something like this or go work at the Texas state prison like my pops.”
John chuckled and flicked his cigarette butt out the window. He blew the last bit of smoke outside and rolled the window up.
“I guess we’re similar in that aspect. I didn’t go to college either and I didn’t join the army, so my options were pretty limited since I’m a local yokel. All I was raised to know is ranching.”
“Ranching? I heard there was decent money in that. When did you decide to do this stuff?” Mike asked, curious.
“This isn’t the hill country kid. Ranching was always rough down here, but it was an honest living. I decided to work for Triburton not long after they put a big oilrig across from my land. It poisoned our well. My cattle died and it left my family broke… They settled with us in court, but that little check they cut us went away pretty fast so here I am. What’s done is done, I suppose.”
“Jesus, I’m sorry to hear that Mr. Oliver,” Mike said with a frown.
John waved a hand in the air.
“No, no. None of that ‘mister’ stuff. We’ll be sweating together soon enough so we’re equals as far as I’m concerned. Besides, it makes me feel older than I am.”
Mike smiled and looked over at John.
“I know this is a silly question… but what is it like?” Mike asked.
John cocked an eyebrow.
“What is what like? Getting old?”
“No, no… You know… The job,” Mike said with embarrassment. “I mean, they gave us some idea but they didn’t go into detail during our two weeks in the makeshift classroom they sat up in the conference room of the Holiday Inn. They mainly talked about OSHA stuff and how to do CPR. You know… regulatory stuff.”
“Oh,” John said as he looked out the window. “Well, what did they certify you to do during your training?”
“Well, you’ll probably be moving pallets of chemicals and bags of sand around all day,” he said with a shrug. “That’s actually not a bad gig. I’m a pump operator.”
“I figured that I’d be moving stuff around, but I don’t know how the whole operation works to be honest…”
“Eh, it’s not that complicated believe it or not,” John explained. “The operation moves in two stages. The first group builds the rig, drills the hole, lays the pipe, and cements the steel casings in place along the line to keep the groundwater from getting contaminated. After they’re done and everything dries, our group injects the pipe with water, sand, and chemicals at extremely high pressure until we literally crack the shale to get the oil. The last thing we do is flush the line, dispose of the waste, and then the pump pretty much does all of the work once the oil starts flowing. We just pack up and move on to the next site. It’ll take a little while, but you’ll get the routine down.”