Wells at the World's End: Life in the Pánuco Oil Region of Mexico
You have heard of Pánuco. Ancient and far away as once it seemed, it belongs to the day’s news now. Next to the southern fields, the ‘light oil’ region, the Pánuco district has become the most famous in Mexico and the richest in promise — for to it belongs Cacalilao. Cacalilao is the new field, the capricious, the generous, the hopestirring. Over all the Mexican oil coast you hear that lilting name. Cacalilao’s wild well is tamed at last, they are saying. It has thrown forty thousand barrels of oil abroad daily for five days, and dealt death, too. An oil war in Cacalilao has been checked by a Federal Guard. Have you been out to Cacalilao yet? Must n’t miss it. The syllables chirp.
Pánuco is no longer a little town. This metropolis of camps, with all its palm-thatched suburbs, counts, perhaps, ten thousand citizens. Southwest of Tampico it lies — by land, only thirty miles. Cut by the crazily curving Pánuco River you must travel more than sixty. There some twenty oil companies have built airy quarters for their workers. They boast a hospital and scores of doctors; cantinas equipped to furnish anything from aguardiente de caña, pulque, and tequila to the most urbane cocktails; a bookshop where you may purchase works amorous, historical, scandalous, and musical, — including the ‘amores’ of all the popular bullfighters, — besides the very best talcums. Pánuco is indeed a city, but there is not such another.
It was a burning day of spring when we drove along Tampico’s oily waterfront and paused where the Tamesí joins the Río Pánuco, to wait for the barge that has borne so many millionaires and peons overstream. A boy had just been killed by a wild automobile, but no one was permitted to help him before he died because, in Mexico, a person thus injured may not be touched until the police arrive, and sometimes the police are slow. One can but look on while — perhaps — the sufferer succumbs in agony.
The barge came, feeling its cable cautiously, carrying two Indian girls who had flirted their way across, and then we shot out along the road to Pánuco, cloudy now with brown dust, but in the rainy season often impassable for water. The land lay in its autumn, in April, waiting, parched, for the months of rain. Only a light shower or two, and this desert would bloom. Yellow orchids and fantastic air-plants hung from the trees. An exquisite flight of flamingos, like Aurora’s heralds, spread rose-colored above a marsh. We sped through woods where grew mahogany and ebony and where the banyan — a footpad of the forests — was strangling foredoomed trees.
A special little railroad runs from Tampico to Pánuco now, but before trains or automobiles threaded that tropical wilderness the trip was made by launches on the river. Tales are still told of the utter intimacy necessary on these journeys. The launches were not large or swift, but they were the only means of getting to the oil fields. Therefore men, women, children, chickens, pigs, and sewing machines tumultuously occupied common quarters. There was considerable engine trouble and twenty-four hours was thought to be good time for the one-way trip. Nevertheless, passengers and cargo reached their destination, and a world clamorous for chapopote knows what they accomplished, once the strange company had anchored.
Now we were on the road that leads into Pánuco — of the many camps and streets, of peons and scientists, of Indian women selling handfuls of fruit at the curb,and women from the States, dainty in their sheer frocks, idle and wistful. Here, surely, great Birnam Wood was coming to Dunsinane; for mounds of green foliage moved at a good pace, above the dust!
They were only burros, bringing in loads of clover and ojita for fodder, and completely covered by the burden. Sometimes a man was riding inside the greenery, but you never could tell that. It seemed to be just a pageant arranged by Nature.
Past the scores of bungalows of the company camps, past the homes of the peons, which are replaced so easily when they wear out, — materials being at hand,—we drove to the ancient plaza of Pánuco, with its old, hightowered church and its surrounding shops, aboriginal and urban.
‘The plaza got well spattered-up when the Villistas and Carranzistas disagreed around here, back in 1915,’ said a driller who was chasing his glass of tequila with a bar of chocolate. ‘One lot was up in the church tower and the other was down in the plaza, picking them off. They kept dropping like ripe mangoes and smashing on the stones.’
‘In those days you kept on with the work at the wells?’ I questioned.
‘When we could buy a little protection from either side — and sometimes when we could n’t.’
We had come to the gate of our camp, and the guard hurriedly awoke to open it, disturbing several fat mules at their siesta. This was a peaceful and airy little house where I was to live for a while with the wife of one of the supervisors. Two rooms with beds whitely draped in mosquiteras, which gave them a very ceremonious look; between the rooms a shower bath, often enriched by oil, although the water came from a settling tank; doors and windows, always open, on either side; a verandah verdant with small palms, ferns, and geraniums.
‘How still it seems! ‘ I said.
‘The men are all having dinner,’ explained Mrs. Blairsdale. ‘We ‘ll go, too.’
Over in the camp dining-room, shaded by tall banana trees, where bushes bearing impossible green roses flourished at the door, I viewed with admiration the handiwork of Jumbo, the Chinese cook. The menu seemed overelaborate. I found out later that this was only the usual thing. Chicken and ice cream on Thursday, too, just as in the universities.
All the oil-camp cooks are Chinese, highly expert and original, and one weeps to think how beautiful home life in the States might become, could Jumbo, John, or their numerous cousins be captured for private purposes. Why, we had a platter of fresh Oriental candy every night, besides dessert!
For the women of Pánuco life is so easy, so robbed of every customary housewife’s task, that its slow tempo enters the mind like an anæsthetic, like lotos poison, stealing energy and purpose, wrapping the spirit in languor, implanting a reluctance to go back to the land where a life so idle must seem a legend. Unless a woman throws off the spell and finds duties for herself, there is absolutely nothing for her to do in Pánuco. Chinamen cook the meals. Chinese boys come early to sweep the bungalow and bring the drinkingwater. They call for the laundry and return it. They take care of the dooryards. The men of the household are far off in the fields from five o’clock in the morning until past six at night, when they return weary and covered with chapopote. The women, meanwhile, read until all novels and magazines seem alike — although the latest are imported quite promptly from Tampico. They embroider until their trunks are full of unused embroidered garments. They sleep and nap and sleep again. Pallor comes over the rosiest. One does not need red blood in this burning land.
‘I think if I don’t get to the States before the rainy season starts, I ‘ll go crazy,’ said Mrs. Blairsdale. ‘You can’t imagine how it rains here! And there are so many hours in the day, even when I don’t wake up till ten, and spend an hour at breakfast, over there in the dining-house by myself, and take a nap in the afternoon and go to bed at eight! Sometimes when Lew gets in at night, he’s so dead tired that he turns in at half-past six; and he ‘s gone before it’s day.’
Yet such a life has its unco charm. After a while one sinks into the dream. To do housework again, to have lists and hours! We dropped our sewingscraps on the floor. There was no wastebasket. What need? The boy always came promptly to sweep.
All night the enchanting fragrance of the oleanders in the dooryard along the river bank was blown across the room. From the other dooryard, that faced the camp, came the breath of tall tuberoses and of the scented leaves of orange and lemon trees. The silence lay deep. Then, out of the midnight — uproar, a blare of lights, wild noise! A fearful, splendid pageant was moving down the river. A gigantic golden ship was towering over the little house. Was it a dream? No, with such an infernal sound of whistles, surely no sleeper remained in camp!
‘Nothing but the old oil-barge,’ murmured Mrs. Blairsdale sleepily. ‘They ‘ll keep passing the door all night, and they have to blow right here because there ‘s a bend in the river. Once one of them ran down another and turned over. I wish I ‘d seen it.’
The phantasma of noise and light passed the bungalow. It seemed to go within a few feet of the bed. After a while I grew used to the oil barges forever being pushed down to the Tampico terminals by stern-wheel towboats, and I learned to admire them as they snorted on with such determination and industry through the night. When the river was in flood, the water and the boats rose even nearer to the door.
Now the five o’clock work-whistle shrilled, jealous of sleep; and peons, drillers, supervisors, checkers, foremen sprang from their sultry rest. On the other side of the shower-room I could hear Mr. Blairsdale murmuring persistently to his companion: ‘Poor Clem! Poor old Clem! But you ‘ve got to get up, old man!’
Soon all the men had breakfasted and gone to their exigent work. Once more the camp lay hot and quiet. It seemed foolish to rise. What for? However, in time, we did.
‘There’s no sense,’ said Mrs. Blairsdale, ‘in closing these doors. Nobody around. It will be cooler if we leave them this way while we dress.’
I have never heard an offer so appropriate, so pat, as that which came ten minutes later from a peddler who arrived at this crude moment on the other side of the porch vines.
‘Ropa de modal’ he shouted. ‘Ropa muy de moda, muy fina!’
The Greek bore ‘fashionable clothes’ which he desired to sell us — with some reason — at once. All over Mexico go such peddlers, until the desert puts forth organdie.
There has been no Kipling to celebrate the strange life of the great oilfields south and west of Tampico. What themes have been missed! What sagas of sweat and courage, of fierce nights and stern days, of wild hopes drooped and faint hopes blossomed! What life would beat in the true song of the Pánuco!
Before ever I heard of the storied city, or of any particular oil-camp, I firmly believed that the peons who worked in the fields led a life of the utmost misery, and that the hardships of the foreigner’s lot were only less than theirs. The dreariness and squalor of the native homes in such regions surpassed, I felt sure, the grimiest of our slums.
‘The natives in the oil fields must be wretched,’ I suggested sadly, as we left Tampico.
‘I ‘ll drive you out to Cacalilao tomorrow,’ said the geologist, ‘and you can look around as we go along.’
To-day I am wiser. The oil-field peon lives in a Paradise, compared with New Yorkers, for example, who know hall-rooms, skylight-rooms, basements. Has he not always superabundant sunlight and clean air to breathe? Is there a better-ventilated home in the world than his? Does not a tender Providence fairly thrust upon him building materials and the fruits of the earth?
His simple house is fashioned of bamboo, which grows near by, tied with bejuco, which is everywhere, thatched with palms. In a few years, when too many guests have thronged into the roof, he burns it down and builds another. The floor is of simple mud, but covered with home-woven petates. No other bed is needed, although in the wealthier huts you often see a hammock or two. What use were windows? The door is always open, being, in fact, an opening merely.
The better-planned huts are built under or around a large prolific fruit tree — a plum, an aguacate, a papaya, or a mango — so that one will be obliged to move as little as possible in order to gather his supplies. The peon’s family tree is worth something to him. There is always a banana plantation in the dooryard. So, with a sturdy woman to pat your tortillas and spank your children — there you are! In some of the huts we saw sewing machines. Years are needed to pay the high prices which far-traveling salesmen get for them, but they do give one’s hut an air.
It was at noon that we passed a peon dozing at his door, the chickens, now and then, running over him.
‘His siesta,’ I said benignly, but the geologist only smiled. Because, when we came back at four o’clock, he was having a nap, and that night, at eight, we saw him preparing for a real rest.
‘Time means as little to him as to the recording angel,’ said the geologist. ‘He is a hedonistic opportunist.’
I no longer sorrow for the oil-field peons. They enjoy their days off and they take them in sufficient number. Often, beholding the tarnished fate of other Indians, my heart has filled with anger and pity — those women crouching on the ground with five or ten cents’ worth of gnarled fruit for sale! Those men in the streets of Cuernavaca with heads bowed almost to their knees under loads too heavy for horses! Those fat, delightful, brown children, so friendly and gay, so unconscious of the life of privation and labor that lay ahead! And then those tiny houses, with pointed roofs like dog kennels, in which the workers in the maize and cane fields, further south, dwelt! But as we drove for hundreds of miles, day after day, into the monte and through the abandoned haciendas around Pánuco, the conviction grew upon me that here dwelt a folk finding more joy in their years than did the earnest and anxious creatures who bother about time, seasons, and rents.
Why prod these fortunate people with education and make their lives as annoying to them as ours are to us? I wondered whether Minister Vasconcelos did well to insist on their reading Sophocles. Surely they had accepted fatality more completely and comfortably than the Greeks. On the way to Topila you pass an hacienda that is called ‘Paciencia y Aguacate’ — Patience and the Alligator Pear!
Over stretches of brooding monte, through brown jungle-land, wound a well-worn road.
‘ I suppose it was built centuries ago,’I said. ‘Perhaps by the Huastecans, bringing “sticky incense” for their altars.’
‘I cut it out about a year ago— I and several mozos — with machetes.’ The geologist impulsively avoided a large gray snake in the road and then tried to reverse and run over him. ‘A year ago all this was jungle, solid as a wall.
‘We came exploring. I was almost sure there was chapopote up here around Tancoco. We’d found seepages — little black springs and marshes of oil among the trees; but you can’t trust a seepage. Oil migrates underground, you see, and it may come out miles from the main reservoir-rock. But what was more important, in this region, was that I ‘d noticed outcroppings of red shale. Red shale was the first distinctive formation we encountered in Cacalilao whose depth bore a special significance as to the depth at which the Tamasopo lime might be found. The streak rises toward the surface at an angle which can be gauged. Far beneath, the fishtail bit may reach the top of the San Felipe lime, much harder than the earth above, and, under that a way, should be the top of the Tamasopo lime, harder still. It ‘s after the drill strikes through the Tamasopo lime that you find, or don’t find, oil.’
‘Find oil!’ I caught my breath. One catches the fever, living for a while in Pánuco.
‘By now the world knows whether we found it at Cacalilao!’ exulted the geologist.
We had neared a wooded hill, and here at the base, with the wilderness roundabout, was the strangest city ever seen. Thronged bazaars lay on either side of the dusty road. Here you might buy all the fruits of Eden. Here were rebozos by the yard — and shaving soap and pads and powders and pans. And hanging at the doors of mud-floored, windowless shops were vast quantities of organdie frocks, fiercely orange, tomato, orchid, and flame. And no! Could one believe his eyes? Here was Dinty Moore’s cantina!
‘The city of Tancoco, below Tancoco Hill,’ announced my comrade. ‘Risen, like Venus, from a sea—of oil.’
A dark sea. The new, wild well, tamed at such great risk and effort, had laid waste the land around it, creating a swamp of thick, black chapopote. It had blighted the trees and killed the bushes. Branches drooped black, as if slain by fire. The beauty of nature vanishes, in the oil fields, once her wealth appears. Where once oil has lain, nothing ever grows again. Yet I have never seen a glorious landscape bring a look of such contentment as that which sometimes comes over the faces of men gazing upon the infernal vista made by flowing wells.
They had fought for five days to tame this wild well. Two Chinamen and a Mexican lost their lives from the gas, but the rest wore gas masks and escaped. Rushing from its sunless home in the depths of rock, the oil hurled the drilling tools up against the king block, where they stuck for days. The valve was wrecked. The flow could not be checked.
Men were called from every derrick. Company loyalty bowed to the loyalty of the field. Naked and half naked, they slaved in the thick lake amid the deadly fumes, desperately protected by masks and shields. When a well breaks loose heroism is expected of scientist and peon.
Looking at this rich desolation the geologist grew technical.
‘They finally closed her in by putting a steel die collar on the ten-inch swedge nipple, and clamped the valve down so as to secure it on the casing. They connected the flow line right away, and now the oil is pouring into the 55,000barrel tanks at the pump station.’
There are two ways of getting the oil from the fields to the terminals that line the Pánuco River near Tampico — to pump it through miles of pipe, reheating it when necessary, and to carry it down in the spectacular barges.
The sun seemed to be peering into the growths of the monte, in an interested way.
‘And now we ‘d better get out of Tancoco before dark,’ my comrade said suddenly, ‘or we may not leave at all.’
I did not feel anxious, for I had every appearance of being an authentic bandit myself. The riding breeches and blouse which a lady in Pánuco had lent me displayed no affinity, and so we bought some ten yards of crimson cloth at an Indian village in the hills. This made a splendid faja, or bullfighter’s sash. The ensemble was brilliant. Pity the modest native women, obliged to look upon a foreigner in such a costume and — infinitely more brazen! — sitting on the front seat of an automobile beside a man. (The woman, of course, should sit in back.)
‘See the soldaderas getting their men’s supper — and cleaning their boots, excellent women!’ exclaimed the geologist in admiration. The soldadoras, to whom Señor Ibáñez penned so warm an apostrophe some years ago, are the helpful creatures who follow their men on the march, in the camp, to the fray. On informal occasions they carry the warrior’s pack. If, being a good Indian, he prefers to march barefoot, they carry the Government’s shoes. They attend to the live stock, the children, the enchiladas. They are indispensable.
‘But what are all these soldiers doing here, in peaceful, post-revolutionary, American oil-camps?’ I demanded.
‘Oh, one of the States companies is trying to keep us from using our subsurface rights, and they were destroying our machinery and beating off our men at a great rate. One day they ‘d hire more soldiers and the next day we ‘d have to increase our guard, to protect our property. It was quite a military competition. But now we’ve succeeded in bringing the row before the President and we ‘re not molested much.
‘You see, hunting oil stirs up more bitterness than hunting gold or silver. If you own a mine, you can feel some security. But if you bring in a fine producer and don’t happen to own the land all around it, then somebody else may drill a well a few yards away, and draw the oil out of yours. That’s why we ‘re always in such a hurry to get the oil flowing into the storage tanks, whether we ‘re able to transport it to the terminals for a while or not. It ‘s a ticklish business.’
That is the reason why one of the companies has chosen this touching name: Tal Vez — ‘Perhaps.’
Imagine a burning hot November. So lay the Pánuco in its brown April. And yet, deep in the jungle, rose heraldry of undimmed spring. Ablaze everywhere, on the ground and high in the treetops, were the scarlet inner spears of the jungle-painting Tillandsia — pages, gorgeously clad, who come before the stalk of pale flowers. Dogwood trees shook their small, golden bells. Loveliest of all were the purple masses of ‘Pánuco wistarias,’ twining with gray moss in festoons overhead.
In the open spaces, in the wilderness of that darkening land, the palms stood up like green and brown feather dusters that Nature had stuck into the ground, in some hour of rest, and neglected to use again.
‘Even the fences bloom here!’ I cried, peering incredulously into the twilight.
‘You can’t kill those red cedars,’ declared the geologist. ‘The peon cuts them down, trims them, makes them into a fence, and in a year he has a thick hedge instead. As long as any of the wood is in the ground it grows. The plum trees do that here, too.’
Actually, the peon has fence-orchards of young plums that were once just sticks. More racy of the Pánuco are the groves of tall ojita trees, bizarre and beautiful in silhouette against the sky, from whose topmost boughs the fodder of all the burros of the region is cut. ‘Ojita’ is an item on most camp payrolls and is another instance of the extraordinary manner in which Providence provides in the Pánuco. While others must cultivate the fodder for their beasts, here they cut it from the treetops.
We stopped to calm the engine. The sound of bees, working late, came loud from the fragrant forest.
‘Want some honey?’ asked the geologist. Anyone, after a ride over such roads at such speed in that car, would.
‘Then we’ll stop at Don Porfirio’s for a second.’
Don Porfirio was en casa, engaged in telling his boys to get the cows off the road, as we should soon require it. And would we not honor his house by partaking of the cena? The griddle was already hot for the tortillas. Pardon us, gracias, but a little honey, now, if it were convenient . . .
Honey—why, naturally! Don Porfirio vanished among the banana trees, to return with a dinner plate full of beauteous golden comb and two spoons. Such is Pánucan hospitality.
Oil men, when they are feeling hot and out of luck, will swear that the natives are not so polite as the theory states, but out in the wilderness, at least, their courtesy is unfailing.
‘Buenas tardes,’ says the peon, toiling along under his load of wild grass, as you fly past, scattering dust. And ‘Adiós!’ calls the man on a burro, gravely raising his hand. If you are on foot, in the Pánuco, your greeting is ‘Buenos días’ or ‘Buenas tardes,’ but when both are mounted you say ‘Adiós,’ Castilian fashion.
Driving out of camp early next day we came upon the Robespierre of Pánuco. A burro, yoked to a large cow, was waiting, his feet braced, a look of stolid resolution on his nose, until she should grow calm. The cow was bucking.
‘ When she stops he ‘ll go on with his work,’ said the geologist. ‘He takes two cows down to the abattoir every day. He goes alone. When he ‘s delivered one cow, he goes back and gets the other. Nobody ever has to give him any instructions. He is probably one of the smartest burros in the world.’
We hurried on. We were going out to Tempoal, a native city in the far-off hills. Was ever a city so self-sufficient, so remote, I wondered afterward.
We had before us ninety miles of amazingly good road, for years ago one of the big companies had thought to find oil in that region and had made a smooth way for their trucks. Now it was deserted. The oil had not been found. But everyone was thankful for the service.
We were passing a heap of dirt rising from the brush at the wayside.
‘A moment for obeisance,’ ordered the geologist. ‘ Let me point out La Zurita No. 3, the largest producer in the Pánuco field — 25,000,000 barrels to date!’ He sat lost in affectionate contemplation.
‘That ‘s the kind of well we love! No more anxious work at the rig. No more explosions. No more fighting your oil away from you, underground. Just a nice peaceful heap of dirt, pouring out chapopote day and night, into the tanks, through the pump lines, to the world!’
‘Who would dream,’ I pondered, ‘that a big producer looked like this after it had settled down to work? The capped wells certainly are n’t half so impressive as the rigs. People don’t call this little mound an oil well, you know!
‘You have beheld,’ murmured the geologist happily, ‘the sort of well that everyone around Tampico prays to call his own.’ We drove respectfully away.
There had been a shower in the night, and as we flew along we startled into multicolored flight clouds of exquisite butterflies — white, yellow, and pale green — that were sipping deliriously at the puddles. Shining out by the roadside, milkweed showed what it could do in the tropics, where its flowers are half golden, half vermilion, a very Spanish display.
‘El Higo — we ‘ll stop and call on the idol.’ For everyone does, yet the ancient, solemn idol, dug up somewhere in the hills, keeps his aboriginal state. The limestone figure stands on a knoll, near a store.
‘His wife out in the monte yet,’ an Indian told us.
These hills are full of idols — and of the lares and penates of times remote. Out of little mounds, when the Indians come to use them for sites or cemeteries, are dug hundreds of stone dolls, images, gods, dishes, tools. Some of the small heads are magnificently chiseled, the faces wearing unmistakable expressions of amusement, scorn, or joy, when they are not grotesques. I have seen, in the Pánuco, old women’s heads, carved of limestone or modeled in clay, that were Grecian in perfection. Rich as Vera Cruz is well known to be in ancient remains, one suspects that the archæologists have not yet sniffed some of the wonders cherished in the oil region.
The natives take scant interest in their ‘antigüedades’ except when someone wants to buy them; for they have been digging up these relics all their lives and giving them to their children for playthings. To many of the foreign oil men, too, they are barbarous commonplaces. But now and then you will find an amateur archæologist whose collection of idols of the Huastecan civilization, carved out with tools of jadeite untold centuries ago, and gathered in the course of his labors in the fields, is amazing. And while he treasures his stone images and dishes he wonders wistfully if he ‘ll be able to get any of them back home — perhaps enough for a Fountain of Antiquities from the Pænuco. Of dates and tribal names he knows little, yet he has somehow learned a good deal about archæological collecting. I know one rig supervisor who has the most fascinating— but there, that is his secret!
We were surprised, as we drove past bamboo huts in the monte, to see hanging at the doors magnificent striped skins. In Mexico every forest cat is a ‘tigre.’ Jaguars, pumas, oceolots, and more ordinary wildcats — tigers they are, according to their power, and tigers they are named. They are still plentiful here.
Along the road cut from the cliff-side we were approaching Tempoal. Before the gate which guarded the city on the hilltop, feudal fashion, an Indian slept, his great hat over his eyes. Hearing our snorting engine he calmly rose and opened. We threw him ten centavos and climbed with caution the steep, cobbled street.
All Tempoal gazed at us with wide, black eyes. Nude babies, the pink of their skins contending with the brown, scuttled into the doorways. We reached the plaza. Here was an Indian metropolis perched on a lonely hilltop, forgetting the world.
On the shady side of a statue of a military leader who had been born in this city sat the helado seller. Would we have cylinders of shaved ice, flavored diversely, or balls of snow colored with the juices of fruits? Raspas, helados, or mere limonadas — with such a stock of cool refrescos any fancy might he suited!
‘Is there an ice factory here?’ we questioned in surprise.
‘Cómo no?’ When the oil men were in Tempoal they had established a power plant. They might have electricity in any house if they liked, but no Indian liked.
To-day, the splendid climax of my days in Pánuco, I was to see miracles. I was to associate in perilous intimacy with wells that might devour me and the landscape at any moment. Before my awestruck eyes other wells would bring up snow from Inferno. I would be burned and frozen in the same instant. To-day I, most fortunate, would behold wells single of their fantastic kind, of which scientists talk in Persia and Siberia: wells at the world’s end: wells of wonder.
‘We ‘ll start early for Loma del Pozo No. 1,’ said the geologist, ‘and you can watch her making snow and ice.’
In the distance rose the brown ranges of the Topila hills, that would turn green with the rains. We passed the pleasant old hacienda, ‘The Horseshoe,’ once proud and prosperous, now uncultivated.
‘Sometimes,’ I said, ‘I look out over this plain for miles, and I ‘ll see an Indian hurrying along on a burro, way off the road. Where is he going? You can’t see any huts.’ We were crossing wide stretches of bad lands, with still those tall palms sticking up like green and brown feather dusters.
‘Not all the haciendados live in town,’said the geologist. ‘Some of them, before oil was found out here, owned a little land. Of course they did n’t farm it. Fruits dropped at their door. And then they found chapopote underneath that almost worthless soil!
‘The dueño — perhaps he was a peon, perhaps a small landowner of the old aristocracy — knew better than to sell, you may be sure. He rented, and now, in this same hut, he dwells — a millionaire.
‘There ‘s old Victoriano Cruz — just one example. I won’t tell you where he lives, because some bandit might overhear us and torture you to find out. But one day when I called to see him, his rickety board table was covered with gold. “Quite a fortune, Don Victoriano,” I said. “Yes,” he told me, “I get these 7000 pesos every month — royalties on my oil lands.” “If it’s not an impertinence, what do you do with it?” “Well, I ‘m going to bury this in the banana patch. Come back in an hour, and if you can find it. it ‘s yours,” the old rascal wagered. But bandits did get some of his gold, in the revolution.’
‘Seven thousand pesos a month,’ I whispered, awestruck.
‘Why, back in Pánuco I know an old Mexican who gets 180,000 pesos a year, just in rentals. I don’t believe he spends 180. What he does with his thousands, heaven knows! Of course he would n’t go near a bank.’
Our thoughts were financial and wistful. The purple-flowered vines, the bright yellow dogwood-boughs, the blazing inner spears of the Tillandsia, fled past.
‘Now shut your eyes, for in a minute,’ my comrade told me, ‘you ‘ll see one of the strange sights of this world.’
In a black desert, which it had itself created stood the Ice Well. Hour after hour, month after month, in that lonely place, Loma del Pozo No. 1 had been forming its tall white cylinder of ice in the face of the powerful sun. The gigantic forces which brought the gases up from great depths seemed to be struggling like stubborn Titans to build the glittering column ever a little higher. But for a long while now it had not grown. When it exceeds a certain height it breaks off. Long before we reached this well the roar of the ascending gas rumbled in the treetops, and as we came nearer there was such a sound of sizzling and frying as must mark Hell’s kitchen. For Loma del Pozo No. 1 is making snow as well as ice. If this snow touches one’s hand, he cannot tell whether the sensation is of freezing or burning; but when, flung far from the icy mouth of the hole, the crystals strike the hot ground, they seem to fry like the whites of eggs on a griddle.
‘How far has it risen?’ I questioned, a trifle appalled by the infernal display.
‘Loma del Pozo is over 3000 feet deep.’
‘Has it made no oil at all? Only this endless outpouring of gas? ‘
‘It has. The Ice Well has a long story. They completed it in 1915 for an initial production of about 5000 barrels of oil and 20,000,000 cubic feet of gas. When the well came in, it hurled out 2400 feet of six-inch casing.
‘But after it had made about a hundred thousand barrels of oil, salt water appeared, so they pinched it in until it flowed only gas. And now you see it, working away fiercely, as it ‘s been working for over seven years.’
For seven years this Titan had been bearing up from a depth of 3000 feet and flinging into the atmosphere twenty million cubic feet of gas a day.
‘To tell the truth,’ I said, whispering as if I were in church, ‘I don’t know just what makes that ice and snow.’
‘This gas contains a very high percentage of carbon dioxide. The sudden expansion causes the condensation and solidification of the water vapor in the atmosphere — a process which takes place in the form of that coating of ice around the valve of the well. In time this transformation has built up a regular tube of ice, as you could see if you were n’t too careful of your shoes, and the gas rushes up through it as through a pipe.
‘These white flecks all over the ground are practically pure carbondioxide snow. We ‘ll have time to get to No. 2 before lunch. This stuff won’t burn you— Try it in your hand. It just stings.’
Alas, Loma del Pozo No. 2 is a famous example of the mean way in which the powers underground can bring to nothing the most skillful drilling! There it was, all rigged, machinery in a long caravan waiting to begin its task, the crew on duty, and not a drop of chapopote being produced. It is 3103 feet deep, and an inverted monument to persistence. When the drill was pounding at 3070 feet, it opened some vast reservoir and out rushed fifty million cubic feet of gas.
‘We checked it, in time,’ the geologist explained, ‘by pumping the hole full of mud. That filled up the crevice through which the gas was entering. Then we started drilling again, but bend over and look down and see what happened. When we were trying to bail out the hole the bailer got caught right beneath the valve there, and now the well is bridged with pieces of lime that have collected between the bailer and the casing.’
I stooped to peer at the disaster. The Titans were bellowing ominously, far down.
‘Of course,’ added my comrade, ‘it may break loose at any moment.’
I could see the bailer, a pail forty feet long, barring the giants’ ascent.
‘Drilling will be resumed just as soon as we get it out,’ the geologist said firmly and hopefully.
We observed that a Chinaman, upon the brow of a hill, was bending his Oriental scrutiny upon us.
‘It ‘s way past dinner time, and I suppose Arthur’s keeping it for us.’ He wiped off the chapopote with a wad of waste.
Outside the cook-house we washed our hands in handsome white-enamel basins, in water well heated by the sun.
Then once more I was astounded by the magnificent dinner that you always get at the oil camps and can never get in the towns. It was n’t even Thursday, and yet, as we slid on to the wooden benches at table and daintily chose paper napkins adorned with daffodils, Arthur brought us, —
Chicken à la Maryland, with string beans, sweet corn, roast potatoes and horsd’œuvres
Tomato and lettuce salad, self-made dressing
Limeade and coffee
Peaches and cake
‘I don’t,’ said I to Arthur frankly, ‘get this at home.’
‘Boy picked lemons out on monte yesterday,’ replied Arthur hospitably. ‘You have some more drink?’
The water at the camps is brown and warm, but less dangerous than the clear cold drink you rashly take from the artistic earthen bottles at the hotels. And there are always limes.
‘You have to be careful, of course, being a newcomer. But out exploring we ‘re not so squeamish. Once one of the boys washed by mistake in the only drinking-water in camp, and we had to use it anyway.’ The geologist pretended to eat, but meals are better than appetites when you ‘ve been in the fields for months.
As we returned to the veteran automobile I had another shock.
‘What is that lying on that bunk? Vanity Fair. And, good heavens, The Broom! I suppose Cabell is popular among the peons?’
’Reserve your airs. Of course we get plenty of reading matter at the camps. I brought a load of new magazines from Tampico last Monday.’
‘Chicken, jelly pocketbooks, wild lemons, current periodicals, natural warm baths,’ I meditated. ‘The ordeal of camp life!’
We drove for a while through a forsaken land and came to a sign: ‘Danger — Proceed at your peril!’ So we did.
‘If you want, you can tease this well a bit. I only wish it would break loose while you ‘re doing it. That would be an experience you’d always remember, if you got away.’
The craving for adventure edged my comrade’s tone. We were many paces off, yet I could hear the steady rumble of Quebrache No. 1, suppressing a desire to blow us to perdition.
This was a wicked one. It had made for itself a crater like a volcano’s, and low in the centre it hissed and roared and shot out gleaming fragments of snow to fry upon the gravel. It had laid waste the land around, but not with oil. Like a bad boy among the Titans, it had flung stones and was panting to fling more. Deep and far had spread the rocky barrage. I climbed down to gaze into the steaming throat of Quebrache No. 1, ready to fly if it should suddenly come in.
The completion of this well, in 1915, was unexpected and terrific. Thirty million cubic feet of gas, bursting from the depths, demolished the derrick and the valve on the casing. The valve has not been replaced; there was but a slight showing of oil. Still, who knows what wealth the monster may be hiding?
‘It ‘s bridged now with bits of lime and shale,’ the geologist explained, hurling rocks with beautiful accuracy into the well’s threatening mouth, in the hope of rousing it to a fresh outburst for my instruction and possible destruction. ‘Be ready to run and get behind that tree in case I stir her up. But during the times when it’s gassing it throws out these enormous quantities of shale, lime, and flint. I estimate that it makes at least 20,000,000 cubic feet of gas a day. Look out!’
He had discovered a six-foot length of pipe, and daring all for science, had climbed down into the crater and thrust it vigorously into the well.
‘If that does n’t make her break loose, nothing will! But it has to drop 3000 feet— Don’t run yet, you ‘ll hear it strike,’ said he in an interested, leisurely way. We did hear it strike, and then, with a wild subterranean roar and a charge of hissing gases, Quebrache broke.
I fancy we must have made good time. I had the handicap, for my comrade was in the crater; but we were both behind the tree before the bombardment of rocks. I covered my eyes, but I could hear his calm scientific classification: ‘Green shale, gray shale, lime, flint, chert.’
Under cover of the sparse bushes, bending low, we easily got out of range and gained the road.
‘I know that gas is n’t asphyxiating,’ stated the geologist, ‘so it is useless to pretend you ‘re dead. Hurry up. I’ve saved the most incredible well for the last.’
No solitary maker of snow and ice, no muffled giant nor costly disaster was this last strange well, Quebrache No. 2. Long before we came in sight of the rig the extemporaneous houses of the peons lined the road. Coated head to foot with chapopote, men came striding from the field. Then we saw it — the unearthly vista: two reservoirs, one above the other, wide, deep, and black, and flowing down to them, a slow dark river, the flood of ‘frozen oil.’
The sun beat savagely down. Sweat mingled with chapopote on our faces. But crossing the sticky field, and crouching beneath the rig to touch that thick river, I cried, ‘Why it’s cold!’ For this heavy stream of oil, as it rose from the well in the face of the sun, was to the touch as ice. And it looked exactly like very good fudge, just before it hardens. Only when it moved majestically down the slope and began to enter the reservoirs did it thin and melt a little.
Quebrache No. 2 is one of the new marvels. It was completed in 1922 for ten million cubic feet of gas at a depth of 3015 feet. By January 1923, the amount of gas had increased to about 30,000,000, and early in March this gas became slightly moist.
‘The moisture gradually increased, too,’ the rig supervisor told me, gazing tenderly at his great black pet, ‘until now this well is making about 5000 barrels of 19-gravity oil. Come closer. Watch it pour out.’
‘What—?’ I began, but the geologist had the reason ready.
‘The high percentage of carbon dioxide in the gas is causing, through its rapid expansion, the freezing of this oil as it emerges from the valve.’
The supervisor brought us glasses of brown warm water, settled, boiled and safe.
We drank to the wells of wonder.
Darkness fell suddenly upon the road from the festoons of gray moss and purple-flowered vines.
‘Would you like a swim?’ inquired the geologist.
I traced the answer in the chapopote on my face.
‘Well, there is a party planned for your last night. We are all going to drive out to the beach at Las Piedras. The river is warm. Afterward we ‘ll make a fire.’
I sank into happy contemplation. An all-over warm bath, after these ineffective cold showers! Besides, the geologist had told me how he had glanced up one afternoon, in the very midst of his splashing, to see a flat-headed adder coiled around the spray. ‘It seemed to be just thinking,’ he said easily. ‘Of me, perhaps.’
The Pánuco, its brown flood silvered by the moon, lapped the soft grass on the bank. We scampered down, and the soothing waters took us. Who has not bathed in a tropical river by moonlight has missed one of this world’s enchantments. Some of us floated with the gentle stream and passed the forbidden bend. This was the peons’ part of the river, where they were swimming au naturel.
‘Come back,’ called the rest — ‘Gringos must n’t go there.’
But the current was unwilling. Hastening on toward another bend of the thousand that mark its course to Tampico, the dark Pánuco, beneath its peaceful surface, is sinister and swift. One had to fight to return.
A peon was gathering a great heap of palm leaves for some thatching to be done to-morrow — mañana or pasado mañana — and his burro grazed near by. We built our fire and made the coffee. I lay in the thick grass and marveled.
‘In the States we ‘d be eaten alive, doing this. Why have you deceived me? Where are the garrapatas, the pinolillas? And mosquitoes? Why’ — I correctly used the Spanish double negative — ‘there is not even a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand! ‘
‘You ‘ll see, doubting Thomas — I can show you the scars in the back of my neck where they burrowed in, too,’ threatened someone in the grass. ‘Better put on your stockings. The niguas prefer toenails, you know. You might lose a foot. The Indians do, sometimes.’
But no such evil thing occurred. Perhaps the dry season had baked away these ferocious insects. Perhaps they were less terrible than the tales about them. Anyway, they did not appear, although that coast produces infinitesimal monsters: the garrapata, which screws himself into your flesh and has to be smoked out, when halfway in, with a hot cigarette; the pinolilla, which attacks in the manner of our northern chiggers; the nigua, and the familiar sand-flies.
What drowsy peace marked this moonlit midnight by the warm, swift river! The palm-gatherer had spread his ancient sarape, and lay on the grass, smoking restfully and with a certain elegance. He knew that presently we would go, and he would fall heir to our fire. His liberated burro cropped the soft grass on the knolls, contemplating us mildly, now and then, like a large gray rabbit. Lovable is the burro.
‘Is there any poor person around here?’ we asked the palm gatherer. ‘Alguién que quiere los restos de nuestra comida?’
He rose, debonair and courteous. ‘I am not rich myself,’ he said.
We filled his red handkerchief with devil’s food and chicken.
The burro nibbled on under the moon. His coat was very soft, his disposition gentle. I leaned my cheek against his neck.
‘What are you sighing about?’ demanded the geologist.
‘I have taken to this burro,’ I told him, ‘and it is n’t likely that I ‘ll ever see him again.’
(But in truth it was the Pánuco lotos, languorous now in my veins, too.)