Tuesday, April 29, 2014
(After running the Call of Cthulhu original scenario â€œThe Harlotville Horrorâ€ at the ASU NerdCon on Saturday, April 26 from 4:45 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. with Teri Gravel, James Brown, John Forney, Katie Rhyne, Caitlin Blackmon, and Logan Scott.)
Since the Hobbs Oil Strike of 1927, Dr. Adam Silverberg, a history professor at the University of New Mexico, had been doing research, his passion, in the hopes of finding the location of another huge oil field and making some extra money on the side. In the spring of 1928, he stumbled across something that seemed to bear fruit.
Dr. Silverberg was terribly tall, standing almost 6â€™8â€. He was solid though balding. He wore glasses and had a thick mustache that he groomed daily. He was a good Jewish boy from San Francisco, was married, and loved his wife and children dearly. He also enjoyed photography as a hobby.
The information heâ€™d found was an account of a ghost town in the western part of the state in the Plains of San Augustine. The town was called Harlotville and what he could piece together was that it was settled in 1825 by a group of prostitutes headed west to make a better life for themselves. There was some trouble with a wagon and the harlots made a home where they found a spring in the desert. Over the next 20 years, enough people (mostly men) migrated to the area and stayed that it actually became a town. Granted, the land belonged to Mexico at the time, but most of the people who stayed there were from the United States. The tiny village seemed to have prospered, as far as he could tell.
What really interested him, however, were the few notes he found that the water in the town had an oily taste and smell, no matter where wells were set down. One particularly deep well actually brought forth black water that was so sick with the stink of oil that the well was filled in and buried once again. He was sure that indicated that a major oil field, possibly even one very close to the surface, might lie in the area.
The town no longer existed. During the Mexican American War, everyone was either killed in the town or fled. There were very few records of what might have happened to Harlotville. However, one record he did find was of a squad of soldiers who investigated the area in the fall of 1847.
According to the report, which was difficult to obtain, the squad found the entire town deserted but the commanding officer, a Lieutenant Henry Samson, thought the town â€œdisquieting and disturbing to the men.â€ In the middle of the night, two soldiers apparently murdered each other in complete silence: Private William Marshall and Private Thomas Smith. The squad left the next day with all due haste and reported back that the town must have been attacked by Mexicans at some point and the Americans there had rallied to defend themselves but lost. He recommended that the town be burned to the ground.
By the early summer of 1928, Silverberg had contacted the Midwest Refining Company, the same company that had made the Hobbs Oil Strike of the year before in eastern New Mexico. That had put him in contact with a vice president of the company, one Roger Stanford.
Stanford was a short, somewhat dumpy man who was overweight and not terribly attractive. He wore thick glasses and was always rather pale. He dressed impeccably and smoked the most expensive cigars, however. He was married and had a couple of children, but that didnâ€™t keep him from having an affair with his secretary, Amanda Rice. However, heâ€™d heard rumors that Standard Oil was buying out the company and he feared for his job.
Stanford proved very interested in Silverbergâ€™s information and soon had a small group together to head out for the ghost town to test for oil and maybe even due a test dig in the area.
Accompanying the group were Stanfordâ€™s secretary, Amanda Rice; a company Geologist, Dr. Evelyn Chambers; a company chemist, Dr. Thomas Fry; and a company foreman, JosÃ© Gutierrez. A half dozen company workers also accompanied them.
Amanda Rice was Stanfordâ€™s secretary and had worked for Midwest Refining Company for two years. The two had an affair that had continued over that time. She was very tall, standing over six feet, slim, and very pretty. She had dark hair and smiled easily. Though quite smart, she often downplayed her intelligence as sheâ€™d found men didnâ€™t respect it.
Dr. Evelyn Chambers was a ruggedly handsome man who was almost as tall as Dr. Silverberg. He was very slim but in great shape and only shaved every few days, when the stubble got too annoying. He had been working for Midwest Refining Company for about three years and was one of the geologists who had helped find the Hobbs Oil Field the year before.
Dr. Thomas Fry was an unattractive man who was also very tall, being even taller than Chambers. He was extremely thin and his head looked too big for his body. He was a mouth breather and his nose seemed always stuffed up. He blinked constantly and wore glasses for his near-sightedness, looking older than his 41 years. He was married, though he had no children, and had been with the company for about eight years.
JosÃ© Gutierrez was Hispanic and stood a lanky 5â€™8â€ tall. He wore denim and cotton clothing, as well as an old straw hat. Though he shaved every morning, he always had a five-oâ€™clock shadow by noon. He was from southern Texas and spoke with a thick Spanish accent. He got along well with his workers and also those inevitably white men in the company above him. He had left his hometown of Eclipse, Texas as soon as he could and traveled in the southern states and northern Mexico for a time. He had been with the company for about three years. He wasnâ€™t sure if the expedition was a legitimate company project, but kept his mouth shut for now.
Five of the workers were Hispanic while the other was a Jew. They were Diego Rios, Michael Juarez, JosÃ© Fernandez, Angel Gazolas, JosÃ©ph Aceves, and Andrew Lefkovits. Not all of them would come back from the expedition to Harlotville.
Stanford had requisitioned plenty of equipment and even two Ford Model TT flatbed trucks to carry the workers and equipment. He brought his own 1924 Duesenberg Model A Tourer to carry himself and the more important members of the party. The expedition had taken back roads across the state until they found themselves in the tiny village of Datil, N.M., little more than a crossroads in the Datil Mountains, northwest of the Plains of San Augustine.
On Wednesday, July 18, 1928, they drove down from the mountains and into the Plains of San Augustine. Gutierrez drove one of the trucks, Angel Gazolas drove another, and Stanford drove his automobile. The desert was littered with scrub growth and the going was relatively slow. That didnâ€™t stop each of the vehicles from breaking down at one point or another over the course of the day, especially when one of them struck a rock or a particularly deep rut.
It slowed their search of the desert and it was not until almost dusk that they spotted what appeared to be building in the distance. They soon arrived at a tiny town of buildings that had apparently been deserted for years. However, they guessed that it was the right place.
The ghost town of Harlotville was smaller than they had initially imaged, but in just as bad of shape. If the buildings were once painted, all of that paint had rotted away in the last 75 years, leaving only gray, bleached wood behind. Probably a little more than a dozen buildings were clustered in a t-shape that followed the overgrown streets of the town.
The wind blew mournfully and there was no sign of any glass remaining in any of the windows. Dominating the village was a large, three-story building where the road intersected the T. Across the street from it was a two-story building with a sign still nailed to it with the word â€œHotelâ€ upon it. Further down the street was a solid building with a bell tower. A church? A school?
Hitching posts and rotten, empty troughs stood in front of most of the buildings. The whole place seemed like it was watching. They felt almost like someone waited in the old houses and buildings. As the vehicles approached the place where the roads intersected, several buzzards rose up off the roof of the largest house and took to the sky where they circled ominously.
â€œItâ€™s just because we scared them,â€ Dr. Silverberg said. â€œItâ€™s the cars.â€
They pulled the vehicles to the stop in the T-intersection, letting the engines die. It was very quiet in the town.
â€œWhere did you say there might be oil?â€ Stanford asked.
â€œWell, sir, they said that they blocked up an old well that had nothing but black water,â€ Dr. Silverberg said. â€œI say we need to find that well and we can find the oil.â€
â€œWe canâ€™t work in the dark!â€ Gutierrez, who had walked over to the Duesenberg, said.
The workers were nodding and agreeing.
â€œIâ€™m afraid that if we try to work in the dark and use a lantern, he might accidently ignite the oil,â€ Dr. Silverberg said, nodding at Gutierrez. â€œWhich would spell disaster for all of us.â€
Gutierrez looked at the man.
â€œWhat are you talking about?â€ he said. â€œSafety lanterns are fine working with oil! I do it all the time.â€
â€œWhy donâ€™t I take some samples and we go from there?â€ Dr. Chambers said.
Gutierrez lit a cigarette and took a drag.
â€œPut that out, please!â€ Dr. Fry said, waving smoke from in front of his face.
â€œIn that case â€¦â€ Stanford said.
â€œWe have the lanterns,â€ Gutierrez said, â€œbut me and my men would still like to wait for morning.â€
There was some talk from Stanford about starting the work that night and letting the workers work in shifts to look for the oil and get samples for the geologist. Gutierrez noted that the workers would not get as much work done working in shifts. Silverberg pointed out that they needed to find the wells.
â€œOne of the wells had the oil in it,â€ he said. â€œWe find that well, we find the oil. It was buried though.â€
He turned to Dr. Chambers.
â€œIf we can find signs that he earth has been disturbed, then we probably find the well,â€ he went on.
â€œThat was years ago, though,â€ Dr. Chambers replied.
â€œWouldnâ€™t disturbed earth look different. I know Iâ€™m not the expert here â€¦â€
â€œYears,â€ Stanford said.
Dr. Chambers pointed out that wind, erosion, and the overgrowth would make it more difficult to find any disturbed earth. He said he didnâ€™t think there would be many changes in where the well was. Stanford guessed if it was a normal well, there would be a mound of dirt if they buried it.
â€œWeâ€™re running out of daylight,â€ Gutierrez said.
â€œLetâ€™s set up camp,â€ Stanford said.
They briefly discussed using the buildings as a place to set up.
â€œThose places give me the creeps,â€ Gutierrez said, looking at the building.
â€œWe donâ€™t know how safe these buildings are,â€ Dr. Chambers said.
â€œThey could be unsound,â€ Dr. Fry agreed.
The workers got out of the trucks and stretched their legs. They looked around nervously.
Dr. Silverberg picked up a good-sized rock and walked over to the porch of the three-story building. The shutters were all closed on that structure but he found the front door unlocked and pushed it open. He threw the rock into the dark building. The stone made a hollow crash as it struck the floor and bounced several times. There was a rustling of movement from within the house as well.
â€œHey guys, weâ€™ve got something alive in here,â€ he said.
A moment later, a cloud of bats flew out of the front door of the house. Dr. Fry screamed like a girl and the workers let out shouts of alarm and surprise. Dr. Silverberg screamed, terribly startled, and stumbled backwards off the porch but managed to keep his feet. He retreated from the door.
â€œOkay, bats!â€ he said, his hair disheveled. â€œIâ€™m not okay with bats anymore.â€
Gutierrez asked Dr. Chambers where would be a good place to put the tents and the man suggested the west side of town. They headed back the direction they had initially come from, and the workers got busy setting up the five large tents theyâ€™d brought with them as it rapidly got colder. They also made a fire and got some dinner together.
â€œI hadnâ€™t expected bats,â€ Dr. Silverberg, still shaken, said.
â€œItâ€™s been 75 years since anybodyâ€™s been in the buildings,â€ Dr. Chambers pointed out. â€œCritters move in.â€
â€œWhat are bats doing in the middle of the desert!?!â€ Dr. Silverberg bellowed.
â€œThere are worse things out there than bats,â€ Dr. Fry said.
â€œIâ€™m a historian!â€
As the workers finished setting up the tents, they saw a whole cloud of bats rise up from the east side of the town and fly up into the sky.
â€œNope!â€ Dr. Silverberg said, going into one of the tents.
Miss Riceâ€™s tent was set off a little from the rest to give the woman some privacy. Stanford also took his own tent. The workers split two tents while Gutierrez, Dr. Silverberg, Dr. Fry, and Dr. Chambers took the last tent.
â€œSo, why are you thinking he hired such a small band to try to find this oil?â€ Dr. Chambers asked the others in their tent as they prepared for bed. â€œDonâ€™t you think thatâ€™s odd?â€
â€œWeâ€™re just here to find the oil,â€ Dr. Silverberg said. â€œNot to pump it.â€
â€œI need to test some samples,â€ Dr. Fry said.
â€œI wonder why thereâ€™s so much secrecy,â€ Dr. Chambers said.
They went out to join the others at the campfire.
â€œWhy canâ€™t we share this with everyone?â€ Dr. Chambers asked the group, once they were all settled by the fire. â€œI know weâ€™re looking for oil and itâ€™s a big deal butâˆ’â€
â€œWe also want to be the first to find it,â€ Stanford said.
â€œItâ€™s within the company, though.â€
â€œBut we want the credit.â€
â€œDo you not realize what it would mean to be the first?â€ Dr. Silverberg said.
â€œEverybody gets a bonus if we find it first,â€ Stanford said.
â€œExactly!â€ Dr. Silverberg said. â€œIt all trickles down.â€
â€œMy allergies are acting up,â€ Dr. Fry said.
â€œDidnâ€™t I give you a handkerchief already?â€ Dr. Silverberg asked him.
â€œUh â€¦â€ Dr. Fry said.
The handkerchief was completely wet by then.
â€œI canâ€™t wait to get my hands on some samples,â€ Dr. Fry said.
They still couldnâ€™t quite shake the feeling that they were being watched. It was not terribly comfortable.
Stanford wanted to set a watch in case coyotes came around.
â€œYou canâ€™t command my workers,â€ Gutierrez said. Then he told one of his workers to get one of the .22 rifles theyâ€™d brought with them. â€œYou donâ€™t talk to my workers.â€
â€œI donâ€™t speak their language!â€ Stanford said.
Gutierrez took a drag on his cigarette.
â€œUgh!â€ Dr. Fry said. â€œPut that out!â€
â€œHow revolting,â€ Stanford said. He only smoked cigars.
Gutierrez offered Dr. Silverberg a cigarette and the historian took one, as well as the match that Gutierrez lit and held out for him.
â€œThank you very much,â€ Dr. Silverberg said.
â€œYouâ€™re welcome,â€ Gutierrez said.
Miss Rice took out a cigarette case and drew forth one of her own cigarettes, lighting it with a small lighter she took from her pocket.
They sat around the fire only a while longer before they started wandering off to bed. Gutierrez told Michael Juarez to keep watch.