Clyde, the Oil Sniffing Dog

Sketch of ClydeOne of the more colorful characters to inhabit the area around Stinnett its early days days was a wild looking character known as Luke the Spook. He never shaved, bathed nor got a haircut and it was claimed that you could smell him for a mile against the wind. He lived with his pack of flea infested dogs in a tumble-down shack on the north bank of the Canadian river. Everyone said that he not only slept in a pile with the dogs, but had the same disposition as his mongrel pack.

Luke the Spook never did an honest day's work in his life. He lived from one handout to the next and if you didn't give him what he wanted, he would come back and steal it. He'd steal just about anything to feed him and his dogs; chickens, pigs, cattle, watermelons, vegetables, fruit, and one time he was caught trying to steal a mule which was still hitched to a plow. In the days when doors were never locked, women knew better than to leave a pot of beans cooking on the stove or a pie cooling on a window sill if they expected to have it for dinner that night. The same held true for clothing hung on the line to dry. Luke wasn't too particular about the size of the stuff he stole and usually went around wearing pants six inches too short and shirts that hung to his knees. It got to the point that if someone lost or mislaid something, they would rationalize it by saying that Luke the Spook took it.

One thing that you could say about Luke was that he could train his dogs to do just about anything. He and his dogs would come slinking into town without making a sound and then suddenly turn into a barking, snarling pack. If they happened to get into town without being noticed, they would head directly for the grocery store where the dogs would chase the storekeeper and all his customers into the back room, then Luke would fill a couple gunny sacks with whatever he wanted. When he was ready to leave the store, each dog would grab something in its mouth and they would all head back for the river at a dead run.

About the only place in town where Luke was welcome was the pool hall where the rest of the town bums hung out. No one ever knew how Luke learned to play pool so well, but he had uncanny skill with a pool cue. It was claimed that eight out of ten times, he could break the balls and then run the table without missing a shot. Whenever some stranger who thought that he was pretty good at pool showed up in town, some of the local pool hall bums would get him into a game, loose a few rounds and then offer to bet him that he couldn't beat Luke who was usually sleeping under the front porch with his dogs. The poor sucker figured that there was no way that he could lose to such a person, so he usually offered to cover all bets. When enough money was on the line, Luke would clean his clock but good. After the sucker was gone, they would split the winnings with Luke.

Lucas Ayler was born just before midnight on Halloween night in 1900 and almost from the day of his birth, he lived with the nickname of Luke the Spook. It was never known whether it was his name or the fact that his mother and father were first cousins or the moon was in the wrong phase when he was born, but as he grew up he gave a whole new meaning to the word, worthless.

It was an accepted fact that in those days kids were given chores to do as soon as they were big enough to walk. The amount and complexity of those chores were usually more or less equal to their age and ability. While most kids would whine about having to do chores but finally go ahead and do them, it was impossible to get Luke to do anything in the way of work. Even when his dad would take a razor strap to his backside in order to get him to do even the simplest of tasks, he would either run away for a few hours or else mess up so badly that it would have been better if they had never made him do it in the first place. If they sent him to the barn to gather eggs, he would usually end up throwing them at the chickens. If they tried to make him bring in firewood, he was more likely to throw it through a window than carry it in through the back door.

Not only did Luke try to avoid work of any sort, but avoided school with equal determination. He might leave for school with his younger brothers and sisters, but he seldom ever got there. As soon as he was out of sight of the house, he would take their lunches away from them and head for the river where he would spend the day fishing or sleeping. About the only time that he actually went to school was when it was too cold to stay outside and then he would curl up behind the heater and sleep. By the time he was around twelve, all the other kids his age were so far ahead of him that the teachers finally told his parents not to send him back again.

Old man Ayler firmly believed in the Bible's admonition that sparing the rod would spoil the child and would lay in on that kid with a vengeance. The older he got, the harder his dad tried to beat the laziness out of him but about all he got for his efforts was further rebellion. His mother, in an effort to try to balance things out, would secretly do Luke's chores and then let her husband think Luke had done them. By the time Luke was fourteen, things had gotten so bad that his dad finally beat him almost senseless with a broom handle and told him to get out of the house and if he ever came back, he would kill him.

Luke evidently took him at his word because he stuffed his clothes into a pillow case, took all the dogs around the place and moved into a vacant shack about two miles up the river. His mother felt so sorry for him that after her husband went to sleep each night, she would slip out of the house and take a pan of biscuits and some pork chops or fried chicken to him.

In addition to being the laziest man around, he was also the town's worst braggart. If he wasn't fleecing someone at the pool table, he was bragging about something. His favorite subject to boast about was how smart his dogs were. If you were to believe him, every one of his mangy mutts was a genius of some sort. He claimed that he could teach his dogs to do just about anything. One of his favorite stories was about the day that he told his dogs to go catch rabbits for dinner. When they just stood there looking at him, he realized that he hadn't told them how many he wanted.

One day a bunch of oilfield workers were at the pool hall and the subject got around to the new well that had come in just south of town. After Luke listened to them speculate about how much oil would be found in the new field, he finally remarked that he had known that a well drilled there would be a gusher long before they ever set up the rig.

One of the workers who had heard Luke's endless bragging asked him just how he knew that there would be oil at that spot. Luke replied, "I have an old yellow dog named Clyde who can sniff the ground and tell you whether there is oil under it or not."

The man roared with laughter at the thought that a dog could tell if there was oil under ground and offered to bet Luke ten bucks that he couldn't tell him whether the well that they had just started drilling right behind the pool hall would have oil or not. When Luke called the bet, several of his pool hall buddies also wanted to get in on it because they knew that Luke would never put money on anything that wasn't a sure thing. Within minutes, Shorty Braxton was holding a couple hundred dollars riding on the bet.

Luke called Clyde, who was sleeping under the snooker table, and the whole bunch of them went out the back door to the rig, which was pounding away. They had just started drilling that morning and it was only down a couple hundred feet. When Luke ordered Clyde to sniff, he stretched, yawned and began to sniff around the derrick. He wandered away from the rig a bit and all of a sudden, he started to bark and run in circles right behind the hardware store. As they watched in amazement, he sat down and began to howl.

"According to Clyde, there's probably some oil where they are drilling," said Luke, "but if they would have drilled over there where he is sitting, they'd have hit a gusher."

By this time, several other people had joined the crowd and one of them said, "I think that he is full of crap because there is no way that a dog can smell oil under the ground. Not that I believe him, but I just bought a forty acre lease out west of town and plan to start drilling on it next week. I'll give you twenty bucks if you will have your dog tell me where to drill."

Luke took the wildcatter up on the offer and they all piled into his pickup trucks and headed for the lease. When they got there, Luke told the dog, "Clyde, go sniff for oil."

Clyde began to sniff along the fence where he spooked out a big jack rabbit which bounded away in high leaps. Clyde started to chase after it but a sharp whistle from Luke called him back. Clyde sniffed around for a while without any results, then the driller said, "I don't think that damn dog can smell anything."

"Give him time," said Luke. "He's got to get the rabbit scent out of his nose first. It ain't easy to smell oil three thousand feet under the ground."

"I don't think he could smell it if it was only three inches deep," said the driller. "Give me back my twenty bucks."

Suddenly Clyde began to trot faster, then he started to bark with excitement. "I think he's onto something," said Luke.

All of a sudden, Clyde began to run in circles just as he had done behind the hardware store, then he sat down and began to howl. "Drill right where he is sitting and you'll have a gusher," said Luke.

The driller drove a wooden stake into the ground exactly where Clyde was sitting and ordered his drilling crew to set up the rig there. Four weeks later, the well came in with a roar, blowing the blocks right off the top of the derrick and shooting a stream of oil two hundred feet into the sky. The headlines of the newspaper screamed, "GUSHER BLOWS IN. Oil Sniffing Dog Picks Location."

The price for a sniff job by Clyde quickly jumped from twenty to fifty and then a hundred dollars. Clyde was sniffing from morning to night. Some of the times he said yes and other times he would say no. Within a few weeks, the demand for the services of Clyde's famous nose became was so great that the price for a sniff job had jumped to a thousand dollars. Prices of leases skyrocketed or plunged according to Clyde's magic nose.

A couple shysters offered Luke a thousand dollars to get Clyde to say that there was oil under a lease they owned so they could sell it at a big profit. Luke refused and told everyone in town what they had tried. They were lucky to get out of town without a coating of tar and feathers
It wasn't long before Luke was hauling more money than the people drilling wildcat wells in the locations picked by Clyde. In fact, anything would have been more than some of them were getting because several of the wells were total dusters when the drill bits hit nothing but dolomite at the three thousand foot level. Anyone familiar with drilling knew that if you haven't hit oil by the time you reach the dolomite layer, you might as well pull up and move because there isn't going to be a drop of oil at that location.

Ugly rumors began to float around town as to Clyde's ability to sniff out oil. In fact, some of the drillers who had sunk every cent that they had or could beg, borrow or steal into those dry holes were getting downright nasty. There was talk by some of them about filing fraud charges with the district attorney while others suggested introducing Luke to a rope and a tall tree.

The thing which saved Luke and Clyde's skin is the fact that wildcat oil drillers are eternally optimistic and they will keep pouring good money after bad. One of them in particular, who had hit the first gusher picked by Clyde, was ready to lay out the going price of a thousand dollars for Clyde to sniff out his new lease. He searched for Luke and Clyde around town for a while then drove down to Luke's shack on the river. When he arrived, he found nothing but an empty cabin and a dozen very hungry dogs.

When he returned to town and told of not being able to find Luke, most of the people around the pool hall were concerned that something terrible had happened to him until Sol Levits, who owned the dry goods store, mentioned that Luke had come into town the day before and not only got himself a shave and a haircut at the barber shop, he even took a bath. After he was all cleaned up and smelling like a French whore, he bought a new suit of clothes and a Derby hat at his place. Sol said that he was carrying a suitcase full of money and paid cash for the new clothes. Then left his filthy old rags laying in a pile on the floor and walked across the street to the bus station. The last time that Sol had seen him, he was boarding the Trailways Bus headed south.

They were overjoyed at the news that Luke was alive and well someplace, but also concerned about his doing something as outrageous as taking a bath. They finally concluded that Luke had gone to such drastic measures so he could get himself a woman and would be back in a week or two. However, since he had left Clyde at the shack, they could see no reason why such a good thing as a dog with a magic nose should go to waste. They rationalized that since he had left Clyde at the shack, and he could now be classed as a stray dog and was open to use by anyone. They jumped at the opportunity to make a little money for themselves.

They went down to the shack, got Clyde and took him out to the lease. When they ordered him to go sniff, he began to wander around with his nose to the ground. It was a rather hot day and after a few minutes, he came back, crawled under the pickup and went to sleep in the shade.

"You suppose that there ain't no oil here," asked one.

"He certainly don't act like there's any," said another. "Maybe his nose is just tired out from all the sniffing that he's done recently," he suggested.

"There's bound to be oil here," said the driller. "There are good wells on three sides and the geologist's reports say that the oil-bearing strata runs right across this property."

"Let's try him again," one of the men suggested as he dragged the dog out by a hind leg. "Clyde, go sniff," he ordered.

Clyde wandered off with his nose to the ground. Every now and then he would stop and look back at them as if expecting something to happen, then go on sniffing some more. After about ten minutes, the driller took his hat off to mop the sweat from his brow. Clyde instantly went into his act, running in circles and barking. When the driller put his hat back on, Clyde sat down and began to howl.

"See, he's done found oil!" shouted one of the men.

"I don't think so," said the driller as he called Clyde back. "I think that I just found the Panhandle's biggest scam."

They had Clyde sniff in two other locations, and he responded instantly to the hat trick each time. The owner of the pool hall took Clyde in and fed him for several years until he was run over by a truck while crossing main street. Luke was never seen again.

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Copyright 2000 by Jim Foreman