story was told to me by the late Alan Acton, who had been, for years,
a sort of shirt-tail geologist and surveyor for oil companies. He
encountered, twice, a phenomenon he couldn't explain. There are those
who blame this phenomenon on 'swamp gas,' but where Mr. Acton had
his experiences there haven't been swamps since there were dinosaurs
in them. I'll try to tell the story as Mr. Acton told it to me.
"I was in Tom Greene County, surveying a lease for one of the companies.
It had a lot of doglegs in it, and we had to get the survey right.
My partner and I hired several local Mexicans to pull chains and put
down stakes, but for some reason they wouldn't leave their houses
until it was full daylight and wanted to be back home before the sun
was fully down. We lost a lot of daylight that way, but there was
no getting around it. I asked one of the Mexicans why they wouldn't
agree to leave home before sunup and insisted on being back before
sundown, and he said "Muchas brujas con luces." Now, that means
'many witches with lights,' and when a Mexican gets to talking about
witches you're not going to get any sense out of him, so we had to
keep losing daylight.
Saturday night my partner took the car-it was an oilfield Model T,
and if you've ever seen one you know it wasn't much of a car. It was
stripped of everything but what was needed to make it run-no fenders,
no hood, no bumpers, no running boards, no doors, but a lot of spare
parts wired to the spare tire. The only lights on it were the kerosene
ones under the windshield, but the glass was out of the windshield
and we'd sawed the frame off just above the light brackets. He was
going into town in that thing.
"I stayed on the lease in the little one-room shack we were bunking
in. I'd just bought a new rifle-a muley Savage in the .250-3000 caliber,
which was a very flat-shooting gun. I also had my sixshooter, which
was a Smith & Wesson .44. "Along about sundown I went outside to sit
and watch the sun go down. That place was still as death. It was so
quiet out there you could hear a windmill pumping a couple of miles
away if the wind was right. Of course there were no airplanes flying
after dark out there, and the nearest main road was eight or ten miles
off, so there were no road sounds.
"Away off in the distance I saw a couple of lights. I first thought
they might be the lights on the T, but they didn't look right. They
were together and then they'd separate maybe ten or twelve feet apart
and then come back together. I thought maybe it was a couple of guys
on motorcycles, but motorcycles in those days were really loud, and
I couldn't hear the engines.
They'd dip out of sight like they'd gone down in a draw or something
and then come back up a little closer. What they looked like was a
couple of people carrying Dietz lanterns at about knee level, by the
"There were some pretty rough folks in that country in those days,
so I decided to get a look at them before they got one at me. I got
my rifle and sixshooter, lit the coal-oil lamp in the shack, and went
out and knelt down behind a bush maybe twenty, thirty feet from the
"Those things kept coming, and I realized there wasn't anyone there.
There were just those lights. They were balls of light maybe a foot
or so in diameter. They didn't seem to have a central flame or anything,
they were just glowing. They came right up to the edge of the half-circle
of light that was coming out the door of the shack and stopped and
just hung there.
"Well, by this time I was a mite nervous, you might say, and I figured
I was going to have to visit the privy pretty soon. I laid my sights
on the nearest ball of light and squeezed off one of those .250-3000
rounds. Both the lights went out. It was like you'd turned off an
electric light switch. As soon as I fired, they both just went out.
"The next morning one of the Mexicans asked me what I shot at in the
night, and I said a coyote. He said "Maybeso a coyote with fire on
his tail, an' the fire was so bright you couldn't see the coyote for
it?" That's when I knew what the Mexicans were scared of, and I'll
have to admit it spooked me quite a bit, too.
second time I saw one of those things was a couple of years later,
up by Borger. I was out with
a crew-there were three of us in an oilfield T. We let dark slip up
on us, and in those days the closest light was the moon out there,
and there wasn't any moon that night. We were creeping across country,
trying to avoid falling in a hole and breaking an axle. We'd just
about decided we were going to have to spend the night in the Henry
Ford Hotel when we saw a light off in the distance. We figured it
was a lamp in a ranch house window, and at least we'd get to sleep
in the barn.
"We headed for that light. It was slow going, but we made progress-but
when we got to it, there was no house. There was just a glowing ball
of light, maybe a foot or a foot and a half across, in the branches
of a little tree. Again, there wasn't a center to it, it was just
a soft glow that seemed to come from the whole ball.
"Somebody hollered "Let's get the Hell outa here," and I jerked the
wheel on the Ford and slapped both ears all the way down. (That refers
to the spark and gas levers mounted on the Model T's steering column.
'Running with both ears down' was a way of expressing 'wide open'
with a Model T.) I don't know how I kept from breaking an axle or
turning that thing over in that rough ground, but I didn't. In about
ten minutes we ran out onto a gravel road. There wasn't but one gravel
road around, and it led to Borger,
so we got back to our beds that night. The next morning those other
two fellers wouldn't even talk about what we'd seen."
Swamp gas? Folks, the places Mr. Acton had his experiences with what
some folks call 'swamp gas' were both as dry as old buffalo bones.
There has to be another explanation for what is, unquestionably, an
unknown natural phenomenon, but nobody's found it yet.
© C. F.
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
January 1, 2007 column