As I entered the trailer at the Clover Oil Field on the outskirts of Williston, North Dakota, I dusted off my boots. “I’m taking a break,” I yelled at my crew in my gruffest voice. “Don’t bother me unless someone is on fire.”
I slammed the door so hard the walls rattled, stirring up the fine layer of dust that clouded the air and the office. It was impossible to keep the place clean. Everything was dusty, and it was so thick you could write your name on every surface.
I often wondered what was getting into my lungs, but there were worse hazards to worry about in the oil field I’d called my home for the past ten years.
I’d worked my way up to foreman after starting out as a floor hand, and while I had one of the best crews of damned fine men, there were always a few bad apples to make my morning rough. Like the lazy ones, the careless ones, the homesick ones. But worse than those guys were the types who liked to run their mouths. The big talkers, the prideful. Those were the ones who usually got the raw ass the easiest, and after an early morning, I just needed a break from them all, especially since we’d all been living on top of one another without a woman in sight for the past two months.
What better way than to call home and talk to my little girl, Mila? She was the only girl in my life other than my mother, and at five years old, she was the center of my universe.
Before I even dropped my ass into the chair, which again caused a cloud to rise around me, I pulled out my phone and hit the magic button. As I waited for my mother to answer the phone, I closed my eyes and imagined what my life would be like if I didn’t have my parents to help me.
Lord knew my sorry ex-girlfriend, Heather, wasn’t going to help. Not that she could do anything from a prison cell. She had gotten herself in a string of trouble. Drugs—both using and trafficking—writing hot checks, and even shoplifting. All while she was supposed to be caring for our daughter. While I worked hard to make a living, putting myself in danger so she didn’t have to, she chose to anyway. I guessed the life I had to offer wasn’t the excitement she wanted.
Who knew a one-night stand with the girl I’d crushed on in high school could lead to so much drama? When she ended up pregnant, I tried to do the right thing, and for a while, I thought it might work out. I’d go through it all again, the lying and the cheating, just to have my daughter.
It turned out that I wasn’t the only man in Heather’s life. Not that it shouldn’t be expected from a woman who blew her dealer just feet away from where our infant daughter was strapped into her car seat. And as if that wasn’t enough to make me want to kill her, she had to get caught doing it, becoming the talk of the town and the shame of my parents. That was when the cops found the pills in the car, the pills she had driven all the way across the border to get for her boyfriend, using my daughter’s car seat as a hiding place.
Before I could get another sick thought about killing the woman, my mother’s sweet voice came to rescue me from hell. “Zane!” she said, sounding surprised as if I didn’t call every single day at least twice. “How’s your day going, honey?”
“It’s going, Mom. Where’s that little angel? I sure need to hear her voice.” It had been a long stay at the man camp, and even though I wasn’t but an hour away, I couldn’t leave my post. Not until the job was done.
“She’s trying to talk her Pop-pop into giving her real paints. He’s trying to figure out a way to get out of that one without caving in and making you mad at him.”
I laughed. My Mila could drive a hard bargain. “Tell him good luck. He’ll need it.” He didn’t stand a chance.
“I think he’s hoping you’ll be the bad daddy and tell her no so he won’t have to. He’s already given up on Bad Nana.”
“I’ll talk to her about it.” I could already hear Mila giggling in the background.
“Here she is,” said my mother.
Mila got on the phone, and her sweet voice was like the clouds parting on a rainy day. “Hey, Daddy. Are you taking a break?”
I scratched my stubbly chin. “You know it. I had to call my girl and make sure she’s not trying to talk her Pop-pop into buying her real paints when she knows she’s only supposed to use crayons and finger-paints.”
“But I drew a masterpiece, and my finger-paints didn’t come with magenta.”
“What do you know about magenta?” I asked. Shouldn’t her color options be limited to primary at this stage in life?
“It’s like hot pink, only a little darker. And I need it for the flowers.”
“Why don’t you just paint them pink?”
“They aren’t pink, Daddy. They are magenta. Trust me. It’s going to be a masterpiece.” Everything she painted was a masterpiece in my eyes, but as her skills advanced, so did her desire for better instruments.
I ran my hand through my hair and closed my eyes, imagining her in her favorite pair of sparkly leggings and the princess costume she’d gotten too tall for. She wore them nearly every day unless we could talk her out of it. “Can’t you just use your crayons? I bought you the big box you wanted.”
“Yes, but masterpieces don’t come in crayons, Daddy. They are painted.” Her voice wasn’t whiny at all. It was very matter-of-fact, which made it even harder for me to keep from melting even though I had to disagree.
“That’s not true, honey. Art comes in all kinds of mediums.”
“Well, I’m sick of mediums. I am ready to move up to larges.”
I laughed at her confusion and could imagine how serious she was about her art, and at such a young age. What did I have to look forward to when she got older? She was going to be a handful. But so worth it. “We’ll talk about it when I get home.”
“Okay. When are you coming home?”
“When the job is over.” It was supposed to be a few months with only a week break in the middle, but I didn’t want to make her unhappy. I never wanted to do that. “I love you, Noodle. Put Nana back on the phone.”
“I love you too, Daddy.” She raised her little voice. “Nana!” I could hear her footsteps as she scurried away.
But it wasn’t my mother who got back on the phone. “Hey, son,” said my father. “Did you ever make up your mind about that trip we wanted to take Mila on? It’s only for a week. She’s restless here. And with her school letting out in a few days, we just thought it would be good for her.”
I had forgotten all about them wanting to take her to the Animal Kingdom amusement park a few hours away. My mother had mentioned it the last time I called, but I wasn’t sure anything was definite. “Yeah, I think it will be okay. Just the amusement park?”
“Well, there’s a smaller preserve on the way. We’re talking about doing the drive-through tour, but we’ll keep the windows up. I won’t let any lions eat her if that’s what you’re worried about.”
There were other predators to worry about, but I wasn’t afraid of anything. My father would keep her safe, and Mom managed to keep me alive as a kid. Somehow. I was a rambunctious boy, and some might say I never outgrew it.
“Just have fun. I wish I could come with—”
A ruckus occurred at that moment, and from the sound of the wailing, I could tell it was bad. “Emergency! I have to go!” I ended the call and rushed out of my chair and to the door, where I could already see the men gathering through the window.
“What is it?” I shouted to one of the men nearby.
“I’m not sure,” he said as we both made our way over to the rig in a hurry.
He stopped behind the other men, but I pushed myself through. “Back up!” I shouted, the crowd parting as I peeled them away.
As the men parted, I could see the newest floor-hand’s face as he tried to pull his arm free of the machine it was stuck in. “Help me!” he cried. “It’s broken, I can feel it.” The young man’s name was Lee, and he had just turned twenty-one a week ago.
“Don’t move!” I said. His arm was wedged in the inner workings of the machine that I couldn’t even see from the outside. “Where is the medic?”
“He was across the field. He’s on the way.”
“Tell him to hurry the fuck up!” I wasn’t going to have someone sit there and die on me while that pompous-ass medic was taking his sweet time.
“We hit the emergency shut off,” said my best driller, Jake. “I think we stopped it just in time. I told him not to reach in there.”
“He stuck his hand in there to get a tool that fell in,” said Pete, the oldest of my roughnecks. He had been around the fields longer than anyone in the camp. “He’s going to have to take the damned thing apart if he wants to get that arm out in one piece.”
“Crack it open,” I said, wishing I’d used better words. The man began to panic. “It’s going to be okay, Lee. Don’t panic.”
The motor hand, whose name was Hank, came running over with his tools. “I’m going to need your help, Boss,” he said to me.
The medic arrived, taking immediate action. “We’re probably going to need a tourniquet,” he said. “I have one. Let’s get it around his arm before we undo anything. The pressure is most likely keeping him from bleeding out.”
I nodded. “Can you see what’s going on?” I asked Hank, wondering if he had gotten a better look. I didn’t want to look into that machine. What I had seen already was enough to bring any man to his knees.
“I have a pretty good idea.” He popped open the safety shield, which did fuck all to help, and we could see the blood and twisted bone.
I winced, trying to keep a straight face as not to upset the man any more than he was already. He had turned pale and was beginning to fade out on us.
“Stay with me,” said the medic. His name was Tony. I didn’t have the best relationship with him, but at times like this, I was glad we had him handy.
“Ambulance is on the way,” said one of the men from the back. “They said they’re five away.”
“That’s good,” said Tony. “How long until you can get him free?”
As the man began to sag, putting pressure on his already fucked up arm, Jake held on to him.
“Someone is going to have to pry this,” said Hank. “I’m not sure I’m strong enough, and I have to make sure this piece here doesn’t shift.”
“I can’t,” said Tony. “I’ve got to get the arm free while you do it.”
“I’ll do it,” I said. “Give me some fucking air first.”
I had the men back away as I prepared to help Lee, hoping we’d keep his arm intact in the process. It had damn near been ripped off. If not for the fast action of the other men, it would have been.
“Okay, on three.” Tony, Hank, and I exchanged nods.
“I’ll count.” I prepared myself and took a deep breath as we worked together to get the job done. “One. Two. Three.” I pried the part as Tony pulled the man’s arm free, and thankfully, all went as planned. The men hurried to lay him down in the break station as they waited for the ambulance.
Letting loose a long breath, I got up to dust off. I had to call my superior and let them know about the incident.
I went to the trailer for some privacy. I hit the call button and wiped my gritty brow where the sweat and dirt had combined, making me my own mud mask.
“Zane Ballard,” said Earl Douglas before he even said hello. “I do hope you’re calling to tell me that progress and production are up.”
I clenched my jaw. I hated to tell him what had happened but I knew the best way was to just say it. No beating around the bush like a pussy. “Actually, sir, there’s been another accident.”
“Another one? That’s two this month.”
“How is he?” His stern tone was his way of asking if the man was dead.
“He’s alive. It’s serious, though. He’s probably going to lose his arm if he makes it.”
“Who is he?”
“Lee Reynolds. He’s a rookie roughneck. He put his hand in a machine to fetch a tool that fell in it.”
“Jesus Christ,” said the man under his breath.
“Yeah. It’s pretty bad. One stupid decision, and he’s messed up for life.”
“Was the machine up to date on its maintenance and inspections?” All Earl really cared about was a lawsuit.
I always made sure my field was working in tip-top shape. “Yes. We had to crack it open to get him free. It was a stupid mistake on his part.”
“A mistake that is costing us time and production, not to mention however much else in a settlement. His fault or not, we get to pay for his stupidity.”
And arms, I wanted to say, but why would the man give two fucks about my crew? They were my responsibility.
“It’s been a long job. The men are pent up, and they need a break. I’ll see to it they have one.” I was about to go out and shut the entire operation down for the day. There was no way we could start up again.
“Give them the rest of the day off. I’m going to send you a replacement. Go home. Come back in a few weeks.”
“A few weeks?” I wondered for a moment if I was about to lose my job.
“Make it a month. And then I want you to come back and make sure this never happens again on your watch. I know it’s not your fault. But I have to take action.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. My daughter couldn’t have an unemployed father. And I didn’t want to have to move her. Williston was where it was at in the industry and I wouldn’t make the kind of money I made anywhere else this close to home.
“Yes, sir.” I hung up the phone and wiped my brow. The only light in the darkness of the day was the fact that I could go home and see Mila. She would make everything better.