An excerpt from one of the North American Power stories, featuring Leigh Kendall, geologist and trouble-shooter.
Jake Nutter, the driller in charge of the John Marshall # 5, started pulling the bit as soon as he heard the sound and felt the vibration in the platform change, but he was too late. The heavy steel pipe dropped almost out of sight and all the available drilling mud vanished down the hole, pulled into a void that should not have been there. “Damn and blast it,” Jake swore. Once everything had slowed and the drill bit stopped, the roughnecks on the rig floor started pulling the pipe up enough to add additional sections, while the mud man worked to keep the critical fluid moving into the hole so it didn’t try and collapse. This was the fourth time in a week that something had gone wrong with this well, and although he wasn’t superstitious, Jake started to wonder.
He took a moment to climb down from the drilling platform. A hot summer Texas sun glared down on the crew and Jake pulled a clean-ish bandana out of his back pocket and wiped the sweat from under his hardhat. Typical August, and not as bad as some places he’d worked, Jake grimaced. I’ll go work in the Amazon before you get me back in Saudi he promised yet again. In Brazil you only had the environment working against you, not the environment and people too. The driller kicked a rock, making a puff of reddish dust as he walked over to where the geologist and the mud man were looking at the rig readings. “Not supposed to be a hole,” Jake stated.
Amos McKenna, the geologist, spread his hands in a “don’t look a me” gesture. “Here’s the seismograph, and here’s, well, something that’s not supposed to be there.”
“There’s nothing there.”
“Nothing’s not supposed to be there,” Amos growled. “We’re past the gippy layers and now that we’re under the Rodrick shale, we shouldn’t be hitting anything but sandstone until we reach the Lipscomb granite.” He pointed to the log from the John Marshall #4 mounted on the side of the trailer.
Chuck Craig, in charge of the drilling mud, stood back, arms folded. “Well, the nothing that’s not supposed to be there is a mighty big nothing, at least based on how much mud it pulled in. You gonna case it, or do I need another truck load? Because we’re running tight on water as it is, after the leak on Tuesday.”
That had been the first thing to go wrong, Jake recalled. First the water line sprung a leak that no one had caught until they’d lost almost ten thousand gallons of the irreplaceable stuff. Then the bit hit granite, failed and broke into several pieces, requiring eight hours of fishing to pull everything out, reset it, and replace the bit. On Thursday two skunks got into the break trailer without anyone knowing it, until they waged chemical warfare on two roughnecks and a roustabout who happened to get in the skunks’ way. And now this. Jake rubbed the back of his neck and wondered if they’d been cursed.
“I’m not really into superstitions,” the geologist began, pushing his glasses up from where they’d slid. “And I don’t doubt the seismograph and the rig logs. But it may be time to call in an outside expert.”
Chuck snorted. “Gonna have an exorcism?”
“No, but a former classmate of mine is in the area anyway, and if anyone can see what I might have missed, it’s Leigh Kendall.”
Jake tried to remember where he’d heard the name. “Kendall who developed that three-dimensional mapping tool?”
Amos shook his head, then stared off towards the edge of the river valley. “No, Kendall the caver, among other things. Literally wrote the book on the economic geology of the Brigham Arch in Utah. Teaches at the New Mexico School of Mines and is up here at the college as a guest instructor for the science department.”
Jake thought about it. The driller had final say on who worked at the rig, and while he didn’t really care for bringing someone in, there were already behind schedule and over cost. Another delay and there’d be a lot of trouble from their boss. “How much does he charge?”
“Leigh doesn’t charge for this kind of thing, and he’s a she: Dr. Leigh Tara Kendall.” Amos pulled his cell phone from its holster and looked up her number. “Yeah, I’ve got her cell number. Shall I see if she’s willing to come up?”
“Might as well.” Jake thought for a bit, then grinned despite the afternoon’s headache. “Add her as a temporary employee and we can check that box off the DoE diversity list, can’t we?”
“Might as well,” Chuck echoed.
Saturday morning dawned cool and beautiful. Well, Leigh thought as she turned her pickup into the oil company’s parking lot, cooler than the previous morning’s baking heat. She’d arrived a touch early and took the time to watch the sun turn a cobblestone sky into pink, purple and gold, before the gold-yellow sun bleached the little clouds shining white. Hmmm, those look like the bottoms of the biscuits on Aunt Marcy’s blackberry cobbler, the geologist mused. The local Chambers of Commerce loved these sorts of mornings, as did photographers. To Leigh they meant that she’d already been up longer than her not-so-young self really liked and that she and the rest of the terrain would be baking by noon. “Ah, August,” she declared, hopping out of the well-worn truck.
“Beats January on the North Slope,” Amos McKenna reminded her from beside his company truck.
She snorted as they shook hands, then accepted a cup of coffee. “Yup. I’m not complaining yet, just stating.”
Amos looked around. “You wanna make a relief trip before we head out? Not many bushes in this part of the world.”
Leigh laughed. “Suh, you ah’ the soul of considuhration an’ gentlemanliness,” she fluttered in a very bad Southern accent, making Amos wince a little. “Good thought, and yes. Where?” He pointed around the corner and handed her a set of keys.
“Silver one locks the door. I’ve disarmed the alarm system already, but lock the door when you come out. I don’t want to scare the secretaries more than usual.” Amos watched as his colleague vanished into the building, then quickly cleared off the passenger seat of his truck, moving a stack of seismograph print-outs and two road atlases out of the way, as well as shaking unidentified material out of the remains of the floor mat. He looked up in time to see her locking the door to the portable offices. Leigh Kendall stopped by her own truck and got a battered field bag, broad-brimmed hat, and water bag, along with a small cooler that she managed to shoe-horn behind the passenger seat. McKenna glanced around the tires, automatically checking for sharp rocks and snakes, then asked, “Ready?”
“Let’s go. You can tell me the details as we go.” Leigh settled into the passenger seat and after a bit of hunting for the latch, buckled herself in as he backed and turned onto the county road.
“Well, I’m not really sure what I’m seeing,” Amos started, not taking his eyes off the road. “Oh, do you mind opening gates? We have three to get through.”
“I can open gates. Why don’t you start at the top of the hole?”
“We’re drilling an area we’ve worked before, or that the company has worked before, back in the 1960s. I’ve got copies of the old logs,” and he pointed with his thumb to the slew of papers behind the seat. “The usual: sediment, Ogallala formation, evaporites to the redbeds, more evaporites, and then limestone over sandstone to the granite with a few odd bits of ash and shale. Well, first we had a water leak. Then we hit five meters of granite that were not supposed to be there and broke the bit.”
“Ouch.” Leigh winced at the cost of replacing the bit. Amos turned off the paved road and stopped in front of a pipe-fence gate. Leigh hopped out, undid the latch and shoved the gate open enough for the pick-up to get through, then closed the gate, made absolutely certain that it latched, and got back into the truck. “Has he ever greased that gate?”
“He’s a she and probably not since she fired the last manager, oh, twenty years ago or so.” Amos ground the truck back into gear and continued his tale. “Then, after we restarted drilling, two skunks got into the bunk trailer and surprised our crew, and vice versa.”
“If only. It would have been easier to clean.” The man shook his head. “And yesterday we hit a void that drank every bit of mud we had in the hole.” The stopped for another gate and after Leigh got back in Amos shook his head again. “You can see why I think something’s funny.”
“You’re certain you didn’t just hit an anhydrite lens or pocket?”
They bounced through a wash and Leigh grabbed for her cooler and the junk on the front seat as Amos kept a firm grip on the steering wheel. “Very certain. There are rigs on the sections beside ours and they went through solid sandstone, just like the original well did. If anything we should hit conglomerate, not a void.”
“Point.” Leigh thought for a mile or so before shaking her head in turn. “I see what you mean. One or two things is just the luck of the draw, but all four? And you said something about water?”
“We have to import it. I know this sounds crazy, Leigh, but I’m starting to wonder if something doesn’t want us drilling here.” Amos gave her a sideways look. “I keep thinking of that crazy witchdoctor-type that Georg locked horns with in Nigeria.”
His consultant shook her head again. “It would be Comanche or Apache and they don’t operate like that. Lawyers first, spirits second if at all is their motto. And from what I understand, drilling mud might be something that could block their medicine power.”
“I’ll get this one,” Amos offered as the truck slowed for the third gate. He hopped out, took two steps forward and then reversed at full speed. “Snake.”
Leigh got out as well. She approached the rattler from the side, using her hat to distract it while Amos pulled the snake stick out of the back of the truck. It was like being back in grad school, Leigh thought. “One, two, three,” and she hopped out of striking range as Amos pinned the reptile’s head to the ground. “I’ll hold it,” Leigh offered, and at his nod she reached around and got a firm grip on the snake just behind the stick, then grabbed further down. “Got it.” She picked it up and got out of the truck’s way as Amos opened the gate and drove through. He climbed into the bed of the truck and used the stick to hold the now placid snake down as Leigh let go and climbed into her seat. After a moment Amos clambered out of the bed and resumed his own seat. She observed, “It was easier when we shot them or drove over them.”
“It was. And that makes five strange things, because that is the first rattler I’ve seen anywhere along the route to the rig or even at the rig.”
Nothing else unusual appeared, and they reached the rig in decent time, all things considered. Amos introduced Leigh to Jake, the well boss, and Craig, the mudder. Then he got out of the way. Leigh looked at the logs and confirmed that nothing strange had been reported from the neighboring rigs and wells. “I’ll just walk around the perimeter, if I won’t be in anyone’s way.”
Jake shook his head. “Nope, Doc. Just don’t go pulling any cords or moving chains.”
“I won’t. I like my hair without extra curl, thanks.” Leigh set off, picking her way through the brush and bunch grass, mindful of snakes, cables, and other interesting things. At one point she crouched down, looking at an odd rock. It seemed to be a cobble tool. Well that’s odd. I’ve never heard of such being found in this area. She picked it up and scuffed an X on the spot with her boot toe, then continued walking, tossing the rock in one hand. It gave her the link she needed to the land, and when she reached the opposite side of the drill site, Leigh stopped. She closed her eyes for a moment and shifted a “switch” inside her mind.
When she opened her eyes again, she saw with what she called “rock sight.” Leigh reached out and down, feeling as well as trying to see what was going on. She followed the well down through the rock, seeing the void, now full of mud, and on until she reached where the bottom of the hole should have been. Something stirred and Leigh watched as energy flickered around the drill bit before shifting out of the way. The something, the local Power, grumbled and moved. Leigh concentrated on trying to reach it with her mind, through the rock in her hand. Nothing happened. She crouched down and touched the dirt.
Whoah! The surge of irritated energy almost knocked her out of her boots. Leigh froze, waiting, as the Power settled down. What’s wrong? the geologist asked silently.
Nothing here, she felt in reply, but leakage from something in Amarillo had aggravated the Power, making it lash out at the humans around it. Leigh felt the problem, a project at a science lab in the city that interfered with the Power’s feeding and movement.
Fix the dry spot? That seemed to be the order. If I fix it, will you be better?
The positive reply made Leigh grin. It reminded her of her office-mate’s irrationally exuberant Golden Retriever. Well, Powers all had their personalities, and this one seemed all or nothing.
I’ll see to it, Leigh agreed. Is this well a problem?
No, and the creature gave her a glimpse of how close they were to a good pool. The men just served as a convenient vent for the Power’s frustration. The granite was a chink of outwash from a mountain that had eroded away long before the now-buried Amarillo Mountains were more than a small lump on the landscape.
Leigh closed her eyes again and “turned off” her rock sight. The world returned to what most people thought of as normal, and she finished her stroll.
“You want the good news or the less than good news?” she asked the men back at the trailer.
“Good news,” Jake grunted.
“You’re three meters from the top of the pool and I suspect you’ll get very good pressure. Very good,” she warned. “I can tell by the read of the anticline. The less than good news is I found what looks like archaeological material, but paleo-Indian, so you can relax about NAGPRA.”
“Am I going to hit more granite?”
She shook her head. “Nope. I’d love to know what washed how far for you to clip that granite you hit earlier, but the void is full and you’re back on safe ground.”
“Right.” Jake looked at his watch and glared over his shoulder at the rig. “Let’s see what we find. I can afford about four meters more.”
Two meters farther on, and Leigh felt as well as heard the change. “Get ready to start capping and trapping,” Amos called from where he stood peering at the insta-log. Leigh retreated into the trailer, just in case it gushed. It shouldn’t, not with modern drilling and capping techniques, but if the Power added its own little umpf…
The men had prepared well. She felt the rumble, but the roughnecks and roustabouts had a cap and gas catcher set before they reenacted Spindletop.
“Are you magic?” Craig demanded.
It seems like it, some days. “Well, a few of my students called me the Wicked Witch of the West after their last semester exam, but no. Just lucky. Can I borrow a few stalks of that Aggie wheat?” She pointed to the metal and plastic marker flags piled in a corner. “I’ll mark where I found the artifacts so you can let someone know later.”
“Yeah, I guess.” He didn’t sound happy, but she wasn’t going to break the law for him. Leigh stuck a flag into the center of her X, put the rock back where she’s found it, and flagged a few other possible lithic remains. Amos took some notes and they drove off, leaving the site to the driller.
“Thanks for taking a look, Leigh,” he told her as they bounced back to the office trailer.
“You’re welcome. Could you write up a little ‘News & Notes’ piece on that granite lens that you found? There’s some cussing and discussing about the Cambrian-era mountains and the associated paleo-river flow patterns at this conference, and your granite might add to the fun.”
Amos waited until they got through the last gate before replying. “Sure. I’m glad you’re trying to keep up with that and not me.”
“You mean you don’t have a burning desire to weigh in on the Ediacarian fauna debate?” She acted shocked.
“No more than you have to spend six hours trapped between two drillers arguing over brands and weights of mud for sandstone.” He shook his head. “I swear I was ready to wiggle out the beer-can window and ride in the bed before we’d gotten to Rawlings.”
“Tsk, tsk, how can you improve your knowledge base and stay current in the field if you don’t read all the relevant literature?” She mimicked their least-favorite graduate professor, the one half the tenured faculty had voted “most likely to be found at the bottom of the test hole.” She still served as Leigh’s example that being a woman doesn’t exempt a person from being a sneaky bastard.
Back at the temporary office, Leigh visited the ladies room again while Amos filled out some forms, back dating the usual safety disclaimer to the previous day. Leigh signed what she needed to, left a written note about reporting the paleo-Indian tool, and drained two bottles of water as Amos filed everything. As they finished, a dust cloud appeared on the road. A flare of reflected sunlight turned into an electric blue pick-up with more chrome than Leigh had seen since the last low-rider show in Albuquerque. Amos nodded as he opened a water bottle. “Cindy believes in subtle, quiet vehicles.”
An older lady Leigh recognized as a Good Ole’ Gal Mark 2.0 climbed down from the truck and walked to the trailer. “Mornin’ Mr. Amos.” She saw the documents on the desk and frowned. “Are you makin’ a mess of my files again?” She glared over half-glasses, reminding Leigh of one of the more formidable departmental secretaries she’d known.
“Good morning, Mrs. Jacob, and no, I just pulled the forms. I have made no attempt to put them into the proper order and folder. Mrs. Jacob, Dr. Leigh Kendall, a geology consultant I brought in to confirm some recent observations. Leigh, Mrs. Stella Jacob, our acting secretary and the Oklahoma state canned green bean champion for the last four years.”
They shook, and Leigh bowed at the waist. “Ma’am, I stand in awe. My canned beans turn to mush before I can get them into the jars.”
“Always stir with the sun, that’s my secret. Now get away from my desk before something bad happens, Mr. Amos. I know that you and paper don’t get along.” She didn’t quite chase the two geologists out of the office trailer, but they left even so.
(C) 2017 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved