Milena’s first morning with the driller set the tone for the days that followed. They ate breakfast separately. They drove to the site in individual vehicles, Jet in the charcoal-gray flatbed with mounted drill rig and Milena in her silver, four-wheel-drive pickup. They convoyed out past the oilfield-supply warehouses at the edge of town, to the end of paved road near a ward of the Latter-Day Saints, and beyond onto narrow dirt track. Milena led the way. She slowed near the surveyor’s stake that would be their first position of the day, parked while Jet backed the drilling rig to it, and prepared field notes in the heated cab of her truck. Then Jet, who’d sharpened his work teeth on the failed Susitna Dam project in Alaska, stepped out into the ten-degree morning in full subzero field dress—overblown bunny boots, insulated coveralls, and black mesh Torco Auger cap under the hood of his fur-lined parka. Milena didn’t join him in the crisp, startling air until he’d penetrated the ground to five feet.
Jet began each hole the same way. He raised the drilling tower to vertical, an eager look on his face, until he’d aimed the diamond-bit tip at the slender, eighteen-inch-tall wooden stake. He fired up the diesel engine, which growled and complained as if new to this, and held the rig’s round-handled lever in one gloved hand. Then he drained the last of a cold soda, belched mightily, and tossed the can into the nearest sagebrush. “Fire in the hole!" he yelled, as he cranked the sharp bit into soil. "Better get ready, geo! I'll have your first sample up in no time." He lit the third or fourth of the day's many cigarettes before turning his full attention to the changes in hardness with depth and the rate at which the auger spun.
They’d been on different schedules since before they met. Jet hadn’t rested for two days before arriving in Utah: he’d flown nonstop from Anchorage, stopped briefly at the company’s Salt Lake headquarters, and declined to take a motel room there. “Too many temples in that town,” he told Milena later. He’d opted instead to drive the flatbed east up aspen-lined Parley’s Canyon without taking a break and continued through the Uinta Mountains to Lavern. Meanwhile Milena had preceded him from Salt Lake, through the snowy passes, eager to get started in her first real job since graduate school. This is it! she told herself. Everything she’d worked for all her life.
After spending a day in site reconnaissance, she checked in before dinner to the Dine-A-Ville Motel in Lavern. She expected the driller to do the same when he arrived late afternoon, but he headed straight for the town’s only private club, the Cowboy Corral. He phoned Milena hours later and in slurred words claimed he’d take the room next to hers when he was darn good and ready. At midnight she fell asleep while waiting up to meet him.
Waking early she’d been reassured at the sight of Jet’s drill rig as big as a cement truck parked in the motel lot. Overnight, pockets of snow had collected around the tall tower, lowered for driving. Peering into the cab, she was brought up short at the sight of three massive books on his front seat: Utah Mining History, 1857 to Present. Volumes I - III. Seeing the title, her heart beat fast.
Onsite by nine in spite of his night out, Jet worked like two men as he brought samples up through the auger. Without speaking he handed them to Milena. She in turn clamped them to the chain vise on the rig's flatbed and split them open. Though moist from early snows, the samples were still dry enough to crumble in her gloves. She noted either “silty sand” or “sandy gravel” in her notebook, seeing a pattern in the layers: river deposits, from thousands of years before. Old floodplain. Jet kept on through the subsurface, going deeper. Below the sand and gravel lay bedrock—hard as concrete and just as tough to pierce. When the auger struck it, Jet pulled up the drill tube immediately, a dim-toothed smile on his face. Hitting rock near the surface meant it would easily bear pavement and they could stop. “Finito, geo,” Jet said, every time. "There's another damn job shot in the ass."
Working in the brightening morning, she told herself she could bear the driller. The country was wild and stripped to the bone. Strange and beautiful—rock exposed everywhere, naked and open. The only trees were the size of mere shrubs, casting scant shadows, nothing like the deep, oak-filled woods back home. Even the colors of the earth were bright here: hills of orange, spires of red, stripes of yellow. In the sunlight, among the many hues of rock, she was far from the hidden seams of coal and gray tailings of her youth.
Back in Salt Lake she’d asked her boss, “What’s east of the river, Mr. Stevens?”
Dick Stevens hadn’t looked up from his maps. He’d run one slender hand through his neat black hair. “Badlands, Castanero. Empty high desert.”
Milena had studied the site plan, her hands on her hips. “Then why build a high-capacity road to it? It can’t be just a back route to the Colorado oilfields.”
“Oh.” Stevens squinted at her. “There’s also a ghost town out there. Bonanza. A hub of gilsonite extraction in the 1800s.”
“Old mining town?” Her face flushed.
“Yes. Long dead.” He swept her questions away with one wave of a manicured hand. “Look at this.” He unfolded a color brochure. On the cover a photograph showed a vast rubber raft on a dappled river. Seated behind a dozen smiling people, an aging boatman held a pair of oars as long and thick as light poles. The caption read, “Colorado River Adventures, Cataract Canyon, Utah.”
Stevens said, “Here’s how we’ll drill on the river. We can load our rig right onto this outfit’s biggest raft. They’ll supply a veteran boatman to help.” He looked up, meeting Milena’s silent apprehension. The skin around his gray eyes creased as he smiled. “You up to the job?” He waited only a beat. “The geologist before you couldn’t swim. He gave notice when he saw this.” Stevens waved the brochure and laughed, a barely audible intake of breath.
Blood warmed Milena’s face and hands. Working on water was news to her. Neither had she known about Bonanza and its mining roots. She kept her voice calm. “Of course.”
Before noon on the third day of drilling, just after shooting in the ass their fifth hole of the morning, Milena and Jet wavered in their work. They couldn’t find the next surveyor's stake and so walked the ground searching until Milena found it about fifty feet off the road, hidden in a mature ring of sagebrush. "Here it is.” Stepping into the brush to read the label on the stake, she felt her feet crunch something brittle. She jumped back like she’d been bit. “Bones!”
Jet came running. “Well, no shit.” He tramped into the middle of them. A jumbled pile reached to his boot-tops: femurs, vertebrae, ribs—crisscrossed and heaped together, bleached white, picked clean and dry. He kicked aside a skull. “Coyote.”
“All of them?”
“What about those big skulls? Next to three tiny ones right there. A family?”
“Yeah,” Jet said, lighting a cigarette. “Somebody did good work here. Killed the little bastards before they could grow up and multiply.” He smiled and exhaled smoke. “Saves Fish and Game from having to do it. Shit, maybe it was Fish and Game—clearing the way for our road here.”
“They wouldn’t. Out in the open, nowhere to . . .”
He looked amused. “Spit it out, geo.”
“ . . . escape.” Her voice was small.
Jet had already turned his back, anyway, toward the sound of something out on Asphalt Ridge, rumbling deep and low. "Something's coming,” he said. “Real slow."
"It sounds like a truck.”
"Brilliant, geo. A damn big truck."
Milena glared at him.
"Maybe it's the boatman,” said Jet, checking his watch. “If so, he's right on time. Hell, I didn't know boatmen could read a clock."
A yellow truck twice the size of Jet’s drill rig came into view. It had stake sides and an aluminum fishing boat turned belly-up atop its load. Grinding down the ridge, the driver was singing loud and out of tune to Willie Nelson blasting from the cab's open window. He continued toward them until he slowed to a stop behind Milena's truck. Turning off the radio and engine, he eased from the cab.
Milena tried not to stare. Mr. Stevens’ "veteran boatman" was the same oarsman she had seen in the rafting brochure. He stood short and thick from top to bottom, with freshly trimmed white muttonchops, day-glo orange hooded sweatshirt, and dirty, worn cap that read "CRA."
"Greetings, earthlings," said the grinning stranger. Vigorously, he shook Jet’s hand then bowed slightly to Milena. "Name's Bert. Are you the ones expecting a boat?"
That afternoon they labored until dark to rig the thirty-three-foot pontoon raft. Milena, officially crew chief for the job, used her cell to call in a crane from town to help with the heavy lifting. They pulled two gigantic rubber tubes off Bert’s truck, inflated them, and dragged them into place to form a sort of catamaran. Over the top of the rubber they slid a metal frame and tugged it into position. It came together slowly, step by step, like blowing up an excruciatingly large balloon. Through it all they spoke fewer than a dozen words an hour.
After the crane left, as Jet worked solo tightening down bolts on the now-floating drill rig, Milena showed Bert the pile of coyote bones. He pulled a shovel from his truck without speaking and got to work burying them. He didn’t comment until he’d finished, and then it was just one sentence: “Assholes used poison—or traps.”
That night Milena phoned in an update to Dick Stevens. She caught him at home, the sound of soft music in the background. “We got the raft rigged, Mr. Stevens. We’ll start drilling the river holes in the morning.”
“Excellent, Castanero. How’s it look?”
“Pretty scary. It’ll be all right, I guess. If the river doesn’t rise.”
“It won’t. There won’t be snow melt until spring.”
Milena held her tongue. She knew all too well about ice, rivers, and mid-winter warm spells.
Stevens asked, “What’s your take on the boatman?”
“A good guy and a hard worker.”
“Great. Let him know he can stay on as Drilling Assistant. How is it out there?”
Milena didn’t mention her growing dread of the river job. Ice lay in the shadow of the streambanks. More ice would be coming in sheets: she’d heard that in winter the river filled with floes you could just about walk on. She said nothing about her fears and nothing about the temperatures that were, in one of the driller’s choice phrases, “butt-ass cold.” She said only, “There’s excellent exposure. Everything’s above ground—or close to it. Not much need for digging or stripping.”
“Yes. Well.” Stevens coughed. “Good luck tomorrow.”
Riding with Bert to the rig in the aluminum fishing boat each morning lightened Milena’s fears of the river. He skillfully plied the many currents, even as rafts of ice dithered on the water’s surface. The floes didn’t melt, and he didn’t waver. He simply dodged them as if born to it, and he talked about the river with respect. “She’s feeling cold this morning,” Bert would say. “Got to be extra specially nice to her today.”
“Papa used to talk like that,” she said, “about the coal mine in Port Griffith.”
Jet worked on, incessantly smoking, bossing Bert and tossing profanity like stones. One morning he cracked a drill bit trying to pierce a boulder—“harder than shit, but way too shallow to be bedrock”—and headed back to town to buy a replacement. Bert and Milena waited for him on the rig. She wasn’t convinced Jet would get past the Cowboy Corral and be back before dark, but she didn’t complain. Without the drilling jarring the raft, it settled down on the river and barely tugged at its tethers from both shores. She relaxed near Bert and turned her attention to her notes. They sat silently a long time until out of the quiet he asked, "What got a girl like you interested in rocks?"
She looked up. “What do you mean, ‘a girl like me’?”
Bert wore a serious expression. His cap, however, detracted from his gravity: Jet had stuck piece of duct tape behind the “A” and marked it with a tiny, barely legible “p.” Bert wore the “CRAp” hat with nonchalance—like he didn’t know it’d been altered. He raised his hands. “No offense. I just don’t know any scientists, much less female ones.”
"Geology is in my blood. My family’s been in mining since the 1920s."
"No kidding? You ever work for the coal companies south of here?"
"No. I could never have anything to do with coal.”
“Right.” Bert nodded. A moment passed before he asked, “Why not?”
“I promised my father I wouldn’t.” Milena started her tale at the beginning. Her Grandpapa Castanero had grown up in the foothills of the Apennines. He’d begun in the coal mines at age thirteen, two years before immigrating to Port Griffith, Pennsylvania, during the time of Mussolini. Milena’s father and three uncles had also dug coal since they were teenagers. They’d worked the River Slope Mine in Port Griffith a full decade before Milena was born. When she emerged from the womb in that coal-slag town, it was with a curiosity already intact about rocks. She grew to blacken her hands and clothes every day with the specimens she tossed and kicked apart. “Look at Lena.” Milena’s mother would point to the soiled fabric that became more and more difficult to clean.
“Always filthy. I can’t keep her out of the tailings.”
Milena’s father, Frank, wouldn’t hear it. He knew she was exploring the colors and minerals in the mined rock. “Now, Flo. She’s learning. She’s got a brain, that Lena. It’ll get her out of this one-job town.” Then he’d wander back to whatever he’d been doing, humming Musetta's aria from La Boheme, his favorite. Even with accidents at the mine—small failures—it was Puccini every morning. When he rose, when he shaved, when he left the house to meet his three brothers on their way to the River Slope, the aria stayed with him.
Milena told Bert, “My Uncle August named me. He always wanted to go to Milan. He put money away for years, but instead his life savings sent me to college.”
“Life savings? He’s passed on?”
“Yes. Same with Uncle Joe. They died when I was five.” Milena went back to her notes.
“I’m sorry.” Many moments passed, filled only with the gossip of the river, until Bert whispered, "Milena, look!" He pointed to the east bank.
She raised her binoculars. Peering across water the color of green olives, she searched the shore. First she saw only a bare bank and cottonwoods bearing no leaves. The river glistened between the raft and land as she locked directly onto an animal sneaking a drink. “Coyote!” Milena studied the golden-eyed gaze and sun-tipped fur.
"Dang," said Bert, "he'd better be careful. He's like Bambi at an NRA meeting out here."
“Worse. He’s got nowhere to hide.”
“Yeah. More like Bambi at the South Pole.”
Milena laughed but stopped when she remembered the pile of bones Bert had buried and the many sizes of skulls. Families, killed together—maybe even pulled out of their lairs and shot. And that bastard Jet, saying it was a good thing.
As if on cue, the driller drove into view over Asphalt Ridge.
Milena let her binoculars fall on the strap around her neck. “Scram!” she cried. The coyote stared at the drill rig as if stunned it should speak. “Get out of here!”
The animal wheeled to a trot downstream.
The river work took a week. Drilling eight holes was usually a one-day job, but wet sands from the streambed flowed up into the auger. They jammed the bit before Jet could get to bedrock. Then the driller had to start the hole fresh, which he loathed and met with creative cursing. “Flowing sands,” he said, “are always a bitch kitty.” As the driller threw fits, he jolted the raft and rattled Milena, but she ignored him. She focused on her notes and sketches of the subsurface she’d come to know from the samples—beds of loose sand and silt, occasional boulders, massive layers of sandstone.
Jet made it clear he could barely wait to finish the eighth hole. “Damn this wet work,” he said. His drilling suit was coated with mud below the knees, his face and hair were splattered with fine brown droplets, and he had red wounds on his knuckles from the few times he’d been so rushed he worked without gloves. His face had gone increasingly gray with the cold.
Still, Jet persisted until they hit bedrock an eighth time. When he pulled up the auger one last time, Bert prompted, “Another dang job . . .?”
Jet stayed grim and didn’t bite. When he finally spoke, he clipped his words. “Suit your damn selves, you two. I’m headed to town.”
Bert said, “I’ll go.” He helped Jet stack the sections of auger as they were withdrawn from the earth.
Milena agreed to join them in the Cowboy Corral once they’d all disassembled the raft. It came apart in a fraction of the time it had gone together. “Nice work, Castanero,” Stevens said when she called him later from the Dine-A-Ville. “Ready for solid ground?”
“Yes, sir. We’ll start again in the morning. Jet and Bert have punched out for the day.”
“Understand. By the way, have the driller call me, will you? I’ve got good news. He can reach me at home.”
Milena felt a red flag fly up but said, “Okay,” and headed for the Cowboy Corral. Fifteen minutes later she sat with Jet as he sucked down glass after glass of beer. She’d told him to call Stevens, and Jet had gone looking for a pay phone, returning in minutes with his eyes glittering. Bert had never even settled, instead prowling the tables for a dancing partner. He found one after two had said no and was now leading a jeans-clad blonde in a happy, floor-hogging western swing. Eddie Rabbit played on the jukebox; the room was crowded and raucous. Milena felt relief settle around her.
She reached across the table for the pitcher near Jet. "Mind if I share that?"
“Suit yourself.” He tilted up his own beer, sucking greedily, his hair straggling below his plaid collar. He drained his glass, stifled a belch, and leveled a look at her. "So Monday it's just you and me again.” Bert was headed home to Salt Lake with all his gear.
"Yeah. Too bad Bert’s leaving. But we won’t need him east of the river."
Jet poured himself another beer. His eyes narrowed. “Ever been over there?”
"No. But I know there are oilfields. And the ghost town of Bonanza."
"Ghost town?” He snorted and looked around, at the pool tables, the bar lined with drinkers, the dancers wheeling on the raised parquet floor. “You ought to get out more, geo. Bonanza’s going to boom bigger than southeast-fucking-Texas. Stevens and his rich buddies are going to bring in coal from Carbon County, and that old ghost town’s going to light up like New York City.”
"Yup.” Jet paused to suckle his beer. “Stevens just sold me some shares in the Deseret Plant.”
"What Deseret Plant?"
"Only the biggest-ass coal-burning thingie in the two states! Out by Bonanza. You didn't know?" He tapped his forehead. “I’ve been reading up. The new town will be just like the old one. Banks, whore houses, saloons, mini-malls—all there because of coal.”
Milena wiped sweaty hands on her jeans. “No one told me.”
He raised a finger. “Very hush-hush. Had to clear all the railroad right-of-ways before word got out. You know, to move the coal. Stevens just told me we’re as clear as the pope’s ass. Hee hee hee. Sweet baby bastard Jesus—it’ll be great!" He chuckled, then laughed with his head back, then roared until tears gathered on his lashes.
Bert returned from dancing. His cap was off; he wiped his damp forehead with a bandanna. "She's a great dancer," he said, nodding across the room. "Too bad her husband had to break in." From the corner of her eye, Milena saw Bert settle at the table as Jet wept with laughter.
“Milena?” Bert replaced his CRAp cap. "What in the name of Jehovah is going on?"
Later that night, after she’d waited long enough for the inebriated Jet to fall asleep, Milena knocked at Bert's motel room. He opened the door a crack and peered sleepy eyed over the little gold safety chain. She asked him for help, “out by the river.” He stood a moment, thinking. “Okay. Give me five.” On her way to warm up the silver pickup, Milena passed Jet’s drilling rig. She’d never been in it, never sat on the brown vinyl seats, never tried the stick shift. Once again she peered in the window. There it was—the three-volume history of Utah mining. She gazed back at the line-up of doors at the Dine-A-Ville. Quiet as the Port Griffith graveyard. She tried the door handle on Jet’s truck. Unlocked. Reaching inside, she picked up the books—one, two, three—closing the door behind her with only a quiet click. As Bert’s motel door opened, she crammed the fat books behind the seat of her pickup’s bench seat.
In minutes, she and Bert were headed east on Interstate 40. As she drove, Milena could feel his eyes on her. “Let’s hear it,” he said.
She sighed. “When Mr. Stevens hired me, he said it was to ‘consult on the paving of thirty-five miles of back road between Lavern and Bonanza.’”
“Isn’t that what we’ve been doing?”
“He never said anything about coal.”
“What about it?”
“The whole road’s about it. That’s what Jet told me tonight.”
“I guess that’s a bad thing,” said Bert. “But you haven’t said why.”
Milena swallowed. “It was the River Slope Mine Disaster. Back home in Pennsylvania. You heard about it?”
“Not a thing.”
“See, the mine was near the Susquehanna River—you know, they found anthracite under the river floodplain. They weren’t supposed to dig coal beneath the river itself, but they did, past the safety stop line.”
“Yeah. But the coal under there was too good to pass up.” Milena drove east beyond the turnoff to the Energy Road. Crossing the river on a bridge far upstream of their drill-raft site, she headed south. “My uncles and my father always split up during their work, two and two. That way they could go to each other’s aid in case of accidents. And they were all four of them strong men. But Jesus. The river was rising—this was January—it went from like two feet to fifteen feet in three days. Because there were ice floes, and some freaky warm weather melted them and swelled the river . . . and . . . .”
Bert waited. “And?”
“And it broke through to that undercut part of the mine, even though they’d checked the braces that morning. There was ice water, just pouring in, and eighty-two men down there. Papa and my uncles were with them.”
Bert whistled, low and long.
“Papa and Tony tried to find Augie and Joe, who’d been in the crew right under the river, but . . . they had to run the other way. The water was three feet and rising. The men pushed through it—Tony said it was slow-motion and cold! Like moving in ice slush. It was up to their necks by the time Papa and Tony got roped out.”
“And the others?”
Milena shook her head.
“God.” Bert was quiet a long time. “No wonder working on the river gave you the willies.”
“Yeah.” She told Bert the rest of the story: her family moved to Erie after the disaster, Uncle Tony was never able to hold a job after that, Papa worked in the vineyards but didn’t make music any more—no humming in the morning, no Puccini, nothing. “And I studied rocks with Uncle Augie’s money. On Papa’s condition I’d never work for the mines. Bachelor’s and master’s in geology, Pennsylvania State University, magna cum laude.”
Continuing onto open range, she slowed to allow a flock of sheep to clear the road. The route split and curved, the limbs of a maze. At each fork, Bert consulted a topographic map, pointing which way to go. When they arrived at a chain link fence surrounding a sign the size of a drive-in movie screen, Milena knew Jet had told the truth. Professionally printed red and black letters on white read:
BONANZA UNIT 1
Deseret Generation and Transmission
"Well, I’ll be sheep-dipped," said Bert.
"Me too," said Milena. “Look what we’ve been helping with.”
“Hell if we knew.” They continued west along good, paved road to Bonanza. In the moonlight the few remaining buildings and old mining establishments looked white-washed and new. Milena found the end of the pavement and kept going on dirt road. When they reached the east side of the river, they stopped near shore—seeing the water plod by with no sign of their having labored day after day on it. The moon now hid behind clouds; first flakes of snow floated through the night. In the dark, they couldn’t see across the river to the tire tracks and scrabbling marks in the mud where they’d de-rigged the pontoon raft before going to town.
The stakes where Milena was supposed to resume work with Jet stood fifty feet apart, widespread like picket fence posts.
“Now what?” asked Bert. His cap was off and his forehead broken into deep furrows.
“I don’t know.” Milena slid the gear knob to neutral, pocketed her gloves, and stepped out into the night. With an ache she’d felt since talking to Jet, she wandered into the dark. She came upon a stake and kicked it. When it didn’t come out easily she put on her gloves to yank it up. Snowfall had become steady—still flaky, though, like ash from a distant fire. She continued along the road, knocking over another couple of stakes, collecting them. Bert pulled up beside her in the pickup and rolled down the passenger side window. “You’d better get in, Milena. The snow’s getting thicker, and the weather report says storm warnings. This is going to be a big one.”
She nodded but kept walking. She came to a fourth stake at the top of a rise, wiping away tears. "Papa," she said. She pulled up the stake and moved on in a daze. First light was still hours off, and the road was silent. The chill of the night urged her to give up her ramble. Shivering, she joined Bert in the pickup. In her arms she cradled four damp stakes until she grew weary and let them fall at her feet.
Bert drove with Bob Wills singing low on the radio as they followed the dirt roads back through the badlands. A thin cover of white was enough to hide the tracks of sheep they’d paused for earlier. In the middle of the Interstate bridge Milena said, "Stop, Bert. I have to see the river."
“No. You’re not getting out again.”
She opened the door while they were still moving. Cold air rushed in as she unsnapped her seatbelt.
“Criminy, Milena!” Bert stopped.
She stepped out and to the bridge railing. She stood watching the water as he set the footbrake and hustled to her side. He took her arm. Chunks of ice careened from under the bridge into their sight. With a jerk she pulled away from him.
“Stop!” he cried.
“It’s okay.” She returned to the pickup and pulled the mining volumes from behind the bench seat. They were as heavy as telephone books.
Bert watched, eyes wide. “Aren’t those Jet’s?”
She nodded. “A little light reading. No, dark. Very dark.” She stood at the bridge railing with Bert’s hand tight on her shoulder. She tossed the books off the edge, one two three. They splashed into the water and slipped below the surface. As an afterthought, she gathered the stakes from the truck and threw them into the river, too. They swirled away on the water like toy boats.
“That’s it, Bert. Another damn job shot in the ass.”
At that, the high, chaotic song of coyotes pierced the night. Bert gasped, then threw back his head and roared. “A pack!” he cried. “Did you plan that, Milena?”
She laughed, unbelieving at first, then joyfully, until the tears streamed so fast there was no point anymore in wiping them away.
They drove back the direction they’d come, following pavement away from the site of the biggest-ass coal-burning thingie in two states. The snow fell thicker now. It was blown at an angle by a north wind, urged into the wipers Bert had switched on high. Milena knew the way back, though no trace showed of their earlier tire marks; there’d be no trace of their new marks, either, by the end of the hour. She wouldn’t come back out with Jet, she knew—if there was to be drilling at the remaining stakes, it would be without her.
Bert drove steadily, talking low about the Colorado River: how deep into the earth it cut, how clear the sky was overhead. She’d have to go there, he said. She could be a geo-guide, he said. It sounded good to her; it sounded possible. In the glow of the headlights, Milena saw the way before her grow more and more light.