I’ll say this for the place, it was remote. Even for the parts of the world where I was used to working, places so used up or so far from anything that they weren’t really part of the human world at all. But for all its desolation, that place on the plains of northeastern Colorado, swept by buffalo grass stretching horizon to horizon, was far from quiet. For one thing, there was the constant rusty-gate squawk of those damn birds, the little black ones with white patches on the wingtips, the ones the Cheyenne had called Ghost Wings. And, of course, there was the wind. Sometimes it was a whine that drilled into the loneliest part of you; other times it was the noise in a seashell, like hearing everything and nothing all at once. It could drive a man to dark places, that wind. That the Cheyenne people ever fought and died for such a place tells you all you need to know about the state of things for them.
This was out where the new formation, the Niobrara, had been pried open and that black magic was flowing as fast as we could catch it. We were drilling so many holes in the ground we couldn’t keep up with the hiring. I’d been around a while by then and the crew chief had me and the Kid two-manning the new site, rig #9. We weren’t supposed to be two-manning; safety regs called for full crews. But the company didn’t give a tin shit about regs. If they had, we wouldn’t have been out there at all.
Because the exploration geologist prepping the site for #9 had found human bones at the top of a lonely hill next to the drill bed.
The book called for him to notify the university in Fort Collins and wait for a full-scale, pain-in-the-ass archeological dig. All so some pinhead with letters after his name could tell us where a bunch of Cheyenne scouts had their latrine 100 years before. Instead, like anyone with sense, the exploration geo rolled his eyes, left the bones where they were, and finished drilling that pilot hole.
Things were moving so fast on the Niobrara back then that there wasn’t time to do what we had to, forget the extras. To this day, I don’t know if anybody was ever notified. After what happened to the Kid, I didn’t stick around to find out.
So me and the Kid are out there, dropping iron into the hole, pulling crude out of the hole. Hard, dangerous work, but the pay is good. And it is thrilling to work on the rigs, the grease and the sweat and the fear.
One evening, near dark, the Kid starts bellyaching. He’s had it for the day, he says. The Kid is nice enough, but he’s a total pain in the ass. If you work the oil patch long enough, you see this a lot. These spoiled college drop-outs come out here in love with the idea of the oilfields. I don’t know, maybe they think it’s going to be like the fucking Yukon, like maybe they’ll get to hoist a few cold ones with Jack London. Then they find out it’s just work, and more work than they can handle at that. Mostly, we wait for them to flame out, to head back to their mom’s basements, their high-def TVs, their video games. So the Kid isn’t my favorite. But I bite my tongue a lot because I figure he’ll move on soon enough. To stop his whining I start shutting down early. Then I hear it: A high-pitched cry. The wind, I think. But it isn’t the wind.
I look all around, thinking if the Kid is yanking my chain I’ll stomp his ass. But the Kid is closing the drilling fluid tank valves, doing exactly what he’s supposed to for once. He looks up at me and points at his ears, asking me if I hear that too. I ignore him.
I don’t give that sound another thought, until about a week later, around the same time. I hear it again, a high, piercing cry. I look to the tanks. The Kid is gone. I look toward the top of that lonely hill. And what I see makes my bones ache even now. The Kid is flat on his back up there. And he’s not alone. A man is leaning over him, backlit by the blood-red setting sun. It’s a Cheyenne warrior, wearing only a breechcloth; his face is painted ghostly white. He looks straight at me, eyes black as midnight.
Well, I grab a big wrench and run up to see what the hell. When I get up there, the Cheyenne is gone, not even a footprint left in the buffalo grass. It looks like the Kid is struggling to stand, but when I get close, it isn’t the Kid at all. It’s just birds. There must be a couple hundred of those Ghost Wings, nestled down in the grass in the exact shape of the Kid, right down to his ball cap. They scatter to the wind, leaving nothing behind.
I told the crew chief the Kid just walked off the job. At least that was believable. Then I went to Alaska and spent 30 years working the rigs and trying to forget. But I couldn’t. I moved back to Colorado last summer. Things felt… unfinished. I have terminal cancer, my retirement gift for breathing a lifetime of oil fumes. The pain is so bad some nights, like tonight, that I would do anything to end it. Old rig #9 isn’t far from here. It’s probably rusted out by now, barely limping along in the wind and the grass. Like me. I’m going to drive out there tonight and make my peace with that Cheyenne and his birds. We had no business being out there. I know that now. I’m ready.
Dan Blunk lives in northern Colorado with his wife and dog. This is his first published work of fiction.