Sam took a right off Texas Highway 42 North, onto River Road, and parked the rented SUV in the shade of an old cypress. Its smoky, pine-like scent peppered the humid air, reminding him of his days growing up in the oil fields near Gladewater. The Sabine River, gurgling east toward Louisiana, was as muddy as he remembered. He took off his boots, stuffed his socks into them, and padded down to the riverbank. It was just after noon and Texas hot.
In the cypress overgrowth, half hidden and hugging the bank, patched in rust, was an old oil derrick. Sam clambered over its gray and red rusting steel struts to get close. A small gust of moist air rattled a metal placard dangling halfway up the derrick’s aging structure. Embossed in the metal like a license plate, “EMPIRE OIL” was still legible, though the paint had long ago weathered off. He winced at his childhood memories of the oil company then shook them free. Time to get back on the road. John Grimes was not a man who tolerated tardiness, especially from Sam.
This stretch of rough dirt road had been made rougher by a pattern of tractor treads—they jarred his teeth as he bumped over them. Ahead was a small cluster of red pickups and silver-helmeted men in jeans and long-sleeved shirts. He nosed his truck into a makeshift parking lot—a row of pickups baking in the sun. There must have been recent rains; the red earth was still pockmarked with green scrub already crushed by boots, cables, pipes, machinery, and tires, but apparently still alive.
“Well, who the hell are you?” A low voice punched through the whine of machinery.
“Goddammit, Sam. I thought you were off saving the world. What the hell are you doing back here?”
John Grimes was tall, and big: broad at the shoulders, with a barrel chest tapering to a narrow waist always covered by a silver belt buckle, at its center a single star-shaped spur. His sun-reddened face didn’t hide the patch of brown freckles on each cheek. The brim of Grimes’s Stetson shaded and softened the sharpness of his green-eyed stare, but what most struck Sam was the wide smile, something only those closest to this drilling chief ever saw.
Sam returned the smiles and hand waves of the crew as he followed Grimes into a tiny, air-conditioned trailer that sat at the edge of the makeshift parking lot. Inside was room for little more than a cluttered desk, Grimes’s ancient, leather-clad, rolling office chair, and a wooden stool. To the right of the door, a metal grate with faded red streamers blew in cold air with a noise loud enough to make them raise their voices. Grimes motioned for him to sit on the wooden stool.
“So. They manage to break ya up north? I hear Greenland can dish out some pretty tough weather.”
Sam sighed and shook his head. “It wasn’t easy.”
“I’m sure that’s true. What the hell’d they have ya doin’, anyway?”
“Collecting rocks, mostly.”
Sam could feel Grimes’s glare searching his face for more of an answer. He was more a father to Sam than anyone else had ever been. Withholding secrets from him was a losing battle.
“Ain’t nothin’ ta’ be ashamed of, son. Even the toughest stallions get broke.”
Sam lowered his gaze. How many times had he been in this room as John Grimes thundered at him?
The old driller leaned back and laced his fingers behind his head. “Look, son. You don’t need me to tell you your dad set you up on that assignment to try and break your spirit.”
Sam knew he was right.
“You know he needs ya back home, helpin’ him run the business. Empire Oil ain’t what it used to be. Oil prices are in the shitter, your pop’s wells aren’t producin’, the world’s movin’ to natural gas.” Grimes spat into the trash can next to the desk. “Shit, even solar. Wind. There’s talk of layoffs. The men’r nervous.”
“I’m not going to sit behind a desk the rest of my life.” Sam didn’t like the defensive tone he heard in his voice. “Or be the one who loses the family business.”
“I’d bring you back to the fields to run this crew any day of the week. You know me and the boys would follow you anywhere. We’re family.”
“I know that,” said Sam. “I know. But Magnus wouldn’t hear of it. He wants me—”
“I know where he wants you, son.” Grimes snorted. “Doesn’t sound to me like you got any intention of coming back to run us roughnecks. All you need do is tell us which way ta’ go and we’re there for ya’, son. I already gave your daddy forty of the best years of my life. Purt’ near everything I got’s here. You just tell me ‘n the boys which way we’re goin’ and we’ll be there.” He spat again in the trashcan.
The trailer door slowly squeaked open, as if blown by the wind. Two men, hard hats tucked under their arms, shuffled in. There was barely room for them.
“Andy! Kyle!” Sam hugged them hard enough to make their hats clatter to the trailer floor. Andy hugged him back while Kyle stood soldier-stiff, his arms glued to his sides in discomfort.
“Close the goddamned door,” Grimes barked. “It’s hot outside.”
“You’re some kinda doctor now, ain’tcha?” asked Kyle, finally at ease.
Andy grinned. “They got ya sticking yer finger up people’s asses? You that kind of doc?”
Sam laughed. “No, more a professor kind of doc. I study ancient humans.”
They blinked. Nothing to say to that. “We miss ya out here, buddy,” said Kyle. “Ain’t the same without ya.”
“You two.” Grimes pointed to the door. “Back ta work.”
After a round of high fives, they left.
“You’re on your way to see your dad, right? He’s been callin’ me to see where yer at ’bout every hour. Got some fancy party planned for ya’.”
Sam sighed. “Yeah, that’s where I’m headed. I’m not looking forward to it.”
“Well, Dallas is a good two hours down the road. Better saddle up and skedaddle outta here before I stop lyin’ to him. He finds out you came here first and I didn’t tell him, it’d be my hide.”