Thunder on the Mountain (Hemlock County Series)by David Poyer
An ambitious novel of heroism and violence in the western Pennsylvania oil country at the nadir of the great Depression, in the tradition of Jack London and John Steinbeck.
Read an Excerpt
Chilly morning, W. T. Halvorsen thought, even for the high Alleghenies; kind of an early taste of winter, though he hadn't seen any snow yet. He was pushing twenty miles an hour, coming down off the ridge into Fees Hollow in the brand-new bright-red Dodge Power Wagon, when he glimpsed the crown block of Favorite Number Fourteen looming above the brass and scarlet of the treetops. He didn't want to go any faster, not with a hundred and forty quarts of nitroglycerin packed in behind him and a ravine dropping away from the rutted, rock-littered lease road.
Halvorsen was twenty, lanky and blond. He had on green work pants with red suspenders and a red-barred hunting jacket. Worn black-rubber bighole boots rode the clutch and brake. The headlines of the paper on the seat beside him read: AIR ATTACKS SPREAD DESTRUCTION THROUGH ETHIOPIA. LEAGUE VOTES SANCTIONS AGAINST ITALY. LEWIS PLEDGES MINE WORKERS FOR ROOSEVELT. He drove with one leather-gloved hand, elbow sticking out the window, the mountain air ruffling the cow- lick that stuck up from behind his work cap. Every once in a while, when the road came to a switchback, he leaned out to spit dark juice toward the hillside.
When the derrick loomed out of the woods, seventy-two feet of bolted-together hemlock and iron, the foreman and the tool dresser were standing by the engine house. Halvorsen locked the brakes and skidded the last few yards, then stuck his head out and yelled, "Bryner Torpedo. You fellas call in a shot?"
The older man nodded. Halvorsen wheeled the truck around so that the back, where the nitro was, was right up against the derrick walk. He cut the engine and got down, stretched, then walked around to the rig.
"Ike Keller," said the foreman. "This here's Karl Grau, my tool dresser."
They shook hands. Grau was big, callus-handed, and he bore down harder than he had to. "Halvorsen. Didn't you use to work for Evans Cresson?"
"Uh-huh. Roustabout, then tool dresser."
"Know a guy called Len Brinton?"
"Sure, I know Brinton. Big-mouth champ of the oil field. Potzed most of the time, to boot." Halvorsen shook his hand loose. He asked Keller, "She on the bottom?"
"Oh yeah. Karl bailed her dry, she's all ready for you."
The derrick rose above them into a charred gray sky, massive black timbers climbing in a narrowing taper high as a man could loft a baseball. The wind moaned through the upperworks, making the drilling cable clang as it swayed. The big old Buffalo engine banged in the engine house. Six inches of rough-cast pipe stuck up above the drilling floor. When he bent, Halvorsen heard a gurgle deep in the ground. The air shimmered above the pipe. He smelled methane wet with natural gasoline.
He straightened. "Who you like for the Series?"
"I been watching Derringer and the Reds."
"I like Detroit. Greenberg and Gehringer in the field. Schoolboy Rowe and Mickey Cochrane, a great battery."
"This kind of a wild well?"
"She's making a lot of salt water."
A shovel leaned in the comer, coated with muck and bits of dead grass. Halvorsen picked it up and went to the forge. He got a bladeful of cinders and shook them out across the drill floor, out to the derrick walk. He searched around, found a plank, and laid it slanting down to the ground. Jumped on it a couple of times, making sure it wouldn't turn under his boots. Then carried over another shovelful and ashed the board too, making a gritty path all the way from the truck to the wellhead.
He asked Grau, "How about shuttin' down your engine there, toolie?"
But the dresser just stood there with his arms folded till the foreman said, "Karl, you heard the man. Shake a leg."
Halvorsen went back to the Dodge. He took off his Burley Bears and left them on the seat. He got a sheave out of his kit and a line off the power-driven reel on the back. He walked the line over beneath the derrick and tied the block off to the drill bit, which was set down on the drill floor, with a length of soft manila.
"Last time they shot, they brung the wagon out with those roans," Keller said. "Those sure were a spanking team of horses."
Halvorsen didn't answer. He gathered juice in his cheek and spat into the mud, thinking about the shot.
Grau came back from the engine house while Halvorsen was running the bobber down. He ran it all the way and read off eighteen hundred and fifty-six feet.
Halvorsen and Keller squatted over the samples laid out in one corner of the drill floor. The foreman said the hole went down ten feet past the bottom of the sand. The "sand" was a narrow sandwich-filling of chocolate-colored sandstone oozing-rich with crude. The shot would fracture it, letting the oil flow into the well.
The dresser went back to the truck with him, standing right beside him as he sawed the pipe for the anchor. Halvorsen asked him to give him room to work, but Grau didn't move.
"Len Brinton's a shirttail relative a mine."
"Yeah, you sort of take after him."
"How long you been shooting wells?"
"Not that long. Two, three months."
"Couldn't make it doin' man's work, huh?"
"A couple mugs blew themselves up out near Myrtle," Halvorsen told him. "Horses, wagon, and all, nothing left but the crater. That's what opened up the position."
"Guys get hurt out here, too," Grau said. "Like that rig collapsed in August, pullin' pipe down in the Kinnimahot'ny. Crippled one of the guys on the floor."
"I didn't say they don't. All I was sayin' was, fella sees a chance to advance himself, he ought to get stirring."
He pushed past Grau and carried the anchor up to the derrick floor, then went back and got the shooter's hook. He hung this on the end of his line and started making up the string. He got an empty shell, a sheet- tin cylinder sealed at the bottom, and hung that from the hook. He hung the anchor off that, then ran the assembly down into the well till all that showed was the open top of the shell.
He said to Keller and Grau, "You boys might want to give me a little room here."
"Call us if you need anything," said the foreman. The dresser lingered for a moment, scowling; then sauntered off after his boss.
When he opened the back of the truck there was the soup, two dozen cans of it, each nestled into its rubber boot. He took a couple of deep breaths, then reached in and very smoothly pulled out two by their soldered tin handles, drawing both up at once, one in each hand. Balancing them like milk pails, he walked their weight slowly and carefully up the kindred board, along the derrick walk, and set them down gently on the rig floor on either side of the shell.
He remembered what Pete Riddick had told him when he was breaking him in on the shooting game. Ain't no point being scared around nitro, Riddick had said. Screw up and you'll never know. So just take your time and make goddamn sure you don't never let anything slip.
Each can was closed with two corks. Removing an awl from a loop on his belt, he carefully pried them out and set them aside on the rig floor. That glisten on their ends was nitroglycerin. Step on one by mistake, you could blow your foot off.
His bare hands were getting numb now, and he took a break, sticking them under his armpits to warm while he looked out across the valley. Under the cold sky the long hills, all exactly the same height, walked away to the end of the world. Hills, and the fiery-colored solidity of the forest, and down in the valley, the dry ginger tan of farmers' fields. Here and there rose the peaked roof of a farmhouse, or the skyclimbing tower of another rig. He listened to the wind, and gradually another sound seeped into his consciousness. A sound that was always there, in this country, so that after a while you couldn't hear it. But now he listened, tuning in like the Magic Brain in the new Zenith. And heard the whole wide valley, the earth itself, resounding with a slow pulse and creak: the thudding of engines, off among the hills; the creak of rod-lines working the pumping jacks.
They were bringing up what God or Geology had hidden deep beneath these woods, these ancient hills, worn down like an old nag's teeth. Millions of barrels of the finest oil in the world. Pennsylvania crude. You smelled it everywhere, in the fields, along the creeks, seeping up from the ground itself, rich and strong as Monongahela whiskey. He'd always liked that smell, from the day he'd started working in the fields.
With a grunt, he picked up one of the cans and tilted it over the shell.
The nitro came out clear but with a purple tint to it, thicker than water because it was cold. He held it steady, gradually tilting it up, till the can dripped empty. When it was safely set down he stretched, shaking the tension out of his shoulders. Then he reached for the next one.
When the shell was brim-full he corked the empties and carried them back to the truck. Then he ran the shot down into the well. He took it slow, running the winch at a creep. From the comer of his eye he noticed that the drillers had come back. They stood a few yards away, watching the line go down.
At five hundred feet the winch threw slack. He cut power, then threw it into reverse. "Somethin' wrong?" Keller called.
"She's hung up. You guys must of been pushing it pretty fast. Got a crooked hole here."
"You sayin' we don't know our jobs?" said Grau.
"Hey, I know how it is. The lease super's on your ass to push that too1, You run that bit too long, it gets out of gauge --"
"You little smart-ass son of a bitch. Yeah, Len told me about you. Only crooked hole around here's that Hunky hoor you been shagging."
"Karl, I told you about that mouth," said the foreman.
Halvorsen studied the wire, pale blue eyes narrowed. From the sound and the smell, it could be making fluid down there, spewing oil or conate water into the well hole. Old seawater, trapped for who knew how many million years. A wild well could float the shell right back up on that and the gas-flow. Then it was either run like hell or try to catch it in your arms before it hit the drill floor. He watched it for a second more, then set the winch and walked up to where Grau was standing.
His right jab snapped the toolie's head against the Samson post. The bigger man lunged back, snarling, to find the foreman between them.
"Not now. Break it up! Get this shot done, then you two can go settle it in the woods."
Halvorsen waited. Grau rubbed his jaw, glaring down at him. "I'm gonna fit you for a wooden kimono, you little bastard," he said. "I'll clean you and give you carfare home."
Halvorsen turned away and went back down to the winch. He gave it a little power. He played with it, pulling the string up a few feet, then running it back down, feeling his way through the tight spot. Finally he was through and the winch hummed again. He breathed out, and the white smoke of his breath flew away with the chill wind that came down the hollow, cold as the close and stony sky.
When he eased it into the bottom, the Z in the hook unlatched. He ran the line back up, leaving the shell in the hole, and went to get another.
He did this five more times, till he had six full shells sitting on top of each other down there. A hundred and twenty quarts. He checked the shot card to make sure that was right, then told the foreman he could go ahead and water-tamp it down.
Keller said to Grau, "Run about three barrels down in there. And don't give this guy any more lip, or you'll be back on relief."
While they were running drilling water down into the hole, he started on his squib.
Rigging the detonator was an art. You started with a piece of tin pipe, like stovepipe, a little larger in diameter than the anchor and about three feet long, with one pointed end.
Taking two sticks of straight dynamite out of the box in the truck, he shoved one heavy wax-coated cylinder down into the tin pipe. He used his awl on the second one, pressing a slanting hole into one end. He trimmed the end of the Clover Brand Safety Fuse square across with his Case knife, making sure the gunpowder core showed, and inserted it gently into the cap. He crimped it with the tool, using slow, even pressure, all the way around. Then pushed it deep into the dynamite.
When he had the fuse timed he dropped the second stick in on top of the first and filled up the squib with sand, making it nice and heavy. Then he bent the top over and sealed it with pliers, leaving two feet of fuse sticking out.
The drilling crew retreated again as he carried the go-devil up the plank, down the derrick way, to the hole. He set the tip down on the floor, a foot from where the casing came up through it.
This was the tricky part, as tricky as pouring the nitro. Nerve, that was what a shooter had to have. That and a steady hand, even after you'd taken on a load at an all-night poker game the night before.
Squatting over the well hole, he hoisted the squib with his left hand and slid the tip into the pipe. Slanting the fuse to the right, out of the upward rush of flammable gas, he pulled his new lighter out of his jacket.
Holding the squib tight with his left hand, he flicked flame from the Zippo and held it wind-whipped but still burning against the bare stripped end of the fuse. Suddenly it caught, sputtering, spitting fire. Moving very deliberately, he dropped the lighter back in his pocket.
With his right hand, he pinched the yellow waxed-cotton casing. When he felt the hidden heat, the fire etching its way down into it, he picked up the heavy tube with both hands, and with a flourish like a man releasing a homing pigeon, dropped it down away into the hole. A rapid muffled rattling echoed back.
He rose slowly to his feet and strolled away, toward the woods.
He was fifty yards off when the shock kicked the soles of his boots. The ground began rumbling. He kept walking, knowing it would take a little while for everything to come up eighteen hundred feet through a six-inch hole. He got to where the others were standing, and turned.
A chocolate-dark cylinder suddenly extruded itself from the earth. It came up from the casing-head looking solid for the first fifteen or twenty feet, though it wasn't; it was oil, water, rock, and pay sand. Then it blew apart and up and out through the top of the derrick with a deep-throated roaring whoosh and he saw the amber glow deep in it, shining through it like a dirty-golden rainbow. Yeah, she was gonna be a producer. He could smell the scratch from here.
"Guess we'll get to work," Keller said when the last wavering veil of spray drifted away downwind. "Karl, you start and wash down, I'll get her ready to clean out."
"Give her a couple of minutes," Halvorsen told them. "Let those fumes blow away."
"That's about how long I'll need to take you down a peg," said the tool dresser. He spat on Halvorsen's boots. "Ready for a little go-around?"
"I got another shot to do today."
"Uh-huh. You ain't got the time, that right?"
Halvorsen looked him over again. The tool dresser was bull-muscled from hammering out white-hot drill bits with a fourteen-pound sledge. Grau looked to be four, five years older than he was, and heavier by about forty pounds. He had a cruel-looking smile. He moved edgy, like he was getting ready to dance.
"Oh, I can make some time for you," Halvorsen told him.
Excerpted from Thunder on the Mountain by David C. Poyer, copyright © 1999. All rights reserved.
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Thunder on The Mountain is the perfect story of life in western Pennsylvania during the early days of "big oil." The characters are real, the setting is authentic, and the action is believable.