Ear-splitting sound waves reverberated off the sheer, thirty-foot walls of the isolated wash fifteen miles southwest of Shiprock, New Mexico. Though the sound was confined to the immediate area, there was no hiding the cloud of fire and smoke that curled hundreds of feet into the air.
“It works!” Eddie Nez exclaimed as he sprinted from behind the bend in the wash where he, Albert Horseman, and David Nakai had found protection from the blast.
“Aieeeee. There’s nothing left,” Albert shouted as the trio skidded to a halt at the edge of the ten-foot-wide crater.
“Where’d the pipe go?” David asked.
Earlier, while Eddie had attached the detonator to the three explosive-filled fuel cans, David and Albert cobbled together a collection of rusty pipes into something that approximated a natural gas wellhead. That was the structure to which the bomb was attached. Now all that was left was a crater where the pipe had been.
Their first full-scale test came off perfectly. Eddie nodded his head in satisfaction, remembering the hours he’d spent on the Internet, researching bomb-making techniques. A stack of discarded timers on his back porch told the story of the difficulty of finding just the right one he could modify into a safe and reliable detonator. In the end, it was the simplest and cheapest wind-up kitchen timer from Walmart that did the trick. The only metal parts were the timing spring, the bell and the clapper. With a wire soldered to the clapper and another to the bell, when the timer reached zero the clapper struck the bell and the electrical circuit was complete. But that had to happen only when they wanted it to. If there was the slightest contact between the bell and the clapper at the wrong time, Eddy and everyone around him would be dead in an instant.
Then there was getting the mix of fertilizer and diesel fuel just right. Eddie’s first test was with a quarter cup of each mixed in a frying pan on his kitchen stove. He ignited the concoction with the bare ends of an extension cord. The whoosh that resulted wasn’t so much an explosion as a ball of fire that boiled up and rolled across the ceiling. With singed hair and eyebrows, Nez found himself beating out a half-dozen tiny fires that threatened to burn his trailer to the ground. It was the last experiment he conducted indoors.
Their largest previous test was conducted in a hole in the sand on the bank of the San Juan River a couple of miles out of town. It used three plastic peanut butter jars to simulate the fuel cans. It was loud enough to make their ears ring and had told them that their detonator and pasty explosive concoction worked.
“What a difference,” Eddie said, staring into the still smoking crater.
“Like dynamite compared to a fire cracker,” Albert agreed.
“Where’s the pipe?” David asked again.
“Let’s go find it!” Eddie said. “Albert, you and I will head south. David, you go north.”
The banks on both sides of the arroyo near the blast were cratered by shrapnel. They searched for some distance before finding anything recognizable.
Ninety feet from the crater, Albert said, “Got something.” He pointed at a mangled piece of pipe sticking out of the dirt wall about ten feet up.
“Right here,” Eddie heard David shout from the other direction. He was nearly a hundred yards on the other side of the crater, pointing at the floor of the wash.
There should have been more. Apparently the main body of pipework had been blown over the sides of the wash and now lay scattered on the desert floor above.
“Man, that was huge,” David exulted when they gathered back at the crater. “I say we do it now—tonight!”
“No.” Eddie said. “We all agreed this would be strictly a last resort. We wait until after the next NALM meeting. If we don’t hear what needs to be said there, then we go.”
“I don’t understand you,” Horseman replied. “You just buried your grandfather and yet you want everybody to sit back and keep taking it?”
The question brought Eddie an all-too-familiar stab of pain and anger. Five years ago, when Gannon Oil had drilled the gas well on his grandfather’s land allotment, the well money transformed Grandfather’s life. He and Grandmother moved out of the old family Hooghan into one of those new pre-fab houses the government provided that had indoor plumbing and electricity. Instead of a fireplace, he could heat the house simply by adjusting the thermostat on a propane furnace.
There was enough money for a pickup truck and for food bought from the store in Shiprock. Grandfather sold off his flock of sheep, but kept a few chickens around, because Grandfather liked chickens.
But two years ago, everything changed. The oil company turned off the well and the flow of money ceased. His grandparents went from riches to rags in a matter of weeks. When the money ran out, so did the propane, and there was no fireplace. When the truck ran out of gas, there was no way into town to purchase the store-bought food for which there was no money anyway. When the last of the chickens ran out, Grand-father was reduced to hunting jackrabbits to feed himself and Grand-mother. But Grandfather was silent about all of this, and Eddie didn’t discover it until it was too late.
In January, the moon of crusted snow, Eddie discovered the depths of his grandparents’ misery. Visiting their place for the first time in more than a month, he was concerned when Grandfather failed to answer the door. Breaking Navajo courtesy that respected privacy, he opened the door and called in, “Grandfather, it’s Eddie. Are you here?” He stepped in and closed the door against the cold, bracing wind. But closing the door did nothing to take away the chill.
This house is too cold. Then he realized it was also dark. The sun had set more than a half hour before, but not a light burned anywhere inside. What’s happened to the electricity? This is definitely not right. He called out again, louder this time. “Grandfather, it’s Eddie. Are you home?”
Someone must have come by and picked them up. He turned to leave, then he thought he heard something. Was it his grandparents or had some evil spirit, somehow gotten into the house? Hesitant and watchful, he walked toward the sound. He found his grandparents lying in their bed, covered with blankets. His Grandfather recognized him, but the man was so weak from thirst, hunger and cold that he could barely raise his arm to gesture for Eddie to come in. Tears flowed from the old man’s eyes. “Your grandmother,” he whispered. “I think she is dead.” Indeed she was.
After a week in the BIA hospital in Farmington, Eddie’s grandfather ended up in the nursing home in Shiprock, but only for a few months. He never fully recovered. He missed his wife of more than fifty years. On the last day of his life he told Eddie how he wished he had never allowed the Bilagaana to drill the gas well on his land. He grasped Eddie’s hand and told him in a tortured whisper, “The well is cursed with an evil spirit. Before you sing me onto the Shining Path, promise me that you will get rid of the Bilagaana well before anyone else tries to live on my land.”
Eddie leaned over and whispered the great secret he carried, of his plan to get rid of not just that well, but all the others if the oil company wouldn’t turn them back on. The old man’s grip tightened. His eyes lit up for the first time in months. Grandfather and grandson sang the warrior’s battle song so loud and long that a nurse finally came and shushed them.
The next morning, Grandfather was dead. As far as Eddie was concerned, Gannon Oil had killed his grandparents as surely as if they had held a gun to their heads and pulled the trigger.
Eddie ached for revenge. But the warrior in him knew he had to act smart, like Ma’ii, the coyote. “Don’t worry, Albert,” Eddie said to his companion. We will listen carefully at the next NALM meeting. Then we will decide whether to use what we have learned to make the well on my grandfather’s land disappear. We will burn this desert down around Gannon Oil’s ears if we have to! But for now, let’s get out of here before someone comes around to investigate that smoke cloud.
One year earlier
All morning long he’d tried for a different result. But no matter how many times Danny re-calculated the numbers, they always came out the same. He was one hundred and twenty-two dollars shy of being able to make Kathy’s full paycheck. It was the third week in a row she’d end up short.
He sighed. Maybe the public defender fees will show up. Not likely. That check hadn’t been on time in years.
Danny usually heard everything going on out in the reception area of his small, two-room office on the second floor of a rundown building in a seedy Farmington commercial district. But his concentration on the money problem was so intense that he was taken by surprise when Kathy escorted an older Navajo couple into his office.
“Danny, this is Mr. Robert Begay and his wife, Lena,” Kathy said. “Mr. and Mrs. Begay, this is my boss, Danny Whitehorse.”
Danny scrambled to gather the papers spread across his desk into something resembling order as he rose to greet the couple.
“Hosteen Begay.” Danny used the honorific showing the respect due an elder of the tribe. “Welcome to my office. Please sit down.” He indicated the two worn wingback chairs against the wall in front of his desk.
There was no handshake. That was a white man’s custom. Robert wore a long-sleeved flannel shirt tucked into worn blue jeans and a pair of ancient-looking leather cowboy boots. He nervously turned a black, broad-brimmed hat in his ham-sized hands. He held his eyes turned just slightly away from Danny’s feet, as Navajo greeting tradition demanded.
Lena was probably of an age with Robert, but her wrinkled face and toothless smile made her appear older. She wore a long-sleeved, cream-colored shirt, and an ankle-length, gold-velvet skirt that had seen far too many years. Her hammered silver Concho belt and turquoise squash-blossom necklace were likely her richest possessions.
Robert’s eyes darted warily about, as if he had no idea what to do in such a foreign place. The couple reminded Danny of his Aunt Ona and Uncle Samuel who still lived in the traditional Navajo hooghan where Danny had been raised, forty-five miles southeast of Farmington near the reservation village of Nageezi.
After exchanging the respectful courtesies and family information called for in the greeting formalities of the Diné, Danny asked, “How may I help you Mr. Begay?”
The man reached into a shirt pocket and withdrew two crumpled envelopes. He unfolded them then hesitantly handed one to Danny. Speaking in the clipped accent of older generation Navajos, he quietly said, “A man, a Bilagaana, come to my home and give me this paper. He say paper makes it so he can take my pickup truck away. I need my truck to find work, so I chased him away. But he say he will come back. I do not read the Bilagaana words, so my son, Nathan, he read this for me. Nathan says it lets the man take away my truck. My brother told me what you do for work and that you can help us, so I come to tell you about this.”
Danny opened the envelope to find a writ of repossession issued by a local court in favor of Farmington's Chevrolet dealership. He was moderately surprised to see that it was for a newer model truck. Few older generation Diné had vehicles that cost this much. "When did you buy this truck?” he asked.
“I have this truck almost one and a half years.”
“And you are behind on your payments. Is that correct?”
Begay’s head lowered. “Yes,” he whispered.
Danny knew the confession was costing the man an enormous emotional price. Debt was a rare thing among the reservation’s older generations. The ability to honor debts was one of the basic elements of a man’s pride. Robert Begay was clearly being crushed under his own sense of dishonor and shame.
Danny spoke in Navajo to make the man more comfortable. Lifting the paper in his hand he said, “Obviously this rude Bilagaana does not know you, Grandfather. If he did, he would know that you would give honor to this debt.”
The man looked up sharply, surprised at the unexpected praise. “I have always given honor to my debts,” he said, “and I shall give honor to this one. But the company stopped sending us money before I finish paying for my truck. To earn money I need a job. A job is very hard to find for Diné, especially one as old as I am.”
“Company? What company is that, Grandfather? Did you lose your job?”
“Gannon Oil Company,” Robert replied. “I do not work for them. They drilled a gas well on my land and send me money every month. Three months ago, we get no money. They have sent no money since, so I cannot send money for our truck. It is very bad.” The man's shoulders drooped again. His wife dabbed at tears with the corner of her shawl.
“So they pay you royalties. Is that right?”
“Yes. Royalty is the right word.”
“Did they tell you this was going to happen?”
“No! In moon of crusted snow, the one the Bilagaana call January, a man from company come to our house and say they need to work on our well. Soon many men come with big machines. They dig all around and put a new pipe into the ground. Then they try to make everything look like it was before.
“In the moon of squeaky voice, we wait for money but it doesn't come. We get this instead.” Robert handed Danny the other crumpled envelope.
The envelope contained a one-page letter dated March 1st. Across the top it said, “NOTICE OF CESSATION OF PRODUCTION.” It stated that due to “depletion of gas production capacity,” the Gannon Oil Company was exercising its option to cease production from the well located on the Begay property. It cited several paragraphs in the lease terms as their authority to do so.
“I'm afraid it's not good news, Mr. Begay. Gannon Oil has turned off the well on your land.”
“Why? We did not tell them they can turn off our well.”
“They think there’s not enough gas left in the well to continue using it. Do you have your lease documents with you?”
“What is this thing you call ‘lease’?”
“The Bilagaana should have given you papers to sign that gave the oil company permission to drill on your property.”
“Yes. They give me some papers. I wrote my mark on them but I do not know what they say. I wrapped them up and put them in a box. I will bring them to you tomorrow.”
“Good. I’ll look at them and call the oil company to see what I can learn. I can't make you any promises, but regardless of what the oil company says, I can keep the car company from taking your truck—at least for a while. You did the right thing by coming to me.”
The man stood. “You are a good man, Danny Whitehorse. I know your Uncle Samuel. He raised you well.” He paused a moment and shook his head. “These Bilagaana are very strange. They send many people and big machines to work on a well that they are going to turn off. Why not just turn it off and not spend so much money?”
“I don’t have an answer, Mr. Begay. But I’ll try to find out.”
“Have the others come to talk to you?”
“Others have had the same thing happen. It is very bad.”
“How many others?”
Robert shook his head. “Many,” he said. “Very many.”
Danny was puzzled. Why did Gannon pay the Begays in the first place? Land on the reservation belonged to the tribe, not to individual tribe members. The tribe made land allotments to individual families or, in the cases of cities, to larger groups. The allotments worked like a lease. Individuals or families could live on the land allotment, but they did not own the land.
A little research explained the mystery. In 1978, a near rebellion by tribal members living in the north on Utah’s Aneth oil field, forced a policy change. Thereafter, allotment holders were included in oil leases and pipeline rights-of-ways.
As Danny read the lease papers Robert delivered, he discovered that Gannon Oil agreed to pay the allotment holders a 3% premium over and above the normal 70/30 split of royalties between the tribe and the allotment holders.
Gannon must have wanted these leases in a hurry. Having the allotment holder on Gannon’s side would have made the tribe’s normally glacially slow approval process move a little faster.
Then Danny’s heart sank as he read the language that stopped everything cold. It said that Gannon Oil could “. . . terminate or cease production solely at the Company’s discretion.” It was unambiguous and unassailable. If Gannon decided to turn off a well, neither the tribe nor the allotment holder had any say in the matter.
Maybe there was a loophole. He called tribal headquarters in Window Rock, Arizona, a hundred and twenty-five miles southwest of Farmington. The call was forwarded three times before he finally spoke with an official from the Office of Tribal Natural Resources. “Yes, Mr. Whitehorse,” the man responded politely, “those well shut-offs are not just at Eagle Dome but on Tabletop Mesa too. It’s costing the tribe millions in lost revenues.”
“Has anyone investigated this?” Danny asked.
“I’m just as concerned as you are, but the tribe doesn’t have money for such an investigation—and we wouldn’t know where to start if we did. That gas royalty money pays my salary. I’m not sure I’ll even have a job next year.”
Danny thanked the man for his time. Might as well go straight to the source. He dialed Gannon Oil. His call was forwarded to someone named Lucas Blackthorn who introduced himself as Gannon’s Chief of Security. Why are they sending me to a security officer rather than a production or accounting person?
“Mr. Whitehorse, those fields have simply been over-pumped and need to regenerate,” Blackthorn said. “A few years from now we may be able to frack some of them to get more production, but for now there’s just not enough gas left in those wells to justify their continued operation.”
“How long do you expect the wells to be off?”
“If we let that field lay fallow for ten or fifteen years, we may eventually get some production capacity back, but until then, all bets are off."
Danny gasped. “Ten or fifteen years? Those people have to wait that long?”
“I'm afraid so. Unfortunately geology is on a much slower timetable than you or I.”
Danny didn’t like it, but had to accept the explanation. The next day he prevailed upon a local rancher to take Robert Begay on as a ranch hand. To stave off creditors, he filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition in behalf of the Begays and took the fees out of his own nearly empty pocket. He had saved the Begays’ truck, at least for now. Danny knew the humble man and his quiet wife would eventually pay him back.
Dave Blackthorn hung up the phone, swiveled one-hundred-eighty degrees in his office chair and looked out on the city through the floor to ceiling smoke-glass windows that formed the back wall of his sixth-floor office at the Gannon Oil Building.
The imposing, oval-shaped glass structure was as long as a football field and was perched high on the rim of the river bluff where it dominated the Farmington skyline. The edifice was the only one that sat between the bluff and Airport Boulevard. Red Gannon, an avid flyer even at his advanced age of eighty-one years, made sure the building had its own private taxiway to accommodate his two personal jets and any other corporate aircraft that had reason to visit.
Ever since the day he and Red Gannon kicked off the Cayman Project, Blackthorn had expected such a call. He thought the tribe would be the first to complain. While individual families were losing a few thousand each, the tribe was losing millions. Those dumb bastards just roll over and let us do anything we want, he mused.
His thoughts turned back to when he first met Red Gannon in 1977. Gannon already had a twenty-year reputation as one of the Texas’s panhandle’s most ruthless wildcatters. Natural gas reserves had been known about for years east of Farmington, but his first well eighteen miles southwest of town, revealed a vast new gas field that spilled over the border onto the Navajo reservation.
Gannon tried to keep his discovery secret while he bought up all the leases he could, including exclusive natural gas leasing rights on the portion of the reservation lying between Farmington and the Arizona border.
At the time, Blackthorn was a big, smart, brash 18-year-old roughneck on Gannon’s first well. When Gannon let the word out that he needed some muscle to help keep the worker’s mouths shut about his strike, Dave was more than happy to oblige.
Rumor had it that one of the men was trying to peddle his knowledge of the strike. When the man failed to show up for work three days in a row, Gannon asked Blackthorn about it. “You don’t want to know,” was Dave’s curt reply. Two days later the man’s badly beaten body was discovered two miles west of Farmington on the banks of the San Juan River. The message to everyone was clear.
Gannon hurriedly punched in more wells and began searching for more gas up on Tabletop Mesa, north of Shiprock. The man’s luck was uncanny. The gas reserves up there proved even larger than at Eagle Dome.
When the inevitable news of the vast strike leaked out, companies like Chevron, Tenneco and Shell all showed up. But Gannon had his leases, and his agreement with the tribe which meant he had the reservation all to himself.
Blackthorn’s job as chief head-knocker pretty much ended once word of the strike got out, but Gannon decided not to let such a useful kid go. Instead, he insisted Dave go to school. Today, although his official title was Vice-president in charge of security, he was really Gannon’s second in command, ahead even of Jim Parker, Gannon Oil’s figurehead President.
Blackthorn smiled to himself. Not bad for an 18-year-old kid who’s only beginning assets were a hard head and two willing fists.
The attorney’s call hardly qualified as a threat. All the same, Blackthorn picked up his phone and dialed Ben Whittington, the head of Gannon’s legal department. “Whittington,” he barked, “Tell me what you know about a local attorney by the name of Whitehorse—Danny Whitehorse.”
“Can’t say I’ve ever heard of him,” Whittington responded. “Why?”
“Nothing important. He called and asked me about one of our wells out on the Rez.”
“Is there a problem I should know about?”
Whittington knew nothing of the Cayman project. “No, no. I’m just curious, that’s all. Find out what you can about him and have a report on my desk by noon tomorrow.”
I better mention this at the next Cayman meeting, Dave thought. He unlocked the one drawer in his desk that was always locked, withdrew a file, scrawled a note on a sticky pad that said simply, “Whitehorse,” and pasted it on the front. Within minutes the incident was completely out of his mind.