MOAB'S JEEP JAMBOREE WEEK was in full swing as Deputy Sheriff Manny Rivera eased his Grand County Sheriff's Department pickup ahead in the stop-and-go traffic on Main Street. Visitors had come from all over to participate in the popular event, and the downtown area was congested with vehicles and people. It was a glorious October morning with clear skies and a crisp freshness in the air, a welcome change from the hot summer months. He lowered his window and inhaled, filling his lungs with the cool air, then exhaled. No doubt about it—today was a perfect day to kick off the Jamboree.
Caravans of Jeeps were parked curbside, their intrepid drivers and passengers awaiting the official departure time to start their engines and head into the backcountry. There they would attempt to conquer one of the eleven off-road Jamboree trails rated from Easy to Extremely Demanding. Rivera was familiar with the routes and the damage some of them could inflict on vehicles and passengers. The most difficult trails had names like Steel Bender, Cliff Hanger, Hell's Revenge, and Metal Masher, and each year they attracted adventure seekers wishing to test their mettle against the tortured topography of the canyon country. He scanned the participants and silently wished them luck, hoping all would return to Moab unscathed.
He was late for work, and the heavy traffic was at a near standstill. He fiddled with the shiny gold band on the ring finger of his left hand. Wearing a ring was a new sensation for him—he still hadn't gotten used to it. It had been on his finger ten days now, and he was more sure than ever that asking Gloria Valdez to become his wife had been the best decision of his life.
Parked along the curb on his right was a column of heavy-duty Jeeps with raised suspensions, 32-inch tires, winches, air compressors, open tops, and steel roll bars. They were equipped with heavy duty jacks, spare axles, and multiple spare tires. Stan Lansing, a Jeep Jamboree volunteer and bartender of a popular hangout called the Moab Tavern, was inspecting the vehicles to ensure they met safety requirements and checking off items on a clipboard. The vehicles were occupied mostly by young men with facial hair and serious expressions. Rivera knew from experience that this file of Jeeps was headed for the trail known as Behind the Rocks, a trail rated Very Demanding involving challenging rock climbing where the probability of vehicle damage was significant.
On the other side of the street was a line of stock Jeeps owned mostly by senior citizens headed for the Porcupine Rim Trail, a relatively tame two track with viewpoints overlooking the spectacular array of buttes and pinnacles in Castle Valley and beyond. The seniors were standing by their vehicles looking relaxed and listening to Bobby Ray Archer, the self-proclaimed Poet Laureate of Moab, recite lines from his poems extolling the beauty of the canyon country.
In the next block, Rivera came upon a local bluegrass band playing a lively tune he recognized as Foggy Mountain Breakdown to entertain the Jeep crews and spectators. The banjo player was Pete Pearson, a local rockhound he'd met while working on a previous case. Pearson was an accomplished musician who could play any stringed instrument and play it well. Rivera smiled, thinking a song with the word breakdown in the title might not be the best choice for the Jeep Jamboree.
Rivera liked living in a small town. Everywhere he looked, he saw people he knew either as friends or acquaintances. He remembered thinking when he moved to Moab from Las Cruces ten years ago what a rich and diverse array of activities the town had to offer its residents and visitors. There were art festivals, music festivals, a rodeo, hiking and running events, mountain bike races, rock and mineral shows, and, of course, the Jeep Jamboree and its springtime cousin, the Jeep Safari. Today's drive down Main Street served to reinforce his belief that Moab was where he wanted to spend the rest of his life.
When he reached Center Street, he was able to turn right, escaping most of the congestion. He parked in front of the sheriff's building, entered, and headed down the hallway toward his office, detouring by the break room to grab a mug of coffee. He felt content and relaxed.
He'd been sitting in his office no more than three minutes when his cell phone buzzed. The caller was Millie Ives, the sheriff's dispatcher, who had been serving in that capacity for longer than anyone could remember.
"Manny, we just received a call from an Andrea Greene up in the LaSal Mountains. She sounded frightened and was a bit incoherent, but she said she saw what appeared to be a dead body in the back seat of a Jeep Wrangler parked by that small lake just off the Beaver Basin Road. You know where that is?"
Rivera stood up. "Sure do. I'm on my way."
"EMS has been dispatched to the scene."
Rivera took one last swallow of coffee, hustled out of the building, and hoisted himself into his vehicle. He switched on the light bar and headed out of Moab using secondary roads to avoid the heavy downtown traffic. He turned right on Highway 128 and sped northeast between the red rock cliffs channeling the flow of the Colorado River. The rising sun created alternating patterns of copper colors and dark shadows on the scalloped cliff faces, a beautiful sight Rivera would normally observe and appreciate. This morning, focused on navigating the curves in the road at high speed, he barely noticed.
Turning right at Castle Valley, he drove into the LaSal Mountains on the gravel of the Castleton-Gateway Road. As his altitude increased, the color of the foliage transitioned from the dark green of the junipers and pinyon pine to the green, yellow, and reddish-brown fall colors of the scrub oaks, and from there to the white barked aspen trees, their leaves now a dazzling golden color. As he continued higher, the aspens gave way to stately, dark green pines which created mottled shadows across the roadway.
Rivera slowed down, turned right onto the Beaver Basin Trail, and bounced up the rutted road for a little over a mile until he reached a small lake on his left. He parked in the gravel parking area next to the lake, pulled on a pair of latex gloves, and hopped out of his vehicle. The EMS crew had already arrived, and two medics carrying black bags were walking away from an older model Jeep Wrangler. They looked at Rivera with grim expressions and shook their heads.
On the other side of the parking area was a late model Subaru crossover. A woman with a shocked expression was standing next to it, her eyes focused on the medics. Inside the Subaru was a younger woman with her hands to her face who looked to be weeping.
The senior medic approached Rivera and spoke in a muted voice. "There's a young man in the back of the Jeep, Manny. He's dead. Looks like a bullet to the temple."
"Okay, Andy, thanks. I'll take it from here."
The medics climbed into their vehicle and drove off.
Rivera approached the Jeep. It was covered with dust and had dozens of scratches on its sides, the kind a vehicle picks up from scraping against brush growing at the edges of narrow backcountry roads. He opened the rear door and confirmed what the medics had told him. The victim looked to be in his early twenties. He was lying on his side in the back seat. There was a small, dark hole in his right temple and a single rivulet of dried blood running back to his hairline. Rivera shook his head in disgust, closed the door, and approached the ladies.
The woman standing by the Subaru was middle-aged with short graying hair. She was wearing jeans and a black, long-sleeve, Audubon Society sweatshirt with the image of a multi-colored Painted Bunting on front, its wings extended in flight. A pair of expensive binoculars hung from a lanyard around her neck.
"Hello, Deputy," she said in a tremulous voice. "My name is Andrea Greene. I'm the one who called the sheriff's office."
Rivera introduced himself and pointed to her car. "Is your friend okay?"
"That's my daughter Iris. She's kind of shook up, but I think she'll be all right. Is that man dead?"
"Yes, he is. May I ask what you ladies were doing up here?" Rivera posed the question even though he had already deduced from the lady's binoculars and sweatshirt that they were birders.
"We came up here to do some birding. That Jeep was parked there when we arrived. We hiked to the far end of the lake, found a place to sit, and did what birders do. We watched for birds and recorded our observations. We saw some beautiful specimens but nothing out of the ordinary. When we came back to the car a couple of hours later, the Jeep was still there. We hadn't seen anyone else in the area since we arrived, so we began wondering who the Jeep belonged to. Iris walked over to it and peeked through the window. When she shrieked, I came running over. The man inside looked dead. There was blood on his head. We didn't want to touch anything. I reported it right away."
"You did the right thing," said Rivera. "Did you see anything unusual around here when you arrived? Another vehicle, maybe? Or people on foot?"
"No, nothing but the Jeep," said Andrea.
"Where are you staying?"
"At the Red Cliffs Lodge. We'll be there for four more days. We're part of a Denver birding club. A bunch of us came here hoping to score some rare species."
"Okay, thank you for reporting this. I'll be in touch if I have further questions." He jotted her contact information into his notepad. "You ladies can go now."
After the women drove off, Rivera returned to the Jeep, opened the door, and scanned the interior. The young man's eyes were still open. He had the appearance of someone who spent a lot of time outdoors. Despite the graying of his skin brought on by death, Rivera could see he had a ruddy complexion and a sprinkling of freckles on his nose. His hair was light brown, and his eyes were hazel. He was a wholesome looking fellow with a clean-cut, all-American look. His face reminded Rivera of one he'd seen in a book of Norman Rockwell drawings.
Rivera backed away from the vehicle, scanned the area, and took in the setting. All was quiet except for the sound of tree branches rustling in the breeze and the chirping of unseen birds. The fragrance of pine filled the air. The surface of the lake was placid, except for the occasional circular pattern of ripples created by fish feeding on water bugs. A pair of Mallard ducks flew into view and landed gracefully in the middle of the lake, creating a pair of V-shaped wakes. It was a beautiful and peaceful ponderosa forest scene now marred by the presence of a murdered human corpse. Rivera could never understand this kind of violence. Why in the world would someone snuff out a young man's life and leave him out here in the middle of nowhere? And what kind of mind could justify such a horrid act?
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