IT WAS SUNDAY, a week before Easter, and Manny Rivera was in the office as part of a contingent of deputy sheriffs assigned extra duty during Moab’s annual Jeep Safari. He was sitting at his desk sipping on a mug of black coffee, waiting for the phone to ring and hoping it wouldn’t.
The ten-day event was a time when Jeep owners from all over the country converged on southeast Utah to test their backcountry driving skills and the durability of their four-wheel-drive vehicles. Caravans of Jeeps attempted to navigate challenging trails with names like Hell’s Revenge, Wipe Out Hill, and Metal Masher. During this testosterone-driven event, vehicle rollovers, injuries, situations requiring rescue, traffic accidents, bar fights, and theft were inevitable. Thus far, no serious problems had been reported—but Rivera knew it was just a matter of time.
The first call came at eleven o’clock in the morning. He put down his coffee and snatched the telephone out of its cradle on the first ring. The caller was a nurse at the Moab Regional Hospital.
“Please hold, Deputy Rivera,” she said. “Mrs. Foster, one of our patients, would like to speak with you. She says it’s urgent.”
Rivera heard some fumbling with the phone and what sounded like heavy breathing. “Deputy Rivera, this is Faye Foster. Please come to the hospital right away,” she said in a weak gasping voice. “I need to clear my conscience about something before I die.”
Rivera hung up the phone, grabbed his Stetson, and rushed out of the office. He was sure this had nothing to do with the Jeep Safari. He knew Mrs. Foster had been ill but he had no idea she was near death. She was an elderly widow who lived in an old house on a few dozen acres out in Spanish Valley. He’d visited her home several times last year when she’d complained about a recurring theft of vegetables from her garden. It was jackrabbits, he knew then, but he also knew she was lonely after her husband had passed away and she just wanted someone to talk to.
He entered the hospital lobby, obtained Mrs. Foster’s room number at the front desk, and headed down the hallway. He intercepted a nurse along the way, asked about Mrs. Foster’s condition, and learned she had Stage IV emphysema.
“Mrs. Foster is seventy-six years old and she’s been a smoker all of her adult life. Her lungs are barely functioning.” The nurse lowered her voice to a whisper. “It’s just a matter of time now, maybe a day or two.”
Faye Foster lay in her bed under a sheet, eyes squeezed shut in a frown, looking small on the large mattress. Her craggy face was weathered and wrinkled, and her gray-brown hair appeared greasy and matted as though it hadn’t been shampooed in weeks. An oxygen tube was clipped to her nose and her breathing was labored.
Rivera removed his hat. “Mrs. Foster,” he said in a soft voice.
Her eyes opened. She squinted and blinked at Rivera as though trying to bring him into focus. Her eyebrows rose slightly upon recognizing him. She pushed down with her elbows and struggled to sit upright, but couldn’t. She gave up and just lay there, managing a half smile which quickly faded. “Thanks for coming, Deputy Rivera. I need to tell you about something that happened a long time ago. It was fifteen years ago, almost to the day, but I remember it like it was yesterday.” She stopped and took a series of short breaths. “It’s been troubling my conscience all this time.”
Rivera placed his hat on a table and extracted a pen and notebook from his shirt pocket.
“There was a young man killed up in the LaSal Mountains back then,” she said. “He was shot in the chest. The sheriff never could figure out who he was or why he was killed.” She stopped talking to catch her breath and pointed to a glass of water on the bedside table.
Rivera handed her the glass. Grasping it with trembling hands, she raised her head off the pillow and took a couple of sputtering sips. Rivera watched her drink, vaguely remembering hearing about the case. It had happened years before he’d arrived in Moab.
She pushed the glass toward him and he returned it to the table. Her intense, brown eyes stared past him at the far wall. “It always bothered me that since he was never identified, his family was never notified of his death. They’re probably still wondering what happened to him. His mother must be heartbroken.” She paused and took several breaths, the oxygen apparatus wheezing and clicking each time she inhaled. “My husband Wilford was hiking in the mountains that day and discovered the body. Instead of calling the authorities, the heartless old fool just stole the young man’s backpack. It was new and Wilford wanted it, so he just unsnapped the straps, removed it from the body, and brought it home.” She stopped again and struggled to catch her breath. “Later he made an anonymous call to the Sheriff’s Office from a pay phone in town and reported the location of the body. The next day, he told me about what he’d done and I’ve been ashamed and troubled ever since.”
Rivera understood the point. An item in the backpack might have revealed the man’s identity. “What did your husband do with the contents of the backpack?”
“That’s what I wanted to tell you. Wilford’s dead and buried and I’m near gone, so it won’t matter if it all comes out now.” She swallowed and spoke with an urgent tone. “We have a barn on our property. There’s a workshop in the rear for tools and things. Wilford dumped the contents of the backpack into one of the drawers in the workbench. I think it’s all still there.”
Rivera nodded and folded up his notepad. “I’ll check it out.”
She reached out, held his wrist weakly with her hand, and looked at him with pleading eyes. “Deputy Rivera, promise me you’ll find his family and tell them what happened to their boy.”
He patted her hand. “I promise.”
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