SHERIFF LEROY BRADSHAW STOOD amidst the blackbrush and junipers on the high-desert landscape which sloped downward toward the rim of Labyrinth Canyon. He stared at the skeletal hand protruding from the rocks. It looked to him like a body had been shoved under a stone ledge and then concealed by stacking rocks across the opening. He hooked his thumbs in his trouser pockets and wondered how long the corpse had been buried here, out in the middle of nowhere. He also wondered if he was looking at a crime scene or just some hippie burial site.
Dave Tibbetts, a recently-hired young deputy and new to the southeast Utah canyon country, knelt in front of the makeshift grave and took photographs with a digital camera. He worked diligently under the watchful eye of the sheriff while Dr. Pudge Devlin, part-time Medical Examiner for the Moab area, sat on a nearby rock and waited.
"Dave, be sure and get some close-ups of the hand," said Bradshaw.
"Okay, Sheriff."
When the photo session was completed, Bradshaw instructed his deputy to begin carefully removing the rocks one at a time. "Move them downslope about ten feet so the mortuary people have plenty of room to extract the body."
Tibbetts grasped the first rock, a large one, and grunted as he moved it away from the grave. As he continued moving the rocks, some small and some large, more and more of the corpse came into view. It looked like it had been pushed unceremoniously into the opening facing inward with its legs folded at the hips and knees. Small desert creatures had eaten away most of the flesh so there wasn’t much left except bones, hair, small patches of mummified skin on the skull, and ragged clothing.
Devlin stood up and walked over to Bradshaw. "If you have to die, it’s not a bad place to be buried. Look at the view."
Bradshaw turned around and scanned the landscape. In the immediate foreground was Labyrinth Canyon whose red rock walls channeled the Green River flowing some eight-hundred feet below. Across the canyon, undulating brush-covered mesa land, now golden-grey from the cool October nights, extended westward for thirty miles. Beyond that, mountains, cliffs, and buttes decorated the horizon.
"Yeah, this is gorgeous country. If you like solitude, this is one of the best spots in the county. Not many people come out this way. The two-track road leading out here is pretty hard to find. And if they can find it, it’s a long rough ride."
With the last rock removed and the corpse now fully exposed, Tibbetts retrieved the camera and took another series of photographs. Then he stepped aside to make room for Devlin.
Bradshaw watched as Devlin knelt on one knee in front of the grave and silently studied the corpse. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in mid-October with clear blue skies and a gentle breeze. Bradshaw had planned to attend the art exhibit at the Moab Arts and Recreation Center this afternoon with his wife Jill. Today had been one of those rare days when the pain of her progressing cancer had subsided and she’d wanted to get out of the house. Then his cell phone rang. It was his dispatcher. Three young men on ATVs had been exploring the Labyrinth Canyon rims on the east side of the Green River. They’d dismounted to walk to the edge and look down at the river flowing below. One of them spotted an exceptionally large collared lizard scampering across the rocks and through the blackbrush. He gave chase just for the fun of it. The lizard sprinted around a sandstone outcropping and disappeared into a pile of rocks under a cap rock overhang. The rocks looked like they’d been stacked neatly to form a wall. Curious, he removed a few of the rocks to see what was behind them and exposed the skeletal hand. The boys returned to a point where there was cell phone coverage and called it in to the authorities. Now Bradshaw waited to discover whether or not he had a capital crime on his hands.
Devlin examined the corpse for several minutes. Finally he spoke. "Male, late fifties or early sixties. I’d say he was killed about three years ago."
"Killed?" asked Bradshaw.
"There’s a quarter-inch hole in the back of the skull. It looks like he was shot with a small caliber weapon." Devlin stood up and dusted off his pants. "I’ll know more after we get him back to town where I can do a full autopsy."
Now it was Bradshaw’s turn to inspect the corpse. He knelt down and ran his hand across the victim’s clothing, patting the pockets. He pulled a wallet out of the man’s jeans. He opened it and read the driver’s license. "Well I’ll be damned. This is February Flanagan. He disappeared from Moab a few years ago. Everyone figured he’d just left town."
"I remember him," said Devlin. "He was a retired newspaper journalist from back east somewhere. New York, I think. Interesting guy. From what I remember, he came to Moab to retire but never could shut off his investigative drive. He started looking for corruption in our little corner of the world. As far as I know, he never found anything."
Bradshaw nodded. "Maybe."
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