DEPUTY SHERIFF MANNY RIVERA sat in his Grand County Sheriff’s Department Ford F-150 pickup truck and studied the demonstration from a half block away. The protesters occupied the corner of Main and Center Streets, right in the middle of downtown Moab. They were chanting, No more digging, no more digging, and pumping placards up and down in rhythm with the chant.
Rivera made a quick head count. There were forty-five of them, mostly young, about half men and half women. None were locals; he didn’t recognize a single face. He focused hisbinoculars on the placards. One read, Respect Human Dignity. Another said, Grave Desecration is Sick. A larger one read, Arrest and Prosecute Pothunters.
He lowered his binoculars, wondering why the demonstrators had chosen Moab for their activities. As far as he knew, there hadn’t been much pothunting taking place in Grand County.
Abruptly, there was a knock on the passenger-side window of his vehicle. Liddie, the teenage clerk who worked part-time at the Times-Independent, Moab’s weekly newspaper, was peering through the glass. He pressed the button and lowered the window."Hi, Liddie. How are you today?"
"Hi, Deputy Rivera. I’m fine." She pushed her hair away from her eyes, appeared apprehensive. "I just unlocked the office and found this message on the floor. Someone slid it through the mail slot last night or this morning. I think it might be important. I was going to walk it over to the Sheriff’s Office, but then I noticed you sitting here in your pickup." She handed Rivera an envelope. "I made a copy of it for the publisher," she said as she turned to leave.
"Okay, Liddie, thanks." Rivera opened the envelope and extracted a folded sheet of paper with a typewritten message:
• Despite laws to the contrary, thoughtless, greedy individuals continue to ravage ancient-Indian graves in search of artifacts.
• Law enforcement is not doing its job. Arrests are few, prosecutions are rare.
• The digging must stop or there will be immediate consequences. We will see to it.
• You will soon learn that we mean business. Retaliation for pothunting will be carried out.
• Don’t make the mistake of assuming this is a crank message.
From: The Unrelenting Defenders of Indian Rights
Rivera reread the note, then folded it up and placed it back in the envelope. He returned his attention to the protesters and studied each one of them, now taking a keener interest in the group. Two or three of the young men looked as though they had the potential to be troublemakers, but for the most part, the protesters seemed like clean-cut kids who were simply voicing their opposition to pothunters who desecrated ancient-Indian graves. They didn’t look much different from the young people who came to Moab for backcountry adventure. Rivera hoped the manifesto was just an idle threat made by one of the protesters for effect, but there was no way to be sure.
His cell phone rang. It was Millie Ives, the sheriff’s dispatcher. "Manny, we just received a call from a man who was flying an ultra-light aircraft over the LaSal Mountains. He reported seeing someone lying face down on a trail out on North Beaver Mesa. The pilot was getting low on fuel and couldn’t circle back to make a closer inspection, but he was able to give me the GPS coordinates." She read them out and Rivera jotted them into his notepad. "Sheriff Bradshaw wants you to check it out." Rivera briefed her on the activities of the protesters and the note Liddie had delivered to him, then turned north on Main Street and headed out of town.
He turned right on Highway 128, switched on his light bar, and sped through the curves which followed alongside the Colorado River. He hung a right at the Castle Valley turnoff and continued past red rock buttes and spires into the foothills of the LaSals, gaining altitude with each mile.
Well into the mountains, he turned left on Polar Mesa Road, a dirt road which headed northeast into a remote wilderness. Two bumpy miles later, he parked his vehicle in a cluster of juniper trees. He strapped on a daypack containing water, food, maps, a GPS receiver, a first aid kit, a digital camera, and other supplies. He locked his vehicle and set out at a hurried pace on a primitive trail that led south across North Beaver Mesa.
A half hour later, he reached the southern edge of the mesa and stopped. He wiped his forehead and compared the latitude and longitude displayed on his GPS receiver to the coordinates on his map. He was getting close. He turned left and followed the sandstone trail along the edge of the bluff overlooking Beaver Valley some four hundred feet below. Twenty minutes later, as he passed over the crest of a gentle rise, he spotted a man lying prone on the trail up ahead. He trotted up to him, knelt down, and checked for vital signs.
The man was dead, the victim of a bullet to the back and another to the head. Rivera crouched. He drew his service pistol and scanned the area, studying each rock and tree, looking for any sign of another human being. The mesa was quiet except for the chirping of unseen birds and the rustling of junipers and sagebrush in the breeze. A minute passed before Rivera satisfied himself there was no one else in the area. He re-holstered his weapon and turned his attention to the victim.
Rivera estimated the man had been dead only a few hours. He extracted the victim’s wallet from the back pocket of his jeans and scanned his driver’s license. The victim’s name was William Whitlock, age forty-eight, from San Francisco.
Rivera called the Sheriff’s Department from his cell phone, reported the situation, and requested the Medical Examiner and mortuary staff be dispatched. After cordoning off the area with yellow crime scene tape, he removed the camera from his daypack and began photographing the corpse and the immediate area. As he did, he wondered what in the world Whitlock was doing out here all by himself. He had no backpack. No water, no food, no map, no compass. Hiking the high-desert backcountry without an adequate supply of water was tantamount to suicide, especially in an area so remote that timely assistance from fellow hikers was unlikely.
Rivera emptied the man’s pockets. Besides the wallet, there was a set of General Motors keys, a plastic key card from the Big Horn Lodge in Moab, a few coins, and a handkerchief. His logical mind searched for a reason someone would shoot a hiker out in the middle of nowhere. The motive wasn’t robbery. The man’s wallet contained over six hundred dollars. He could think of no rational explanation.
While Rivera waited for the Medical Examiner to arrive, he examined the seldom-used trail along the edge of the bluff. It was barely visible, consisting of a subtle darkened indentation worn into the sandstone over the decades by the boots of passing hikers. Periodic cairns marked the route. He found nothing of interest until a distant blue object farther down the trail caught his eye. He walked toward it, finally recognizing it as a large backpack.
A folding trench shovel was fastened to the outside of the pack. He unhooked the shovel and set it aside. The backpack contained a half-empty three-liter bottle of water, trail mix snacks, a cell phone, a book of matches advertising a San Francisco restaurant, a map of the LaSal Mountains, a compass, two trowels wrapped in a dirty towel, a whiskbroom, and a camel-hair brush. A separate storage compartment in the top of the backpack contained a rigid cardboard box. He removed the box and opened the flaps. It contained something protected with several layers of bubble wrap.
Rivera lifted the object from the box, placed it on the ground, and carefully peeled away the bubble wrap. Under the protective plastic was a ten-inch ancient-Indian pot, white with black geometric markings, still caked with fresh dirt from its burial site. Whitlock was a pothunter, the very type of thief the protesters were railing against.
The threatening note left at the newspaper office instantly flashed in his mind.
The demonstration in downtown Moab had just taken on new and sinister proportions.
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