It was late when the old Ford pickup pulling a small travel trailer drove up to the office at Shady Grove Campground in West Memphis, Arkansas. Mary, the manager, always locked the door at 8:00 p.m., and any campers arriving after hours had to make their own arrangements regarding where to park. They were asked to put one night’s payment in an envelope kept in a bucket by the front window, stuff the envelope through a slot in the door, and select a site from the large map pinned next to the after-hours directions.
Rose was usually the one to follow up by stopping at the site the next morning to find out how long the campers were planning to stay and whether or not they were satisfied with their hookups. Being late March, still well before the busy summer season, there were usually plenty of places from which to choose.
Jacob Sunspeaker was the driver of the old truck, a 1974 model, blue and white, with New Mexico tags. He came from the southern tip of McKinley County, west of El Morro and just beyond Ramah. He was of the Zuni tribe, lived in the pueblo, in a small house beside his sister and her family. He made jewelry—bracelets and rings mostly, some belt buckles, all silver with an inlay design—which he sold in Gallup. That was where he bought his truck and trailer in the early nineties, when he was particularly productive and when the silver business was booming.
The trailer he was pulling, a Coachmen, was rusted on the bottom and its gray paint was peeling on the front and sides. It was a twenty-four-footer, with a double bed, a table, and extra storage—plenty of room for two people, more than was really needed for just one.
He took it to the market where he sold his bracelets and rings and over to Santa Fe and Albuquerque for the Indian Market and to some of the feast days at the pueblos, where he participated in the dances and got new ideas for his jewelry designs. He lived in it most of the summers, moving to his house only when the wind blew too hard, making it difficult to sleep or cook in a house on wheels.
The Coachmen suited Mr. Sunspeaker. Once he had received the vision that became his mission and when the knowledge of what he had to do became the sturdy place from which to hoist himself, he found the travel trailer was the best possible means of always being ready to relocate and visit the next necessary destination. He discovered that he liked the feel of being mobile, of having a dwelling that moved so effortlessly with him.
His sister teased him about taking up the habits of white people, so many of whom they saw driving their campers and trailers through the pueblo to get to the Hawikuh Ruins or Ojo Caliente, the hot springs near their homes. But her jokes never bothered him.
He told her that the ease of few belongings and the ability to move quickly were more the way of Indians, he having descended from a people who traveled as nature dictated.
The old Coachmen was dented in a few places, in need of a good wash, and two of the windows were cracked and covered with silver duct tape. Jacob Sunspeaker, however, was satisfied with both how it looked and how it pulled behind his old truck. He saw no need for an upgrade or a fresh coat of paint.
No one knew exactly what time he drove into the campground. Old Man Willie, who lived in one of Rhonda and Lucas’s campers situated near the office, was usually the one who confirmed the times of arrival. Generally awake until very late, he stopped by the office every day and informed the manager on duty or one of the owners what time the after-hours visitors arrived.
That night, however, the raw, moonless night that Jacob Sunspeaker found his way from the interstate over to the river, Willie didn’t hear the truck and the travel trailer pull in and stop. He was in bed, having eaten a very big dinner, and had been lulled to sleep by the extended winter chill and the black night of the March sky.
He was dreaming of violets and an old lover’s smooth hands when the Coachmen pulled over to site number Thirty-four, one without hookups on the far right side of the campground, the grassy area near the Mississippi and close to the uncleared part of the acreage.
Originally used for tents and people sleeping in their automobiles, that part of the campground had been closed for more than a year. The narrow piece of real estate owned by the Boyd couple jutted out farther into the Mississippi at that location and had been added to their purchase without their request. Over the years, the property had developed so many flooding problems that instead of trying to remedy them, Rhonda and Lucas had simply discontinued using that landing for camping sites.
Only hikers and the guests who enjoyed private fishing visited the spot, but there was still a driveway leading to it. Apparently, Mr. Sunspeaker had not paid attention to the map at the office and had driven down on the main road, past the curve that led into the park, and turned right onto the old driveway and into the closed-off area.
Willie had awakened because of a barking dog and was sad to be yanked away from a woman’s arms and the dream he loved so much. Because he was awake, he did hear the other vehicle that pulled in just after Mr. Sunspeaker.
He peeked out the window just in time to see the one with the idling motor, the black SUV with unidentified license plates. He paid no attention to it, assuming it was an automobile belonging to a registered guest or that it was just someone visiting a friend. He knew cars came and went at Shady Grove as the campers enjoyed nightly excursions to Memphis and other places along the river.
Since he was not familiar with Mr. Sunspeaker and his journey to Arkansas, Willie had no way of knowing that the SUV was the same vehicle that had been parked on the pueblo for a week as the old man prepared for his journey, the same vehicle that had followed Jacob Sunspeaker out of New Mexico.
He also did not know the old man had seen the trouble coming to him in a dream in the form of a dark thundercloud and that Mr. Sunspeaker had pushed up his trip by more than a couple of days, trying to elude what he saw on the horizon.
Willie simply got back into bed, rolled over, and went back to sleep before noticing that the driver turned off his lights as the car headed down the main road behind the old truck and trailer and that there were at least three men inside, all dressed in black, two of them carrying guns. He pulled the covers tightly around his shoulders, wondering if the dream would come to him once more, hoping his lover had not drifted too far from his memories.
No one, not even Willie, knew that trouble, like a late winter storm, had passed through the gates of Shady Grove on the chilly night in March when the sky was pitch-black, the stars and the moon hidden behind clouds.
No one other than Willie heard the SUV as it entered the campground, and no one heard it leave within one hour’s time. No one witnessed the old man struggle and finally fall. No one recognized the words that passed between his lips or the anguished way he prayed.
No one saw a thing.
Copyright © 2007 by Jackie Lynn. All rights reserved.