“The Uranium Prospector” by Hughes Rudd

A western town has a coroner with a past, and a peculiar stranger might flare up old rivalries.


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Jasper C. Graf was far and away the best mortician we ever had in our town. At the time this all happened about the Arab woman and the uranium hunter, we had two, but he was far and away the best.

If you live in a big town maybe you never think of morticians, or at least maybe you never think of one of them as better than any of the others. But in a little town like ours, it’s different. When you only have two, the difference is bound to come out. Like I say, it’s probably something peculiar to little towns, or maybe to little towns out west, where our town is, where there isn’t an awful lot to take your mind off your life or your job or your wife. You know how it is? People out west are interested in morticians as a rule, I think.

And Jasper C. Graf was a fine mortician. There’s more to it, you know, than just the embalming or the services: A man can make a good living in a town if he’s good at those things, of course, and if he knows how to sell the more expensive caskets, but that isn’t what I mean when I say Jasper C. Graf was a fine mortician. It’s more difficult for a mortician to be a part of the town, a real part, you know. What I mean is, he sort of stands off to one side, or at least people put him off to one side; and if he’s an ordinary man, that’s where it ends, like with a preacher. But Jasper C. Graf was just about as pleasant a fellow as you ever saw. He only had one enemy that I ever heard of in our town, and that was Howie Loveless, the other mortician. Howie kept all that talk about the Arab woman going; and as our coroner, he got all mixed up in the other business too.

You could always feel a depth of something in Jasper C. that you couldn’t feel in many men. You always felt like whatever he said or whatever he did, you were just hearing or seeing the ripples on the surface: The movement, the thing that was really happening, was deep down inside somewhere, like when a sunken tree will shift in a river, underwater, unseen, making a bulge, a ridge where the water meets the light and air.

And Jasper C. Graf was such a big man, with such style to him, such a commanding man, that you always felt you were looking at somebody you knew was famous; but right that minute you couldn’t remember exactly what it was he was famous for: straight and tall and above six feet, with a very thin grin crease around the corners of his mouth, as though someone was looking at him and he had to behave just so. He had a great depth to him.

Now, Howie Loveless was about as depthless a man as you ever came across. You could wade around in him all day and never even get your shoes wet. He was little, and he had a bad limp that nobody ever knew the straight facts about, and he was a hypocrite and a bad mortician. I mean, really a bad mortician: His people all looked the same when he got through with them; everybody always said so, and I heard Mrs. Angelovic say at her husband’s funeral in Howie’s place that he looked just fine but it didn’t look like him. If you’d been to one of Howie’s funerals, you’d been to them all. He — well, the details are pretty bad, but the fact was he was careless. He just pumped everybody full of fluid until no more would go in and of course you can’t do it that way: It makes for round faces on everybody. And a hypocrite: He was married and had three dark little children just like himself, but he used to sneak off to Big Mary’s place all the time. That’s the kind of mortician Howie Loveless was. I used to be scared to death I’d get killed somehow or other while he was coroner.

Because, of course, whoever is coroner has first chance at the accidentals. Or should have. The fact was, Jasper C. Graf’s ambulance usually got there first, because he had such a good driver, Fat Jim. Fat Jim just worshiped Jasper C. He never said so but you could tell it, the way he followed him around and was always on call twenty-four hours a day, even though he was supposed to be the photographer on the paper. He used to get some wonderful accident pictures that way, and once Howie accused him at a coroner’s inquest of moving a fellow’s body in a car so it would make a better picture. It was just that Jasper C. Graf and Fat Jim paid more attention to their business, took it more seriously than Howie did. They were professionals; and Howie, in spite of his diploma from the school in San Francisco, wasn’t, somehow. He was too much like everybody else and, of course, most of us are amateurs, as long as we live. You have to give yourself up pretty thoroughly to anything if you want to become professional at it, and most of us won’t do it; we’d rather please ourselves.

That’s the way it was with Howie, if you want to be charitable. All he wanted was to make a living and enjoy himself, and at every turn he ran smack into those two professionals. It grated on Howie.

“Damn it,” he said to me on the street one day before all the trouble, “why don’t them two relax for a while?”

That was another thing: Jasper C. Graf never swore. And Fat Jim, why he never even smoked or drank or anything. You could tell Jasper C. just didn’t think it was fitting, but that was the kind of thing that was lost on Howie. Still, he was an easygoing fellow, content with the leftovers, like the runt of the litter always is, but he knew people expected him to be upset every time Fat Jim beat him to a case on the highway and so he acted upset. And I think it might have gone on that way for years, maybe forever, if it hadn’t been for the uranium hunter.

That’s what we thought he was at first. He came in on the 4 a.m. train from Denver. We don’t get any tourists in our town, except a few buying gas over on the highway, so somebody noticed him right away, and they told somebody else and then everybody heard he was in the hardware store buying a scintillometer.

Well, we all went up there, because we’d never heard of anything like that. Out in our part of the country, people from town and a few ranchers are our only uranium hunters. They don’t find much, and outsiders aren’t attracted to it. And now here was this skinny little man standing in the store and reading out a long list in a whiny voice, laughing every once in a while.

There must have been 20 of us in there watching, and not one of us could believe it.

“By God,” somebody near me said, “that fellow’s crazy.”

“He just said he didn’t need no compass,” somebody else said. “Did you hear that? They tried to sell him a compass, a azimuth compass, and he said he didn’t need one.”

He was the skinniest little man, with a skinny voice and a skinny laugh, and his clothes were all wrong. They’d started out right, somewhere, in some war-surplus or Army and Navy store in Denver, maybe, but now they were all wrong. He had on a pair of jeans, but they looked like they were made out of blue plastic, they were so thickly new and shiny — the copper rivets glittered in points in the store. And the back of his canvas hunting jacket had a fold in it so deep it looked like the two halves had not yet been stitched together but hung there on each shoulder, the edges lapped together waiting for the needle. The seams where the sleeves joined the jacket were outlined with white tacking thread, and the stitching around the soles of his jack boots was fresh and clean and glaring.

“He must’ve put all that on in the train,” somebody said, and we turned and went out the door and across the street to the town’s bar. I could see that little man in the tiny toilet room on the chair car, struggling silently into those clothes while the sweat burst out on his forehead and back and chest, struggling into the stiff, unwieldy clothes behind the locked door of the room no bigger than a telephone booth.

We all had a drink without anybody saying anything for a minute.

“Where the hell,” somebody finally said, “did that fellow ever get such a damn-fool idea as that? Can anybody here tell me that? I don’t want to hear another damn thing but that.”

“I tell you he’s crazy,” Bye Jenkins said.

“What about the railroad?” somebody said. “You think the railroad ain’t crazy for selling him a ticket?”

“Well, what beats me,” Bye said, “is his color. I wouldn’t worry about it if he was some damn fool from Denver. But he’s so pale-looking. I bet the fellow’s a tourist.”

That was what upset us, of course, As I say, there aren’t any tourists in our town, I don’t know why, and this fellow arriving on the four a.m. train to hunt uranium was impossible, strange, unnatural. We don’t dislike tourists as tourists: That wasn’t it at all.

We sat there talking about it and thinking and worrying about it, and I was thinking I’d ask Jasper C. Graf what he thought about it when next I saw him, when all of a sudden Charley Harper the druggist came running in.

“Have you seen her?” he said, hanging onto the bar and staring at us with his mouth twitching at one corner the way it always does. “Have any of you seen her?”

“Her?” Bye Jenkins said. “You mean him? The little tourist over at the hardware store?”

“No,” Harper said. He drank down a whole glass of beer and took out his handkerchief to wipe his mouth. “The Arab woman,” he said. “I just seen Jasper C. Graf going around the corner in his Cadillac, and there was a Arab woman in a white sheet sitting next to him,” he said, and a big bubble of gas burst in his throat before he could say any more, and we just sat, looking at him.

I went up to see Jasper C. Graf right after Charley Harper told us that. He was sitting in the mortuary office, just sitting in his big leather chair with his legs crossed so neatly for a big man, smoking a cigar and looking at the wall.

“Sam,” he said, and motioned me to take a chair.

I did, and just sat looking at him for a minute. I wasn’t thinking about how I was going to ask him about the Arab woman: Jasper C. wasn’t the sort of man you asked a question like that. You asked his advice, but you didn’t ask him anything personal. No, I was thinking about that tourist fellow, and I thought, now why should Jasper C. Graf even care about such a thing? He goes away to conventions; he knows more about the country than the rest of us. Probably it won’t concern him at all, I thought.

“The darnedest thing has happened,” I said. I started to say, “You won’t believe it,” but I knew he would believe it, because it struck me that back over south, where he came from, they must be used to such unusual things.

“Yes,” he said, looking at me.

“There’s a fellow getting ready to go uranium hunting,” I said.

Jasper C. just kept looking at me for a minute, and then he looked down at his desk and picked up a nail file he kept there and started cleaning his nails, although there wasn’t a speck of dirt under them I could see.

“Kind of late in the year, isn’t it?” he said, looking at his nails.

“It sure is,” I said. “They had thirty-two degrees at the post office yesterday morning.”

“Out-of-town fellow?” Jasper C. said, and I nodded.

“He’s not from around here,” I said. “His clothes are all brand new and he’s not from out west.”

“You fellows try to stop him?” Jasper C. said, still watching the nail file go along under his nails.

“No,” I said. “He’s not the sort of fellow you can say something like that to, I guess. He’s a skinny little tourist fellow with a city kind of a laugh.”

Jasper C. stopped moving the nail file, and a bright little bubble of red appeared at the tip of his little finger, where the file was.

“Now look at that,” I said. “You’ve dug into yourself with that thing.”

Jasper C. Graf was always going to conventions. In that business you have to keep up with the latest, I guess, and you have to make yourself known to other morticians from around the country so that when they have a person to ship to our town for burial, you know. That way you can be put in charge of local arrangements. Howie Loveless used to say Jasper C. went to those conventions just to “get a workout,” because Howie never went to any conventions and that’s what he called going down to Big Mary’s, “getting a workout.”

“He pussyfoots around here and then goes off to those conventions and has himself a big fat time,” Howie used to say. “He gets on that big Pullman and sleeps all the way back out here, and butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. That’s the kind of a man I just can’t stand.”

But that was all a lie, of course, just Howie’s jealousy. Jasper C. Graf didn’t fool around with women like that. It seemed he just didn’t need to or something — he was busy looking at whatever it was that was down inside of him, I always thought.

But thinking like he did, Howie Loveless started talking up that Arab woman business as soon as he heard about it.

“Why, sure,” he said. “He brought her back with him from that convention in San Francisco. They got any kind of woman you can think of out there. I bet he give her a big bunch of money to come back here with him, and now he’ll hide her out and act like nothing was going on at all and laugh at us. That’s just the kind of a fellow he is, that’s all.”

“But why?” Bye Jenkins wanted to know. “Why’d he bring back a Arab woman? It just don’t make sense.”

“Why, sure it does,” Howie said, and his eyes got beady and he looked back over his shoulder, to see if his wife was coming up to the corner, I guess. “It’d be different, wouldn’t it? I wouldn’t mind a Arab myself. Come on,” he said, “I’ll show you something,” and he took us across the street into the depot and pointed at the wall. “Look at there,” he said.

There was a big poster on the wall next to the one of the Western Union boy coming up to the door with the message for Mother, and it showed a dark-skinned woman in a big white veil looking away off somewhere. She had a white cloth draped over her head too, so all you saw was her eyes, as big as Jordan almonds and black as night. Back in the distance was some kind of a little town, and down below in big letters it said, ALGÉRIE, PAYS DE LUMIÈRE.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Bye.

It was a new poster. “Now that,” said Howie, “is a Arab woman.”

You couldn’t argue with him: The face on the poster had the most female-looking eyes I’ve ever seen, and you wanted to see the rest of her, but of course you couldn’t, because of the robe and veil, and that just made you that much surer that what was under there was a beautiful woman, like one you’d never seen in your life before.

We were just standing there looking and not saying anything, when I’ll be darned if Charley Harper didn’t come loping into the depot all lathered up and puffing.

He grabbed Bye Jenkins by the arm and shook him.

“I just saw all three of them,” he said. “They went around the corner just when I came out of the store.”

“What?” Bye said, and he pulled his arm away. “What the hell’s the matter with you, Charley?”

“The tourist and the Arab woman,” Charley said, looking around at us. “They were sitting on the seat right next to Jasper C. Graf, and the tourist was laughing with his head throwed back. I could see his teeth.”

We all looked at Bye. He’s an old man and he has quite a story behind him, and we all looked at him.

“What was Jasper C. doing?” Bye said to Charley.

“Nothing,” Charley said. “He wasn’t doing nothing but driving the car and looking straight ahead.”

Bye looked around at us but nobody said anything.

“Well, damn it,” he said to Charley, “was he laughing?”

“No,” Charley said. “He wasn’t laughing.”

The tourist walked out of town the next morning, in plain sight of everybody, walking straight and unswerving toward some point on the horizon the rest of us couldn’t see, climbing the first hill and disappearing into the desert.

That was about nine o’clock. There was a stiff northwest wind blowing, and you could feel snow coming, and every once in a while a tumbleweed would appear around the corner from nowhere and go rolling and bumping across the street and out of sight.

Everybody was in the bar.

“I’ll tell you what it is,” Bye Jenkins was saying as I walked in. “It’s thoughtless, just plain thoughtless.”

Bye is an old, old man, and his story reaches clear back to the Wild Gang, and the Brown’s Park crowd, to Butch Cassidy and a lot of those other fellows. They were outlaws, and Bye started riding with them when he was fourteen, back in the ‘90’s. He’s the only one that didn’t get hanged or shot, I guess, and they say he killed a lot of men: You can find stories about him in the old copies of the paper, they say, but nobody ever bothers to look them up. If we have a first citizen, I guess Bye’s it.

“Here it’s going to snow,” Bye was saying, “and that fellow just walks off out there into the brush like he knowed what he was doing and where he was going, and none of you even asked him where he was headed or if he even knew himself where he was headed. Now, how’re we ever going to find him?”

Because Bye knew that: We’d have to go out and find him. We knew he wasn’t going to come walking back, because his clothes were so new and because he was different. Can you understand that? It’s not that you have to look a certain way to handle this country: That’s the mistake dudes always make. It’s just that if you’ve learned this country, you look a certain way; learning it gives you that look of belonging to it, the look the tourist didn’t have.

So we knew we’d have to go and find him, and most of the fellows got pretty mad about it: The whole thing was so crazy. Me, I didn’t mind: I wanted to see him again, maybe to find out what it was that had moved him out here into our town, an alien in the rock and brush and wind.

“You might as well all go home and get ready,” Bye said. “If we start this afternoon, he won’t have such a head start on us,” telling us to start now to save the man who’d just left town, because Bye was that certain of the fellow’s mistake.

And then Howie Loveless came limping in the door all rigged up like he was going on a hunting trip: boots, Mackinaw and hunting knife, and a big water bag slung over his shoulder, and so mad I thought he’d start crying any minute.

“Now, listen!” he said. “I want you all to be witnesses that I said it and by God I’ll make it stick. I’m telling you, there ain’t nobody to move that body when it’s found until I get there and declare it dead, you hear me? I’ve had just about enough of this, now.”

“Hold on,” Bye said. “You ain’t neither one of you got him yet.”

“Now, I tell you, it’s me that’s coroner,” Howie said, and he cut a big glare around at everybody.

“But Howie,” I said, “Jasper C. doesn’t even know about it yet. We haven’t told him yet.” And I thought: And you don’t know about it yet, either, not really; so what makes you so sure?

“Oh, no?” Howie said. “Oh, no? Well, how’d you like it if I told you I just seen Jasper C. Graf and that fat boy scooting out of town about 150 miles an hour right on that fellow’s trail?”

After a minute Bye cleared his throat. “Well, now,” he said. “Old Jasper didn’t try to stop him either, and now he’s really humping, ain’t he?”

“Was there anybody with them?” Charley Harper said to Howie. “Did you see anybody else?”

“What?” Howie said, and he frowned. “Of course not. They were in the jeep, and they’ve got the sides on it.

“Oh,” Charley said, his mouth twitching, and he looked back down into his beer.

It all happened so fast after that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to Jasper C. Graf or anything. None of us did. We had to get it all from Fat Jim, because by the time we found the place where they were in the desert, he was the only one. Nobody knew where Jasper C. Graf was.

“It was terrible,” Fat Jim said to us after we got some dry clothes on him. He was sitting by the fire trying to drink some hot coffee, but he couldn’t seem to get his lips to come down on the cup edge; they kept skittering away from it.

“He acted like he was crazy or something,” Fat Jim said. “We found the tourist fellow without any trouble at all, but we had to walk in the last four or five miles and cross the river. He was lying on his back just as peaceful as anything, and the snow had banked up along one side of him like he was a log or a piece of driftwood, and a tumbleweed was caught around his head like a mess of bob wire. I thought he was dead, but Mr. Graf knew right away he wasn’t. I guess he knew even before we left town the fellow wouldn’t be dead.”

“What?” Howie said. “What are you trying to tell me? You trying to — ”

“That tourist started cackling at us as soon as he saw us,” Fat Jim said, looking up at us. “He like to scared me to death. Mr. Graf just stood there looking down at him for a minute and then he said, ‘Get up.’ Just like that. ‘Get up.’ But the tourist just lay there looking up and laughing, and Mr. Graf finally bent over and picked him up and slung him over his shoulder. ‘I’m going to ruin you, Jasper,’ the tourist said, laughing right into Mr. Graf’s face with all them big yellow teeth. Mr. Graf, he just set his face a little and said to me, ‘We got to get this man out of here before he freezes to death.’ ‘Oh, no,’ says the tourist, ‘I won’t never freeze, Jasper, not while I got you to keep me warm. You ain’t never going to let me freeze, are you, Jasper?’ he says to Mr. Graf, but Mr. Graf just started walking, with me trotting along behind begging him to let me help.”

“The most high-handed thing I ever heard of in my entire life,” Howie said. “A criminal act, you all hear that? Moving that fellow before we — “

“And then the tourist fellow started bragging about all the things he could do, and Mr. Graf couldn’t touch him for them because of what had happened,” Jim said, shaking his head. “He said he’d follow Mr. Graf forever just like he’d followed him for twenty years now, and he’d ruin him every time. ‘No matter where you go,’ he says, laughing into Mr. Graf’s face, right into his ear, with his feet dangling down behind. ‘I’ll keep on following you, Jasper, and I’ll keep on making you pay for what you done.’”

“Done?” Howie said, bending down over Jim. “Done what? What did old Jasper do?”

“Finally we come to the river,” Jim said. “Mr. Graf never even slowed down. He missed the ford and just started walking out into it with that tourist cackling on his back and saying, ‘Now, don’t you get my feet wet, Jasper,’ and me splashing along behind hollering for Mr. Graf to look out. But he just kept walking. He didn’t even look back and all of a sudden he went under. I started really yelling at him then. I’m surprised you fellows didn’t hear me in town. Then Mr. Graf bobbed back up and he commenced to fight that water like a crazy man, with that tourist still on his back. Only now that fellow was upset. ‘You’re trying to drown me!’ he was hollering, and all the time Mr. Graf was fighting for both their lives. It was terrible. ‘You’re going to add murder to your list, are you!’ that fellow screamed in Mr. Graf’s ear, and then they went under again, Mr. Graf pumping his legs up and down and kicking and flaying at the water with his elbows and never letting out a sound or even changing expression. It was awful. And they went under, and this time the tourist come up first, shooting half out of the water like a dynamited snag and yelling his head off the minute he broke out, still yelling while he flew up in the air and flopped back. It was terrible.”

“What was he yelling?” Howie said. “I got a right to know, you hear?”

“Mostly it seemed like he was yelling ‘Murderer,’” Jim said, looking into his coffee cup.

“Ah, ha!” cried Howie. “I told you! I told you there was something sneaky about that Jasper C. Graf! I been telling you that for years, and you wouldn’t listen. Goes a-running off out here and kills a man by drowning — ”

“No,” Jim said. “After he shot up, the tourist fellow splashed back in the water and went spinning downstream a way, then he banged up against the other bank and climbed out. He just sat there yelling at us, but he was so far away I couldn’t understand a word he was saying.”

“And what about Jasper C., Jim?” Bye said.

“He told me all about it,” Jim said. “He clawed his way back to where I was. He didn’t swim. He just clawed at that water, and I helped him out. We sat there a minute, and then he said, ‘Jim, I might as well tell you. You can tell everybody in town and it don’t make no difference anymore, anyway. If you don’t tell them, he will, and at least you can tell them straight. I made a mistake once, back in Missouri,’ he said. ‘There was this woman; she was this fellow’s wife, and I made a mistake.’”

“Now, there you are!” Howie said, looking around at us. “Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth and here he was, messing with — ”

“No,” Jim said. “Not like that. He thought she was dead. They didn’t have no doctor in that town, and they brought her to Mr. Graf after she’d fell in a pond in the wintertime. She was drunk, Mr. Graf said, and everybody thought she’d fallen into the pond while she was drunk and had died, and her husband wanted to ship the body out right away to St. Louis before the roads got too bad, so Mr. Graf started to embalm her. But she wasn’t dead, she was just almost dead. It must have been a terrible thing,” Jim said.

“Negligence!” said Howie. “Professional negligence, thats what it was.”

“Mr. Graf was a young mortician then,” Jim said. “He found out right away what was wrong and he stopped everything and saved her life, but it didn’t do no good. Ever after that she tells folks Mr. Graf resurrected her from the dead; and her husband, he says Mr. Graf has damaged his reputation for life because Mr. Graf had his wife lying there in the mortuary without her clothes on. And they follow him wherever he goes, they won’t never stop it, Mr. Graf said. And he has to run off every few years when they find him. It’s terrible.”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Bye said. “You mean we got to lose a good mortician because of something like that?”

“And that’s why she wears them Arab clothes,” Jim said. “Because she was resurrected, she says. She thinks she’s somebody out of Scripture, Mr. Graf said.”

“But why?” Howie said, sitting down next to Jim. “Why did that fellow buy that stuff and come walking way out here? And why did Jasper C. Graf bother to come after him? Why?”

“Just to devil Mr. Graf,” Jim said, closing his eyes. “He knew Mr. Graf would come get him. It was just his devilish way of announcing he was here, of showing Mr. Graf how mean he was.”

“But why go get him?” Howie said, looking around at us. “Why didn’t he let that fellow just lay out there and freeze?”

Bye Jenkins looked down at Howie. “Because he ain’t that kind of a man,” Bye said. “If he’d been that kind of a man, that fellow never could have bothered and hounded him at all. He couldn’t have hounded you, could he, Howie?”

Howie didn’t say anything.

When we got back to town, Jasper C. Graf’s office with the big leather chair was there, with a dead cigar in the ashtray and the nail file lying on the desk, but Jasper C. Graf and his Cadillac were gone. That afternoon the tourist and the woman came around a corner and into the depot, and when the 6 p.m. train for Denver came in, they got on board, the man looking angrier than a tornado and the woman so wrapped up in sheets you couldn’t see what she looked like.

And that was how we lost the best mortician our town ever had. Charley Harper must have had his eye on the mortuary business for a long time, because it wasn’t two weeks later that he opened up a funeral parlor himself, on an apprentice license he says he’s had for years, and nobody’s surprised by it anymore: It sort of goes with the drugstore business in a town like ours, and Howie Loveless is altogether too careless, and of course his reputation is just terrible: It seems to get worse all the time.

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