Digging for old bones is best done by night and the digger knows this. He wields his shovel under starlight and moonlight, serenaded by the nocturnal creatures of the Missouri woods. The night is ebony edged in silver, but it ain’t quiet.
Whippoorwills mourn their own name from maple and sycamore trees. A barred owl hoots a question. “Who cooks for you all?”
The digger does not answer. He has work to do and no time for jawing. The digger cooks for himself.
Tree frogs keen shrill in the pin oaks that guard the edge of the clearing. Down along the creek, crickets saw under the cottonwoods. Critters rustle through black-shadowed scrub. Night song and scratch, fliers and crawlers, the whole jangle making a night opera fit for Beelzebub hisself. The digger don’t care. He creates a different song with shovel and soil.
The digger slices into black bottomland soil. He levers the soil from the earth, muscles lifting, straightening. He twists his torso. Soft dirt hisses against steel, arcs silent through the night air. Cast earth thumps over a growing pile. Snick, shuck, hiss, thump. A percussive rhythm against the night song. The shovel takes another bite.
This man under the starlight digs in the soil, but he is also of this soil. Around and under him is Stoneking land, going back two centuries and nine generations.
There is a family plot on the hill, old gravestones surrounded by a wrought iron fence. Joshua Stoneking was the patriarch, the first laid below the soil. His son Jebidiah rests beside him, the first Stoneking to spend his whole life on this land. Jeb is the digger’s great-grandfather five times over.
Not all the Stonekings are buried on that hill. Families scatter, even those with deep roots. Jeremiah is buried over in Belgium. Jason Stoneking is buried in Normandy. The World Wars killed them; one apiece.
The law took the digger off this land, locked him up in Potosi Correctional Center for seven years. He was guilty, admitted it himself. Seven years is a long time in a man’s life. A lot can happen. Brother moved off, parents dead and buried. Farmhouse falling into ruin.
Now he’s back and alone. Too much land and farmhouse for one man. He is the last Stoneking. William, that’s the digger’s name, is a man searching for bones in unmarked graves.
There are two burying grounds on this land, one surrounded by an iron picket fence, the other by family legend. Five shallow graves hidden in the bottomland on the far side of the creek. Five raiders shot down in 1862. They had it coming, and Jeb Stoneking dealt it out to them with a Sharps breechloader. The shooting is the Stoneking creation story, handed down like the land itself.
Jebidiah Stoneking was a good Lutheran and a staunchly anti-slavery. He was a man who helped his neighbors, attended his church, and worked his land. All he asked from the Lord or anyone else was for him and his family to be left in peace. The Lord did not see fit to grant his request.
The Civil War came early in Missouri. Bushwhackers and jayhawkers were at each other’s throats over slavery and things got bloody long before the Rebs fired on Fort Sumter.
By 1862, the Yankees had driven most of the Confederates out of Missouri, but the guerrilla fighting was still hot. Quantrill and his band were at the heart of it and times stayed bloody. One fine June morning, five of Quantrill’s men decided to cross Stoneking land.
Jebidiah was a God-fearing man, but he did not wholly trust in the Bible for protection. He knew how to shoot.
Jeb and his boys were tending to the cornfields. Five riders came out of the trees, all heavily armed. Jeb sent the boys running for the house while he grabbed the Sharps breechloader he owned and dashed into the corn. Mid-June, that green corn would’ve been belly-high on a man.
Those five raiders rode in a file. Jeb rose from the corn and shot the last man in line. That .54 caliber ball took him right off his horse. While those bushwhackers were busy wheeling their mounts, Jeb shot the lead rider square in the chest. Ducks down into the corn and chambers another round. Them surviving raiders must have been brave, but they were foolish. They chose to charge rather than run.
Jeb shot the third rider before that bunch got their horses turned and charging. The last two were trying to ride Jeb down when the fourth man took a ball to the shoulder and toppled off his horse. The last rider came at Jeb, blasting away with a Colt pistol, but he missed. As the man’s horse plunged past, Jeb swung around and shot him square in the back.
Jebidiah walked out of the corn to that wounded raider. The poor bastard was screaming in pain, half his shoulder shot away, scrabbling around clawing at the dirt. Jeb asked the Lord’s forgiveness, picked up the raider’s pistol, and put a ball in that man’s chest.
The far side of the creek; that’s where Jeb and the boys buried them. Now, William Stoneking excavates the bottomland, searching for old bones and redemption. He digs to find the voices and to silence them.
In the small hours, he hears the bones whisper secrets and false promises. We are here, on your land. Your kin killed us. He shot us down, and now we lay the curse on your head. He was no hero. He was a murderer, just like you.
William tries to ignore the voices. He works himself to exhaustion fixing up the farmhouse, stops only for a lean supper. Sometimes working himself to the bone buys him a full night’s sleep or even two, but never more.
The dead voices come to him in sleep. They nag at him, rattle around in his skull. The ghostly murmur wakens him and still it does not end. When he can’t bear it any longer, he gives in, rises from his cot, pulls on his overalls. He must find the bones, lay the past to rest, make peace with himself and his ancestors.
He walks down the slope behind the farmhouse with a lantern in one hand and a shovel in the other. Night songs wash over him. The frogs go quiet as his boots thump across the timber bridge. They’re back to croaking before he reaches the oxbow of bottomland that holds the hidden bones.
Pin oaks guard the far edge of the clearing and cottonwoods hold back the creek. Between them is a soft dark clearing. Bare wooden pickets rise from the dark ground. Each picket marks a hole dug, found empty, and filled again.
William hangs his lantern on the last picket, sidesteps twice to mark fresh earth, and begins to dig. The first two, three feet, he is a machine. The bones lie deeper than that, if at all. The shovel slices a bite of soil. His thoughts drift away to prison cells, and how he was wrenched from this land.
William has no remorse over killing Ray Mooney. The trial judge didn’t give a fig for remorse, no more than he cared that Mooney had raped a young girl. No charges were ever brought against that rapist son of a bitch, the girl being black and Mooney’s daddy being rich. But they damn sure arrested William for shooting Mooney dead.
The killing that cost William seven years was over in minutes. He’s hauling a load of feed in the flatbed. A fancy pickup cuts past, near puts him in the ditch, then skids sidewise across the road. Mooney and two of his no-good pals pile out. William steps from the flatbed, tells them boys to go on and leave him be. Ray cusses William, bragging how his daddy owns the judge. No one can touch me, Stoneking. You remember that. Then Mooney reaches one hand behind his back. William obliged the rapist by shooting him twice in the chest.
The scene plays out in William’s head as his hands dig the soil. Two trucks and a dead man on the baking asphalt. The one thing he can’t never recall is grabbing his pistol out of the glove box. But it was in his hand all the same and Ray Mooney was sprawled on his back, dead before he hit the ground.
There was a moment of quiet after Mooney hit the ground. Seemed to go on forever, him standing there pointing his pistol at Mooney’s pals while they stared at the dead man. Then William climbed back into the flatbed, punched it, and those boys jumped for the ditch.
He didn’t know what else to do but drive back to the farm. A few hours later, the sheriff arrested him in front of his folks. Tears were running down his mama’s face. Eight years gone now, and both his folks dead and buried.
William stops shoveling, wipes his forehead. His story ain’t heroic like Jeb’s. The long and short of it was Ray Mooney lying dead on the pavement and William starting on his long road to prison. Folks remember Jebidiah as a God-fearing man. They remember William as a killer.
The trial was a joke. The judge knew whose family got him elected to the bench. Still, it could have been worse.
Mooney’s pals hid his pistol before the sheriff got to the scene, but that story didn’t hold water. The possibility of a missing pistol turning up made the prosecutor nervous, so the old boy dropped the charges from murder to manslaughter.
With no witnesses to vouch for him, William took a guilty plea on the lesser charge. Not many folks mourned Mooney’s killing, but that didn’t stop William from being sent off to Potosi.
Prison walls teach tough lessons. William learned there were three ways out, besides doing the time. An inmate escapes now and then. There’s dying, of course, self-inflicted or not. Last, a few prisoners learn to live like the walls don’t matter.
William met a pair of lifers in Potosi, Seth and Morris, one white, the other black. An odd pair inside those walls and both hard as coffin nails. Neither had a prayer of getting out and they knew it. The prison population gave them respect and plenty of room.
It was Morris and Seth who first shoved books into William’s hand. William never knew why they bothered, but he’s damn grateful that they did.
Prison is an ocean of time and reading is a lifeboat. At first, Seth and Morris steered him, pointing him to simple books that were easy to understand. A couple of years later, William was plowing through the prison library like it was soft Missouri bottomland. The more he read, the more those walls disappeared.
Seven years passed before the authorities finally released William Stoneking. An ex-con, they sent him to a halfway house down in Springfield. William made himself into a model parolee. After four months of washing dishes and toeing the line, he was allowed to return to the Stoneking farm.
William’s parents died while he was in prison, not a year apart. The farmhouse stood neglected and empty. His brother leased the tillable land and banked the rents. Back on the farm again, William got a cut of the lease money and a rent-free house. It was enough to scrape by on, just him and the mice.
That’s how he came to be a hermit haunting his own land. The years in prison wrenched his roots from the Stoneking soil and he cannot replant them. He spends his days fixing up the old house. By night he is haunted by the roar of two gunshots, the echoes of prison walls, and the whisperings of old bones. All he wants is to be left alone, but the land holds the past and it won’t let him go.
The past snaps back to the present when he feels the shovel blade skip sideways. The steel edge turns on something hard in the black soil, handle twisting in his hands. He stops digging.
William eases the shovel into the soil between his boots, scrapes the earth away shallow and slow. Something under the soil catches the tip of the shovel. He raises himself upright, reaches for the lantern, then crouches down into the hole. The lantern fills the harsh, white glow.
He pulls a worn trowel from his overalls, hunkers down like a badger. He bends his head close to the soil. He traces the path of his shovel to the point where it stops.
The trowel scrapes a shallow furrow in the earth, once, twice, then steel hits a solid thing. The sound and feel of it are dry, hard, not living tree roots.
William is on his knees now, wedging himself deeper. His breath clouds in the lantern light. He pushes the tip of the trowel into soft soil, searches for the dimensions of this thing he has found.
The trowel is a scalpel delving the flesh of the earth. William wields the steel tip; scrape, tap, scrape, tap. A shape emerges, long and thin like a branch but not wooden. He turns the trowel flat, planes it across the surface. Three strokes and the bone comes into view.
The bone is longer than William’s forearm and most of an inch thick. The edge of the trowel slides the length of it, hits a knobbed end, slides back to hit another bony knob. He pushes more dirt aside and sees a human femur.
William uses the trowel like a tiny shovel, lifting small bites of earth and flicking the soil over his shoulder. The leg bone lies diagonal to the slotted hole he has dug. He finds the other femur, traces the skeleton past knee joints, discovers a dislocated tibia and fibula, then a matching pair. The bones disappear beneath the wall of earth, the old grave at an angle to the new.
He spins in the hole like a dog in its kennel. The trowel follows the trail of the bones, lifting soil from the thigh bones. Then comes the tangle of hip bones, broken flat by the pressures of earth and time.
Setting aside the trowel, William uses his fingers. He scoops and brushes crumbling earth away from dry bones. Beneath his fingertips, the dead man’s ilium appears, a cracked saucer pressed into the earth. He pushes dirt from the slight hollow of the hip bones. And then he touches metal.
William brushes clotted earth from the thing and holds it under the lantern. It’s rectangular, heavy in his hand. He rubs a thumb over three raised letters cast into the face: CSA. The Confederated States of America, the belt buckle of a raider shot dead on a June morning long ago.
Lantern in one hand and the belt buckle in the other, William rises from the hole. He hangs the lantern on the picket, sits on the grave’s edge, and stretches his weary arms. He rolls his head from side to side, working kinks out of his neck and back. Then he drops his hands into his lap and studies the belt buckle.
William Stoneking sits a long time in the pool of lantern light, rolling the rectangle of brass through his fingers. Beyond the reach of the lantern, tree frogs sing and crickets saw away down along the creek. The digger doesn’t care. Let them sing all they want. He smiles as he listens, rubbing his thumb over cold, dead brass.
Everything on this land is his, right down to these bones buried beneath his feet. Jebidiah Stoneking planted them and now William Stoneking is harvesting them.
William doesn’t need these old bones, not anymore. Their whispers can go to hell along with their bones. He is done with listening. He will keep only this brass buckle, this one relic. An icon, a link between the family legend and now. A single link to begin forging his redemption.
Tomorrow he’ll make a grave marker, a stone to lay over the dead, a stone to bind them in silence. A slab of shale will do. Take a rag and Brasso to this old buckle, polish it up. A dab of epoxy to fix buckle to stone. But that’s tomorrow’s work.
He clambers out of the hole. He bids the bones farewell and reaches for the shovel. The blade slices the piled soil. His body twists, hands flick the shovel. Dirt scatters over the bottom of the hole. The bones disappear under a rain of earth, going back to sleep in the long dark.
The shovel takes bite after bite until the hole is filled. William Stoneking stares at the rectangle of fresh earth. He reckons he is at the spot directly above the dead skull, so he plants the shovel and pushes it home with his boot. Tomorrow, he’ll lay the gravestone over the marked spot and be done with it.
William slips the belt buckle into the pocket of his overalls. He slaps his hands together. Dirt and grit fall to the ground. He is tired, simple, honest fatigue. The desire for sleep is in him now, dreamless sleep and long.
He lifts the lantern. The weight of it is almost more than he can bear as he trudges away from the grave. The white glow recedes, and the riven earth returns to darkness. The lantern bobs across the timber bridge, growing smaller as it climbs the long slope to the empty farmhouse.
Wooden stairs creak under heavy boots. The lantern wavers then goes dark. A door opens, then closes. Under the glow of starlight, Whippoorwills mourn their name.
Marco Etheridge is a writer, an occasional playwright, and a part-time poet. He lives in Austria. His work appears in journals across Canada, Australia, the UK, and the USA.