“You beat me to the cemetery,” I said.
“Barry, at my age I’ll beat most people to the cemetery.” The old preacher chuckled and rocked forward, using his ever-present rhododendron walking stick as an anchor in the slippery stones. Reverend Lester Pace had been leaning against the hood of his maroon Plymouth Duster, and the ice-laced gravel of the Eagle Creek Methodist Church parking lot made walking treacherous. “Lovely day for an outing, though I don’t think Pearly Johnson will mind the cold. At least the ground hasn’t froze to concrete.”
Pace’s frosty breath bore witness to the chill of mid-December. The early morning sun was only a glow of lighter gray in the snow-laden clouds.
“The TV weatherman says snow flurries before noon,” I said. “He shoulda called me. My bursitis says four to six inches by nightfall.” With his free hand, he clutched the shoulder of his battered canvas hunting jacket to underscore the source of his prediction. Then he turned and stepped off the gravel onto the grassy border at the edge of the graveyard. A dark stain marked where the blood of countless rabbits and squirrels had soaked the game pouch of his canvas back. “Come on. Senator Richards is moving in tomorrow and we’d best get his room vacated.”
I walked in step beside him. “No need for you to stay out in this cold. Why don’t you wait in the church?” I glanced over my left shoulder to the rear door of the white clapboard sanctuary.
“Thanks, but I promised Pearly’s family I’d be their witness. Did you know they asked for you to come over here instead of Williams Funeral Home?”
“That’s who’s handling the senator? Uncle Wayne just told me to be up here to move a grave. I thought it was a favor for you.” “No, a favor for Pearly Johnson’s family. They’ve got a claim on us. You, me, and the Tucker brothers.”
He raised his stick and pointed to a spot down the hill. Over the crest, I saw the top of a backhoe. We kept walking until we came to a modest gravestone with Patrick “Pearly” Johnson carved into the smooth granite. A primer-painted pickup towing a flatbed trailer had backed in from a dirt-lane service road. It was parked between Pearly’s marker and a wrought-iron fence enclosing a miniature Washington monument that rose at least six feet high, a skyscraper in the landscape of single-story tombstones. Down the shaft were inscribed the words BLESSED UNION FOREVER.
Pace introduced me to two men he identified as the Tucker brothers. They nodded and resumed getting the hoe from the back of the trailer. A limited mountain gene pool had formed their grizzled, unshaven faces into lean expressionless masks. Their soiled denim overalls and floppy-eared leather caps made them as indistinguishable from each other as two Wall Street brokers in pin stripes. I figured they were in their sixties, younger than Pace but not by much.
“What do you mean the Johnsons have a claim on us?” “Because of what happened to Pearly.”
“You ain’t never heard of the story of Pearly’s grave raisin’?” yelled one of the Tuckers from the trailer. He grinned at his brother. “I can’t believe Jack Clayton ain’t told his boy about that.”
His fashion clone elbowed him in the ribs and I heard the whisper, “Jack’s got old-timer’s.”
“Alzheimer’s,” I corrected, feeling foolish because I knew they wouldn’t remember the proper word for the disease any longer than did my father.
“Then you tell him, Preacher,” said the first Tucker.
They went back to work, but I could tell they were listening. As we watched the Tuckers, Pace walked over to the wrought-iron fence and propped his arm along the rusted railing. “Barry, you know how any time your father and I were moving a vault, we liked to have a family member present.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Uncle Wayne still feels the same way.” Over the last forty years, my father and his brother-in-law,
Wayne Thompson, had probably conducted three-fourths of the burials in Laurel County. Uncle Wayne worked for Clayton and Clayton, our funeral home in the western North Carolina mountain town of Gainesboro.
Clayton and Clayton was more than a funeral home to me. It was where I grew up living over the visitation room, the embalming equipment, and the casket displays. It was also where I had been forced to return when my father developed Alzheimer’s and Mom and Dad could find no one to run the business.
Buryin’ Barry defied Thomas Wolfe by coming home again.
To the funeral home.
“That’s cause your Uncle Wayne was there with me and your dad,” said Pace. “Nearly seven years ago. Hard to believe. Seems like only yesterday we were standing together around Pearly Johnson’s grave.”
“Yep,” the brothers muttered in unison.
“That first time was back up in Whiteside Hollow,” said Pace. “The first time?” I began to suspect I was in for one of the mountain tales the Methodist circuit-riding preacher could spin by the hour. I never tired of hearing them.
There was a rattle of chains as the Tuckers started unhooking the backhoe from the trailer.
“Yes,” said Pace. “Pearly was originally buried on family land. That must have been in the Forties. In 1996, they sold their land to developers so that a new retirement community could be constructed. The Johnsons bought more acreage on the other side of the ridge and still came out with extra money to boot. Trouble was what to do with Pearly.”
“Well, sounds like Pearly had been permanently retired,” I said. “He should have felt right at home.”
“Reckon he didn’t care much one way or the other, but Pearly’s ninety-five-year-old widow didn’t want to leave him behind. Your dad and I suspected nothing had been done in a proper fashion when Pearly died, you know, official notifications, death certificate. But, we agreed to help relocate him to the church cemetery, and we had assurance he had been buried in a coffin and a sealed vault. We arranged for the Tuckers and their truck with a hoist. What we couldn’t get was a family member.”
“I thought they wanted him moved.”
“Yes, but they were too superstitious. Even the three grown grandchildren were convinced Pearly didn’t approve of the sale, and none of them wanted to be near him until he was securely returned to six feet under.”
Pace paused long enough to breathe in a lungful of the brisk mountain air. A network of capillaries had blossomed on his cheeks, but the cold wasn’t going to hinder a good story.
“I take it things didn’t go as planned,” I said. I heard the Tuckers laugh behind me.
“Not hardly,” continued the preacher. “We dug down to the top of the vault. Even your dad and uncle didn’t recognize the make. We managed to loop the chains around each end and start the winch. When we had cleared the hole by three or four feet, Barney let out a cry I can still hear. ‘Gol-durnit. It’s a septic tank. Can you believe it? They crapped in an outhouse and put Pearly in a septic tank.’”
I turned around to see which one of the Tucker brothers would own up to being Barney. They both just grinned at me from either side of their trailer, shaking their heads in agreement.
“Then Barney stopped the hoist motor,” said Pace. “Don’t know if it was because he was laughing so hard or he thought we wouldn’t load a septic tank on the truck. Whatever, it jarred the hoist and set the chains to swinging. I can still see them starting to slip and tipping the septic tank to one side. Sure enough, the whole thing toppled over. The tank landed on one end, cracked open and tumbled Pearly Johnson’s pine box onto the rocky ground. Fortunately, the coffin stayed closed, but there we were with an open tank and Pearly’s bones only a board-width away from the light of day.”
“What did y’all do?” I asked, unable to suppress a laugh. “Your uncle stayed with the coffin while your dad and I went and told the family what happened. I insisted one of them come with us to decide what to do. You’d think we’d walked in with Pearly’s ghost beside us. They all went white as a sheet. I finally got them to agree to cut a deck of cards to see who came out to the grave. In the end, we put the coffin in a real vault and brought Pearly to this new resting place. Ain’t that right, boys?”
“God’s truth,” swore the witnesses.
“And now we’re moving him again,” I said.
As confirmation of that fact, the backhoe roared to life and the Tuckers began guiding it down the ramps.
Pace raised his voice over the throaty rumble. “Yep, family got an offer on this plot they couldn’t refuse. Or so they say. Now Pearly’s wife is dead and buried with their daughter in Waynesville. Pearly’s going over to join them. Even though they’re good Christian people, the grandchildren are afraid of haunts, of unquiet spirits. Said we owed it to Pearly to be the ones to get him settled. In peace and in one piece. And so we will.”
“Why’d they sell his grave?”
Pace patted the fence. “Because of this guy. Caleb Turner.” “No-Reb Caleb,” said a Tucker.
“Turncoat Turner,” added his brother.
“Evidently Senator Richards looked upon Caleb Turner as some kind of personal hero,” said Pace. “He paid good money to have his earthly remains buried beside the Civil War maverick. Funny thing, the reason I could get Pearly in this spot seven years ago was because nobody else had ever wanted to be buried beside Turner.”
I nodded, now realizing BLESSED UNION FOREVER didn’t mean being at one with the Lord.
Pace signaled to the Tuckers to begin digging. One of them crawled up in the metal seat and manned the controls. The jaws of the digger swung out over the plot. I stepped closer to the preacher.
“I’ve never heard of Caleb Turner,” I said. “Was he a traitor?” “Depends upon which side you take. Even I wasn’t alive in 1861, but I know these mountain people were just stubborn enough to rebel against the rebels. About the only slaves around here were owned by the Charleston bluebloods who fled the lowland heat in the summer. Mountaineers didn’t care much for them. Thought they were pretentious and pampered. It’d be like the Floridians seceding from the Union today and expecting us to join them because they’ve got summer places here. You know how that would go over.”
“I guess some things don’t change.”
“Always been some kind of culture clash. But, the outsiders want the summer climate and the locals want the summer cash.”
“What did Caleb Turner do?”
“He argued against secession. Then he coordinated a network of spies working between western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. He knew the hills too well to ever get caught. They say he hijacked a shipment of engraving plates as they were being transferred from Alabama to Virginia. Hard to print confederate money without them.”
“Sounds like he wound up a traitor to hear the Tuckers talk.”
I looked at the two brothers. Their attention was no longer on the preacher’s story but on the task at hand. The teeth of their backhoe bit into the center of Pearly’s grave, scooping out a deep wound in the brown, wintered grass. Exposing the vault would not take long.
“Being branded a traitor came later,” said Pace. “After the war, Turner joined the Republican party to get in tight with the Yankee carpetbaggers. The mountaineers didn’t want to secede, but they sure as hell didn’t like Northern reconstruction either. Over the years, the big monument Caleb Turner got for himself became a lightning rod. That’s why the church put up that fence back in the 1920s. People used to dump garbage on his grave.”
“Well, maybe now Caleb Turner, Pearly Johnson, and Senator Richards can all rest in peace.”
I looked out beyond the maligned monument. The land dropped off steeply and the bare hardwoods at the lower edge of the cemetery no longer screened a view of the broad valley below. Thin trails of chimney smoke hung in the breezeless air, marking the resting places of the living on this cold Monday morning.
After a few minutes, I felt Reverend Pace move away. I turned to watch him step closer to the deepening excavation. It sank down at least four feet. The hoe began to make shallower gouges in the soil so that the vault wouldn’t be damaged upon contact. Pace nodded his approval to the Tucker brothers. Then he suddenly flailed his stick at the backhoe. I saw a blurred shape topple out of its steel teeth and fall into the pit. It came to rest staring up.
The eyeless sockets fixed on me. The eyeless sockets of a human skull. Centered above those sockets was a single bullet hole.