PRIVY TO THE PAST


By Nancy Sweetland



The basement was nearly dug when Andrew Hall swiped sweat from his forehead and stared up at a long, yellowed bone protruding from the dirt in the bulldozer's uplifted bucket. He shouted, "Bill! Stop! Bring it down!"

Frowning, Bill idled the machine. "What's the deal, Drew? It's almost dark, and there's no way we'll get finished if we don't keep going."

Drew nodded. "I know. But look here." He walked to the lowered bucket and tentatively kicked at the bone. It came loose from the soil that held it. Near it was another bone, similar but smaller. Embedded in the chunks of dirt still in the bucket were shards of china dishes, a silver fork, a chipped beer stein and splinters of wood, darkened with soot and soft with years underground.

"I think that's a human leg bone," said Drew. Biting his lip, he pulled loose the dirty, discolored bone with his gloved hand. "Look at the socket, here. Isn't that a hip?"

Bill swallowed, his face blanching. "Jesus! You think we've dug up somebody's grave?"

"Look here!" Drew picked up a shovel, moved some of the dirt and charred wood in the bucket and revealed two smaller bones. "Is that a rib? He picked it up to examine it.

"So somebody died and they couldn't afford a funeral. Probably that wood's the old pine casket." Bill's chuckle was forced. "Maybe they buried Grandma with her favorite dishes and silverware. Didn't they do that in the old days?" He climbed back up into the dozer. "More likely," he yelled over the revved up engine, "it's part of an old milk cow."

Drew turned the wood so Bill could see the moon cutout that had graced the door of an outhouse a half-century or more ago. "You know, people used to toss their garbage into the outhouse, sort of like a landfill. When it was full, they shoveled it over and dug another hole."

"Yeah? How come you know so much about outhouses?" Bill asked.

"Don't you read the paper?" asked Drew. "There was an article just last week about archaeologists digging up old privies to learn about the people who used them way back when."

Bill looked around at the acreage his friend had inherited. "This is really something. You fall into five acres way out in the country, thinking you'd have virgin land to build on, and you've dug your way into somebody's comfort station." Bill laughed. "Wonder what your old great-uncle would have to say about this? Let's keep going, okay?"

Drew hesitated. "Okay, but dump this stuff over here to one side. Let's see what else comes up from the past. I don't like the looks of those bones."

As Drew tentatively poked through the pile of dirt, he caught his breath and brushed the dirt away from a human skull. It was all there, the jaw, even some teeth. "Bill!" he shouted. "Look at this!"

Again, Bill idled the dozer and climbed down, shaking his head. "We're never going to..." he stopped when Drew held up the skull. "Guess I was right. It must have been a grave."

Drew shook his head. "I don't think so." He turned the skull so Bill could see the hole crushed in the back of it. "I think we've dug up a murder."

* * *

Sheriff Martha Crowe, her khaki uniform neatly pressed and her summer-blond hair pulled into a tidy ponytail, pursed her lips, toeing a clump of dirt with her highly-polished boot. "Interesting. Must have happened a long time ago," she muttered and squinted her blue eyes up at Drew. "Kind of hard to cordon this off as a crime scene, given that you've pretty well trashed it. You know you can't keep going here until we get some forensics people over from Madison to check this out."

"Thanks a lot, Sheriff. I have to get this hole dug this week to frame the house up before bad weather. We'd have finished it last night if we hadn't run into somebody's past." He picked up a crumpled piece of leather with ornate silver buttons down one side. "I'll bet this was part of a dress boot that belonged to this poor girl." He motioned toward the skull, now lying with the other bones.

"You think it's a girl?" Martha asked. "Why?"

"Size of the head, length of the long bones. I don't read Patricia Cornwell for nothing. What's on your books about unsolved disappearances from, say, fifty years ago or more?"

"I have no idea." The sheriff walked back to the patrol car as she spoke. "But I'll find out." As she opened the door, she stopped. "Didn't I hear this property was in your family for years?"

Drew nodded. "Yeah, but I didn't know that until a lawyer called me when he processed Cletus Hall's will. I didn't even know I had a great-uncle Cletus."

"What a great setting for a home." Martha gazed around the clearing surrounded by woods turning brilliant oranges and yellows. "Lucky you. Going to live here full time?"

Drew nodded. "Sure. I can work here as well as anywhere."

"I heard you were an artist. This being the sticks and all, is your family all right with moving here?"

"Don't have one."

He watched gravel dust plume behind her car as she drove away and added softly, "Yet."

* * *

The following days were infuriatingly slow as the forensics team sifted through everything Drew and Bill had dug. "You don't have to go through the whole forty by sixty hole, for Pete's sake," said Drew. "The privy must have been right next to the cabin and was only four by five feet at most."

"We have to be sure there weren't other burials as well," said one of the crew. "You say there was a cabin here? Maybe it burned?"

"Makes sense. Otherwise, who'd have used the privy?" Drew thought for a moment. "There should be records somewhere, shouldn't there?"

"Check at the courthouse," said the crewman, pulling a bright blue perfume bottle out of a dirt clod. "Pretty," he said, laying it on a small tarp that was nearly covered with artifacts. "Suppose this was hers? The Historical Society will want some of this stuff. Not sure about those." He nodded his head toward the bones that now lay in skeletal order on a second tarp.

"What will happen to them?" Drew asked.

"Depends, I guess. It won't be easy to find out whose they were."

Drew looked down at the meager remnants of a woman who had lived, probably loved, and died an unfortunate death. One arm was still missing, along with small bones of hands and feet. "I'll do my best to find out what happened, little lady," he vowed silently. "You deserve a better burial than the one you got."

* * *

The County Courthouse, Sheriff's department and jail were all housed in one lumpy stone edifice built alongside Town Square, a grassy block graced with a green-roofed white gazebo. Gentrification had marched in and many of the square's storefronts were brightly painted and advertised as "Betty's Boutique" or "Silver Scissors Salon." Drew entered the Sheriff's office, dinged the little bell on the counter to wake up a dozing pot-bellied deputy and asked for Sheriff Crowe.

"She's in the Courthouse. You the digger?" The deputy rose and pulled up his sagging trousers.

Drew nodded.

"Heard you may have found some interesting stuff."

"Just bones and bottles, household articles."

"Figures." The deputy grinned, showing tobacco-stained teeth. "Old mysteries sometimes stay just that, y'know. 'Specially 'round here."

"Oh?" Drew leaned forward. "Why do you say that?"

The deputy made a face. "Not much history to look through. The original courthouse burned in nineteen forty-nine, along with the newspaper office and its archives. Here's the Sheriff now." The deputy went back to his desk and sat down, busily rustling papers.

"Mr. Hall." Martha Crowe, again neatly put together, entered from the back of the room. "What can I do for you? As if I couldn't guess."

"It's Drew, please. Tell me if you found any unsolved cases."

She sighed and leaned on the other side of the counter, her blue eyes searching his. "Nothing after the old courthouse burned. Don't you have any family stories about what could have happened on your property?"

Drew shook his head. "Not that I know of."

"Then we're at a complete loss. The artifacts you uncovered will go to the historical museum, and the bones will get buried in the county cemetery, labeled 'Jane Doe, circa early nineteen-hundreds,' or some such."

He glanced at his watch. "Have lunch with me?"

She raised her eyebrows. "It's only eleven o'clock."

"Is that a yes?"

She smiled, and an hour later, though the Home Town Café's menu wasn't anything special, the chicken soup was good. Drew thought it was the most pleasant lunch he'd eaten since coming to town.

* * *

"The basement's dug. Get your mind off those old bones and think about the new construction. We start tomorrow," Bill said after they'd stopped for a few brews before he dropped Drew off at the hotel.

Easier said than done, thought Drew, checking in at the scarred wooden desk to pick up his room key from the ancient hotelier.

The frail old man, bald as the bony skull Drew had found, pulled a tarnished skeleton key off a hook and turned, his face a study in resignation. "Couldn't leave things alone, could you?" he rasped in a crackly voice that sounded as though he hadn't used it for some time. He shook the key in Drew's face. "Got to dig things up. Couldn't just let bygones be."

Slightly fuzzy from too many beers, Drew stepped back. "What're you talking about?"

"You. Askin' questions all over town." The old man whispered, though there was no one else in the lobby, "Riling things up, just like Cletus. What do you care what happened sixty years ago? Just go build your fancy house." He slapped the key into Drew's open hand.

Crazy old coot, Drew thought as he trudged up the worn staircase to the second floor. Has to be ninety. Drew was halfway up the stairs before he stopped and turned to look down at the man staring belligerently up at him from behind the desk.

The courthouse and the newspaper office may have burned down, Drew thought, but old people remember things that happened a long time ago. And the old man mentioned Cletus. Drew retraced his steps and said, "I'd like to ask you some questions."

"Figured you would. Just cause you ask, don't mean I have to answer." The old man's Adam's apple bobbed with every word he spoke. His back was ramrod straight but his piercing gaze met Drew's.

"No, you don't, but I wish you would. Come sit over here." Drew gestured toward the worn overstuffed chairs by the marble fireplace in the small, shabby lobby. "Let me buy you a drink."

"Don't need no drink for this." After a slight hesitation, the old man's shoulders slumped, and with a sigh of compliance, he lifted the hinged section of the reception desk and slid through the opening as noiselessly as smoke. He sank into one of the overstuffed lobby chairs, nearly disappearing into its unsupported seat. "It's time. You don't need to ask no questions. Just stay quiet. I need to tell it. I been trying to forget for over fifty years, and it never gets better in the trying."

Drew sat on the edge of the opposite chair and waited, his growing excitement clearing his head. Maybe this fossil did know something about the girl.

The old man propped his elbows on his knees and leaned forward, his chin on tented fingers, his pale eyes half closed. His scratchy voice grew stronger as he began, "She was a picture, a real beauty. Evelyn Knight. We were sweethearts from the time we were just kids." His eyes closed for a moment. Drew thought he might have drifted off to sleep, but suddenly he laid a spidery hand on Drew's knee. "We was going to get married, soon as the crops came in that fall. Nineteen-forty-five, it was. Wartime."

Drew waited, letting the past come alive in the old man's mind.

"That damn Cletus Hall blew into town, uniform and all, picture of a war hero if you ever saw one. Bought that log cabin on the place you're takin' over now, said he was going to live there after the war." The old man's face dissolved into remembered hurt. "Evelyn took one look at him and phuuf!" His arms flailed out wildly. "Gone gaga, she was." His eyes grew wet with unshed tears.

Drew asked gently, "She left you? For him?"

The old man started, brought back to this place, this time. His voice, stronger now with anger, resounded through the empty lobby. "She wanted to. When he left she was all tears. Said she was going to follow him to camp. Told me I would always be her best friend. Hell!" The expletive burst from his mouth. "I didn't want to be no friend. We was going to have a future together. I had it planned."

Drew waited. Finally, the old man looked up. "Well, ain't that what you wanted to know?"

Drew swallowed the horror that had built up in his throat. "So you killed her? Just like that? Bashed the woman you loved on the head and dumped her into an outhouse?" Drew stood up, his disgust nearly overpowering. "Left her there to rot?"

The old man hung his head. This time when he spoke his voice was nearly too soft to hear. "Didn't mean to. Took her out to that cabin the night before she was to go. Tried to reason with her."

"Why'd you take her there? It wasn't your place."

The old man grimaced. "I wanted to show her she could do better than that. Told her I'd build a beautiful house for us. She wouldn't listen, said to take her home. She started to walk away." He shut his eyes for a moment before continuing and his voice softened. "God, she was so beautiful in the moonlight. I lost my temper and struggled with her. She fell, hit her head on the stone step." His bald head moved back and forth, back and forth. "I couldn't believe she was dead. Not my Evelyn."

"But how'd you get away with it?" Confused, Drew frowned and sat down again. "When she went missing?"

"Hell, everybody in town knew she was going to go to the camp and run away with him. Everybody thought she had."

"So you burned the cabin and the outhouse to cover the murder."

The old man nodded. "Watched it burn right down to the ground. And I've relived that night every minute of every day since." He narrowed his eyes at Drew. "So now you know, and I don't give a damn. Think I care what you're goin' to do about it? I've been dead for fifty years already." The old man tried to stand up, teetered, lost his balance and fell.

The hollow sound of his fragile old skull hitting the sharp edge of the raised marble hearth was loud in the quiet room. He didn't move.

Drew jumped to his feet to call nine-one-one. But first he stopped and looked down at the frail old man's lifeless body. "You died just the way she did," Drew said softly. "How fitting."


Nancy Sweetland has been writing since the age of 13 when she received her first rejection slip and determined to become a published writer. She is the author of seven picture books, a chapter book mystery for young readers, over 80 short stories for juveniles and adults and an adult romance, "The Door to Love." She lives and works in Green Bay, Wisconsin. This is her second short story to be published in omdb! online.


Copyright © 2013 Nancy Sweetland. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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