Nobody dies twice. I imagine it’s what most folks believe. I did, until the day I found him in Cornplanter Cemetery, when morning had shifted into afternoon and the sweet smell of warm grass and the chirping of cicadas made everything seem normal.
I knelt between the rows, admiring the limestone marker battle-scarred with age, my gaze solemn. Squiggles and crevices wormed their way in and out and through its engraved surface. With brush in hand, I delicately stroked the stone to swipe away the powdery gray dirt and uncover the name and dates. Pushing back a loose strand of unruly black hair, I then rubbed both hands on my pant legs to remove the sweat before taking hold of the voice recorder. Placing it close to my mouth, I read the information. “Jordan Corydon, born 1863, died 1898.”
I stood and winced as knees cracked under pressure and overuse from the morning’s trial that now dipped into afternoon. Blistering heat sparked while brilliant sunlight streamed and fanned its rays across the rows of stones. With a twist of an arm, I glanced at my watch warning of the need to leave soon. A sigh escaped. I glanced from one row to the next. After five hours, I’d barely made a dent. Three-hundred and fifty-seven stone markers, and only ninety-eight of them recorded.
After gulping several ounces of water, I doused my face with the rest of the bottle. The temperature had reached close to ninety by noon. Not exactly the best weather for this sort of work. A curse or two escaped my lips. A time later in the week, after the mountain rains had cooled the air, would have suited me.
“Half dozen more, Chaz Mackenzie. That’s all you’ll get.” Through griping, I struggled to my feet and moved to the next marker. I swiped the stone clean with my brush.
One-hundred and thirty-nine cemeteries were located in Warren County, ten of them in Elk Township alone, and they varied in size from a family plot of less than a handful to hundreds. Some sites had been transplanted from their original location, like Cornplanter’s. Of course, that one had a story all its own, burdened with a rich and tragic history. I knew all of this and more because I researched it.
“Jacob Bluehawk, born 1898, died…1899.” I reread the inscription in silence and resisted any tears. The lump in my throat was harder to swallow. I turned away to make the call. “Hey, Uncle Chaz.”
“About time, Miss Sarah.”
“Sorry.” I shivered, gripped by a longing to escape and be among the living. “This will take a while. How you feeling today?”
“Above dirt, I expect. Find any matches?”
“Sort of. There are several Corydons and Bluehawks and Pierces, but none of the Clearwater clan.” I tired of reciting even a handful of so many names. Sweat dribbled down my neck. The heat got to me, and somehow I was left with an inconsolable sadness. All those many souls gone to another place where the living couldn’t follow until fate or some spiritual power chose to take them there. With a firm click, I turned off the recorder once more and pocketed the device. Enough for one day. My armored defense to stave off emotion had dissolved.
I strolled between two rows of markers to reach shade under a canopy of trees.
“Not nearly good enough,” Uncle Chaz said. “I need a solid, documented connection between at least two families.”
“For once, try being more optimistic, will you? If I can manage to get a hold of the genealogy records at some other courthouse or library, I believe that could be our break,” I reasoned with him, for what good it would do.
His voice rose: “I need the information now, not tomorrow or next week.”
I raked fingers through my hair. My patience, along with my physical strength, was weakening by the second. “Please don’t take an attitude with me. I can’t help it if the only records to come up in my web search failed to provide anything prior to the fifties. But I’m not about to stop looking. You know me. There’re bound to be other ones. I only have to find them. So, calm yourself before you pass out or worse.”
I stopped at the tree line. Grateful to be in the shade, I leaned against a thick-trunked oak and breathed in cooler air. I loved my uncle deeply, but blood ties or not, he taxed my patience. The son and grandson of coal miners hardened by life’s cruel nature, Chaz was demanding, gruff, and often made unreasonable requests. However, I’d made a promise to Aunt Grace the day she left him to return home to Export.
Here we were, five years later. Chaz Blue Mackenzie still dished out his salty meanness while I, Sarah Blue Mackenzie, continued to care for him. I tightened my grip on the phone while listening to his persistent complaints. Why could he never make it easy?
“And that’s more time than I have,” he griped. “Holy saints, I’m stuck four-feet deep in a mud hole with writin’ this book and ain’t about to dig my way out.”
I pushed away from the trunk to stand straight then took quick steps along the tree line, the pace of my feet rapid enough to match my heartbeat. If I glanced in the mirror, I’d surely see the fire sparking in my eyes. “Look, Uncle Chaz, I’m doing the best I can with what little I have to go on, but your sour mood is not helping me to—” My voice broke off and I stilled. There was a fresh mound of dirt piled high next to a good-sized hole that rested ten or so yards ahead.
“I’m sorry, child. I should’ve never considered takin’ on this project. The historical society spun quite an appealin’ story, you know? Shoot. Problems and headaches, that’s all it is. Don’t you agree? Sarah? You still there?”
“Ah, yeah. Hold on,” I said, once more moving forward. A fresh grave in a cemetery. This wasn’t anything unusual. Somebody who died would need burying. However, no one had been buried in Cornplanter’s since the first half of the twentieth century.
My pace slowed to a crawl as I sniffed a foul odor. The harsh chatter of crows perched in the tree above startled me, enough that I lost my balance. I gasped, and my arms flailed wildly until I found my feet planted on the ground once more. Counting to ten, I took a deep breath. Another step. One more, and I reached the edge of the hole. “Okay, Mac, you can do this,” I whispered before leaning in to take a peek.
With a loud gasp, I stumbled backward. Doubling over at the waist, I coughed and tried to hold down the bitter taste rising up through my stomach and into my throat.
“What in blue blazes is all that noise you’re makin’?”
My legs weakened, and I crumbled to the ground. In another minute, maybe longer, I put the phone back to my ear. “I have to go, Uncle Chaz. There’s a body…in a grave. I need to call the sheriff.”
Chaz laughed. “What did you expect? Land sakes. You’re in a cemetery.”
I shook my head, hard enough to make myself dizzy. My voice came out breathy and weak. “This one’s different. I’ll talk to you when I get home.” I ended the call, despite his sputtering protests. My knuckles blanched as I tightened the grip on the phone.
To be certain the long day with its heat and burning sunlight hadn’t played games with my eyes, I walked back to the grave once more. Another quick look told me this was no delusion. A man lay in the grave, a red-stained hole through the middle of his chest. For a brief moment, though it seemed insane, the face appeared strangely familiar. Somebody from my past. But that was impossible, wasn’t it?
As I began to turn away, something else caught my eye. A rather large, flat stone rested at the head of the grave, as if placed there with deliberate intent. Curious, I edged closer to examine the stone with steps distanced enough to keep from slipping into the hole. The smoothly polished surface was marred by crude lettering engraved in its center. I bent to read and puzzled over what I saw. “Sins of the soul,” I whispered aloud.
I forced my trembling hand to hold steady as I pushed buttons on the phone to call the Warren authorities. A tiny whimper escaped my lips as I stole another glimpse at the grave and tombstone. Twirling on my heel, I faced the other way. I took several steps from the grave and my heartbeat evened. As I waited for someone to pick up, my mind tossed around the insane idea of how familiar the face was and the conclusion it pushed me to form.
I fought the urge to look again, but it taunted me, as if I needed convincing to give me some kind of reassurance. Instead, I continued in the other direction and moved toward the front of the cemetery where Jacob Bluehawk rested. There I stopped. Taking one hand, I rubbed it harshly over my face, struggling to erase the image of the body. Reese Logan was dead. He’d died almost ten years ago. He wasn’t the man in the open grave.
“Warren Sheriff’s Department, Paula Yelkin speaking.”
The sound disrupted my thoughts. A sudden chill passed through me, and I trembled. “Hi, Paula. It’s Mac. I need to speak to the sheriff about…” I paused to catch my breath. “It’s urgent. Please.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” But someone else sure wasn’t. “Can you get the sheriff for me?”
“You bet. Hold on a sec.”
I chewed on my thumbnail and waited until a deep growl came across the phone.
“Sheriff, this is Mac—that is, Sarah Mackenzie. I need to report—I found—there’s a dead body in Cornplanter Cemetery.”
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