ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"The Digger", a story by Marco Etheridge

Digging for old bones is best done in the long dark night and the digger knows this. He wields his shovel under starlight glow and moonlight shine, serenaded by the night creatures of the Missouri woods. The night is ebony edged in silver, but it ain’t quiet.

Whip-poor-wills and chick-will-widows mourn their own names from maple and sycamore. A barred owl hoots a question at him. Who cooks for you? 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 high and 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 night scratch, bird and bug, critter and crawler, the whole jangle of it making a night opera fit for Beelzebub hisself. The digger don’t care. He makes a different song with shovel and soil.

The digger slices the shovel into black bottomland soil. Levers the soil from the earth, arms and back muscles lifting, straightening. He twists his torso. Soft dirt hisses against steel, arcs silent through the night air. Cast earth thumps and scatters over a growing pile. Snick, shuck, hiss, thump. A percussive rhythm against the night song. The shovel slices in again, 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, proper graves, old stones surrounded by an 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 too much farmhouse for one man. He is the last of them. William Stoneking, that’s the digger’s name, a man searching for bones moldering in unmarked graves.

There are two burying grounds on the Stoneking land. One is surrounded by an iron picket fence, the other by family legend. Five shallow graves somewhere in the bottomland woods 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, passing from generation to generation, just like the land itself.

Jebidiah Stoneking was a good Lutheran and a staunch 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 to be left alone to tend his farm. The Lord did not see fit to grant his request.
The Civil War came early in Missouri. The bushwhackers and jayhawkers were at each other’s throats over the slavery question 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 owned a Sharps breechloader and knew how to shoot.

Jeb and the older boys were tending to the cornfields. Five riders came out of the trees, all of them heavily armed. Jeb sent the boys running and dashed into the corn with his carbine. Mid-June, those corn stalks would’ve been belly high on a grown man.

Those five raiders were riding in a line. 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 horses about, Jeb shot the lead rider square in the chest. Back down into the corn he goes to reload. Them other three must have been brave, but they were foolish. They chose to charge rather than run.

Jeb shot a third raider 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 backward off his horse. The last rider came at Jeb, blasting away with a Colt pistol, but he missed his shots. As the man’s horse plunged past, Jeb swung around and shot him square in the back.

Jebidiah Stoneking walked out of the corn to where that wounded raider lay. The poor bastard was screaming in pain, half his shoulder shot away, scrabbling around on his back clawing at the dirt. Jeb asked the Lord’s forgiveness, picked up the raider’s fallen pistol, and put a ball in that man’s chest.

That’s how there came to be two graveyards on the Stoneking farm. There’s the family plot up on the hill, and five unmarked graves in the bottomland where Jeb and the boys buried them raiders. Now William Stoneking excavates that same bottomland, searching for old bones.

It’s in the small hours of the night he hears them, dead bones whispering promises and secrets. He tries his best to ignore their calling. Works himself to exhaustion fixing up the farmhouse, stopping only for a lean supper. Sometimes that buys him a full night’s sleep or even two in a row, but it doesn’t last.

The voices of the dead find him asleep on his pallet. They nag at him, pester his ears, and slip into his head. That’s when he gives up on sleep, rises from his cot, pulls on his overalls.

With a lantern in one hand and a shovel in the other, he walks down the long slope behind the farmhouse. Nightsong washes 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. There is a small forest of bare pickets rising from the ground. Each picket marks a hole dug, found empty, and filled back in.

William Stoneking hangs the lantern on the last picket, sidesteps a bit, and begins to dig. The first two, three feet are automatic. The bones lie deeper than that, if at all.

The shovel slices into the earth, takes a bite of soil. He is a machine. His thoughts drift to other places, prison cells with bars, and how he got there. How he was wrenched from this land.

William is not remorseful over killing Ray Mooney. The judge didn’t care nothing for remorse seven years ago, no more than he cared that Mooney had raped a young girl. No charges were ever brought against the son of a bitch, her being black and Ray Mooney’s daddy being rich. But they damn sure arrested William for shooting Mooney dead.

The killing that cost William seven years was over and done in a few short minutes. He was hauling a load of feed in the flatbed when a tricked-out pickup passed him, nearly putting him in the ditch. That rig skidded sidewise across the road. Ray Mooney and two of his no-good pals piled out of their truck. William stepped out of the flatbed, told them to go on and leave him be. Ray is cussing William, bragging how the judge is in his daddy’s pocket. Then Mooney reached one hand behind his back. William obliged Mooney by shooting him twice in the chest.

The scene plays in his head as he digs the earth. Two trucks stopped on the road, heat pouring off the asphalt. He can picture it, but he never can recall grabbing his pistol out of the glovebox. But there it was in his hand all the same and Ray Mooney sprawled out on his back, dead before he hit the ground.

William remembers the long moment of quiet after Mooney hit the ground. Seemed to go on forever, him standing there with his pistol pointed at those two other fellas while they stared down at their newly dead pal. Then William climbed back into the flatbed, punched the gas, 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 ago now, and both his folks dead and buried.

William stops shoveling, wipes a sleeve across 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 down his long road to prison.

The trial was mostly a joke. The judge knew whose family got him elected to the bench. Still, it could have been worse.

Ray Mooney’s pals managed to hide his pistol before the sheriff got to the scene, but that story didn’t hold water. The idea of a missing pistol turning up made the prosecutor nervous, so the old boy dropped the charges against William down to manslaughter.

There wasn’t a single witness to vouch for him, so William took a guilty plea on the lesser charge. Not many folks mourned Ray Mooney’s killing, but that didn’t stop William being sent off to Potosi.

Prison walls teach tough lessons. William learned that there are three ways out of prison, besides doing the time. An inmate can escape, which happens now and then. There’s dying, self-inflicted or not, which is a sure way out. And a very few prisoners learn to live like the walls don’t matter.

He met a pair of lifers in Potosi. Seth and Morris were their names; one white, the other black, both hard as coffin nails. They were an odd combination inside the walls. Neither of them had a prayer of getting out and they both knew it. The rest of the population gave them respect and plenty of room.

It was Morris that first shoved a book in William’s hand. To this day, he doesn’t know why they bothered themselves about him, but he is damn grateful that they did.

There is a world of time in prison and reading helps fill it. Seth and Morris steered him at first, pointing out this or that book, and always with the fewest words possible. It wasn’t long before he 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. Now 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 go back to the Stoneking farm.

William’s parents were dead. The farmhouse was empty and starting to fall apart. His brother had leased out the tillable land and was banking the rents. William got a share of the lease money and a rent-free house, just enough to scrape by.

That’s how he came to live like a hermit, haunting this land. The long years in prison wrenched his roots from this very soil and he cannot replant them. He spends his days fixing up the old house and his nights trying to ignore the whispers of old bones.

 The past falls away when he feels the edge of his shovel skip sideways. The steel blade turns on some hard thing in the black soil, shovel handle twisting in his hands. He stops digging.

William plants the shovel blade into the side of the hole, pushing it into the earth careful and slow. He leans on the handle, raises himself upright, reaches for the lantern. He lifts the light from the picket where it hangs, swings it close, then crouches down into the hole, lantern and all.

He pulls a worn trowel from the back of his overalls, hunkers down like a badger, his head close to the soil. The glow of the lantern fills the hole. He sees the last mark his shovel made.

The trowel scrapes a shallow furrow in the earth, once, twice, then the steel hits a solid thing. The sound and feel of it are dry, hard, not a living root.

William is on his knees now, wedging himself deeper. His breath clouds in the light of the lantern. He pushes the tip of the trowel into soft soil, searches for the dimensions of this thing he has found.

He moves the trowel like a scalpel, feeling under the loose earth with the steel tip; scrape, tap, scrape, tap. It is long and thin, lies lengthwise and flat. He turns the trowel flat and 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 down the length of it, hits a knobbed end, slides back to hit another bony knob. He pushes more dirt aside, revealing the femur of what would have been a good-sized man.

William uses the trowel like a miniature shovel, taking small bites from the 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 away from the femurs. Then he exposes the tangle of hip bones, pressed flat and broken by the pressure of earth and time.

Setting the trowel aside, William digs with his fingers. He scoops and brushes crumbling earth away from dry bones. Beneath his fingers, the dead man’s ilium appears, looking like a cracked saucer pressed into the earth. He pushes more dirt from the hollow formed by the hip bones. And then his fingertips touch 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 the surface of the thing, exposing three raised letters: CSA. Confederated States of America, the belt buckle of a raider shot dead on a June day so long ago.

With the lantern in one hand and the belt buckle in the other, William rises from the hole in the earth. He hangs the lantern on the picket, sits on the edge of the hole, and raises his weary arms above his head. He rolls his head from side to side, working the kinks out of his neck and back. Then he drops his hands into his lap and studies the belt buckle he holds in his hand.

William Stoneking sits a long time in the pool of lantern light, rolling the rectangle of brass through his fingers. In the dark beyond the reach of the lantern, tree frogs sing their shrill song from the pin oaks. Crickets saw away down along the creek. The digger doesn’t care. Let them sing all they want. He smiles as he listens, rubbing a thumb along a brass edge.

Everything on this land is his, right down to the bones buried in the earth. His ancestors planted them here and now William Stoneking is harvesting them. But only this, only this one thing. Don’t need no more from these old bones. This icon is enough, a link between the long ago and the dirty now.

Tomorrow he’ll make a grave marker. A slab of shale will do just fine. Take a rag and some Brasso to this old buckle, polish it up some. A bit of epoxy to fit the buckle to the stone. But that’s work for tomorrow.

He pushes himself upright and clambers out of the hole. After one last look at the shadowed bones, he reaches for the shovel.

The blade slices into the loose pile of soil. He twists his body, flicks the shovel handle. Dirt hisses against steel, arcs silent through the night air, then thumps and scatters at the bottom of the hole. The bones disappear under a rain of flung earth, going back to sleep in the long dark.

The shovel dips again and again, bite after bite, until the hole is filled. William Stoneking stares at the line of fresh earth and traces a path to where he thinks the dead skull lies beneath the ground. He plants the shovel over the spot and pushes it home with his boot. The shovel stands as a temporary marker. Tomorrow, he will plant the gravestone 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. The need for sleep calls to him, dreamless sleep and long.

He lifts the lantern from where it hangs on the picket. Holding it before him, he walks away from the grave.


Marco Etheridge is a writer of prose, an occasional playwright, and a part-time poet. He lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His work has been featured in more than sixty reviews and journals across Canada, Australia, the UK, and the USA. Marco’s volume of collected flash fiction, “Broken Luggage,” is available worldwide. When he isn’t crafting stories, Marco is a contributing editor and layout grunt for a new ‘Zine called Hotch Potch.
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