As one of the younger settlements on the Wyoming range, Randolph City’s cemetery is small in acreage and big in sentiment. Spattered with wildflowers and smelling of cut grass, there’s a wild beauty appropriate to the souls who rest there. The enormous gravestones are proportional—dad would say indirectly—to the character of those old timers. Founders (all men) whose pioneer spirits outshined the sordid details of their life.
It seemed impossible to bury 18 year-old Elly Benteen there.
Several years older, I was Elly’s senior—but I could think of no place worse for my own eternal rest.
To bed down amongst the town fathers gave me the willies, as I’m sure it would Elly.
If she weren’t dead, I mean.
Marching along with a solemn procession of mourners under a clear summer sky toward the graveyard’s iron gates, I wondered what kind of marker Elly Benteen’s father picked for her.
Big Sam, breeder of prize-winning stallions, was the second wealthiest man in the region, after Charles Murry. Sam Benteen could afford the best.
The summer wind pelted us with dust and next to me, Dad dabbed at his eyes.
“Be strong, Lacey,” he said, and I gave his hand a squeeze. Marshal John Dale wasn’t one to cry in public, but the loss of one so young and pretty to the fever had everyone in a tizzy.
Except, apparently, for my boyfriend Riley Boone who fidgeted under one of only two trees for miles around, next to the cemetery fence, next to one of the diggers, toing the dirt pile and cocking his head to the left and right, watching with open curiosity as Elly’s four old uncles lugged their dreadful cargo to the edge of a two foot riser.
They set the coffin down and I caught Riley’s smiling eyes with a furrowed brow of my own.
Show some respect, why don’t you?
He nodded a head of shaggy blonde hair, letting his wire-rimmed spectacles slide to the tip of his nose.
He silently mouthed something to me, surreptitiously pointing at the coffin.
I shrugged. “I don’t understand,” I whispered.
“Ours is not to understand the ways of the Lord,” said dad, snuffing above his thick red mustache.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” I said.
At the gravesite, the line of three dozen dispersed, leaving the old folks and ladies to perch on a succession of wooden folding chairs set in place earlier in the day by members of the Congregational Church. The community leaders stood glumly at the side of the pit with the preacher. Big Sam commanded a position front and center, his round belly straining the buttons on a white silk shirt, his tall Stetson hat blocking the view of the ladies seated behind.
He stared at the hole in the ground with puffy red eyes.
“Where’s Doc Hamilton?” I said, lifting my chin to scan the crowd. “Surely he’d be here?”
“With fever on the rampage, I s’pect he’s got his hands full.”
One dead girl wasn’t much of a rampage, but I forgot the doc when I noticed a second face was missing.
Elly’s four uncles, Sam’s older brothers, Bob, Ed, Earl, and Ray, all in their middle to late 70s, bent to clasp the wrought iron casket hardware. With a heave, they brought the box to the cusp of the wood riser platform and slid it into place.
I could almost hear their backs creak. Earl let out a gasp, and each of them limped to the chairs reserved for them while the preacher took his place beside Elly’s box.
While everybody got arranged, I scurried around to stand under the oak tree beside Riley.
“Have you seen Doc Hamilton?” I said. “Or Charlie Murry?”
“How much would you say Elly weighed?” said Riley, not making any effort to whisper.
Or answer my questions.
Doc was President of the Chamber of Commerce. He should be here.
And as close as they were, it was impossible that Charlie wouldn’t be present.
But I suspected Big Sam was just as glad. The Murry’s cattle operation was twice the size of the Benteen operation, and the two families were bitter rivals.
“Romeo and Juliet,” I mused with a smile, but literary allusions were lost on my male comrades.
“Shush,” whispered the clay-faced gravedigger at the fence. “We’re gonna sing now.”
“She wasn’t a fat girl, was she?” said Riley. “Would you say Elly was fat?”
“Certainly more than hundred pounds?” He scratched his head and watched a crow fly low over the seated crowd. “Maybe 130?”
“You best not let Big Sam hear you.”
“I’d second that notion, friend,” said the digger. “Take it from me, folks get mighty touchy about their dead. I mean, they could care less about somebody when they’re alive and kicking, but after the drop off it’s a whole ‘nother story.”
“We’ll take that under advisement, thanks,” I said.
“Would you say she was five feet tall? I think a bit more.”
“More,” I said. “Maybe five feet and four inches.”
The assembled mourners started to sing “To Heaven I Lift Mine Eyes.”
“Force times distance equals work,” said Riley, gazing across the open prairie.
“Your boyfriend’s quite a conversationalist,” said the digger. “He always go on this way at funerals?”
Truth be told, I was just grateful Riley had taken the time to walk over and pay his respects.
I counted my blessings that he was dressed half-way decent.
That my dad had made Riley Boone a deputy law man a few months before when he’d helped to solve a series of baffling crimes was frequently forgotten. He was young, only a year older than me, and he spent most of his time cooped up in his clock shop on the edge of town –a building occupied twenty years before by Thomas Edison when that erstwhile personage traveled to Wyoming to watch a solar eclipse.
Edison left all manner of notes and forgotten inventions that Riley tinkered with on a daily basis. To mangle an old saying, you could take the boy away from his science, but you couldn’t take the scientist out of the boy.
“Mass times gravity equals weight,” he said.
I nudged Riley in the ribs. “You didn’t answer me about Doc Hamilton or Charlie Murry,” I said.
“Under the willow,” he said.
Following his gaze, I saw a lonely figure standing beside a horse under the open prairie’s second tree.
“Why doesn’t Doc join the crowd?” I wondered aloud. “You don’t suppose he’s quarantined himself?”
“That’s just what I was thinking,” said the digger with a serious nod. “Word is that it was him and only him that seen the girl after she passed. They didn’t even let the undertaker have her for fear of contamination.”
“Hence the closed casket,” said Riley.
“Preacher’s gonna talk,” said Digger.
I’m not ashamed to say the Congregational minister wasn’t familiar to me. He’d only recently moved to Randolph City with his family, and I haven’t been much for churching since before my mom died.
With his puffed up shock of silver hair and syrupy way of talking, I didn’t think I was missing much not making his acquaintance.
“The Good Book says there is a time for all things. For comings and for goings. A time to be born and a time to die. The idea that our beloved Elly Benteen departed this early veil too soon is but the judgement of sinful pride. The truth is the Lord needed another angel, and who are we to question His grand design.”
“Who indeed,” said the Digger with a sniff.
Riley held a pair of folding field glasses up to his spectacles. “I’ve got a question,” he said.
I took the glasses when he offered them. “Look at the saddle on Doc Hamilton’s mount.”
Ignoring the drone of the preacher, I stared through the magnifying lenses at the richly thick leather, the polished pommel, the ornately decorated skirt and billet straps. The roan horse was a wonder as well. Strong and sleek with muscles that rippled in the sunlight, he was the equal of any prize stallion Sam Benteen might own.
But it had a Murry Ranch brand.
“Doc Hamilton works strictly on barter,” I said. “He doesn’t have two cents to rub together.” Handing the glasses back to Riley, I declared, “That must be somebody else’s horse and saddle.”
“Or perhaps the doctor has come into some money,” he said.
The preacher had finished his piece and it was time to lower Elly into the ground. Again I watched her uncles teeter forward toward the coffin.
“Do you know that Bob and Earl helped me clean up some old iron behind the shop last week?” said Riley. “Neither of them can lift much of anything without giving out.”
“So if Elly weighs 130 pounds, plus something for the box—”
Before I knew it, Riley had taken three strides out of the oak tree’s shade and rounded the mound of dirt.
I watched as he stepped in front of the four pall-bearers, stopping the service with an upturned hand. “If I might interrupt,” he said. “For just a moment.”
From his seat near the front, Dad spun around and gave me the stink-eye.
As if my impetuous friend’s actions were my fault.
A gasp went up from the crowd as Riley bent down and knocked on the side of the box.
“Here, now. I won’t stand for this,” cried Big Sam.
“You won’t have to,” said Riley. “In fact,” he said, straightening his back, “there’s no need to continue with the service.”
So transfixed was I with Riley’s performance, I didn’t notice the gravedigger move until he had a big knuckled hand firmly clamped around my boyfriend’s arm.
“You stop this nonsense right now,” he said. “You’re just making it harder for these good folk.”
Riley looked at Digger’s hand like it was a specimen under a microscope.
With graceful ease, he slipped out of his jacket, leaving his frustrated attacker holding an empty sleeve.
Digger raised his shovel, might’ve dropped it on Riley’s head too if not for my own interruption of the events.
The gun I carried under my petticoats was small and only held two shots. But at close range it would shatter the man’s forehead.
“And I expect that’s something you don’t particularly want,” I said after explaining it to him. I smiled mischievously at Riley. “But it might be something Mr. Boone is gonna get if he doesn’t explain himself.”
Riley returned my smile and nodded back toward the willow tree outside the cemetery.
I looked just in time to see Doc Hamilton on his horse, riding away from the scene as fast as his new saddle could carry him.
With a nimble flourish, Riley shoved Digger aside and, gripping the coffin handle nearest him, turned the box over with a terrific crash. The lid sprang open, and the sorrowful contents exploded across the new mown grass.
Five pound bags of flour.
“I suspect Charlie Murry and Elly Benteen are off making a life for themselves by now,” said Riley as he drew a dripping tea strainer by its chain from his steaming cup.
We sat together at Dad’s kitchen table, the still gurgling kettle on a pad between us. Outside, the wind howled around the shutters and rattled the panes but the clear, starlit night was hardly forbidding.
In fact, it suggested a romantic dalliance under the moon.
The Marshal of Randolph City was having none of that.
“What I want to know is how you could be so dog-gone sure of yourself,” said Dad, pulling up a chair.
“It’s simply a matter of physics,” said Riley. “The amount of force it would take to carry a heavy body and casket the distance those old men managed. The effort shown by those gentleman was almost Herculean when compared with what I’ve seen from them in the past.”
“You don’t think they noticed the load was lighter than it should’ve been?”
“You know the Benteen family hubris as well as anybody,” said Riley. “I don’t think their pride would let them admit it if they did.”
“But still, you couldn’t be sure. Can you imagine if you’d spilled the girl’s body across the lawn in front of her grieving family? Not to mention exposing us all to the fever.”
“There never was a fever, was there?” I said.
“I’m confident there wasn’t,” said Riley. “Remember the gravedigger said only Doc Hamilton had seen the girl. I suspect his diagnosis was part of the entire ruse. After pronouncing her dead, he spirited her away to the Murry ranch. Or perhaps Charlie was waiting for her outside Doc’s office.”
Riley sipped his tea.
“While the Benteen family thought Doc was preparing Elly for burial, she was miles away, in the arms of her lover. Heir to a rival family.”
“Sam Benteen will demand a posse,” said Dad. “He’ll want Doc Hamilton tracked down. He’ll want somebody to pay.”
“Curious at Sam’s reaction today,” said Riley. “He seemed more angry at being tricked than joyful that his daughter wasn’t deceased.”
I put my hand on his arm. “Remember what the gravedigger said? Folks could care less about somebody when they’re alive and kicking, but after the drop off it’s a whole ‘nother story.”
“It’s more than that and you know it,” said Dad. “There was another quotation today at the gathering. What the preacher said—about questioning the grand design of things.”
I thought about Elly Benteen as we sipped our tea and listened to the night outside, the crickets chirping, spring-peepers croaking, a coyote in the distance. All as much a part of the grand design as Elly Benteen and her lover.
And Sam would certainly be questioning that design tonight.
After all, Charlie—that is, Charlene—Murry was a girl.