The ride to the meadow was quiet.
They parked the truck in the meadow, beside the state highway bridge to conceal it from traffic. They each carried an end of the coffin with the shovel on its top. They walked across the meadow like two grave robbers, until arriving at the rise. Chet sat on a rock breathing hard. Rich dug a hole until it was about halfway up his thigh. Chet grabbed the shovel and dug till it was to his waste.
“That’s deep enough,” Chet said.
“Let’s get it in there,” Rich said.
“I’ve got to get something first,” Chet said. He used the shovel to pry a plank from the top of the coffin. He held the lantern close to the opening.
Rich was mortified at what lay in the coffin. It was a clothed skeleton partially covered with decayed skin. Chet reached inside and retrieved a mason jar that had an envelope inside. He stood over the coffin and looked at what was exposed. He sniffed as if crying, but soon got to the task, replaced the plank, and beat the nails down with the back of the shovel. They placed the coffin in the grave, covered it with dirt, and replaced the sod and rocks.
They walked hunched to the truck and drove back to the barn.
“Do you want to hear the story?” Chet asked.
“Only if you want to tell it,” Rich said.
“Here’s the story,” Chet said as he turned off the motor.
Chet relaxed against the seat of the truck and breathed deep. “It was four years after the war. I bought a farm. I’d been to France during the war. I thought I was really something. It was 1922 and I was a young single farmer. I had my pick of the young ladies, but I had my eye on a seventeen-year-old girl named Lilly Jorgenson. She loved me and I loved her. I proposed to her, but her step-father objected. She eventually told me she was pregnant.”
Chet paused, “Those things didn’t happen in those days. Well, they happened, but people only whispered about them. This is Brethren country. We decided to marry earlier, than what we had originally thought. A few days after that news, it was in the evening and I wanted to check my traps by the creek that runs under the railroad. Lilly was walking along the tracks on the night of December 12th. She was leaving home in shame.”
Chet wiped a tear from his cheek. “That’s what they did in those days. The train slows at a bend north of here and she was going to hop it. Crazy wasn’t it?”
“Who am I to judge?” Rich said.
“I told her we could go away together. It was snowing and freezing rain that night. I talked her into going back to the house. She was insistent on going to Toledo, to a home for unwed mothers. I had a truck and I said, ‘I will take you.’ I thought that on the way, I could talk her out of it. I slid off the side of the road at the bridge just east of my house. In those days there wasn’t that much to keep you in the truck. She must have been thrown out of the truck and into the creek. I was out for probably only a moment. I thought she got out and walked for help. I looked around and saw her face down in the creek.”
Chet looked down as if looking at her in the creek. “She was dead.” He continued. “I took her to this barn that I was finishing up and built a coffin out of leftover lumber and buried her there.” Chet rubbed his calloused hands over his mouth. “I loved her so much and ultimately was the cause of her death.”
“That wasn’t your fault,” Rich said to console him. “It was an accident. She could have been killed trying to hop the train if you let her go or she might have frozen to death.”
Chet went on as if Rich said nothing. “She came to my farm one day and we went to the barn. It happened all so fast. We were laughing and wrestling playfully. She told me a month later she was pregnant. I said without hesitation, let’s get married and she agreed. The night she died, she said her step-father would not hear of us two getting married. She decided to go away. I was scared. There was no way I could explain the events. The story was that she ran away from home and that was it.”
Chet turned his head toward Rich. “You should have seen her. She was so fresh and fair. She worked as hard as any man. Her step-father made her – he was cruel. She was scared to death of him, as was every man all around Slabtown. He was a big man with a violent temper. I wasn’t a small man, but he scared me. I was at Carpenter’s Market one day, about a month later, it was the Slabtown General Store in those days. He was talking badly about Lilly. Said she was a loose girl and was pregnant by some hobo from the railroad. I got a shovel from my truck and came up behind him. I got him to turn around. I plastered him with the shovel across his face. I held the shovel to his throat. Only God kept me from putting my foot to the shovel and running it through his throat. And not one man lifted a finger to help him. I told him to never speak ill of Lilly again. That was the end of the matter, until two weeks ago. I found out that my son sold the land where Lily was buried. They’re going to tear down the barn and dig up the earth and use it for an overpass for the interstate. I couldn’t take the chance of anybody finding the body in my barn. You see, there are two bodies in that coffin – her body and one unborn and a letter buried with her. She said she was going to send it to me when she got to Toledo. She didn’t want me to read it. I put it in the jar and buried it with her.” Chet paused. “Will you read that letter to me now. I know I can’t read it myself.”
Chet pressed hard and opened the mason jar and carefully removed the letter. He trembled as he handed it to Rich. Chet turned on the dome light to the cab of the truck.
It was addressed to Chester Winters, Slabtown, Ohio.
Rich slowly opened the envelope and unfolded the paper inside. He cleared his throat. “Are you sure you want me to read this?”
“Yes, Rich,” Chet said. “Read it to yourself, before you read it to me, so that way you can read it good.”
Rich looked curiously at Chet and Chet nodded toward the letter. Rich read it to himself. His lips moved as he did. When he came to the end, he said to Chet, “Are you ready?”
“Sure,” Chet said, “Read it good.”
“My Dearest Chet,
By the time you receive this letter, I will be long gone. I want you to know that no matter how long I live or how far I travel, I will always love you and never ever forget you. I must unburden my soul and confess the baby that I am carrying is not yours. It is my step-fathers. He has had his way with me from the time I was twelve. I thought that somehow, if you thought you were the one responsible for my pregnancy that things would work out. I talked to Reverend Picket and he said that I should go away. He refused to believe that it was my step-father and so did my mother. Please believe me. I beg you with all my heart. I could not bring myself to start a marriage on deception nor the wiles of a woman. You are truly too good for that. When I have the baby, if it is a boy, his name will be Chester. I will raise him to be a fine man, like you. There is a woman named Claire Basset. She is quite beautiful and it is rumored to be quite taken by you. Love her as you loved me. If you should pry the second board from the bottom of the north/west side of the Slabtown General Store, you will find the ring you gave me.
All my love forever,
Rich handed the letter to Chet. He slowly took it from Rich’s hand, pulled it to his face, and wept bitterly. “I would have married her no matter what,” he sobbed.
Rich slid his arm around Chet’s shoulder and drew him close and they wept together. After a moment, Chet pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, dried his eyes, and blew his nose. Rich pulled up his shirt and dried his eyes.
“You better get back to the Tuttle’s,” Chet said looking at his watch. “It will be sunrise in an hour or so.”
Rich reached for the door and Chet grabbed Rich’s arm. “There’s one more thing I want to tell you. It was forty years ago today that I got up about this time of the morning and walked over to Lilly’s farm. I walked the back lanes and she met me in the barn. We sat in the hay mow and watched the sun come up. When the sun shone on her face, I could not hold it any longer. I said ‘I love you. Will you marry me?’ Just like that, I said it. She threw her arms around me and said yes. Then she said, ‘Never forget this sunrise.’” He paused. “That’s who Lilly was. You better go now.”
Rich went back to the tent. Sammy and Don were awake.
“Where have you been?” Sammy said in an angered whisper.
“The only people that are out this time of night are Peeping Toms and grave robbers and I don’t like dead people,” Rich said and crawled inside his sleeping bag. He slept until the morning sun was hot against the side of the tent.