The storm swirled through the trees and whipped the limbs like a mad dog shaking a bone. Lightning flashed and rain
stung my face like wind-blown sand. I pulled my collar tighter and yanked down my hat. My mackintosh helped little
as water poured down the front of my shirt and the back of my neck.
“I’m wet clean through,” I said, holding the lantern high.
My hand shook.
“What’d ya say?” asked Lefty.
“I’m wet-through and freezing,” I yelled against the wind.
I coughed and stomped the edge of the grave, trying to get some feeling back into my numbed feet.
Our mound of earth marked the site where we had been digging since midnight. We worked in the heart of the storm,
a storm that also kept prying eyes away.
We’d returned to the village that afternoon with a few new finds: some rings, a brooch and a necklace, after being
south for a week grave robbing. Over ale and pipes in the local tavern, we overheard talk of a funeral that very
morning. We never cared who died: man, woman or child, young or old. It was easy shroud-money in a pine box and
the old professor at the nearby university liked cadavers of all ages, fat or skinny. He wasn’t fussy.
He was a big Prussian with a gray beard and thick glasses and accent, who proudly displayed an old dueling scar on
his cheek. He always needed corpses for his medical students and never asked where they came from.
The longtime grave-robbing arrangement paid Lefty and me more than we’d ever made as coal miners.
“Who’s in the grave?” asked Lefty.
“Does it matter?” I replied. “Let’s finish before someone sees us.”
“Not likely on a devil’s night like this,” Lefty grunted waist-high in the unmarked grave, his boots deep in mud.
He downed some rum and stuffed the half-pint bottle back in his pocket. Mud slid from his shovel as he banged it on
the edge of the grave. His body shook.
“Ain’t never been this cold and wet before,” he said.
He was a Napoleon-size, over-weight man with a round head, unblinking eyes, sagging, lizard-neck skin and a flat
nose usually occupied with his fingers. I never heard him tell a joke, or laugh at himself in our years together. His joys
were rum, grave robbing and Gertie, a wife who looked like she could be his older sister. His squeaky voice irritated
me. But where else could I find someone to help rob graves in 1872 Pennsylvania?
I was taller and younger by ten years. I could lift whatever needed lifting, but I wasn’t the man I’d been years before
when digging coal or boxing. There was a time when I’d bare-knuckle fight most anyone for a few coins.
“My back’s killing me.”
Lefty rubbed under his slicker and crawled out of the grave. He took another swig and handed me the near-empty
bottle. The rum stung my throat, but felt warm. I gave him the lantern and entered the hole. Sweat dripped from my
forehead as I dug deeper, thankful the earth hadn’t set since the burial.
My shovel clanked against metal.
“Shine the light down here, Lefty.” I knelt and wiped dirt from a coffin. Its top sparkled under the lantern’s dim glow.
“There’s a big silver cross on top,” I said, excited. “Silver handles on the side.” I scraped away more dirt. “It’s nailed
Lefty gleefully leaned over the grave, “Anybody nailed tight in a box like that’s gotta be wearin’ gold, new clothes and
maybe gold teeth. ‘Bout time our luck changed.”
“We’ll make extra on this one.” I wiped at the wood. “Never seen a coffin this fancy; know a clockmaker who ain’t
particular where good wood comes from, if it’s priced right.”
Our two horses dragged the casket out of the hole and up several planks as we helped push it onto the bed of our
open, ranch wagon.
“Eight pallbearers would have trouble lifting this,” I said.
Lefty unknowingly joked, “It sure is dead weight.”
I laughed. Lefty didn’t.
“What’s so funny?”
“Tell you later.”
We tied the coffin down and covered it with an old tarp.
Lefty rubbed his back again and took another drink.
We hurriedly refilled the grave and patted it back into its original mound shape. We were shivering and coated with
The rain turned to torrents as Lefty drove the wagon out of the remote cemetery that clung to a hillside of trees and
boulders above a gushing river.
Holding the lantern, I pulled myself onto the passenger seat, as Lefty cracked his whip and turned the team out of the
born yard. The coffin bounced as our wagon fishtailed onto the rutted dirt road.
“Slow down!” I yelled.
Lefty ignored my plea and again cracked his whip. He finished the last of his rum and tossed the bottle.
“Should-a brought more,” he said, speech slurred.
“Wanna get home to a fire and Gertie’s warm bed.”
We hunched together in the open without any cover. I gripped the bouncing seat and leaned forward against the
Lighting flashes provided brief views of the road as we climbed out of the hollow.
“Take the back road,” I ordered, as thunder echoed through the night.
“This way’s shorter.”
I pointed at a turnoff, “That’ll take us to higher ground and around the village.”
“Who’s gonna see us at this hour?”
Lefty gestured over his shoulder at the wagon bed.
“Think I got a hernia lifting that coffin. The professor should be paying extra for this back breaker. Times is hard.”
“They’s always hard.”
Although a confirmed bachelor, I too dreamed of a warm fire and rum.
Steam rose from the back of our horses as they reached higher ground, and moved into a trot. They wanted hay and
warmth, too. The back road was easier to travel until we got stuck in the middle of a rushing creek. Lefty applied the
whip to the animals. They broke free and began pulling up the opposite bank.
I heard a scraping sound and turned around. The coffin had come loose from its ropes. It slid across the bed, tilting
“We’re gonna tip over!” I yelled and jumped down, grabbed the spokes of the left, rear wheel and pushed. The heavy
coffin continued sliding until it hung over the tailgate and tilted toward the swirling, black water. I moved under the
casket and lifted and pushed with my shoulder and hands as Lefty cracked his whip. The wagon slowly finished its
climb up the bank and stopped on level ground.
Lefty hurried back to help; we shoved the box back, tied it down again and covered it with the tarp.
It was several minutes before we gained enough strength to climb back onto the wagon. The incessant rain added to
Water now filled my boots.
The rest of the ride went well until a pack of dogs on the edge of the village suddenly appeared and barked and nipped
at our team. The horses panicked and shot forward as our wagon twisted and bounced. I hoped we were still on the
road. I almost dropped our lantern. I gripped the wagon seat as Lefty’s whip lashed at the snarling curs. They circled
our horses, biting and growling. One tried to jump onto the wagon and tear at my leg until I grabbed our shovel and
drove the beast away.
It took several lashes of Lefty’s whip before he caught ones back. The big dog yelped in pain and sped back into the
night, trailed by its yapping companions.
Minutes later we circled the village.
Shortly before sunrise we turned into the alley behind the university lab. I hung our lantern on a nail, inserted a key
in the rusty lock and pulled open the heavy door.
Exhausted, we dragged the coffin off the wagon and up the stairs. It was backbreaking work. We stopped several
times to rest. We left a trail of mud and water, but got the long box inside and shoved it next to an examining table.
I lighted the room’s oil lamps and collapsed in a chair. We could barely move.
Lefty couldn’t stop shaking.
“I know there’s rum here someplace.”
He hurriedly opened several cupboards.
“Ah-ha,” he said, discovering a bottle, which he quickly half emptied.
“I’m still freezing,” he said. “Any dry clothes around here?”
He poked through closets and drawers without success.
One wall of the lab was covered with plaques, proclamations, honors, degrees and framed letters from famous people.
Bottle in hand, Lefty leaned against the wall and studied the display.
He spoke with slurred speech, “If the ol’ professor’s is important...he...he should be payin’ us double.”
The first gray light of morning touched the windows. I nudged the coffin with my boot.
“Let’s open it. Put the meat on the table and go. We’ll strip the silver and break-up the box tonight. No one’ll be
around. Tomorrow’s Sunday."
“I need the money,” sighed Lefty.
“Stop worrying and get the crowbar from the wagon.”
I worked around the box, inserting and lifting with the crowbar. I pried the coffin open and twisted off its nailed top.
Lefty—with unfocused, watery eyes—slumped like a wet mop in the corner with his rum.
I stared in the coffin, gasped and collapsed again in a chair.
“Lefty…you ain’t gonna believe this.”
Lefty lowered his bottle, and looked up: “What?”
“Get over here.”
“What’s so…so darned important?”
Lefty hesitated, then dragged himself across the floor and looked in the casket.
Lefty’s eyes slowly focused.
“Oh...my God!” he sputtered. He fell back on the floor and, white-faced, looked at me with disbelief, “I ain’t gonna get
“We ain’t gonna get paid.”
I took the bottle from his hand and finished it.
Laid out in the coffin was a large, well-dressed elderly man with a gray beard. Thick glasses rested on his nose. There
was a dueling scar on his cheek.
By: Big Jim Williams