The Gravedigger's Precipice
Despite the rain, Matthew whistled while he worked; a lilting, cheerful melody that fled across the trimmed grass, over the stone wall and into the dark, silent trees. He'd earn a sixpence for the morning's work, and another two pennies when the Priest had said his piece. The town would pay for this one; he might have earned more from a grieving family, but at least he was alone with his work and unhindered by the trouble of being social.
His spade cut easily through the damp turf. With practised ease he scythed through earth worms and roots, deeper and deeper, watching out for bones and body parts: this was a well-used section of the graveyard.
He paid no attention to the slack body on the cart, though he did glance over to check Bessie every now and then, each time finding her contentedly cropping grass, also unconcerned by the rain or the company.
The rain fell softly with a promise of spring. Matthew, by the nature of his job, worked in all weathers and he preferred rain to ground iron-hard with frost when every strike of the spade sent bolts of agony through his wrists and shoulders, or the soft deadly snow with the bitter cold nipping at his heels like a pack of wolves. He hated the heat worst of all, when the ground set like stone and his days were filled with pain and dust and tears.
The body lay on the cart, shrouded in a length of old hessian sacking Matthew kept for the purpose. Not that the sight of a body, whatever its state, troubled him, he'd buried old, young, family, friend and foe, but what had been done to this body was not pretty, and sometimes townsfolk would come to visit the graveyard and the sight might offend the ladies. He had a length of good dark cloth he used on other days, other bodies; he was careful not to let family and friends discover their lost ones beneath an old grain sack. A bit of show made sense in other ways, a chance of a better tip and he took care to avoid making enemies. There was no telling how grief might take some people.
It was not just grief made locals difficult. A town this size should not keep a gravedigger so well occupied. Some said it was being so deep in the forest brought a darkness to the place that found its way into folks hearts. Some whispered that it was being so far from other towns let folk so inclined bend the law to suit their fancy, and with no one to gainsay them.
Matthew said nothing. He saw too often what could come of a careless word.
He worked on in an easy rhythm, stopping every so often to ease his back and check on Bessie. The morning passed, the hole grew deeper and the neat pile of earth to one side rose higher.
Matthew was thinking about lunch. He'd bread and cheese on the cart, but if he waited there'd be the last of stew at the inn, thick and tasty. It'd be quiet by then, no one to trouble him. The bread and cheese would keep for another day. And he'd earned a pint. He licked his lips at the thought then, warned by some sixth sense, raised his head. A moment ago he'd been alone, now a man was standing at the edge of the trees, just beyond the graveyard wall.
"Blood and bones." Matthew jerked fully upright and a shovelful of earth flew astray. He squinted through the rain and saw the man was a stranger. "Good day, friend."
Considering the pleasantries attended to, he was about to turn back to his work when a blur of motion stopped him. The man was across the stone wall in a bound. He came on between new and tumbled gravestones. Tall and pale, his body gnarled with muscle like roots, beneath a long overcoat; dark lank hair crept below a battered top hat. He moved with a speed that left Matthew open-mouthed.
Before Matthew could blink, he was standing chest deep in another man's grave staring helplessly up at the newcomer. He clutched the spade close across his chest. "Can I help you, sir?" he asked with a practised subservient whine. The man was not townsfolk but Matthew had an eye for darkness.
Large brown eyes studied him. They might be kind eyes if you did not see the emptiness behind and the twist of cruelty on thin lips. The man turned away without a word and walked to the cart. Matthew watched, sweat prickled and chilled along his spine. He had a box set close by to aid him climbing out of the hole, but he stood frozen and watched.
The man lifted the hessian sack.
The body beneath had lost an eye and most of the left side of his jaw, slammed to pulp by hobnailed boots. The other side of the face retained its features, though patched and bruised to the colour of ripe plums. The man reached a hand to catch the slack jaw and turn the face. Matthew knew what the corpse looked like; he watched the man's face.
Releasing the jaw, the man tugged the sack off the stranger's body. They'd taken the boots, belt and trousers. The shirt was bloody and ripped too bad to bother with, but it offered little dignity. It was common practice with strangers who died badly. Matthew had no part of it, this time. Not that he'd refuse the chance of pickings, allowed the opportunity.
"He was wanted." He offered, the whine unintentionally lifting his voice to a plea. "His name's Bad Jim Moresby. There's a bounty."
The man turned from the body, reluctantly, a tree bending before the wind. His eyes were darker, deeper. "No," he said final as the grave.
"There's a poster, with …" Matthew choked off the words, wished he'd never opened his mouth. A likeness. It was not as if this hadn't happened before. A stranger spoke out of turn, looked crosswise at the wrong man, won too often at dice or cards. Maybe not even so much as that. The town collected a lot of bounties.
"Who looks to claim this bounty?"
Matthew clamped his jaw shut and struggled to breathe as briars snared tight around him. A lie would not serve and the truth would see him dead. He'd no doubt of it. The silence echoed, and desperation kissed his tongue to a low form of wit. "You'd have to ask the Mayor, sir."
The man smiled, revealing a maw of gapped brown teeth. "I'm asking you, friend."
"I tell you, you might as well put me in the ground here and now."
"Your choice." The man seemed to enjoy the irony.
Matthew had stood in many men's graves. He'd not thought to dig his own. "Tis not a fair thing you're asking."
The man sucked on a tooth. "Perhaps not," he said. "Come on out of there."
Hardly able to credit his luck, Matthew reached for the box and scrambled up out of the hole. He started forward, but the man waved him back to the edge.
"Stand there and think a bit," said the man.
Matthew opened his mouth to protest and snapped it closed, muddy fingers pressed across his lips to still a tongue that already run too free. Bessie lifted her head from the grass and turned to watch. He wondered what would happen if he ran for her. He couldn't see that the man had any weapons.
A glimmer of silver in the rain, the man tossed a knife with practised ease, four other throwing knives at his belt and a longer blade. "What happens here won't change what happens next." The man glanced back to the body, knife twirling absently between his fingers. "That was my boy."
The knife spun once more and stilled. The tip of the blade rested lightly in the man's fingers, a final warning.
Matthew stood on the edge of his grave. Rain washed the tears from his face and his breath came in whistling gasps. A spurt of piss warmed his thigh and in the same moment names burst between his fingers.
"Joe Summers and Karl Leister."
Matthew blinked and the knife was gone. The man started back through the gravestones.
Matthew sniffed and stepped away from the grave's edge to falter at the edge of another precipice. His eyes followed the man, weighed the darkness and made a choice. "There's more had a part in it," he called.
The man halted, turned back but made no comment. After a moment he smiled. "Tell me, friend."
The fear fell away. "Mart Whiter, Jack Spruce and Ed Forbes helped." Matthew thought hard. "And Si Barrett."
The man nodded once and it was done, a bargain sealed. Matthew watched him leave, then turned back to his work, whistling.