Chasing the ghost of Lt. Wesley Calvert

You can’t dig in red clay.  You put your boot on the shovel and step down and the shovel slides in, smooth and slow, and you’d think from a start like that it would be more of the same.  Smooth and slow, moving deeper.  But clay is heavy.  It doesn’t pry free.  Especially when your shoulders are sore and your back cries out and a hangover rages like a hair-band drummer.  That’s when you know that slow, patient digging is the worst kind.  Far worse than digging out west.  But this wasn’t the west.  This was Poscataw County, Mississippi, and in Poscataw County there is clay.

I turned to Kingston. 

‘You sure it’s down here?’ I said, sweat on my forehead, chest, pits.  We’d just started and already I was a mess.  Kingston didn’t seem too affected by the heat. He wasn’t drowning like me.

‘Under, Jackson.’  Kingston pointed at the ground, smiling, revealing white teeth.  Kingston was local and his father owned land.  He wore a Southern U t-shirt.  He was proud to be an aggie major at his hometown school. 

I dropped my shovel and joined Kingston with the map.  ‘Under the boat,’ he said.  He pointed to the scrawled illustration of boat on paper.  I glanced at the wooden dingy with the peeling blue paint, which we’d moved before digging. 

‘Hope he didn’t ever move the damn boat after he drew the map.’ 

Kingston shook his head. 

‘Nosir.  Never moved nothing.  Buried it all and never touched it once.’ 

Kingston was tuned-in to the local rumor mill.  Chances were, if something had happened to somebody in Poscataw County, Kingston knew about it first and was the one to tell you. 

Kingston was several years younger than me but didn’t show it, not with a linebacker build.  I’d asked him when we first met if he ever played any ball.  He said his parents had forbidden it because it bred violence and would distract him from school and the farm, his only two interests (other than gossip).  He was a strong man with big hands, Mississippi-born like his father and grandfather.  Kingston’s spacious mouth suggested booming syllables—thick, pink lips; a powerful jaw.  But Kingston didn’t speak much above a whisper. He’d chosen to lock his own voice in a soundproof box for a while. 

I returned to digging.  Under, I thought.  Under we would find a cache.  There were others, all of them under.  Under the gray pine.  Under the mound of stones south of the old well.  Under the busted carriage out back.  All of Jefferson Calvert’s worldly possessions had been memorialized in tight-lidded chests and buried deep.  And you can’t dig in red clay.

Kingston tucked the map in his back pocket and resumed digging.  Slow and smooth.  I joined him, trying to match his pace.  The humidity was heavy like grease on my skin. 

The shoveling took on a rhythm.  A blade sliding into red clay.  A pause.  The strain of the shaft.  The silent groan of lifting.  A taught stretch across the lower back and hamstrings.  A temporary shot of adrenaline as clay fell from the blade.  Occasionally we heard unseen cars motor by on the road, or the two chained-up dogs barking at each other in the distance.  We worked for two hours until I heard Kingston’s shovel bite on something other than clay. 

‘Got it,’ Kingston said, quiet.  We shared a grin, standing five feet deep.  The world was huge and bizarre from that perspective: the pines overbearing and ominous, transformed from slender to prehistoric.

We scraped clay from the top of the chest—first with shovels, then with bare hands.  Clay found its way under my fingernails.  With a heave-ho we pulled the chest free.  Lifting it out of the hole took all my strength.  Kingston didn’t have half the trouble.  As we neared the rim my footing gave way.  I heaved the chest up over the lip just as my toehold broke loose and I slid back into the hole.  Kingston stood on the edge, bearing the weight of the chest and looking down on me. 

‘Nother long night, huh?’ He started to laugh, and for some reason I imagined him over a jug of moonshine.

‘Help me out,’ I said, reaching up a hand.  Kingston set down the chest and hauled me out of the hole.  He could have flung me into a tree, the way he lifted my weight with one arm.  I knelt beside the chest, which was smeared in clay.  I tried to brush some off with my hand and saw the chest itself was a dull crimson.  Weldon’s words echoed up at me from out of the hole.  There’s one chest, the red chest, that one you be careful with what’s inside.

‘I’ll get a rock,’ Kingston said, eyeing the simple lock.  He disappeared behind the house, returning at a lumbering jog with an oval stone.  The lock gave way with two blows of the flat stone in Kingston’s large hand.  Kneeling, he unfastened the lid and cracked it open. 

‘Wait,’ I said.  I put a hand on his shoulder.  ‘I need to go on from here, Kingston.’

At first it didn’t seem to register.  He had looked in all the other chests.  I didn’t want to keep anything from him but something told me I’d best heed Weldon’s warning.  Kingston dropped his hands to his sides and frowned. I couldn’t blame him for being curious. 

‘Help me lug it inside,’ I said, ‘and I’ll get you your money.’  

We hauled the chest into the middle bedroom.  It had once been my father’s room and now it was mine on loan.  I went rifling through a drawer in search of Kingston’s pay.  I couldn’t afford what I paid Kingston.  I’d been living off my credit card since Biloxi.  My bank account was drained except for the last of my tuition money, which I’d never dug into before now.  I didn’t want to have to hire anyone but there were twenty holes to dig.  It would take me too long to do it all myself.   

‘Thank you,’ Kingston said. 

‘I’ll see you on Thursday, right?’

‘Thursday at 10.  See you then.’ 

With bulldog eyes Kingston looked once more at the chest before moving for the door.  I listened to his footsteps fade down the path before turning to the chest.  The hinges were shot with rust, breaking as I raised the lid.  The inside had somehow remained dry.  There were several parcels in the chest, each wrapped in canvass. 

Unsure where to start, I instead reached for the codeine.

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