Meghan and her crew find themselves back at Wyndham Thicket Farm in mid-January as classes resume. Evelyn had been right. A few well-placed phone calls from her husband had fast-tracked the burial excavation permit—and removed the public notice requirement. Evelyn didn’t want anyone to know about the skeleton until she knew who it was.
Joining Meghan is Irene Kristoff, the university’s physical anthropologist. After clearing away the protective soil and plastic from the burial pit, the students are sent to work on other features while the two women excavate the skeleton. Meghan can sit on the ground while working on her side of the body, but Irene has to lie on her side, wedged between the cellar wall and one side of the feature.
“So you told the coroner and landowner this is from the 1800s or earlier,” Irene says. “Do you really think it could be Native American?”
“No, but I didn’t want to say anything more definite until we had a better look. I had my fingers crossed they wouldn’t ‘follow the yellow brick road,’ so to speak.”
“I’m surprised McVay didn’t catch on. He should’ve known the misplaced bricks mean someone dug through them to bury the body.”
“Maybe he didn’t think much about it once he knew it wasn’t a modern criminal case. And thank heaven Evelyn and Douglas are on vacation for another week. It gives me some time to figure out what the hell to tell them. I’ve got a bad feeling those old stories about a murdered slave or mistress aren’t legends after all.”
Irene eases herself away from the work to stretch her back. “We’ll know before long if it’s a male or female. Whoever it is, someone buried them quick. This pit was just big enough to fit the body.”
Meghan nods silently and stands to get the blood flowing in her legs again. She’s barely recovered from last fall’s excavation of a teenage boy murdered in the 1940s. No one shoves a loved one into a hole in the woods or the cellar, she thinks. And why am I the one who’s uncovering them now? Of all the plantations in Virginia, why did this body have to be here? If this dates to the Walkers’ time, Evelyn will be crushed.
The two women return to their work. By noon, the upper part of the skeleton is exposed. The body lies in a roughly fetal position on its right side.
“An adult male,” Irene says. “The left wisdom teeth are fully erupted, all the epiphyses are fused, and the bones are really robust.”
“Well, that rules out the mistress,” Meghan says. “So we’re looking at an African-American man?”
Irene studies the visible part of the body. “I’m not sure. The skull is narrower and the teeth smaller than I’d expect. But I can’t rule out an African-American mother and Caucasian father. He could still be a slave.”
“Evelyn will not want to hear this,” Meghan says, setting aside her trowel to rub her neck. “Unless….”
“Maybe it was the Tarletons and not the Walkers. The Tarletons bought the place in 1868. Maybe one of them killed somebody and buried him in the old house before they filled in the cellar.”
“Possible,” Irene says, sitting up to break for lunch. “It would’ve been easier then. I mean, if someone did it while this house was occupied, how much room did they have to work? This floor’s only what, a meter below the ground surface? You’d be digging the grave on your knees and bumping your head on the ceiling.”
“Not necessarily. The cellar’s not complete. It should be two or three feet deeper. But there’s been a lot of erosion, and I’d bet when the Tarletons tore down this house, they took down the upper bricks so they wouldn’t interfere with plowing. We’ve found some lying on the floor.”
“We need some diagnostic artifacts to find out. Think we’ll find any?”
“God, I hope so,” Meghan says. “Knowing my luck with this project, whoever buried him stripped him first.”
Meghan doesn’t ignore her students over lunch. She checks their work and notes while munching on an apple and trail mix. She’s pleased to hear them talking about the spring term’s courses and not speculating about the mystery burial.
In the distance, a dog barks. Meghan smiles. While Evelyn and Douglas vacation in the Caribbean, Maisy and Chess are spending the time at a luxury kennel. She won’t be tripping over their tennis balls or getting a faceful of fur as they stick their noses in her excavations. Her son, John, hasn’t picked the best time to ask for a puppy. Of course, husband Rick wants one, too, and Meghan’s outnumbered.
Nothing bigger than a cocker spaniel, she thinks. Absolutely no Irish Setters. Or anything drooling. Or high maintenance. Especially since I’ll be the one who ends up taking care of it.
After the break, Meghan and Irene return to the skeleton. It’s not long before Meghan’s worst fears are laid to rest.
“I’ve got some buttons,” she tells Irene. “And they look like silver.”
“Would a slave have silver buttons?”
“Not likely. Maybe they’re just silver-plated. I’ll take a closer look when we finish documenting them.”
“It’s funny, Meghan, I’m not seeing any obvious signs of manual labor. There’s no arthritic lipping on the vertebrae. And even though the bones are robust, they don’t show overly pronounced muscle attachments.”
“Maybe he wasn’t very old? Twenties?”
“Possible. And if he was a house slave, he wouldn’t have done as much heavy work as the field hands.”
“That would fit with silver-plated buttons. If he was a coachman or interacted with the family and guests, he’d be well-dressed.”
“But why did he end up buried in the—oh, hang on, what’s this?”
“What?” Meghan asks, peering across the body.
“It’s something metal. Near the right hip. What is it?”
Meghan wishes she had done her morning stretches as she reaches over the skeleton to clear away the loose dirt. The object takes shape beneath her brush.
“Whoa,” she says. “This changes everything.”
I hope you’ll stay tuned for Part 7 next Tuesday.