“Is that what I think it is?” Irene asks.
“A flask,” Meghan replies. “And I think it’s real silver, not plated. Let me switch with you.”
After Irene crawls away from the skeleton, Meghan takes her place, wedging herself between the cellar wall and the burial pit. She has to resist the urge to lift the flask for a closer look.
“There’s a loupe in the toolbox. Can you hand it to me?”
She brushes more dirt away and, when Irene returns, peers through the magnifier.
“It’s definitely silver. I can see the hallmarks on the base. They’re English. We should be able to get the maker and year.”
Irene whistles. “This is no slave, Meghan. Who is he?”
“I have no clue. All those old stories that Evelyn hates so much talk about slaves or mistresses. Not wealthy white men. He is white, isn’t he?”
“We can’t be sure until I do some metrics in the lab. And even then, we’re dealing with probabilities, not certainties.”
Meghan nods. “I know. But I also know slaves didn’t have silver flasks. And there weren’t many free blacks around here before the Civil War.”
She checks her watch. “Come on, let’s get this wrapped up today. I want to look up those hallmarks tonight.”
The two women pick up their pace. Not so fast that the work becomes sloppy. But twenty years of experience helps. By three o’clock, they’ve documented the excavation and are packing up the bones and artifacts.
Meghan forces herself to bag the buttons and buckles first. Up close, she sees they’re also silver. Whoever this man was, he had money. How did he end up in a cellar? she wonders. She’s just ready to lift the flask when Irene inhales sharply.
“Oh, wow. Look at this.”
“What have you got?” Meghan asks.
“Only the cause of death.”
“What? Let me see.”
Irene has lifted the skull from the ground. The hole just above the right ear is now visible.
“No exit wound,” Irene says. “The ball should still be in the skull.”
“Ball? You think it’s from a musket and not a rifle?”
“Yeah, the bone fractures are more in line with a musket ball than a rifle bullet.”
Meghan stands and stares into the nearby woods, thinking. Her dream project, excavating a colonial plantation with nearly unlimited private funding, is turning into a nightmare. Are the legends true? One of Evelyn’s revered ancestors is really a murderer? This can’t end well, she thinks.
A flash of light in the trees pulls her from her thoughts. She blinks, and sees another glint. The setting sun must be reflecting off something metal or glass in the trees.
“What about the flask?”
Irene’s question pulls Meghan back to the cellar. She kneels down again and removes the finely etched container. She grabs her ever-ready water bottle and rinses the dirt away.
“How lucky can we get?” she asks.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s engraved. ‘J Kent.’”
“Who are the Kents?”
“Heck if I know. But now I’ve got a name to go with the body. And when I check those hallmarks, I’ll have a date. Guess who’s doing some historic research tonight.”
Irene laughs. “What did we do before the Internet?”
“A lot of driving to dusty courthouses and the Library of Virginia. And I’ll probably end up there again. But at least I can get a head start from home.”
“Let me know what you find. Maybe we can solve a mystery no one even knew existed.”
As they and the students load the trucks for the drive back to campus, Meghan takes a last look at the site. Another flash of reflected light catches her attention.
What’s causing that? she wonders before climbing into the driver’s seat.
I hope you’ll stay tuned for Part 8 next Tuesday.