Tuesday Prompt: 16 Heads

Prompt: Begin your story with the line “Two heads may be better than one, but sixteen are entirely too many.”

“Two heads may be better than one, but sixteen are entirely too many, begging your pardon, Mrs. Pastor.”

Sally Pierce blinked in amazement at the shriveled man in front of her, then looked helplessly at her husband, the Rev. Rupert Pierce. “Dear, I …”

“I think what Simon means,” Rupert said, “Is that there were only supposed to be fifteen sets of bones in that grave. Is that right, Simon?”

The church’s ancient caretaker nodded. “Someone’s buried there, who oughtn’t to be.”

In Sally’s opinion, the church ought to have left well enough alone. The proposed new building was much larger, much grander, and would fill up the land currently occupied by an ancient churchyard, which had reposed there peacefully for a century. The bodies had to be moved, which meant that Sally’s window in the parsonage had, for the last several weeks, overlooked rows of open graves. It gave her the creeps.

“You’re sure?” Rupert was asking.

Simon was nodding again, making the withered skin beneath his throat waggle like a rooster’s wattle. “I counted them skulls. Haven’t bothered with the other bones, but there’s definitely sixteen heads.”

“Should we call the police?” Sally asked anxiously, episodes of Bones and Cold Case flashing through her mind.

“I don’t think so, my dear. These graves are so old that even if some kind of crime was committed, it can’t be of any interest to current law enforcement.”

Sally sighed. It was all very well being married to a minister, but Rupert was so unworldly, and so comfortable with the spiritual that he was completely unphased by mysterious bones. He had no conception of the restless dreams she’d been having, inspired by those open graves, especially the mass ones. She understood that it had been practical a hundred years earlier, when the ground froze so hard they had to stack the bodies in the undertaker’s shed and wait for spring to dig a grave. So much more practical to just dig the one grave then. Hardy pioneer folk didn’t have time to be silly about things like individual tombstones.

But it made chills slide down Sally’s spine every time she thought about it.

The next day, Sally was in the backyard of the parsonage, fighting with the weeds that threatened her puny crop of vegetables. She was just cursing herself for having accidentally pulled up yet another young carrot, when a creaky, distinctly spooky voice said, “I reckon I can tell you where that extra skull come from.”

Sally gasped and ran her hand into the point of her trowel. Shaking away the pain, she stood up and regarded the wrinkled face peering at her over the fence. She knew Mrs. Billings by sight, but they’d never actually spoken. The elderly woman always sat at the back of the church, and in the four Sundays so far that Sally had spent as the minister’s new bride, she’d never managed to catch the elderly woman before she slipped out.

Sally wasn’t at all sure she wanted to talk about bones, but a minister’s wife has certain duties. “Won’t you come in?” she asked, glad enough for an excuse to pull off her sweaty gardening gloves and enter the shady house.

Mrs. Billings hesitated, then nodded her head with its fluffy nest of white hair. “Reckon I can spare a few minutes. Don’t get much chance to chat at church. My shows start just as soon as the service ends.”

Sally blinked. A lot of people rushed home from church to watch television, but few admitted it to the preacher’s wife.

Inside the cool kitchen, Sally poured them both glasses of lemonade while Mrs. Billings cast a critical eye around. Sally could only be grateful she’d transferred the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher.

“Now, about those bones,” Mrs. Billings said. “You wouldn’t have a cookie? I’ve got to keep up my blood sugar.” When she had a chocolate chip one in hand, she continued, “I never thought I’d tell this story to another living soul. I give it to my daughter, but she passed on before me, and there weren’t none of us Billingses left. But I reckon a minister’s wife is almost as good as family.”

“If it’s a family secret …” Sally began, wanting to assure the woman that she, Sally, had no curiosity in the matter.

But Mrs. Billings ignored her. “It was all on account of Laura May’s wedding to Jake Billings, you see.”

***

Laura May Johnson was as pretty as a wildflower and as spunky as a wild prairie pony. There were plenty of men around the small frontier town who came courting, but she would look at none of them—except for Jake Billings. He was a rancher who owned the biggest spread in the county, and an top of that he was handsome enough in his suit to set every female heart in church fluttering on a Sunday morning. When he came to call, Laura May said yes before Jake was rightly sure he’d proposed.

Well, the wedding preparations went on like a house afire, and it was all set for an early spring wedding. Laura May had made up her mind that while June was traditional, she wouldn’t wait an extra month to become Mrs. Jake Billings. May first suited her just fine. “May Day for Laura May,” she said.

It would all have gone without a hitch, if not for Laura May’s Uncle Max. He was the sort of relative who descended on a family insisting that he would only be there a week, and he’d stay a year. Or two. On top of that, he was the most cantankerous, self-absorbed old sinner you’d ever have the misfortune to meet. He liked nobody and nobody liked him.

On the eve of her wedding, Laura May was finishing up the stitching on her wedding dress. Tiny embroidered vines and leaves it had all the way around the hem, and she did every stitch herself. She had just tied the last knot when her sister Fran came into the room with a face white as the dress.

Clutching her heart as if she were about to faint, Fran gasped, “Laura, I’ve just been up to take Uncle Max his supper, and Laura May, oh Laura May!”

“What is it?” snapped Laura. She had a lot on her mind and was in no mood for Fran’s dramatics.

“Laura May, Uncle Max is dead!” [30 minutes]

Laura May was that upset that she closed her scissors on the fabric instead of the thread she meant to snip and made a slit right in her beautiful gown. She threw it down on the bed and ran up, hoping that Fran was wrong and maybe Max was just having a fainting spell, but it was all too true. There he sat in the room he demanded to have all to himself, staring at the fire, dead as a doornail.

Laura May grabbed Fran and shook her. “Now see here, Fran, who else have you told?”

“No one, no one,” Fran gasped. “I … oh it’s awful!”

“You bet it’s awful,” Laura May answered, but she didn’t mean because she felt any sorrow over Uncle Max. In fact, she was so mad at the old man, she coulda spit on his corpse. It was on account of Jake Billings’s ma. Now that her son was the richest man in the county, Mrs. Billings had certain ideas of how she—and anyone entered her family—was going to behave. And she would never allow her son to be married when there’d just been a death in the bride’s family. She’d expect Laura to go into mourning for months. But Laura May was bound and determined to be a May Day bride.

“I’m not letting anything get in the way of this wedding,” she told Fran. “Look here, you know the thaw’s been softening the ground up good, and they’ve dug the spring grave over at the church yard.”

Fran nodded and shivered, because even the word “grave” made her nervous.

“And you know Billy Jones who helps the undertaker is sweet on you.”

Fran blushed.

“Well, you’re going to go tell Billy there will be one more corpse for him tonight.”

Fran turned pale. “Laura May, I couldn’t!”

“Oh yes, you could. Nobody will ever notice one more body after they’re all covered up, and nobody will miss Uncle Max, either.”

“But they’re bound to notice he’s gone. What will we tell them?”

“That he’s packed up and gone back east, like he’s always promising and never doing. Go on, tell Billy we’ll have the body there at midnight.”

Laura May bullied poor Fran until she gave in and went to find Billy. Meanwhile, Laura went back down to sew up the cut in her dress and scheme.

That night, after the rest of the house had gone to bed, she and Fran got Max’s body between them and started on their way to the churchyard. Fran didn’t want to touch the corpse, but Laura May promised her that she could be married out of Jake Billings’s two story ranch house, and make a grand entrance coming down the big front staircase, so Fran gave in.

It was a good half mile from the Johnson house to the graveyard. Luckily, there was a moon, but even so, they were tripping all over themselves, lugging that heavy man in the dark. Max liked a square meal, especially when it was at somebody else’s house.

Well, they were almost there when they heard hoofbeats galloping toward them. Fran shrieked and dropped her half of Uncle Max, but Laura May kept her head, even when the nighttime rider turned out to be the town’s new sheriff.

He swung down off his horse and shone his lantern in their faces. “You two ladies mind explaining just exactly what you’re doing out at this hour?”

And Laura May said, “We’re taking this corpse to be buried, Sheriff.”

Fran nearly fainted again, but fortunately she kept her mouth shut.

Now the sheriff was so new, that he didn’t know all the folks in town yet.

Laura May batted her eyelashes at him and kept talking. “Please, please, don’t you blame my brothers, sheriff. They’re just high spirited lads, and they thought it would be funny to steal one of the corpses out of the undertaker’s shed and set him up as a guest at my wedding tomorrow. Of course, it was awfully disrespectful, but I found out in time, and as long as we get him back, don’t you think you could just forget about it?”

The sheriff, in addition to being new was also young, and not impervious to Laura May’s eyelashes. Besides, he saw the wisdom in being on the good side of the bride of the richest man around.

“I reckon my memory’s not so good as it once was,” he said. “Let me help you ladies.” And so the sheriff himself took the body to the graveyard. Billy Jones buried him, and later that night Laura May took all Max’s things to the churchyard and got them buried too. She was married next day to Jake Billings, and all her folks said the best gift of all was Uncle Max finally taking himself back east.

Nobody’s known the truth of that night, except the brides of the Billings family—they’ve passed down the story, along with the wedding dress and its mended skirt, where Laura May sliced it with the scissors.

***

Mrs. Billings drained the last of her lemonade and stood. “I’ve got to get home. As the World Turns starts at one, and I hate to miss it.”

Sally saw her out and then sat down at her kitchen table. “Well,” she said out loud.

“What’s well?” Rupert asked, coming in from his study in search of lunch.

“I’ve decided not to be afraid of the bones in the graves anymore,” Sally told him.

“That’s fine,” he said cheerfully. “I’ve been inspired by it, myself. I’m going to preach on John the Baptist.” He made a sandwich and wandered back to his study.

Sally stood at the window and looked out over the disturbed churchyard. She saw ghosts rising from the graves, but they weren’t the ghouls she used to imagine. They were only a fat man nobody liked, and a beautiful girl bound and determined to be a May Day bride.

*Author’s note: This was inspired by L. M. Montgomery!

 

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