Authors: Robert Thornhill
DeMarcus heard it too.
We all turned just as a black van came barreling down the driveway. The cargo doors flew open and a man wearing aviator goggles was pointing a wand in our direction.
DeMarcus turned to fire at the van, but before he could pull the trigger, a blast of water from the wand blew the gun from his hand.
Lamar got off one errant round before he was pummeled by the liquid jet.
Seeing they were disarmed, DeMarcus and Lamar scrambled for the door and disappeared around the corner.
I made a grab for my gun and was about to pursue when a burst from the wand knocked me on my butt.
Suddenly, the gas engine shut down and I heard the guy in the aviator goggles mutter, “Oops! Sorry.”
By the time Kevin and I got to our feet, the two men from the van were standing in the doorway.
I turned to Dr. Crane who was obviously reeling from our harrowing experience. “Dr. Crane, I’d like to introduce you to your nephews. This is Oren and Billy Bob Thrasher.”
Having just nearly witnessed two executions and possibly losing her own life, Dr. Crane made an amazing recovery.
She stepped forward extending her hand. “Billy Bob, I haven’t seen you since you were a baby.” Then turning to his brother, “Oren, so glad to finally meet you.”
They both nodded.
Kevin wasn’t quite as gracious. “Excellent timing. I’m glad you boys happened to be in the neighborhood. I’m guessing it was not by accident.”
Billy Bob hung his head, “No, Sir, we’ve been following you.”
“Just a couple of sentimental guys hoping for a family reunion or maybe it had something to do with getting your hands on a certain locket?”
“Maybe some of both,” Oren replied, sheepishly, “but it was mostly about the locket.”
“Why in the world didn’t you just come to me after you read the diary?” Dr. Crane asked. “We could have looked for it together.”
“We didn’t know if you’d want anything to do with us,” Billy Bob replied. “We knew you and Dad never saw eye to eye. You were so smart and successful and well --- Dad was always just a screw up. You’re a doctor and live in that big fancy house and we’re just a couple of janitors trying to get enough money to start our own cleaning company. It’s like you’re the upper crust and we’re the soggy bottom.”
“I wish you had given me a chance,” she replied. “That’s what happens when you judge people without knowing them. I may be successful, but I came from the very same home as your father. I know who I am and I’m not one of those snooty aristocrats. Family is important to me, and the two of you are about the only family I have left.”
Then she turned to me. “My goodness, Walt. You’re shivering!”
Indeed I was. The temperature was somewhere in the mid-forties which was bearable when I was dry, but after being soaked by the power washer, I was feeling the chill.
“You need to get out of those wet clothes,” the doctor ordered.
“Hang on a minute,” Kevin said, rummaging through one of the open boxes. “Here!” he said proudly, handing me an armful of garments. “Put these on.”
He had handed me a bath towel, a pair of silk panties, a pair of white bobby socks, a granny gown and a pink chenille bathrobe.
“You’ve got to kidding,” I replied, indignantly.
“The way I see it,” he said, “is you have three choices. You can stand there and freeze your ass off, you can go to the car and turn the heater on full blast or you can slip into those cozy duds. Your choice.”
After weighing my options, I realized he was right. The status quo was unacceptable --- I was indeed freezing to death. I didn’t want to go to the car and miss finding the locket, so the only alternative was to get out of my wet things and change.
I slipped behind a stack of boxes and when I came out, all I needed was my hair in curlers to be the poster girl for the 1950’s American housewife.
“Perfect!” Kevin said, snapping my picture with his cell phone. “This will fit right in with my shots of you as a candy stripper, a transvestite and the Virgin Mary.”
Dr. Crane looked at me quizzically.
“It’s a long story,” I muttered. “It’s complicated.”
She nodded, but I noticed she took a step away.
“Well, back to work,” Kevin said. “Before Tweedy and his buddy barged in, I was about to open a very promising box.”
He picked up his knife and slit the tape on the box marked, ‘Mom’s jewelry.’
Inside, carefully wrapped in tissue paper, was a rosewood jewelry box with a beautiful butterfly inlaid in the top.
Dr. Crane took the box from Kevin and gently caressed the inlay. “Johnny Butterfly,” she whispered softly. “She said she’d never forget.”
“Looks like pay dirt to me,” Kevin said, enthusiastically. “Open it!”
She lifted the lid and inside were a cameo brooch, a charm bracelet and a half-dozen pair of earrings, the screw-on kind --- but no locket.
“Damn!” Kevin muttered. “That was our best bet.”
I thought for a moment. “Maybe not. Chloe Fisher was a private woman. Never once in her life did her husband or her daughter have a clue about the tragedies in her past life. When you think about it, it’s pretty unlikely that she would keep the locket in a place where an inquisitive daughter or a husband would accidently stumble upon it. A locket with the picture of a black woman would certainly raise a lot of questions.”
“Where then?” Kevin asked. “Any bright ideas?”
I remembered seeing something in the box of old books.
“Dr. Crane, was your family religious?”
“Mother was, but Dad certainly wasn’t. He saw terrible stuff during the war and he said he just couldn’t believe that any loving god would let such horrible things happen.”
I found the box of old books and next to the bottom was the one I was looking for. It was Chloe Fisher’s old, worn bible.
I opened the cover to the book of Genesis in the Old Testament and started thumbing through the pages. There was nothing unusual until I got to the book of John in the New Testament, and there it was.
A square hole had been cut through the remaining pages of the New Testament leaving a cavity just big enough to hold a gold locket wrapped in tissue paper.
The page where the cavity started was the fifteenth chapter of John. Verse thirteen was underlined.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
Dr. Crane choked back a sob. “Nate Jackson ran into those woods knowing he would be caught, but he did it so my mom could escape. He gave his life so my mom could live.”
She gently took the locket from the cavity, removed the tissue paper and opened the locket. The diary had said that it would contain the picture of Nate’s mother and there it was. The diary also said that behind the picture would be the location where Nate Jackson hid his share of the Wells Fargo loot.
Dr. Crane asked Kevin for his knife and carefully pried the gold ring that held the photo in place. It popped loose and she removed the photo, revealing a slip of paper turning yellow with age.
It was a map, and scrawled at the top were the words, ‘Highland Cemetery.’
“Where in the hell is Highland Cemetery?” Kevin asked. “I’ve never heard of it.”
I probably wouldn’t have either, but there had been a recent story in the
Kansas City Star
about the cemetery.
“I do,” I said. “Highland Cemetery is located just west of Blue Ridge Boulevard between Truman Road and Twenty-Third Street. It’s in an unincorporated part of Jackson County. It was primarily a black cemetery, originating way back in the days of segregation, when blacks weren’t allowed to be buried in white cemeteries. An article in the
talked about how the place is now owned by the Land Trust of Jackson County because of a tax foreclosure. The problem is that the Land Trust’s budget doesn’t contain funds for cemetery maintenance, so the place is going to hell in a hand basket. There is just no money to even keep the place mowed. The article said some famous Kansas City blacks were buried there and it mentioned a jazz band leader by the name of Bennie Moten.”
“How sad,” Dr. Crane said, looking closer to the words scribbled on the map. “I’m guessing someone close to Nate is buried there.”
The map was a rough drawing of the cemetery, showing a circle drive with several spots marked. On the far left side of the circle, a square had been drawn with the words, ‘Brown mossaleum.’
“He probably meant mausoleum,” Kevin said. “Not bad spelling for an uneducated black kid in 1943.”
From the mausoleum, there were a series of dashes that led to a spot marked, ‘fir tree’ and ‘Curtis Jackson.’ By Curtis Jackson was a large X.
“X marks the spot,” Kevin said. “That’s where the loot is buried.”
“So what now?” Billy Bob asked.
“Time for a treasure hunt,” Kevin replied. “Is everyone available tomorrow morning?”
“Good, then let’s plan to meet ---.”
“Hold on a second,” I interrupted. “There’s no rush. That money has been there for seventy years. It’s not going anywhere. Let’s meet at the cemetery right after lunch. There are a couple of things I need to take care of in the morning.”
Hearing no objections, I said, “Great. Highland Cemetery, one o’clock. Billy Bob, can you guys bring the shovels?”
“One more thing. Dr. Crane, you should hang onto the locket and the map, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to borrow the photo until we meet tomorrow.”
“Certainly,” she replied handing me the photo.
We locked up and on the way home, Kevin asked me what I had to do the next morning that was so important.
“Maybe it’s slipped your mind, but just an hour ago, there were two slugs with our names on them in Tweedy’s Saturday Night Special. I didn’t want to alarm the others, but if the guy is watching us and waiting for his next chance to take us out, what better place than an abandoned cemetery in the dead of winter? I’d feel a lot better with someone watching our backs.”
“You’ve got a point,” he said. That was a little too close for comfort. Good things those nephews were on our tail. What’s your take on those two?”
“The jury is still out, but I have a good feeling about them.”
“Yeah, me too.”
When I walked into our apartment, I had totally forgotten that I was dressed in a pink chenille bath robe and white bobby socks.
Needless to say, Maggie was somewhat surprised.
“Jesus, Walt! What have you gotten yourself into now?”
“Long story,” I said, handing her a sack full of my wet clothing.
“Then you’d better get started, because we’re not going to bed until you tell me everything.”
I started at the beginning and told her everything, from the moment when Dr. Crane had complained about being stalked right up to the moment when we found the map. Many of my previous exploits had bordered on the unbelievable, but she had to admit that this was a dandy.
She was understandably upset about DeMarcus Tweedy’s ongoing vendetta and I had to admit that I was as well.
By the time I had rehashed the story to Maggie’s satisfaction, I was dead tired. I trudged to the bedroom, tossed the chenille robe on the floor and stepped out of the granny gown. It had slipped my mind that I was also wearing a lacy pair of silk panties.
I heard a giggle behind me.
“Ummm, silk and lace. Kinda sexy,” she murmured, caressing my silky bottom.
Suddenly I wasn’t so tired anymore.
Bright and early the next morning, I knocked on Willie’s door.
“Mornin’ Mr. Walt. You feelin’ better dis mornin’?”
“Better? What in the world are you talking about?”
“Well, I seen you come sneakin’ in dressed in a woman’s nightie last night. Figured if you wasn’t under de weather, you would be by the time Miss Maggie got done with you.”
“No, no, it wasn’t like that.”
“Well den what was it like? I seen you dressed all weird befo’, but nevva like dat.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll tell you --- on the way to see Louie the Lip. Can you get in touch with him?”
“Sho can. You got somethin’ fo’ us to do?”
“If you have the time.”
“I got nothin’
time,” he said grinning.
“By the way, do you know Louie’s last name? I’m pretty sure it’s not ‘Lip,’ but that’s all I’ve ever heard anyone call him.”
Willie thought for a moment. “Nope, jus’ Lip. Dat’s all I ever knew.”
Twenty minutes later, we were having coffee with Louie at one of his favorite watering holes.
“I heard that DeMarcus Tweedy damn near punched your ticket last night.”
News certainly traveled fast through the Northeast grapevine.
“That’s why I’m here. I need your help --- you and Willie.”
Without going into too much detail, I told him about our impending treasure hunt.
“There is only one way into and out of the cemetery, so basically, I was hoping you and Willie could hang out at the entrance. If Tweedy follows us and sees you there, he probably won’t try anything. I just don’t want him sneaking up on us like he did last night.”
He thought for a moment. “Sure. I still owe you for keepin’ Rashawn Tweedy from rippin’ off my sister’s convenience store.”
“It’s not like that,” I said. “You don’t owe me a thing. That’s just what friends do.”
“I know dat,” he said, his big lower lip breaking into a smile. “I jus’ wanted to hear you say it.”
At precisely one o’clock, we were all gathered at the entrance to Highland Cemetery.
After making introductions, Willie and Louie took their posts on either side of the entrance and Dr. Crane carefully opened the yellowed map.
The main circle drive that Nate had drawn was right in front of us. Other gravel roads which probably didn’t exist seventy years ago branched off to the north and south.
As promised, the Thrasher brothers had brought shovels for each of us.
With tools in hand, the five of us headed down the circle drive.
The description of the cemetery in the
was right on point regarding its condition. Even though the grass and weeds were dormant because it was December, it was quite apparent that they hadn’t been mowed in years. Three foot tall tombstones were barely readable and the ones at ground level were barely visible. Some had been overturned by vandals and sat at odd angles to the ground.
Instead of lying in ruins, the old cemetery should have been listed on the Historical Sites Registry. Some of the dates on the tombstones were as far back as the early 1800’s.
We had walked about a hundred yards and were just coming to the curve in the circle drive when we spotted a mausoleum on the left side of the road. The inscription read ‘Mathais Brown, 1898 – 1943.’
“Just like on the map,” Kevin said.
We looked straight ahead in the direction the dashes had been drawn, past the curve in the road, and saw a magnificent fir tree.
“Still there after seventy years,” I muttered.
“Now all we need is a headstone with the name Curtis Jackson,” Kevin said, as we made our way to the base of the tree.
The grass and weeds were thickly matted. We spread out and began kicking the ground, exposing the bare dirt, hoping to uncover the headstone that, after all these years, could actually be buried under years of decaying leaves and debris.
“Damn,” Kevin muttered. “We should have brought rakes too, but who knew?”
“Actually, we’ve got a couple of rakes in the van,” Oren offered. “It would just take a few minutes for me to run back and get them.”
“Don’t bother,” Billy Bob replied. “I think I’ve found it.”
We all gathered around as Billy Bob fell to his knees and began pulling weeds with his hands.
Moments later, he brushed the last dirt aside revealing a stone set in the earth bearing the words, ‘Curtis Jackson, 1880 – 1935.’
“Bingo!” Kevin shrieked. “Let’s dig!”
“Hold on a moment,” Dr. Crane said. “Before we desecrate this poor man’s grave, let’s pause for just a moment to reflect on what occurred here seventy years ago. A young black boy killed a white man who was about to ravage a helpless girl. Fearing for his life, he robbed a Wells Fargo office to get enough money to escape to freedom. He hid the money here for safekeeping, but before he could get away, a lynch mob tracked him down. His last noble deed was to draw the mob away from my mother so she could escape. The day after he buried the money in this grave, he was hanging by his neck from an oak tree. If it weren’t for his selfless act, I might not be standing here today.”
We all paused and hung our heads, reliving the story that had unfolded here seventy years ago.
In that moment of silence, I heard a twig crack on the south side of the cemetery. I looked up, expecting to see a deer or some other woodland creature that might have wandered by, but to my surprise, I saw two black men approaching and saw the glint as the sun reflected off the barrels of the guns they were carrying.
“Everyone down!” I shouted, pushing Dr. Crane to the ground.
I heard the first round whiz past my head as we all scrambled for cover behind the closest tombstones.
Kevin and I were both armed, but my .22 revolver and his Glock were no match for the automatic pistols that Tweedy and his buddy were carrying.
Each time we would peek around the tombstone to get a shot off, we were driven back by a relentless hail of bullets.
We were hopelessly pinned down and I figured it was just a matter of time until one of their rounds found its mark.
Suddenly, I heard shots coming from the east, and I saw Willie and Louie advancing toward Tweedy, moving from headstone to headstone.
When Tweedy turned to fire at Willie and Louie, Kevin and I blasted away. Seeing he was outnumbered and being flanked from two sides, Tweedy and his buddy turned and sprinted into the woods.
We both emptied our weapons at the fleeing bodies, but once again, Tweedy had slipped away.
“Everyone okay?” Louie asked as we staggered to our feet.
“I --- I think so,” I replied, taking a quick inventory of our little group.
“You was right, Mr. Walt,” Willie said. “Sho enough, Tweedy came drivin’ by. He slowed down, but when he saw me an’ Louie, he high-tailed it down the road. We figured he had jus’ give up, but I guess we was wrong. He musta parked on the far side of the cemetery and then come at you through the woods. Sorry, we jus’ didn’ do our jobs.”
“The hell you didn’t,” Kevin replied. “If you two hadn’t shown up, we would have all been Swiss cheese.”
“So did you find what you were looking for?” Louie asked.
“Yes, we did,” I replied, “but before we go any further, I’d like to show you something.”
I pulled the photo of Nate’s mother from my pocket. She had posed so that we were looking at her from the side. Her profile had one very striking feature, a large protruding lower lip the likes of which I had only seen on one other living being.
I handed the photo to Louie. “Any chance you recognize this lady?”
I saw the startled look on his face. “Where’d you get a picture of my granny?”
Now the rest of us were in shock.
I pointed to the recently uncovered headstone. “Does this name mean anything to you?”
He fell to his knees to get a closer look at the inscription. “Dat’s Uncle Curt, my daddy’s brother.”
“How about Nate? Do you recognize that name?”
“Nate was Uncle Curt’s boy, my cousin. How is it that you’re knowin’ about all my kinfolk?”
“Because seventy years ago, your cousin Nate saved my mother’s life,” Dr. Crane replied. She pulled the diary from her purse. “Would you like to read about it,” she said, opening the diary to the part of the story where Nate killed Angus Tyler. “He was a real hero.”
Louie took the diary, perched on a tombstone and began reading.
Out of respect for Louie, we suspended our treasure hunt while he was reading.
When he was finished, he closed the diary and handed it back to Dr. Crane. I noticed the trail of a tear that had slid down his cheek.
“When I was a young’un, I heard stories about Nate bein’ strung up, but I never knew no details. Back den, a black man being hung was no big thing. It happened all the time. So that photo came from my granny’s locket?”
I nodded. “And the map to Curtis Jackson’s grave was behind it, just like it said in the diary.”
“Could I see it?” he asked.
Dr. Crane pulled the locket from her purse, took the photo from Louie and pressed it back inside. Then she took Louie’s huge hand and pressed the locket into his palm. “You should have this,” she said. “It’s part of your family’s legacy.”
His big lip quivered as he fought to hold back the tears. “Thank you, Ma’am. Dis means a lot.”
When he had composed himself, he looked at his uncle’s grave. “You recon that Wells Fargo money is still there?”
“It may or may not be,” Dr. Crane replied, “but this changes everything. That’s your uncle that’s been resting there for seventy-nine years. You’re his family and I wouldn’t think of touching that grave unless you were okay with it.”
Louie thought for a moment. “Accordin’ to dat diary, de last thing Nate said to your mom was ‘Behind dat picture is where I hid my money. It’s yours Chloe.’ I figure if that was Nate’s dyin’ wish, den out of respect for him we outta make it happen.”
He grabbed a shovel and turned over the first pile of dirt.
We each grabbed a shovel from where we had dropped them when the bullets started flying and pitched in.
As we dug, I marveled at the fact that this was the second time I had desecrated a grave hunting for buried treasure.
A few years earlier, Ox, Judy, Maggie and I had taken an Alaskan cruise to celebrate our friend’s honeymoon. We came in contact with a historian that had discovered a manuscript telling about two con men that had swindled a prospector out of his poke of gold back in the late 1800’s. The swindlers were on the run when they hid the gold in a cemetery just outside of Skagway. The manuscript came complete with a map and the historian, being advanced in years, enlisted Ox and me to help find it.
I was jarred back to the present when I heard a ‘clink’ as Louie’s shovel struck something solid.