Rhonda Besaw

The Grave Robber or Brother Skunk Takes a Ride

Somebody was robbing graves in Perkinsville. Not your typical storybook grave robber, oh no, this unholy cuss was digging up the flowers from the graves, one by one.

This became quite a topic of conversation and consternation at the local men’s only coffee shop. After much blustering and spit over day-old coffee, the talk would turn to who done it?  What son of a gun would desecrate the graves in this fine little town? Even the American Revolution war soldiers’ flowers were dug up, the ones that the kids in town put on the graves every Memorial Day while Blackie played taps out behind the Town Hall.  And Martha Hill’s grave. Well, a finer woman was never met, raised her kids, her grandkids and was starting on her great grandchildren when the cancer took her. Now, why she ended up with all them children with no daddies, and dark faces, was another topic for another day.

Old Elwood slammed his coffee cup down on the fly specked counter and said he was going up there with a rifle and was gonna shoot the son of a gun just like he’d done with the coy dogs going after his calves. Not one of the men doubted Elwood could do it, and some of them even egged him on to go and get him, just looking forward to the excitement of a good shooting in the little town. Ain’t had one in quite a long time, if you don’t count the time that Wally came home from Vietnam all screwed up in the head, and fired a few pot shots at the local constable. Didn’t know where he was, poor fellow, and the constable with his dark hair and black eyes kind of reminded him of Vietnam, and who could blame the fella.

Well, this same constable was gonna be in charge of the investigation into the grave robbing. Not to say that big old calloused fingers weren’t pointed in his direction.  There was nobody escaping the Yankee glare from the coffee shop men.  Verge, the constable, he never did go to that fine Methodist church right across from his house.  Some suspected that he might secretly be one of them Catholics, with his French last name, but no one ever saw him doing any of that Catholic stuff, and he ate meat on Fridays right along with the rest of them.  Never heard him swear or lie or cheat, so he must have some kind of religion about him, but damned if anyone knew what it was.  It had to be a godless man, doing the dirty deed at the cemetery, or a gypsy. Everyone knew that there was still a few of them kind roaming around, living on the back road, the Coppermine Road, in their little shacks made from scavenged lumber.  Some even eating dog food, for goodness sakes!  Yup, wouldn’t put it past them heathen gypsy types to be out there desecrating good Christian graves.

Verge, the constable, heard all the talk. Not that he needed to actually hear it. He

had been raised in that town, and knew how their minds worked and their fingers pointed. He knew he was somewhat of a mystery to them, with his copper colored skin and coal black hair and no daddy.  He was one of those kids raised by the good Martha Hill, babies that appeared from nowhere on her doorstep, bawling gifts from the females in her family, generation after generation. And he knew with no doubt, that some of the men that he shared coffee with every morning could very well be suspecting him of the crime, and he wouldn’t put it past them that they might even think that he was peeing on those good Methodist graves at the same time he was digging up the flowers. Especially Elwood.

Verge had painted Elwood’s barn years ago, painting the name of a local young woman on the side of the barn for all to see before he conveniently had enough paint to finish a few days later.  Boy, Elwood was mad at that. Everyone knew Elwood never left that farm and wasn’t gonna be sweet on any woman. So, Elwood was holding a grudge that was as solid as the granite beneath his feet, and it don’t matter years later, that Verge had the title of constable.  Elwood was gonna hold tight to that grudge till the day he died.

Although Verge didn’t put much stock in the Methodist church teachings and all the folderol that went on with burying folk, he did have a deep respect for people and their property. And the graves being disturbed, that just wasn’t right. And he wasn’t going to be ribbed at the coffee shop that he couldn’t catch this fella doing the nasty deed either.

That night, enjoying his Canadian whiskey after supper, he made plans and cleaned his shotgun. The old 12 gauge should take care of any problem, heaven knows, it had taken care of plenty. Especially at night, taking a shot with a 12 gauge you wouldn’t have to aim close, just point, and the shotgun-scattered pellets were bound to hit something. He packed up the gun, a blanket, his pipe and Borkim Riff cherry tobacco, and told his wife, Mary, not to expect him back until tomorrow morning. He drove his old Buick up the back road, the long way to the cemetery, with the lights off. He actually could find his way there in the dark, as he had played “chicken” with Elwood when they were kids on this very road, driving with the lights off, full bore, waiting to see who would be the “chicken” and grab the wheel first.  Verge never grabbed that wheel, and that was another thing that just annoyed Elwood, Elwood always made that first sweaty grasp for the wheel on the old V-8.

Verge drove down into the pasture, parked the car, and walked in the total darkness to the cemetery. No moon tonight, and a mist covered the cemetery grounds, damp and dark.  He figured he would sit there, behind the huge Van Dyke memorial, and wait for the culprit to show up. He didn’t mind the place; liked being outdoors, such as it was, with his pipe and his thoughts. So he stayed, not one night, not two.  After the third night, the ribbing at the coffee shop was getting tough, not that he would show it, as that was part of the game, but it was galling him that the culprit hadn’t made an appearance while he was on patrol. Verge though, had the patience of Job, and he was gonna sit there in that damp graveyard at long as it took to bring justice to the good folks of Perkinsville.

And on the fourth night, it happened. Just as Verge was gonna light another satisfying bowlful of his favorite cherry flavored tobacco, he saw the movement at the Frazier grave.  And sure enough, there was the culprit, carefully and slowly digging up the white geraniums planted there by widow Frazier. Verge coulda shot; it would have been a clean shot, but he thought how much fun it would be to take a live captive right over to the coffee shop at daybreak. Besides, the little fella was just trying to take care of his family most likely, and what was the harm in that, it was the natural way of things. And he just couldn’t wait to see the look on Elwood’s face!  Elwood was so convinced it had to be a godless heathen Indian gypsy or a Catholic, doing such a thing.

Verge quietly crossed over the dirt road to the Frazier barn as he knew the perpetrator would be busy for a while, and borrowed one of their large steel trash cans.  When he walked back with it, he was thinking to himself that it was a good thing he could see in the dark, as this might be quite a chore to capture the little fella.  But the laughs and the storytelling was going to be worth it, and if it backfired, he could get home and clean up before anyone knew what was up.  He’d make sure Mary never told. She always did what he said.

He put the trash can down behind the Van Dyke memorial, the one with the river and the pulp logs engraved on it, and watched as the fat perpetrator finished his business at the Frazier grave and waddled across to the Burrelle marker, eyes set on the rose bush planted there.  This is where the game had to end. Verge chuckled to himself and quietly snuck up behind the culprit and grabbed him fast. So fast, that his prey didn’t have time to react.  Without any noise at all, Verge plopped him in the trash can and put the cover on quickly. All according to plan, Verge thought, and said out loud “I’m just going to take you for a little ride and show you off, and then you can go.  Now, you just behave yourself in there, and no one will get hurt, especially me”.  Verge laughed out loud, and put the trash can upright in the back seat of the Buick, and headed off to the coffee shop.

As he pulled in, right at sunrise, all the local farmers were there after doing the morning milking, sitting on the porch. “Oh, that was good,” Verge thought, as he would hate to have to try and get that trash can into the shop, no telling what could happen with an escaped desperado in closed quarters. The time was now to get the grin off his face, and reel ‘em in, as he was known to do. It was just a matter of being patient, and knowing what made ’em tick. He pulled the Buick with its non-protesting cargo into the circular dirt driveway and came to a stop right in front of the broken-down rocking chairs on the porch. This was gonna be a moment to savor, as Verge knew this story would be told and retold with much embellishment around the sugar house to pass those long days boiling sap in the spring.

Verge took his place in the old rocker with not much of a seat (couldn’t get anyone to do caning like they used to!), lit his pipe, and smoked, thoroughly enjoying the cherry scented smoke and the familiar smell of cowshit on his neighbors’ well-worn work boots. No one mentioned the large steel trash can in his back seat, although it couldn’t be missed. One thing you can say about Yankees is that they mind their own business. The cargo was quiet, thank goodness, those clawing noises having stopped when he parked the car. He didn’t want to give away the story too soon.

Sure enough, just like clockwork, (Elwood had to be on the clock set by his Holstein cows, finest milkers in northern New Hampshire), here comes Elwood, riding his old beat up FarmAll tractor across the bridge, which everyone knows is illegal, no license plate, leaving a trail of cowshit and silage wherever it goes, not to mention the stink from never changing the oil. And never mind that traffic could never get by him on the two mile trip across the river, he would just scowl and growl, and there just wasn’t much anyone could do but wait for him to turn off into the coffee shop. He figured that everyone knew where he was going anyways, and well, if you didn’t, you weren’t from around there and thus it didn’t matter. Elwood threw the gearshift in neutral and coasted into the driveway (Elwood was known for being tighter than bark on a tree and thought coasting might save him a nickel) and parked right next to the Buick with the large and quiet steel trash can in the back seat. No way he coulda missed it, but like the others rocking and smoking on the porch, it would be impolite to draw attention to it.

There was Verge, sitting on the porch in his usual spot, looking like he didn’t have a care in the world, looking so darn relaxed, not like there was a nighttime criminal in town, tearing up the graves of the dear departed! Elwood set his sights on Verge. He was going to embarrass Verge right in front of the locals. That would be a good start to the morning, coffee and needling.

“Hey, Verge, I hear you been spending so many nights up at that there cemetery, that your wife is forgetting whatcha look like.” Elwood was gonna enjoy this. He never could get Verge, he just didn’t have the brains for it, but he wasn’t going to allow that to stop him from trying. “I hear ole Henry Ward has been putting his hat on her table.”

Now folks knew, especially them men sitting on the porch, that Verge was known for his temper, and how he had almost killed Lyle Bedow when Lyle happened to make an off-color remark about Mary. If it hadn’t been for George Smith pulling Verge off Lyle’s throat, Verge would be in the crow bar hotel right now. But Verge just kept smoking and rocking, being quiet and watching the smoke drift up to the sky.

Once Elwood saw that bait hadn’t took, he wandered in and got his coffee, and sat on the old step stool, all that was left for sitting on. He was sweaty as usual, looking like a man with high blood pressure. No doctors for him though, all they do it take your money and tell you you’re sick, he can save the money and figure that much out for himself. He was wondering just when was anyone gonna say anything, when Verge says, “I got him.”

“What the hell,“ Elwood thought, “Verge got him!”

That raised an eyebrow from the crowd on the porch, some thinking that of course Verge got the evil doer, they would have no doubt.  Now Elwood could just not take the suspense, just as Verge knew would happen.

Elwood started pacing around, slopping his coffee, saying “Who, Verge, who was it?”

And when Verge didn’t answer, Elwood gave his well-worn theories on the case “the Catholics did it (even though there was only one Catholic family in the whole town, the Burrelles, who had lost their violets at the start of the crime spree), those gypsies, those damn gypsies, probably stealing and selling the flowers right off the graves!” He rambled and snorted, getting more and more worked up. This was even better than Verge expected.

“Welp,“ Verge said, “I got him, and I got him right there in the back seat of my car.  He‘s in that trash can.”

Now they all looked at that steel trash can with big eyes, wondering if perhaps Verge had indeed flipped out on those long lonely nights at the cemetery, and killed and dismembered the culprit. Wouldn’t put it past him, some thought, as they kind of suspected some of Verge’s ancestors might have been of the “savage” persuasion.

At this, Elwood got real sober, and said “Golly, Verge, what did you do?”

As much as Elwood would get annoyed at Verge, he also recalled the time that when he had that hernia the size of baseballs in his groin, Verge was up there to the barn every morning and night milking his cows and cleaning out the barn.  And when young Michael had gotten run over by the hay baler, who had taken him to the doctor and gotten him sewn up and paid for it (most importantly in his mind), but Verge. Verge was there when you had trouble and needed a hand, everyone could agree on that. And now the thought that Verge might be going away to jail, well, Elwood figured he could help him bury the body in the manure pit, if it came to it.

“I’m gonna show you, Elwood, I told you I would get him“, Verge said as he opened the rusty back door of the Buick, and hauled out the trash can.  “I want you to take a good hard look at him, Elwood, and tell me if you recognize him.  I think he might be one of your relatives.”

By now the old timers on the porch had gathered round close, as this was too good to miss. Elwood got a little pale at that comment, as Verge sure enough knew all of Elwood’s relatives, even the ones that Elwood wouldn’t admit to.  Verge swung the trash can out of the car. It didn’t seem to be too heavy, but looks might be deceiving as Verge was a pretty strong man.  “Take the cover off, Elwood, and say hello,” Verge goaded.

Now Elwood sure didn’t want to do that, but he was challenged, and wasn’t going to show a loss of face in this crowd, as he would never live it down.  Better to yank that cover off, and be prepared to haul it off to the manure pit and spend the rest of his life at the crow bar hotel with Verge, than to show any fear. He felt that that big old hernia had come back in his groin, as he reached for the top handle of that trash can glinting in the morning sun, but he yanked it off quick, holding his breath for the stink that he was sure was going to come. And he looked down into the black eyes of a shiny, glossy furred skunk looking back at him.  He was so startled, that he dropped the trash can lid with a crash, which caused the skunk in a panic to run around in a circle at the bottom of the can. The other men, discretion being the greatest part of valor, retreated to the porch, laughing and hooting at the “catch,” but wanting to get out of the way as they were sure the skunk was going let go with his spray at any minute.

Elwood thought at that point that he was a goner, and was going be stinking to high heaven soon, thanks to Verge, and how was he going to explain to his wife how he got sprayed in broad daylight by a skunk?  Verge reached down and gently put the lid back on the trash can, and whispered something to the skunk, something that sounded like “I told you he was ugly,” but Elwood didn’t hear it, he was still too much in shock.

Verge looked at Elwood, and got that grin that he does when times are good, and said “Elwood, don’t you know nothing? A skunk won’t spray on himself, as long as he is in that can, he ain’t going to do nothing. And that poor little skunk was just digging up the plants in that graveyard to get at the nice juicy grubs underneath to feed his family. Now don’t you feel ashamed of yourself for saying all the bad things that you did about some of your neighbors in this town, even though they might be a Catholic or a gypsy? I told you this was your relative in this here trash can, and by gosh, I was right!”

At that, the laughter rose from behind them on the porch.  Everyone agreed that was a good joke on Elwood.

The culprit was caught, the crime wave averted, and Elwood was put in his place, all at the same time.  Elwood huffed and puffed and got back on the FarmAll and squealed out as fast as he could muster, heading for home, while Verge got in the old Buick to take Brother Skunk for a ride out of town to greener pastures with no potted plants.

Such was the story of Brother Skunk, Verge and Elwood, which has grown in much proportion and detail in the sugar houses, as the long days wind by, boiling sap, and telling tales.


Rhonda Besaw

Photo by Gerry Biron

Rhonda Besaw (Bisson) grew up along the Connecticut River in a tiny northern town on the Vermont and New Hampshire border. Rhonda is of French Canadian and Abenaki descent.  She is well known for her traditional and contemporary Wabanaki beadwork. As she shared stories of her childhood with her late husband, Charlie True, he encouraged her to write them down. This is one of those stories.