At Pioneer Cemetery

pioneer-cemetery-markerIt was late when Clarence walked his dog, Sheila, so he stayed mostly on the sidewalk near the road. The pioneer cemetery provided a buffer against the noise and lights of the power plant a few blocks away and through the trees he could see someone stumbling along through the headstones. “Another drunk student,” he thought and veered to the other side of the road. Sheila growled nervously as the drunk reached the stone wall and stopped — seemingly unable to climb the three-foot wall.

“Are you okay?” Clarence called across the road, “Do you need help?”

The person stopped and stood still, seeming to look for the source of the voice. He wove back and forth, then started to turn around. Suddenly, he collapsed, disappearing from sight behind the wall.

Clarence rushed across the road, Sheila barking and pulling at the leash. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed 9-1-1 as he ran.

“This is 9-1-1. What is your emergency?”

He stopped at the wall and looked over at the prostrate form huddled there. “Someone is sick, or drunk here.” Sheila pulled at the leash and he nearly dropped the phone.

“Tell me where you are. Are you injured or in danger?”

“I’m on the road west of the Pioneer Cemetery. I’m okay, but there’s a sick person just inside. Hold on, I’ll try to get a better view.”

Clarence tried to lean over the wall, but Sheila kept pulling him away and barking.

“There’s a patrol in your area, they should be there in three minutes. Please do not hang up.”

Sheila pulled him back into the road and he dropped the phone. He finally got Sheila by the collar and dragged her back to where he lost the phone. As he bent to pick it up, headlights and flashing lights approached. They stopped about ten feet away and a spotlight shone in his eyes.

Someone got out of the car. “Are you the person that called 9-1-1?”

“Yes,” Clarence answered, “He’s over there, the other side of the wall.” Sheila huddled behind him and he was pulled in a circle.

The spotlight shifted along the wall, then the officer approached it with a flashlight.

“Just there,” Clarence tried to be helpful. “He fell down there.”

The officer shone his light over the wall, studied it for a minute, then ran it up and down the length. He flashed it out and across the cemetery. He called Clarence to come over.

“I’m Officer Early. This is where you saw him?” He flashed his light down behind the wall.

“Yes, it was about there.” Sheila was frantically trying to pull away. “He was stumbling around like he wanted to climb over, but stopped when I called to him. Then he just fell down.”

Sheila barked some more, “I couldn’t get to him because Sheila was so freaked out.”

“Did you see anyone else? Did you hear anyone?”

“No, not at all.”

“What do you make of this?” the officer reached over the wall and pulled up a wad of clothing. Something white fell out of the clothes as he brought it over the wall. Sheila lunged at it, and Clarence held her back with difficulty. The officer played his light over the clothes, then let it rest on the white object on the ground.

It was a human skull. Clarence let Sheila pull him away. He heard the officer’s report, “No emergency here. Just some kids pulling a prank. I’ll look around, but there’s nothing to report now.”

Officer Early approached, “Halloween,” he indicated the cemetery, “Cemetery. It was just a prank. Nothing to worry about, you should just go home. You have a good story to tell.”

As he walked away, Clarence saw Officer Early pick up the skull and clothes and stuff them into a plastic bag. He climbed over the wall and inspected the area closely, picking up a few more somethings. Sheila pulled harder and they hurried off.

“I did a quick walk around the cemetery,” Early reported back at the office, “But saw no one and no disturbed graves. You need to get someone out there in daylight, maybe with the groundskeeper or someone else.”

*****

The next morning, Lorna met Officer Grey at the gate to the cemetery. Large brick pillars held an arched metal sign, “Pioneer Cemetery”, over the entrance, framed by large iron gates.

“Pleased to meet you,” she said after Grey had introduced himself, “I’m Lorna Betts and I’ve been president of the Pioneer Society since its inception in the ’60’s. Saving and restoring this place was a challenge, as I’m sure you know, but we had a lot of people interested in our history and the ones that built this community. It took quite a bit of money to preserve the grave sites. They go back to 1840, you know.” Lorna looked very old, but had the erect manner of someone decades younger than her. Grey thought she looked pretty formidable, and didn’t doubt that she could get people to do what she wanted.

She led him over to the maintenance shed and knocked loudly, “Mr. Lenkowski, the police are here.”

The old man that opened the door looked much older than Lorna, and could pass for one of those prospectors in the old movies. “Officer Grey would like you to show him around the cemetery. There was some trouble last night.”

The old man looked carefully from Lorna to Grey, and hitched a loose overall strap up over a shoulder, “Well, let’s go see what’s what.” He eyed Grey and stuck out his hand, “Lenny. Almost everyone calls me Lenny.” He gave a sly look at Lorna who had already turned to leave. “We’ll have to walk, we don’t take vehicles on the grounds, since there’s a lot of stuff that could be disturbed.”

Lenny led him out across the site, weaving through the headstones. Grey noticed dates from the mid- to late 1800’s. Lenny pointed out a few with unusual names or epitaphs, including a couple that were risque, “Lorna wanted me to cover those up, but the Board wouldn’t let her. There’s lots of whores and drunks and murderers and adulterers buried here, along with some decent folks. I say, ‘let ’em be’.”

He led Grey to the wall near the street, “Now this is where the ruckus was last night, as I understand it.”

Early had left a marker denoting the spot, and Grey looked over the area carefully. There was no evidence of tracks, or wires or any devices that could have caused the skeleton to move, and there was no physical evidence left.

“Can we check to see if any of the graves have been disturbed?” Grey asked Lenny.

“Sure, we’ll just walk about a bit to make sure everyone’s back home.” he chuckled at his little joke.

They covered the place in about twenty minutes, except for the back section down near the lake where the trees were taller and thickest. “That there’s the oldest graves. Many of them got nothing more than one name and maybe a date. Some of the wooden markers cain’t be read at all. Lorna’s gettin’ some money for a special light to help read the inscriptions, but we don’t got it yet.”

This part of the cemetery was rougher, less manicured and a little tumble-down looking. “This area was just on the edge of the old town, round the edge of the butte there,” He pointed up towards the large formation that loomed over the back end of the cemetery. “This end of town had the more disreputable places,” he winked at Grey, “And a lot of the disreputable people ended up here,” he indicated the graves. “They just wrapped ’em in blankets and stuck ’em in the ground.”

“The Indians had this place before the white men, and they still claim that it’s one of their sacred places. Ever’ once in a while they got some ceremony up on top. They say this place has special powers. There’s relics around, if you look closely.”

Grey saw an empty pint whiskey bottle in the grass near the closest grave.

“Not much you can do back here without breaking or disturbing something else. It’s hard enough just putting ’em back when they wander, but I do my best.”

Grey looked at Lenny sideways, “What do you mean, ‘put them back’?”

Lenny turned to him, “These are the ‘restless ones’. They don’t much like it here, and sometimes they move around on you. I can usually get ’em before they go too far, but sometimes they slip off. Probably heading for the saloons in the old town.”

Grey didn’t think Lenny was teasing him, but kept quiet as they moved among the graves. Over by the back, some of the graves were covered with relatively fresh dirt. Nothing had grown over them. He looked at Lenny appraisingly.

Lenny walked over to one where the soil looked like it had been churned up. “Yeah, had a runner here. Must’ve headed over there this time,” he pointed towards the entrance, “They usually head for the back, towards the old town, where the chain-link fence keeps them in.”

“This is where the kids got the skeleton?”

“What kids? We don’t allow no kids in here without an adult.”

“Yeah, but whoever tricked the guy last night had to have a skeleton that they moved around somehow. This must be where they got it.”

Lenny looked at him a little sadly, “Oh, sure. Someone came in here last night, dug up an old corpse and paraded it around without being seen.” He looked skeptical, “I’m sure that’s what happened,” he paused, “You guys still got the bones?”

“Our forensics people are looking at them to make sure they aren’t recent or related to any current crimes.”

Lenny leaned over the wooden marker, “Well, I bet you his name is Tom Smith and he died in 1856 from being shot.” He looked back at Grey, “I’ll put him back when you’re through with him.”

*****

In the lab, Trevor opened the bag containing the materials that Early had gathered last night. The tape was running and he kept up a commentary about the items removed and identified. It was most of a skeleton, some rags that had once been clothes and a blanket, and a worn pair of cowboy boots. What appeared to have once been a leather cowboy hat came out last. He arranged the bones as carefully as he could, in some cases having to untangle them from the remains of the clothes. It took a while, since there wasn’t much left holding anything together. Because there was no flesh or organic material, except for some patches of degraded hair, his testing was limited. It was mostly cut and dried (“no pun intended,” he thought), but there was one surprise.

Grey came in when Trevor called him, “This guy was buried a long time. Based on the clothes, and the overall degradation, I’d say at least a century.”

Grey asked, “Could he be Tom Smith who died in 1856 from being shot?”

“Could be anybody, but was likely an adult male of about that period. There is one thing, though.”

Grey looked expectantly, and Trevor enjoyed the interest, “The bones are radioactive.”

*****

They needed some help figuring out the radioactive angle, so someone from the university was asked to come down. Professor Davis was young, energetic and clearly knew his stuff.

“It is most likely that the radioactivity came from the burial site, rather than the live person being radioactive,” he started, “and given the location, I can almost certainly guarantee that.”

Trevor looked at Grey, then Davis, “You mean the site is contaminated with radioactivity?”

“For sure,” Davis nodded, “It’s a kinda big open secret that the property adjacent to the oldest part of the cemetery housed a series of operations, including a quarry, brickyard, gold mill and fluorspar mill. These operations left a legacy of contamination with various metals and radionuclides, such as radium, uranium and thallium. In addition, it may have been the disposal site for some radium-contaminated soils from a city construction project.”

“It seems that the major contamination of the bones is uranium,” Trevor offered.

“Well, it is the most soluble — it moves with the groundwater.” Davis noted, “But the others could also be mobile based on the chemical characteristics of the water. Radium will move in a reducing environment.” He noticed their lack of understanding, “Never mind, it’s not important. Just note that the area around this grave is probably contaminated.”

“How dangerous is it?” Grey asked.

“Hard to tell from this information. We look at the source amounts, the pathway it takes, and what recipients there are.” He paused, “Given the proximity to the old mill and tailings, I’d say we have a good chance that there’s a source, either in the soil or groundwater or both. The contamination can move through surface water or groundwater, but, I think there are very limited exposures, since the occupants are mostly dead.”

“What other information do you need? Grey asked.

“I think a trip to the site with our instruments would be the best first step.” He asked Grey, “Can you get us permission to come out and do some surveying?”

*****

Lorna and Lenny met them again at the front gate. Grey introduced Professor Davis and Deb Sawyer, and explained what they wanted to do. After some discussion, all except Lorna headed off to the back of the cemetery. Deb pulled out their instruments and explained that they measured primarily gamma radiation and were essentially Geiger counters, like in the old movies.

She set the readings to audible, so that they could hear the clicking as she walked around a bit to establish background. “You mean it’s radioactive over here, too?” Grey asked.

Davis nodded, “You need to understand that we can measure radioactivity to extremely low levels. Maybe lower than for any other substance. As a result, we know that virtually everything is radioactive to some extent,” he paused, “Even people are radioactive. Our bones absorb the radioactivity in the world we contact, in the water we drink and in the food we eat. We are each radioactive.” Grey looked uncomfortable, so Davis went on, “Radiation is not as dangerous as you suppose. It takes a lot of radiation over time to cause a problem. However, the standards are set extremely low to be overly protective, and as I said, we can measure radiation at levels far below anything that has an impact.” he hesitated, “And radiation almost never, ever creates giant ants.” He and Deb chuckled at this witticism. Grey didn’t.

As the passed through the cemetery, Deb held the instrument up to the tombstones they passed. The clicking rose substantially each time. She told Grey, “If you have granite counter tops, you get the same readings. It’s not a problem unless you decide to sleep on them every night for forty years. But by then,” she smiled, “Your back would be your biggest problem, not the radiation.”

Davis added, “You can also see increased radiation from natural formations, like that basaltic outcrop on the hill over there. Many of the mountain rocks contain radioactive elements, and as they erode to form the plains out here, they carry the uranium and radium with the soils. That’s why Colorado has relatively high levels of radioactivity in our soils and waters, and radon in our homes.” He saw Grey’s confusion, “Radon gas comes from radium and passes through the soil to collect in enclosed places like mines or buildings. Radon can be dangerous, so it’s best to have your home tested, and mitigated if levels are too high.”

Deb broke in, “But there is evidence that low levels of radiation, including radon, are actually beneficial to humans. We just don’t know what that level is.”

Lenny broke his silence, “Yeah, just like everything else, it’s a matter of how much. People used to get upset that mining churned up the natural metals and minerals in the ground. But they don’t see that the same things are in the food they eat and the vitamins they take. Read the label if you don’t believe me!”

He took a deep breath, “Anyway, they use radiation to cure cancer, and what do you think X-Rays are?”

Grey looked at Deb and Professor Davis, “Well, I never thought about it like that.”

They continued towards the back part of the site where the oldest graves were. The scans showed minor levels of radioactivity all across that area.

Grey thought a minute, “So, can radiation effect dead people?”

“No way,” Davis replied, “That’s all just scifi BS.”

“So, someone got in, dug up some bones, paraded them around without being seen and then just disappeared?”

Lenny looked uncomfortable, “Ain’t no other explanation.”

As he drove away, Grey saw Lorna getting a box that looked like liquor out of her trunk. Lenny took it into the shed.

*****

A few days later at the end of his shift, Grey brought a cardboard evidence box containing the bones and rags back to the cemetery. He parked and carried it up to the shed then placed it on a work bench when Lenny opened the door for him.

“That’s right nice of you to bring those back. I’ll make sure they get back where they belong.”

Grey looked around and saw a liquor box in the corner holding pint bottles. Lenny noticed his look and grinned, “Gets a little lonely here some times,” he paused, “I been thinkin’ that maybe you was right. It’s likely just kids that snuck in and pranked that guy. He’s kinda a jerk anyway, never picks up after that dog.” Lenny winked, “Just those darn kids.”

Grey nodded, “Let’s make sure to keep them out of here in the future. I hope we don’t have any more incidents.”

Lenny grinned as Grey left.

After Grey had driven off, Lenny got the wheelbarrow and loaded the box of bones, a shovel and a half-dozen bottles of whiskey into the wheel barrow and headed off to the back of the cemetery. He stopped next to Tom Smith’s grave, dug it up and reburied the bones, box and all.

After he smoothed down the surface, he opened one of the bottles and took a long swig. Recapping the bottle, he placed it next to the wooden marker. “Okay Tom, you stay down here for a while.”

Behind him, there was a disturbance in one of the graves, “Okay Dickie, here’s yours.” He opened another bottle, took a swig, and placed it next to the marker. “See you boys tomorrow,” he said as he walked away.