Sheriff Claire Williams was grateful she remembered to bring a fan and could cool herself while the reverend switched from giving a eulogy to preaching a Come-to-Jesus sermon. The weather was crisp outside and she wore a suitable frock and coat for the season, but crammed together with a couple hundred others for Col. Marvel’s “The Colonel” funeral, she felt as though she were about to self-combust. Dear Lord, give me strength! She cast a sideways glance at Dr. Jed Loving, who squirmed in his seat in the pew, his cheeks reddened as if they were gin blossomed. Between the reverend’s hot air and the body heat, she didn’t know how they would survive the remainder of the service.
“God Almighty,” Jed grumbled, when the reverend beckoned folks to come forward for the altar call. “I’ll pay you a dollar if you go up and get saved just to end this.”
Claire stifled a giggle and waved her fan a little harder to cool him as well.
No one would leave, not out of respect for Col. Marvel. A man in his middle eighties who died warm in his bed, with his boots on, he was a local hero in the Wabash Valley. Years and years ago, he lied about his age and joined up to fight in the Civil War. He took part in Sherman’s March on Georgia, rising through the ranks, all before he was a man. After the war, he fought the Indians out West, then returned home to marry his sweetheart and have a family. He had a large prosperous farm, garnered much wealth, and everyone loved and respected him. Col. Marvel had become the unofficial grandfather to the whole town. A better man never drew breath.
Ouabache would not be the same without the Colonel. His death brought the end to an era. He was from a different time … a different world, really. One that no longer existed. Bittersweet tears stung Claire’s eyes. Col. and Mrs. Marvel were amongst the first to welcome her to town after she married Reginald. Both had always been respectful of her succession as sheriff.
When no one came forward to receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior, the reverend closed with a solemn prayer. Claire, and every other mourner, gave thanks to God that the service would be coming to an end.
The pianist started to play “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?” and the pallbearers assembled on both sides of the casket, hoisting it up. One smaller gentleman, however, wobbled beneath the weight.
“Oh no.” Claire covered her mouth, horrified by what she believed would come next.
The man stumbled, losing his grip, which in turn caused the other pallbearers to falter. They toppled like a line of dominos. The casket hit the floor, narrowly missing the gentlemen’s toes.
“Dear God, no!” The Colonel’s bereaved widow shouted angrily, rising from her seat.
But it was too late.
The lid popped open, revealing the deceased Colonel …
And another man wedged in beside him.
Claire and Jed were on their feet within seconds, to catch a glimpse of the second body. To her frustration, everyone else got up, and due to her small stature, she couldn’t see over the heads and shoulders of the crowd of mourners.
Jed nudged folks aside, to make a path for Claire. When she reached the casket, her attention was briefly diverted when Mrs. Marvel became giddy. Her son, Andrew, caught the older woman before she dropped. Her daughter Prissy withdrew her smelling salts from her purse and shook them beneath her mother’s nose. When her mother roused, Prissy promptly fell into hysterics. The doctor looked them over, deeming them well, just overwhelmed.
“Not another one.” Claire sighed, briefly touching her brow.
The unknown man was fine looking, his golden hair waving around a pale face. His clothes were plain, but presentable enough. From her observation, she suspected he was not wealthy, but he was not a laborer and likely worked indoors. But she didn’t recognize him. She lived in Ouabache for over a decade and for the greater part of that time, she kept house and only associated with the ladies in her social circle. However, since she inherited the position of sheriff from her deceased husband, she had become acquainted with the other locals. Yet she was convinced this man was not from Ouabache or its outskirts.