DRAFT: Subject to change before publication
February 1877, Jefferson, Texas
I waited fifteen days before someone found my body.
When a well-aimed bullet took my life, I told myself, I must stay, and so I fought a pulling sensation toward a dazzling white light while my body was laid out on the snow-covered ground like a corpse in a coffin. My murderer recovered my black velvet hat and strategically placed it over the bullet hole in my left temple, then draped one of my arms across my chest. When a gunshot from hunters nearby sounded, he left the other by my side, quick to abandon me.
Separated from my body, I watched as my corpse rotted on the side of a hill—unseen from the road. My physical senses were gone, but the deafening crack of the gun and the pungent odor of gunpowder lingered in my memory. My wrath over my murder stirred the wind, darkening the woods. Even the buzzards, hogs, and sparrows remained at a distance.
Two weeks later, when melting frost dripped from the trees, a woman ventured out of her cabin to gather kindling, singing as she walked through the woods. She stopped when she saw me. I’m sure her first thought was that I taking a peaceful afternoon nap. She was far enough away that she couldn’t touch me, but close enough to see the maggots wriggling around my eyes and mouth. I could feel the woman’s heart pounding, each beat mingling with the sound of a nearby brook running fast after the thaw.
She turned and rushed off. I knew it wouldn’t be long now.
Soon, wagon wheels creaked along the old road to Marshall and stopped at the bottom of the hill. Several men approached while the woman who’d found me stayed off at a distance. One of the men knelt and removed my hat. “I’ll be damned,” he muttered.
I had only been in Jefferson for a few days before my murder, but I recognized the man at once—having seen the stocky, bearded man while out strolling. Or rather, I’d noticed that he’d seen me.
“Sure is,” another man with a long face and walrus mustache said.
The man kneeling beside me said, “You saw her too?”
“She was walking with a fellow who tried to rent a buggy from me.”
The stocky man stood as the other man continued. “I didn’t let him have it. Couldn’t figure why a fellow would want to take a lady for a ride through a world of mud. He said, ‘I guess we can walk,’ and left in a huff. When I was leaving the stable, I saw him walking toward the bridge with her.”
Another man in the party knelt and stuck his forefinger in my wound. “Bullet’s angling downward. Someone killed her. She was shot at close range, too.” He wiped his finger on the hard ground.
A gloved hand touched mine, though I felt nothing. I knew what the men were looking for, but they were gone. My fingers and ears were bare, and my neck too.
“Any idea how long she’s been here?” the bearded man asked, his voice gruff with authority.
“More than a few days.” The man picked up my arm and jiggled it. “There’s no sign of rigor mortis.”
“Is it possible she’s been here a couple of weeks?”
I screamed, “Yes! You saw me, got close enough to smell my perfume, to see the dark blue of my eyes, the face and hands of my killer,” but of course no one could hear me.
“Sure,” the kneeling man said. “The ground’s cold, her body’s cold, we’ve had snow… she could have been here for days or weeks.”
The men turned their attention to the remnants of my last meal. They found an empty beer bottle on a stump, another on the ground, chicken bones, pieces of pickle, breadcrumbs. They waded through the brook and the thick growth of northeast Texas timber searching under rocks and between crevices, but they didn’t find the gun.
With the winter sunlight quickly waning, the men covered my body with a blanket and carried me to the wagon with the care they would give a loved one. The horses shifted and the wagon lurched forward with a hard jerk. I hovered as we crossed Big Cypress Bayou into Jefferson. In a cold storage room on the bottom floor of a two-story brick building, the men laid my body on a table. I looked down at myself, still in disbelief that, at just twenty-four years old, my life had abruptly ended, cut short with a bullet. How could he have done this to me?
A photographer arrived, along with four women who’d been given the unenviable task of undressing me. They waited as the photographer set up his clunky accordion-like camera, loaded a plate into the back of the camera box, and spent a few minutes under a dark cloth. After he left, the women removed my black woolen coat and Moroccan leather boots, black silk overskirt, grey silk dress, my white chemise and white flannel underskirt. A woman wearing the plain dress of a farmer’s daughter lingered over the rich fabric of my dress and the elaborate braided trim of my coat.
To my surprise, it didn’t bother me to watch them disrobe my body. I felt completely disconnected from what was now just an empty vessel. My anger wasn’t in my flesh, but in my soul.
The woman who caressed my clothing leaned over my garter. As she started to remove it, she noticed a pin I had used to fix a broken hook. She paused, her hands frozen mid-air. She glanced at the other women, who seemed oblivious to her hesitation, then continued.
My clothes neatly folded, the women smoothed my dark auburn hair – still in a French twist – in a final gesture of compassion for the dead before covering my body again with the blanket. Word spread that a woman had been found murdered in the woods across the bayou. The curious townspeople who’d been waiting to see me were finally allowed into the room. “She sure was a Diamond Bessie,” I heard someone whisper. So they knew my name. They must have overhead my killer talking to me.
Heads nodded in agreement. Some of them talked to the bearded man, calling him John. Even though he wasn’t wearing a badge, he exuded a natural aura of command that drew everyone to him.
After a while, John ushered everyone out of the room, except for the men who’d come to the woods. Talking ceased as they gathered around the table. They bowed their heads to avoid staring at my pale, bloated body. I’d been intimate with many men, but not like this. There was a sense of respect and sorrow that I’d rarely experienced when I was alive.
One of the men, who brought a doctor’s bag, walked slowly around the table. He paused to record the small scar above my left nipple—the result of an unfortunate confrontation with a drunken, knife-wielding caller. The doctor measured me and announced my height as five feet four inches. He opened my mouth, clearly impressed that all my teeth were natural.
As the doctor readied his tools for my autopsy, I studied each man around me. Not in the way you size up someone’s outside appearance, trying to make a guess at their character. It was more of a look inside. I realized I had that ability now. Which man had the drive for truth and justice, who would find my killer and make him pay for what he’d done?
As the night air grew colder, so did the storage room. I no longer felt cold or heat or the passing of time, but the men shivered, huddling closer together around the table as the doctor opened my chest under the shifting light of a lantern. He worked quickly. My body was decomposing more rapidly indoors. I moved among the men, feeling the pain, the loss, the tragedies each had suffered: the loss of wives, of children, of freedom itself.
The doctor lifted my heart out of my chest.
To these men, it was just a muscle.
For me, it was the heart I had given my husband—the core of my being.
The doctor placed it gently in a bowl.
With each organ removed, I sensed anger rising among the men. And in me. I would linger on Earth until my murder was avenged, and I knew who would help with the task. Gently, I wrapped my spirit around him. While the others only felt the coldness of the room, the warmth of my spirit enveloped the man named John.