Rex Hunter paused to admire the maidenhair tree glowing in the early light.
As was his custom, he was walking his two Airedales - Chip and Louie - in Bayview Cemetery at dawn. The cool morning air cleared his head, and his dogs found few distractions to set them barking.
Rex wasn't an expert on trees, but he had studied landscaping while at Mount Baker High School so he recognized a few distinctive species. The maidenhair - with its butter-yellow foliage - was a familiar sentinel near the cemetery office.
Back home, a few blocks away, his wife, Ali, was sleeping. Her alarm would waken her at 6:45 a.m., time enough to make coffee, read The Bellingham Herald and prepare for her desk job at Bellingham police headquarters.
Never miss a local story.
Rex was thinking about turning toward home when a pile of fresh dirt caught his attention. It wasn't an orderly pile, like the ones he saw whenever cemetery workers readied the ground for a new tenant. No, this dirt was scattered about, as if tossed in a hurry.
Rex stepped closer. He peered into the coffin-sized hole. It was empty. He noticed some dirt near the edge had been pressed flat, like something had been dragged over the disturbed soil. Something the width of a coffin. Rex looked for a displaced grave marker, but didn't see one.
He hustled home, roused Ali and told her what he had seen. She quickly called the police - she knew the best inside line - and Rex repeated his story to the officer on duty.
Then Rex went to work. He runs a small landscaping business. During the summer, when work piles up, he hires a couple of part-timers, usually high school kids with muscles and energy to spare.
Now that autumn had arrived, Rex worked alone. Raking leaves and trimming bushes, he had plenty of time to think about the empty grave.
TheBellinghamHerald.com reported the incident online that morning. For the next day's paper, reporter John Stark tracked down police Lt. Charlie DeWilde on his lunchtime run for a comment.
"Officers have responded and the case is under investigation," DeWilde said. "We will find the responsible person or persons and stop such desecrations before they spread."
But with no evidence, no records of anyone buried there and with no witnesses, the incident had all the trappings of one more cemetery tale ripe for embellishment around the campfire.
Three days later, Rex walked by the site again. The hole had been refilled; the bare dirt taunting onlookers.
He wasn't alone in enjoying the beauty and solitude of the old cemetery. Rex saw another solitary walker in the distance. He looked closer and realized it was Angela, who he had seen walking through the cemetery other mornings.
Rex knew a few things about Angela from their previous small talk. Her husband had killed himself years ago and was buried near the cemetery office. Angela was always alone in the cemetery, sometimes with tears in her green eyes.
Angela was pale as a ghost, and often just as quiet. Rex felt sorry for her. She was courteous, but she seemed to lead a bland existence. This time, as Rex got within earshot, Angela was full of talk.
Like Rex, she had come from pioneer Whatcom County stock, so she had an interest in local history. And, like Rex, she had been thinking about the empty hole. She needed to share her thoughts.
Angela knew that the hole was in the old potter's field at Bayview, the place where, long ago, people with little to no money were put to rest. Angela also knew about an interesting character who had been buried in the field more than a century ago.
His name was Jake Terry. People called him "Cowboy Jake," a friendlier nickname than he deserved. A train robber and a smuggler, Jake had terrorized Sumas back in the early 1900s.
Folks whispered that Jake stashed some of his train loot in nearby woods. After he died, treasure hunters scoured the forest, but didn't find a nickel.
Jake's occasional partner in crime was a mustachioed fellow named Ezra Allen Miner. Better known as Bill Miner, he was even better known as the "Gentleman Bandit," for the courteous way he made off with train passengers' money and other valuables.
Jake Terry wasn't nearly as nice. Jake was so nasty that he battered a Sumas man and kicked him out of his own house so Jake could get close to the man's wife. The woman, a petite, dark-haired shop owner named Annie, had been Jake's sweetheart back in Montana. Or so people said.
When the ousted husband finally had enough, he put two bullets in Jake's skull. Sumas residents cheered and posted the husband's bail. Even the prosecutor smiled when the jury set him free.
Cemetery records say Jake was buried at Bayview in 1907, but don't say exactly where. Was the empty grave Jake's? Angela wasn't sure, but she liked to think it was. Rex didn't know either, but he liked Angela's story.
That evening he couldn't wait to tell Ali.
Rex's wife grew up in Sedro-Woolley, but she also had deep family ties to Whatcom County, including her wild grandmother and a black-sheep aunt even her mother didn't talk about. Ali's parents named her after Alethia, the Greek goddess of truth, which was strange because Ali was as Irish as they come.
With her auburn hair, green eyes and bright personality, people were naturally drawn to Ali, and felt comfortable once they got to know her. Over the years she had parlayed her social skills, and her knack for being organized, into a progression of better-paying office jobs.
A quick learner when it came to computers and procedures, she was even better with people. In short, co-workers like to confide in her, and she was tactful about the things she heard in confidence.
So Rex was surprised when he came home to tell Ali the story of Jake and the missing money. He had barely spun the outline as they sat over plates of salmon fettuccini when he realized something was on Ali's mind.
He stopped mid-sentence. He didn't know if it had anything to do with what he had been talking about, but he knew it time to shut up and listen.
Ali put down her fork, wiped her mouth and fixed her gaze on her husband.
"Honey," she said, "I shouldn't be telling you this, so you never heard it from me.
"I heard it from a detective, who I won't name.
"This is what she told me ... "