Into Whites Creek
The old woman said no more. She walked past Barnaby whose mouth hung agape as he stared at the woods and went inside.
Surely she must be mad he thought. Madness would explain why she remained in her house. Madness and intense poverty. Her state, now that he knew she believed her husband roamed the woods as a ghost, was even sadder. To be poor and have no place to go or anyone to take care of you was plenty depressing. But to remain a prisoner to your poverty through mental illness seemed much worse.
He walked into his living room contemplating her situation. Jules who folded towels gave Barnaby a concerned look when he strolled in holding the remains of the rum he bought.
“What’s that look for?” he asked.
“Your father called,” she smiled and rolled her eyes, “said he was worried about you.”
Barnaby shook his head and gritted his teeth. His father had called Jules to get in the last word!
“After several minutes of my prying because he pretended he didn’t want to tell me,” she rolled her eyes again, “he eventually broke down and said he saw you buying ‘booze’ today at the ABC store and that he didn’t feel it appropriate you drink during the day when you could be out working.”
“Well I wasn’t drinking!” Barnaby snapped, “but I did buy some liquor.” Barnaby removed the bottle from the bag to show his wife that most of the contents remained. “My father is trying to get under my skin. He’s trying to cause problems in our marriage because his failed. Do you know how many times he sat in front of the T.V. all day drinking? Did you think to ask him how he knew I was buying liquor? He was in the store buying it too, the hypocrite?”
“Honey your dad isn’t fooling anybody. Let him go on acting childish and he’ll do himself in,” she advised. Jules, an only child, had parents who would do just about anything for her, so she put little stock in Barnaby’s father’s advice; a man who did very little for or with them. “You want to tell me what the liquor is for?”
“Oh,” Barnaby’s face brightened, and he forgot all about his father. “I met an old woman down by the beach.”
He retold the story to Jules and the tale the old woman spun to him. Jules, skeptical of the stories, hoped her husband did not put too much stock in them. She tried her best to hide her concern and instead put forth her best effort to sound encouraging.
“So what’s the next step? Have you got everything you need?” she asked.
“Well, I’m curious about what ships, pirate or otherwise may have been in Mathews around that time. The speculation is the pirate ship buried the treasure then a storm destroyed it at sea. I want to see if any shipwrecks occurred in the bay around the sixteen and seventeen hundreds. I also want to see if any record exists of British soldiers in Mathews during the time of the revolution,” he picked up a towel and began folding it. “Eventually I want to take a boat into Whites creek and get a feel for the area and its surroundings. If I’m going to write about it, I want to be as accurate as possible.”
“Well your dad tells me he’s got a new 30 footer,” she joked. “Why don’t you ask him?”
Barnaby barely smiled.
“Oh and if you’re wondering why some of the clothes are damp I think the dryer is on its last legs.”
At the library Barnaby researched books, newspaper articles, anything he could find relating to Old House Woods and Chesapeake Bay shipwrecks. He came up with very little and the librarian made clear through repeated sighs and curt remarks that she would rather be helping a library member research a topic of more importance.
Barnaby did discover a small battle involving Lord Dunmore, the last royal Governor of VA in the year the colonies declared their independence, had erupted in his town. The Governor, having fallen out with the local militia after stealing their store of powder from Williamsburg, fled with his ships to Gwynn’s Island; a small drop of community near the shores of Mathews. There he setup a floating town. The militia attacked him at close range with cannon fire from the shore and the governor fled into the bay eventually returning to England.
Barnaby, not familiar with the geography of his county despite having lived there most of his life, opened his county map to see where Whites creek rested in relation to Gwynn’s island. The trip by road would take at least ten minutes but by water, Whites creek sat just around the corner from the Island. Lord Dunmore’s fleet would have passed the creek while escaping out into the Bay.
Barnaby theorized that Dunmore would have had time to dispatch a group of soldiers into the woods since the militia, having no boats, could not pursue by water. Possibly Dunmore buried coins in the woods while making his escape fearing plunder from privateers in the Bay. Barnaby had no evidence of this but fear of plunder was a possible theory as to why the spirits of British soldiers might still linger in the woods. Perhaps they were left behind or killed.
Yet it wouldn’t explain why pirates dug for the treasure unless they too had buried their own booty which seemed too coincidental. Two different treasures in the same woods were unlikely and furthermore didn’t account for the presence of the Spanish soldier who walked the road in search of his ship.
He would have to use his imagination to fill in the blanks. Though he approached the ghost tales with an open mind, he figured they were the fabricated accounts of drunken good ole boys. As the old woman said, once the sun goes down, and the woods start moaning, your fearful imagination controls you. Barnaby figured people made up many of the stories as they sought attention and desired to be part of the mythology surrounding the whole area.
One account told of a woman who appeared above the trees wailing like a banshee, warning travelers not to approach the woods. Drunks had spotted her wandering the beach at night but no one had put forth an explanation for her existence nor had he heard this story from any source other than a fifty year old newspaper article. He dismissed it as having no credibility. A second tale involved a headless dog that would attack your car if you parked on the beach at night but Barnaby knew plenty of people who went to the beach at night. No one had seen such a thing.
As time passed, the legend faded from people’s memory and then so too did the frequency of new stories. Barnaby believed pure paranoia and wild imagination surrounded the original newspaper article written and fueled any ghostly sightings for years afterward. As no one had spoken of Old House Woods in so long, many people forgot the idea that ghosts ever haunted the woods. No present spark fueled an individual’s imagination into seeing what didn’t exist.
He needed to take a boat and go into White’s creek to get a feel for its surroundings. He knew how the creek appeared from the shore of the beach but he didn’t wish to conjure up what he believed in his mind the woods looked like from a sailor’s point of view drifting into the creek on a ship. He needed to enter with a boat. A few families had built homes along its edges and he couldn’t very well walk through their back yards.
His father owned a boat but he would never ask him. One, his father wouldn’t let Barnaby use the boat, especially a new one, by himself, and God forbid anything happen to it if Barnaby were piloting. Two, he certainly wasn’t going to let his father take him into the creek because then he would be forced to answer his father’s questions about why he wanted to go. His father did not think much of Barnaby’s desire to be a writer because he ignorantly deemed it to be a feminine pursuit fit only for women and gay men. Lastly and most important of all, Barnaby would rather swim from Gwynn’s island to Whites creek than be indebted to his father. Owing him wasn’t worth it. As added measure, he despised the man.
He decided it best to simply borrow a kayak and paddle in. Quiet paddling wouldn’t create the attention a boat motor would receive and traveling independently would allow him to avoid curious questions from people accompanying him.
He decided two trips would be necessary. One during the day to get an accurate picture of the creek and its shoreline and one at night so he could experience the full eeriness one might expect from a haunted creek. He didn’t count on a ghost ship appearing, rationally assuming that if one truly did exist, more people living on the creek would have seen it.
Barnaby borrowed a kayak from his friend who had only purchased it when going through a brief period of exercise mania. This desire lasted only a week or two before the kayak found a permanent home gathering dust in his friend’s garage.
Barnaby launched from a nearby creek on a warm Saturday evening on the threshold of dusk. He wanted to see the creek with enough light for him to get good shots of the area with his digital camera. He would then hang out under the trees’ cover until the sun set and if possible, make his way onto shore and trek into an uninhabited part of the woods. The timing killed two birds with one stone so he would not have to make two separate trips; one by day and one by night. His only concern was that a boat returning to harbor might not see him in the dark.
Judging by the map of Mathews he had brought with him he guessed it shouldn’t take him any more than thirty minutes to make his way around Pine Hall point and over to Whites creek. He paddled briskly over the glassy water passing the newly built houses on the much coveted and rapidly vanishing waterfront property.
His father lived on the water, a status symbol of which his father reminded him often. Barnaby lived in a little two bedroom rancher that fit he and his wife fine but barely. They both drove cars much older than their peers or family members and rarely did they go on vacations. A real treat was going to the movies and McDonalds. A comforting treat was paying the bills on time.
The idea of a buried treasure and the ease of stress that came with the financial windfall sounded inviting, but Barnaby always thought his dreams would be accomplished through hard work and writing. He could not depend on a fool’s hope like finding buried treasure any more than he could count on winning the lottery.
When Barnaby and Jules first got married twelve years earlier, he had no money to purchase an engagement ring, and as the bills mounted he had neither the money for a ring or to start the family his wife craved. A couple of gold coins would be a great down payment.
According to the story, Tom Pipken entered the woods in the fifties in search of the treasure and disappeared. Residents found nothing of him other than his boat and a few gold coins in the bottom engraved with Roman numerals. The deserted boat so spooked the locals that no one would claim it and over time it rotted away into nothing.
If the gold coins existed, Barnaby surmised any man with simple courage would have ventured into those woods, ghosts or no ghosts, in search of fortune. No story or article made mention of a mass gold rush however. The prospect of a man mysteriously vanishing without a formal investigation also sounded unrealistic. The woods were not large. If Tom Pipken had died inside investigators could have discovered his body in reasonable time. Assuming the ghosts had taken him held little logic. Most likely good ole Tom either drowned or moved away. Story tellers probably added the gold coins to enhance the story’s mystery.
Rounding the point, Barnaby removed his map, and unfolded it to make sure he didn’t venture down the wrong creek. A small motor boat strolled by and the captain, noticing how ridiculous Barnaby looked reading what appeared to be a road map while parked on the water, called out to him.
“Need some directions?”
Barnaby looked up and laid the map down on his kayak, “Yeah,” he shouted back. “Which way to the Statue of Liberty?”
The captain laughed and played along, “No, no, no. You’re way off course. You want Liberty Island not Gwynn’s Island,” he turned and pointed towards the mouth of the creek. “You need to keep going straight, take a left when you exit the bay, and it’s about 400 miles north of here.”
Barnaby slapped his head in mock foolishness, “Boy am I embarrassed?” Barnaby looked around, “I wondered where all the big ships were. Thanks for telling me.”
“No problem. I’d give you a ride but my wife is expecting me home.”
Barnaby waved him off, “Don’t worry about it. I could use the work out.”
“Good luck,” the Captain laughed and waved. He motored off leaving a small wake that gently rocked the kayak.
Barnaby folded up his map in a manner unlike the way in which he opened it as he often did with large maps.
He rounded the point a little behind schedule and picked up the pace so he could make it to Whites creek with plenty of daylight remaining. Once he spotted Rigby Island Barnaby knew he was close as the small strip of sand, not much bigger than a large sandbar, bordered the creek on the Eastern side.
Historians theorized Whites Creek provided an ideal place to bury treasure because Rigby Island supplied cover from prying eyes for any ship sailing into the creek. He assumed two hundred plus years of erosion had ravished Rigby Island since today it would provide no significant cover for anyone wishing to go undetected.
Barnaby, unconvinced anyone had buried treasure in Old House Woods, could not think of a sane reason why someone might do such a thing pirate or otherwise.
As he coasted in, he noticed two neighboring creeks very close to Old House Woods as well. These creeks appeared more secluded than Whites and would offer the pirates’ coveted privacy.
Unfolding his map once again he noticed Whites Creek was nothing more than the body of water between Rigby Island and the shoreline of Haven Beach and Old House Woods. He speculated whether the water could be called a creek at all since it had an opening on both ends. The map though showed Rigby Island once extended to the shoreline and closed the creek at the North End. Erosion had obliterated the connection. He bunched his map up again in an even more unorganized fashion than before and shoved it between his legs. He removed a digital camera from a closeable freezer bag which he hoped would keep his camera protected should he roll his kayak into the water.
He laid his oar across the stern and began taking pictures of the surrounding area to get a feel for what seafarers coming up the creek would see. He required excellent description so the reader imagined how cruising on an old, creaky wooden ship, up the quiet body of water felt. Numerous pines and oak trees lined the shore behind which the sun began to set. Though the sun illuminated Rigby Island twenty yards or so to his left, a vast shadow covered the beach and woods to his right.
He snapped a couple more pictures and placed his camera back into the plastic bag. He grabbed his oar and lowered it into the brackish water by its tip, careful not to lean too much to one side. He hoped to test the depth of the water to determine whether a galleon or sloop, with its draft, could even make it into the creek. He wasn’t sure how much water boats of those sizes pulled but it had to be much more than several feet. With the kayak’s instability he couldn’t lean over too much to take advantage of the oar’s full length. He didn’t touch bottom. He guessed at high tide the water depth at the creek’s center might be six to eight feet which he decided would be just deep enough to allow a pirate schooner to enter.
Pirate schooners, chosen because of their smaller size and increased speed, had much smaller drafts than larger warships, which allowed them to hide in shallower waters.
The idea struck Barnaby why pirates might find the need to bury treasure. If by chance others pursued them, hiding in shallower waters might make sense. They could bury the booty and come back when the opportunity presented itself. The biggest issue however remained the ghost ship. Most eye witnesses in the early 1900s described it not as a small vessel but a fully rigged ship with at least two or three masts. Such a large ship would have much greater difficulty maneuvering in these waters and would require much more than eight feet of water in which to float.
So either the witnesses were mistaken over the type of boat they saw or they fabricated the accounts. Of course the ghostly type of ship to which they referred needed no water as it could float in the air and hover above the trees. An actual ship must have at one time sailed in the area though or else what would explain the presence of a phantom vessel?
The mystery snowballed with more and more mounting inconsistencies. He couldn’t figure why a fully rigged Spanish galleon, as described in a few accounts, would bother running from any vessel or attempt to hide in Whites Creek and why would the Spaniards bury treasure this far up in the Bay? From the information Barnaby read, the Spanish’s trade routes ran much farther south in the Caribbean. A trip into the bay would put them off course and needlessly extend their voyage back to Spain.
A pirate ship sailing the bay made more sense but again, it did not match the description.
The conflict existed in the fact that neither pirates nor Spaniards had any business burying treasure along the shores of Mathews County nor did they have any business burying treasure at all. Why then would a ship’s crew be digging in the woods if not for buried treasure? Barnaby figured the accounts could be dismissed as the vivid imaginations of the fearful and the drunk, but he needed to deliver to his reader an explanation with substance.
Lastly, the spirit of a deceased person remaining behind for whatever conceivable reasons sounded reasonable but did not explain the existence of a ghostly ship. How could a non-living boat remain behind with its crew?
Waiting for the sun to go down, Barnaby pondered other theories and how he might incorporate them into his story.
He read that the British Commander Cornwallis sent a good deal of gold and plate with six soldiers through the woods in an attempt to bypass the French blockade. Accounts claim Colonial forces killed these soldiers in the woods. This suggested no treasure existed as any sensible opposing army would take the treasure for themselves. Secondly, if they did have the opportunity to bury the treasure for reasons Barnaby could not fathom, who then dug for it at night? Pirates did not dig for it or the Spanish at this point in history when English settlements were entrenched and the golden age of piracy had ended decades earlier. Also, how would the pirates know of the colonial militia buried treasure?
None of the stories had any coherency. Barnaby could conjure no explanation having any historical basis other than Lord Dunmore displacing the gold while fleeing but he found no account of Dunmore giving such orders.
Barnaby believed every myth or legend had a core of truth around which fantasy and imagination were structured. Unlike other stories, Old House Woods contained so many varying ghosts from different periods, that to determine or imagine an origin for all the ghostly tales proved difficult.
The sun’s scalp shined above the trees making them appear much darker and ominous. He rowed to shore, intent on taking a closer look at the environment when a noise sounding much like the snap of a branch caused him to pause. He shaded his eyes and squinted the best he could at the trees to get an idea of what could have made the noise but saw nothing. Assuming the sound came from a falling branch, he began rowing once more. Seconds later he heard the charging rustle of numerous footsteps approaching from the woods..
The lack of sunlight and the continuous thought of ghosts struck fear into Barnaby. He plunged his oar into the water and with a groan, swung his boat around. He smacked at the water with his oar until he had achieved a distance of many yards. Turning he searched for the source of the ruckus but saw nothing. Floating out of the forest’s shadow in the warm light of day, he once again regained a relaxed spirit and began to feel foolish for his panic. Huffing and puffing, he looked around hoping no one remained on the beach to see his fit of despair. Perhaps the old woman spoke correctly, he thought. He did scare easily.
How could he enter the woods if he became frightened at the sound of rustling leaves and falling branches? He could have swore a group of people ran in his direction but in his cowardice he fled providing curious amusement for those in the woods. He sat for a moment to catch his breath and listened for more sounds he hoped would come so he could retest his courage. He heard nothing and felt humiliation stirring. He chose not to rationalize or dismiss this emotion. No point in kidding himself. If the trees scared him then he wanted to know it and figure out a way to cope.
He let out a deep, disappointed sigh and paddled his way back home. If ever I’m to become the man I need to be he thought, I must enter the woods. Not only enter them, but spend the night inside.