Into Whites Creek
The old woman said no more. She walked inside as Levi sat staring at the woods with his mouth agape.
He pitied her more so now that he believed her mad. Madness and intense poverty imprisoned her.
Later, he walked into his living room contemplating her situation. Jules who folded towels gave Levi a concerned look when he walked through his door holding the remains of the rum he bought.
“What’s that look for?”
“Your father called,” she smiled and rolled her eyes, “said he was worried about you.”
Levi 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 caved 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 should be out working.”
“Well I wasn’t drinking!” Levi snapped, “but I did buy some liquor.” Levi 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 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 did just about anything for her, so she put little stock in Levi’s father’s advice; a man who did little for or with them. “You want to tell me what the liquor is for?”
“Oh,” Levi’s face brightened, and he forgot all about his father. “I met an old woman down near 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 shipwrecks occurred in the bay around the sixteen and seventeen hundreds. I also want to see if records exist of British soldiers in Mathews during the time of the revolution,” he grabbed a towel and folded 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?”
Levi 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 Levi researched books, newspaper articles, anything he found relating to Old House Woods and Chesapeake Bay shipwrecks. He uncovered little and the librarian made clear through repeated sighs and curt remarks that she would rather help a library member research a topic of greater importance.
Levi 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.
Levi, 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 took 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.
Levi theorized Dunmore would have had time to dispatch a group of soldiers into the woods since the militia, having no boats, could not pursue on water. Possibly Dunmore buried coins in the woods while making his escape fearing plunder from privateers in the Bay. Levi had no evidence of this but fear of plunder suggested why the spirits of British soldiers might still linger in the woods.
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 seemed unlikely and furthermore didn’t account for the presence of the Spanish soldier who walked the road in search of his ship.
He would 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. Levi figured people fabricated 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 attacked your car if you parked on the beach at night but Levi knew plenty of people who parked on 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. Levi believed pure paranoia and wild imagination surrounded the original newspaper article and fueled ghostly sightings for years afterward. As no one had spoken of Old House Woods in so long, 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 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 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 stroll through their back yards.
His father owned a boat but he would never ask him. One, his father wouldn’t let Levi use the boat, especially a new one, alone, and God forbid anything bad happen while Levi piloted it. 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 Levi’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, Levi would rather swim from Gwynn’s island to Whites creek than be indebted to his father. As added measure, he despised the man.
He decided to borrow a kayak. Quiet paddling wouldn’t create the attention of a boat motor and traveling independently allowed him to avoid curious questions.
He decided to take two trips. One during the day to get an accurate picture of the creek and its shoreline and one at night so he experienced the full eeriness one might expect from a haunted creek. He didn’t count on a ghost ship appearing, rationally assuming if one truly did exist, more people living on the creek would have seen it.
Levi 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.
Levi 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 and made two separate trips, one by day and one at night, unnecessary. He only worried 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 he shouldn’t need 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. Levi 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. They indulged themselves with attending a movie or dining at McDonalds and on rare occasions, 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 Levi always thought he would accomplish his dreams through hard work. He could not depend on a fool’s hope like finding buried treasure any more than he could count on winning the lottery.
When Levi and Jules first married twelve years earlier, he had no money to purchase an engagement ring, and as the bills mounted he found he had neither the money for a ring or to start the family his wife craved. A couple of gold coins would provide 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 claimed it and time rotted it into nothing.
If the gold coins existed, Levi 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 covered but a few acres. If Tom Pipken had died inside investigators would 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, Levi removed his map, and unfolded it to make sure he didn’t venture into the wrong creek. A small motor boat strolled past and the captain, noticing how ridiculous Levi appeared reading what appeared to be a road map while parked on the water, called out to him.
“Need some directions?”
Levi laid the map on his kayak, “Yeah,” he shouted. “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.”
Levi slapped his head in mock foolishness, “Boy am I embarrassed. 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.”
Levi waved him off, “Don’t worry about it. I need the work out.”
“Good luck,” the Captain laughed and waved. He motored off leaving a small wake that gently rocked the kayak.
Levi folded 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 increased his pace to make it to Whites creek with plenty of daylight remaining. Once he spotted Rigby Island Levi 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 ships sailing into the creek. He assumed two hundred plus years of erosion had ravished Rigby Island since today it provided no significant cover for anyone wishing to go undetected.
Levi, remained unconvinced treasure had been buried in Old House Woods.
As he coasted in, he noticed two neighboring creeks close to Old House Woods as well. These creeks appeared more secluded than Whites and offered the pirates’ coveted privacy.
Unfolding his map once again he noticed Whites Creek as 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 should 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 up his map again in an even more unorganized fashion than before and shoved it between his legs. He removed a digital camera from a protective, sealable freezer bag. He laid his oar across the stern and snapped pictures of the surrounding area to get a feel for what seafarers sailing into the creek might 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 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 returned his camera to the plastic bag. He grabbed his oar by its tip and lowered it into the brackish water, 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 believed boats of those sizes drew at least several feet of water. 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 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 Levi why pirates might find the need to bury treasure. If others pursued them, hiding in shallower waters might make sense. They could bury the booty and return 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 required much more than eight feet of water in which to float and would experience much greater difficulty maneuvering in these waters.
So, either the witnesses were mistaken about the type of boat they saw or they fabricated the accounts. Of course the ghostly ship they suggested seeing 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 or else what explained 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, fled from any vessel or attempted to hide in Whites Creek. Also, why would the Spaniards bury treasure this far in the Bay? From the information Levi read, the Spanish’s trade routes ran much farther south in the Caribbean. A trip into the bay put them off course and needlessly extended their voyage 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 business burying treasure along the shores of Mathews County nor did they have business burying treasure at all. Why then would a ship’s crew dig in the woods if not for buried treasure? Levi 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 might a non-living boat remain behind with its crew?
Waiting for the sun to set, Levi 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 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 Levi 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 coherency. Levi conjured 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.
Levi believed every myth or legend had a core of truth around which fantasy and imagination grew. 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 sunk behind 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 paused him. He shaded his eyes and squinted at the trees to get an idea of what 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.
The lack of sunlight and the continuous thought of ghosts struck fear into Levi. 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 safely separated himself from the woods. Turning he searched for the source of the ruckus but saw only a few leaves falling. A fish snapped at a bug floating on the water’s surface. Two cicadas started singing.
Floating out of the forest’s shadow in the warm light of day, he once again relaxed and felt foolish for his panic. Huffing and puffing, he scanned the area 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 sworn 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 hoped for more sounds 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 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.