Chapter 18: At An End

“Where are we going?”  She hopped over fallen trees and ducked under low hanging branches with a smile as though at a playground.  Her energy and hope had returned.  With Levi she felt the comfort of security and companionship and in contrast to the bleak loneliness she had endured for so long, this comfort brought about great happiness.

“I think I know how to get you out of here,” Levi replied out of breath from all his running.  “We’ll know soon enough if I’m right.”  He thought of the pirate on the beach who had washed up on shore alive.  He recalled his wish for salvation as he lay dying fearing his soul’s final resting place.  How long had he known his life lead him to eternal damnation?  Could he feel hell’s fire at the brink of sleep?  Did the promise of suffering cause him to desperately seek forgiveness or had he regretted his choices for a great time?  Did it even matter?

Levi headed straight towards the part of the woods of most interest to nearly every party who entered it; the spot where many believed treasure to be buried.

“Hold this honey,” he handed the sword to her.  “Keep watch okay?  I have a feeling we might get some visitors.”

“What kind of visitors?”

“The kind we’re both afraid of but have faith, God will protect us.”  He touched her cheek pleased to have her back and she smiled.  She disappeared for such a short time but the pain he experienced from her absence made it feel so much longer.

“Okay,” she replied and held the scabbard in both arms the way she might a cat.  “Why are you digging here?”

“This is where it all began and where it hopefully will all end.”

He dug with determination as they kept watch over the woods and the sounds coming from it because he did not expect his digging to go uninterrupted for long.

He was the fourth person this night to dig there, but the well rooted ground suggested no one had disturbed the soil in years.

In the distance Victoria saw a faint, yellow glow bleeding though the dark sky. The fire had engulfed her house.  When the wind shifted she smelled smoke.

“My house is burning down.  My daddy would be mad.”

Levi glanced upward but did not linger too long on the smoke rising through the night sky.

“I know honey, I’m sorry.  You don’t need your house anymore.  You are going to a much better place and hopefully your daddy is already there.  Trust me he doesn’t care about his house any longer.  All he is concerned about is you.”  He threw a large shovel of dirt out with a groan.

“What is going to happen to you?” she whispered not taking her eyes off the trees.

Levi continued to dig.  “What do you mean?”

“When I’m gone what will you do?  Will you be okay?” she asked in a mature tone.

Levi paused in his digging and she turned towards him.  “Don’t worry about me Victoria.  Don’t you ever worry about me okay!  It’s not fair for you to have to worry about someone else.  You have done plenty already.  When you’re gone I will miss you but I will see you again and it may be sooner than you think.”  He smiled.  Her selflessness amazed him.

“I will miss you too.”

A short while later Victoria heard the snap of a branch in the distance.  She listened but heard nothing more and so she did not disturb Levi.  She watched Levi chop at roots and then jump on his shovel, pushing it deep into the ground, before throwing heaping mounds of dirt onto his pile.  A minute or so passed and as she glanced upward, she caught a glimpse of a man scampering from the cover of one tree to the cover of another.

“Levi, Levi!” she whispered.  “I saw someone running through the trees.”

He climbed out of the small pit he had already dug thus far never doubting her for a second and called out into the woods.  “We already saw you.  You might as well come out!” he shouted not fearing what may appear.  Most all the fear in his tank had been burned through the night.

The specter did not show himself but in the distance beyond, lanterns ignited and move towards his position.  He gazed around and saw men appearing from the side and emerging from the marsh behind him.  Many were pirates and a few soldiers from other periods.

Victoria ran to his side but did not release the flowers in her hand or the scabbard in her arms.

“They’re coming to get us, Levi!” she cried.

Levi drew forth his Bible, held it out and spun for all to see.  He tore pages from it and laid them around his pit while the pack of phantoms approached.  Despite a mild breeze, the light pages only curled at the edges in the wind and did not move from their spots.

“Stay in the circle, Victoria!  You have nothing to fear inside the circle,” he grabbed her arm and pulled her near.

After a few minutes dozens of men, mostly pirates, surrounded him.  Several wore the unmistakable British red and a few were Virginia militia who Levi recognized from the beach.   They grumbled amongst themselves and cast stares of both confusion and menace but they did not cross the boundary he had created.

“Charley!” Victoria exclaimed.

Levi recognized among the men the British soldier who he led through the woods and onto the beach.  Overjoyed to see Victoria, Charley held his arms out for her.  Victoria moved to run to him but Levi seized her arm.

“Victoria, you can’t leave the circle!” he commanded.  With his stare he directed Charley’s eyes to the pages.  Charley, sensing the danger, frowned and lowered his welcoming arms.

Victoria looked at Levi with puddles forming in her eyes as his scolding had hurt her.

“I’m sorry honey but it is for your protection.  Charley is but one person outside this circle among many and he can’t protect you from all of them as can the Lord.”

“He’s right Victoria,” Charley said.  “It is best you stay with him.”

Suddenly, as if to prove their point, Captain Wilcox broke through the ranks and peered into the pit.

“Curse you child!  That treasure belongs to the British army!  How dare you show him and not me!”

Wilcox approached but paused at the Bible pages, as though he knew he had no permission to cross.

Victoria unsheathed the sword and pointed it at Captain Wilcox with both hands.  Her small arms trembled with the weight.

“Don’t you step any closer!  I’ll stick you good!”

The surrounding pirates roared with laughter.  Wilcox fumed and turned red.

“How dare you speak to me in such an impudent manner you foolish little pup!” he snarled but Victoria did not cower.

Levi stood next to her.  “After tonight you will never be able to hurt her again.”

“Return my sword!  It has no place in the hands of a common girl.”

“This young girl is braver and richer than you shall ever be.  Now be still or your former company may have to remove you.”

“What?” Wilcox questioned and he gazed around confused.  When he saw Charley across the pit his eyes widened with anger.  “You traitorous wretch, the devil’s curse to you!”

“How dare you curse me!  It is the devil who dwells in you!” Charley raised his fist.

“It appears we have ourselves a lover’s quarrel, boys!” shouted another pirate who coughed with laughter.  All the others joined in with their raucous bellows.

Levi recognized the sickly pirate who died while trying to flee from the storm woman.  Each time he coughed with laughter his skin momentarily disappeared and his skeletal form emerged.  The other pirates, though dead, shrunk from him, feeling they might still catch his sickness.

Charley ripped his pistol from his belt which compelled the audience members who possessed a weapon to draw forth theirs.

The British soldiers joined with the VA militia and kept their guns pointed at the pirates.  The pirates, who outnumbered the combined forces of the British and Virginia militia, withdrew their swords and those who had them, pulled forth their pistols.  A few of the pirates glared at Levi with the same hateful gaze Levi might show his father but he held forth his Bible and they cowered.

Keeping their distance from the ghostly warriors, stood John Callis, Tom Pipken, the two heads of cattle, the dog, and the young man who a short while ago led them through the woods.

The two parties exchanged a great deal of words, a few profane and the possibility of shots fired felt probable.

Levi screamed above the din.  “Quiet!  Quiet!”  He ran about within his protective circle holding his Bible in front of their faces and they fell silent.  “The Lord your God commands you to be still!” Levi bellowed.  “There will be no further violence or evil deeds committed in these woods!  Remain at ease and I will show you the source of your torment or do you choose to spill blood on the Word of God?”  He pointed to the pages on the ground.

Both sides stared at one another for a moment then lowered their weapons.  Though many were evil, and did not believe, they dared not challenge Holy ground for fear they might be plagued with bad luck.

Levi tucked his Bible away and then motioned to Tom, James and the young man to approach.  “Please come!  You should see this also.”

The three approached as did the dog but the cattle remained behind.

Levi continued digging and felt a little awkward as the stares of judgement bore into him.  Once comfortable they would not be fired upon, the pirate officers pushed their subordinates to the rear and took forward positions to see.  After several minutes, the mates on the pirate ship overwhelmed with curiosity, disregarded the hostilities between the two parties and moved to the other side of the hole where the smaller group of British and Militia stood, to get a better view.  The English and Virginia soldiers viewed them with rancor but the sailor’s shrugged off the gazes having been accustomed to receiving them their whole life.  Levi dug and ignored them.  Victoria sat cross legged, laid the sword across her legs, and smelled her flowers, totally content in her faith that Levi’s holy circle protected her.  She cared not in the slightest the two groups of ghosts teetered on the brink of an all-out war the woods had never seen.

After some time, John Callis removed his cigarettes and handed one to Tom Pipken whose eyes lit up with the possibility of smoking once again.  John produced a small box of wooden matches which he used to light both of their cigarettes.  The pirates and the Revolutionary soldiers gawked at how easily he produced fire.  He hummed as he ignited the cigarette, inhaled, then smiled as he blew a thick plume of smoke above him.  The young man however declined and mumbled something about his mother catching him.  Tom Pipken laughed at this.

“Your mother ain’t gonna catch you!” he exclaimed with a grin.  A few of the pirates who heard chuckled.

One of the pirates pulled out his pipe and then another and soon men on both sides smoked and talked amongst themselves which pleased Levi because it took the attention away from him.  They became so pre-occupied in conversation they did not notice Levi uncovering the two chests and skeletal remains of William and Mary.  He glanced up from time to time to see if anyone watched, anticipating a pirate or soldier to take sudden interest in his work, but they cared nothing for him.  Levi carefully preserved the site so everyone saw exactly what had happened.  Once he had removed enough soil with the shovel, he knelt and removed the rest with his hands.  He scraped along the bones and rubbed clean the skulls.

The chest Tom had over turned rested still on its side and Levi blew the dirt from the cannon balls and shot.

Four feet above, among the clamoring pirates and soldiers, Edward, the pirate who had a hand in burying William and Mary peeked into the hole.  His captain, who had given the secret order to Edward and his accomplice, Christopher, peered around him.  When they saw how neatly Levi had uncovered the false treasure and bones for all to see, they grew fearful and withdrew from the hole.

Levi opened the second chest Tom Pipken did not reach and as with the other, nothing but scrap pieces of lead and metal filled it.  Levi held a cannon ball out for Tom to see and both men frowned.  Truly no treasure existed.  Levi dropped it and leaned on his shovel, sweating and drained.

“Dear Lord!” one of the British soldiers shouted.  All fell silent and turned their attention to the pit.  Levi stepped to the other side of his hole to provide a clearer picture.  There lay Mary’s skeleton, draped over her husband William’s remains.  She had not struggled or tried to escape.  She had wept over his body and died in place as Edward and Christopher piled on the dirt.  A few feet away, lay the broken leg bone with the chain still tied to it.

Whispers spread throughout the gathering to the ears of other pirates who could not see.

Unless you have forgotten, two sets of pirates entered Old House Woods.  A storm claimed the first pirate ship responsible for this heinous act that brought misery to all those present.  Two Spanish vessels destroyed the second pirate group which came in search of the treasure.  Its Captains and officers growled and cursed after discovering the treasure for which they died totaled no more than the cost of one of their own gold fillings.

The young man who herded his cattle through the woods spoke first and Levi turned surprised to hear him speak among this rabble.

“Men killed me for nothing more than cannon balls?” He breathed like a bull ready to charge and his jaw clenched.

“Villainous sea trash!” shouted one of the British soldiers at the pirates.  “You’ve cursed us all with your treachery!”

A great deal of shouting broke out once more as many of the pirates, as unaware and aggravated with this revelation as the others, fired their obscenity laced defense across the hole.

Word of the false treasure blazed through the pirate crowd in addition to news that two individuals were shackled to the chests!  A few of the brighter ones guessed to whom the bodies belonged.  They then remembered Edward and Christopher had taken William and Mary into the woods and began shoving and demanding answers from Edward.

“Quiet!” shouted Levi.  “Be still!”

The crowd of soldiers and villains who had allowed Levi to take them this far quieted to allow him to take them further.  They stared at him with their chests heaving and waited with angry faces for him to start.

Levi took a deep breath and cleared his throat.  “Here lie the bodies of William and Mary.  Two pirates sentenced to death for being married on board their vessel.  They were to be buried alive here with this fool’s gold anchoring them.  William attempted to kill his captors but they instead killed him and threw his body into the pit.  In her anger, his wife cursed their captors.  They buried her alive while she cried over her husband’s corpse.  There is no treasure here and nearly everyone who searched for it has perished.  Treachery and vengeance has doomed those who died within these trees to repeat a portion of their lives over and over again.  Look around you!  Look at the clothes I wear!  Look at the appearance of these soldiers of the men behind me!”  Levi pointed to James, Tom, and the young man.  “Have you ever seen such garments?  We are not from your time.  Time has stood still for you.  The world outside this forest has continued onward while you have sadly remained here for hundreds of years fighting, digging, killing and drowning for scraps of lead!  Many of the men here were not looking for the treasure but they had the bad misfortune of dying within this darkness.  Did a curse doom your existence?  I like to think a woman’s grief and hatred could not hold such power but I know of no other explanation.”

The British and Colonial soldiers shouted accusations once again while most of the pirates looked around dumbfounded.

A large pirate with a great beard and dirty face pulled forth his cutlass and dagger and smacked them together, creating a high pitch harmonic sound.  He had a commanding presence and if you ever pictured what a pirate might look like, then chances are you envisioned a man such as this.  He stood taller than the other pirates and appeared much better fed which indicated he might be a captain or at least dined with the captain.  If he weren’t a captain Levi couldn’t picture from who this man might take orders.  He wore a thick blue coat that hung past his waist and carried a pistol strapped to his chest.  His hands were thick; the size of small pumpkins and calloused.  The pirates and even the Colonial and British soldiers, simmered to listen.

“I had nothin to do with this foulness you scurvy dogs!” he shouted at the British soldiers and militia.  “And bein that me and mine men have searched in vain for this treasure fer hundreds of years, I wish to know as you do, who is to be held accountable.  Finally the treasure is here in front of me and it is worth no more than the silver ring upon my finger.  So I want to know who it is I am to trade words with if not blows.”  He peered all around hoping to find a guilty face but when none presented itself he addressed Levi.  “Do ye know?”  His brow furrowed over his stormy eyes but he did not direct his wrath at Levi rather he requested direction from Levi on where to point his vengeance.

Levi took a deep breath determined not to be rattled but before he answered, shrill screaming erupted.  All the men cowered and a few pointed their trembling weapons in the Storm Woman’s direction but none dared fire.  Victoria dropped her sword, ran to Levi and wrapped her arms around his waist.

She hovered in the sky and stared at them with anger and contempt.  To their horror, the Storm Woman dropped into their midst and the pirates skittered about in all directions like frightened mice.  Even the powerful, pumpkin handed pirate bounded off into the darkness.

The Storm Woman wore a billowing, partially wind torn white dress.   Levi stood his ground and stared her in the eyes as she floated down through the shadow of the trees and came to rest on the floor of Levi’s pit.  Her black hair and dress flew around as she descended but fell still upon her shoulders when she landed.  The moment she touched the ground, her appearance changed to that of a pirate.  She turned her back to Levi and knelt near the skeletal remains of Mary and William.  Up close, she felt no more threatening than any woman of average size.  Her hair now appeared short and with her pirate clothes, in this darkness, he might confuse her as a man if he did not already know her to be the Storm Woman.

Screams started to echo in the dark and Levi crouched but the storm woman did not stir.  She remained focused on the skeletons as she stroked the head of one.  Like dominoes falling towards the hole, so came the howls from the men, until the cause of their torment fell upon Levi.  He withdrew his Bible and held it forth the moment a shadowy figure emerged and halted recoiling at the pit’s edge.  The creature twisted and turned like a dark cloud and Levi thought it might be staring at him, but it moved past and fell into the pit beside the Storm woman.  The moment the creature crossed the boundary of the Bible pages, the specter transformed into the likeness of William the Pirate and Levi knew at once the Storm Woman must be Mary.  William had moved through the trees massacring the pirates who fell from their ship.  He unfairly punished each one for the misdeeds of their Captain, Edward, and Christopher; the men responsible for killing he and his wife.  Mary, the Storm Woman, instilled fear for years into every pirate who entered the woods and sought their destruction.

She watched William as he moved to the other skeletal figure and cradled the torso with the head lying in his arms.  Once he did so he took account of his wife’s presence as though he had not noticed her.

His eyes widened and his disbelieving voice quivered, “Dear God, Mary?”

She nodded.  “Oh William!”

Husband and wife cried and crawled on their knees and fell into each other’s arms.  Their exultation at seeing one another made clear that despite inhabiting these woods in death, they existed not together; their spirits had not crossed paths for hundreds of years.  The last time William had seen his wife, they were tied to a tree and he pled with his captors to spare her life.  The last time Mary had seen her husband, he lied in her arms dead after Edward had shot him in the back.  Neither died with much peace of mind.

Did the manner of their deaths coupled with Mary’s curse play a part in their imprisonment?  Was there a spirit within these woods who had died from anything but foul play?  Getting killed or murdered could not be the whole key or else the world would crawl with all the deceased who met untimely ends.  And what of Tom who drowned when he fell off his boat and yet he remained behind?  Perhaps his eagerness to find the treasure bound him to the woods but could it be considered greed.  He had simply wanted to unearth an old treasure in which many did not believe to raise a family and start a business.  Who did not possess such a dream?  Mary’s curse must have been the key to their fates but why should Tom, James, the young man with the cows and especially Victoria suffer?  They lived cleanly.

Levi lowered his Bible.  Tom, James, and the young man crept to the pit as did the British soldiers and VA militia.  The pirates, terrified of the Storm Woman and shadowy specter who had plagued them for years, took longer to ease forward.

Levi stepped forward with Victoria right in tow and addressed the reunited couple.  They stared at one another with tear filled eyes as only a long lost reunited couple could, but when Levi thought of the misery Victoria had experienced because of their vengeance, he grew angry and dismissed how they died.  “William and Mary!”  He said their names like an angry school teacher.

They separated and listened still beaming with elation.

“There will be no more terror in these trees.  You must let go!”

Mary gazed into the face of William and brushed the hair from his eyes.

“Our souls are tired,” she replied without removing her eyes from her husband’s.  She felt detoxified as though the filth of anger had been flushed from her system.  Joy replaced her wrath.  “Now that I am with William, I no longer crave vengeance.”

“Nor is its taste to my liking,” William replied.

“Then do you agree to release your anger and your hold on these woods and all those who have died here?”

They each took deep breaths, remorseful for their actions, and nodded.  People realize how selfishly they have acted after what they have lost is returned to them.

“Very well. Everyone gather around!” he shouted.

A few of the braver pirates and those overwhelmed with curiosity returned but many of the pirates feared a trap and remained behind in the dark.

Noticing the group’s attendance had significantly diminished, Levi climbed out of the pit and called into the darkness.  “Once the sun rises you will no longer be a prisoner in these woods so remain behind and hide if you choose.  You must know however that once you leave these woods you will be subject to God’s judgment for every sinful act and ill will you have committed in your lives whether you choose to believe in him or not.  Considering many of you are scoundrels and married yourselves to a life of thieving and pillaging, I suspect what waits for you outside these trees is an eternity of torment far more terrible than the suffering you experienced within.  All of you will be judged according to your deeds and actions while you were alive,” he called out and then turned to Mary and William.  “And perhaps many of you will even be judged for your actions in death.”

Mary and William, who stood holding each other, lowered their heads.

“What I offer you is a chance at salvation!” Levi called again into the darkness.  “A chance to spend eternity not among villains where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth but among your Lord in Paradise.  You must come forth and humble yourselves before your Lord Jesus Christ as there is no way to salvation but through him.  Please don’t let your pride or arrogance hinder you.  Your Father is offering you everlasting salvation.  It is not too late for your souls!”

When the men heard the conviction and sincerity in Levi’s words, they emerged from the trees and circled the pit.  Edward stepped forward and when he saw Mary and William, two friends he had betrayed, he fell to his knees and wept.

Levi climbed out of the pit, stood next to him and in his mind forgave Edward for trying to kill him.  “Edward, how you suffer for what you did to your friends; why do you not suffer for what you have done to your Father in Heaven?”

Edward turned away.  He grabbed Levi’s ankles and begged for forgiveness.

“I am so sorry.  Please forgive me.  I didn’t want my friends to suffer.  Please, please believe me!  I want forgiveness!  I can suffer no more!”

“Get up!” Levi said.  “I am not without blame and I am not without sin either.”  Edward stood but in his shame avoided Levi’s gaze.

“Every man and woman here has sinned!” Levi called out.  “We cannot pass judgment because we will then be judged in the manner we have judged others.”  He lowered his voice and addressed Edward.  “Therefore, I forgive you for trying to kill me but only God can save you for what you have done.  It is from him whom you should be asking for forgiveness.  Will you follow me?” he asked Edward.

Edward nodded straight away and with conviction.

“And what of you Captain Wilcox?” Levi asked.  “How deep does your pride dwell?  Is there sufficient humility within you to admit your wrongdoing?”

Captain Wilcox huffed.  “You dare single me out as the filthiest of the filth?  Did I kill these people?” he asked motioning to Mary and William.  “Have I attacked innocent ships on the seas as have these rogues of the water?  Was not I murdered?”

“You were about to kill Victoria!” shouted Charley in his own defense.

“Be quiet!” Levi shouted.  “Let’s not throw wood on our fiery tempers!”

Captain Wilcox bit his tongue and scowled at Charley.  He straightened his uniform and composed himself.  “I am an English officer,” Captain Wilcox stated as though a king, “I have no problem acting civilized.”

Charley moved to shout again but held his own tongue.

“Good,” Levi said.  “Will you apologize for your mistreatment of Victoria?”

The Captain stared at Victoria, clenched his jaw, but did his best to maintain a calm demeanor.  “Please forgive me child for mistreating you,” he said with all the humility he could muster.  “I’m afraid madness plagued my mind.”

Victoria frowned, not fully believing the sincerity, but she nodded her acceptance.

“Well I think she owes you nothing more,” Levi said.

He took hold of Victoria’s hand and shouted, “God resisteth the proud but giveth grace unto the humble.  If you feel unworthy of his grace then follow me.”