Category Archives: Old House Woods

Chapter 20 – Tearful Reunion

Levi sat on the shore of the pond waiting for John who had disappeared beneath the water’s surface minutes earlier.  John walked straight in, fully erect and did not stop until he vanished under the water.  Levi did not think the pond deep enough to cover the height of a man but then nothing in those woods should have continued to surprise him.  John emerged a minute later from the water walking out much the way he entered, fully erect and holding items in both of his hands.  In one hand he held a skull.

“I’m surprised no one ever found this.  This is part of my remains.”  He handed it to Levi.  Levi tucked the wet skull under his arm like a football.  He felt a little odd to be holding the skull of a man with whom he spoke.

In the other hand John held out his wedding ring and his old rusted, water logged watch.  “Please give these to my daughter,” he said.  “Let her know I didn’t run out on her mother.”

Levi placed the watch and ring in his pocket.  “I’ll take care of it for you.  Are you okay to walk in those wet clothes?”

“I’ll dry off in no time,” John replied.

Levi led John to the wood’s edge where they once again saw the old home in which he used to live.

“You aren’t here because of a curse on these woods,” Levi explained.  “That’s why you did not vanish like the others.  You are here because you are holding on.”

Levi placed the skull down, jumped the ditch to the other side and ran across the dusty road, hopped onto the creaky, old porch and paid no attention to the wasps buzzing around.  John watched him knock on the door and within minutes Levi led John’s protesting wife by the hand to the road.  He brought her to John’s side of the drive, right to the ditch and John smiled when he heard how cantankerous his wife had become.  He remained behind a tree as he did not want to scare her.  At this distance he recognized how much she had aged but beneath the wrinkles and frail figure, he still saw his girl.

“I do not want to be this close to the woods!” she protested and tried to free herself from Levi but gave no more resistance than a five-year-old child.

Levi rolled his eyes at her stubbornness but understood her fearfulness, “I have something to show you.”

“I don’t want to see what you found!  I want no part of it!  Those woods are damned I tell you!”  Doris yanked her arm away with unexpected strength generated by her intense fear of what may inhabit the trees.  She turned and shuffled her feet back towards her house.

“Doris, don’t go,” John called and emerged from his hiding spot.

Doris stopped dead and pivoted as fast as her old bones allowed.  She gazed at Levi in amazement.  Levi grinned and pointed to the woods.  She followed his finger and saw her husband standing at the edge under the slight shadow of the trees appearing as young as the day she last saw him and still as handsome.

She gasped and fell in the road to her rear.  Her lips moved but no sound came forth.

John jumped the ditch and limped to her in haste.  He was younger than she, but still not young.  “Doris!  It’s me John,” he put his hands on her face.  “I didn’t run away.  I didn’t leave you!”  The fear of this belief had festered within him for over twenty years.  The thought his wife believed he ran out on her.  Finally, miraculously, he had the chance to explain.

“John?” she whispered with disbelief.  Her eyes widened and she touched his face; the one she often thought of when she stared at his empty recliner.  She grabbed his shoulders and felt within them the strength of a man much younger than her.

“Yes, dear it’s me.”  He grabbed her hands.  His eyes watered when he felt her hands’ weakness and her gnarled knuckles.  He pulled her from the dust.  “I didn’t leave you.”

She touched his unchanged face.  “Oh, John I have missed you so much,” she murmured.

“I have missed you too.”

“You look so young like the day I last saw you.”

“I know,” he answered understanding how insecure she might feel for appearing so much older.  “You are still my girl though.”  He hugged her gently.

“Why did you not come to me?” she asked through forming tears.  “I have waited for you for so long.”

John took a deep breath and tried his best not to cry.  “I could not,” he replied with a quiver in his voice.  “I could not.”  He rubbed her back and squeezed his eyes shut.

“I know.  I remember now.  You can’t cross the road.”

He took a deep breath.  “I have to go.  I can’t stay in these woods another minute.  I wanted to say good-bye and tell you I love you, tell you I didn’t abandon you.  I wanted to tell you how much I have missed you.  I’m sorry darling.  I must say good-bye.  I wish you could come with me.  I want my girl.”

“Please don’t go!  Don’t leave me here!  I am miserable without you John!  I’ve waited and watched for years for you to come back to me!  You can’t leave me now!”  She hugged him with all her reserve strength and cried.

“Shhh!” he whispered and stroked her thinning white hair.  “We will be together soon.  I promise.  When next you wake, we will see each other.”

“What am I going to do without you?  I am so lonely here.  I have no one!”

John brushed away one of her tears and smiled at her.  “You don’t have to hold on any longer, Doris.  Don’t hold on dear!  What now will keep you here?”

She laid her head on his chest.  “Nothing,” she whispered.

He put his finger under her chin and her eyes met his.  “Don’t be afraid then Doris.  Have faith and you will see!”  He kissed her forehead like he had every morning before going to work and she smiled and leaned into him.  “Good-bye Doris.  Come to me soon and we will watch the sun rise together.”

She cried again.  “Good-bye dear.  I love you.”

“I love you, baby!  So, so much!”

John turned to Levi, smiled, and mouthed the word “Thank you”.  He disappeared a second later.

The old woman fell forward when John vanished and wept harder.  Levi rushed to catch her.  He held her elbows while she cried until her long moment of anguish had passed.

“Thank you,” she muttered.  “Thank you for bringing John back to me.”

“I’m sorry it didn’t last longer.”  He felt like he should hug her but also felt his embrace would comfort her little.

“It was enough,” she whispered.  “All I needed.”

He helped her to the start of her driveway but she insisted she continue without his assistance.  Levi let her go and watched as she hobbled up the porch steps and entered her house.  She did not bother to even close the door behind her.

The old woman scraped her feet across her dirty kitchen floor, through her dusty living room, past her husband’s old recliner and climbed into bed.  There she fell asleep and never woke.

Levi waited a moment then stepped onto her porch and shut her door.  He thought she should be alone with her grief and decided to check on her later. He would stop by to get her daughter’s number so he could call and explain to her what happened to her father.  How do you explain to a woman that your father’s ghost told me who killed him and oh, by the way, here is his skull for proof?

Levi sighed as he took account of the woods.  Nothing remained in there for him but painful memories.  He recalled the day he first parked in front of Doris’ home and for the first time actually took a moment to size up the woods.  He thought they had not looked so threatening but now he couldn’t remember ever laying eyes on so lonely a place.  He didn’t want to leave because the trees held the memory of Victoria and for the same reason, he did not want to re-enter.  The wound from losing her would not heal if he did not leave but he also feared forgetting.  After today would he ever have the strength to return to the trees or the beach?  Would he play in the water with his children one day and not feel the torment of remembering how Victoria vanished before him?  With whom in the world could he share his pain?  No one.  He would deal with it alone, but he knew he paid the price of loneliness to be strong, to feel brave.  God would mend him now.  God had given him the test he needed; the opportunity to risk his life and prove his courage.  The chance to be unique; the chance to feel special.

He had to make one more trip now however.  Levi jumped the ditch and grabbed John’s skull.  He carried it under his arm and headed to his tent which he had not seen for what felt like ages.  Sticking upright in the ground in the tent’s center stood a sword.  He turned to see if anyone watched then pulled the sword from the ground.  He recognized it as the sword the skeletal pirate used to slash his tent.  A small ruby encrusted its hilt.  He did not know how the sword arrive there or why it remained behind.  Perhaps left as a gift.  He smiled at the thought.

I will give this to Maxine he thought.  It should help with her husband’s medical bills.

Levi ran out of the woods dragging the tattered remains of his tent, threw them in his car and sped away.  He did not glance at the remains of the old house in which Victoria once lived.  He could not bear to picture her in the front yard crying.  He drove in silence, thinking of her and wishing shamefully to be in heaven with her or at the least that she could come visit him.  He had spent such a brief time with her and yet felt as though he had lost his own child.  He would embrace the loss and remember the pain so one day he never took his own children for granted.

 

He heard his dad stir inside when he knocked on his door.  His father stepped onto the front porch smelling like he had drunk too much the previous evening.  His messy hair and stubbled face trapped flecks of dandruff.

“Do you know what time it is?” he grumbled.

“I have here a relic to show you,” Levi replied and he held out the pale, mud stained skull of John Callis.

His father glanced at the skull and recoiled, “What the hell is this?”

“This is the reason mom left.  This is the reason you drink.  This is why you hate me so.  This is John Callis the man you killed and dragged into the pond.  This is your doom!”

His father looked like a fish gasping for air.  Levi turned and left.  He did not turn his father in to the police.  John had his peace and so too did Doris.  Levi also knew that when his book dropped, treasure hunters and thrill seekers would comb through the woods and eventually reveal the truth about John Callis’ demise.  He also knew Doris’ daughter would launch a police investigation once Levi called her, but what evidence pointed to any suspects?  No one would believe Levi’s story but his father and that suited Levi fine.

Levi spoke only once more to his father before he died.  He passed him in the grocery store one day.  They entered the aisle on opposite ends and spotted the other at once but neither reversed course.  Each continued down the aisle towards one another and pretended to look at the goods on the shelf.  They were virtually total strangers now, neither having spoken to the other in years.  As they passed Levi uttered, “I forgive you father.”  He paused to look his stunned father in the eyes then continued onward and never again spoke to his father.

He did not forgive him for killing John Callis.  He wasn’t sure his father pulled the trigger, but no matter.  Only Doris’ daughter could forgive him for John’s murder but she knew nothing of Levi’s father and so Calvin would have to find forgiveness with the Lord if ever humility found its way in.  Levi forgave Calvin for his upbringing.  He forgave him for taking his mother away.  He forgave him for all the belittling comments that still stung even after he stopped caring.  He reasoned if he could forgive a pirate for trying to kill him, then he could forgive his father for his ill treatment though the pirate’s attempted murder truly did not hurt his feelings as much.

 

Levi rolled into his gravel driveway, leaned his head on the steering wheel and wept before he even unbuckled his seat belt.  All the sadness and fear he experienced from the previous night poured out of him and he wanted to burn it all up before he entered his house.  He thought of Victoria clinging to his side and riding on his back.  He missed her but he understood she lived in a far better place; a place where she never stopped laughing.  He smiled thinking about her picking daffodils and running with a bright smile into the arms of her parents.  He hoped she would not forget him.

He opened his front door and pictured Victoria running out of the living room and into his arms.

His wife came down the hall and Levi hugged her as though he had not seen her for many months.  She wore sweat pants, a t-shirt, and her hair sat tied in a bun as she had not yet showered, but he could not remember her looking more beautiful.

She hugged him, his tight embrace surprising her.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.  She pulled away and recognized the anguish in his face but asked no questions.  Caressing his cheeks with both hands she kissed him and lingered with her lips on his for several seconds, assuring him of her love.  “I am proud of you.  I need you to know that.”

 

 

The End

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Chapter 19 – Salvation

Hand-in-hand Levi started towards the beach and each man he passed fell in line behind him until every pirate, soldier, and common man walked in single file with Levi leading the way.  Charley walked behind Victoria who periodically turned and waved to him.

Levi felt like a zombie whose maker willed him onward.  He had run back and forth through the woods several times and in a few instances several of these fiends had fired upon him during those occasions.  He witnessed men getting shot or blown to pieces.  He saw the destruction of two ships, and he heard the terrifying howls men made right before they died.  He watched as the dead rolled in on the waves and he fled from a screeching banshee in the sky.  His body ached and at this moment he wanted to be at home, sleeping next to his wife but instead he led a rag tag collection of men to their salvation.

Edward murdered William and his wife Mary.  Did he deserve to be saved despite the life he led?  What of William and Mary or the other pirates?  They thieved and plundered for a living.  How much did they steal and who did they hurt or kill during their employment?  Did paradise hold a place for such scoundrels?

A few of them lived well however.  They did not plunder other ships or threaten children.  They were men mistakenly killed.  Did Tom Pipken deserve to spend his years trapped amongst the trees because he sought out the gold and a better life?  What about the young man with his cattle and dog; should he be included with this lot of plunderers and pillagers?  Should John Callis not be freed from his prison?  Did he not deserve more so the benefits of everlasting life on which these thieves and murderers turned their backs?

Levi did not wrestle long with the implications of saving a group of men he perhaps believed did not deserve to be saved.  He felt the Holy Spirit in his heart instructing him on what he must do and Levi obeyed faithfully.  God is mercy and ready to forgive all those who called upon him.  If these men truly believed and repented of their sins then they could claim salvation for through faith one is saved; not of good works.

He did not understand the presence of ghosts.  The Bible made no significant mention of them, but behind him a whole troop followed.  When in history had so many spirits in such a solid form congregated for such an event?  Levi speculated never.  He would record every detail from his first meeting with Doris all the way through to the salvation yet to occur.  If the world wanted to read his book then they were welcome to the story.  They could choose to believe it or not.  At the minimum, perhaps they might find hope within it.

Victoria hummed and smelled her flowers and swung his arm which he had not noticed.  Who more deserved salvation than she?  What glory awaited her?

Farther back the coughing pirate continued to wheeze and hack.

“Stop coughing on me.  I do not want to catch yer disease!” one man shouted.

“Fool, you be already dead!  Yer not catchin nothin!” the sick pirate fired back.

“Aye, but ye be dead too and ye still be coughin so I’m supposin it don’t matter none whether I’m dead or alive, I might still catch your consumption.”

“Awww it makes no difference,” the sick pirate returned.  “God will cure me.  There’s no sickness in heaven.  Didn’t you ever attend temple when you was little?”

“Well never mind yer disease it’s still not mannerly; they don’t cough on people in Heaven do they?”

A couple of neighboring pirates laughed.

A few yards behind him he heard a familiar voice say, “Are you aware if this is the King’s Highway?”

Levi smiled.  He looked forward to getting that ghost out of the woods and knew Doris would be happy to see him go also.

Farther down the line, William and Mary held hands.

“I missed you so,” William said.  “I’m sorry I left ye.”

“It is not yer fault and let us not speak of it further.  I want no more trouble in my heart.  I just want to enjoy you.”  She reached caressed his face.

“Aye, I have a feeling we’ll have plenty of time for that,” he leaned his head against hers.  She smiled and closed her eyes.  They walked without speaking the rest of the way but every few yards William pulled Mary’s hand to his lips and kissed it.

Bringing up the rear behind two dozen more men, walked John Callis, Tom Pipken, and the young man who owned the cows.  His dog followed beside him and his cows plodded behind.

“What do you think is going to happen to us?” the young man asked.  “Do you think we’re really going to heaven?”

“Probably so,” Tom Pipken answered.  “I bet there is a whole bunch of treasure in Heaven to be found.  Gold streets, gold trees, diamond forks, you name it, I bet they got it!” he exclaimed.  “I know it won’t be worth much if everyone has it but it will be a whole lotta fun seeing it all.”

“How do you think we’re gonna get there?  Do you think we’re going to fly up in the sky?” the young man asked.

“Who knows,” Tom answered.  “Maybe we just turn to dust where we stand.”

The young man walked silent for a moment looking at his animals and pondered this.  “What do you think will happen to my animals?  Will they go to heaven too do you think?” the man asked with trepidation and turned to look at his loyal animals following him.

Tom Pipken shrugged his shoulders.  “Whatever happens to them, I don’t think they will stay here.”

“Why not?” the young man asked sounding hopeful.

“I don’t think that’s God’s will.”

The young man smiled at this idea.  He had spent so many years with his animals that he hated leaving them behind.

“You got a name young man?” Tom asked.

“Yeah, it’s Keith,” he replied.

“All right!” Tom grinned.  “Keith and his cattle.  What’s your dog’s name?”

“Jasper.”

“Well that’s a fine looking dog you got there!” Tom commented on the black and white dog trotting alongside Keith.

“Thank you,” Keith replied and thought quietly for a moment.  “Can I ask you guys a question?”

“Go ahead, Keith!” Tom returned.  Since they began their walk to the beach Tom had a permanent smile on his face.  He had the appearance of a man headed home to tell his wife he won the lottery.

“How did you guys die?”

“Had a heart attack I think,” Tom answered.  “Hit me right in my chest.  I saw the ghost pirate ship floating up the creek and I got so scared I had a heart attack.  The next thing I know I fell off my boat and I’m sinking beneath the water.”

“So did you die of a heart attack or did you drown?” James asked.

A puzzled look formed on Tom’s face.  “I don’t think I remember.  Hmm?”

Keith smiled at how well Tom appeared to take his own death.  “Aren’t you worried about what happened with your family or if they worried about you?”

“Naw,” he answered.  “I didn’t have family but I wanted to start one.  I guess that’d be my only regret.  But I reckon not starting a family isn’t as painful as actually having one and losing it.”

“I’m worried about what my mom thought?  I bet she was pretty sad.”

“Yeah, but look on the bright side.  You’ll see her soon right?” Tom added.

“I guess that’s true.”

“How’d you die James?” Tom asked.

“Some hunters killed me.”

“I was killed too!” Keith exclaimed.

Tom grunted.  “You’d think with all the murders in these woods the authorities would have caught someone.”

“How do you know they weren’t?” Keith asked.

“I’d have felt it?” James answered and continued staring at the ground as they walked.

“Do you think the guys who killed us are in hell?”

“Maybe yours are,” James returned, “but who can say.  I’m sure more than a few among this bunch were as bad as the guys who killed you but after today will they be going to hell?  I’m not so sure.  Is that fair?  It’s not for us to decide.  As for the men who killed me, I think they’re still alive.”

“Did you leave anyone behind?” Keith asked.

“I don’t like to think of it that way,” James replied, “because I didn’t choose to leave.  Yes, when I entered the woods I lived near them with my wife and she’s now alone, but I didn’t leave her any more then you intentionally left your momma.  I loved my wife and she loved me.  Fate has dealt just as great an injustice to her.”

“Well you’ll see her soon too right James?” Tom said with an uplifting tone trying to lighten the mood.

“She’s still alive,” James replied with a tone that sucked the wind out of Tom’s joyous sails.

Tom and Keith exchanged startled glances.

“Still alive?” Keith questioned.

“I think she’s holding on,” James answered and avoided their gazes.

Keith frowned and wondered whether his mother had done the same.  Tom walked silently for a few minutes then began to whistle a merry song as the beach’s gray sky came into view.

Levi walked out onto the sand, stood near the water and turned to face the motley host of ghosts and soldiers who filed out of the woods and lined up horizontally to face him.  Victoria continued to hold his hand and her flowers while they waited until all took their places.  They stretched at least forty yards from Charley who stood at the far left all the way down to John Callis who exited the woods last.

Levi called out to them, “It says in the Bible, there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repenteth more so than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.  How much joy then do you think there will be today when over ninety-nine sinners repent?  Make no mistake.  Heaven is watching.”

Most smiled, a few shed tears, and a few others cheered with laughter.

Levi knelt in the wet sand, Victoria knelt with him, and the others facing him did the same.  “Dear Lord,” Levi began and the others repeated his words, “I have sinned.  I have not led my life according to the way in which you wanted me to lead it.  I have not feared you and I have not kept your commandments.  I have lived a life in defiance of your goodness and your holiness.  I have become wicked and sorrowful in your sight.”

As the men repeated his words, many wept.  Some of the pirates patted their neighbor’s back in a sign of support.

“Lord I submit myself to you and humbly ask for your mercy.  Please forgive me of my transgressions.  Please bestow on me the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Create within me a clean heart, O Lord and renew a right spirit within me.  Lord I accept Christ as my savior.  I recognize him as the Father’s, Son and the only path to salvation.  Enter my heart and cleanse me of all my wickedness.  Please free me from this world so I may one day walk with you in paradise.”

Levi paused to allow those crying to regain their composure.  Levi recited the Lord’s Prayer and as he started the sun rose behind him.  He felt as though these men were finally escaping the darkness and stepping forth into the light.

“Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thine name, thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil for thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

The men wiped their eyes.  The sun, like the face of God, renewed their spirits.  They turned to one another and either shook hands or hugged.  They appeared as men, deserted for years on a lonely island, who now saw the rescue boats on the horizon.  They smiled and laughed.  A few threw their hats in the air while others pulled out their pistols and prepared to let fly with their shot but thought the Lord may frown upon them so they discreetly tucked their guns away.

“Are we done?” Victoria asked.  “Will I get to see my parents soon?”

“Yes, very soon,” Levi returned.  Levi waved his arms until the assembly noticed him and grew quiet.  “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things have become new!”

They nodded and Levi smiled.  “Charley, please accompany me into the water.”  He picked up Victoria, turned and waded into the bay until the water came to his waist.  The other pirates remained silent.  Charley waded out behind them and stood waiting for instruction.

Levi looked to Victoria with tears pooling in his eyes.  Her time to depart had arrived and impending loss overwhelmed him.

“What’s wrong?” Victoria asked.

Levi took a deep breath.  “It is time for you to go now, honey.  Would you like to say good-bye to Charley?”

Victoria nodded with a frown for though her heart yearned for her family, she saw how sad leaving made Levi.  Levi handed Victoria over to Charley and he hugged her warmly.

“We’ll both be leaving Victoria.  I’m sure I will see you when we get there,” Charley reassured her.

“I hope so.  I missed you so much when you went away in the woods.”

“I missed you too.”.

She turned to Levi and held her arms out for him.  He quickly pulled her in and hugged her tightly.  She wrapped her arms around his neck and spoke into his ear.  “I’m going to miss you too, Levi.”

Levi rocked her back and forth and cried in her long brown hair.  “I’m going to miss you too honey.”

She leaned back in his arms to get a look at his face.  Tears filled his red eyes.  He knew this time when she vanished, he would not find her again.

“I’m sorry you are so sad,” she whispered and tears began sliding down her cheeks too.

“Don’t worry about me, baby.  I will be okay.  I don’t want you to cry anymore.  You have cried far too much.”

She held up her four flowers she had picked after Levi had saved her from Captain Wilcox.  “Do you remember my flowers?” she asked with a quiver in her voice. “This one is my dad,” she said pointing again to the larger one, “this one is my mom, this small one is me, and this fourth flower is you,” she explained and Levi smiled despite his sadness.

“I’m going to plant these when I get to heaven so I will always remember you.  I don’t think it will ever die in Heaven do you?”

He shook his head and laughed through his tears at how remarkable and pure a soul she had.  “No honey, I think they will bloom forever.”

“I love you Levi.”

“I love you too Victoria,” he returned choking on his emotion.  He thought of the first words Charley had spoken to him, smiled, and said, “If I ever have a daughter, I want her to be just like you.”

Victoria kissed him on the cheek and he hugged her one more time.

“Ready?” he asked.

“Yes,” she whispered.

“Do you love the Lord, Victoria?”

“Yes.”

“Peace be with you, daughter,” and with those words Levi dunked her under the water and drew her forth again.  As the water ran over her body she disappeared.

“Bye-bye, I love you,” she said and then vanished.

The congregation on the shore gasped but said nothing.  Levi bit his lip and turned from Charley.  He wept.   He wanted to sink below the water and indulge in self-pity.  She was finally free from the terror of the woods and this pleased him, but part of him wished they had returned home together.  While they had sat in the woods leaning against the tree he had thought of raising her.  He wanted to take her to church in a new pretty dress and push her on the swings at the playground.  He wanted more time to be her hero.  He had never in his life felt as significant as he did when he helped her.  Never had he experienced such a level of gratitude from anyone.  Now she had gone onward and though he knew she picked flowers, skipped and maybe even sang, the pain of knowing he wouldn’t see her for so long bit at his heart.  Was this the same anguish she felt when her mother and father rode off without even a farewell?  How terrible the separation must have been as she chased their wagon screaming.  Poor Victoria deserved to be in paradise more so then any man or woman present and he hoped her mother and father embraced her with years of overdue affection.

He wiped his eyes on his shoulders and faced Charley.  “I’m sorry,” he stumbled on the words.

“Don’t be.  I love her too.  Now you understand my anguish when she died.”

Levi nodded and thought about Victoria’s lifeless body in the woods.  She appeared as a little angel who had crashed to Earth and landed beneath the trees.

“I don’t know where you will go exactly or what you will remember, but if you can find her, will you?” Levi looked like a man who had been sitting awake all night at his dying wife’s bedside.

“I surely will.”.

“Thank you.”  Levi swallowed hard his misery and took a deep, composing breath.  “Ready?”

“I am ready.”

“You accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your savior?”

“I do.”

“May the Lord cleanse you of your sins!”  Levi bent Charley backwards until his head submerged beneath the water then yanked him upright.

“Tell Victoria I love her,” Levi blurted before Charley disappeared.

Charley nodded then waved to those on the shore before vanishing.  The people on the beach slapped their own faces and their mouths fell agape.

“How about that?” Tom said and he danced where he stood.

One of the pirates, a young skinny boy dressed in rags with scraggly hair, sprinted into the water towards Levi and almost fell under in his desperation to reach him.  His Captain, suddenly absorbing the boy’s youth as he watched him run, fell to his knees and prayed for forgiveness for allowing such a small child the grueling and unforgiving life of a pirate.  The sailors under his charge, those accustomed to his stoic and cold charge, avoided staring at him for fear of his wrath as he cried.  This man’s heart transformed from stone to flesh.

The boy waded out to Levi with tears in his eyes and Levi recognized him as the young pirate who had washed onto shore after his ship sunk at sea.  Levi had prayed over him and he felt a warm sense of joy filling his soul to see how God had answered his prayer.

The boy stood not five feet tall and his clothes did not fit him because he wore the clothes of an adult.  His long, dirty hair dangled over his thin malnourished face.  The sun’s scorching rays had ravaged his pale skin.  The pitiful boy approached huffing and puffing and stared at Levi with wild panic.

“You have asked Jesus into your heart?” Levi asked with redness in his own eyes because he had not recovered from losing Victoria.

“Yes,” the boy said with conviction but with also a saddened quiver in his voice.

“Then why are you sad?”

“I miss my parents and my sister, sir.  I haven’t seen them in so long.  I ran from home at eleven.”

“If Jesus has saved them as he has you, then you will be with them in the clouds when He returns.”

The boy’s face brightened.  “They attended church and read the Bible all the time.  I’m sure I will see them then.”

Levi smiled at the child’s strength of faith.  “You standing in this water represents your crucifixion.  Jesus died on the cross for your sins so you might have everlasting life.”

The boy bowed his head and nodded in understanding.  “The submersion in the water represents burial just as Jesus was buried and just as you emerge from the water so too did the Lord resurrect Jesus.  Levi grabbed the boy and leaned him into the water then yanked him forth.  With this baptism, you have proclaimed your faith in Christ.”

The congregation applauded and cheered.  The boy smiled, waved, and then disappeared.

“He is free,” Levi whispered.

One by one, they waded out in the water to meet Levi and he explained to each the purpose of the baptism.  A few of the pirates were large, sturdy men and Levi struggled pulling them out of the water.  Once they stood to their feet, they jumped and cheered like small children and disappeared while smiling.

The pirate prisoner, Christopher’s grandson, forced to show the other pirates the treasure’s location, waded out next.  He was short and thin and his hair barely hung to his shoulders.  Levi guessed he was not a pirate at all but a prisoner stolen from another vessel because of his knowledge regarding the treasure.

“What is your name?” Levi asked.

“Malcolm sir,” the prisoner answered like a young suitor looking to impress Levi.

“Do you repent of your sins?”

“I do sir.  I have done things I have regretted in life.  I have always believed in God but I have not done what he asked of me which I guess is even worse than not believing at all.”

“Were you a pirate?”

“No sir, a fisherman.”

“How is it then you were taken prisoner?”

“I drifted too far from shore and they caught me in the Bay.  I thought they were going to kill me and I told them the story about the treasure hoping they might spare me.  We didn’t dig it up.  I guess that’s good.  They would have been royally angry with me if they found nothing but cannonballs,” he grinned.

Levi smirked.  “Yes, I suppose you were fortunate.”  He scanned the shore and found Edward with his eyes.  The man stared at the sand.  “Do you know if your grandfather ever took the Lord to be his savior?”  Levi asked.

The prisoner frowned and as he pondered this he grew more concerned.  “I don’t know sir.  I did not see him the last days of his life.  I suppose he may have but cannot be certain.  If he did not then what has become of him?”

“I cannot speak to God’s business,” Levi answered.

Of all the ghosts, this man’s grandfather puzzled him the most because to Levi’s knowledge, Christopher did not die among the trees.  If so, then Levi should not have seen him earlier in the night.

“Then sir why did you ask?  Did you know my Grandfather?” He maintained his manners but his eyes expressed growing concern.

“How did your grandfather know where to find the treasure?”

“Well because he told me he….” the prisoner’s voice faded and a horrific look clouded his face as the realization of his grandfather’s treachery became apparent.  “Oh no, this can’t be!  How could he be responsible?”

Levi placed his hand on the man’s shoulder.  “You cannot choose your family but you can choose life over death.  Do you choose to love the Lord?  Do you believe in him?”

The man nodded but he the color had left him and his eyes drooped.  The truth brought to his attention disturbed him.  The realization his Grandfather Christopher had a hand in killing William and Mary.

“The Lord will not judge you for your family’s sins.”

“Yes sir, but I loved my grandfather.  He was a good man to me.  Not an evil man who murdered others.  I can’t bear to think of him in hell!”

“I apologize for telling you.  I wanted to know if he had changed his ways.  If by God’s will he had become a good man.”

“He was a good man sir.  Truly!  He did good things for people.  Surely that will get him into Heaven right?”

“It is not good works that get us into Heaven, it is the gift of God through our faith in Jesus otherwise he could accept none of us.  There is still a chance your grandfather repented.”

“Yes sir, I’m sure he did!” the man exclaimed grasping at the idea.

“Take comfort then.”

Levi baptized him and the man grabbed Levi’s hand to shake it before disappearing and the strength of his grip faded with his body.

The coughing pirate waded out next.  The man who viciously slashed Levi’s tent hoping to kill whatever slept inside.  As he approached, the water moved around him and created a wake in the same manner a wake is created when a boat moves through the water.  When he coughed however, his body briefly appeared skeletal and for a split second the water did not move around him but through him.  Levi encountered him in the woods first and despite the attack and this man’s supernatural appearance, Levi did not fear him at all.

He stood shorter than Levi.  He had a dark mustache and goatee and dark stubble on the rest of his face.  His dark, bushy eyebrows sat upon yellow eyes exuding disease and the skin beneath them appeared purple.  He strutted and grinned as he approached revealing a set of yellow and gold teeth.

He waded out to Levi and stood before him panting but grinning like a child about to receive a medal.  Unfortunately, as Levi prepared to speak, a humbling lung attack overcame the man.  He held up his hand imploring Levi to be patient.  The fit at such a significant moment embarrassed him.  He coughed and hacked for many seconds and Levi cringed with each outburst feeling sorry for the wretch.  Once done, the pirate took several short breaths and wiped blood from his chin.  Sweat glistened his pale face.

“You haven’t felt well in a long time, have you?”

The man nodded with closed eyes but did not attempt to talk until sure his attack had passed.

“I’m sure you are looking forward to feeling better,” Levi stated.

The man turned, cleared his throat and using a little bit of breath whispered, “That I am.”  The attack purged his arrogance and he appeared weak and frail.

Levi explained the baptism to him as he had done with the others then dunked him.  The frail man felt as light as the young boy he had baptized earlier.  When he emerged from the water he sucked in a large gulp of air and grimaced with fear as he prepared for a painful, coughing attack to follow but none came.  His clean lungs welcomed the fresh air and he cried with appreciation for the power of the Lord.  He disappeared as had the rest.

A few people later and out waded a curious specter whom Levi knew little about.  The ghost who searched for King’s Highway.

“I remember you,” the ghost said when he approached Levi.

Levi smiled sheepishly feeling bad he had fibbed to the ghost.

“I’m sorry but I do not know what the King’s Highway is,” Levi replied.  “I did not want to mislead you but I could not be delayed in trying to help you so I sent you on your way.”

The specter smiled.  He appeared not as sickly or supernatural as Doris had mentioned but perhaps his vitality had more to do with standing in the sun than in the moonlight.

“The King’s Highway is a path from the North to the South.  We stopped near these woods to unload supplies en route to a settlement on the Bay.  I remember sweating with fever.  They told me to scout the path through the woods and determine how far from the coast the Highway ran but I could not find it.  When I returned, my ship had departed.  I wandered around for a few days but without food and water my sickness overcame me.  I do not know where my body rests.”

Levi speculated whether they abandoned because of his illness but he saw no point in opening that wound.

“It is irrelevant where you died or where they buried you.  What is important is where you end up.  Your body carried your soul.  It no longer possesses value.”

“I do not know for what sins I should be ashamed but I know no man is perfect and I am certain I have surely sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.  For this I am sorry.”

“Do you believe Jesus Christ is your savior?” Levi asked.

“I do sir.”

“Then peace be with you.”

When the man rose from the water he looked skyward as he vanished and whispered.

He turned and saw Edward wading out to Levi with his head hanging.  He removed the bandana from his neck, dipped it in the water, and then wiped clean his face.

“You repented of your sins?” Levi asked.

Edward nodded and wiped his nose because he had been crying but still did not look at Levi.

“You accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your savior?”

Edward nodded again.  “How can he forgive me?” Edward cried and rubbed his eyes with his palms.

“Because you believe in him and you have repented.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful to forgive us of our sins,” Levi explained.

Edward, a weather worn man in his forties cried harder.  “I’m so sorry for what I’ve done!”

“The Lord hears you,” Levi replied.  “The angels are rejoicing.”

Edward soaked up the sky and wiped his tears.  What a glorious day he thought.

“Ready?”

Edward nodded.  “I’m ready.”

Levi dunked him and drew him forth.  The remaining dozen people left at this point all clapped.  Edward smiled.  “Thank you,” he said to Levi and then he vanished.

A British soldier waded out to Levi.  Taller and stouter than Levi, powder stains blackened his coat.  This man served with Charley and likely cannon fire from Lord Dunmore’s fleeing ship killed him.  “I had already accepted the Lord as my savior as a young boy in England but I did not have the chance to be baptized prior to leaving and I’ve lost my way since then,” he stated.

“Do you love the Lord?”

“I do sir.”

“Do you repent of your sins?”

“Indeed I do.”

“Then the Lord has forgiven you.”

Levi dunked the soldier.  He rose out of the water, waved to the three friends he still had remaining on the shore and disappeared like the rest.

Captain Wilcox approached next.  He waded out to Levi with no apparent humility in his gait or fear in his face.  He had pulled his still oily hair into a pony tail and buttoned his vest to appear more presentable.  More importantly the wildness had vanished from his eyes.  When he reached Levi, he stared him right in the face and spoke like he addressed a senior officer.

“I apologize for striking the girl.  I can see she meant a great deal to you.  I too had a daughter whom I left behind before coming to Virginia and I greatly desire to see her and her mother again.  I have no excuse for my actions.  I can only say madness sickened me otherwise I would not have conducted myself in such a despicable fashion as to bring dishonor to myself, my family, my country, and most of all my Lord.  The Lord has cleansed me of this sickness but the memory of my actions lingers and my behavior plagues me.”

Levi nodded and accepted the sincerity of Wilcox’s words.  “Do you repent?”

“I surely do.”

“You have accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your savior?”

“I am his humble servant,” Wilcox responded.

“Very well then, the Lord forgives you.  Are you ready?”

“I am indeed, sir.”

Levi baptized him and pulled him upright.  “Bless you sir!” Captain Wilcox uttered and evaporated with the water.

William and Mary waded out together.  Levi gazed at the morning sky above the trees and tried to remember how terrifying she appeared wailing in the pale moonlight.  Standing there in the warm air and watching the seagulls arrive on a developing breeze made the past night feel like a bad dream.

They stood before him with their arms locked at the elbow as though presenting themselves for marriage.

Her plain, weathered face made confusing her for a man, easier.  When she smiled at William however, her eyes and nose crinkled and she took on the lovely, feminine appearance of a woman enamored with her husband.

“Do you forgive those who trespassed against you?” Levi asked.

“We do!”

“Do you repent of your sins and ask for forgiveness?”

“Most heartily,” William answered.

“We surely do,” Mary added.

“Do you accept Christ as your savior?”

“We do!”

“Are you ready?”

Mary reached out and gently grabbed Levi’s arm.  “Thank you for helping us.  May the good Lord bless you.”

“Yes, we are obliged, mate,” William added and he squeezed Levi’s shoulder.

Levi nodded.  “I can baptize only one of you at a time and when you vanish I am not certain if you will be together.  There is no marriage in Heaven.  Perhaps you should hug each other once more.”

They both nodded.  “We understand,” Mary answered.  She hung her head like a woman departing from her true love at the airport.   “We said our good-byes to one another on the shore.”

William embraced her one final time.  “I love you Mary.”

“And I love you, William.”

“We agreed she goes first,” William said.

“Here we go.”  Levi smiled, laid her beneath the water then raised her.

“I love you dear,” she said to her husband and she disappeared like sand in the wind.

William sighed the way Levi had when Victoria vanished.  “I did not get a chance to tell her.  I miss her terribly already.  We just reunited.”

“I understand how you feel,” Levi replied thinking about Victoria.  “Would you like a moment?”

“No,” William shook his head.  “If I can be with her then I want to be with her at once.”

“Here we go then.  Ready?”

William closed his eyes as Levi leaned him into the water.  Once Levi stood him to his feet William said, “Thank you,” then vanished.

Only three men remained; John Callis, the young man, and Tom Pipken.  Levi watched as the young man shook both Tom and John’s hand then waded out into the water.  His dog ran to the water’s edge but put no more than his front paws in the creek.  He whined and barked as his owner waded out to Levi.

“It’s okay Jasper,” Keith called.  “Everything is okay.”

The dog barked again then paced along the water crying.

“What do you think will happen to Jasper and the cows?” Keith asked.

“I don’t know,” Levi replied honestly.  “It doesn’t make much sense they are here.  Animals don’t have spirits to my knowledge.”

“So they won’t go to heaven with me?”

Levi sighed, “I don’t think so but I don’t think they are going to remain here without you either.  Don’t feel like you are abandoning them.”

“I’m afraid to leave them behind.”

“It is your time to go.  If they are still here, then I will figure out what to do?”

“You will take care of them?” Keith asked with renewed hope in his eyes.

“I’ll take care of them.”  Levi smiled and meant what he said.

Keith exhaled.  “Thank you very much.”

“You are welcome.  Are you ready then?”

Keith nodded.  “Goodbye boy!” he called to his dog.  “You’ve been the best darn dog I ever had.”  The dog cocked his head then barked further.  Keith breathed heavily and grimaced in anger because he didn’t want to cry in front of Levi.  “I can’t believe I’m crying over a dog!  You must think I’m pretty stupid!  You lost your daughter and I’m crying over Jasper.”

Levi had forgotten Victoria told Keith she was his daughter.  “He’s been with you a long time.  It is understandable you should be so upset,” Levi said.  “I promise I will look after him.”

“Thank you,” Keith replied.  “I think I’m ready,” he said with a deep breath.

Levi nodded.  “You accept Christ as your Savior?”

“Yes.”

“Do you repent of your sins?”

“Yes.”

“Then go and be at peace.”  Levi dunked him.  When the young man stood he caught one last glimpse of his dog and smiled as he saw both his dog and his two cows fading with him.

Levi also grinned, pleased the man departed without worry.

“Well how about that?” Tom Pipken said with a large smile to John.  “His dog and cows disappeared too.”

“I’m glad Keith saw that before he went away,” John replied.

Tom only nodded.  “Well I guess we’re the last ones,” Tom said.  “Do you want to go first?”

John thought it over and shook his head slowly.  “No, you go ahead.  I entered last.  I think it’s only fair I be the last one out.”

“Okay then, if you’re sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“You mind if I have one more smoke before I leave?” Tom asked with a large smile.

John returned the smile and pulled out his pack.  “Sure you can.”  He lit the smoke for Tom then handed it to him.

Tom took a large drag and exhaled happily.  “I don’t think God minds one more for the road,” he laughed.  He reached out and shook John’s hand.  “I’ll see you in the afterlife Mr. John.”

“You be good, Tom,” John returned.

“God will keep me straight,” he replied with a large smile and laugh.  He turned and headed to the water.

He waded out with his large smile stretched from his left ear to his right and merrily blew out smoke as he trudged along.  Before reaching Levi, Tom flicked his cigarette into the water at which Levi shook his head.

“If you knew how polluted the Bay has become since you died, you probably wouldn’t have done that.”

“The way I figure it, that cigarette ain’t even real,” he smiled again.

“You have a point.”  He liked Tom.

“Do you think I might find a wife in heaven?”

“There is no marriage in heaven Tom, but I’m sure you’ll find the treasures you’re looking for.”

“Good enough!” Tom replied eagerly.  “Let’s go!”

“Do you repent of your sins?”

“I sincerely do.”

“Do you accept Jesus Christ as your savior?”

“With all my heart!” Tom replied cheerfully.

“Ready?”

“You bet I’m ready.”

Levi put Tom under then pulled him forward.  Tom waved to John and disappeared like smoke in the breeze.

Levi surveyed the lonely shore.  An hour ago it held a full host of pirates and soldiers desperate for salvation and now only one elderly man remained who had waited his turn while he watched all the others vanish before him.  Levi stood in the water feeling somber and waited for John to wade out but John remained on the shore and watched the sun rise.

“John?” Levi called.

John did not answer; instead he sat in the sand.

Confused, Levi lingered another moment then waded to shore and took a seat next to John.  He so wanted to depart especially now that Victoria had passed but he couldn’t leave a soul behind.  God wanted him to see the story through to its end.  He thought about his feelings of inadequacy.  They felt silly now when considered against all he had endured throughout the past night and all he had recently accomplished.  Though no one alive witnessed his daring or appreciated this task he had fulfilled for the Lord, he never would again doubt his courage or his worth and he realized he didn’t need the praise of others to feel good about himself.  The Lord had shown him this.

“What is wrong John?”

John drew a line in the sand with a stick.  “I’ve already taken the Lord as my savior and I’ve already been baptized but I’m still here even after everyone else has gone.  Maybe I just don’t want to leave my wife.”

“John…. its time for you to go.”  Levi tried to hide his impatience and his anxiousness.  He ached to leave suddenly.

“I don’t know how,” John returned, his voice cracking with emotion.

Levi frowned.  He had only been in the woods for one night but he felt more sad and desperate than ever he remembered.  Now that only John remained, Levi felt the finish line within his grasp, and he felt more desperate than ever to get to it, but he couldn’t leave John behind.  He intended to save John too and so he prayed over what he must do as John sat smoking beside him.

“When we first moved here my wife and I walked to the beach in the early morning and watched the sun rise.”  John took a long drag of his cigarette then exhaled through his nose.  He stared at the pack in his hand.  “I never seem to run out of these things.  I take one out but I never have less or more than what is in there right now.”

Levi opened his eyes from prayer not hearing what John had said.  “I think I know what to do.  Follow me.”  Levi’s wet clothes chafed his thighs.  He glanced at the water again before leaving and thought of Victoria.  She finally found her family once more and hopefully she would find the time to plant the daffodils she carried with her.  He wished she rode on his back as he once more trekked into the trees he had grown to hate.  He had received as much comfort from her companionship as she had from his and even though John walked with him, he still felt alone without Victoria.

“Will we be passing the pond?” Tom asked.

“We can stop there if you’d like.”

Tom stood and brushed sand from his pants.  He flicked his cigarette on the ground and once again Levi rolled his eyes.

“Along the way I will tell you who killed me,” John said.

Levi spun around, shocked but said nothing more.

John nodded.

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.”

 

Chapter 17 – Doris’ Husband

“What did he mean when he said he hopes he doesn’t get to Heaven too soon?”

Levi sighed and took Victoria’s hand.  “Well honey, he is in sort of the same situation you are.  He doesn’t know something bad has happened to him so he thinks it isn’t time for him to go to heaven yet.  He still wants to spend time here with his family and friends.  But unfortunately he doesn’t realize they are no longer here.  I think he has wandered through these woods for a long time too just as you have.”

“What do you think happened to him?”

“I don’t know but I’m kind of happy we didn’t have to see it,” Levi replied.

“Me too.”

Victoria and Levi returned the way they had come to the other side of the pond.  The frogs jumped into the water as they approached and once again Victoria pointed them out to Levi.

“What house did he think was haunted?” she asked after many minutes of silence.

“Your house.”  He felt no need to lie to her.  “You have lived here much longer than he has Victoria.  When the bad thing happened to you, your house looked beautiful, but much later when the bad thing happened to him your house was not beautiful anymore.  It’s because when all the people left your house and no one took care of it, it grew old and dark and sometimes people are afraid of the dark.  Sometimes they make up stories about old houses just for fun and say they are haunted.”

“But it isn’t haunted is it?”

“No honey it isn’t.  There were no ghosts there.”

“What if I’m the ghost everyone is afraid of?”

“Who would fear a sweet, little girl like you,” he said then tickled her so she would laugh and find enjoyment again in their walk.

“Stop it!” she squealed.

“Okay, okay, but I don’t want you to worry about those things.  I will get you out of here.”

“I know.  You don’t have to keep telling me.  I believe you.”

“Well I’m glad you have so much faith in me!”

They walked in silence a moment before Victoria spoke again, “Can we swing our arms again?  We don’t have to be quiet anymore do we?”

“No, we can swing our arms if you want.”

“And skip?  You said we could skip on the way back!”

“Did I say that?”

“Yes, you did,” she replied giggling.

“I have not skipped in a long time but I will do my best,” sounding much like a grandparent asked to ride the world’s tallest roller coaster for the twelfth time in a day.

“Where shall we skip?” she asked with joyful anticipation.  Levi marveled at how excited a child acted over so simple an activity.

“How about we start in this direction and then the Holy Spirit will lead us to where we need to go.”

“Okay!  Let’s go!”

She and Levi began skipping through the woods making a great deal of ruckus as they meandered, but Levi had no fear.  He had a warm feeling when he held her hand and her faith gave him confidence to find a happy ending.

They took a break after a few minutes of skipping and walked while they wildly swung their arms.  Despite time having advanced many years since finding Victoria, she remained with him while the ghosts from other encounters had vanished once they played their part.  Even Victoria’s daffodils did not wither with time.  Victoria had a significant role in this play and remaining with Levi was part of it.  This comforted him as he felt he at least marched on the right track to satisfying his objective.

He heard an engine and noticed the road lay one hundred feet ahead.  A truck rumbled from the beach and he spotted their red brake lights shine as they sped around the corner.

“What was that?” She grabbed his arm and pulled.  “It is a monster!”

Levi understood to a child of the eighteenth century, a rumbling pickup truck with two red lights for eyes might appear dreadfully frightful.

Levi hugged her.  “It’s okay, it’s not a monster.  It’s a machine.  Kind of like a wagon except you don’t need horses to drive it.”

She shook her head, “I’ve never seen a wagon like that,” she said shaking.  “I think we should hide from it.”

“Honey it’s okay,” he said holding on to her.  “It won’t hurt you.  It isn’t alive.  It is like a boat but on land and those red things were lights so it can be seen in the dark.  So nothing runs into it.  People ride in it and they don’t want to get hurt.  See look it is already gone.”

She still trembled.

“Honey a lot of time has passed since the bad thing happened to you and in all that time, people have built and created new things.  People have invented machines which I’m sure appear scary to you but there is nothing to be afraid of,” he explained softly.  “I won’t let you get hurt.”

Levi shook with excitement to see a sign of the real world; a sign life had not gone on without him.  The old truck appeared not from his time, but still a sign of the modern age.

“Can I get on your back again?”

“Of course you can honey.”  He turned around and knelt.  She hopped on his back as and he stood with a groan at which she laughed.  He began walking towards the road.

“Hey there!” a man shouted.

Levi came to an abrupt stop as though someone yanked on his reigns and he turned to see an elderly man making haste towards him with a flash light.

“What is that?” Victoria whispered and dug her claws into his shoulders.

“Nothing to be scared of,” he reassured her.  “It is like a candle or lantern but much brighter.  People use it to find their way in the dark.  Don’t be afraid.”

The old man hobbled with a limp towards Levi and held up his hand pleading for Levi to wait.  He wore a pair of jeans and grey collared shirt.  His pepper grey hair matched his thick side burns and his mid-section hung over his belt.  His hindered gait and aged appearance suggested he was in his late 60’s to early 70’s.

“Hello,” he said a little out of breath.  “Thanks for stopping.”

Levi assessed him without responding and nodded.

“I’m looking for my dog.  You didn’t happen to see a dog running through the woods did you?”

Levi thought the man’s first question might be why Levi walked through the woods so late at night but he did not look at all bewildered to see him.

“I saw a dog a few minutes ago walking with a man and two cows.  They went that way.”  Levi said hoping to be helpful and eager to learn where this encounter might take him.

“No that’s not my dog.  My dog is a German Shepherd.  He ran into the woods and I can’t find him.”

So this man too saw or has seen the cows and the man walking them?  Was this elderly gentleman a ghost or not?

“Why are you in the woods so late at night?” the man asked then slapped a mosquito on his neck and waved a few more out of his face.

Levi didn’t know how to respond.  He didn’t have a good explanation for his presence so he came clean.  “I wanted to see if there were any ghosts in the woods.”

The old man’s eyes lit.  “And you’ve seen them then?  That’s why your child is so scared.”

Levi didn’t want to tell him the truck and not the cows had frightened Victoria because Victoria’s anxiety over a truck would confuse him.

“The young man and the cows are ghosts,” the old man pointed out.  “They looked real enough though didn’t they?”

“Yes,” Levi answered.  “Almost too real to be ghosts.”

“I imagine they have been walking through these woods for a good sixty years or more.  Killed by men looking for treasure is what I understand.  Not sure why they killed the cows and his poor dog though,” his face drooped when he mentioned the dog and Levi realized he worried about his missing dog.

“Are there ghosts of the men who killed them?”

“I reckon not,” the old man answered.  “I’ve never seen them and unless you died in these woods you’re not going to be a ghost here.  No, those men probably ran off when they realized what they had done.”

This made stunningly good sense to Levi and explained why he did not witness the death of the man and his cattle as he had witnessed the death of so many others.  The men who killed him fled and did not die among the trees and thus not cursed to haunt the woods.  Some individuals he was sure had made it out of the woods, so why then could he still see their ghosts here?

Victoria’s chin rested on his shoulder and he remembered the moment he first saw her.  The British Captain had pulled her onto the porch and had threatened to an unseen spirit that he would force Victoria to go into the woods if they did not comply with his wishes.  Levi could not comprehend with whom the officer argued.  He figured he had gone mad but what if he argued with his memories?  What if he fought with Victoria’s mother and the British officer continued to fight with her for years even though she no longer lived?  Victoria’s mother had moved away.  She did not die in the woods.  The curse that doomed all those who had perished within the wooden walls did not ensnare her.  Captain Wilcox in his mind saw her still and whether the trees’ power produced this perception or pure madness infected his brain, Levi couldn’t be certain but the likelihood every actor continued to play his part even if all the players were not present, appeared probable.  Wilcox fell on the porch as though physically attacked and Levi recalled the other soldiers struggling to remove an unseen person.

“I live right across the road,” the old man said interrupting Levi’s thought.  He pointed to a white, two story home.

Levi peered through the branches and saw Doris’ house though it appeared to be in much better condition than it stood in present times.  The paint had not peeled and the yard did not resemble a jungle.  Flower baskets filled with red and pink geraniums hung from the porch.  “My wife, Doris,” the old man said and motioned to his porch.  “She’s waiting for me to come back with the dog.”

“She’s out there now?” Levi questioned because he could not see her.

“Yes, right there on the porch.  She’s waiting for me.”

“She is pretty,” Levi pretended.

Levi felt bad for the man and finally understood why the old woman had never moved and why she stared at the woods.  Her husband had gone in after their dog and never returned which must mean he too existed as a ghost.

Poor Doris sat on her porch watching the trees not for ghosts but for her husband to return.

“I’m Levi,” he said holding out his hand.

“John Callis,” the man placed his sweaty hand in Levi’s.

“This is my daughter Victoria.”  Victoria gave a little wave over Levi’s shoulder and John waved back like a loving grandfather might wave to his own grandchildren.

“Do you know the Old House next to the woods?” John asked interested.

“Yes,” Levi replied.

“Well if you’re looking for ghosts they say a little girl haunts the house.  Well “they” don’t say it, I say it but no one believes me but my wife.  I have heard her but haven’t seen her.  You can hear her on some nights in the house crying.”

Levi glanced over his shoulder at Victoria.  “We just walked by there but we didn’t hear anything did we honey?”

“No, that’s weird,” she replied with a grin.

“I have only heard her, a couple of times,” John returned, his eyes wide with amazement for encountering a supernatural phenomenon.  Levi agreed that yesterday, if he heard an unseen child’s cries amongst the ruins of an old home, he too might have been amazed.  Considering though he carried the said ghostly child on his back and presently conversed with another ghost, hearing voices no longer ranked high on his amazement meter.

“I don’t know who the little girl is but she’s not the only one in these woods.  My wife has seen a man walking this road at night and let’s just say he ain’t from around here.  That’s why I’m so anxious to get my dog and get out.”

“How long have you been looking for your dog?” Levi felt sorry for the ghost who knew nothing of the sad routine in which he had been stuck for years.

“I think for about ten or twenty…” the man looked off trying to recollect how long he had searched.  He frowned and counted his fingers contemplating the time.  His face drooped and his arms fell to his side.  His expression revealed he recognized the agonizing truth.  The man looked at his house again but this time it did not appear to him as it did moments ago when it stood in his day but rather in the decrepit state as it stood in Levi’s time.  No lovely flower pots hung from the now dark and broken porch.  The grass stood high around the house and his once new truck in the yard, languished in a blanket of dirt and sat low on a flat tire.  A faint light came from the kitchen window and he thought he caught the glimpse of someone passing by it.

He rubbed his red eyes.  “I’ve been looking for my dog a very long time.  Much too long I think.”  He turned towards the woods.  “He’s not around is he?”

Levi felt like someone who had to break the news of a loved one’s death.  “No, I don’t think he is.”  He did not know what else to say.  This was the first ghost he had encountered other than Victoria who knew he should not still live in the woods and realized time had not stood still.

“My poor wife!  He leaned over and placed his hands on his knees like an exhausted marathoner.  She probably thinks I ran off with another woman.”  A tear formed in the corner of his eye next to his nose.

“Do you remember what happened?” Levi asked.

John stared into the woods recollecting immediately how he had come to remain in there.  His eyes watered but then his face hardened and his breathing accelerated.  He removed a pack of cigarettes and paused to count them under his breath before removing one.  He pulled out a bright orange Bic brand lighter, fired up his smoke, took a long drag, then blew out a large plume of white exhaust.  He continued breathing heavily and he immediately took another toke trying to calm his nerves.

He cleared his throat and spoke.  “I ran into the woods chasing my dog just as you see me doing right now.  He heard something running, a deer probably and took off after it.  Normally I’d let him go.  He’d have come home when he got tired or hungry enough but I heard some gun shots earlier in the day and the hunters around here don’t always care about killing your animal if they think it’s interfering with their hunt.”

He took another drag and shook his head.

“I jogged through the woods the best I could.  He generally comes when he’s called so I knew if I walked in deep enough, he’d hear me and come running.”

“I didn’t run gracefully.  I made enough ruckus to wake the dead so I don’t know how they confused me for a deer.  I heard a gun blast to my left and as I turned to look, their shot nailed me right here in the side.”

James pointed to an area about three inches above his left hip.  “I fell to the ground and grabbed my stomach.  I understood immediately they had shot me and that the wound was bad but I thought I’d make it if they got help quick enough.”

His jaw clenched and he took a long, powerful drag from his cigarette.

“I heard them coming through the leaves cursing at one another and I felt relieved to hear more than one.  I thought one could get help and the other could stay with me or at least let Doris know what had happened.  I worried for her you see.  I started feeling cold and the natural panic you’re not going to make it starts to overtake you.”

He took another long drag on his cigarette smoking it nearly to the butt then ground it out against the tree, threw it on the ground and mashed it with his foot.  He pulled his pack out once more and stared at the cigarettes again which Levi thought curious.  John’s brow furrowed with confusion.  He removed another and lit it.

“They were scared too when they got to me.  I saw in their eyes they hadn’t meant to do it.  There were three of them.  I don’t know how old; late twenties, early thirties I guess.  They just stood around me staring and scratching their heads.  Each had a shotgun in their hands.  I reached for them and they took a step back like they were afraid!  I grew more and more scared because they did nothing and I needed to get to the hospital!  They stared while I bled!  I started feeling sick!  I remember lifting my other hand, the one stuck to my wound, and feeling nauseous when I saw all the blood caked to it.  They looked at one another nervously when they saw my blood because they knew how seriously they had hurt me.”

He took another drag and cleared his throat again.

“One of them asked out loud to the others, ‘What should we do?’”

I said to them, ‘Help me!’  They stared at me horrified I had spoken.  Like I was an alien.  I couldn’t understand what they were thinking!  They knew I was alive!  They should have gone to get help.”

“One knelt close but not close enough that I could reach for him, and examined my wound.  He refused to look me in the eye.  I think that’s why they were so scared when I talked to them.  They didn’t want to hear from me.  They didn’t want to see me as a person.  ‘Please!’ I begged.”

“The man examining me stood and said calmly to the others, ‘He’s not going to make it.’  One of the other guys lost it, ‘What do we do then?  We’ll go to jail!’” he complained.

John took another long drag, shook his head and blew the smoke out through his nose.  “I knew then I’d die.  They worried about themselves too much.  I’m sure they had been drinking.  At least one of them would get jail time for shooting me and I’d probably pressed charges even if he did save me, but the others did not need to go along with it.  They didn’t shoot me.  I never thought they meant to shoot me!  At the worst the one guy might have served six months in jail and the others, probably nothing except a fine for hunting while drinking if there is such a thing!  Instead they all band together and let me die!”

“They didn’t argue or discuss it.  They all had one mind.  One guy held all the shotguns while the other two grabbed my ankles and dragged me through the woods.  I tried to grab a tree, but they gave me a clean jerk and I had to let go because of the pain in my side.  After that I couldn’t do anything else.  Blood poured out of me and I grew weaker but I stayed conscious the whole way they scraped me across the floor of these woods.”

He toked on his cigarette again.  “I thought of Doris.  I would never see her again and she would never see me.  We had a fight before I ran into the woods.  Not a major fight but a spat nonetheless.  I didn’t want me storming into the woods angry to be the last memory she had of me.  What would she think when I didn’t come back?  I started to cry while they dragged me,” he stated with slight disbelief as though crying was an act he seldom did.  “I’m sure they thought my wound caused it but I cried because of Doris.  I knew she’d be heartbroken.”

“They dragged me for ten or fifteen minutes and the one carrying the guns lit a cigarette like he was on a stroll with his dog.  I smelled the smoke in the air.  My eyes went dark but I didn’t lose consciousness.  Finally, I heard them splashing through water and I knew we had reached the pond.”

John mashed his cigarette against the tree again and pulled out another.  This time he did not bother to examine the pack.  “They shoved bricks down my pants which of course didn’t feel good on top of the hole I already had in my side.  I don’t know where they found bricks.  Maybe they found them in the woods.  I don’t know.  They then dragged me deep into the pond and pushed me under.  I had no fight in me.  I barely moved as I sank to the bottom.  I remember for a split second lying there in the mud.  I saw nothing and I shivered.  I held my breath.  No point to it but I guess I couldn’t quit.  I didn’t last more than five seconds I think.  A long five seconds.”

“Each time I appeared here I thought it was a dream, my death that is but it’s not is it?  I just keep dying.  I’m here at the woods’ edge long enough to see my beautiful wife.  Long enough to remember how much I love her, and then I go into the woods to die.  Be less painful if I didn’t see her each time but I suppose I have no control over it.”

Levi frowned and said nothing.  He did not know how to comfort this man without lying to him.  John would remain in the woods and die repeatedly unless he changed his actions but he appeared to have no control over them.

“I know who they are too!  I dare them to wander through these woods again!”

Victoria clutched Levi.

Levi thought about the hunting bluff and wondered if the men who owned it killed John.  Since it happened so long ago, whoever did it might either be dead now.

He also pondered why John Callis did not scare the other hunters who came through the woods since clearly they still hunted.

“How often do you re-appear if you don’t mind me asking?”  Levi asked.

“I don’t know.  I feel like I left my wife only moments ago and ran into the woods.  That’s when I saw you.  But my house!  I don’t understand what has happened to my house!”

Levi felt for the ghost.  He was confused and couldn’t comprehend how long he had wandered through the woods though he realized he had wandered longer than he suspected.  He contemplated to where he disappeared in between appearances.  Where did any of them go?  They did not appear every evening.  Doris said a year had passed before she saw again the ghost walking down her road.  Missing one or two of his appearances was conceivable but clearly he didn’t appear every night.  Where then did their spirits reside and what prompted them to resurface?  Before he posed the question, James started with his own.

“What happened to you?” James asked Levi.

“What do you mean?”

“How did you end up here?”

“I came into the woods because I heard about the ghosts.”  He suddenly felt uncomfortable saying the word “ghost” in front of a ghost for fear there might be a less offensive term for describing someone in such a state.  People were so sensitive in this day.

“How did you die though?” John asked.

Levi blinked and answered with a dash of apology as though ashamed to be alive, “I’m not dead.  I came into the woods earlier in the evening and …”

“And what?” the ghost interrupted, “you were going to leave by crossing to the other side.  I’ve had the same notion fifty or sixty times myself, but I always seem to end up here to be killed and thrown into the pond.”

Levi pondered his question.

“You don’t remember dying do you?”

Levi smiled and tried to return the sympathy, “I’m not dead though.  I came into the woods several hours ago.”

“Are you sure?” John asked a little amused.  “I remember coming into the woods a few minutes ago too but that isn’t true is it?”

Levi gave it serious thought.  He had endured a great deal over the course of the evening.  Had he died at some point in the night?  Maybe a stray bullet hit him or maybe one of the cannon explosions.  Perhaps he died and never realized it.  Could his death be the reason why he saw all the ghosts?

Levi shook his head, “I can’t be dead.  I know I’m not dead.”  He thought about his wife.  What if he died and months had passed if not years.  Might Jules not think the same thing poor John speculated his wife felt?  Maybe his wife thought he had left her!  He stared at the road again.

“I’m going to cross,” he said with determination.

“Good luck!” John said, “but you’ll be back.”

“Why don’t you come with me?” Levi asked.

“Shh!” John said cocking his ear.  “Do you hear that?”

Levi listened but heard nothing.

“It’s Aries!” he shouted.  “I can hear him barking!”  John hobbled off into the woods after his dog completely forgetting his dog did not exist.  Chasing his dog and dying seemed to be the task John uncontrollably performed with each appearance.

“John, you are going to die!” Levi called after him.

“No, I’m going to get him this time and when I do this will all be over,” he called back.

Levi lowered Victoria and turned to face the road.  She watched him for a moment and she shook as she realized what he contemplated.  Tears ran down her cheeks and she tried her best to restrain her anguish for the sake of being a big girl.

“Over.” Levi pondered.  Jump the ditch, and cross to the other side.  Then the ordeal should all be over for him.  He wasn’t dead.  He couldn’t be dead.

He turned to Victoria and saw her tears shimmering in the moonlight.  “What is wrong, honey?”

“I don’t want you to leave!”  She fell into his arms and hugged him, sobbing so hard she struggled to catch her breath.

He rubbed her back and remained silent until she had stopped crying enough for her to hear what he had to say.

“Honey, I’m going to come back,” he reassured her.

“No, you won’t!” she cried.  “Once you cross you will be gone and we won’t find each other again!  I will be all alone!  I will have to go back to my house!”

“Listen to me!” he said and placed his hands on her head.  She barely saw him through the tears.  “I promise I will be back for you.  I think I know what must be done.  I can set you free, Victoria.  I can send you back to your family.  You must trust me though honey.  You won’t be all alone.  I won’t do that to you.  I will be back for you and if I can’t find you then I will look day and night for you even if it takes me the rest of my life.  Till the day I die I will search for you.  Don’t be scared!”

She nodded but continued crying.  The tears cut paths through her dirt stained face and he pulled her close again.  Her anguish sunk his heart and he imagined his decision to leave her couldn’t be harder if had to leave his own child.  In the brief time they spent together, Levi felt like her parent.  As Charley had put it, if he had a daughter he would want her to be just like Victoria.

“Please don’t leave me!” she whimpered.

“I promise I’ll be right back.  I won’t be gone but a few minutes, okay?  You stand behind this tree and watch me.  You watch me the whole time okay?”  He brushed her hair out of her eyes and took the corner of his shirt and wiped off the dirt and tears.  “You are such a brave girl.  You lasted for so long on your own.  Can you last just a few more minutes?  I’m not going to forget about you.”

“Do you promise?”

“I promise.  Remember the Bible verse.  The Lord is with you wherever you go.”  He kissed her on the forehead and hugged her one more time.  He walked to the edge of the ditch with her.

“Here stand right behind this tree.  I won’t be long.”

“Okay,” she whimpered.

“Don’t be sad, baby.”

She nodded and wiped her nose with the sleeve of her dress.

“I’ll be right back.”

He ran, broke through the last few branches at the woods’ edge, and hurdled over the ditch.  He landed hard and fell to his knees.

He spun around and his eyes met Victoria’s.  She waved to him and he breathed a sigh of relief.

“Look out Levi!” she shouted.

Alarmed, he spun in both directions.  A man with an odd gun propped on his shoulder and dressed in antique armor from a place and period unknown to Levi, walked towards him.  The end of his gun fanned out like a horn.  The story started over.  John Callis died last and Levi encountered him last.  This individual must be the old soldier whom the woman saw walking repeatedly down the road at night and perhaps one of the first to die.

Levi scrambled to his feet and backed away but never removed his gaze from the approaching ghost.

The ghost, perceiving Levi unarmed and not looking for a fight, proceeded with manners.  “Pardon me sir.  Is this the King’s Highway?  I fear I have lost my ship.”  He asked so politely that Levi did not fear him in the least.

Levi not wanting to waste time or spend any away from Victoria responded cheerfully.  “Yes, indeed this is the King’s Highway my good fellow.  Proceed on your merry down this road and you should find her.”

The ghost smiled, bowed, and then continued.

Levi shrugged his shoulders and beamed at Victoria.  “That was easy.”  He felt a little guilty about fibbing to the ghost but if his plan worked, he would more than make it up to him.

“Make haste!” she whispered and knelt next to a tree.

He wasted no more time.  He jogged across the road and into Doris’ yard.  He noted how ruinous her home had become since John’s loss to the woods and felt more pity for her and for him.  John still searched in vain for his dog hoping that if he found him, his completed task would end his nightmare.  Were his killers right now dragging him through the pine cones and thorns or did he rest in the muck beneath the stagnant waters of the pond?  How would the agonizing cycle end for him; for any of them?

Levi pulled out his Bible and held it against his thudding chest.  He knelt and prayed for his own safety and for that of his family.  He prayed for strength and the ability to help Victoria.

He opened his eyes and with confident determination, waded through the grass of Doris’ yard and approached an old tool shed behind her house.  He eased the door open and peered inside.  His flashlight no longer worked but as his eyes grew adjusted to the dark he saw in the musty darkness what he needed.  He grabbed the shovel and scraped it through the tall grass to remove the cobwebs and spiders resting on it.  He sprinted to the spot of the woods from which he exited.

Doris drew back her kitchen curtain and watched him hop the ditch and disappear into the darkness.  She shook her head and sighed heavily.  She knelt and for the first time in a long while, prayed.

Levi threw the shovel across the ditch, jumped over and rolled through the pine straw.  He grabbed it and called for Victoria in a hoarse whisper but she did not answer.  He moved around in and out of the trees growing more panicked as he called out for her louder and louder as he searched.

“Victoria……VICTORIA!”  He moved through and around the neighboring trees but he could not find her.  He felt like a terrified parent who had lost their child at an amusement park; fear stricken and helpless.  He scoured the immediate area, his heart thundering in his chest.  Victoria was correct, they did lose each other.  Where had she gone?  Was she as terrified and alone as before when he first found her?  Positive she vanished, he sprinted with shovel in hand towards her Old House hoping to once again find her there.  His shovel clanged each time the metal struck a tree but he had no time to worry with stealth.

She could not have run there in the time he spent searching for the shovel but he didn’t believe she would run to her house willingly.  She may be connected to the house he guessed and when he left, it pulled her back.

His sluggish legs provided little propulsion.  Several times he fell as he crashed through the woods which felt so much deeper to him now but he would not abandon her!

 

Victoria woke to find herself lying sideways on a dusty floor.  Sitting up she wiped the grit from her face and brushed her hands on her dress. She scanned the darkness to determine her surroundings.  “Levi?” she called out but he didn’t answer.  She stood and recognized at once her old room.

“Levi?” she called a little louder and ran to the window.  The woods revealed no sign of life and she saw no sign of him in the backyard.  Her worst fears overwhelmed her.  Once again she stood alone.  She fell onto the floor and sobbed into her dress, gasping like a wounded creature.  Her stomach twisted and her arms trembled.  She despaired once again taking care of herself.  She couldn’t endure the loneliness and horrors of this house or the trees.  Why did he leave me she thought?  Why am I back here?  I don’t want to be alone anymore!  I hate this place!  “I want my mommy and daddy,” she screamed inside her head!  Please take me away God!  Please!

Her arms shook as she crawled on all fours towards her door like a sad, punished child locked in her room.  She fumbled for the porcelain door knob, popped the door open then willed herself in the same manner to the top of the stairs.  She sat on her bottom and slid down the steps while holding onto the banister.  Where did Levi go?  Will I see him again?

She didn’t know what to do or where to go but she wanted to get out of her house.  She thumped to the bottom and again crawled through the darkness towards the front door, too grief stricken to walk.  She didn’t know in what direction to head once outside.  She refused to enter the woods alone and she didn’t want to linger in the lonely darkness of her old home.  What could she do but sit in her front yard and cry much as she did when Levi first found her.

She took a deep breath.  He will find me.  He promised.  He will come straight to the house.  She wiped a tear with her dusty hand.  She scrambled to the front door on all fours anxious to get outside and wait for him.  Hope and faith that he would fulfill his promise kept her moving.

The room to her right groaned.  She froze and cocked her ear in the darkness to listen.

“Levi?” she whispered.

“No, not Levi,” returned a chilling, familiar voice from out of the gloom.

The floor boards under her hands and knees rocked and twisted as the voice walked towards her.  She froze.  The specter of a man stepped into the dim moonlight that passed through the window on his right.  The short flame of a lantern he held grew to a miniature sun within the glass globe and the orange radiance illuminated the trespasser’s face.

Victoria shuddered.  “Mr. Wilcox!”

The British commander sneered.  “I’ve told you child to address me as Captain Wilcox.”

He stepped towards her.  His greasy hair hung past his gaunt cheeks and lay on his shoulders.  If he were not dressed as an officer, one might mistake him for a vagrant.  His eyes were bloodshot and dark but also angry and determined.

“I thought you died,” she stammered.

“Then consider me a ghost,” he snarled.  “Get up!”  He snatched her shoulders and yanked her to her feet.  “Your mother is no longer here to protect you and neither is my subordinate, Charley.”  His mouth closed to within an inch from her face and she cringed as his foul breath clung to her nose.

Her tears flowed once more.  How could her situation have worsened?

“You’re going to show me where the gold is buried!”

“There isn’t any gold!  It’s not real!”

He shook her so hard her head snapped and she cried louder.  “I know the gold is out there, take me to it or else I will hurt you!”

Her body fell limp and he grew angry as he struggled to hold her up.  He slapped her.  She fell to the ground screaming and clawed her way across the floor towards the stairs.

“Oh God help me!” she sobbed and screamed.

Captain Wilcox stalked her from behind.  The boards creaked with each approaching step.

“Please take me away!” she cried.  She crawled with little energy to the foot of the stairs, too weak from depression and anguish.  “I know you are with me.  I know you can hear me.”

“Who are you talking to?” the Captain sneered.  “Who’s going to save you?”

“I think she’s talking to me!”

Wilcox spun and Victoria turned her head, her eyes wild with hope.

Levi stood three feet behind the Captain and the moment Wilcox spun, Levi struck him in the face with the shovel.

The Captain fell to the ground unconscious and the lantern he held exploded on the floor.  The corner of the house ignited.

“Levi!” Victoria shouted with renewed might.

He ran over, knelt, and pulled her to her knees.  “I’m so sorry I left you.”  He gave her a deep hug then hoisted her off the floor.

“Thank you for coming back for me.  I feared you forgot about me.” She trembled against his chest and wrapped her arms around his neck.

“No, I couldn’t forget about you.  I came right back but you were gone.

“I don’t know how I got here,” she said confused.

“We don’t need to worry about that now, we have to leave,” he explained as they ran out of the smoke-filled room.  “Is that Mr. Wilcox?” he asked surprised.

“Yes.”

They ran onto the porch and Levi set her down.

“Hold my shovel, honey!” Levi said and he ran back inside.

“Where are you going?” she called after him with renewed desperation.  After he disappeared into the smoky darkness she raised her hand and felt the mild inflammation on her face where Captain Wilcox had hit her.

One moment later Levi dragged Captain Wilcox by his boots out of the house.  He yanked him off the porch not caring too much about Wilcox’s face as it thudded on each step, and pulled him a few yards from the house.  The man deserved no compassion but Levi new God preferred he saved him.  Despite being incorporeal, the specters he encountered felt pain, and Levi wanted no part in seeing more of it.

He moved to Captain Wilcox and removed his scabbard and sword but kept an eye on him fearing he might spring awake and grab him.  The captain did not stir.

“Is he dead?” Victoria asked.

“No, I don’t think he can be killed, not for long at least.”  He ran onto the porch now filling with smoke and snatched up Victoria with one arm and in the other carried the shovel and sword.

“I thought he already died?” Victoria asked.  “I saw Charley shoot him.”

“He did die, honey.”

“Is he a ghost?” she asked they ran down the front steps.

“Yes, he’s a ghost,” he replied.

“So, I am a ghost then too?” she asked as they trotted around the corner of the house.

He stopped and squeezed her hand.  “No honey you are something much more special.”

She smiled the way she might at her own father and the two ran to the woods.  She kicked her legs and asked him to stop once more at the small patch of daffodils growing next to the trees.  He lowered her and spun to make sure no one followed.  The fire didn’t concern him but Wilcox’s pursuit did.  He could certainly cause for them trouble if he regained consciousness quickly and Levi didn’t think he had it in him to more severely damage the ghost though he did experience satisfaction in hitting him in the face with Doris’ shovel.

“I lost my flowers when I went to sleep.”

Levi patiently stood as she picked four flowers.   Satisfied with her selection, they ran into the woods.

Chapter 16 – Retribution

Levi and Victoria sat at the entrance to the woods and listened to the digging and conversational roar of the pirates.  She shuddered with each clank of their shovels and bellow of their laughter.  Levi pulled her close and sang a song to her from his time.  She didn’t recognize the tune but it calmed her.  Levi planned to wait until they finished and prayed God would show him the way.

He imagined at the rate time passed, the pirates would finish soon and then he could again begin his search.  The digging lasted no more than minutes before it stopped and all lantern lights vanished.  The sudden silence and darkness scared him more than the sounds of their echoing laughter.  Levi stood and listened but heard nothing; no digging, no voices, not even the sound of the cicadas.  The hair on his neck stood up as he stared into the blackness and he grew aware of how unusually dark it had become as though the moon had vanished.  His heart raced and his increasing paranoia told him something unseen in the dark stared at him.

Erupting from the darkness a shrill, terrified scream punched Levi in the heart.  Another followed and then another.  Levi snatched Victoria, turned and tore through the branches.  She cried and he covered her mouth with his hand.  More screams of slaughter ripped the atmosphere.  He ran beneath a giant Holly tree and lifted Victoria into the low hanging branches.  He climbed next to her and guided her up, scraping and tearing his face along the way.  He chose a Holly, despite the sharp leaves, because of its numerous, strong branches.

“Hold on to my hand!” he said panicked.  “Don’t let go!  It’s going to be okay.”

“What’s happening?” she cried.

“I don’t know but don’t let go.”

“Don’t leave me!” she pleaded as Levi climbed to a branch above her.

“I’m not leaving you honey.  Just giving you room to climb.  Take my hand and try to climb up next to me.”

“I think I can do it!” she replied with determination.  “I can’t see your hand though.”  She waved her hand back and forth hoping to grasp Levi’s but she saw nothing.

A shrill scream mere yards away rattled the darkness.

Victoria raced through the branches on her own to Levi until she grabbed his leg.

“Good Victoria.  We need to go higher now.  Do you think you can climb on your own?  I won’t leave you behind, I promise.  Reach out and feel for the branches in front of you!”

“Yes, I think I can.”

“Okay, I want you to go above me.  Do you think you can?  I will hold you steady so you don’t fall.”

She nodded “yes” which Levi couldn’t see and groped for the branches above her.

She and Levi climbed the tree as fast as Victoria managed while Levi remained below her in case she should fall.

“Is this high enough?” she whispered.

Another pirate cried out in terror and Victoria in response scrambled further until they clung near the top.

“That’s good enough Victoria,” Levi assured her.  He reached into the darkness and groped for her leg.

“Is that you?” she asked.

“Yes, it’s me.  I wanted to know exactly where you were.  We have to be quiet now.”

Once they had climbed high enough above the ground they froze and tried their best to control their rapid breathing.  Levi couldn’t see the branches or the ground for the darkness.  Nothing stirred.  He strained to listen but heard little over his loud breathing.  All remained quiet like something had killed the forest.  No mosquitoes buzzed, no bats chirped, no owls hooted, and the breeze did not breathe.  All creatures, like Levi, feared to move or whisper.

A man at the bottom of Levi’s tree cried out for mercy but his scream diminished to a gurgle as his throat filled with blood.  Victoria slapped her hand over her mouth to muffle her cries.  Levi debated on whether to climb higher but he wouldn’t risk shaking the tree or dislodging a dead branch, so he held on and prayed that whatever killed the pirates would not discover them.

A silent flash of lightning illuminated the terrifying shadow of the storm woman floating above the pirate ship.  She did not scream but Levi knew she caused the horror on the ground.  A few more flashes woke the sky and Levi saw a few men trying to climb back aboard their ship but the vessel rocked above the trees as if a violent tempest hammered it.  Two of the men fell from the ladder to the forest floor.  Within seconds they cried out.

“Help me, Dear God help me!  Please nooooo!”  His voice expired.

 

Inside her home Doris Callis had moments ago turned on the infomercial and raced into her bedroom on legs barely strong enough to support the weight of a five year old.  She had not moved so fast in ten years.  Under her covers she crawled and trembled like a terrified child.  She wanted her husband.  He always comforted her on nights like this.

He removed his shotgun from his closet and sat on the edge of the bed with it pointed at their bedroom door until the sun rose.  She laid there watching him as he smoked one cigarette after another.  He never left her, never made her feel her safety wasn’t his number one priority.

She still pretended he sat at the edge of their bed protecting her as she shook beneath the protection of her sheets.

“Oh Father,” she prayed with her ancient, trembling voice, “please protect me.  Please help me survive this night so I may one day live to find the answers I am looking for?”

 

Lightning burst around the ship and the sails snapped to attention but Levi felt no wind and heard no sound.  The ship rolled and pitched as though tossed on a spoiled ocean and Levi witnessed its destruction through flash bulbs of brilliance.  Men jumping overboard and within a few seconds Levi heard them crash through the branches and hit the ground.  An unseen specter efficiently moved among them and finished off the remaining ghosts.  Levi shook with each terrifying howl.

Skyward the ship fared no better.  One of the masts had broken and dangled from its base along the ship’s side like a splintered toothpick.  The boat began to roll and Levi heard more branches breaking as the dislodged pirates crashed through the trees.

A violent storm swallowed this ship after they had buried William and Mary.  Doomed for their treachery, they experienced the same fate repeatedly above the woods.

The ship floated upside down and as it took on unseen water, it sunk beneath the sky and submerge into the woods.  The boat did not plummet as did the men, rather its giant glowing mass of sculpted clouds sank like a flat pebble.  A few seconds later it rested on the forest floor but it disturbed not a single leaf or pine cone.  The vessel remained still for a moment before settling on its side in between flashes of lightning.  This ghost ship suffering a ghost death instilled more awe, horror and fear than any occurrence thus far.  He remained fixated on the doomed ship fearing that whatever killed its crew would soon find him but with one more flash the ship vanished.  Levi scanned the sky and no longer saw the storm woman.  He closed his eyes and whispered “thank you” to the Lord.

The moon reappeared and once again blessed the woods with its pale glow.  An insect near Levi chirped and then another until the whole woods buzzed to life with the songs of its animals.

He heard nor saw signs of specters on the ground or in the trees around him and felt confident this frightening supernatural episode had ended.  Despite the calming sounds of the insect orchestra, his heart still thumped in his ears.  He had never heard such terror and pain.  What happened to those men who fell to the ground?  What force moved among them and carried such menace?  Would it return to stalk Levi and Victoria or did only the pirates interest it?  If the thing found the pirates in the pitch blackness, it could find Levi and Victoria clinging to the upper branches.

“Victoria,” he whispered but she did not answer.

He grabbed her leg which he now saw in the pale glow and gave it a little shake.

“Is it over?” she squeaked.

“I think so.  Did you see it?”

“I didn’t open my eyes.”

“It was a sight.”  Levi scanned the ground.  “I think it is safe to go down now,”     “Are you sure?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

“Are you going to go down?” she asked.

“Yes, I think so,” he returned.  “Do you want to wait another minute to make sure it is safe?”

“Yes, please.”

“Okay, we’ll wait a couple of minutes and then we’ll go down okay?”

“Okay.”

He put his hand over his heart and breathed in and out deeply.  He closed his eyes and tried to think of pleasant, calming things but every thought that came to mind such as his wife’s embrace or a soft bed on which to lie, only made him more anxious, more desperate to leave the woods.  He decided then to think of the Lord and picture himself and Victoria sitting in his hand as it floated through the trees.  The Lord provided peace.  The Lord bestowed protection.  The more his confidence grew with this thought, the calmer he became until his heart slowed.

“You know you were pretty good climbing this tree.  Did you used to climb trees?” Levi whispered.

“Sometimes.  I was scared.  That’s why I climbed so fast.”

“I was really scared too.  I’m not sure I would be as brave as you at your age.  I don’t know how you have handled all this scariness for so long.”

“How long has it been?” her eyes darted between Levi’s.  “I can’t tell.  Sometimes I fall asleep and when I wake up everything seems different, like I fell asleep for a long time.”

Levi frowned, feeling deeply sorry for her.  “You have lived here for a long time honey but I’m going to send you to a great place where you’ll never be scared again.”  He spoke his promise with more conviction this time.  He started to believe more in himself.

She slapped a mosquito on her face.  “Will there be mosquitoes there?” she groaned.

Levi smiled.  “No, there won’t be any mosquitoes.  There won’t be any pain or suffering.”

“Will I live in my old house again?”

“No, the Lord has prepared for you a mansion in which you can live.  You will see soon enough.  I think it will be greater than anything you have ever seen!”

“I can’t wait!”

“Then what do you say we get out of this tree and see what we can do about getting you out of these woods?”

“Okay.”

They climbed down taking their time not to miss a branch and crash to the ground.  His scratched face throbbed and itched in absence of the adrenalin.

His feet had barely touched the ground before he heard the hollow clang of a bell in the distance.  At this point he would have ignored his curiosity and made his way towards the road but the sound unfortunately came from the road.  The woods had depleted him physically and emotionally and the sound of yet another approaching phantom drained him further.  He felt if he were a few years older the night would have done his heart in as it had poor Tom Pipken’s.  As a result, he did not run.  He had no desire to go deeper into the woods and even less to return to the beach and its dreadful occurrences.  He thus decided to slump behind a tree and wait for the bells to pass.  His decision carried risk.  He didn’t know what drew near, but for some reason, the clanging of loud bells did not stir within him the same dread he had often experienced throughout the night.  He would let the specter pass and once out of earshot, make his escape before more ghosts surfaced.

“I’ve heard that noise before,” Victoria said.  “Those are cowbells.”

“Cowbells?  Cows come through here?”  He then remembered Doris making mention of it.

“Yes, but they won’t hurt you I don’t think.  A man takes them through the woods.”

“What about this man; does he scare you?”

“No, he isn’t scary.  I have never talked to him though.”

“I am too tired to run, Victoria.  Do you think we will be okay if we sit behind this tree and wait for him to pass?”

Victoria shrugged her shoulders.  “I don’t know.  I’m tired too though.”

Levi sat next to the base of a large pine tree and cleared a place with his hand for Victoria to sit.

Levi pulled out his Bible and tried to separate the soggy pages.

“What book are you reading?” Victoria asked.

“It’s a Bible.  Did your mom and dad ever bring one of these to church?”

Victoria nodded.  “We didn’t go a whole lot though because the walk was far and father didn’t like walking through the woods early in the morning.”

“I understand,” Levi replied sympathetically.  He imagined a trip through the early morning darkness may have brought surprises Victoria’s father did not want his family to encounter.  The woods probably terrified him enough but more so when he had to think about the safety of his family.  “It sounds like life in the woods wasn’t always fun.”

She shook her head.

“Would you like me to read some to you?”

“Sure!” she said with her face brightening.

He opened the Book of Joshua for no apparent reason and read the first chapter, stopping occasionally to take account of the cow bells’ approach. When he crossed a tough verse, he stopped and explained it to Victoria which she appreciated.

As he strained to read Chapter One under the moonlight he paused on verse nine and read it again.  He sat up, cocked his ear to listen for the bells which did not sound so far off, and read the verse once more.  “Have not I commanded thee?  Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed; for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”  He paused to absorb the comfort this passage provided during the most horrifying night he ever experienced.  Every attempt he had made to exit the woods frustratingly ended with another ghostly encounter.  Yet he had to be thankful he still lived.  The numerous ghosts he had met thus far provided proof of all those who had died among the trees or on the beach but the Lord walked with him and protected him.  He also had to be thankful for Victoria, the key to Levi’s purpose in all of this.  He understood now the reason she had remained with him but his purpose still eluded him.  He only knew Victoria was a part of it.

“Do you understand what this verse means?” he asked Victoria.

She frowned like an unprepared child called upon by the teacher, “Does it mean I don’t have to be afraid because God is always with me?”

“That’s exactly what it means!  You are very bright!”

She beamed at his compliment.

He laid his head against the tree and yawned.  He had been chased or on the run so often through the night, he did not realize how tired and hungry he had become.

“Are you sleepy?” she asked.

He rubbed his eyes and smiled.  “Yes I am.  I’ve been awake all night.”

“I don’t know how long I’ve been awake.”

“You’ll get your chance to sleep,” he replied and put his arm around her.  “I promise.”

Despite the impending approach of a phantom, he yawned from fatigue.  What a terrible and thrilling night!  How could such a thing only happen to him?  The idea others had entered on numerous occasions and hunted deer seemed reasonable considering the popularity of hunting in the county.  These hunters likely too had seen ghosts unless their appearances were not as common as old locals in the area had proposed.

He did not have long to ponder his theory.  He heard now not only the bells but also the crunch of the leaves and breaking branches as the phantom approached with heavy steps.  The noise grew in strength and he knew they were almost upon him but he dared not look and reveal his position.

He half expected them to walk within feet of his tree but they came into view about ten yards to his left.  A young man and his dog led a pair of cows through a narrow path in the woods.  Where they headed Levi couldn’t assume but the man and his animals strolled through the woods as though he often walked the path.

“How many times have you seen him?” he whispered to Victoria.

“Only about four or five times but I don’t walk into the woods much.  I wanted to see if he would help me but his dog always scared me.”

The dog paused and stared in Levi’s direction.  Levi didn’t make a sound.  He thought he heard the dog growling but he ignored him.  After the dog fell behind a few yards, his owner whistled for him.  The dog looked to his owner then to Levi and hesitated while contemplating what he should do.  He took a step off the path towards Levi than chose to move on and not trouble himself with Levi’s presence.  Levi waited and watched them meander down the path and around the pond.  No ill came of them while he watched.

“Do you know where he goes?” Levi asked.

“I don’t know.  I’ve only seen him going that way.”  She pointed towards the pond.  “I’ve never seen him going the other way.  I tried to follow him once but his dog saw me and barked so I stopped and hid.”

“I don’t know why anyone leads cows through the woods at night.  It seems odd to me.”

Victoria shrugged her shoulders.  “Do you want to follow him, and find out where he goes?” her eyes widened with eagerness.

Levi did not know where else to look for answers so he consented.  “Why not?”

She gave a little joyous clap.

“Do you want me to carry you?

“No thank you.  My legs aren’t tired.  But if the dog chases me then yes I won’t mind if you carry me.”

Levi laughed.

“You can hold my hand though,” she suggested and held it up for him.

“I’d be happy too.”  He took her hand and they walked after the new ghost.

“Can we skip?” she asked.

Levi laughed once more.  “After all we’ve endured you are in the mood to skip?”

“Yes.  We don’t have to be afraid anymore do we?  God is with us.”

“Yes, that is true but we must be careful not to test God,” he cautioned.  “God doesn’t want us to be dumb in how we do things because we think he will save us.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well there are still things that can hurt us.  For instance, we climbed out of our tree, right?  We didn’t jump because we knew we would get hurt.  If we jumped and said, ‘I won’t get hurt because God will save me’ then we are testing God.  You wouldn’t stick your hand in a fire even though you believe in God, right?”

“No,” she answered.

“Neither would I.  If I got burnt that wouldn’t be God’s fault.  He didn’t make me get burnt.  My foolishness burnt me but God has given me the ability to learn so I don’t make careless mistakes.  He gives us our wits and our abilities to avoid harm.  He didn’t scoop us up and put us in the tree did he?”

“No.”

“But he did make it so we climb the tree away from danger right?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“And maybe the darkness though a problem for us blessed us as well.  It kept us hidden from the specter or maybe something else protected us, but whatever, we are still okay.”

“See we have to learn things on our own,” he continued.  “We aren’t puppets God will swoop in and save whenever we put ourselves in danger.  We don’t honor him through hurting ourselves.  He gave us life and he wants us to do our best to take care of it.”

“I guess I understand.”

“Okay, good.  If you don’t, let me know.”

“So you’re saying we shouldn’t skip and let the man know we’re coming.”

“Exactly!” he replied impressed.  “You really are smart.  Maybe after we talk to him, we can skip back.”

“Okay.”

“But we do need to move a little quicker if we’re going to catch him so let’s try to walk faster.”  Levi increased the pace and swung Victoria’s hand up and down.  She giggled and swung his hand in the same manner.

“Okay, okay, maybe I shouldn’t have gotten you started,” he said with a smile, “we have to be quiet now.”  He understood their need to be stealthy but he felt he needed to allow Victoria a little fun.  She had endured so much loneliness and misery over the years that he wanted to inject a little bit of happiness into her life.

As she swung Levi’s arm with her left hand, Levi noticed she maintained her hold on the daffodils he had picked for her.

“Did you carry the flowers up the tree with you?” he asked.

“Yes.  I put them in my mouth so I could use both hands,” she replied with a smile.

“Those flowers are important to you, huh?”

“My dad picked me flowers before he left.  He laid them on my pillow next to me before I woke.”

“So the flowers remind you of your dad?” Levi concluded.

“I guess.  I guess they remind me of my dad and my mom.”  She held up the flowers.  “I pretend each flower is a part of my family.  This big one is my dad.  This one is my mom and this one is me.  I don’t want to lose any of the flowers.”

“I understand.”

They rounded the end of the pond to the other side of the murky water for the first time that evening.  Small frogs hopped from the edge and disappeared with a tiny splash beneath the surface as they approached.

“Look, frogs!”

“Yes, I see them.  Let’s not be too loud okay,” Levi whispered.

“Oh, I forgot.  I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.  It is neat to see frogs.   Especially when they look like a family playing.”

“I didn’t have brothers.”  She hung her head.  “My mom had another baby but he died when he was little.”

“Oh no, I’m really sorry to hear that.”

“Me too.  I wanted to have someone to play with.  My mommy couldn’t have children after he died.”

“Yes, that happens sometimes.  I’m sure your mommy was sad.”

“My father too.  I think he wanted a boy.”

“Some dads want boys especially when they already have a girl,” Levi replied.  “I’m sure he loved you very much!”

“He did,” she replied with no doubt in her voice.  “Do you want boys?”

“A boy or a girl would make me happy although I’m not sure I can afford either one.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well I don’t have enough money to get all the things a little baby needs.”  Levi thought of all Victoria didn’t have and how he could easily afford a child if his families’ demands were no greater than Victoria’s.  She wore the same dress over and over and yet he and his wife had numerous outfits so they could wear something different every day of the week.  Victoria held her greatest treasure, three flowers she had picked for free.  What treasures did he and his family seek: a larger house, a better car, a bigger tv?  All those things cost thousands and in the end they would hold them no dearer than Victoria held her free flowers.

“When my dad left, my mom and I didn’t have much money either.  She wanted to buy me new shoes but couldn’t.”

Levi eyed her bare, dirty feet as she walked through the pine straw and prickly holly leaves and gave thanks for his good fortune.  His family had a house, heat, food, clothing, electricity; all the essential necessities this girl could not dream of having and yet he worried constantly because he could not provide all the extras.  He consistently compared himself with those around him, those who had obtained or achieved more in life than he, and because he did this, a sense of inadequacy poisoned him.  If he focused more on what he already had, he might feel more fulfilled.

“Would you like me to carry you now?”

She didn’t reply.  She pointed straight ahead.

Levi followed her finger and saw two cows standing alone about fifty feet ahead of them.

Levi picked Victoria up and held her close.  He spun looking for the young man and his dog.  They stood behind him and stared at Levi and Victoria.  Obviously, the man heard them coming and hid but the open way Levi and Victoria walked gave the man no cause to accuse them of trying to sneak up on him.

“Hello,” Levi said.

“Hello,” the man answered.  Acne spotted his cheeks and a soft stubble grew from his chin.  He wore denim pants and a checkered, collared shirt which hung un-tucked over his waist.  His eyes darted between Levi and Victoria.

“I am Levi and this is Victoria.”

“I’m his daughter,” Victoria said proudly, maintaining the charade started earlier with Tom Pipken.

“Yes,” Levi agreed with a laugh as he set her down.  “Your dog is nice?” Levi asked.

“Oh yes,” the young man said petting his dog and relaxing a little.  “He won’t bother you.”

“We were walking through the woods and heard your cow bells so we thought we would take a walk to see what was making all the noise.”

“Those are my momma’s cows.  I’m bringing them back from grazing in the fields.  My momma does not have suitable pasture for them near her home.”

Levi nodded his head.  “I see.  Well we had never heard cows in the woods before so we were curious.”

“We live in the old house over there,” Victoria said.

The man turned.  “Which old house?  The only house I know of is the Old Haunted House at the other end that no one lives in.”

Victoria frowned in her confusion.

“What she means is,” Levi explained trying to cover, “is we live in an old house outside of the woods.  We don’t live in Old House Woods.”  Levi put his hand on Victoria’s head and stroked her hair.

“Ahhh,” he replied.

“May she pet your dog?” Levi asked trying to change the subject.

“Oh sure, he likes people!”

“Do you want to pet him Victoria?”

She smiled and nodded then strolled up to the dog.  The dog took a step back and bowed his head as she approached but she bent down to ease his concern and the dog immediately trotted to her with his head lowered and tail wagging.  She giggled and clapped her hands in front.  He fell over and bared his stomach.

“He likes his tummy rubbed.”  The young man blushed, embarrassed by his dog’s solicitation.

Victoria scratched the dog’s stomach and he kicked his leg.  When she stopped, he stared at her with his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth, then flipped over and licked her on the face.

“Ew!” she giggled and pushed him.

“Okay Jasper,” the young man said and pulled him back a little.

Victoria stood and clapped her hands for the dog to come to her.  The dog ran with his tail swishing and put his front paws on her dress.  She struggled but laughed as she held him upright.

Levi enjoyed watching her have so much fun.

“Will there be dogs in heaven?” she turned and asked Levi.

The young man smirked.

“Yes, there will be honey.”

“Well let’s hope none of us get there too soon,” the young man said smiling.

Victoria who eagerly wished to go frowned at what she thought to be a strange statement.

“Well I need to get going and get the cows into the barnyard before my momma sends a search party looking for me.”

“Of course. Nice meeting you.”

Victoria pet the dog one final time.  “Good-bye Jasper,” she waved.

“C’mon boy,” the young man called and ran over to his cows.  The dog pranced after him with tail high in the air.  Levi watched him lead the cows through the woods until he disappeared but he never witnessed anything bad happen to him and he couldn’t figure why he, the dog, and the cattle still lingered.

Chapter 15 – Expert Treasure Hunter

Victoria and Levi began their walk into the woods.  She held Levi’s hand with her left and in her right hand she clutched the daffodils he had given her.  She barely stood above his waist but for the first time in over two hundred years, she feared nothing.  She had a renewed sense of hope holding Levi’s hand and looked forward to spending time with someone whom she believed God had sent to protect her.

Levi had no idea where the beginning started but he knew it must begin in the woods.  He held a stick out in front of him to knock down the webs and walked in the direction of the beach.  The woods frightened him and the beach exhausted him but he wanted to help Victoria more than he recalled wanting to help anyone so yet again, he journeyed through.  Levi had no confidence.  If God had told him to help Victoria, then he would meander around all night confident the answer would present itself, but he had no vision.  He had no assurances he could help her in the least and he felt sick when he thought about leaving her behind.

Victoria however appeared to have all the faith in the world as she swung Levi’s hand and hummed the same tune she had earlier when Levi watched her sit on her log near the woods.

“Do you pray?” she asked.

Levi smiled.  “Maybe we should use our quiet voices in the woods.”

“I think our footsteps are louder than our voices,” she whispered.

“Yes, you are probably right,” he conceded with a light laugh.  “You are a bright little girl.  Yes, I do pray.  Do you pray?”

“No, but my mother prayed a lot.  She prayed for my dad all the time.  She was scared for him.”

“I pray for my family for the same reasons your mom prayed for your father.  She wanted the Lord to keep him safe.”

She stopped and he paused with her, patient with curiosity.  She tugged on his shirt and beckoned for him to lean closer.  “Will you pray for me?” she whispered.

He knelt with her again and parted her hair.  “I will definitely pray for you.”

“Do you think He will hear you?” she asked worried.

“God always hears the prayers of those who have faith in him,” he assured her.

“I don’t know God,” she whispered.  “Maybe that’s why I am not in heaven.  If you tell him I’m here then maybe he can come get me.”

Levi pondered her words and felt a sense of renewed strength within him.  Victoria’s faith in Levi mirrored his faith in God and because of her faith he believed he truly could send her to heaven.  He had a choice to either save Victoria or leave her behind, and for Levi, he told himself he had but one choice.  He didn’t know how to get her out but before him stood a little girl who wholeheartedly believed he would.  Such faith moved mountains!

“God is everywhere honey.  He knows you are here.  If you believe in him as your mother believed in him, as you believe in me, he will receive you.  He loves you every bit as much as your mother and father because you are as much a daughter to him as you are to your mommy and daddy.”

She grinned as a child does when they are safely tucked in at night.  “I can’t wait to see them again.  I’m so excited!”  She shook and almost laughed with excitement.

“I’m excited for you.”  He stood, took her hand, and they walked again.

“Have you ever met God?” she asked.

“No, but I speak with him about certain things.  Problems I am having, things I am thankful for, and stuff like that.”

“Does he talk back to you?”

“Sometimes.  He speaks to people differently.  He doesn’t always use words.”

“Then how do you know what he is saying?”

“Because when you accept God as your savior, someone who will take care of you and take you to heaven, he sends to you the Holy Spirit and this spirit helps you to communicate with God.”

“Wow!” she answered impressed.  “Can you see the Holy Spirit?”

“He’s inside of me,” Levi said pointing to his chest.  “The Spirit shows me what I am to do.  He moves me with a feeling of emotion.  Like if you see someone who is sad you go to that person and try to make them feel better right?  Nobody tells you to do it.  The good in you encourages you to help the person.  Well the Holy Spirit kind of does things in the same way and he helps me to understand what God wants me to do.”

“Does he want you to help me?” she perked up.

“That’s exactly what he wants me to do!”

 

A few minutes of walking expired and they saw the glow of a lantern ahead which Levi figured was the light he saw from the house.  As the wind blew, the lantern disappeared behind a tree as it swayed back and forth.  Levi stopped and pulled Victoria to the ground with him.

“I don’t know who this person is but I think sneaking around him is best,” Levi whispered.

“I have seen him before at night.  He digs a big hole.”

Levi nodded.  No doubt another treasure seeker he thought.  “Here, get on my back.  Maybe we’ll make less noise if only one of us is walking.”

Victoria didn’t need a second invitation.  She jumped on to Levi and wrapped her arms around his neck eager to enjoy her first piggy back ride in a long while.

Levi grabbed a tree and pulled himself upward.  He took his time as he tip-toed his way around the unseen ghost.  If the ghost saw him, Levi would wave and pretend like he didn’t have time to talk to the specter as though he saw an unwelcome friend at the market.

His legs burned as he struggled stepping over logs and branches while carrying Victoria.  She remained silent the whole time but did not take her eyes off the digging man.  A couple of times she patted Levi on the shoulder and pointed out to him the man had stopped.  Levi paused while the man drank some water and continued walking once the ghost started digging.

The man wore a muddy pair of pants and a collared shirt with suspenders.  His sleeves were rolled to his elbows as he dug a hole with his shovel and the sight of his wrist watch indicated to Levi he had leaped through time a great deal.

Levi recognized at once the ghost dug where the treasure was buried.  As he passed, the ghost caught a glimpse of Levi’s shadow through the pine trees and crouched low.

“Who goes there?” he called out.  His head darted side to side and he trembled.

Levi lowered his head and kept marching but did not look towards the ghost.  Victoria turned away and gripped Levi.

The ghost pulled out a small revolver and aimed it at the darkness.  “Tell me who you are or I’ll fire.”

Levi sighed once more in frustration at having been discovered.  He thought the ghost clearly saw him and he did not want to get shot so he turned and pleasantly exclaimed, “I’m no one.  Just passing through the woods.  Continue on with your digging.”  He turned to leave.

“You don’t sound like a pirate,” the man said hearing the voice out of the darkness.  “Who are you?  Did you follow me here?”

“Nope, just taking a walk.  Don’t mind me,” Levi called from over his shoulder and kept walking determined not to let this new encounter side track him despite his curiosity in the ghost’s identity.

“Wait a moment!” the man called after him and he jogged through the woods after Levi.

Levi turned and the man met him with the gun at his side.  He was slender and slightly taller than Levi with a thin beard.  He appeared to be at least ten years older and smelled like a smoker.  He examined Levi in the moonlight with the same curiosity Charley had.  “You are not dressed as a pirate,” he stated half relieved and half pleased.

The statement surprised Levi.  This man lived not in piratical times and yet his statement made evident the fact he had encountered pirates in these woods.

“No, I am not a pirate,” Levi answered.

“That’s a relief,” the man responded.  “I expected to see pirates tonight in these woods like the ones from the old stories.  You do know these woods are haunted right?” the man asked curious as to why Levi wandered through them in the dark if he were not the one haunting them.

“Um, yes that’s what I hear,” Levi answered with a slight smile.

“Then why are you here?” the man asked with a nervous squint in his eye.  He raised his gun and stepped backwards.

Levi held up his hands and Victoria struggled to stay on his back, choking poor Levi in the process.  “I’m not here for anything.  We simply want to leave the woods,” Levi croaked.

The man, feeding off of Levi’s anxiety, pointed his gun at the darkness from whence Levi walked, “Why is something following you?”

“No, no,” Levi reassured him.  “We just want to get home to my wife.”

“What’s on your back?  A girl?” the man asked unable to clearly see Victoria in the shadows.

Levi propped Victoria up and turned half-way so the man could see her but turned away to shield her from the gun.  “This is my daughter.”

“Why bring your daughter in these woods?” he pointed his gun from the darkness back towards Levi.  “What are you two after?”

“We’re not after anything.  She’s only a child!” Levi retorted.  “I’m a writer.  I wanted to write about the woods.  I think I may have heard some of the same tales you heard and I thought they’d make an interesting story.”

“A writer huh?  I suppose then you’ve heard about the treasure that might be buried in these woods?”

“I have heard mention of it, yes.”

“Are you sure that’s not what you’re after?”

Levi scanned the sky for a sign of the Storm Woman.  “Trust me; I’m not after the treasure.”

The man poked Levi in the chest with a small branch.  “Well you seem solid enough so you must not be a ghost.”

Levi smiled at the irony.

“No, I’m definitely not a ghost.”

“Though I wonder,” the man pondered, “if you’d even know if you were a ghost.”

“That’s a good question,” Levi responded and gave it a little thought.  “But I am solid as you’ve discovered by poking me and I am certainly in no rush to scare you as I guess a ghost might try to do.  Thirdly did you ever hear in your tales mention of a ghost like me carrying his daughter through the woods?”

The man relaxed.  “No, I don’t suppose I have.”  He glanced at his gun.  “I can’t imagine this would do me much good if indeed you were a ghost anyhow.”  He tucked the gun away and held out his hand.  “I’m Tom Pipken, expert treasure hunter,” he spoke with a puffed-up chest.

Levi’s eyes widened and his mouth fell open as he knew the name immediately from the stories he had read about the Woods.  Tom Pipken disappeared after entering the woods looking for treasure and all they found of him were his boat and two gold coins.  Tom had evidently fallen fate to the woods and the curse, like the others who had died there, had damned him to wander among the trees reliving his life.

Levi shook his hand.  “My name is Levi and this is Victoria.”

Victoria gave a little wave and smiled.  Tom grinned and vanquished any fear Victoria or Levi had for him.

“Those are some pretty flowers you have there.  You don’t often see those this time of year,” he said scratching his head in puzzlement.  He shrugged his shoulders, “But I suppose I have seen stranger things.  Well Levi would you like something to write about?” Tom asked.

“I really have to be going.  My wife is getting worried,” Levi fibbed.  He did not want to linger in one place for too long.

This did not sink in with Tom as his eyes widened with excitement at the prospect of a professional writer recording his dig.  “Trust me.  You will want to write about this.  I know where the treasure is!  It’s right over there where I’m digging and in a little while I’m sure I’ll get it!

Levi checked the sky and thought, “Yeah if you keep digging you’re gonna get it all right.”

“You know, perhaps it might be best if you leave the treasure alone.  Maybe there is a curse on it,” Levi suggested.

“There are no such things as curses,” Tom scoffed at the idea and laughed.

“And yet you believe in ghosts?” Levi countered.

“Ah but those I’ve seen,” Tom answered with a frightened look in his eyes, “or at least I’ve seen their lanterns in these woods at night rummaging around and looking for their treasure.”

Tom walked back to his hole in the ground and Levi followed though his legs felt heavy.  Tom stood near his lantern hanging from the tree, reached into his pocket and pulled forth two gold coins.  “Look at these!” Tom thrust out his dirty hand.

The coins felt not smooth and perfectly round like today’s coins.  On one side were Roman numerals just as they were described in the newspaper accounts Levi read.  He flipped the coin.  Engraved on the other side was Caesar.

“I found those a month ago on the beach.  That’s when I started looking for the treasure.  This is pirate gold!  Well, pirate gold after they stole it I’m sure.  The pirates buried their treasure in these woods but a storm struck them before they returned for it.  I have been coming into these woods at night searching for the gold but I found no maps or any real mention of where the pirates hid the gold so I nearly quit.  But then I stumbled on them in the woods.  I couldn’t see them but I saw their lanterns and heard them talking and digging.  I sat undercover for a while until they either walked off or disappeared.  I never saw them but I knew from the distance exactly where they stood.”  He pointed to his hole.  “Right here!” he exclaimed.

Levi set Victoria down and the moment her feet touched the ground, she grabbed Levi’s hand.  Levi handed the coins to Tom.  “What if they come back for it while you are here digging?” Levi asked.

“They only appear on certain nights and at certain times of the night.  I figured it out by watching them a few more times from the same spot.  They won’t be here for a while.  I should be done and gone by then,” he pointed to his head impressed with his wits.  “See, expert treasure hunter like I told you.  Now all I need do is dig up the treasure, divide it into the sacks I brought, and then carry them one at a time to my boat on the beach.  I will be out of here before they arrive.”

Levi scanned the darkness for approaching lights.  A sense of dread burned in him.  Tom jumped into his shallow hole and shoveled once more.  Levi recognized Tom had several more feet of dirt to remove to reach his prize.  Levi did not want to linger for so long a time but he did not know how to continue his protests.  Tom had his heart set on Levi writing about him and Tom’s dead state moved Levi to oblige.

“Do you have a pencil and paper to record what I discover?” Tom asked.

Levi guessed Tom must have mistaken him for a news reporter and not a fictional novelist.  He felt around for paper and instead grabbed hold of his Bible.  He pulled it out and sighed when he felt the water logged pages.  The leather cover would not survive the salt water.  His Bible however would become a treasured heirloom if ever he made it out of the woods even if he no longer used it.

He pulled out his notepad and pencil, broken in two pieces, and pretended to write on the soggy paper, just to humor Tom.  Tom’s smile widened.

“You don’t happen to write for the National Geographic do you?”

Levi smiled.  “No, I’m afraid not.”

Tom’s grin faded a little.

“But who knows,” Levi added hoping to lift the ghost’s spirits, “perhaps I can submit my article and they will publish it.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a camera with me to take pictures of you and your discovery but it is too dark for one anyway.”

Tom beamed and kept digging.  Levi’s eyes darted around half expecting one of the old pirates to jump out of the woods and once again start chasing him with a sword or pistol.  The pines swayed and clanked together under the moon but the Storm woman did not show.

He put his Bible in his back pocket and leaned against a tree.  Victoria squeezed his hand.

“Are you from here Tom?”

“Not originally.  I came from Maryland.  I’ve lived here for only a few years.”

“How long have you been an expert treasure hunter?”

Tom laughed and wiped his brow.  “For about one month.”.

Levi smiled, “Since you found those two gold coins?”

“Yep, that’s when I became an expert treasure hunter.”

“What are you going to do with your treasure?”

Tom paused and smiled as though dying to tell someone.  “Well, I’ve always wanted to get married and have a family.  My brother has children but I guess I’ve always been a little too wild to settle down.  Now I’m older and want to plant some roots.  I think with this money I can secure me a pretty young wife and start making little Pipkens; maybe even ones as pretty as your daughter there.  Build a house here, far from these woods of course and maybe open a business.  One I can pass on to my son.”  Tom dug again.  “Yes sir, this treasure is going to make me quite a catch.  You don’t find a lot of colored men who own their own business you know.”

Levi forced a smile and tried to mask the pity.  He knew Tom’s future would never materialize.  By the way events had unfolded all night, he knew Tom’s death drew near and a growing feeling to vomit gurgled in him.

Levi sat next to a tree but in a position where he saw Tom clearly, determined to maintain the ruse that he recorded the details of Tom’s dig.  Victoria slumped next to him and laid her head against his arm.

“Are you tired?” Levi whispered.

She nodded and yawned on cue.

“You can lay your head in my lap if you want.”

“I don’t want to fall asleep.  When I wake up I may not be here.”

He squeezed her hand but said nothing.  He didn’t know what would happen to her but she had remained with him despite his jumps through time and this comforted him.

“You’re not going to fall asleep are you?”

“No honey, I’m not letting you go.”

“Are you married?”

“Yes.”

“Is your wife nice?”

“Yes, she is.  I love her very much.”

She said nothing further.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“What if I am supposed to go home with you?  Will your wife be nice to me?”

“I think I am going to get you out of these woods but if you are to come home with me then I know my wife will be very nice to you.”

“You going to school honey?” Tom called while throwing a heaping pile of dirt out of his pit.

“Not during the summer,” Levi answered for her.  He didn’t know if Victoria ever attended school and so wasn’t sure how she would answer.

Tom smiled.  “I bet you’re enjoying your break and spending some time with daddy.”

Victoria nodded and played along.

“Yeah I remember my summer breaks.  Boy did I not like school.”  He shook his head at the memory of it.  “I can remember leaving for school in the mornings and then hiding out in the woods all day until the kids started coming down the road.  Then I jumped back in with them and my momma thought I had been at school all day.”

“You sound kind of like Tom Sawyer,” Levi mused.

“Yes sir I suppose that’s true.  A black Tom Sawyer though,” Tom said laughing.

Victoria, having been born prior to the publishing of Mark Twain’s book, did not know Tom Sawyer.

“I bet you don’t get in trouble like that?” Tom asked Victoria with a smile.  “I bet you’re a good girl.”

Victoria nodded.

“Yes, she is an angel,” Levi concurred.

Tom smiled and returned to work.  “I’d like to have me a family one of these days.  I don’t care if I have a boy or girl as long as they are healthy.  I reckon though I’ll have so many kids that I’ll eventually get one of each.”  He started to laugh again.  “When I find this gold I’m going to build them a big house.  Maybe I’ll even have a couple of horses.”

Levi once again donned a fake smile, “Sounds like a wonderful dream, Tom.”

Tom frowned as though Levi were the one in need of comforting.  “I’m sure you’ll hit it big as a writer one day and make lots of money.  Maybe even this story will put you on the map.  Make your daughter real proud of her daddy I bet.”

“We’ll see!”

After several minutes Tom’s shovel struck metal with a loud “clink”.  He looked at Levi the excited way you’d expect a man to appear who just uncovered treasure.  Levi crawled to the edge of the hole.  Tom reached into the dirt with his hands and pulled free a small length of chain.  Levi jumped to his feet and Victoria stood with him.

“It’s a chain!” he called with the excitement of a small child opening presents on Christmas morning.  Tom’s veins popped as he pulled and pulled but the chain gave way little.  He grabbed his shovel and hacked at the dirt with renewed vigor.

Tom cleared more dirt and pulled the chain again.  The edge of a wooden chest emerged from underneath the soil as though the earth gave birth to it.

“Here it is!” he shouted.

Levi and Victoria scanned for approaching ghosts.

Tom jammed his shovel under the chest and tried his best to pry it out of the ground.  The handle bent and nearly cracked, so with an impatient sigh he continued digging more dirt from around it.  After several more minutes he threw the shovel down and pulled on the chain once more with great strain in his face.  The chest emerged from out of its hole and lay flat at his feet.  The wood had holes in it but the structure of the chest appeared intact.

“Get your pencil and paper ready Mr. Writer!” Tom exclaimed.

He chopped at the decayed wood with his shovel sucking air like a winded smoker.  Levi despite his fear wanted to see what treasures the chest held.  Once Tom had splintered enough pieces, he reached into the chest and ripped pieces of broken wood from the chest’s top until he had created a large enough hole.  He plunged in with both hands.

“I feel something heavy and metal,” he said with a mild strain in his voice.

“Can you pull it out?”

“Yes, almost got it.”  He pulled forth his hands and held before him a rusted ball of iron the size of a softball.  He scraped away the soil hoping gold might peek through but saw nothing more than a common cannon ball.  Disappointed, he tossed it aside and reached once more into the chest.  To his dismay he pulled forth once again another ball worth nothing more than a good story as to how it was discovered.  Tom pitched this one aside and busted a larger hole in the top of the chest with his shovel.

“Hand me that lantern!”

Levi lowered it into the hole and Tom shined it over the broken chest.  He sighed deeply.  “There’s nothing in here but old balls and shot.  Why in the hell would pirates take the time to bury this?”

Levi knew the answer and he felt foolish for not realizing how obvious it should have been.  Pirates didn’t bury treasure.  What fool did such a thing?  The chests prevented Mary and William from escaping.  No treasure existed here and yet how many people died seeking it?  How many people entered these woods in search of wealth after hearing a fairy tale?

Tom turned the chest over.  Nothing but a pile of shot and cannon balls rolled out to his dismay.  He reached for the chain and pulled on the other end.

“I bet there’s something attached to the other end of this.  Maybe it’s another chest,” he said straining.

“Um, perhaps that isn’t a good idea,” Levi suggested.

The dirt gave way and Tom fell backwards as an object flew free from the soil and landed next to him.  Tom brushed off the dirt and held the lantern over it.  He held in his hands a femur bone and on the ground at his feet laid the remains of a foot broken free from the bone as he pulled on the chain.  He threw the bone in disgust and in a panic clawed at the sides of the pit.

“These woods are cursed!  There is a dead body in this hole!” He clawed at the sides to escape what felt like how own personal grave.  “Help me!  Help me!”

Levi reached out and grabbed the man’s sweaty, dirty arm and yanked him from the hole.  Victoria clung to Levi’s waist.

“There isn’t treasure here, just death!  Help me fill in this hole before the pirates see what I’ve done!”

Tom grabbed the tip of his shovel handle and pulled it out.  He threw heaping mounds of dirt onto the old chest and bones.  He paused for a moment with his chest heaving and pleaded Levi for help.  “Please help me, brother!”

Levi seized a thick branch and scraped in the dirt the best he could with one hand.  Victoria released Levi, knelt and pushed in small handfuls.  They grunted and strained until they had filled the hole but it clearly appeared disturbed.

“We have to get out of here!  I’m sorry I asked you to stay!” Tom exclaimed.  He held his left arm in pain.  “Get on to your wife and kids before the ghosts come!  I’m going back to my boat!”  Tom snatched his lantern and shovel and fled without a farewell.

“Where is he going?” Victoria asked.

“To his boat I think.”

“The person in the hole; did something bad happen to them like it did to me and Charley?”

“Yes honey, something bad happened to them,” he replied staring at the soft dirt.

“Did they go to heaven or do you think they are still stuck here like me?”

Levi’s heart sunk.  He had never considered they had not passed onward and his skin crawled.  What if they lingered near?

“I want to go!” Victoria pulled on his arm.  “Why is he running away so fast?”

He caught one last glimpse of Tom’s lantern before it disappeared.

Levi snatched Victoria and ran after Tom but not along the same route on which Tom fled for fear pirates might appear in his path on their way to the treasure which, unbeknownst to them, didn’t exist.

“Where are we going?” Victoria asked.

“We need to make sure Tom is okay,” he answered through huffs and puffs.  “His story is almost over.”

His indirect route delayed his arrival on the beach.  Tom already sat in his boat smacking at the water with his paddle when Levi and Victoria emerged into the moonlight.  Levi thought he must have appeared no different the day he fled the creek in his kayak after hearing a branch snap.

“Go home!” Tom tried to shout but he couldn’t muster the breath.  He stopped rowing and motioned with his hands for Levi to leave.  “Get out of here,” he tried to say, but he had no gas left.

Levi ignored Tom’s waves.  He set Victoria into the sand then fell on his knees next to her, fixated on Tom’s position.

The sound of harp music drifting on a delicate breeze once again reached Levi’s ears as it had when he first spotted the Spanish galleon.

Tom heard it first and peered over the water.  The same Spanish galleon Levi saw earlier manifested over the creek and floated towards Tom’s boat.  Its hull and sails appeared light and wispy as though fabricated them from clouds.  Levi had seen the real ship as it existed hundreds of years ago and now witnessed the spectral version that even today still haunted these woods and one Tom Pipken evidently encountered on the night he fled the treasure.

Victoria cried out and wrapped her arms around Levi.  Levi, too paralyzed with awe, failed to seek cover for them.

Tom shouted an obscenity and smacked the water in panic with his oars to remove his boat from the ship’s path but little strength remained in his arms and lungs.  One oar lock came loose from his boat and Tom dropped the oar in the water.  He scrambled to the side to retrieve it but in doing so he released the oar in his other hand.  It too disappeared into the water.  The ominous ghost ship approached like a storm front and the harp music grew louder.  Tom grabbed his shovel and plunged it into the water.  For a few seconds he achieved a little propulsion, but the ship fell upon him and fear struck him in the heart.  He dropped the shovel and grabbed his arm.  The intense pain pulled him downward and he sat on the edge of his boat aware of nothing other than the immense stabbing agony slicing through his chest.  The moment he sat, the boat tilted heavily to one side and he fell into the creek.  If the pain had not stricken him so violently, he never would have made such a novice boating mistake.

Tom did not resurface; he had no struggle left and he sank beneath the water as the faint shadow of the ghostly ship passed over him.  The coins he had discovered on the beach remained inside the boat destined for members of the community to find.  The town recovered no remains of Tom.  Local fisherman pulled his boat ashore and left it to rot out of superstitious fear.

Levi held Victoria close, stroked her hair and rocked her as she cried into her chest.  Levi said a prayer for Tom.  His dream of having a wife and child never came true.  He died from fear as had another pirate earlier in the night when he fled from the storm woman.

To his left the pirate ship rose and glided through the tall pines.  Tom’s death so depressed Levi he paid little attention to the phenomenon.  The ship emitted no glow but the lanterns of a few crew members pacing on deck lit the trees as they passed.  Shouted orders echoed over the deck as the ship slowed and came to rest hovering sixty feet or so in the open air and moonlight.  The tops of the trees swayed to and fro through the hull of the ship like sea grass in the ocean.  The anchor chain roared as it plummeted through the trees and struck the floor of the woods with a loud clang.  Levi heard a few more voices barking commands.

He carried Victoria, who still clung to him crying, to the water to get a better perspective.  The spectral ship floated in front of the moon but its ethereal form hid the moon’s radiance no better than a sheet of worn wax paper.  The hull and sails now glowed with a golden brilliance.  The ship rocked and swayed in mid-air and at times even turned as though it battled the waves of real water.  Ghostly figures climbed over the railing and disappeared behind the trees as they descended to the ground.

“Those are the pirates,” Victoria hissed.  “We have to hide!”

The sight of ghostly, brutal spirits spilling over the side of their phantom ship chilled them and any normal person might flee and drown themselves in the Bay.  Levi however had endured so many frightening experiences over the course of the evening they had nearly numbed him … nearly.  He wasn’t so foolhardy as to stand in the open on the beach, but he also knew the pirates remained fixated on seeking their mythical treasure; the bounty that did not exist.  They would not disturb him if he did not disturb them.

“We will hide,” he said to her.  “I will protect you.”

Levi left the beach, once more ran into the woods and decided never in his life to set foot on the beach again.  As he neared the trees and the wind died, he heard the gruff arguments of digging pirates.

Chapter 14 – Victoria

Levi stroked through the water with his heavy arms and fatigued legs.  Running in terror most of the night had taken its toll but the desperation to find Victoria pushed him.  He had an overwhelming urge to save her even though she was dead and in no real danger.  The sight of her standing on the darkening beach, alone and crying, hurt him and he felt the need to somehow save her.  When the water became too shallow to swim, he stood and waded the remaining way and then staggered along the shore in his sopping wet clothes.

She had at least a ten minute head start on him and he had no way of finding her other than to call out her name which he felt reluctance in doing.  He did not want to bring undesired attention to his presence from less hospitable spirits.  He wandered through the dark on the path which wasn’t a path at all but mostly a familiar and easy way to get to and from the beach.  It changed in appearance each time he tread upon it as time advanced forward.

“Victoria,” he whispered in the dark.  He heard nothing.  “Victoria,” he tried a little louder.  No sound but the light, annoying buzz of mosquitoes in his ear.  He trotted a few steps to avoid them and heard the sudden burst of footsteps running from him through the woods.

“Victoria?” he called a little louder but when she didn’t stop or answer, he ran after her.  He could not see her well, but heard her frantic rustling in the dark.  His pursuit must terrify her, he thought and as he continued to chase her, he considered stopping.  Clearly she ran from him and he did not wish to scare her further but he couldn’t leave the woods without consoling her misery.  She existed like the rest; trapped, alone and terrified.

He struggled in his run and within minutes he had to stop and rest.  The swim across the creek and his wet clothes proved to be an exhausting adversary.  He leaned against a tree to catch his breath and heard the rustling of her feet diminish.  He physically couldn’t maintain her pace in his weakened state, so he decided to walk the remaing way and hoped to find her once more.  Perhaps she returned to her house; the last place with any good memories she remembered.

He trudged through the woods not possessing much energy or patience to tip-toe from tree to tree.  For the first time that evening, self-preservation did not propel him more than a grim eagerness to help the little girl.

He stopped periodically to catch his breath and listen for sounds of her running, but he heard nothing.  The woods stood still….for now.

He removed his shirt and twisted it to remove the excess water.  He would have done the same with his pants but he felt as though something always watched and he didn’t want to get caught in a predicament where he had to suddenly run through the woods in only his underwear.

He chose a long stick, not for defense as it offered little protection against musket balls and sabers, but to knock down unseen spider webs standing in his path.

He wished he had brought along a granola bar or a bottle of water.  His stomach growled and his mouth felt like a paper towel had been crammed into it.  His wet pants chafed the inside of his legs.  His feet squished out water through his shoes with each step.   He may have considered himself to be in a miserable state if he had time to think it over but finding Victoria preoccupied him.

The clearing to her house came into view.  He paused on the fringe of the woods before entering, listened and searched for her but saw none.  Next to the edge grew a small patch of daffodils which normally bloomed in the spring but the high degree of heat and strong presence of mosquitoes suggested that spring had ended months earlier.  The daffodils should no longer grow and he speculated whether they remained alive just for Victoria.

He stepped into the open and listened.  At first he heard nothing but as his ears grew more adjusted to the quiet as one’s eyes do with the dark, he heard her faint whimpering.  He walked to the front of the house and heard her cries grow louder.  He tip-toed to the corner and peered into the yard.  Victoria knelt in front of the house, holding a withered daffodil and wept.  She appeared as a lost child in a crowded mall who had lost her parents; fearful and all alone.  Her long hair covered her face and scraped the ground.

Levi contemplated how to approach her.  If he simply sauntered up to her she might run screaming and the last thing he wished was to scare her further.  He turned and jogged to the woods to where the daffodils grew.  He picked the two healthiest flowers for her then trotted back to the house.  He poked his head around the corner again.  She still cried.

Lacking a subtle way to approach he stepped out from the corner into the front yard and held out the flowers before him.  She did not see him at first so he cleared his throat to gain her attention.  She jumped to her feet and turned to run but when she caught a glimpse of the flowers she faltered.  “Charley?” she asked.

“No, my name is Levi but I knew Charley.  He would want you to have these flowers.”

She didn’t answer and stared cautiously at Levi while he eased towards her.  Feeling like a predator stalking his prey, Levi stopped advancing and knelt to appear less intimidating.  He held the flowers out for her to receive.

“I just picked them from behind the house.  Please have them if they will cheer you up.  I am a friend, a good guy,” Levi explained.  “I don’t want to scare you.  I want to help you if I can.”

She still said nothing but she did not run either which Levi felt encouraging.

A few of her home’s windows had holes or missing panes.  The front porch lacked a board leading to the door and the weather had disintegrated most of the paint.  Levi contemplated if seeing her home in such a ruinous state caused her sadness.

“Do you want to go inside?” he asked

She nodded and wiped away a few tears.

“But you are afraid to?” he guessed.

She nodded again and shook as though she might once more come undone.

“I will go in with you if you want.  I will look inside to make sure it is okay.  Don’t cry.  Everything will be all right.  Is there something inside you need?”

She nodded again without a word.

“What do you need?” Levi asked seizing on the opportunity to gain her trust.  “Maybe I can find it for you.”

“I need my mommy,” she replied gently.

Levi’s shoulders sagged.  He felt so badly for the child.  Her mother clearly no longer lived in the house.  Perhaps her child’s death broke her heart.  He remembered the many nights he cried beneath his covers because he did not get to see his mother.  He now felt an even greater connection to Victoria as he knew how lost and terrified she must feel without her mom.

He didn’t know how to help her.  How should he explain to this sweet, lonely little child her mother had left?

“I don’t think your mommy is here anymore, honey.  I don’t think anyone lives here.  Do you know why no one lives here?” He spoke with a sympathetic pain in his voice.

The little girl shook her head and covered her face as she began to cry again.

Levi wanted to rush and hold her but considered how she might react to his embrace so he restrained himself.  He didn’t know how to console the child with words only as he always consoled his wife with an embrace.  She cried and cried in anguish so finally he concocted a story.

“Your mommy sent me to get you,” he assured her.

She uncovered her eyes, brushed the tear soaked hair from her face, and inhaled a gulp of sniffly air through her nose.

“That’s how I knew where to find you.  She said you would be here waiting for me.”

“Where is she?” Her voice trembled.

“Your mommy had to go to heaven to be with God but she wants you to be there with her.”

She took her brown shirt sleeve and wiped it across her eyes.  “Is that where my daddy is and Charley?”

“I’m not sure honey.  I haven’t talked to your daddy but I don’t think Charley is there right now.”

“I saw you and Charley in the water.  I saw him get hurt.”

Levi nodded and guessed Charley’s death caused her to cry earlier when he saw her across the creek.

“I’m sorry you had to see that.  I wanted to help Charley like I want to help you.”  He held out the flowers.  “Charley did tell me you liked flowers so I picked these for you.”

She took a small step toward him.

“I promise I will take care of you.  I will keep you safe.”

She ran over and grabbed the flowers and pulled them to her nose.  Levi beamed and tried to look her over but she unexpectedly jumped to him and wrapped her little arms around his neck.  Her hug stunned him but he embraced her with equal enthusiasm as though she belonged to him and he didn’t let go.  She laid her head on his shoulder like an infant and he lifted her into the air and rocked her the way his mother once did for him.  He pressed his head to hers and smelled her soiled hair.  Though a ghost, she smelled and felt alive.  She also experienced all the fears and terrors a normal seven-year-old would if left behind in the woods alone amongst terrible and treacherous villains.  She had experienced two centuries of frightfulness.  How many times as a ghost did she cry as she watched Charley die on the beach?  How abandoned did she feel when all that remained were the ominous lights of greedy men as they dug for their treasure and the terrifying wail of the storm woman?  Did Victoria wander her house even after her mother departed?  Levi offered to her the first real comfort and protection in over two hundred years.  For the first time in a long while, she felt able take a break from worrying about herself and allow another to worry about her as most children are allowed.

“My name is Levi,” he reminded her with a whisper.

“I’m Victoria,” she whispered.

“Are you okay now?”

“No.”

“Okay,” he smiled and carried her over to the porch and sat with her in his lap.  She laid her head on his chest and they continued to rock for a long time under the moon.  Levi feared other ghosts might arrive but refused to let his impatience get the better of him.  He put Victoria first and so they remained there while he comforted her.

“Do you like the flowers?” he asked.

She nodded.

“You know I have two boys around your age.  How old are you?”

“Seven.”

“Seven?” he asked pretending to be astounded.  “Well you are mighty brave for a seven year old!  I think you might be braver than I am.”

“Did you ever lose your mom?”

Levi nodded.  “Yes, but I got her back.”

“Do you think I will get my mommy back?”

“I hope so honey.  I’ll do what I can.”  Levi frowned as he rocked her.  He had no way of delivering on his promise and he would eventually have to leave Victoria as had her loved ones.  He couldn’t take her with him because she couldn’t leave the woods.  Nothing inside crossed to the other side.

“Are you going to go in?”

“I can if you want me to.  Do you want to go with me?”

She nodded.

“Do you want to see if your mommy is in there?”

“She isn’t,” she whimpered with certainty.  “I remember seeing her leave.”

“You saw your mom leave?” he asked trying not to sound too surprised.

“Yes, my daddy and her left in a wagon.  I remember my mommy being very sad when they left.  She couldn’t see me at all before then.  She cried when they drove off.  I ran after her and screamed but she didn’t hear me and I couldn’t catch them.  She turned around but they didn’t stop.  I wanted them to return but they didn’t.  Then someone else came to the house and lived here and I knew I wouldn’t see my mommy again.  The new people left too.”

Levi frowned at the loss and abandonment one so young shouldn’t experience.  He pictured her sitting at the woods’ edge in her brown dress crying as her parents rode out of sight.

“Do you know why your mommy cried?” Levi asked.

“She didn’t want to leave this house.”

“Yes, I’m sure she didn’t,” Levi answered warmly, “but also she did not want to leave you and the memories of you in this house.  Her memories are how she kept you close to her heart and when she left, she felt like she left the memory of you behind.  This made her sad.  Your mother loved you very much and when she left I don’t think she knew you stayed.”

“Where did she think I was?” the little girl asked confused.

“Well do you remember the day Charley started fighting with the other soldier and Charley shot him?”

“Yes, I remember.  Mr. Wilcox pointed his gun at me and told my mom she had to go into the woods or he would kill me.”

So that is what happened!  What kind of man pointed a gun at a child?

“Charley became angry at this didn’t he?”

“Yes.  He pointed his gun at Mr. Wilcox and the two started yelling at each other.  Mr. Wilcox said, ‘I’m going to kill you too, Charley’ and I started to cry.  I tried to run and when I did Mr. Wilcox tried to grab me but Charley shot him.”

Levi sighed with sympathy for the horrors the little girl witnessed.  “I’m sorry.  You shouldn’t have to see such things.”

“I ran out of the house and into the woods.”

“Do you remember what happened after?”

“No.  I didn’t run far because Charley always told me to stay out of the woods because bad things lived inside.  I stopped and and turned around to go back but then I heard more guns.  I don’t remember anything else.”

Levi pursed his lips thinking of how best to explain a young, dead child’s situation to her.  “Well sometimes things happen to people; bad things that make people cry.  Remember when you saw Charley get hurt on the beach?  Charley had a bad thing happen to him.”

Puddles formed in her eyes as she listened.

“When you ran into the woods, your mom thought something bad happened to you the same way something bad happened to Charley, and I think she thought you went to heaven too.  When you came back she couldn’t see you anymore.”

“Why not?” Her voice still trembled at the thought of losing her mother two hundred years after it happened.

“Because when the bad thing occurred honey, part of you, the part your mom can see, stayed here and the part of you your mom can’t see, the part meant for heaven, also stayed here.  The part she could see was hurt badly and your mommy realized you had probably gone to see God.  But the part of you your mommy thought went to Heaven stayed here, only your mommy can’t see that part of you.  Most people can’t.”

“Why didn’t I go to heaven?” she asked like a child not invited to her best friend’s party.

“I’m not sure honey.  Maybe God wanted you to watch over your mom.”

“But she left ages ago?”

“I know she did honey.  I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer for you but now I think maybe God wants me to watch over you,” he replied with a comforting smile.

“Why aren’t you in heaven?”

“It’s not my time to go yet,” he replied with a smile.  “I still have a wife at home who needs me and I think God has a few things for me to do before I go home to him.”

“Do I need to go with you?” she asked with a brightening face.

She had the same hopeful smile Charlie had when he too thought he might leave the woods.  Levi would take her if possible but nothing crossed the road.

“I think I need to stay here with you until we get you to your mommy!” he answered with a pounding doubt in his heart.  He had no confidence in his success and the more time he spent with Victoria the more he struggled with the thought of leaving her.

“Have you been inside since your mom and dad left?”

“A few times.  The other people who lived here had a little boy and sometimes I snuck into his room at night and played with his things.  I cried when they left too.  After they left no one came to live.  I think the woods scared them.  I didn’t go into the house anymore because I’m afraid of the dark.”

“Are you ready to go in now?”

“Can I hold your hand?”

“Of course.”

He stood her on the porch then took her warm little hand and walked inside.  The spooky house smelled like the top of his father’s barn.  He saw no furniture but an old iron wood stove remained.  A few of the floor boards wobbled and creaked as they walked over them.  They stood in what was likely a living room now blanketed in dust.  In the rear of the room he noticed the small window through which he peered when he first came upon the house in the snow.  To the left he saw a small dining room and kitchen.  In the right rear corner of the living room a set of steep steps led to the second floor and to the right he saw a closed door, perhaps to a bedroom.  The paint on spread outward like cracked glass.

“What did your dad do?” Levi asked.

“He had a store in town and then he joined the miltia?”

“The militia?” Levi asked clarifying her statement.

“Yes, that’s what I mean.”

Levi wondered if he ran with the group who forced the British from this house and accidentally killed little Victoria.  If so, where had he been for all those months the British lived in his home?

He held her hand as they investigated the room.

“Charley shot Mr. Wilcox here.”

“Right here?”

“Yes, but he faced that way.”

Levi turned and half expected to see a blood stain on the floor, but those boards were undoubtedly replaced a century ago at least.

“Is there anything you want to see?” he asked changing the subject.

“I want to go upstairs.”

Levi walked to the bottom of the stairs and flipped the light switch on the wall but as he suspected, it did not work.

“It’s pretty dark up there,” he said.

“Are you scared?”

“No, but it is going to be pretty hard to see.  I don’t want you to be scared.”

“I won’t be if you don’t let go of my hand.”

He held her hand as they climbed the steep, wooden stairs into the small room above.  The ceiling left only enough room for a young teen to stand and the sides sloped with the roof.  Windows sat on the north side and on the east side facing the woods.

“Did you sleep in here?” he whispered.

“Yes, but this is where the soldiers slept when they stayed with us.  They all slept on the floor here.”

“Even Mr. Wilcox?” He didn’t believe an officer slept on the floor with his subordinates.

“No, he slept in my mommy’s room.”

Levi frowned, postulating that Mr. Wilcox had taken advantage of too much.  “Where did you sleep then if the soldiers slept here?”

“Usually downstairs by the fire.”

Levi peered through the window.  In the distance he thought he saw a light but it disappeared.

“Before the soldiers came, I sat here and watched all sorts of lights in the woods.”

“You saw lights?  Were you ever scared?”

“At first, but daddy told me the Lord protected us.”

“How long have you seen the lights?”

She thought about it for a moment.  “I guess ever since I’ve lived here.  I don’t go near the lights.  I hide behind trees.”

“Why do you go into the woods Victoria?”

“I don’t know.  I was lonely.  I guess I wanted to find someone like you.”

Levi smiled.  “I understand.”  He peered through the window again for a sign of the light but saw none.  “Do you want to go down to your mother’s room?”

“Yes please,” she took his hand with a smile.

He led her down the steep stairs and held the railing with his left hand and her with his right.

Levi turned the doorknob and peeked in.  The room appeared as dark and empty as the second floor.  He gave the door a gentle nudge and it creaked open on its own.

“My mommy and daddy’s bed used to be right there,” she said pointing into the darkness.  “Sometimes I climbed into bed with them on really cold nights.”

Levi thought about doing the same thing when scared or did not feel well but when his father woke he made him sleep on the floor.

He knelt next to her.  “Victoria, I’m going to do whatever I can so you can see them again.  I’m just not sure where to begin.  I thought maybe I would find a clue in this house but…”

“It’s okay.  I’m just happy you are here.”

Levi smiled.  She had at least taken a little of the pressure off him.  “You are a remarkable little girl!”

“You know when I lost something my daddy told me to start at the beginning.  I never knew what he meant but maybe it will help you.”

Levi considered the trees and sighed.  He knew the beginning existed within the woods but the thought of re-entering sickened him.  If he had not seen Victoria and felt the need to help her, he would now be speeding in his car, half-way home but presently he’d rather be nowhere than at this little girl’s side.  “Well I guess it is worth a shot.  You will have to come with me though.  I don’t want to leave you behind here.”

She nodded her head vigorously, “I want to come with you!  I don’t want to be here alone.”

“Good!” he took her hand and wrapped his around it.  Let’s go find the beginning.”