Villagers whispered legends about pirates and a midnight burial. So by the light of the moon we set out across a haunted meadow in search of buried treasure...
WHEN WE WERE CHILDREN in Barrett’s Landing, a tiny fishing village in Nova Scotia, one of our favorite pastimes was hunting buried treasure. We would whisper and argue in bed at night about what we would do with all our wealth. It was more than a game: we were convinced that one day we would dig up a treasure chest. After all, throughout Nova Scotia stories abounded about pirates who buried their booty along the coast. Nova Scotia, we believed, was a trove of hidden gold and precious jewels. We were brought up on tales about Oak Island, where some old Spanish coins had been found. The men in our village talked about Oak Island treasure-hunting companies being formed and startling new digging machinery being shipped in. Some thought Captain Kidd himself had hidden his spoils there. And to us children. this theory was the most exciting. Legend had it that Captain Kidd had once put in at a spot about five miles from Barrett’s Landing. Surely he must have buried a chest or two almost on our doorstep. And we dreamed of finding this treasure.
It would have meant a great deal to us to find any treasure, however small.
We were a huge family — thirteen children — and like most people in that part of Nova Scotia in those days, we were very poor. We weren’t really looking for money, though. It was the excitement and adventure of the search that attracted us. Still, when we were very young, the five-mile trip to the Captain Kidd hunting ground was just too far to be made often, and Oak Island was so far away it could only be dreamed about. But we knew of two buried treasures within walking distance of our house. One of them, Bobby Wilson’s treasure, was on our own land, and rightfully belonged to the Wilson family. There are many stories about Bobby Wilson’s treasure, but one in particular appealed to us. and we followed it in all our searches.
Bobby Wilson, we were told, was the first person to settle in what is now Barrett’s Landing, on the eastern shore of Nova Scotia. He lived alone there for many years; the nearest other settlement was about 10 miles away. One winter he became ill. and could no longer work. He wrote to his brother, who had settled on the south shore, offering him the house, the property, and all the wealth he had mysteriously amassed, if his
brother and family would come to live at his house and look after him. It was several months before the letter reached his brother, and several more before his brother could settle his affairs in his own village and set out for Barrett’s Landing. By this time poor old Bobby Wilson was on his deathbed. He managed to gasp out the information that he had hidden his valuables, but before he could tell where they were buried, he died. His brother looked everywhere. So did the next generation of Wilsons, and the next, and the next. The treasure could not be found.
Now it was our turn, and we were sure that we would succeed where our forebears had failed. My sister Ged was the most determined treasure seeker of us all. She was the eldest in the family. She had an imaginative and romantic turn of mind. She used to write tragic poetry and read it to us after we’d gone to oed. Two of my older sisters. Grete and Edna, were invariably reduced to tears. So it was Ged we counted on to lead us to Bobby Wilson’s treasure. It was up to her to choose each day where we would search. Armed with spades, shovels and picks, we would leave the
house early on summer mornings and dig for treasure the whole day through. Ged counted heavily on signs and portents to guide her. One day she would toss a stone inland from the shore and we would dig where it landed. Another day she would see a tree whose branches seemed to point to a particular spot on the ground, and we would dig. Once she and my brother Lew jumped on a big stone and swore that they heard coins jingling underneath — so we dug there.
Luckily we enjoyed digging, and through it all we were constantly buoyed up by hope. Following Ged, we marched from one part of the property to another, and fell to work. Every day brought new omens, new instructions from Ged, and more digging. We were obedient workers, but something was wrong somewhere. The little band of treasure seekers remained loyal and hopeful, but Ged herself became discouraged, and began to doubt the signs. Finally one evening it came to her. The only way to find Bobby Wilson’s treasure was to be Bobby Wilson and hide it!
Early the next morning the Wilson kids assembled, with picks and shovels, just like any other day, waiting for our
WHEN THE GHOST WALKED continued
“A terrible curse will fall,” the note warned. “Beware”
leader. Ged came out of the house, climbing through a back window so that Mama and Papa would not see her. She was dressed in some of Papa’s old clothes, to make her look like Bobby Wilson. We gathered quartz rocks and put them in a canvas bag to represent the treasure. Then Ged walked to the spot on the shore where Bobby Wilson's house used to be and sat for a long time, willing herself into the personality of Bobby Wilson. The rest of us sat on the shore and watched her, a breathless and intense audience. Finally, moaning and muttering to herself, and staggering (don't forget. Bobby was very ill). Ged made her shaky way down the path from the old house toward us. She stumbled to the point where the path crossed a smelt brook, and stopped. Right at that spot there were two huge rocks embedded in the ground. She fell gasping on one of the rocks. It was an eerie but impressive performance. We were convinced the treasure had at last been found.
Skulls for terror
We started work. We tried to move the enormous rocks with our shovels, went back home for crowbars, and then for ropes and chains — but all to no avail. The rocks were so deeply embedded that nothing would budge them. Our old pet horse Bill, which followed us everywhere, stood watching this activity with interest, so we hitched him to the rocks and tried to persuade him to haul them away. But this wasn't Bill’s idea of play, or maybe it reminded him too much of his work-horse days, because he just lay down and waited foins to release him from his harness. We finally gave up. But before we left the rocks that night, Ged wrote a note, put it in a bottle, and buried it beside the rocks. The note said: “All this treasure belongs to Ken Wilson’s children. A terrible curse will fall on any person who steals it. Beware,, Beware.” She signed her name to the note and drew a couple of skulls under her signature to make it all the more terrifying. We all felt relieved after this was done, knowing that we had at least registered our claim.
We worked for several summers, digging a big tunnel under the rocks, but it kept filling tip with seawater, and eventually we became as discouraged as the Oak Island treasure hunters. We turned to another search.
The other treasure was located at a spot known as Mitchell’s Field, about a mile from our home. There were two pieces of evidence — a strange story about three pirates seen digging there at night, and a flat rock with three “X“ signs and an arrow scratched on it. The story of the three pirates gained credence and flavor by being told, on his deathbed, by the only man who claimed to have seen them.
As he told it, he was returning home from his hunting camp late one night, and as he was passing Mitchell’s Field he noticed that there was a strange vessel anchored offshore. He heard voices and the clanking of metal, so he hid in sonic bushes to watch. I hree pirates, as he described them, were busily filling in a deep hole they had just dug. When they were finished they returned to the vessel and it glided silently away. The poor man who was watching, frightened the pirates would return and catch him if he reported what he saw, kept silent about it for years. When his story reached the villagers, they checked back on the dates. Sure enough, around that time there had been reports of loud noises and
what sounded like a drunken fight on a strange vessel passing the coast just north of Barrett’s Landing. Some even claimed that shots had been heard. There were villagers who maintained that the pirates had simply been burying a dead comrade. not treasure. From there the story grew that Mitchell's Field was haunted. An old man who lived across the river said that on still summer nights he could
hear voices and metallic clanking sounds. Treasure or no treasure, most people avoided the spot at night.
We believed there was hidden gold. We were fascinated by the flat rock with the three Xs on it. and the arrow. We measured three paces from the rock in the direction of the arrow, thirty paces, three hundred, and dug deep holes at each spot. We followed the line of the
arrow past three trees, past three stones, past three bushes. We spent many summer afternoons there, and at one time or another dug up most of Mitchell's Field in search of the treasure. But with no success. We found neither gold nor a corpse. As for ghosts, we gave that a try. too. One afternoon, my brother Marty, disgusted that we were getting nowhere with our search, threw down his shovel and announced. “There isn't any old treasure here. I bet if we find anything. it'll be an of dead pirate." I'his shocked us little ones; we preferred the
WHEN THE GHOST WALKED continued
A screech, a white flash. We ran
story of the treasure to the frightening one of a corpse.
“If it was a pirate that was buried,” said Ged, “you know that by now we’d have seen a ghost.”
Marty thought for awhile, then pointed out that we wouldn’t have seen the ghost because we were only there in the daytime. The only way to check the story about Mitchell’s Field being haunted was to go there at night.
On a warm sunny afternoon it sounded sensible and easy. But that night, when we had got permission from Papa to sleep outside in our tents, and then sneaked up to Mitchell’s Field, it was quite different. There was a moon, and although it was comforting, it did cast large light and heavy shadows. Some of us were very young, and just being out in the dark was frightening enough. The idea of seeking out a ghost was completely terrifying. But with our habit of following the leader, we tagged along after Ged and Marty, right into Mitchell’s Field, and part way across it. It must have been about 10 o’clock, but we were all sure that it was much later, and close to the dangerous hour of midnight, the most horrifying hour of all to be anywhere near ghosts, witches, corpses, and the like.
Ged and Marty finally came to a stop at the very place we had been digging that afternoon. We all stopped. We sat down, and we waited. Hours and hours, to us, went by, with the only words spoken in whispers, and those words only instructions to look this way or that way, or questions: “Did’ya see that? That’s only a bat. What’s that rustling? It’s a cat maybe.” After awhile even the whispers stopped. We were each left
with our own thoughts, and we huddled close to Ged.
And into the silence came the howling of a dog. And a screeching, squawking sound. And a flash of white.
Ged and Marty pulling us little ones, our feet hardly touching the ground, we all ran the full mile home, and burst into the kitchen, crying and sobbing with fright. Papa tried to explain to us that he had let our dog Pal out to follow us and that he had probably chased some geese across the field. But we knew. We were terrified and deeply disappointed. We had proved that there was no treasure in Mitchell’s Field — there were only ghosts, after all.
When Ged and I were home on holidays last fall we went for a walk and looked at our old treasure spots. It’s so long ago now, and the trees have grown so much that we had a hard time even to find the big rocks we’d tried so hard as children to dig up. They were still firmly embedded in the ground. We looked at Mitchell’s Field, and agreed that it still had a rather ghostly atmosphere. The rock with the three Xs and the arrow was still there.
As we walked back to our mother’s and father’s house that afternoon, we remembered the fervent search for treasure that had filled so many days of our childhood. And, to my delight, just before we reached the door, Ged said, in a voice straight from the past, “Hellie, I’m sure there’s treasure buried here. Next summer when we come home, let’s really get organized and find it.”
Excerpted from Helen Wilson’s forthcoming book, More Tales From Barrett’s Landing (McClelland & Stewart).
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