It was a warm night. Warm for a Nova Scotian October, anyway. Dan Campbell dug a dirty finger under the neck of his sweater and stared at the low, lazy waves lapping at the shore. He took a hard swallow from his flask and let the burn wash away the tickle in his throat. No coughing, he thought. The rules were clear. If he made so much as a sound, the gold would be lost to him forever.
He adjusted the shovel on his shoulder and set off down the beach, smiling through the unease he felt. Pirate gold. There was pirate gold somewhere hereabouts, he was told. Everyone knew it. The men at the tavern never stopped talking about it. And yet none of them were brave enough to go searching for it. Fools. Cowards.
Campbell was neither of those things. He did not have much in the way of formal education, but a lifetime in the mines had taught him plenty. It taught him when the danger wasn’t worth the opportunity, first and foremost, and if this gold was real, then the opportunity was well worth the risk. Besides, ghosts…ghosts never concerned him much.
He had respect for the supernatural, of course. A healthy respect and a slight superstition, but that was about the extent of it. He’d avoid whistling so as to not summon a storm, of course. And if he saw a bluebird, he knew he’d be in for a rough day. But spooks and spirits? No, that was just the stuff of fancy and nothing to get worked up about.
The story of the gold went like this. Captain Dimmock, his hold full of treasure, decided to bury some on an island off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1715. He pressed a local into his service, as was tradition, and slew him at the site where the treasure was to be buried. He dug deep in the ground to bury his chest and laid the dead man atop it, his soul forever bound to guard the place. And at midnight on the anniversary of the man’s death, the burial place would reveal itself to someone brave enough to seek it out.
The details of the story changed with every telling. Maybe it wasn’t Dimmock. And maybe it was his first mate that slew the captain at the site of the treasure. Maybe all three men fought and died there, and time and tide buried them all. No matter. The key detail for Campbell was this: in every telling, the anniversary date was the same – October 17th.
Campbell looked up at the slow rolling clouds and wished for a moment the moon was out. But then again, someone might see him stalking through the sand and brush. If someone from the tavern got wind of this, they’d never let him live it down. Unless he came back with a chest full of gold, of course. Damn them, he thought as he lit his lantern, not caring who might see at this point. If I can’t see where I’m going, I’m liable to break my neck out there. Better to be laughed at, I s’pose.
Up ahead, an old jetty stabbed out into the dark water, connected to the island’s interior by an old, crumbling cobbled road. This road, if you could call it that, was barely a path now, reduced by years of weather and wear. Campbell raised his lantern for a better look and bit his tongue to keep from crying out. A figure stood there, silhouetted in the darkness. The thing did not see him…not yet. It walked slowly along the path, dragging its left leg slightly.
Da? He thought, and no sooner had he thought it than the word jumped to his lips. He clapped his hand over his mouth and stifled the sound. The figure stopped short as if it had heard him and turned slowly, carefully toward him. Just as they were about to meet face to face, it disappeared into the low fog. There were no footprints in the sandy soil. What a fool I am, thought Campbell. He took another long pull from his flask and grimaced at the burn. It couldn’t have been his father. He’d been dead for twenty years. Spooks and spirits. Fah.
Campbell walked on, more fortified against the ghouls and ghosts of his imagination than before his last drink. The path wound around the tall grassy dunes that hugged the shore, making it hard to see anything around him. Suddenly, a light seeped around a not-so-distant bend in the path. He shuttered his lantern and stepped off the path as quick as a rabbit, crouching down among the grass. There wasn’t supposed to be anyone out here. Not at this time of night. He listened as the footfalls came closer, straining to hear. Two sets of feet. Whispered conversation.
He peeked under the low brim of his hat, his heart hammering in his chest and blood pounding in his ears, as the lantern bearers came around the corner.
“Mark,” the girl said, “are we lost? Do you know where you tied up the boat?”
“Uh…yes. It should be right over there,” said Mark, barely disguising the uncertainty in his voice.
“We need to get home soon, you know. The dance was over an hour ago and if my mother finds out I was here…with you…”
“I know,” said Mark. “The boat’s right over here. I’m sure of it. And just tell your mother you slept over Jeanine Graham’s house. I’m sure she won’t say otherwise. Jeanine’s fond of you, isn’t she?”
“Jeanine? I suppose so, but…”
The voices faded out as the young couple rounded another bend. Campbell took a shuddering breath and smiled. Kids, he thought. They never change. And that’s a good thing. He stood up slowly, smiling at the thoughts of his own youthful indiscretions. But there was no time to dwell in nostalgia. There was work to do still.
Campbell followed the path for a few minutes more until it began to carry him too far from the shore. It would be so much easier to follow the path, but there was a lot of island left to cover and not much time before midnight. He turned his back on the well-trod path and pushed on through the bushes and brambles at the base of a rocky escarpment. After ten minutes, Campbell found the place he was looking for. The escarpment had collapsed here, forming a steep ramp of sharp rocks he could climb up.
In the dark with no moonlight to see by, Campbell knew this was dangerous. And stupid, he reminded himself. But risks were worth taking only when the payout was big enough. And this would be a payout so big, he’d never have to set foot in the old gypsum mine again. What’s one small risk, he thought, when the payout could save me from a lifetime in the mine? He put the metal handle of the lantern in his mouth and carefully, slowly, dragged himself up the sharp rocks to the cliffs above. The mist from the sea made the rocks slick, and by the time he climbed to the top, his shins and hands were a mass of cuts and bruises.
No matter, he thought as he turned to look out over the edge of the cliff, the lights of the town sparkling in the distance. It was beautiful, he had to admit, not that Campbell had much of an eye for beauty. Still, this view was his, and his alone. No man could claim it otherwise. He smiled and nodded to himself, proud for a moment. Foolish. No time for that. He took another drink from his flask and poured some of the booze on his bloodied hands. It burned, and he rubbed his scratched palms on his pants. No matter, he thought, turning his back to the view and carrying on.
The wind was bitter on the top of the cliff, and Campbell popped the collar of his coat up against the wet breeze. A sound came to him then, like the moaning of a dying man. He froze in his tracks, almost instinctively turning to flee. He had come too far for that, though. Spooks and spirits don’t frighten me, he tried to convince himself as the desperate calls grew louder.
And then he saw it.
A rock formation, about twice as tall as him, riddled with an odd variety of holes. When the wind came up, the rock piped and shrieked and moaned with all manner of unsettling sounds. Not a spook, he thought, and yet… Rather than set him at ease, this rock formation unnerved Campbell. How was it formed? If it wasn’t formed, who made it? Why? He had no answers. He frowned and pressed on, carefully keeping his lantern between himself and the moaning rock and giving it a wide berth.
The grass atop the cliff was knobby and stunted, having grown without the protection of rocks and trees around it. Campbell stopped to take another drink from his flask but found it was empty. He angrily shoved it back into his coat pocket and pressed on. The mist swirled around him, twisted by a chaotic wind. His lantern dimmed, the light in front of him shrinking back as if afraid of what lay ahead. It was dark now, darker than it had any right to be. Campbell could barely see his feet despite the lantern in his hand. He wanted to stop. Wanted to turn back and forget all about this treasure nonsense.
But there was…something. Something telling him to press on. To swallow his fear and move ahead, darkness be damned. The mist whispered to him, beckoning him forard despite the shadows that clung to his legs and clawed at him from the edges of his vision. And so, he did. Campbell boldly walked forward, his goal nearer to him with every step.
And then his foot struck only air instead of land.
He was falling, falling into the darkness. His injured hands scrabbled and clutched at anything in the darkness but found nothing but mist. His lantern tumbled away from him and disappeared into the inky blackness. Campbell took a deep breath and braced for the inevitable impact.
The shock of the cold drove the air from his lungs. His legs struck the rocky bottom of the pool and, instinctively rocketed him back towards the water’s surface. He gasped air back into his burning chest and began swimming, though he knew not towards what. A few frantic moments slipped by and thankfully, blessedly, his hands struck a rocky ledge. He pulled himself up and let the adrenaline dull the edge off the cold ache he felt down to his bones. He stripped the wet clothes off, knowing the fate that befell those who foolishly kept their soaked clothes on in weather like this.
Campbell shivered, but shivering was good. Shivering meant he wasn’t so cold his body had quit on him. He was alive. And nothing was broken. He heard a sound then, softly carried to him by the breeze. A bell. Cautiously, he headed towards it, sidling along the rocky ledge. Soon the sound of surf and the peal of the bell grew louder. He stepped out of the rocky crevasse and onto the shore. In the distance he saw a ship rocking gently in the waves. The bell continued ringing, slowly, mournfully. Like a church bell, he thought. Like the one that rang out at his father’s funeral.
He frowned and pushed the thought from his head. Campbell looked around, unsure of where his fall had taken him. It had to be close to midnight. He had to decide then, in that moment, shivering naked on the shore, if he would continue searching for gold or if he would return to his boat, his tail tucked between his legs.
Campbell was not a man known for taking risks. Even among miners, who were all generally a cautious and careful lot, Campbell was known for his wariness and vigilance. But I’ve come so far, he thought, his teeth chattering as he stared out over the black waters. Damn the risks. Damn the darkness. If I die here, so be it.
And in that moment, the clouds parted. And in that moment, the thin, milky light of the new moon illuminated two stunted fir trees, their crowns twisted together by the wind. Reverently, silently, Campbell approached. The sand gave way to a thick blanket of moss that grew a distance from the trees like a soft carpet leading him to his destination. A figure in white stuttered into existence before him, coalescing out of sea spray and moonlight.
“You have found what you sought,” it said, its voice ebbing and flowing like a tide, soft as seafoam. “But you have not the strength to possess it.”
Campbell’s exuberance seeped from him, creating ample space for his exhaustion and misery.
“Yes, I, too, am disappointed,” the figure said, an understanding smile touching the corners of its mouth. “Had you found the treasure and claimed it as your own, I would be free. Alas, it is not to be. And so, I must wait.”
Campbell had stopped shivering. He felt warm, truth be told. Campbell knew then that he was dying. Campbell also knew that he would not let his death be in vain.
He sank to his knees and dug his aching fingers into the soft moss at the spirit’s feet, clawing great chunks of soil and sand from the ground. He felt tired. His eyes burned from the tears and from the effort of keeping them open. His muscles ached and begged him to stop. To lay there on the soft moss. To rest. But he would not listen. Moss gave way to dirt, dirt gave way to sand, and sand gave way to rock as he clawed his bloody fingers deeper and deeper into the beach. Finally, he felt something new. A bit of sail cloth.
Campbell tore the moldering cloth up and out of the hole, revealing a chest. Treasure, he thought. His strength left him then, and Campbell collapsed atop the hole he’d dug with the last bit of strength he had at his disposal. He peered up at the figure who gazed down at him pityingly.
“It’s mine,” he thought, hoping the spirit understood. “Go.”
The spirit nodded slowly, realizing then what the man meant to accomplish with his frantic digging. “Thank you, friend. Thank you.”
The last thing Campbell saw was the figure dissolving back into mist and moonlight, disappearing on the thin breeze that whistled gently through the needles of the trees above his head. He closed his eyes and let the darkness take him, content that the reward was worth the risk in the end.