Saturday, July 2, 2011

THE TEMPTING OF TOMMY

THE TEMPTING OF TOMMY
By
J. R. Lindermuth

He said, “You don’t believe Blackbeard buried any treasure? Well, he did. Yes sir, he truly did. And I’m the only one knows where it is.”

Ignoring Tommy, I gazed off at the blue-gray horizon watching the wheeling, screaming gulls, listening to the waves lap against the jetty, a contrapuntal echo of Tommy’s lazy drawl. I should have known better. Blackbeard and his treasure are subjects to avoid with old-timers here on the Banks; they all have their stories, each an imaginative embroidery on a subject of which no man can know the truth and each insists he does—appropriate magical mysteries with which to while away the hours on cold, wet winter days before a fireplace, fortified with whiskey, lethargy and time. But not on hot summer afternoons devoted to fishing.

“It’s true,” Tommy insisted, and I felt his gaze stabbing at my back, demanding attention.

I did my best to ignore him, lighting my pipe and keeping my eyes fixed on the horizon. It didn’t work.

“Everybody has his story. Some says he buried it over on Ocracoke, others that he hid it down on Sapelo, or up at Elizabeth City. Some even say he carried it way up the coast to New Hampshire. Fools! None of ‘em knows.”

Irritated, I faced him. The fish weren’t biting anyway. “And you do?”

“Eh-yeh.” He gave a dry little laugh, heh-heh. “I knows.”

Noting my skeptical expression, he laughed again. “Think I’ve gone potty, doncha? Old man’s been sittin’ out in the sun too long. Well, hain’t no lie. Blackbeard used to say nobody but the Devil and him knew where he hid his treasure. Well I hain’t the Devil, but I know where he put it. I found it and I dug it up and now I’m the only one what knows where it is.”

I grinned skeptically, thinking about the way Tommy lives. His home is a two-room tarpaper shack up near Ransomville, his fishing clothes are the best he owns, and his boat is a leaky twenty-foot dory that must have been new when the Wright boys were flying over the dunes up at Kitty Hawk. Still, although he can be garrulous at times, Tommy wasn’t given to tall tales.

“You don’t believe me,” he said in answer to my unexpressed doubt. “But I found it and it about ruint my life.”

His demeanor was so serious, his voice so sincere, his gaze so steady, how could I doubt him?

He paused to fill his pipe, slowly and deliberately tamping it, gathering his thoughts, then striking a match with an audible scratch on a patch of sandpaper affixed to his tackle box, inhaling, puff, puff, until the tobacco took. Then: “I been wanting to tell you. Hain’t told but one other person before.”

“Why me? Why now?”

He shrugged. “I held it back a long time. Hain’t got much more time left for fishin’ or nuffin’ else. Hain’t nobody else I wanna tell. But, you, I think you’d appreciate the joke.”

Tommy puffed his pipe a moment, looking out at the sea, a wistful expression lighting his tanned, seamed face. Then he fixed his old all-seeing eyes on me again and went on.

“Back in the twenties, when I was a young man, things was pretty good ’round here. Didn’t have all these tourists and didn’t need ’em. Lived from the sea, we did—and lived right well.

“Yes, sir, I was crabbin’. Those was the good days when a man could make all the money he needed for a week in one day, crabbin’. Not like now. I was doing pretty good. Wasn’t rich. But, I had the sweetest wife a man ever had and the best little baby a man could want. Yes, sir. Had us a house up at Bath—little place, but our’n. And I was crabbin’ and making a living and life was good. Never expected it could get no better’n it already was. And that was fine with me.

“Then, I went and got the Blackbeard fever. There was always somebody huntin’ that treasure. I never paid them no mind. Thought they was fools wasting time looking for a will-o-the-wisp. Well, sir, along comes these two gentlemen—Yankees they was—and begged me to hire out to them to hunt Blackbeard’s gold. Said they knew exactly where it was; had a map. But they needed a boat and a man that knew the waters. Said they’d make me rich. Put some money in front of me. I told them I wasn’t interested, but they persisted, kept flashin’ money at me, more money’n I ever seed before. Well, temptation is like a pretty girl—the more you see of her, the harder she is to ignore. I figured I could give ’em a day or two and make me some easy money.”

“And that’s when you found the treasure?” I interrupted.

“No. We didn’t find nuffin’. Didn’t expect to. Those maps are common as gulls around here. But, being out there hearing those two talk, lookin’, that’s when I caught the Blackbeard fever—real bad.”

A shearwater beat rapidly in from the sea, screaming its distinctive warning, and Tommy paused to watch it, raising his cap and scratching his bald pate. “Storm’s comin’,” he said. And, indeed, it appeared he was right. A thunderhead loomed darkly on the horizon, a breeze began building whitecaps, the waves slapped more vigorously against the rocks below our dangling feet, and the scent of kelp and sea salt mingled with that of oak and pine. With the wind, I felt the cold wetness against my face. Well, September was coming on.

Still, Tommy retained his seat. “Devil,” he said as he re-lit his pipe.

“What, the storm?” I asked, naively.

“No. Blackbeard. Some says he’s the Devil and I came close to believing it the way he tempted me. After those two left, I started reading up on him, talking to old-timers and tracing his tracks. I got obsessed on him just like some men get hooked on drink, or gamblin’ or chasin’ women. Everything I studied pointed to his having treasure. But he didn’t have it when they kilt him over on Ocracoke. That meant he must’ve hid it somewhere. Somebody had to find it sometime. Why not me?

“I didn’t see I was doing wrong. At first I only looked in my spare time. Then it got to the point where I couldn’t think of anything but Blackbeard. The more I looked, the more I wanted to. Started ignoring my livelihood and neglecting my family, going off for long and longer times. I must have dug up half the islands between here and Sapelo. Dug so deep sometimes it’s a wonder the water didn’t come up and drown me.

“My life was sliding from under me and I didn’t even know it. Didn’t care. Woman tried to tell me every time I came home. Told me she didn’t want no gold, just me. But, I wouldn’t listen. I’d just go stormin’ off again. With no money coming in, we started losin’ what we had. Lost the house and furniture, then my boat. I worked for another fellow just long enough to get another boat. Then I was off again.

“Went on like that for a year, me sinking lower and lower, losing touch with everything that had meant something before. Wife warned me she wouldn’t put up with it much longer. She begged me to give it up. All I could think of was that danged treasure. I was determined I’d find it and then things would be fine again.

“When I did find it, it was purely by accident. Guess old Blackbeard and the Devil figured a fellow as persistent as me ought to be rewarded. Course they had a joke up their sleeves.

“Food was low at home and I didn’t have no money. So, one day in the fall of ’28 I slipped down to Plum Point, figuring to walk through the woods and jump shoot me some ducks. Well, there I was walkin’ through the woods thinkin’ of ducks and not Blackbeard when all of a sudden I tripped and fell. When I picked myself up, I saw I had stumbled in a depression. It could have been somebody just dug a hole to bury a dead cow, but I knew it wasn’t. I knew right away this was where Blackbeard had buried his gold.”

“Was it?” I asked, leaning forward, excited.

Tommy scowled. “If you’ll quit interruptin’, boy, mebbe I’ll have time to tell you afore the storm breaks.”

Spray or drops of rain were already pelting us. I began reeling in, hoping to hurry Tommy on with the tale.

“I fetched a shovel and some other tools from the boat,” he went on. “Came back and set to work, everything else forgotten in the excitement. Like a madman I was, digging and sweating and digging and chopping at the earth. No more’n five foot down the shovel hit something solid. I went down on my hands and knees and scratched away the sand, my heart beating like a bird’s. Then I saw it and I started laughing and dancing and crying all at once. It was an old sea chest, and I sure as heck knew what was in it.

“It was too heavy to budge. I clambered out of the hole and looked about, I had some good stout rope, a length of chain and an ax. I hooked the chain around the box, fixed the rope to it, then took the ax and cut some good sturdy poles. I worked all through the night building a tripod and winching that box up out of the ground. Morning was breaking when I whacked open the lid and got a look inside. The sun hitting on all that gold and silver and jewelry was enough to blind a man. Dang, but it was pretty.

“I must have spent an hour just looking at it and touching it. Then it took another hour to drag it back through the brush and down the beach to my boat. It was so heavy I thought the boat would sink when I lugged it aboard. I didn’t care. I’d have walked on water to cart it back to Bath. Lordy, I would’a! I was already dreamin’ about how I’d build a great big house for her, and send our boy off to college when he was of age, and buy a fleet of boats and put half the crabbers in Bath to working for me. Laughed so hard the tears came. Then I laughed some more.”

The rain began in earnest now. We gathered up our gear and scurried up the jetty to my car. Sitting in the hot car, with the windows steaming up and the rain drumming on the roof, Tommy resumed his story.

“The place was empty when I got home. She had packed her bags and gone off just like she warned she would.”

“But you were duck hunting,” I said, sympathetically.

He shook his head. “Wouldn’t of stayed overnight for that. She knowed I was after the treasure again, and she went off.”

“What did you do?”

“Do? What could I do? She said once she left there’d be no comin’ back. Still, I had to look. Leavin’ Blackbeard’s treasure aboard my boat, I went off and hunted for two weeks, looking everyplace I could think to look. But I couldn’t find my family.”

“You left the treasure on your boat all that time?” I interrupted again, incredulous.

“Sure. I’d already got my senses back. I didn’t want it any more. What good was it? Riches didn’t mean a thing to me without the ones I truly loved.

“I came back and sat alone on the boat, drinking corn and lookin’ at Blackbeard’s treasure for another week, cursing the luck that led me to it. I’d drink, then I’d cry, then I’d get down on my knees and beg God to send her back. I told Him flat out I didn’t want that dang gold; said I’d give it away or cast it in the sea if only He’d bring her back to me.

“Well, sir, finally I had my fill of grieving and it appeared all the drinking and the crying weren’t gonna bring her back. I decided even the praying wouldn’t work unless I showed God how serious I was. So, one dark night I hauled the worthless treasure over to the Banks where they was building a highway. As I said, those were flush times right before the Depression and the state was building roads all over. I come to the place and I dug a good deep hole and put Blackbeard’s treasure in it. The next day, the highway boys come along and covered her over with macadam.

“So, for all these years, Blackbeard and the Devil, God and me have been having us a good laugh at all the fools who go lookin’ for the treasure,” Tommy said.

“And you kept it in all these years and never told no one?” I said, shaking my head. I switched on the motor and started the windshield wipers.

“Not a soul except her. You’re the only other one needed telling. But, you know something?”

“What?”

“God does answer prayers, but He does it in His own good time. And, there have been moments when I wished your Momma had brung you home a week earlier.”

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The Tempting of Tommy was previously was published in the August 1998 edition of Gold & Treasure Hunter magazine.

John is a retired newspaper editor and currently librarian of his county historical society where he assists patrons with research and genealogy. He's published nine novels, including four in his Sticks Hetrick mystery series. His short stories and articles have appeared in a variety of magazines, both print and on line.

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Fallen From Grace (March 2011), Wild Oak
Being Someone Else (July 2010), Whiskey Creek Press
http://jrlindermuth.com

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