The Haunting of Wildwood Farm
© 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.
Chapter Six: Treasure Hunters
Jeff inhaled his breakfast and was out the door again. He hurried across Wildwood Farm, past the cow pen and horse stables, and disappeared into the woods on the east side of the property. He scampered through a sea of dead leaves that had blanketed the main trail, and stayed his course until the trees began to thin out.
When he emerged from the woods, Jeff could hear the running water of the Blackstone River, which sliced vertically to the north, cutting off access to the vast clearing on the other side. But Jeff had traveled this route so many times he could do it in his sleep, and he banked left at the river and made his way to the footbridge about fifty yards away.
He bounded over the bridge with the gracefulness of a deer, and when he touched down on the opposite side, sprinted across the clearing until he came to the bend. From there he made another left up the short hill and slowed to a jog when Drew's house came into view.
Jeff circled around to the front of the modest, two-story home and found Drew sitting on the steps, cradling his baseball glove in one hand and his bat in the other. He had a scowl on his face, but that didn't stop Jeff from approaching him.
"I called but no one answered," Jeff said, slightly out of breath.
"Mom's out," Drew informed him.
"Oh," Jeff said. "What are you doing?"
"Waiting for my Dad."
"I thought last weekend was Dad Weekend."
"It was," Drew said. "But he blew me off."
Drew shrugged. "Who knows."
"That stinks," Jeff said. "At least he's making it up to you."
"We'll see about that. He's an hour late."
"Oh," Jeff said. "Sorry."
"Don't be sorry. You didn't do anything wrong."
"I know, but I feel bad."
"Don't," Drew said. "I've done this rodeo before."
"But you shouldn't have to. Parents don't divorce kids."
"Spare me your sympathy," Drew said. "What do you want?"
Jeff looked at him funny. "Huh?"
"You said you called. What do you want?"
"Oh," Jeff said. "It was about Charles Nichols."
"What about him?"
"Well it looks like the story Greg told us is true. My grandfather confirmed that Charles Nichols lost his head, and Nana was so upset she didn't want to talk about it."
"So what's your point?"
"My point is," Jeff said, "Kent Cottage is really haunted."
Drew shook his head. "Dude, you can't believe everything you hear. Just because that kid got decapitated doesn't mean his ghost is haunting the place. And I'm gonna prove it to ya."
Jeff paused. "What do you mean?"
"Simple," Drew said. "I'm gonna break into Kent Cottage, march up to the third floor, and prove there's no ghost."
"Drew, you can't do that!"
"Watch me! Oh, and while I'm there, I'm gonna find the hidden treasure and solve this mystery."
"Mr. Heard boarded that place up for a reason," Jeff said. "You can't just go busting into it."
"Yes I can. I'm an adventurer, and that's what adventurers do. The Wildwood Gang is an adventurer's club. I think you've forgotten that."
"No I haven't. But I'm not gonna disobey my father."
Drew stood up with the bat in his hand. "At least you have a father you can disobey. Some of us aren't so lucky." Then he reached into his glove and took out a baseball and walked out onto the gravel driveway. Leaving himself enough distance from the house, he tossed the ball into air, gripped the bat with both hands, and then swung, crushing the ball high into the air. It soared across the backyard and over the trees, and vanished into the wooded realm in the distance.
"Now you have to go shag it," Jeff grinned, trying to ease the tension.
"Whatever," Drew growled without even a glance back. He collected his glove off the steps and walked back into his house, letting the screen door slam behind him. Jeff stood in the yard alone, wondering if there was anything he could do to help his friend climb out of this funk.
Fortunately there was no need to push the panic button. A good night's sleep had put Drew's troubles on ice because it was business as usual on Sunday. The gang had gathered at Wildwood Farm shortly after lunch, convening in their tree house in the woods. The tree house served as their secret clubhouse, a meeting place where they conducted Wildwood business. On any given day they might be found planning their next adventure, lounging about listening to music or reading magazines, or on those rare occasions, taking a nap.
The tree house was impressive craftsmanship. It had been built by the Wildwood Gang with the help of Cody Alvarez, fastened to four trees, six feet from the ground. It was structurally sound and weather-tight and safely hidden away from any guests or visitors. The gang had recently added camouflage to the exterior; a mess of tangled vines and brush enveloped the fortress, woven together on one side with the aid of a large brown net that ran from the peak of the roof to the forest floor.
Sofie was the last to arrive on this mild Sunday, and after scurrying beneath the tree house with her backpack slung across her shoulder, she climbed up the makeshift ladder (half a dozen boards nailed directly into a support tree) and through the trap door in the floor. She found Ethan, Jeff, and Drew waiting for her, and realizing she was late, assumed her usual position on the carpet next to Jeff.
Drew eyed her suspiciously from the futon mattress. "What took you so long?" he spat, clearly wanting to exercise his cynical side.
Sofie removed her backpack, placed it on the floor in front of her, and unzipped it. "Research," she replied.
Jeff leaned over and peered into the backpack. "What kind of research?"
"Hold on a sec and I'll show you," she said, reaching into the backpack. She dug around blindly for a few seconds before removing a folded newspaper, a notebook, and a ballpoint pen, and in the process, inadvertently extracted a wallet-size photo of Ben. The photo tumbled onto the floor face-up, and Jeff, Ethan, and Drew gazed down upon it as Ben's pearly whites smiled back at them.
"Whoa," Ethan said. "Is he like your boyfriend or something?"
Sofie realized what had happened and snatched the photo off the floor before they had time to get an accurate count of the freckles on his face. "We're just friends," she said curtly, breaking eye contact. She stuffed the photo deep inside her backpack and zipped it up.
Drew gritted his teeth as his eyes followed the flight path of the photograph. If his mouth had been a shotgun, he would've unleashed two barrels-worth of snide remarks. But for some reason, self-control won the moment. Instead, he looked away and pretended he hadn't seen it.
"What's up with the newspaper?" Jeff asked.
"It's evidence," she replied. "Proof that Greg's story is true."
"Where'd you get it?" Ethan said.
"At the library. I was researching the break-in over the summer. Greg said it was in the paper, so I thought I'd investigate."
"They actually have newspapers there?" Ethan said, looking rather surprised. "I figured everything would be digital."
"Most everything is," Sofie said. "But they also have a hardcopy archive."
"And they let you check that out?" Ethan said.
"Well, technically no. But I have connections."
"At the library?" Drew quipped. "That's a shocker."
Sofie glared at him for a moment, then shook her head and turned away. She picked up the newspaper and unfolded it, and then opened to the section she had bookmarked with a sticky note.
"What's it say?" Jeff asked, having a hard time restraining his curiosity.
"I'm getting to that," she said. "This is the July twenty-seventh edition." And then she began to read from the article: "One of New Hampshire's most popular Christmastime attractions was the scene to a horrific accident late last night."
"Horrific?" Drew mocked. "I thought the kid fell out a window?"
Sofie lowered her gaze on him. "Am I going to suffer repeated interruptions from you? Just tell me now please."
Drew waved her off with his hand. "Pro-ceed."
Again, Sofie shook her head, then continued. "… a horrific accident late last night. A seventeen-year-old male fell from the third-floor window of an abandoned building in a remote part of the property. He suffered life-threatening injuries and was rushed to Memorial Hospital where doctors were able to stabilize him."
"What kind of injuries?" Ethan inquired. "Was he bleeding from his eyeballs? Were his arms and legs all twisted off or something?"
"It doesn't specify," Sofie said, showing a little more patience with Ethan than Drew. "But I'm sure that wasn't it." She continued: "The victim, a junior at Winfield High School, had snuck onto the property with three classmates, also juniors, and when questioned by police, confessed they had broken into the building looking for treasure. When asked to elaborate, one of the boys told police, 'everyone in school knows about the treasure at Kent Cottage. There's gold hidden there. From the Civil War!'"
"Wait, what?" Ethan said. "Gold??? From the Civil War???"
"Quiet!" Drew said sternly. "I want to hear this."
Sofie smirked and resumed. "That same boy, who witnessed the fall from ground level, also claimed that his friend had been pushed out the window. But after further investigation, police were able to determine that was not the case, as the victim was the only one on the third floor at the time."
"That's the ghost!" Jeff whispered.
"Though no charges have been formally filed," Sofie continued, "the students could be facing counts of trespassing, breaking and entering, and burglary. The students' names will not be released while charges are pending. As for the treasure, the students said they were unable to locate it, and none of them were found to be in possession of any gold. Owners of the property declined to comment."
Sofie stopped reading and looked up at the wide-eyed faces of her friends.
"What else does it say?" Drew asked.
"Nothing," she replied. "That's it."
Drew sprung upright. "That's it??? Man, what a crappy article!"
Sofie glared at him. "Sorry, Drew, but some journalists only report the facts."
Drew slumped back down on the mattress. "Why? That's boring."
"Yeah, I want to hear about the ghost!" Ethan said.
"How many times do I have to tell you?" Drew scolded. "There ain't no ghost!"
"Then who pushed that kid out the window?" Ethan said. "It's right there in the article. His friend saw him get pushed out the window, and there was no one else in the room with him. How do you explain that?"
"That moron probably tripped on something and went diving out the window," Drew said.
"You don't just trip on something and go flying through a window," Jeff interjected. "You have to be pushed or thrown or something. There has to be--- I forget what it's called."
"An exertion of force?" Sofie suggested.
"Yeah, that's it!" Jeff said. "An exertion of force."
"Or maybe the kid was suicidal," Drew said, "and gave himself a running start. There's your exertion of force."
The others fell silent. They realized that was a plausible explanation, although they didn't like it. Drew raised his eyebrows, taunting them to mount a counterattack. Jeff and Sofie said nothing, but Ethan offered further support to the ghost theory.
"But his friend said he was pushed," he said.
"Sure he did," Drew teased. "From three floors below, and in the dark. There's a reliable witness for ya." Ethan groaned and dropped his head into his hands. Drew's eyes darted from Ethan to Jeff to Sofie, and then back to Jeff. "I don't understand why you guys are hung up on this ghost," Drew continued. "What we should really be focused on is the gold!"
"But they didn't find any gold," Sofie said.
"That doesn't mean it's not there," Drew argued. "Maybe they weren't looking in the right place. I mean, whoever hid that treasure wasn't going to leave it out in the open. They were going to hide it, and hide it good. Old houses like that always have hidden compartments and secret rooms and stuff. There's probably a million places to hide treasure there."
"And how do we know someone didn't find it a long time ago?" Jeff said.
Drew shrugged. "There's only one way to find out."
Sofie laughed to herself. "Are you insinuating we go back to Kent Cottage?"
Drew nodded. "It's the only way we'll know for sure. We have to get inside."
"You must have a short memory," Jeff said, shaking his head. "My father doesn't want anybody near that place. If we break into Kent Cottage and get caught, do you know what will happen to us? What will happen to me? I'll be grounded until I go to college. That means no more treasure hunting, no more adventures, no more Wildwood Gang."
"I think you're being a little over-dramatic," Drew said. "Your dad is Mr. Nice Guy. Maybe he tacks on a few more chores or something, but he's not gonna ground you for life. Besides, you're forgetting a key point. We're not gonna get caught."
"This is one of those times he tightens up security," Jeff assured him.
Drew laughed. "Seriously? Can you picture Ron Markham with a pair of hi-tech binoculars spying on us from his bedroom window? Gimme a break."
"My father doesn't need to spy. Mr. Heard is his eyes and ears. That's why he's the foreman. That's why he oversees the farm. Nothing gets by him, and when my Dad gives him a job to do, Mr. Heard gets it done. And when it comes to Kent Cottage, and kids messing around out there, Mr. Heard is like Darth Vader hunting down the Jedi."
"Then we go when Mr. Heard has the day off," Drew said.
"Mr. Heard doesn't take days off," Jeff said. "He works on his days off. He lives to work. It's the only thing that matters to him. And for all the trouble we've caused him over the years, don't you think he would love to bust us for something like this? Catching us at Kent Cottage would be his crowning achievement."
"I can totally see that," Sofie said. "He would mount our heads on the wall if he could get away with it."
Drew shook his head and threw up his hands. "I don't know what to tell you guys. We have to do this. And if you don't want to go, I'll do it myself. And I'd appreciate it if you didn't rat me out."
"That's not a good idea," Jeff said. "If they catch you…"
"What time does Mr. Heard go home?" Drew asked.
Jeff groaned. "Sometimes not until eight o'clock."
"Hmm. A school night won't work then," Drew said to himself. "My mom would worry, and then she'd call your mom, and that would ruin everything. I'll have to wait until Friday."
"I can do Friday," Ethan said. "As long as I'm at Wildwood Farm, my parents are cool with that."
"Oh, so you're in now?" Drew said.
Ethan paused. "Aren't we all? What happened to 'one for all, all for one'?"
"It doesn't apply when people make really bad choices," Jeff said.
"It should," Ethan said, "especially when people make really bad choices. We have to stick together, right? Through the good and the bad."
"Or we just avoid the bad," Sofie said. "We're not supposed to be out there, and if we make a conscious choice to disobey those orders, and we get caught…"
"It could mean the end of the Wildwood Gang," Jeff said, finishing her sentence. "Is that what you want, Drew?"
Drew hesitated and thought about it for a second, then he said: "If we find that treasure, we'll be famous. And since it's your family's land, the treasure will belong to them, and your parents will be rich. And do you think they'll punish us then? No way. They'll have a parade for us! And with all that gold, your parents won't have to worry about money again. Isn't that worth the risk?"
Jeff sighed but didn't say anything. He looked at Sofie and saw the uncertainty in her eyes. She looked back at him and shrugged, and Drew could sense their resolve was weakening.
"Look," Drew continued. "If we get caught, you'll probably get slammed with more chores. But we'll help you, so it won't be that bad. Like Ethan said, we stick together, so your punishment will be our punishment. But if we don't get caught, and we find that treasure, a treasure that no one else has been able to find in all these years, we'll be legends."
Content with his rallying cry, Drew relaxed and stared at the faces of his comrades. Ethan seemed a lock, his burning curiosity in the ghost was far too potent to ignore. Sofie was on the fence, her mind telling her this was a terrible idea, but her heart was loyal to her friends, and she would most likely go along if Jeff did. And speaking of Jeff, he was trying to balance the internal conflict brewing within. The weight of a thousand consequences crushed down upon him as he tried to determine what mattered more: avoiding the wrath of his father or making his parents rich beyond their dreams.
"So what do you say?" Drew said, struggling to hide a devilish grin that nudged his friends down this forbidden path.
Sofie and Ethan looked at Jeff, and Jeff nodded. "Okay. We'll do it."
© Copyright 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.