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Golden Bones by Andrew L. McFarlane

On December 8th of the year 1854, the steam propeller Westmoreland went down in the Manitou Passage. Aboard her when she sank were 30,000 bushels of oats, 300 barrels of flour, numerous barrels of supplies for a Mackinac Island mercantile (including several barrels of Kentucky whiskey), and, yes, over $100,000 in gold coins. All the 101 years of my life I have watched men search the Lake for these coins, keeping silent. Because, you see, I know the fate of the treasure of the Westmoreland .

It was July of 1907 when my grandfather, Captain Tobias Boynton of the Jacqueline out of Green Bay took his operation across the Lake. I know, because I was aboard. My father, the publisher, offered me a choice: Stay in Green Bay the summer of my thirteenth year working as a copy boy and learning the business, or spend a summer aboard the Jacqueline with Granpa Toby. For a dreamy lad of thirteen, there really was no choice. We caught sight of the Bear early in the morning of July 16th and while Granpa and his crew were about their business, checking the diving suits, setting up lines and the like, I noticed the solitary figure of an old man at the bow. Though I turned pa down that summer, I guess that my reporter's instincts were already strong--I could smell a story in the way that old man just stared at the water.

Granpa had told me his name, Mr. Pelkey, and told me, just as the rest of the crew, not to bother him. I asked Granpa if there was anything I could do to help. "Keep yourself out of the way," he told me. The bow seemed about as out of the way as you could get without going below, and I took up a position not far from the mysterious Mr. Pelkey. Under the guise of observing the coastline behind us, I studied him. His thin face, like my grandfather's, and every other old seaman's, was deeply lined by sun and wind. Under a wild tangle of grey hair and a black fisherman's cap, his eyes peered forth. Though the day was overcast, he was nonetheless squinting at the gently rolling waves. I noticed that his lips were moving and I moved closer.

"...not even close. Gotta be more northwest. Bear don't look right 'tall."

"The Bear, Mr. Pelky?" I asked. "You've seen it before?"

At once his eyes and attention fixed upon me. I could see a lot in them. Long, fog choked nights in the way they bulged at me. Years of dealing with green crew in the way he sized me up and down with a glance. A lifetime of pitting oneself against an implacable foe in the way his shoulders squared momentarily and then dropped.

"Ya. I've seen the Bear, boy. Seen it a hunderd times. More. Seen it watchin' me ever mornin', and watchin' ever evenin'. Watchin' ole Cap'n Paul. Laughin' at him an his treasure ship. Yah, I seen the Bear." His voice, bitter as February, told me to leave him alone.

"Granpa Toby's a salvager. You said Captain Paul. Were you on a wreck once?" Like I said, reporter's instincts.

He turned on me, fierce.

"Yore Granpa's a vulture and a fool, boy!"

I shrank from his anger, but quickly as it came it went, leaving him small again. He was silent and staring for a time, and when he spoke again, it was in little more than a whisper. I moved closer.

"Yah, boy. They called me Cap'n Pelkey for a time. Was before that, though. Ever hear of the Westmoreland?"

I nodded no, silent for fear he'd fall silent too.

"A propeller, boy. Two hunerd feet if it were an inch. Fine lookin' craft as you ever laid eyes on. But boy, I'm tellin' you right here she was a dog." He spat venomously over the rail. "Oh, she'd move fast enough. Did Chicago to Buffalo regular as yore Aunt Mabel. Maybe it was just Decembers and Milwaukee that didn't agree with her. Don't take kindly to Decembers in Milwaukee myself. Her first December, '53, her guts seized up an' she sat in Milwaukee while they fixed her up. Come spring she was out agin and didn't have two cares to rub together the whole summer an' fall. Then, come December '54, her last December, we left Milwaukee for the Mackinaw."

He looked toward me, but I could tell that he wasn't really seeing me. His eyes were back in the head of young Paul Pelkey, looking out on December.

"Ever spend December on the Michigan, boy?"

I knew that watching the west wind swoop snow over our large house on the Lake Michigan shore wouldn't count for much, so I kept silent again. "Superior, yah, she's hard an' mean a spinster as ever you'll see. But ya know that goin' in and ya never take yore eyes off her. Thirty foot troughs a matter of course on Superior and she'll break ya quick as a stick. But Michigan, she's a differn' lady. Ya see her mean but ya ferget when she smiles at ya so sweet.

"She smiled at us on December 6th, an' we fergot right away how she drove us back into Milwaukee three days afore. By the time we would've seen yore Bear, in pitch dark she was slappin' us around, screaming wind and throwin' snow like a lady scorned. We made the south point of the Manitou," he gestured at South Manitou Island a mile and a half off the port bow, "But it were too late. All day the ice kep' climbin' and climbin' the sides and nothin' we could do to knock it off. 'Bout two hours after midnight, the Cap'n, Thom Clarke, gave the order to abandon ship and it fell to me and the first mate to get the yawl boats to the water, 'cause the Cap'n was tryin' to get 15 of the passengers, lumberjacks who busted into a barrel of whiskey 'roun ten, sayin' if they was gonna die, they was gonna die happy, to the boats. Finally, he gave up sayin' fools deserved to sink like the stones their heads was full of. We lost the big yawl and two passengers with it, but we got us safely, or safe as ya can be in a blizzard on Michigan in a boat no bigger than yore bedroom, into it, and as we cast off I swear to ya, those lumberjacks jus' kep' singin' and hollerin' like they was at a fancy hotel on New Years Evenin'.

"We dinnet see it go down, but we knew they was doomed to die. Took hours an' hours, but we made shore an' made a tent an' made it out alive. "But boy, I'll tell you, jus' as Cap'n Thom tole me, there's a fortune under those waves. Twenny years later, I came back, I found that sunken dog. Never did find its bone though."

He turned away, casting his gaze back over the rail, seeking through the waves his treasure. "Bones. Hunnerd thousand golden bones," I heard him muttering.

"Davy! Now what did I tell you? You take yourself to my cabin immediately and don't come out until I say so!" Granpa had been in the Navy during the war, and his voice hadn't forgotten the ordering part. I hustled myself past the big diving suits and the smiling crew to Granpa's cabin.

The cabin smelled of pipe smoke and secrets. I went over to his desk, salvaged from the schooner O.M. Nelson, "1899, Plum Island," Granpa had told me. I lit the lamp and sat in his chair. The leather was watercracked, and I forget the name of the wreck, but it was comfortable and important feeling. I should explain here that Granpa wasn't your ordinary run of salvager, a Tom Reid, ready to pull any ship for a fair price. He was more of a treasure hunter who would dive for specific items. If you wanted your ship back, you called Tom Reid. If you wanted your Great Uncle Harrisson's jeweled tieclip, you called Granpa For a while I pretended I was Captain of the Jaqueline, ordering my crew to dive on the Westmoreland and damn the December storm. I soon grew bored with that and my attention turned to the papers strewn across the scratched but well polished desk. "Davy, a tidy desk is the surest sign of a lazy mind," Granpa had told me when I asked about the clutter one time.

Granpa was one for preaching his practices and I had soon sorted the contents to my satisfaction. Most of it was miscellaneous charts and bills, but I found among the debris a weighty piece of battered wood to which was attached a rusted hasp, as well as a tidy pile of newspaper articles which I started reading. They all concerned the wreck of the Westmoreland and the reports of Captain Paul Pelkey in 1872 and '73 attempting to recover the vessel. The accounts seemed to imply success, a story which I found hard to reconcile with the dejected figure at the rail. The stories mentioned only the two lost in the launching of the lifeboats, giving me further cause to ponder.

I sat there, lost in thought, turning the conflicting stories over and over in my head until Granpa and Captain Pelkey entered, each bearing a glass half full of amber liquid.

"I don't think, Davy, that I hauled that desk from the bottom of the lake just to have my overcurious grandson's footprints all over it. Hastily I removed my feet from the top, stood up, and made a brief and futile attempt to restore the desktop to its previous state. I sensed that we were on the move again, which my grandfather confirmed.

"Found nuthin', just like I said. A mile to the southeast, we are." Pelkey complained.

"Nothing, Mr. Pelkey?" Granpa replied, raising his glass in salute, "A fine keg of aged Kentucky whiskey to while away the winter months. I say we've done all right."

"And another full of the Lake." Pelkey retorted.

"Well, we'll look over the wreck on our way back, but I'm sure you were as thorough as a man could be."

"I tell you Captain Boynton same as I tole you in the bar back in Milwaukee, those coins were long gone, 'long with the safe in '74, and they're longer gone today."

The rest of the summer was spent back and forth, chasing down rumours and plucking cargo from ruined holds. Pelkey was right, the Jacqueline found nothing of value on the hulk of the Westmoreland.

Over the years I forgot about the Westmoreland and its reputed treasure until the summer of my twenty-third year when I, now a real reporter building name and career, was visiting my grandfather. He was comfortable and in retirement, content to wander the beaches near his Egg Harbor home. His home was much as his desk had been, cluttered with charts and debris, hints of treasure yet to be uncovered. We were lounging on the back porch, overlooking the gentle crashing of the summer waves, sipping an exceptional whiskey. "This isn't-" I began.

"One and the same," he replied with a fond smile.

My memory flew back to my days on the Jacqueline. "Poor Mr. Pelkey," I lamented.

Granpa was silent for a time and then laughed. "Poor indeed, as I'm sure he told you Davy, as are we all when we lack for imagination."

"But," I asked, "Was it really worth the expense, all for an occasional glass of whiskey?"

"I would say yes, even if whiskey was the only harvest of that trip."

The implication was that it wasn't. My now finely honed reporter's sense told me to tread softly. I raised an eyebrow.

He laughed again, "Put away your pad and pencil my boy, and I'll tell you a real story. Pelkey was right about one thing, the Westmoreland was picked clean as bones on a beach." Granpa stood and stretched and I rose as well, knowing that Granpa Toby liked to be on the move when telling a tale.

"He erred in assuming that things would be the way he expected. The ship was where he thought it would be so he assumed everything else would be as well. When it wasn't, he gave up. He walked over to the desk from the O.M. Nelson and removed an object. "Remember this?" It was the scarred and rough piece of wood and hasp. "Notice it. The hasp is unbroken, so where's the lock, Davy?"

I confessed ignorance.

"As a reporter, I'm sure you now the value of cultivated sources. Do you remember old Glass Annie?"

I did indeed remember the strange old woman of Good Harbor Bay who spent her days walking up and down the shoreline, pockets full of stones and the rare, at the time, rough and rounded bits of beach glass. He had brought her a wax sealed bottle he found drifting, seal intact and a heavy bag that clinked dully. After a look in the bag, she returned it to him, nodding toward me. The bottle she accepted, cradling it as if it were finer than any gift.

Granpa then reached into the desk drawer and pulled forth that same bag which Annie had handed back. He plunked it on the desk before me. I opened it.


I was speechless.

"Thank Annie, son, a woman who knew treasure. It's yours, of course. Build a home, marry a girl, play the horses, buy the Times if it'll make you happy."

An overwhelming mix of gratitude and curiosity held me silent.

"You see, it was Annie who found the treasure of the Westmoreland, all I did was picked it up. Every spring, the very first thing I'd do was pay a visit to Glass Annie to see how she had been getting on and what she had found over the winter. One time, around the turn of the century, I asked her about winters past. She showed me this," he brandished the wood and hasp, "And told me how she'd found it the same week years before as two barrels tied together. It took a couple of years for it all to settle the right way in my head, but then I knew the fate of the treasure of the Westmoreland.

"Ten minutes with Pelkey and I knew that he'd never found the coins. What he'd left out of the equation was the drunken lumberjacks. Drunk or not, lumberjacks are men who know about survival and aren't afraid of a little risk. The same axes that broke into the whiskey barrels broke into the safe. Ten empty barrels and some rope are a raft, for the stout of heart."

He fell silent, leaving me time to fill in the blanks. "Not a very good raft though, drunken fingers don't tie the best knots," I ventured. Encouraged by his nod, I went on. "So they broke apart, away from the wreck, and the barrel full of lake water..."

"Had a little gold in it to boot. Maybe they shouldn't have tried to carry that full keg of whiskey as well," Granpa reflected. We stood looking at his chart of the Manitou Passage, meticulously drawn, wrecks large and small plotted and footnoted, for when it came to charts, Granpa was not one to leave anything, no matter how trivial, out. Except that he had.

"Why did you leave the Westmoreland off, Granpa?"

He chuckled slightly, which, as is often the case with grandfathers, trailed into a cough and drained the rest of his whiskey.

"People need their mysteries, David. Never forget that."

Andrew McFarlane lives and works in Leelanau County and swears he'd write for a living if only he could figure out a way to live on what writers make.

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