The Boxwooder
Number 116, March 1979
On the Shoals
Front Cover

“DID YOU SEE that North fellow? What’d he want?”

“I don’t know what he wants; he wasn’t ready to tell me. I think he’s a crook of some kind.”

“Oh, you are always making snap judgments about people. I thought he seemed like a nice person.”

“My judgments may be quick, but they’re damn near always right. You know that.”

”Well, I think you’re wrong about him. I’m going to the beach for an hour or so.” She gathered up her beach towel, bottles of suntan oil, books, sunglasses, watch, and several unidentified objects and left the motel room.

He opened the minuscule refrigerator, popped the top of a beer can, lay down on the bed with his head propped up by two pillows. ”Damn pop tops,” he said. He had been raised on beer that came into his mouth from a triangular opening, and no pop top opening would ever seem right. “Probably natural selection will result in people having mouths that fit these openings. Who cares about obsolete people who have mouths that fit triangles?” ]eff Wescott sucked on his ill-fitting beer can and thought of Terry North.

Jeff and his wife had come to Cape Hatteras two days ago to spend a couple of weeks. When he was working, it had been his favorite kind of vacation – lying around on the beach, drinking gin over ice, or beer, and eating fresh seafood at the restaurants in Buxton and Hatteras Village. It was a world without newspapers, TV, or telephones. (The natives, of course, have newspapers, telephones, and TV with extremely poor reception, but the visitors are not troubled with them. Many motel rooms have neither phone nor TV.) In his career, he had spent vacations on Hatteras as isolated as if the rest of the world did not exist. Now that he had retired, he hoped the place would work its usual magic and alleviate a new tension that had developed in his life.

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Last evening, he and Martha had been in the Lighthouse Restaurant in Buxton and had just given their order to the waitress when the electricity had gone off. Not just in the restaurant but, as it turned out, on the whole island. The alacrity with which the waitress brought a candle attested that this was not too unusual.

As often happens in large and small emergencies, the normal reserve of the customers was weakened and conversations started from table to table. Jeff had found himself talking about the power failure with a man who was sitting alone at the next table. The man introduced himself as Terry North. Terry North was a slim, sun-tanned, young-looking man, forty at most. He had a black, curly, rather straggly beard and lively brown eyes. His look was so direct and piercing that it was a little disconcerting. He said he was a geologist on sabbatical from Nova University in Florida. When Jeff had told him he had recently retired from his own electronics company, Terry had shown immediate interest and had asked, “Are you an electronics expert, I mean hardware man, or were you just owner-manager?”

The question had taken Jeff aback because the chief argument his son had used in urging him to retire was that Jeff was not keeping up with the state of the art in electronics. “It’s strictly a young man’s game,” his son had said with, Jeff had told himself, unconscious cruelty. Still, in layman’s terms, he would be rated an expert and he told Terry that. Terry had then asked him to come to see him today at Terry’s rented house in Avon.

What Terry wanted was to improve by a factor of ten the sensitivity of an ordinary metal detector. Jeff had explained that the problem was essentially one of noise – you could have almost unlimited sensitivity, but it would do no good because the noise would also increase. Further, he had said that the sensitivity of the ordinary detector was pretty good and what did Terry want to detect. Terry had hemmed and hawed and had finally said, “If I told you what I wanted to find, could you tailor the detector to be optimum for that?”

Jell said that there probably was no optimum sensitivity but, yes, he could calculate what was needed, design the circuits, and build the detector.

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“Let me think about this a day or two,” Terry had said. ”Listen, I don’t know how to say this, but it’s a very delicate matter. Can you tell me how I can check on you to see that you’re who you say you are? I know this sounds very presumptuous, but it may well be worth your while.”

Finally Jeff had called his bank and had Frank Windrow, the manager, vouch for him. Terry had said he was satisfied but still needed time to think it over. How come you retired so young?” Terry had asked, and Jeff had found himself recounting the whole story. He had never told anyone about the hurt and humiliation he had felt when the board had voted him out of the presidency of his company. Until the vote he had not known that he was counting on them to beg him to stay, to say that the company could not get along without him. If he had known how much he was going to mind, he would never have given in to his wife’s and his son’s urging that he retire.

“Is there any chance your son just diddled you for his own advancement?” Terry had asked. Jeff had denied that possibility to Terry, but now that the statement had been made, he realized it was a conclusion that he had been hiding from himself.

Two days later Terry called for him at his motel in Buxton and about half a mile south of the motel stopped his car and said, “Read that marker.”

Jeff read it aloud: “Diamond Shoals, ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic,’ German submarines sank over 100 ships here 1941-42, in the ‘Battle of Torpedo Junction.’ Shoals are 3 miles south.”

“The first ship sunk, that was the most important one,” said Terry. “Before anyone suspected any danger to ships so close to the coast, a very important ship was torpedoed and grounded on these shoals. Local fishing boats took survivors off and a lot of the more valuable cargo. But the most valuable cargo of all vanished without a trace. I got this story from an old Cuban in Miami who had been a guard for that cargo on the ship. He was injured and immobilized when he saw the cargo being removed by some Americans, Instead of telling the authorities about it, he hoped to profit from what he saw, but he could never find out what happened to the cargo. At that time he couldn’t speak English and all Americans looked more or less alike to him. He came to Cape Hatteras several times looking for the men, but he never found them and never found any trace of the cargo. When he told me about it, he knew he had little time to live and had given up his dreams of making his fortune.”

“What was this cargo?”

“Gold, lots of gold. Perhaps as much as 500 pounds of gold,”

“Oh, come on.”

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”I know it sounds crazy, but this was Cuban gold. Batista had gotten nervous because of some threatened uprising and shipped this gold to a bank in New York. It was his insurance money. All dictators take out insurance. Now they send it to Switzerland, but in those days it went to New York. There were ten satchels, made to look like briefcases, but each was lined with a strong steel box. Each satchel contained about 50 pounds of gold bullion. It was about a year ago that I learned about this. I did a lot of talking to the natives here, and one thing’s certain: no sign of the gold has been seen. None of the fishing captains of 1941 suddenly struck it rich and left the island. Now, no one would sit on that much gold for nearly 40 years or just ignore it until he died. Batista must have sent people to inquire about it. But the ship broke up only a few hours after going aground, so I guess they decided the gold was still aboard. Not one whisper has been heard of it.”

”Well?” asked Jeff.

“I know what happened to it.”

“How can you possibly know?”

“Purely by deduction. Shortly after the sinking of the ship with the gold, the three Brainherd brothers were caught at sea in a hurricane and all three perished. Pieces of their boat, The Three Bee, were found on the shore some days after the storm. Those boys have to be the ones who got the gold. They never had a chance to do anything but hide it. And I think I know where it is.”

“Aren’t you taking quite a risk telling me all this?”

Terry sighed and started the car. “I have to have some help,” he said. “I need an electronics expert for the metal detector, and I’m going to need some additional capital. I have $20,000, and I may need as much as $10,000 more. I am willing to give up a one-third interest to you for that capital and your help in locating the gold.”

“Well,” said Jeff, “it’s going to have to look awfully damn good before I shell out any $10,000.”

“Oh, it’s good all right. And anyway the capital we have to put up is to buy the land I think the gold is buried on. If there’s no gold, we can sell the land for little or no loss. I’m willing to have the land in your name; that way you won’t have to trust me, I’ll be trusting you. Here’s the place – this development.”

The sign said, “Pirates Cove, wooded homesites, 10% down, 10 years to pay.”

“The Brainherd property was right in the middle of this development. The house has been torn down and the whole area has been divided into lots. I think I know where the Brainherd house was.” Terry drove into the development over the dusty gravel road, and Jeff looked at the dirty-gray loose sand and the scrubby pine “woods.” Terry stopped the car when a house just came into view. “Midgett Realty, Model Home” was painted across the side of the house.

“What I propose to do is locate the boxes with a metal detector at night and then buy the lots on which the boxes are buried. I don’t want to be seen on the development or do anything to attract attention. We can’t use their 10%-down proposition because the developer retains title until the lot is paid off. We must pay cash and get a valid title before we do any digging, I’m sure as hell not going to dig up a million dollars for someone else. Do you know what lots like these cost?”

“No idea,” said Jeff. “Must be pretty high, though.”

“These are $7500 each. That’s high for land here, but they have city water and will have paved streets.”

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Jeff had never thought of himself as a greedy man, or one really much concerned about money, but the very thought of 500 pounds of gold excited him. It wasn’t the money it represented, it was the idea of all that gold. For the first time, he understood the gold fever of the gold rush days. Jeff told Martha what he proposed to do. At first she said, “You’ve lost your mind,” but then the gold fever seized her, and she became enthusiastic about the plan.

In the next three days he redesigned the metal detector and rebuilt it with parts that he had to go to Norfolk to obtain. He felt sure it would detect the steel boxes even if they were buried six-feet deep as Terry guessed them to be.

Finally one night they searched the area where Terry thought the Brainherd place had been and found six likely targets. Examination of the plat showed the find to be at the intersection of four lots. “We’ll have to buy all four,” Terry said, ”We can’t take a chance that some of the boxes are on land that we don’t own.”

Jeff agreed and the next day went to Terry’s house to meet with the real estate agent. “We’ll have him come to us,” Terry had said, “we’ll attract less attention that way.”

At the meeting Terry had explained to Ernest Midgett, the salesman, that they wanted three or four lots for a beach house to be used by Wescott Electronics and impressed upon him that there must be no publicity about the purchase until the title had passed. They had examined the plan that was unrolled on the coffee table and had chosen the lots.

“Let’s see,” said Midgett as he wrote some numbers, “those four lots will come to $43,380.”

“What!” protested Terry. “Aren’t they $7500 each?”

“Well,” said Midgett, “most of them are, but these are on already cleared land and they have direct access to the ocean. Also they happen to be larger than most. But I tell you what. Seein’ you are paying cash, I’ll make it $40,000 for the four. I’m sure I can get it approved.”

“We’ll let you know,” said Terry. After Midgett left he said, “Well, 20 is all I have. I can’t raise any more. Can you put up 20 and we’ll split 50-50?” ]eff agreed and agreed they should each get $20,000 in cash by Wednesday and settle for the lots as quickly as possible.

It was Friday by the time they were ready to settle. Again Ernest Midgett came to Terry’s house. They signed the papers, and he gave Jeff a copy of the settlement papers. ”Now it’ll take a few days to get the transfer completed,” Midgett said. They arranged that the deeds could be picked up at the Midgett real estate office in Hatteras Village. After Midgett had gone, Terry said he had to go to Washington for a few days on university business and that Jeff should pick up the papers at the real estate office on Tuesday and that he would be back by Wednesday, and then they would rent a backhoe from a man in Salvo and dig up the gold.

On Tuesday when Jeff and Martha entered the real estate office in Hatteras Village, a young, broad-beamed woman smiled effusively at them and said, “Hi, I’m Bessie Midgett. Can I help you?”

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When Jeff explained his mission, she looked perplexed, “Why, I didn’t even know we’d sold those lots,” she said. When Jeff explained that the land had been bought from Ernest Midgett, she called, “Ern, Ern, come here a minute.”

A pudgy, florid-faced man who bore no resemblance to the Ernest Midgett Jeff had met came through a curtained doorway behind the counter. Further discussion revealed that Midgett Realty knew nothing about last week’s transaction. “I think you’d better go talk to Sheriff Kenter. His office is right next door.” Bessie said.

Jeff and Martha walked to the one-story, concrete-block building on which neat lettering said, “Dare Co. Sheriff’s Department.” Sheriff Kenter, actually a deputy sheriff according to his silver badge, was a big, red-faced man with an expansive belly but with an intelligent look and an easy-going manner. ”Well, hell,” he said. “Excuse me, Mam, you’ve been swindled by the Cuban Kids. You’re the third case in two years. It used to be people would fall for tales of pirates and Spanish gold, now it’s Cuban gold. These are slick customers. From what I’ve heard, I don’t blame you for falling for it. We’ve been on the lookout for them, but it’s awful easy to change your appearance with a beard or something. You know, these towns ain’t like ordinary small towns. Nearly everybody is a stranger, so strangers don’t stand out, and nobody pays any mind to how anybody looks. The natives know the natives, but they don’t pay any attention to what a visitor looks like.”

Jeff gave the sheriff all the details of the swindle and a complete description of “Terry North” and “Ernest Midgett.” The sheriff promised to let him know what success the law had in finding the swindlers. “Don’t bank on it, though,” he said. “You’d better just consider your money gone. It don’t do to have false hopes.”

As they drove away, Jeff was, he thought, smiling inwardly, but Martha detected his mood. “You old fool,” she said, “You act like it’s a joke losing all that money. I told you he was a crook, but you don’t listen to me.”

”Martha,” Jeff said, ”I haven’t had so much fun in years. If it had cost me $20,000, it would have been worth it. You underestimate me, Martha. I can’t really blame you; everybody always seems to underestimate me. That’s partly how I built up a successful business.”

Jeff thought back to the moment when he had known it was a swindle. When Earnest Midgett had introduced himself to Terry North, Jeff had known beyond doubt that they knew each other. He had watched Terry drop a twist of lemon peel in Ernest’s martini before he remembered to ask whether he wanted an olive or a twist, but that was only confirmation. He observed that they didn’t listen to each other, and Ernest picked out with his eyes the four lots on the map before he had been told. It was clearly an act and a poor one. Jeff thought that possibly it is difficult to take seriously a man you seem to be gulling so easily.

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Jeff felt that he was extremely sensitive to nuances in people. Perhaps, because he was an electronics engineer, people could not credit him with this capability even when they had seen the results of it. It had made him a successful manager and a formidable negotiator. So far as he could see, their son George had inherited none of this useful ability.

”Martha, instead of cash I paid my share with two bearer bonds with a face value of $10,000 each and worth a dollar apiece. Frank Windrow found them for me. They were so sure of me that they never questioned the value of the bonds. I’ll tell you why I’m pleased. This whole deal has restored my confidence that I can still handle people and that my judgment is still sound. As soon as we get home, I’m going to take care of a bigger swindle. Son George has swindled me out of my own company, and I’m going to take it back. George is a hot-shot electronics engineer, but he couldn’t manage a flock of turkeys. I’ve been counting the votes I know I can bank on, and George is going to be out on his ass. If he hadn’t been my son, I wouldn’t have been so blind in the first place.”

”That’s not a very nice way to talk about your own son. And don’t count on my stock to help put you back in. I do think you’re better off out of it.”

“Martha, you didn’t listen. I said you underestimate me, even after 30 years. I wasn’t counting on your votes. After all, you were a party to the swindle that kicked me out of my company. Furthermore, I strongly suspect that you were the instigator and planner for George’s campaign to unseat his old man.”

“Jeff, you must know that in all my actions I have your welfare at heart. I did what I thought best for you.”

“I hope so, Martha. I’m trying my damnedest to believe that, It isn’t easy, but I’ll keep trying.”

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Colophon

Hand set in Goudy’s Deepdene; display type is Rivoli Italic. Edited, published, and 500 copies printed by Jake Warner on a 10 x 15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, MD 20770.

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