*** 2008/10/03 - Checked on the box and all was well. Did a little maintenance.
"I was a Highwayman. Along the coach roads i did ride
with sword and pistol by my side
many a young maid lost her baubles to my trade
many a soldier shed his lifeblood on my blade
the bastards hung me in the spring of 25
but i am still alive..."
-- Highwayman by Jimmy Webb, popularized by Willie, Waylon, Johnny, and Kris.
The picture came to me from my grandfather, shortly before we said our final goodbyes. I was the only one who ever understood it, he said, and he had no confidence that the estate mill would properly route it to me.
The grinning boy in front of the horse is Grandaddy. There is some quality to his demeanor that fixes him to an earlier era, though in all other respects he could easily pass for my brother. We have no view of his eyes, though. His gaze is captured, like that of most people who view the picture, by the man who towers above him, arm reaching down to tousle his hair.
One senses that the picture is really ABOUT the man, and my grandfather an accidental prop that fills out the scene. The man's smile is kind, reaching to his eyes, where it doesn't quite outshine the glint of danger. His affectionate regard for the boy is a counterpoint to his weathered face and alert poise. The braids falling out of his hat and across his shoulders speak of a vanity and perhaps a nod to the old West outlaws, although this picture was taken far from what anyone (in this country anyway) would call the West.
Grandaddy says they called him the Highwayman, and he was the subject of much local lore and speculation. Some said he had harried the last remaining stage coach lines in his youth. Others drew him as a bounty hunter or a bodyguard for a railroad monopolist. Every speculated past involved a great deal of money, which everyone presumed he had hidden away. No concrete confirmation ever crossed his own lips. His stories ranged across all of these supposed backtrails and many more, the sheer breadth of supposed experiences making the listener unsure which, if any, could be believed.
His last day in town is legend in these parts, and in fact it was the very day on which the beloved picture was taken. I can't remember now the occasion, although it was probably a wedding if there was a photographer present. Grandaddy's family certainly didn't own their own camera. The Highwayman was in high form as he always was in a crowd, delighting the young (and not so young) boys with his tales of perilous adventure. Two black cars pulled into the church driveway, and he watched the occupants work their way toward him through the crowd. Just about the time everyone else noted the four men and their determined trajectory, the Highwayman tipped his hat to his audience, apologized for the abrupt end to his story, and swung up onto his horse.
The men broke into a run and the Highwayman turned his horse uphill across the field and toward the road. The men now turned back through the crowd to their cars, the crowd parting in astonishment at this eruption of activity. The Highwayman reached the road and looked back at the chaos. Those who were watching, and by this time everyone was either watching him or his apparent pursuers, say his eyes sparkled and his grin was wide. Without further word or gesture, he set his eyes and his horse on the road to the river. The hoof beats were already fading into a patter when they were drowned by the roar of the cars, which swallowed his cloud of dust in their own larger cloud and left the onlookers in a more lasting storm of discussion and speculation.
Given the condition of the road down by the river and the substantial head start, nobody doubted that he could outrun his pursuers. Once across the river, the woods opened up and it would be possible to leave the road, taking to trails on which the cars could not follow. The real fuel for conversation that day (and in the weeks that followed) was which of the suspected past lives had apparently caught up with him and which side of the law he was on.
After some weeks with no sign of the Highwayman or his horse, the talk turned back to the treasure and whether, given his abrupt disappearance, it might still be hidden somewhere nearby. As time went by without sign of him, people started cautiously exploring his old place. By the anniversary of his departure most people had abandoned the search, leaving his shack and its surroundings in a state just short of an archaeological dig. Of the Highwayman's treasure there was no trace. As far as anyone could tell the same was true of the man himself.
That's the story as i have it from Grandaddy, with some bits filled in by other old-timers. The treasure hunting never really stopped, but passed into the province of the impractical, the romantic, and the young. To this day you might still hear the locals use the phrase "after the Highwayman's treasure", to describe someone who has embarked upon a hopeless quest or long-shot business venture.
But back to the picture....
The other night i decided to scan the picture so i could have a digital copy. As i removed it from its frame i noticed a yellowed piece of paper between the backing and the picture. I carefully peeled the paper from the picture and examined it. A scanned image is here, but i would describe it like this:
Twelve boxes arranged as a 4x4 square with the corners missing. Using letters
for the boxes:
C D E F
G H I J
Below this set of boxes is a pair of parallel lines, beginning beside the number 28 at the left, and ending with an arrow pointing to the number 27 at the right.
An arrow points from box I to box A and beyond to what looks like a pile of rocks or collection of rubble. From this point another vector is drawn to the left, through a superimposed grid of squares obviously intended to show the angle from the first vector. At the end of the 2nd vector is a similar collection of odd-shaped circles. This second grouping has one larger one in the center which seems to overlap some of the others.
Flipping the paper over, i saw, more recently written in my grandfather's shaky hand: "The Highwayman handed this to me on the day he left town. Likewise, it comes to you as i leave. "
It was some time before i actually considered the map itself, so puzzled was i at the timing and method of delivery. But it was almost certainly a map, and given the arrows, the final collection of circles seemed to be the intended destination. Coming from the Highwayman, i naturally wondered if this had anything to do with the speculated treasure. If so, it was beyond me why Grandaddy had never mentioned it before. Those summers at his house we had followed down many a theory about the Highwayman's treasure, even progressing to pick and shovel a few times, with predictable results. Grandaddy was a willing and enthusiastic partner in these escapades, which made it even more unfathomable that he had possessed such a map and never mentioned it.
As far as the map itself, it wasn't much to go on... the lines at the bottom looked like a trail or road, but what about the numbers and the odd grid of boxes?
I was actually out of town when i thought of it. The restored railroad water tower i was visiting reminded me of one not far from Grandaddy's house. I could almost hear Grandaddy again on one of our walks, telling me how it used to work back in the steam days. Then i noticed something about the foundation blocks. They were arranged in a pattern much like that on the Highwayman's map. Could the map refer to Grandaddy's water tower? The answer would have to wait until i got back to Durham...
I found the old rail bed off of Stagecoach road, just west of the intersection with Highway 751 heading back into the Jordan Lake Gamelands. The now-trail was gated, so i parked my truck along the road. Seeing the NC Gamelands signs, i grabbed a blaze orange vest from the toolbox (since i never can remember exactly when hunting season is), and set off southward on foot. For an abandoned railway it was in decent shape, and had obviously received some traffic as a foot and bike trail, perhaps even some maintenance. A little more than a mile down the trail i passed an old mile marker with a fading 29 and started to alternate between a giddy excitement that the map actually referred to the old watertower, and a pounding dread that it was gone or under the lake.
Soon after passing the 28 marker, an old road forked to the left, but i stayed on the level grade of the rail bed and just as the lake came into view i found the remains of the watertower to the left of the rail bed. The concrete foundations were the only things left, but they were well out of the water and definitely arranged in the pattern indicated on the map. I consulted the map, stood on the lower-right-center square, and sighted across the top left one. The foliage was dense but it looked like there might be a pile of rocks just up the hill on this vector. After covering the intervening distance, i saw it... a large pile of rocks on the right and a smaller one on the left at approximately the angle indicated on the map!
The top rock on the left pile was somewhat flat, and i lifted it to reveal a small stone chamber, its only contents a small glass bottle. Inside the bottle was a small, lined piece of paper on which Grandaddy had written... "The Highwayman's treasure is yours. Keep it and share with those who understand."
I replaced the stone and walked on down the rail bed to where it fell off into the lake, pondering in the foggy serenity this odd turn of events. The note in the bottle seemed to belie the emptiness of the chamber. Surely i was missing something, but what? And why hide the existence of something we had spent hours speculating about in my youth, only to reveal it as he left?
A heron flew up from the water's edge as i turned the bottle in my hands. Something about the bottle's texture was odd, though, and when i examined it closer, i noticed some words etched into it. I'm not really sure how i missed them the first time, except that i was so intent on what was IN the bottle, and then so surprised to see Grandaddy's note. Reading the older words on the bottle, it all began to come together and i understood about the Highwayman's treasure and why Grandaddy had not spoken of it sooner.
I would include the words here, but perhaps it's better if you found them for yourself. If you make the walk like i did, and follow the map, then perhaps you too will understand and find for yourself the Highwayman's treasure.
In honor of the Highwayman, and as guardian for his treasure, i present the Highwayman letterbox / geocache. The bottle has been replaced by a new metal box in the old stone chamber. The words from the bottle have been transcribed into the inside front cover of a book into which you can make record of your visit. There is also a stamp, of course, to make this a letterbox, and some assorted small treasures for anyone who wants to make a swap. There are some magnets and keychains with the image from the stamp on them. Feel free to take one of these without exchanging anything. If the magnets are running low, drop me a note and i'll restock them.
It's about a 5 mile round-trip from the parking if you walk on down to the end of the railbed to enjoy the scenery. Maybe a little over 4 miles if you don't.