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Tales of the Detectorists: The Wishing Well

Tales of the Detectorists: The Wishing Well

John R. Cobb

Published by John R. Cobb

Copyright 2016 John R. Cobb


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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.



Tales of the Detectorist: The Wishing Well

By John. R. Cobb


Detectorist: One who searches for buried treasure with a metal detector, or one who has nothing better to do than dig up rusty nails, bottle caps, and other metallic junk.


Grizzled faces stared down the well. More than a century had passed since a pail of water was hoisted from its depths. Mossy stonework formed a perfect ring a dozen feet across. The rim climbed waist high, chiseled stones still fixed. Despite decades of neglect and winter frost heaves, not a stone was out of place.

The surrounding woods were shadowy and quiet. The only sounds were the faraway screeches of a blue jay and the bawling of the beagles. Rob and Dean unshouldered their sweat-stained backpacks and laid them on the damp ground alongside their metal detectors.

“Well…told yah so,” Rob stated as he turned his head and spat. “Whadda say now, Numbnuts?”

“Gotta admit…you nailed this one,” Dean replied, lighting a fresh cigarette. “I’m impressed…somewhat.”

“Somewhat, my ass!” Rob snorted. “I spent a lot of time in the library researching this place. Not so easy reading newspaper clippings off a microfiche.”

“Now, I am impressed. I always thought you were semi-illiterate!” Dean chuckled. “I’ve never seen yah study anything, except a dinner menu.”

“Yeah, yeah, keep it up, Dino, and you’ll be swimmin’ home!”

“So, this is the fabled wishing well you’ve been yammerin’ about?” Dean observed as he shucked his flannel shirt and mopped his sweaty face with handkerchief. “Can’t believe there was an actual town here at one time.”

“Yep, Hebron Village. You’re standing middle of the main square…or what’s left of it. Most of it’s underwater now—thanks to the beavers,” Rob stated for the umpteenth time. “Tannery mill, store, school…the works. Thirty years or more, then a big fire gutted the whole town. Killed a bunch of people, including the mill owner, Elias Pinkham.”

“Then, there was a cholera outbreak, or was that just a tall tale, like the witch?” Dean asked. “I’ve heard some strange stories hereabouts.”

“I dunno about the epidemic, but Pinkham’s widow was the town’s last known resident. That’s for certain because town tax records are still around.”

“So, she wasn’t a witch?”

“Well, whadda think?” Rob grumbled. “Just a bunch of nonsense, is all. She and her husband lived in a fancy house on the edge of town. She was a lot younger, came from Eastern Europe somewhere…possibly a gypsy. Didn’t speak English. Tall and thin, always dressed in black and big feathered hats and wore a fancy necklace—according to the newspapers. I suppose a bunch of busybodies filled in the blanks.”

“What was she…a mail order bride or something?”

“Or some gold diggin’ floozy… Who the hell knows?” Rob said. “I didn’t see anything in the newspapers, but supposedly, her housemaid poisoned her and stole her jewelry. Anyways, she’s been dead over a hundred years now. Cemetery’s near where the school was. Nothin’ but an alder thicket now.”

“Sun’s gettin’ low,” Dean said, looking skyward. “Let’s unload the boat and pitch the tent.”

“Yeah, gonna get nipply tonight,” Rob agreed. “I wanna get a fire goin’ too.”

“What about Susie and Sadie?”

“Oh, don’t worry about the beagles,” Rob answered, pulling his shirt over his ample belly and tucking into his pants. “They’ll be back before dark.”

After setting up camp and eating dinner, the men crawled into the tent. With little room in the boat, they brought no cots or mats as a buffer against the stony ground. Rob and Dean contorted their bodies to escape the tree roots digging into their backsides. Tired from chasing rabbits, the beagles slumbered, snuggled together at their master’s feet. Odors of grimy men, wet canine, and cigarette smoke permeated the tent.

“Boy, we’re gonna pay for this tomorrow,” Dean opined as he shifted. “Should have brought a jug of coffee brandy to ease our sufferings.”

“Yeah, sucks all right. Tomorrow, we can pad the ground with moss. Thankfully, the mosquitoes and no-see-ums have gone by. Remember last time out?”

“Yeah, I remember all right. Two days excavating an outhouse pit. Nasty work that was… My hands smelled for a month after.”

“Oh…that’s just your imagination,” Rob countered. “That poop had composted long before we dug it up. Besides…we found some interesting stuff. We still have a case of old bottles to clean up yet. That’ll still bring us a few bucks.”

“I’ll grant you that,” Dean admitted. “Those Liberty quarters and dimes were a sweet find…and that gold necklace…” His cigarette butt brightened in the darkness as he inhaled.

“And how ’bout that alabaster dildo!” Rob laughed. “Who knew there were such things back then?”

“Yeah, real lifelike too—veins and all!” Dean recounted. “Too bad it was broke in two. Probably would have been worth something to the right collector.”

“No doubt a jealous husband came across it in his wife’s knitting basket. Big one, it was!”

The beagles awoke at the sound of laughter, which ended when both men had a coughing fit—courtesy of a lifelong cigarette habit. Bordered by countless stars, a full moon filled the night sky. An early autumn chill wafted through the forest. The men settled and slept. The beagles stirred a few times during the night when whispered sounds carried from the woods, but went back to sleep.


“Aw shit!” Rob hissed, a sharp pain shooting up his back. “Hold up a sec’.”

“Tree roots poked your spine last night, huh?” Dean said, setting down the heavy water pump. “Can’t say I feel much better, but I am much younger…and handsome…and studly…”

“Yeah, yeah, quite the ladies’ man, you are,” Rob said, leaning over as much as his belly would allow and letting his arms hang. “A handful of aspirin, and I’ll be just fine. Just wanna finish setting up first.”

“The girls are on the scent,” Dean said, listening to distant howls. “At least, they’re havin’ fun.”

“Yeah, they are,” Rob said. “Won’t be long before a rabbit comes barreling through here.”

By noontime, the men had cut down nearby cedars, made posts, and erected a stout derrick that spanned the well opening. Dean attached a pulley. Nearby was a gas-powered water pump and a coiled hose ready for use.

“Most likely, there’s big debris on the bottom, so we’ll use the grappling hook for that, and then dredge up the loose material. If there’s coinage down there, the suction pump should bring it up. Afterwards, we’ll sweep with the metal detectors. Hopefully, we’ll find something good.”

“Wish us luck,” Dean said, dropping the heavy metal hook down the well shaft. Rope played out between his fingers until the rig reached the bottom.

“Damn! Must be fifty feet or more,” Rob reckoned. “I didn’t expect it to be so deep, but that’s a good thing…keep away the weekend treasure hunters.”

“Well…if there’s any dildos down there,” Dean said, “let’s hope they’re still in one piece.”

Pulling up sharply, the grappling hook latched onto something. Dean threaded the rope through the pulley and hauled. For a moment, the object resisted before breaking free from the bottom.

“There it is,” Rob said, hauling a length of wood over the well rim. “Probably a few more where this came from.”

For the next hour, the men exhumed timbers, boulders, and animal bones. The largest specimen was the upper skull of a moose adorned with an entire rack of antlers. Another was the complete skull of a black bear with large incisors, which Rob set aside for his collection. Bones, large and small, littered the ground—many unrecognizable to the men. Fortunately, the stones that fortified the shaft were intact and had not become dislodged over the decades.

“Now, how in the hell did a grown moose fall down a well?” Dean posed, combing his shaggy hair with his fingers. “That’s just crazy.”

“I dunno, but it’s a pretty big opening.”

“If you say so,” Dean said, “but that’s still crazy.”

“Is that it?” Rob asked. “Thankfully, we didn’t pull up a human skeleton. At least, I don’t see any suspicious bones.”

“Yeah, thank goodness for that,” Dean chuckled as he probed the well bottom with the hook. “Maybe a few smaller rocks, but feels like sediment and gravel. What dah…?”


“Something’s on the hook!” Dean said, yielding slack. “Something’s pulling, I tell yah!”

“Oh, quit foolin’ around!” Rob barked. “We gotta start pumping…”

Hand over hand, Dean hauled up the rope. The tines of the grappling hook grasped a large fish.

“Look at that!” Dean said. “Big ole brook trout!”

“I’ll be buggered,” Rob said. “I’ve heard of people putting fish in their wells to keep the bugs down, but…”

“But, no way this one’s a hundred years old,” Dean surmised as he unclamped the fish and lay it on the ground. “Think someone stocked the well?”

“No way,” Rob disputed. “See the scars on its back. I’d say an eagle dropped it down there by accident.”

“That’s gotta be what happened,” Dean said, admiring the trout’s mottled skin and colorful spots. “It’s a beauty, isn’t it? Since it isn’t hurt, what say we let it go?”

“Don’t wanna have a fish fry instead?”

“Nah…” Dean answered, carrying the fish to the stream. “Wouldn’t be a fitting end for such a handsome trout.”

“Don’t fall in love with it,” Rob smirked. “I wanna start pumpin’.”

Dredge nozzle and hose lowered, Dean pulled the starter rope. The water pump rumbled to life, belching exhaust. Soon, a slurry of sediment flowed into a shallow depression near the woods. As water streamed over the bank, a mesh of chicken wire contained the material collecting below. About fifteen minutes later, Rob killed the pump. The men smoked waiting for the holding pond to sieve away.

“Water’s a lot lower,” Dean noted, flicking a cigarette butt down the well. “Can’t even see the surface.”

“It’ll fill back up soon enough.”

Faraway, the beagles had been baying throughout the morning. Now, their howls grew louder. A crashing of branches preceded the appearance of a moose. Aquatic plants and water lilies hung from its wide antlers. Sinewy muscle shuddered beneath its hide. The hackles on his back were raised in agitation. It bounded into the holding pond and stopped. The powerful beast looked at the men and snorted. Rob and Dean froze, mouths agape. Other sounds approached. The moose turned and bolted into the far woods.

Soon after, a throng of animals sprinted through the worksite in rapid succession, including several hares, two raccoons, and a fox. Teeth bared and tail bushed, a large, dark-brown fisher padded by with no regard of the men. Immediately after, a skunk and porcupine waddled through making mewling noises. Susie and Sadie appeared and raced to the men. Tails tucked and running in circles, they woofed as if imparting a message of alarm and dread.

Dean hurried to the tent, retrieved his rucksack, and removed a large caliber revolver. Rob brandished a stout maple stick stripped bare by a beaver. They hunkered behind the well and listened for whatever had spooked the wildlife. A sound like wind carried from the forest, but not a leaf or bough stirred. Instead, a wisp of fog drifted through the trees. The air grew chill. Dark clouds veiled the sun.

The beagles stood in rigid pose. Tails raised and muzzles pointed. The men were quiet and alert, their eyes searching the shadowy spruce for movement. Noiseless and vague, a black shape lurked between the trees.

“What is it?” Dean whispered.

“Friggin’ black bear…only thing it could be,” Rob stated. “Fire a few rounds above him, and he’ll tear outta here in a hurry.”

Cocking its hammer, Dean held his handgun aloft with both hands, sighted down the barrel, and followed the form as it moved from left to right. Emerging into a gap about two-hundred feet away, Dean studied the shape, which was more like a quivering dark mass than the outline of a bruin. His finger squeezed the trigger. The pistol bucked. Dean fired twice more. Heavy projectiles tore through the narrow opening and impacted the tree canopy. Branches exploded, sending shards of wood, bark, and needles flying. In an instant, the creature fled through the forest without a sound.

“Take that, yah pussy!” Dean bellowed. “Don’t come back, or you’ll get it worse!”

“Damn straight!” Rob joined. “Run back to your mama, yah bastard!”

Howling along with their human companions, the beagles leapt and ran around the well. The men laughed at the commotion. After a minute, the yapping and chuckling subsided. The dogs scampered about the worksite, but seemed to have lost interest in rabbits.

“Now, have you ever seen so many animals running from something before?” Dean asked. “I know I haven’t.”

“When I worked for the forestry service one summer fighting wildfires,” Rob recalled. “All kinds of animals ran past me staying ahead of the flames…like I wasn’t there.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Dean said, “but what kind of animal would cause a stampede?”

“Had to be a bear,” Rob answered. “Sure wasn’t a coyote pack.”

“I dunno…” Dean said unconvinced. “Anyway, it’s gone now. What say we break out the machines?”

“Sounds good.”

The men swept coils back and forth in an arc just above the muck. Their metal detectors pinged without pause. So many metallic objects, the machines could not discriminate. The men set aside their detectors and crouched down with their handheld pin-pointer devices and probed. In little time, the detectorists discovered a treasure-trove of items. As Rob had hoped, coins were most abundant, dated between the years 1865 and 1895, all adorned with the female Liberty figure either sitting or in profile. Not an American President was present. Silver images were pristine as the day tossed into the well with a hopeful wish. Several three-cent pieces, dozens of nickels, and many dimes and quarters added to a growing cache. No copper pennies survived a century or more immersed in hard well water. Few revealed a clear image of the feathered profile featured on an Indian Head penny.

“Hee hee…gotta another Morgan Dollar!” Dean cackled and strutted. “I feel as lucky as a nympho in a men’s penitentiary.”

“Man!” Rob exclaimed, studying a gold coin through a magnifier lens. “1852 Liberty Head!”

“What denomination?” Dean queried.

“One-Dollar,” Rob replied. “Boys-o-boys…first gold coin ever!”

“Way to go, dude!” Dean said before pausing. “Holy crap!”


“I hate to one-up yah, but take a look. Five-Dollar Liberty…1862.” Dean said, holding up another gilded coin. “Back then, you had to be a real asshat tossing gold coins into a wishing well.”

“All right! Makes yah wonder why no one dredged this well before now.”

“I dunno, but I ain’t complaining,” Dean said, scooping up a handful of material. “Ring!”

“No kidding? What kind?”

“Fancy woman’s ring…gold…I think…” Dean said, rinsing the piece in muddied water. “It’s got a stone!”

“Lemee see,” Rob said, studying the gem with his magnifier, a grin spreading wide. “It’s a diamond…big one…gotta be two-carats or more…at least. If good quality and cut, this could be worth real money. Day just keeps getting better and better. Keep it safe.”

“Will do,” Dean said, securing the ring in a zip-lock bag. “Still finding anything?”

“It’s slowin’ down some, but we still have a big pile of thingies to go through.”

“We should dredge again,” Dean suggested.

“I’d like to, but it’s gettin’ dark,” Rob said, gesturing to the western sky, which glowed in hues of orange. “Days are awful short out here.”

“Well…I suppose the wishing well isn’t going anywhere,” Dean said, wiping his hands on his pant legs. “Gonna be another cold one. I can see my breath already.”

“It is,” Rob agreed as he exhaled clouds of vapor into the air. “Tomorrow, we should be finished up by noontime. We’ll have to come back next spring and keep searching. Maybe we’ll find the Pinkham’s outhouse pit.”

“Yeah, probably lots of dildos in that one!”


A terrible screech jolted the men awake. They felt around the tent for flashlights. Anxious and howling, Susie and Sadie pawed at the tent flap seeking exit. One beagle nosed the zipper open and bolted out followed by the other. A strange voice chortled somewhere outside as the dogs growled and yelped.

“Girls, hang on!” Rob called out, his voice quavering.

“Dammit…where’s my…?” Dean said, light vanquishing the darkness. “Where’s your lantern, Rob?”

“Never mind that, Dean! Go put the hurt on whatever’s messing with my girls!”

“You got it!” he said, pulling the zipper and crawling outside. “Whoever’s out there gonna be a sorry sonofabitch!”

Rob found his flashlight and flicked the switch, but it didn’t illumine. “Shit!’ he cursed, slapping the case. The light blinked on. He grabbed his stick and followed through the open tent flap.

Flashlight beams searching, shadows scuttled in the nighttime murk. Canine eyes glowed as the dogs grappled with a strange form. Dean’s light illumined a distorted mass suspended above the well. In that instant, the beagles leapt at the shape and disappeared from sight, their barking growing muted.

“Girls!” Rob called, his light shining the well. “What dah…?”

Tall and thin and dressed in black, a sticklike figure stood. Vaguely feminine, an ashen face grimaced against the brightness. Dark eyes appeared to glower. Its mouth opened impossibly wide and issued a horrible shriek.

So terrified, Dean was immobilized, adrenaline streaming. A scalding sensation coursed down his pant leg snapping him out of his paralysis. With a fluid motion, he aimed and fired his pistol. Rounds found their mark, piercing the figure and impacting spruce trees behind. Bark and wood splinters exploded. The figure jerked some, but stood its ground as if unfazed by the assault.

Suddenly, Rob bellowed his rage and rushed ahead with his stick raised. Before he could bludgeon the figure, it transformed into a shapeless black mass and flitted into the treetops like a banshee. Rob swung his club into nothingness.

“Where is she? Where’s that friggin’ witch?” Rob croaked. “Where’s Susie and Sadie?”

“They’re down the well,” Dean said, his throat dry, his voice raspy. His fingers trembled as he hurriedly reloaded his revolver, his eyes darting all about.

“Girls!” Rob called, picking up his flashlight and peering over the rim. “I’m coming!”

Far below in the pitch black, the beagles whimpered as they swam and scraped the stone walls for purchase.

“Dino, we gotta get ’em! They’ll drown if we don’t hurry!”

“I hear yah, but take a breath and think. You’re too big to go down there,” Dean said. “And, that witch is still out there—can’t believe I said that. We gotta watch our backs.”

“No, no, no…they’ll drown for sure,” Rob sobbed. “Please don’t let my girls die…please, Dino.”

“All right, partner,” Dean sniffed, handing over his pistol. “Fix the rope off good. Won’t be a problem lowering me down, but you’ll have to haul me up and have to fight if she comes back.”

Secured with a lanyard cord, Dean’s lantern bobbed around his neck. He took deep breaths, digging deep for the courage to push off the well rim. The beagle’s pitiful cries spurred him. Dean threaded his foot through a loop at the end of the rope and said, “All right…let out easy.”

As Dean descended, the pulley squeaked in protest. Even with the flashlight, the darkness was oppressive. The air became dank. Swinging like a pendulum, Dean’s back grazed the stone casing at intervals. Finally, chill water leached up his pant legs. “Two more feet and cinch the line,” Dean shouted upward. He jerked to a stop just before the frigid water reached his crotch.

“Here, girls,” he coaxed, reaching out and pulling the beagles close. His fingers clasped their collars. A length of rope fell on his head. It was a clumsy maneuver, but Dean looped and tightened the line behind the forelegs and around the chest of one of the beagles.

“Go ahead, Rob!” Dean shouted. “Easy girl, it won’t hurt for long.”

Rope pinching, the beagle yelped as she ascended the well shaft, but she was out within seconds. Soon after, Dean groped for the rescue rope and repeated the procedure.

“Okay, Rob!” Dean called up. “There yah go, girl. Tell your Daddy not to forget me.”

The moon came into view far above. Except for the outline of the derrick, the well rim was a perfect circle against the moonlit backdrop. With his boot in the rope stirrup, Dean’s right calf ached. He pulled on the rope to lessen the pain. He shivered as chill water sieved heat from his body. Dean heard Rob soothing his beagles as they yapped, and then it became quiet.

“Rob? What’s goin’ on?”

A whispered conversation ensued. Though muffled, Dean recognized Rob’s gravelly voice. The other was tinny and distant like a spectral voice heard on nighttime broadcast from a faraway radio station.

“I’m sorry to hear about…my dear. What can we…?” Rob said, his tone gentle and relaxed, his words clipped. “…we can do… …me see…”

Rob’s silhouette appeared above and spoke, “Dean, you need to look for something.”

“What’s that? You’re not gonna pull me outta here already?”

“Well…not yet,” he answered. “May as well do it now, while you’re still down there.”

“I don’t wanna go spelunking!” Dean barked. “I want outta here…now!”

“It’s the gentlemanly thing to do.”

“Gentlemanly thing for who? Who are you talking to up there?” Dean asked, and then added. “You mean the witch?”

“Be nice now,” Rob chided. “She isn’t like that…not at all…just forlorn.”

“Well, excuse the hell outta me!” Dean snapped. “My legs are cramping up, and I’m cold as a witch’s tit—excuse the pun!”

“Come on, Dino. Just look around.”

“What the bejesus am I looking for?”

“You’ll know when you see it,” Rob replied. “A family heirloom taken from her a long time ago.”

“Jesus Henry Christ Almighty on a wooden cross!” Dean blasphemed. “All right, all right, I’m looking around. Yep…stonewalls all around! Lots of slimy stones!”

“I’ll pull you up slow,” Rob offered. “Keep looking.”

“Yeah, yeah…” Dean griped, shining his flashlight about. The stonework was square and precise with few gaps, except for a slight protuberance above. “I see something. Pull me up more.”

Snagged on the wall was an ornate necklace with a thick gold chain and pendant wrapped in a serpentine design and set with stones. Before the men dredged the well, the water level was much higher. and the choker was immersed.

“I got it,” Dean said, putting the chain around his neck. “Now, haul me the hell up!”

It was with immense relief when Dean wrapped a leg over the rim and sprawled onto the ground. The beagles jumped atop his prone body and licked his face. A figure stood above him. Features blurred, an ashen face stared down. Dean removed the necklace and held it up, so the witch—Mrs. Pinkham—could see it.

“She can’t take it from you,” Rob explained. “She wants us to inter it with her.”


“Yah know…dig her up and rebury it with her.” Rob said, taking the chain and placing it on the well rim. “She wants us to have her ring. Says it’s more valuable than we think. Poor thing has been waiting around all these years for someone to come. Now, she can go beyond.”


“Yah know…The Great Beyond…where we all go after…” Rob explained. “Anyways, let’s leave her be.”

The Hebron Witch hovered about the well gazing at her bauble. Her surreal facade changed throughout the night. Now and then, a vague feminine form appeared, perhaps an image of her once mortal self. Other times, she was a dark undulating amorphous mass. Occasionally, she was a smudge like that of a moving subject in an old tintype photo. After her brief conversation with Rob, she did not speak again, even though Dean wanted very much to ask her questions about the afterlife. In the end, the men left her be. Her presence was answer enough until their own mortal ends. When the first glow appeared in the eastern horizon, she vanished and did not appear again.


“That’s that, I guess,” Dean said, packing the unearthed ground with his shovel. “Thankfully, the digging wasn’t too bad.”

“Her lead-lined casket held up well,” Rob said. “Quite an adventure, wasn’t it?”

“That it was,” Dean said, and then paused. “Say…after we sell our treasure…what’s up next?”

“No worries ’bout that. We’re detectorists, aren’t we?”

The End

Tales of the Detectorists: The Wishing Well

From the author of Tales of the Cemetery Trees and Judith: A Quoddy Tale, The Wishing Well is the first in a series of short stories titled Tales of the Detectorists, about two Mainers, Rob and Dean, who search for treasure in the unlikeliest places. Abandoned a century ago, Hebron Village was once a thriving community until the tannery mill burned down, and residents were forced to look for work elsewhere. Now hidden in the Maine wilderness, little remains of the town but mossy foundations, rusty relics, and stories of an entity called The Hebron Witch. Undeterred by tall tales, The Detectorists, search for the ghost town’s fabled Wishing Well.

  • Author: John R. Cobb
  • Published: 2016-12-03 19:35:08
  • Words: 4260
Tales of the Detectorists: The Wishing Well Tales of the Detectorists: The Wishing Well