Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
Even before she saw the signs of digging, Gwyn McLaren thought someone had been in the barn. The hens seemed restless, and Ophelia, the most sensitive of her small flock, was hiding.
Chiding herself for being fanciful, she switched on the second set of lights, turning the dark, secret corners at the back of the barn into just another part of the weathered structure her grandfather had built a century ago.
Her Poppy had left school after grade 3, when his father said he didn’t need book learning to work on the family farm. Poppy didn’t agree about the value of book learning. He read for 30 minutes—never longer—every night, after the evening chores and before bed. “I read to better my understanding,” he’d say, “But morning chores come early.”
He read anything he could, often the Bible, which, he said, “packs a lot of stories in.” He tried to live by its lessons.
“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers,” was Poppy’s favourite Bible quote, “For thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
It was true: Poppy and Nanny’s neighbours—even passing strangers—knew the McLarens would never let someone in need be without a hot meal or a warm bed.
Gwyn watched Ophelia emerge from her hiding place behind a feed bin, feathers anxiously fluffed. Juliet, always the boldest, began to eat the grain Gwyn scattered, and the others, including Ophelia, followed.
That’s when, thanks to the extra light, Gwyn noticed some old crates pulled out from the wall at the back of the barn, where the original wood plank floor had long rotted away. The part of the barn Gwyn used as a henhouse had a slab floor and other amenities, like heating. But Gwyn’s dwindling income limited repairs at the back to keeping the exterior walls sealed. Living beside the ocean made regular repairs necessary, but the main barn hadn’t housed livestock in decades.
She walked over to investigate. Behind the concealing crates, the disturbed area of the hard-packed dirt floor covered about four square feet, and went down almost a foot.
Too tidy for an animal, and it must have taken some time, she thought.
That night, Gwyn left the light burning in the upstairs hall. It was a sorry waste of electricity, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to shut it off at bedtime. She told herself she was leaving the light on to get safely down the stairs and out to the barn if she heard noise in the night. The dog, Henry, old and mostly deaf, would sleep through anything.
In the morning, Gwyn felt less worried. The hens, other than the always-skittish Ophelia, seemed happy, and chickens, she felt, were pretty good judges of character. Maybe it was somebody thinking to ask her if she’d lease the barn for something, like growing mushrooms. Sometimes people did come and ask her if they could use part of her remaining eight acres: cut some wood, gather shells and driftwood off her shoreline or even, on one occasion, take her hens after they were too old to be good layers. She let that fellow think she used them for her own stewpot, though she hadn’t eaten meat for years. He didn’t need to know she let the old gals retire and die naturally.
Anyway, Henry, deaf and arthritic though he might be, was large, with a deep, loud bark.
Gwyn could also call the Watsons, her closest neighbours, for help. They often told her to call them if she ever needed anything, waving at her when they drove past, dropping by with muffins and offers to clear her snow, reminding her she wasn’t as young as she used to be.
As though her mirror and her cranky right knee would ever let her forget that.
The Watsons had moved here from Ottawa five years before upon retirement, buying the house closest to Gwyn’s.
“We wanted to live amongst real Nova Scotians, join in the authentic maritime lifestyle,” Ruth had said earnestly. Ruth and Larry often said embarrassing things like that.
But they mean well.
Sometimes Gwyn had to remind herself two or three times in one conversation the Watsons meant well.
Not for the first time, Gwyn was glad she lived alone, especially now that she was 80. It was true, coming from a small family and never having married, she didn’t have family to care much about her. But she didn’t have people fussing over her, either. She exchanged Christmas cards and occasional phone calls with two cousins in Ontario and one in Alberta. They dutifully sent her family photos of children and grandchildren she would likely never meet, but after whom she remembered to ask. She kept a list under the phone of who was who in each family to help with that.
For three days, Gwyn kept an eye on the digging in the barn, but saw no one. Feeling both unthreatened and curious, she decided to just watch and wait.
On the fourth day, three things happened to make Gwyn take action.
The first was Ruth Watson stopping by to tell her Larry had spotted someone on the road in front of Gwyn’s house the previous night. The Watsons had bright motion-sensor lights that, to Gwyn’s annoyance, flooded the south side of her property regularly with light when deer and other wildlife passed through. But it wasn’t a deer Larry had seen last night after midnight. It was a person.
“A strange man,” Ruth said, adjusting her Nova Scotia tartan scarf. “Larry checked our yard and yours, and made sure your doors were locked. He said to tell you he’ll call the police if he sees him again.”
Gwyn felt irritated. If she had heard someone fumbling at her doorknob in the middle of the night, it would be more alarming than a passing stranger on the road. Also, she had been taking care of herself for a long time, and didn’t need Larry Watson checking her locks at night.
But they do mean well.
The second thing was the missing eggs. The hens had already had their winter break from laying, and with the March days getting longer, they were all producing an egg each day, even Ophelia. But for the last couple of days, two of the hens didn’t have an egg when Gwyn went into the barn in the morning.
It seemed that whoever was digging might also be taking eggs.
And third, the old blankets Gwyn kept in her truck for Henry to lie on were missing.
It all made Gwyn wonder if her intruder was staying somewhere on her property. The last week had been mild and sunny every day, but tonight’s forecast was for dropping temperatures, strong north winds, and 20 centimetres of snow.
Thinking of some of the strangers her grandparents had taken in over the years—the itinerant farm labourer with arthritis who taught Gwyn to play the harmonica, and the young widow with three small children who stayed for several weeks to help during harvest until Poppy found her work with a neighbour—Gwyn wrote a note she hammered to the door of the barn:
Tonight’s weather forecast Is colder, with snow. Come to the house and tell me what you want with my barn. I’ll give you food and a bed if you mean no harm. —Guinevere (Gwyn) McLaren
Gwyn looked at the note for a minute. Was she being foolish? The Watsons would say so, and her cousins would likely agree. But some instinct told her this stranger meant her no harm.
Still, an instinct wasn’t certain knowledge. Gwyn went back to the house and got Poppy’s hunting rifle up from the cellar. Cleaning and loading it, she propped it behind Nanny’s old china hutch in the kitchen.
And then she locked all the doors and waited.
At nine o’clock that night, the wind began to moan around the house. Snow started falling heavily.
An hour later, there was a knock at the kitchen door. Gwyn switched on the porch light and looked out. Two people, snow-bedecked and shivering, stood on the steps. The one in front, a tall, dark-haired young man, held up Gwyn’s note. As he shifted, Gwyn caught sight of the person behind him, a woman. She looked young, perhaps 20, and her eyes were large and gentle in her thin face.
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers.
Gwyn unlocked the door and stepped back, gesturing them inside.
“Thank you,” the boy—Gwyn saw he was no older than his companion—said, giving her a funny little half-bow. “I’m Gabe, and this is my girlfriend, Angie.”
The girl smiled at Gwyn and held out a hand toward Henry, who was only now getting up from his bed beside the woodstove.
“Take off your outdoor things and put them on those hooks,” said Gwyn pointing, “Then sit down, and I’ll give you something to eat. You’re hungry?”
“Oh, yes!” said the girl, shedding her coat and unwinding a couple of scarves from around her neck. Their clothes under their outerwear looked grimy.
“Better wash your hands first,” Gwyn said, and like a pair of obedient children, they went over to the deep kitchen sink and washed their hands well, with Henry fussing around the girl, wagging his tail and whining for attention.
Once they were sitting at the big old pine table, Gwyn set in front of them bowls of the lentil stew she’d been keeping warm, placing a loaf of brown bread and some butter and honey on the table, along with a pitcher of apple cider.
They ate steadily and quietly without pause. Gwyn refilled Angie’s stew bowl once, and Gabe’s twice, and she let them alone while they ate. Finally, she made a pot of tea and set an apple cake on the table. When the tea was steeped, Gwyn poured them each a mug, getting one for herself. Sitting down, she looked forthrightly from one to the other.
“And now,” she said, “Why are you digging in my barn?” And stealing my eggs? And where have you been staying?”
Angie looked up. Her eyes were a beautiful greenish-blue colour.
“We took a few eggs because we were almost out of food. And we’ve been sleeping in that old shed in your woods. We had a little one-burner cookstove, but we ran out of fuel for it this morning. As for the digging—” Angie looked at Gabe, whose dark eyes met Gwyn’s.
“You’re related to Allan McLaren?” he asked, unexpectedly.
“My grandfather,” said Gwyn, surprised. “Gone a long time now.”
Gabe nodded. “Well, what I’m telling you goes back about a hundred years, to 1921, I think. My great-great grandfather—his name was Mick Abbott—couldn’t get work.”
“Like a lot of folks,” said Gwyn.
“Yeah. So he got in with some rum-runners. Just, you know, trying to feed his family. I always knew about that. It was kind of a family legend.”
Gabe took a swallow of his tea.
“Anyway, he was my Nan’s grandfather. After she died last month, I was going through some boxes of her stuff. You know old photos, letters, diaries. I like that kind of thing. And I found this really old letter in a sealed envelope. Looked like it had maybe never been opened.”
Gabe took a bite of his cake.
“So I opened it,” he continued. “It was a letter, kind of a confession almost. The envelope and paper were yellow and stained in spots, but you could read it. He—Mick—wrote that he and two other guys were running from the law. They were in a boat in a big storm between Shut-In Island and the shoreline. The two guys drowned, but Mick made it to shore in the damaged boat. He found a metal box hidden on board.”
“He drew a map,” broke in Angie. “It showed this place, back when it was a bigger farm.”
“I’ve had to sell the land off in parcels,” said Gwyn. “Through the years. Taxes keep going up.”
“The map had your grandfather’s name and showed the farm on McLaren’s Road,” Gabe continued.
“Shut-In Island was at the top of the map. My family used to vacation in the Bay,” Angie said.
“Anyway, Mick found his way here, and your grandparents took him in, let him stay for a while, no questions asked. He wrote that he helped them finish building a barn. He hid the box under the floor, just before it was laid.” Gabe paused. “And then he kept running until he got to New Brunswick, Edmundston. That’s where we’re from.”
“We hitchhiked here. Our families think we’re visiting friends.” said Angie.
Gabe added, “We dug at night.”
“And I guess you didn’t find anything,” said Gwyn, pouring herself more tea.
Gabe got up and opened the kitchen door, Angie right behind him. They went out into the swirling snow, coming back seconds later with a metal box they must have left on the porch.
“We found this,” said Gabe, brushing snow off the box and setting it on the table.
Gabe opened the lid of the box and Gwyn blinked at the dull yellow gleam of the contents.
“Gold coins,” said Gabe. “Running rum didn’t pay in gold. They must have been into something else. I don’t know what. But…I think maybe he was just too scared to come back for it.”
“We don’t know exactly what it’s worth yet,” said Angie, “But thousands of dollars, anyway.”
Gwyn stared at the gold for a long moment. “Who does it belong to?”
Gabe smiled. “Maybe to us, because we found it. Or to you, because it was on your property. Angie and I hope you’ll be willing to share, fifty-fifty.”
Gwyn’s face became stern. “But that wasn’t your plan. You sneaked onto my property, dug secretly in my barn. You were going to keep it all for yourselves.”
Angie looked down. “Yes, we were.”
“So,” asked Gwyn, “What changed your minds?”
“You knew we were here,” said Gabe, “But instead of calling the cops or trying to drive us off, you offered us food and shelter from the storm.”
“Just like your grandparents did for Mick,” said Angie.
Gwyn looked at them, just a pair of idealistic children, really. It was unlikely they could find the gold’s rightful owners, and they would be long dead anyway. She thought of her property tax bill. And of the animal rescue groups and food bank she tried to support with what little she could spare.
“I accept the bargain,” she said. “Now, come upstairs. You need sleep. And you better call your families in the morning.”
As they climbed the stairs, Gwyn murmured softly, “Some have entertained angels unawares.”
“Pardon?” asked Gabe from the stair below.
Gwyn smiled. “Just something my grandfather used to say.”