Riley Gray’s Fabulous Treasure
By Elton Camp

It was nearly sixty years ago when I first spotted Riley Gray. We moved slowly down a chert road in my grandfather’s green Studebaker Champion. The rocks crunched loudly under the tires. A thick cloud of dust boiled up behind us due to the dry, hot summer we were experiencing in Alabama that year. There he was. The man trudged determinedly along the edge of the road as if he had some appointment to meet. The path he chose just allowed him to avoid the shoulder’s thick growth of withered grass, yellow bitterweed, and white Queen Anne’s lace. An accumulation of the ubiquitous dust coated the roadside plants. Riley’s hair was long at the sides and back. It almost reached the collar of his blue longsleeved shirt. Thin on top, it showed his scalp in several places. A streaked mixture of brown and gray hairs, it had little acquaintance with a comb and even less with shampoo. His scraggly beard and moustache were equally ungroomed. Eyebrows that almost met in the middle, a face permanently red from years of exposure to the sun– or perhaps he stayed too long with the bottle– were in contrast to his clear blue eyes that seemed to sparkle as the car passed alongside him. He glanced suspiciously in our direction, but diverted his gaze so that he need not acknowledge our passing with the customary raised hand. Faded bib overalls and rough, brown leather work-shoes with high tops completed the virtual parody of a mountain man. In his right hand was a stout stick, cut from the woods. Not at all feeble, he walked at a steady pace. At my young age, I supposed that he must surely be very old, though I now know that he was only in his early fifties. “Who’s that grandfather?” I asked, as I turned to look back at him. We slowed on approach to the intersection. “That’s only Riley Gray,” he replied with a tone that suggested tolerance but little respect. “He’s lived around these parts as long as I can remember. A shiftless sort too. Never has worked at much far as I know, but he likes to tell wild tales.” As we passed a dirt side road he gestured in its direction. “Lives up there in a shack,” he continued. I glanced at the road he indicated, but could see little but a suggestion of a series of substandard houses with ill-kept yards. “Don’t you go there,” he warned. “Besides him, there’s nothing living there but a bunch of niggers.”

The crude racial epithet was one I’d seldom heard since few black people lived in my county in north Alabama. My grandfather’s home territory had been the location of large plantations with the necessary slaves to make them profitable operations. The Civil War had been over for more than 80 years. Yet, it was still something of a hot issue to the older people, many of whose ancestors had participated in it. A tiny handful of former Confederate soldiers still survived. They had been musicians and flag bearers, boys rather than actual fighters. Yankees were viewed with thinly disguised contempt. Negroes were at the very bottom of the social scale in a society that desperately needed somebody to look down on to cover its own shortcomings. I didn’t reply to the warning. “What kind of tales?” “Mostly about buried treasure. Says he’s found a chest of gold on one of these mountain peaks.” His dubious grin and wink showed he didn’t give credit to the story. As we turned right toward Childersburg, I noticed, on the left, some distance from the road, several hills that rose sharply to a point. Might one of them be the location of the treasure? My imagination kicked into high gear. I began to contemplate running my hands through piles of gold coins or maybe lifting heavy ingots. I looked back to see which way Riley turned, but he hadn’t yet reached the intersection. Two days later I built up the courage to slip away, early in the morning, to walk the short distance to Riley’s road. Just as I’d been told, it was a type of place usually avoided by respectable folks. In a more prosperous neighborhood the lane might be termed a cul de sac, but here “dead end street” was a better fit. Shabby houses lined both sides of the road. Scattered trees furnished shade but the yards were overgrown except for paths from the front porches to the mailboxes. Open windows, without screens, allowed the enticing aroma of frying bacon to fill the air. A few of the residences had old cars. Their faded paint testified that they had seldom seen soap, water, or polish. I noticed a black boy about my age sitting in a tire swing. With as authoritative a voice as I could muster, I called out, “Hey you. Come down here.” That was the way one was supposed to talk to a black person. He ambled down to the road. “What you want?” he demanded. “You ain’t got no business bein’ here.” In view of the temper of the times in the racist south, he was right. Because I needed his help I persisted, “Where’s Riley Gray live?” “Oh, thet ol’ man. He bees crazy ez a bessy bug.” Despite the contemptuous characterization, he pointed diagonally across the street. “He stays over thar.”

The house he indicated was unpainted with weathered vertical boards. It stood high off the ground, supported underneath by irregular stacks of large brown field rocks. A rusted tin roof and a front porch at the point of collapse completed the almost textbook picture of penury. A few skinny chickens wandered about as they randomly pecked in the yard. Toward the back I glimpsed a few rows of a poorly cultivated garden. As with the other houses, a white trail of smoke rose lazily from a metal stovepipe that extended through the wall. Despite the summer heat, they had to have fire for cooking. Electricity was rare among the desperately poor. I wanted to ask my new acquaintance to accompany me, but decided it might not be a good idea. I recalled having heard “Give a nigra an inch and he’ll take a mile.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but figured I shouldn’t take a chance. To violate my father’s saying might not be wise. “Bye and thanks,” I mumbled as I moved slowly down the road. A bit uneasy, I cast my eyes about for danger and remained on the side opposite Riley’s house. As the boy walked indifferently back into his yard, he whistled a tune that I couldn’t identify. When I reached the end of the road, I doubled back, so as to pass directly in front of Riley’s shack, but caught no sight of him. Disappointed, I returned to my grandparents’ house. The smell of food had made me want the breakfast I knew would be waiting. I didn’t see Riley again until later in the week. A walk of two miles brought me to my grandfather’s cattle farm. I fished with a cane pole for the small bream found in the deeper spots of Peckerwood Creek, but without success. Rustling leaves, shed prematurely due to the dry spell, announced the man’s dread approach. I laid down my pole and hid in the thick bushes that lined the creek in search of scarce moisture. This was an unexpected chance to see what he was up to. I was determined to seize the opportunity even though he looked extremely intimidating in the isolation of the farm. My mouth went dry. Apprehension caused a distinct thump in my chest that was echoed in both ears. He selected a shallow place in the stream and proceeded to wade across. Riley used his walking stick to help him keep from slipping on the thick mud as he ascended the steeper bank on the opposite side. I followed at a discreet distance, trying to achieve a balance between being detected and losing sight of him in the overgrown pasture that lay beyond the stream. Tall summer cedar, branched mulberry bushes, and piles of cow dung made the going difficult. Buzzing mosquitoes and biting black flies kept me distracted. To my dismay, I suddenly realized that I could neither see nor hear him. Without warning, a scraggly arm shot out from a thicket of small pines. Riley grasped my upper arm and roughly pulled me toward him.

“Lemme go, lemme go!” I shouted as I struggled in vain to pull free from his grip. “I wasn’t doin’ nothin’.” “Y’u wuz followin’ me,” he accused as he glared at me. “What’cha want? Better tell me.” “I was just fishin’,” I didn’t even know you was here.” “Fishing this fer from th’ crick? I seen y’u followin’ me. Yore after my gold, ain’t y’u?” he demanded. “Yer not gonna get hit. Nobody is. Hit’s mine.” “You’ve got gold? I don’t know nothing about gold.” My eyes revealed my deception as he stared at me. “Well, y’u air jest a boy. Guess hit can’t do no harm t’ tell y’u ‘bout hit,” he said in a more conciliatory voice. “I’ve already tole lots o’ folks, but nobody ‘round here believes me. Hit’s true jest th’ same.” To my relief, his hand relaxed and he freed me from his iron grip. The man went on to relate that General Andy Jackson and his army had passed through the area back in the early 1800s on their way to fight Creeks at Horseshoe Bend. Supposedly, two of his men had stolen the payroll, a sizeable chest of gold coins. The thieves managed to hide it before they were hunted down and shot. The treasure’s location was never discovered. His narrative caused me to recall a historical marker several miles out Russell Chapel Road. It indicated the long-ago location of the famed General’s encampment. That degree of historical accuracy suggested the possibility that the rest of his story might be true. At any rate, I wanted to accept the tale enough to exercise what I later came to know as Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief.” “So, guess you found it?” I inquired. “Y’u bet I have. Hit’s off up yonder way.” He made an indecisive wave of his arm in the general direction of the dense forest. I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck. It was an exciting proclamation. If I played my cards right, he might reveal the location. “Show me. I won’t tell nobody where it is.” With a suspicious tone, he retorted, “I knowed hit. Yer ’n wif ’em, but hit ain’t a gonna work. Nobody’s gittin’ get my propp’ity.” “In with who?” I was alarmed at his sudden change of demeanor.

“Th’ Govern’ent, thet Truman, ’r’ maybe thet Ike guy they sez ez gonna be next. Hit didn’t work when they sent them FBIs t’ look ’n my winders. I seen ’em peep ’n at me at night. Now they send a boy t’ do a man’s work. They want my money t’ give t’ ’em foreigners, but I won’t have hit.” He ranted with a wild look in his eyes. I attempted to proclaim my innocence and to reason with him. It merely confirmed his conviction that I was part of some plot to defraud him. A strategic retreat seemed to be the course of wisdom, so I fabricated an excuse about being expected back at a certain time. To my relief, he didn’t attempt to stop me. As I ran away, he continued to mutter angrily under his breath. Before I reached the house, I decided not to reveal my scary encounter with Riley. But I wanted to see what more I could learn about him from my grandfather. “What’s Riley ever told you about his treasure?” I tried to act nonchalant. “That it’s a fortune and only he knows where it is. But when I ask him to produce it, he always starts in about how it’d be taken from him. I’ve told him several times to bring it to me and I’ll see that he gets to keep it, but he’ll have nothing to do with it.” “Then you think he’s lying?” “It’s real to him, but seeing is believing.” Several days passed before the story of the gold began to persistently occupy my thoughts. Finally, I could resist no longer and decided to make another attempt with Riley. Late evening, after we’d eaten supper, I headed up the hill behind the house to conceal my real destination. When out of sight, I curved around and came back into the road. Soon I stood at the wooden steps to the man’s front porch. “Hello. Mr. Gray?” I called out softly. I almost hoped he wouldn’t appear. After a couple of minutes the door creaked inward. He stepped onto the porch. I was inclined to run, but excitement overrode fear. “What y’u want, boy?” he demanded. “After m’ gold ’gain?” “No, Sir,” I replied with exaggerated courtesy. “I don’t know nothing about government agents or anything like that. I thought maybe I could visit for a while.” Deeply ingrained southern hospitality made it hard for an Alabamian of that time to refuse to be courteous to any visitor, even an unwelcome one. Grudgingly, he motioned for me to come in. “I guess hit won’t hurt nothin’,” he said, his tone suggesting a softening in attitude.

What passed for the living room was a dimly lit area with wide planks for flooring. Spaces between them gave glimpses of chickens scratching in the dirt underneath the shack. Occasionally they fluttered their wings to toss dust over themselves in futile attempts to be rid of mites. Bare studs were at irregular intervals along the outside walls. The exterior siding was in plain view. Except where yellowed newspaper had been tacked for makeshift insulation, the wall had spaces between the vertical boards. They allowed narrow peeps at the outside and admitted slits of light. Dingy windows were on the right and left walls. Several panes were cracked and one was missing entirely. A dirty cushion stuffed into the opening kept wind and rain somewhat at bay. A small pot-bellied stove, with a meager pile of wood on the floor at its side, was the source of cooking and served for heat in the colder months. Pushed against the back wall was an unmade, rusty, iron bedstead. Its thin mattress had a distinct swag in the middle. Besides the soiled blue and white ticking of the mattress, only a ragged blanket provided any degree of comfort. Two cane-bottom straight chairs, with the seats deeply sunk from years of use, stood in the room. On an unpainted wooden box between the chairs was a clear glass kerosene lamp about half full of the stinky fuel. The ceiling was out of character with the rest of the room. It was composed of unpainted tongue-and-groove boards in excellent condition. A closed door suggested at least one more room. Riley sat down and motioned for me to take the other seat. “Well, whut d’ y’u want?” Anger from our previous encounter seemed to have abated. We chit chatted about the weather and agreed that it was one of the driest and hottest summers ever. I told him about my family and how I was visiting my grandparents for a few weeks during summer break. With hope that I’d convinced him that I wasn’t some agent of a nefarious power, I cautiously set out to achieve my real mission. “It was fun meeting you on the farm the other day. I want you to know that no matter what anybody else says, I believe you about the gold. I think it’s really exciting.” “Y’u do? Well, maybe y’u ain’t sich a bad boy atter all. I may ’ave been too quick t’ speak again’ y’u.” The mere suggestion of a smile appeared on his lips. With his right hand, he fumbled in the front pocket of his overalls. From it, he extracted a flat packet and a pouch closed with a drawstring. He selected a rectangle of thin, white paper, curved it lengthwise, opened the pouch, and spread a skimpy amount of brown tobacco along it. Following a lick of one edge of the paper, he rolled it into a makeshift cigarette and placed it between his lips. Riley withdrew a book of paper matches from a pocket in the bib of his overalls. A thin trail of smoke arose from the glowing end of the cigarette. The man tossed the match onto the floor in front of his chair and extinguished it with his shoe. One more piece of debris added to the assortment of fragments already on the floor didn’t matter. “Get these free down at th’ corner.” He held the matchbook cover so that I could see “Pope’s Store” printed, along with the location, Fayetteville, Alabama.

After a deep puff, a look of pleasure showed that enjoyed smoking. When he exhaled, however, he coughed deeply with a rattling sound in his chest. The stench of the burning tobacco, combined with the man’s own odor, was almost too much to bear. I stifled a cough of my own. “Do you think maybe I could see your treasure,” I asked quietly. I barely dared to breathe as he considered the request. “Now y’u shore yore not wif th’ govern’ent? They kin b’ tricky rascals sometimes.” After I again assured him that I was only a kid visiting for the summer, he seemed mollified. My plan appeared about to succeed. I’d gained his trust. “Maybe I jest might do thet. Atter all, yer th’ only one who ’as ever believed me. Thet oughta b’ worth somethin’.” After I made arrangements to meet him at the farm the next day, I chatted a while longer to be polite. It seemed best not to mention his gold again. As soon as I gracefully could, I took my leave to go home for a sleepless night of anxious anticipation. When I arrived at the designated meeting place, Riley was waiting, staff in hand, prepared to lead the exciting expedition to some secret place. In those less violent times, it never occurred to me to be concerned that the man might harm me. We followed a route parallel to the one I’d taken before, down into the pasture, through a scope of woods, and across the creek. This time we used a temporary footbridge created by a fallen tree. The rough bark provided secure footing. A series of large limbs that projected from the substantial trunk allowed handholds as we passed several feet above the water. On the other side of Peckerwood, he pursued a round about route. At times he doubled back over our previous path. It was clear that he intended to make it impossible for me to retrace our steps without his guidance. He’d outwitted me, but I had no choice but to follow without comment. I didn’t want to risk making him suspicious again. He might cancel our trek. After numerous twists and turns, we approached the base of a small but steep mountain. In pursuit of light, the pines grew almost straight upward. A many-years accumulation of needles carpeted the slanted ground. Scattered small bushes were interspersed among the trees. Three-leaved poison oak represented a danger to be avoided. “Hit gits purty steep from here on,” Riley cautioned. “Make shore y’u don’t get hurt. I ain’t gonna carry ye ef y’u do.” His advice was wise. I followed his example as I turned my feet sideways and pushed myself upward. For support, I held to whatever tree or bush was at hand. It was hard going and I began to sweat. Riley seemed to take it in stride. No doubt he’d ascended such places many times.

“Is it much farther?” I inquired. What seemed to be an endless climb lay before us. “Still a fur piece. We gotta go plumb t’ th’ top. Thet’s whar hit’s at.” The man stopped at intervals to let me rest. Our destination came into view. What I’d imagined to be a sharp point was rounded with an almost flat area the size of a small room. Limestone boulders were scattered about. At the base of the largest, I saw bare dirt that had, in the not too distant past, been disturbed by digging. Was this the hiding place of the chest? Impatiently, I waited for Riley to reveal the secret in his own good time. “That’s whar I fount hit–‘bout four feet down. I digged ’n a lot o’ places, I kin tell y’u, afore hit show’d up.” “What’s it like?” I asked breathlessly. “Why jest a ole metal box, what’d y’u ‘spect? Got U.S. Army on a brass plate crost th’ front.” “I mean what’s in it. Tell me about the treasure.” “Gold coins, piles o’ em. Som’ sich forei’n writin’ on ‘em ’n’ a pitcher o’ a fella wearin’ a crown. Got nary a idea whut hit says, but they’s gold all right ‘nough.” “Can I please see them?” I moistened my dry lips with my tongue as I spoke. The excitement was becoming hard to bear. The man chucked. “Now how y’u ‘spect I kin go down ‘n thet dry dirt? Hit’d take a shovel.” Disappointed, I had to agree. We hadn’t come prepared for any serious excavation. The thought entered my mind that Riley had tricked me and that nothing was there. “But I kin show y’u this un I keep wif me.” From his left side pocket, he withdrew a white cloth. As he unfolded it, I glimpsed a flash of yellow. When he handed the object to me, I turned it over and over in admiration. It was just as he’d described. The shiny coin was in pristine condition despite having been around for over 130 years. I had no doubt that it was gold. “They’s scads o’ ’em jest like thet. Too many fer me t’ count.” A look of excitement appeared on his face. I returned the coin. “Think we might come back and dig up the rest sometime? I’d sure like to see them.”

“Don’t see why not. How ‘bout tomorrew? Come t’ my place atter y’u’ve et breakfas’. Brang a shovel. Y’u kin look at hit, but hit ain’t leavin’ here. I think yer honest, but ain’t gonna take no chances. Y’u gotta promise t’ help me bury hit back.” After I eagerly agreed to the arrangement, he led the way down the mountain. On the descent, I was forced to sit down and slide on the pine needles where no tree of bush provided a handhold. To go down was easier, but more risky. One slip would’ve meant quite a tumble. Although I resolved to be more attentive to landmarks, he pulled the same trick as before. The wily man brought us out to the road at a point far removed from where we’d entered. I realized that I couldn’t find the hiding place of the gold even if I attempted it that very minute. I had to admire his craftiness. Of the multiple peaks in view I wasn’t at all sure which one we’d scaled. At the appointed time the next day, I hurried directly to Riley’s shack. This trip, I made no attempt to hide my destination. My grandparents were at the back of their house and couldn’t see where I went. I propped my shovel against a tree and ascended the rickety steps two at a time. The front door was firmly shut. “Mr. Gray, I’m ready to go,” I called out. “Are you there?” I added more loudly. There was no response. A twist of the discolored doorknob showed that it wasn’t locked. The door dragged on the floor as I pushed it inward. As I stepped into the room, the dim light revealed a quart Mason fruit jar with a couple of inches of clear liquid in the bottom. On the floor beside it lay a bronzecolored screw ring and a flat lid. When I picked up the jar for a quick whiff, I instantly recognized the smell of “white lightning.” The dangerous drink was one of my father’s vices. It sometimes contained wood alcohol that could cause blindness or kill within hours. There lay Riley, partly covered by the ragged, brown blanket that served as both bedspread and cover. Probably drunk, I thought with disappointment. My hope for an exciting trip began to fade. I stepped to the side of the bed. Uncertain, I hoped for the best as I shook his shoulder gently. “Wake up, Mr. Gray. It’s time to go,” I urged. Perhaps he was only asleep. When I got no response, I shook him more firmly. His arm dropped from under the blanket and hung limply at the side of the bed. It was only then that I realized Riley was dead. I was never able to convince my grandparents that I’d seen the treasure’s location. They attributed my story to an overactive imagination from association with crazy old Riley. When I became mature enough, I made several futile attempts to locate the place for myself. Finally, I

gave it up as a lost cause. Perhaps it was best for the gold to remain hidden. Riley would’ve wanted it that way. It’s now been many years. I am an old man. The home place is gone, ravaged by a disastrous fire some years after the passing of my grandparents. Only a brick fireplace and chimney remain. A row of flimsy, poorly maintained house trailers now occupy the once wellkept site. Each time I visit the family graves at the Baptist Church cemetery, I make a point to seek out a shiny, granite marker near the highway. It displays no sentiments, only dates and the deeply engraved name “Riley Gray.” It was doubtless paid for by the precious coin from his pocket–the only evidence of the truthfulness of his marvelous discovery. Epilogue Although largely a work of fiction, this tale is based on a real person who lived in or about the community of Fayetteville in Talladega County Alabama. I suspect that the harmless man suffered from paranoid delusions, but had no family or anybody else to get him help. The geographical features, roads, home place, farm, cemetery, and grave referenced all actually exist. As a fun side trip with my grandfather while we checked on his cows, we once climbed a steep mountain on his farm. At the top we saw unmistakable evidence that someone had dug at the base of a huge rock. We supposed that it most likely it had been Riley. He was often seen headed into the woods in the area, to look for gold. I was in the direct presence of Riley only on one occasion, when I was about ten years old, but he didn’t directly address me. He related the account of his gold to my grandfather. Supposedly, he’d located treasure in several places, rather than only one as suggested in the story. My grandfather, a respected man in the community, promised to protect him from the Government, but to no avail. After that I saw him only from the car as he walked along the side of the road. Riley’s actual passing was in keeping with his circumstances. One cold February day, he threw kerosene from a bottle into his fire to liven it. The resulting flash caused his death.