Lost Treasure of the Dragoon Mountains by Rolf Luetcke
I had hiked many of the highest peaks of the mountains of Southern Arizona and was about to attempt one I had not climbed in the Dragoon Mountains. There were no access roads so one had to come from below and climb the steep canyons.
My access to today’s climb was through Middlemarch Canyon and along the forest road heading north along the bottom of the mountains. The road used to go straight in from Saint David but a housing development had blocked the normal access. The access now was a ten mile drive until you passed the old stage stop near the West Stronghold. The trail from here went over rough terrain and over to the Monument on the East side of the Mountain. The whole area had belonged to the Apache Indians and they had been able to hide in the many steep canyons and huge rocks that were known as the Stronghold.
The day I had picked was a day in early July. The rainy season had started a couple of days ago and I was hoping there would be a little shade from clouds on my way back after a hot hike. The temperatures reached near a hundred but with afternoon storms building it could lower by twenty to twenty five degrees. The day dawned sunny as I drove the dirt road along the mountains to start my hike. I was dressed in shorts, short sleeved shirt, tennis shoes and a small pack with water and a bit of lunch. The last section of road to the bottom of West Stronghold had been overgrown since my last trip and I had to skirt a number of small mesquite trees that had grown on the road. I always worried about the mesquite since it had nasty thorns. Even with good tires, the thorns could go between the raised tread and puncture a tire.
I parked under a large oak tree where I had meant to start my hike. I could feel that the humidity was way up and I assumed the afternoon storms would build well. It meant a sweaty hike but hopefully clouds would keep the temperature down. The tallest peak was a couple of canyons over to the South if I climbed from here. I had hoped it was not too brushy on the route I had planned. I knew from the topographic maps I had checked at home, there were no trains in this part of the mountains. The Indians may have had trails but they were long gone. The beginning of the hike was full of thorny plants. The shin-daggers were bad in tennis shoes they could poke above the shoes and puncture your legs. Then there were the cat-claw bushes with nasty recurved thorns that grabbed anything that came close. The other name for this plant was wait-a-bit bush and that meant to disentangle the thorns you had to stop and slowly reverse the direction the thorns went in to get them out without tearing flesh. Yuccas, cacti and just about everything could get you in one way or another.
My hike up was going well and as I neared the ridge I meant to take to the top I saw the first clouds starting to build. It was only a little after 9am and I thought it was a bit early for the clouds but I shrugged and kept going. On the last bit of canyon up I had tried to go straight up the canyon and had hit a big patch of sumac bushes. The sumac was nice that it didn’t have thorns but the branches were so stiff and sturdy, you could not just push your way through or push the branches aside. I finally had to find a way around the thicket and climb some steep rocks to get around. Now on top, the vegetation was not too rough. There were lots of rocks and mostly grass in the open spaces. The grass had started to turn green from the first rain a few days ago. The one plant I had to watch out for was the small hedgehog cactus that had a habit of hiding among the grasses. The stiff spines could really hurt when you got pocked on them.
I stopped to sit and get a drink and eat an orange when I heard thunder. Now that was unexpected at this early hour. Normally the storms didn’t build until about noon but it was just after ten thirty and there was already thunder. I turned around and saw that the storm was already over the peak I had meant to climb. The early thunder made me rethink my hike. Being on a ridge or mountain top was the worst place to be in a thunder storm. I watched the clouds and saw they were already building over the peak I was on. I had been sweating like crazy and knew there was lots of moisture and I guess it meant it would be a very active day for weather.
I thought about heading back the way I had come but it was about an hour of ridge hiking and that would not be good. The first drops of rain made me make a quick decision. Getting down off the ridge was important now and although I was not familiar with any of the canyons below, I had to get down off the top. The first flash of lightning and loud thunder made me take off for the first canyon. I looked back at the cloud above and it gave me a bit of worry. It was growing black and looked like it was still growing. The rain had started to come down hard and I was trying to hurry but in these steep and rough canyons it was not good to hurry. Besides the rocks and plants that could hurt you, there were rattlesnakes and if you stepped on one of those it was bad news, especially so far from help.
The rain was coming down in buckets and as I picked my way along the canyon the first hail started. There had been a couple of lightning bolts not too far away and I knew now I had to find some kind of shelter. There was a group of rocks down below, to the sides of the little canyon. The problem was the thicket of sumac in the canyon. The hail was starting to hurt as it hit me. I was now in the middle of the sumac thicket and was struggling to make headway and decided to get on all fours. As I crawled under most of the tough branches I neared the small rock ridge to the side of the canyon. The hail was starting to stick on the ground and with my summer attire I was starting to get cold. There was a long hike out and only shelter would keep me from being in real trouble. I wedged my way past the branches and saw that near the rocks was some kind of cave or hole. I couldn’t believe my luck, there was a shelter where I was headed. I got clear of the thicket and saw that the hole was at the top of a small pile of rock. It looked a bit like a mine shaft but had been blocked off.
As I cleared the last bush I crawled up the pile of rocks to the opening just large enough to allow my access. As I reached the hole my mind still worked and I realized I had to be careful, the hole was the perfect place for rattlesnakes. I stuck my head in the hole and was going to wait for my eyes to adjust but the hail was getting so hard that it really hurt my body as it hit me. I crawled in as I threw caution to the wind. I stayed at the top of the pile and breathed a sigh of relief as I had found a spot out of the weather. I looked outside and saw the hail was really starting to build up. It was coming down so heavy that I could only see a few yards out toward the canyon.
I turned to the inside of the hole to see what I could see. I had not heard a rattle as I had gone in and that was a good sign. My eyes were just able to pick out something on the floor of the little hole. I froze as I realized what it was. There was a body in the dirt. As my eyes were adjusting I saw that there was a second body as well. On my God, what had I found? I looked to see how large the hole was and saw it was not big, maybe twenty five feet in and near the end of the small hollow I saw another object. It looked like a big box. My mind was reeling as to what had happened here. I was laying there thinking about what lay below me when a bolt of lightning hit right outside and the flash lit up the inside enough I saw the bodies were old, very old and were nearly just bones now.
The loud thunder had broken me out of my thinking and I carefully climbed down the rock pile. As I reached the floor of the hole I was happy to see there were no snakes inside. I bent down to examine the first body. I saw that the one hand lying in the dust had been holding a revolver. I carefully reached down and picked up the old gun. I immediately knew it was old. The gun was an old revolver, in surprisingly good shape for its age. It was the dry nature of the hole that had kept the metal from rusting too badly. In fact, there was not a lot of dust because of the small size of the hole.
As I examined the scene, I saw that there were empty cartridges lying in the dirt, lots of them. The gun I held was also empty. There were bits of clothing still left on the body and what remained of boots. What had happened to these men? There were two and they looked to be in the same condition. I wondered if they had gotten into a gun fight and killed each other. As I was thinking about this I wondered about why the small cave had been blocked off by rocks. That is when my eyes fell upon the answer. In the first skeleton was the answer. There was an arrowhead stuck in one of the bones. As I studied the skeletons I found more arrowheads. The wood part of the arrows was long gone with age but the stone points were still here. The storm raged outside and I was not really paying attention to it, the cave had my total attention. Even the loud thunder didn’t do much anymore.
I had pretty well put together what had happened here when I looked at the box at the back of the cave. I had just figured that the Indians had driven the men to the cave and killed them. That is probably what had happened but when I looked at the box I figured out what the reason was for the men being here in the first place. As I studied the box I saw it was a Wells Fargo cash box, the kinds that were carried on the old stage coaches. The men had seemingly robbed a stage near the stage station where I had passed on my drive in this morning. In their attempt to escape, they had been spotted by the Indians and had tried to fight it out in the cave. It provided good shelter but when they had run out of bullets the Indians had gotten them. Seems the Indians had no use for the men or what they had with them but they sealed off the cave after the fight. That could have been to conceal what they had done to the white man or for some reason of their own.
The old lock was still on the box, they had not even had a chance to see what they had stolen before they were killed. I picked up a rock and banged at the lock. A few blows and it popped open. As I lifted the lid it made a loud sound of rusty metal against metal. It sounded like the old doors being opened in spooky movies.
The contents of the box were in excellent shape and not dusty at all. Near the top of the box was a packet of papers with leather binding. I picked up the packet and the leather binding was brittle and broke before I had even tried to untie it. I opened the cover and inside were court documents concerning the shootout at the OK corral. Wow! I set the packet aside and there were several bags to one side. I tried to lift one but the cloth was rotten and the top pulled off. Below were packs of paper money and I was afraid to lift it out since it may also fall apart. A second bag had gold coins. My excitement was really starting to rise as I saw all the coins.
As I examined the rest of the box I found a leather box that when opened was the most amazing sight inside. There was a pair of inlaid dueling pistols. I can’t even imagine who had owned these beauties. There were bags of watches, personal jewelry, a whole box of eyeglasses and more papers. It was a treasure trove of wealth and history.
I picked up the two revolvers the men had used and lay them in the Wells Fargo box and decided that this was so exciting that I just had to get back down to my jeep and get home to make plans to get the box out. The storm had eased up but it was still raining. The hail had stopped but the ground was totally covered by several inches of white. I started down and tried not to hurry, especially since I couldn’t see where I was stepping. I slipped and fell several times but was fortunate not to get hurt. As I got down out of the steeper part I picked up my pace a bit. That is when it happened. I had a weak left ankle and had often twisted it in terrain that was not nearly this rough. I didn’t see the rock under the hail and my ankle went over with a crack. I went head over heels until I landed in a sumac. My foot hurt so bad I was sure I had broken it this time. It was twisted to the side but then that had happened before too. I reached down and gave it a quick jerk back into position. The pain made me scream out loud but it was straight again. Something had popped out of place but it had not broken. When the pain finally eased up enough that I could think, I realized I was lying in the hail. I was starting to shake with the cold. I knew I could not stay here and looked around. Luckily there were yuccas near me and I crawled over and got the two sturdiest yucca poles I could and used them like a crutch to make my way down the mountain.
I fell several more times and lay in the hail until I got too cold. I finally made it down to the dirt road that led to where I was parked. I was physically shaking now from my ankle and the cold that had overtaken my body. I was a mess but all I could do was keep going. The thoughts of the treasure up on the mountain kept me going.
When I finally made it back to the jeep I had nearly reached the end of my strength. I got in the jeep and started it up but when I tried to drive, something was wrong. I stopped and got out.
Oh hell! The right rear tire was flat. I couldn’t believe it but I had no choice, I had to change the tire. I sat until a little energy came back and I had stopped shaking. It took me half an hour to change the tire and I had never felt so beat.
The drive home was another agony. My left foot was swollen twice its normal size. Luckily I could do the gas and clutch with my right foot. As I pulled into my driveway my wife came out and saw the shape I was in.
“I knew I should not have let you go up there alone” she said as she helped me into the house. She spent the next hour treating my injuries and when I finally lay down in bed I think I passed out. Janet had listened to my treasure story with plenty of disbelief but I was in no shape to argue with her. My body was starting to feel a bit better but I started getting sick and had a high fever. Janet took me to the emergency room and they admitted me that same day.
Two weeks in the hospital with double pneumonia and another three weeks to recover was almost too much to bear. I had written down all I had seen in the small cave and made a list of the boxes contents as well as I could remember it.
The rainy season had raged this year and several more huge storms had hit the Dragoon Mountains. There had been flash floods and rock slides. I was hoping that the small cave had not been washed open and the box destroyed. I had only told one other person besides Janet about the box and Winston was ready to go with me when I was back on my feet. The day finally came and we parked the same place I had parked on my hike. I decided to trace my steps as close as I could. We reached the ridge and this time there were no storms. I thought I remembered the canyon I had gone down and we searched and it was not there. We went back up and tried the next canyon. Nothing looked familiar.
We spent that day and several more scouring the West flank of the Dragoon Mountains and we never found the spot that I had found on that stormy day. Had my mind been playing tricks on me? Had the storm obliterated the spot? Had a rock slide come down? I couldn’t figure out why I could not find the spot again. Winston had finally given up and was not going up with me anymore. Janet had gotten tired of my obsession and had told me to let it go. I did but in the back of my mind I knew I would go up to the mountain again to look for the Wells Fargo box filled with treasure.
This story is dedicated to Winston Macnab, who inspired the writing of the story a number of years ago. Winston passed away 6-3-2012.
Copyright Rolf Luetcke