Yesterday I saw an ornate gold ring in a Phoenix museum, which brought back the story I had been told as a young writer. As I saw the name of the man who had left the ring to the museum, it all came back to me.
In the winter of 1972, I was cutting my teeth as a writer for a small magazine out of Willcox Arizona, when I had been asked to do a story on a birdwatcher who knew all about the migrating cranes of Willcox Playa.
After an hour of getting to know Paul Merklin, I knew I liked this odd little man. Khaki shorts, binoculars, just over five feet tall with short cropped white hair. Skin leathery from years spent in the sun. He’d been raised in California and had moved to Arizona in the forties and spent his spare time hiking and learning about the wildlife. He was an eccentric bookworm, a stereotypical birdwatcher.
Paul told me stories of his animal encounters with a passion and understanding which was enlightening.
After the interview, he’d invited me back and I had accepted. When he’d read my article. He decided he liked me as well.
We would meet occasionally and he would tell me of his adventures. His stories often bordered on fantasy and I had listened with great interest as he told me about one trip to the San Pedro River near Fairbank. This one I was certain he had made up, until I saw the ring.
Paul had passed away in 1987 and I had missed our chats.
Whether completely true or not, I felt it was important for me to write down his story, as well as I could remember.
It was 1961, a warm May afternoon. A friend had dropped Paul off at the San Pedro River where the road crossed at old Fairbank. He had carried plenty of water and food for his walk to Saint David.
After lunch, Paul had been walking slowly under the canopy of Cottonwoods, watching for birds. The river was a few hundred yards away and the area he walked was a bit higher than the flood plain.
Wildflowers abounded after a wet winter and Paul was trying to avoid stepping on too many. A flash of orange color crossed a clearing in the branches above. Paul hurried along to try and get a better view, when he tripped and fell hard.
As he hit the ground, there was an explosion of pain in his chest, right arm and right leg. As he tried to roll over the stabbing pain made him pass out.
When he came to again, he slowly opened his eyes and saw the play of light in the cottonwood leaves above. As his mind cleared, he remembered the fall. His injuries had settled into a dull ache and his left hand reached to his chest and felt a wet spot of blood.
When he sat up and surveyed his injuries more closely, he realized he’d fallen on a dead cottonwood limb and had impaled himself on the broken branches. The wounds weren’t serious but they certainly spoiled the pleasure he’d been having.
As he cleaned himself off, he began to wonder what he’d fallen over and turned around to look.
A few yards away was a rusty piece of metal protruding a couple of inches from the sand, a piece of an old fence? ,a metal pipe?
He went over and bent down to inspect the object and felt a slight tingling of gooseflesh grow on his arms and neck.
The object was unmistakably an old gun barrel. It was octagonal in shape and had a large bore hole in the center.
Paul knew a little about guns and realized it wasn’t anything from this century.
He pulled his hunting knife from its sheath and slowly dug around the barrel. To his surprise, the gun seemed to be even older than he had first thought, as he exposed the mechanism of an old flintlock.
His knife stuck into something as he neared the trigger and when he pulled it out of the sand, there was a bone stuck to the point. Startled, he dropped the knife in the sand as he realized it was a human finger bone. As he regained his composure, he realized the bone couldn’t be modern. It was gray with time but definitely a human bone.
He resumed his digging and found the gun was held in the bony grasp of a skeletal hand. One finger was loosely adorned with a ring. As he slipped the ring from the gray bone, he saw the ornate gold work, a handmade ring. It was not something he recognized as American and it looked quite European. Further excavation revealed more of the clues to the origin of the find.
As he neared the torso, Paul found evidence of old armor. He now realized the bones could be Spanish in origin. He’d read enough history books to know how the Spaniards had dressed as they explored the New World. It was even possible that the skeleton was from Coronado’s expedition.
It took Paul a couple of hours to expose most of the skeleton and he stood up to survey the scene. He got a drink of water as he looked at the bones. That was when he saw the flint arrowheads in the bones.
The skeleton held the flintlock in one hand and a rusted away sword in the other. He had apparently died fighting Indians. One arrowhead stuck in the upper bone of the right arm. A second one stuck in the upper right leg. A final point was lodged in the spinal column, behind the ribcage.
Either the Indians had buried the body or a flood had covered it with sand because it was all in one piece and hadn’t been scattered. Time and erosion had once again brought it to the surface, with a little help from Paul.
As Paul looked over his find, he noticed bits of the chainmail armor the Spaniard had once worn. Under the rusty armor was another metal mesh object and with a ray of late sunshine hitting it , Paul noticed a glint of gold.
Paul knelt down and with the tip of his knife he cut open the rusty mesh. A handful of gold coins poured out!
He picked up a handful of the shiny coins in his trembling hand and picked up a single coin with his fingers. There was what he was looking for, a date. 1536! Another was from 1534 and he saw they were clearly Spanish.
His mind was reeling with the significance of his find when suddenly the temperature dropped! Paul froze as all of the hair on his body stood on end and a shadow passed over him. The coins fell from his fingers and he spun around.
The sun was directly in his eyes and he held up his hand to block the sun. A figure stood a distance away and Paul tried to make it out. He called out a hello but there was no answer. As his eyes adjusted to the bright light, he could make out the figure of a coppery skinned, naked Indian. He wore only a brief loincloth and moccasins and a leather band to hold back his long, black hair.
The Indian raised something in his hands and Paul saw he was feathering an arrow in a bow. As Paul yelled out and tried to wave his arms, a sharp pain came from his arm and he saw the arrow sticking out. He screamed but was cut off by another arrow which struck him in the upper leg and knocked him flat on his back.
Paul couldn’t believe this was happening! As his head rolled to one side, he saw the skeleton a few feet away, gold coins glistening in the setting sun. The Indian stood over him and he could see the chiseled features of the wild face. The Indian looked to be from the same time period as the Spaniard but that just couldn’t be.
Paul watched as the Indian feathered another arrow and pulled back on the bowstring. He stared at the flaked stone point and tried to rasp a final no.
The arrow pierced his chest and the pain took over. He couldn’t breathe and he passed out.
When Paul awoke, it was bright daylight! He opened his eyes and saw the leaves moving in the gentle breeze above. His memory returned with a heart stopping jolt and he instantly noticed the pain in his chest. As he lifted his arm to try to pull out the arrow in his chest, his hand closed around a piece of wood, which came loose in his hand.
Paul raised his head to see the deep gash in his arm and the swollen bruise on his leg. He shook his head to try and clear his mind. He looked around and saw only the sand of the river edge and the big cottonwood branch he’d fallen over. His blood and a piece of his shirt still clung to the branch his binoculars lay in the sand.
Had he been here all night? Where was the skeleton? Had any of it actually happened? None of it made any sense but the memories were crisp and clear in his mind.
As he got up and brushed himself off, he noticed a piece of metal sticking a couple of inches from the sand and he got goose bumps. He went to take a look and saw it was the rusty barrel of a gun, sticking out of the sand. His mind was racing as he felt the sudden drop of temperature and a shadow passed between him and the sun.
His heart started racing wildly and his body took over and he started to run. He didn’t turn around and ran until his lungs ached so badly he couldn’t run any more. He fell to the wet sand in the river and tried to gain breath. As his breathing slowed, he realized he was bleeding again from the wounds on his arm and chest and his leg throbbed painfully.
Paul looked back the way he’d run but saw nothing. The river gurgled by, the birds sang and leaves rustled in the breeze.
Paul limped his way to Saint David a few miles downriver and managed to catch a ride home.
Three weeks later and his injuries were nearly healed. He hadn’t been able to make much sense of what had happened to him but he was putting it behind him. He decided to do his laundry and as he picked up the dirty clothes, he came across the pants he’d worn on that hike. As he cleaned out the pockets, something clinked to the floor. As he picked up the object, the goose bumps were back. It was the ornate golden ring he had taken from the gray bone of the Spaniard!
Paul stared at the ring for a long time, as all the memories started flooding back. He had convinced himself it had all been a strange dream he’d had while unconscious. Now he was reeling with confusion again.
With a trembling hand, Paul placed the ring in a little jewelry box on his dresser and went to sit down.
“No”! He’d said, he’d never gotten up the nerve to go back and he had the scars to rub if the urge ever came.
After I wrote down what Paul had told me, I sent a copy to the museum in Phoenix.
He had never told me exactly where this had all taken place and since I hadn’t taken him seriously, I had never asked him to take me.
Whether the story was true or not, the ring did exist and the story needed to be told.
Copyright – Rolf Luetcke 1998