Walter Noble Burns

Preview: Issue 1 of 36

An Iliad of the Southwest

I - Hills of Silver

Geronimo and his warriors were out of their stronghold in the Dragoons. Through all the southeastern part of Arizona from the San Simon to the Huachucas and from the Gila to the Mexican line, the Apache bands were relentlessly harrying the thinly settled land with a warfare of ambuscade and assassination. Through desert mesquite and cactus, the invisible savages slipped with the noiseless swiftness of running water; like poisonous reptiles they wriggled upon their bellies to points of murderous vantage; as still as cougars and as patient, they lurked beside the trails or watched a cabin door. The sudden cough of a rifle through the golden peace of the sunshine gave the first intimation of their ghostly nearness. A wagon train was ambushed in some pass in the hills; a miner in some lonely gulch was murdered from a cholla thicket; a settler with his wife and children was massacred on his homestead claim. Back to their mountain fastnesses from their slinking, silent war trails, the red butchers bore their spoils—a side of bacon, a sack of flour, a bag of beans, a little tobacco, a pair of overalls, a calico wrapper, a baby's rattle. Then the riotous feasting, the paeans of drumming tom-toms, the wild, impassioned dance of triumph. This was the Apache way in war. No battles, only murder. If the soldiers pressed hard upon their traces, the savages, on their tough, swift ponies, vanished as by magic through secret mountain paths to safety in old Mexico.

Into this wilderness land of ambushed death, Ed Schieffelin, unknown as yet to fame or fortune, came as a civilian scout in 1877, with a flying column recruited in the Hualapai country on the borders of the Grand Canyon and under the command of Al Sieber, celebrated in Apache campaigns as one of the greatest government scouts of the Southwest. The troopers made their headquarters at Camp Huachuca, a newly established army post at the north end of the Huachuca range, and scoured the country round about for Indians.

Eastward across the San Pedro Valley from the post, a group of high hills cut the skyline. Unlovely hills, treeless, their brown slopes a dreary monotony of huge rocks and boulders among which cactus and greasewood made hard shift to live. A sheer desert tumultuously uplifted and set on edge. There was a look of frank poverty about them. One sweep of the eye took them in. No dark, mysterious gorges, no hidden pockets, no shadowy valleys invited curious investigation. Spaniards of Coronado's time coming up from Mexico on their quest for the Seven Cities of Cibola had passed them by with only an incurious glance. Scouts had threaded through them, troops of cavalry had circled them, Mexican smugglers had camped in their lower draws. But no one had suspected that their drab pauper's mantle was only a masquerade hiding one of the continent's richest treasures. They were hills of silver, veined through and through with ore of fabulous richness, filled to the cactus roots and ready to burst with precious metal. One rip of their sides with a miner's pick and the hoarded wealth would have come gushing forth in resplendent flood. But their hour had not yet struck. The man with the pick had not yet arrived.

On one of their scouting expeditions from Camp Huachuca, Al Sieber and his men rode through the northern reaches of these hills. Schieffelin's eye caught the gleam of deep mineral stains on a stone. He dismounted and examined the piece of float intently. Silver! Schieffelin looked up in astonishment at the piled-up ugliness of the range. For one skeptical moment, the squalid ridges seemed a sky-high lie. He shook his head. It was impossible. And yet … He dropped the chunk of rock in his coat pocket and rode on after his comrades. He said nothing. But his secret thrilled him like wine. He would be a scout no longer. When the Apache hunt was over, he would turn prospector again and hit the trail for the end of the rainbow.

On his return to Camp Huachuca, Schieffelin rode off alone on his mule to seek his fortune. For a while, he made his headquarters with George Woolfolk, who had just taken up land on Barbacomari Creek, sleeping at Woolfolk's place at night and going out every day into the hills. He found the spot where he had picked up the float, but he was unable to trace the rock to its source. Falling in with William Griffith and a partner who had come from Tucson to do assessment work on the old Brunckow mine, he was induced to stand guard for them against the danger of Indian attack while they completed their job in the shaft.

The old Brunckow house, a long three-room adobe, stood in a little bowl of a valley a mile east of the San Pedro River. Its history even then was long and romantic. It was built in 1858 by Frederick Brunckow, a native of Berlin, graduate of the University of Westphalia, scholar and scientist who, exiled from Germany because of his activities in the revolution of 1848, had drifted out into these solitudes. Brunckow had begun to dig a mine near the house, and it had reached the depth of a grave when an Indian arrow toppled him over into it dead.

Science on that primitive frontier connoted a sort of magic, and a story spread that the German wizard, by occult divination, had located a vast treasure deep in the earth. So a long succession of adventurers came and dug in the shaft, but death was all any man-jack of them ever found. Two in addition to Brunckow were killed by Apaches, and claim-jumping fights over the worthless hole in the ground brought the toll of dead men, it is said, up to seventeen. But the myth of treasure deeper down still lives, and year after year assessment work is done to hold the claim. Nowadays, the old house and mine are said to be haunted. Travellers along the old Charleston road, it is declared, hear cries and groans at night or see shadowy forms stalking in the moonlight.

Here at the old Brunckow mine, Al Sieber riding up with a party of scouts found Schieffelin sitting on a pile of rock on guard with his rifle across his lap.

"What're you doin', Ed?" asked Sieber.

"Prospecting, mostly," Schieffelin drawled.


"Over yonder." Schieffelin waved his hand eastward toward the hills.

"Them hills?" scoffed Sieber. "Thar ain't nothin' thar."

"I've picked up some mighty nice-looking stones."

"All you'll ever find in them hills'll be your tombstone," warned the scout. "Geronimo'll git you ef you don't watch out, and leave your bones fer the buzzards to pick."

"I'll take a chance," Schieffelin replied.

His life against a million dollars. That was his chance.

A wide, shallow dry wash leading up from the San Pedro Valley, its sloping sides green with gramma grass and flowering weeds. Ocotillos whose tall, curving, graceful wands springing from a central root were like green jets from a fairy fountain. Chollas armed with needle-sharp spines as thick as bristles on a wild boar, brandishing weirdly deformed arms like truculent devils. Green and yellow mescal plants that shot thirty feet in air skyrocket stalks that exploded in starry white blooms. Schieffelin on his mule, rifle across his saddlebow, travelling through the wash at a walk, looking for stones.

From the yellow, shadowy ramparts of the Dragoons nine miles across the mesquite mesa, a tall slender column of smoke, shimmering darkly in the sun, rose straight into the sky. It broke from its base and drawing slowly upward into space melted from view. A quick, ball-like puff of smoke shot upward like a bursting bomb. Again a slim spiral shorter than the first. Another explosive puff. Another. Once more a brief pillar. Dash. … Dot. … Dash. … Two dots. … Dash. Up there somewhere on the mountain wall a half-naked Apache, manipulating a deerskin over a brush fire, was telegraphing a code message to some war party in the valley. A queer little smile twisted the corner of Schieffelin's mouth. What was that fellow saying? Humph! He tightened a bit his grip on his rifle and went on looking for stones. Find his tombstone? Well, maybe.

He turned a corner of the wash. His mule halted abruptly, ears pricked, forelegs stiffly braced. What was that that gleamed so snowy white among the clumps of bear grass? An outcropping of white rock, perhaps. Or the mouldering skull of some long-dead, crow-bait pony. But no. Schieffelin dismounted. A step forward and there before him lay a human skeleton. Just beyond it another. The sparse grass had laid green tendrils across the glistening shanks. Weeds had shot up between the ribs. A prickly pear was crawling greenly across a disarticulated spinal column. The disjointed bones, bleached to ghastly whiteness by the suns and rains of years, were only slightly out of place here and there, and the two dead men seemed to have lain undisturbed since the moment of sudden tragedy that had overwhelmed them.

The skeletons lay at full length, breast downward, head to head, with the finger bones of the long out-reaching arms almost touching. Between them stood a pile of silver ore perhaps a foot high, the dissevered arm bones almost enclosing it in a glimmering, broken circle. One skull lay turned on its side; the other was firmly imbedded upon its base in the earth, but the dark, hollow eye-sockets of both were trained, as if with conscious intensity, on the little heap of stones that suggested some idol's shrine before which these ghastly spectres bowed to the ground in unending worship. High above them, on a single stem, a yucca lifted a great cluster of drooping lily-white blossoms that swayed gently in the breeze like a swung censer.

The story of the tragedy that had left these bones to bleach on the desert was as clear as if the skeletons themselves suddenly had sat upright and unfolded every vivid detail. Picture two prospectors beside their camp fire. Rugged men they are, bearded, clear-eyed, ruddy with health. Luck has been with them. They have located a rich ledge of silver during their day's wanderings. They pour their specimens of ore on the ground. In the red glow of the firelight they gloat over their treasure. Wonderful ore. What will it run? Twenty thousand to the ton? These questions can wait. The assay in Tucson will tell. They pick up the stones, scrutinize them, weigh them in their palms. They are like misers threading fingers joyously through gold. They laugh exultant laughter. But it is growing late. They roll themselves in their blankets and go to sleep under the stars to dream of riches.

But out in the darkness, a devil's ring has closed around them. While they are slumbering peacefully, fierce eyes keep them all night under baleful surveillance. Apache gods forbid a night attack; the night is sacred to ancestral ghosts. Rosy dawn is a choice time for murder. When morning breaks in rose and gold over the Dragoons, the two men tumble out of bed. For a happy moment they stand facing each other above their pile of ore. They stretch out comradely hands. "Put her there, pardner." Their fortune's made. Goodbye to desert hardships. They have struck it rich at last. … Apache rifles spit fire. Snaky wisps of blue powder smoke wriggle off across the mesquite. …

Schieffelin climbed down off his mule, and stepping gingerly among the bones, examined the pieces of ore one by one. Quick certainty flashed upon him like sunlight. This ore had come from the same source as the float he had found while scouting with Sieber. He was near the treasure for which he had hunted so long. Possibly this spot of dreams was now within the sweep of his vision. But where? He replaced the rocks as he had found them in the half-formed circle between the skeleton arms and rode away, leaving the dead at their eternal salaam before the tiny altar on which they had poured the oblation of their life blood.

At sunset, Schieffelin, several miles farther up the wash, prepared to camp. He picketed his mule in good grass in a secluded hollow and threw down his blankets on top of a hill a mile away. This was good strategy; a man will lie silent at night in Indian country but a mule may burst into song at any moment. The conical hill on which he made camp extended out into the wash in promontory wise and was thickly strewn with broken, gigantic fragments of rock. Just east of it was a fine spring in a clump of cottonwoods.

It was twilight when Schieffelin started for the spring to fill his canteen. As he turned a point of rock, he saw on the brow of the hill scarcely twenty yards from him an Apache warrior standing in fine, bold silhouette against the golden pallor of the sky, every detail delicately outlined—the dingy white turban, the single eagle's feather in the hair, the necklace of bear's claws, loincloth, high boot-moccasins. A rifle rested in the crook of the Indian's arm; beneath his cupped palm, he was peering into the shadows beginning to veil the mesa. A noble picture, but appealing to Schieffelin more poignantly as a noble target. He dropped abruptly behind a rock and drew a careful bead.

As he was about to pull the trigger, a second savage, emerging noiselessly from behind the hilltop, seemed to float up against the sky like a mannequin manipulated against a lighted screen by strings. Well! A third mysteriously materialized. The tragic situation was achieving a certain comic relief. Two more Indians rose ghostlike against the sky from the nether shadows. Five! It began to look as if Sieber's prophecy might come true, after all. A tombstone for the cornered prospector loomed just then as a not improbable tailpiece for his adventure. Schieffelin lowered his rifle. This thing was being overdone. He had had enough. Threading his way among the towering rocks, bent on stealthy flight in the gathering dusk, he espied from the verge of the crest twenty more Indians down by the spring.

But they were mounting their ponies. Schieffelin realized with a surge of relief that they were making ready to go away. The five that had floated up against the sky floated down again. Digging their heels into their ponies' sides, the band got under way. Hoo-hoo-hoo-ah-hoo! Their chanted grunting came to Schieffelin's ears in jolting rhythms as they rode off in the thickening darkness. But there was still danger. They were heading in the direction of Schieffelin's mule. Would that fool beast have sense enough to stick to cropping grass or, under sudden lyric urge, would it intone a hymn to the evening star? An aria at this crisis would be fatal. Or would those desert bloodhounds pick up Schieffelin's own trail in the wash and come back to lift his hair? Hoo-hoo-hoo-ah-hoo! The muffled cadence was growing fainter. With straining eyes, Schieffelin watched the huddle of jostling forms dwindle in the distance. It faded into a formless blur, winked out at last in blank darkness. They were gone. Still from far off the rhythmic whisper throbbed through the night. Hoo-hoo-hoo-ah-hoo!

Sweet music to Schieffelin's ears after a night of sleepless vigilance was the hee-haw of his mule uplifted in joyous salute to the morning. When the sun again shone serenely over the familiar landscape, exorcising the lurking terrors of darkness, he felt the happy elation of one who has awakened in the nick of time to escape the hobgoblins of a nightmare. Three miles beyond him rose the hills that had so long intrigued and baffled him. He had had his first glimpse of them in April; this was the middle of August. Before him the wash led upward to the sunlit heights. Once more astride his mule, he set off on the day's adventures.

Float was plentiful. The fragments scattered along the sides of the wash were like markers left to guide him. He entered the vestibule of the hills; the wash divided. Which branch should he take? One possibly led to poverty; the other to wealth. While he paused in momentary quandary, a cottontail rabbit darted from a covert, scurried across the wash from the left, and disappeared up the right-hand gulch, leaving a trail of tiny footprints in the sand. It seemed an augury. Schieffelin staked his mule in the brush and on foot followed the cottontail. Destiny at the crossroads was determined by a trifle.

He worked up the draw to its head far back in the range. The barren hills swept down in flowing curves that flattened into tables and dipped into hollows and saddles and were cut deeply by innumerable ravines. Far up toward the summit, he spied an irregular ledge of grayish rock marbled with black and reddish-yellow splotches; he estimated its length at fifty feet and its width at six or eight inches. There were other ledges in plain view striping the hills. But this ledge stretching its undulant length along the dark slant of mountain stirred him like a battle flag. Toward it, as if drawn by a magnet, he laid his course, never swerving or turning aside as, labouring upward, he stumbled across arroyos and crashed through thickets of cat-claw and pear.

Breathless, wet with sweat, his heart pounding, he stood before the ledge at last. He sank his prospector's pick into the rock; it came crumbling down in a heap of brittle lumps. In a hand that trembled as with an ague, he picked up a fragment; he examined it with feverish eyes. It was streaked and veined and stained with silver. His brain reeled with the richness of it.

No one was there to see the climax of this one-man drama staged on the bleak hillside. No one but Schieffelin knew the thrill and romance of it. He was alone with his mountain, alone with his dreams come true, alone with his achievement, alone in the glory of it. For this he had wandered in poverty for years through mountains and deserts, starved, suffered, braved death. Here was the goal of his life, his ultimate destination. This desolate spot was the end of the rainbow.

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