Mike spoke up. “Let’s go on up the trail a ways. I’m still curious about those gunshots and the smoke.” Since he was paying all the bills for our trip, nobody thought to object. In fact, we were all as curious as he.
“Let’s go,” echoed Dad.
Mike led the way, followed by the other men. Snipe and I came along behind.
We crossed the canyon bed again and zigzagged upward. A half hour of stiff hiking brought us to the lower end of an almost-level ledge stretching alongside the creekbed for about a quarter of a mile. Its width varied from about twenty feet to more than 50 yards. We hadn’t been on the ledge for more than a few minutes when Snipe let out a bark that soon changed to a furious growling.
Two events followed closely upon each other: Uncle Jim found the source of Snipe’s agitation, and we heard another dog barking somewhere farther up the canyon.
“Look here, fellows,” directed Uncle Jim. “A dead rattlesnake hanging over this limb. It’s been shot three times.”
“I’ll bet they were the shots we heard,” Mike ventured.
The barking from up canyon began then, and Snipe charged away on a conquering mission. Dad’s voice of authority brought the dog back, but his straight-up back hair and low-voiced woofs told me he wasn’t happy about being restrained. Normally the dead rattlesnake would have caught everyone’s attention, but not now.
“Bill, let’s move on,” prompted Mike. “The donkey, the shots, the smoke, the snake, and now a dog barking. Face it—somebody lives up here, and I have a hunch we can’t avoid whoever it is and hope to do our own business.”
Dad and Uncle Jim exchanged glum glances and set off up the trail without another word. Mike stared at the now plainly seen smoke thoughtfully for a minute, glanced briefly at me, and followed the others. I poked at the snake with a stick a couple of times and then ran to catch up. Snipe tagged sullenly along by Dad’s heels.
A few minutes’ walk through a juniper break on the ledge brought us to the edge of a clearing. A hundred yards away we could see a camp. Across the creekbed from it and up the canyon side a short distance was the unmistakable waste dump of a large digging. A large 16-foot-square Army-surplus tent dominated the campsite. It had a tall centerpole, and its side walls were wood-framed and screened. The entire structure was set up on a wooden platform, which provided a solid floor with storage space under it. Smoke—those formerly mysterious fumes—curled innocently skyward from a peaceful stovepipe in the tent.
Just then a dog bounded around the tent corner, shattering the late afternoon stillness with threatening barks. The animal was large and black, but I could tell right away that it was an older male who had seen better days. Snipe dashed ahead to meet this stranger. They bristled and growled as they circled and sniffed. We moved forward quickly and Dad called, “Snipe, come back here!”
A large man with dark features stepped out of the tent. He had thinning black hair flecked with gray. His rolled-up shirt sleeves revealed the hairiest arms I’d ever seen. Both dogs pulled back, and we all studied one another for a moment.
Finally the man spoke. “Howdy. I’m John Brently. You fellows deer hunting?”
“Hello,” responded Dad. “No, we’re not hunters. I’m Bill Armistead. This is my uncle, Jim Thomas, and Mike Johnson. That’s my son, Winston. Our dogs seem to have already met.”
A younger man wearing dark glasses and a Stetson hat joined Mr. Brently. He was followed by a woman. I didn’t catch the new man’s name, but the woman was introduced as Mrs. Brently. She seemed nice and had a pleasant voice.
As the adults got acquainted I glanced around. With a bit of a thrill, I spotted seven burros tied to a hitching post near where the ledge dropped off steeply into the canyon 30 feet below. On the ground, waiting to be put away, were two saddles and five pack saddles. Somehow I felt completely reassured when I saw a very old stiff-legged burro–just as Dad had “predicted” when he’d studied the tracks–eating peacefully at the end of the row. Several other tents had been erected nearby.
“Would you gentlemen care for a drink?” the woman asked politely.
“Yes, come on in,” added Mr. Brently hospitably.
Soon we were all crowded into the old Army tent. As we enjoyed our simple refreshments, Mr. Brently came directly to the point. “Since you men aren’t deer hunters, would you mind telling us what brings you this far up the canyon? Casual hikers don’t usually come past the springs.”
The men in our group exchanged looks. Then Mr. Johnson cleared his throat and began: “I suspect we are here for the same reason you folks are. Somewhere in these mountains is an old Spanish mine, closed long ago and lost. We have some information about it, and probably you do too. We saw your monument outside, and I assume you may have several claims. We plan to register some claims of our own in Las Cruces tomorrow.”
The younger man removed his dark glasses and pretended to wipe his eyes. His glance caught Mr. Brently momentarily. The older man nodded his head slightly, and the other one winked. No one else in our group seemed to notice. The winker broke the brief silence.
“We’re members of a group in partnership. Clarence Yarrow, of Houston, Texas, is the major shareholder. Our group holds twelve claims in this canyon. We control most everything between here and Isaac Springs. Mr. Yarrow and others associated with him have been hunting that lost mine for 20 years. We know a lot about it but haven’t been able to locate it. If you have any information, perhaps your group can be taken into ours on a percentage basis.”
A lively discussion followed in which Dad changed seats casually while refilling his cup. His new resting place put him next to me on one of the beds. I spoke quickly to him in a low voice. “Dad, that younger man winked at Mr. Brently just before he started talking. Either they think it’s amusing for us to be here or they’re hiding something.”
“Yeah, I thought I saw something like that,” he whispered between listening to Mike’s questions and comments. “Son,” he continued quickly, “go to the restroom outside. Then start down the canyon. When you’re out of sight, run to the old pine tree. Destroy our monument, scatter the stones, get our claim paper, and hide our tracks. There’s no need letting them discover where we think things are. We can use what we know to bargain for a contract later on. Wait for us at the springs. We’ll be coming soon.”
I approached Mrs. Brently and asked about the outside restroom. It was an easy matter to slip past the outhouse and down the canyon. Soon I was running at breakneck speed, my breath exploding in painful gasps. In a fraction of the time it took for us to ascend the canyon to the camp, I retraced our steps to the old pine. Even Snipe was out of breath and panting hard as I started my unpleasant job.
I thought I had worked pretty fast, but I was still strewing pine needles over footprints when I heard Dad calling me from the nearby trail. With one last glance at the snake I turned to the path. Together with Uncle Jim we returned to our own camp, arriving shortly before sundown.
Mr. Johnson was spending the night with the Yarrow group, talking business, and he’d join us in the morning. Uncle Jim and Dad talked over the day’s events and the future all during supper and into the evening. I crawled into my blankets as soon as the dishes were finished and fell quickly a dreamless sleep.