Uncle Jim began assembling his metal detector. I looked around to get my bearings. My dog, Snipe, was not in sight, but a rustle in the brush betrayed him. Probably chasing a lizard, I thought. Dad and Mike were watching the detector take shape.
We were on the south slope of the canyon. The ground was mostly open here, with mountain laurel, juniper, and an occasional prickly pear cactus thrown in. Cliffs rose sharply, and all around were outcroppings of granite rock and great fallen boulders.
I had a good view both up and down the canyon. Downstream I could make out the tangled and broken area where the trail wound around; farther west was the dry desert, which sloped gradually to the Rio Grande. Upstream were more mountains and canyons, and of course the mysterious wisps of smoke drifting skyward.
We were some distance up the canyon from the springs, and the creekbed was as dry as a bone. Close to the canyon’s bottom was that majestic old pine I had noticed when first looking for the smoke. From where I stood I couldn’t see its trunk too well because of trees and shrubs, but it seemed to have an old lightning scar running down its side. At any rate, the area looked like a nice place to set up a camp. An added attraction was that it was fairly close to running springs.
“Hurry up, Jim,” Mike urged. “I’d like to know whether whatever set your detector off is anyplace near that smoke.” Mike’s impatient voice interrupted my observations. “Keep your socks on,” Uncle Jim countered. “I’ll have it out in a minute.”
The mineral detector was partly commercial and partly homemade. It had registered a slight reaction coming from this canyon from several miles away. Mr. Johnson had convinced Dad and Uncle Jim that there was a lost gold mine in this general area. Persistent rumors among longtime treasure hunters told of an old mine somewhere in the Organ Mountains of New Mexico, but nobody in our group had heard of anybody ever looking in this particular canyon before. Uncle Jim’s detector was supposed to pin it down for us. We hoped to find treasure signs on rocks and trees that would help lead us to the gold.
“All right, fellas,” began Uncle Jim, “let’s see what reaction we get this close to the springs.” He took up his instrument and began his first scan. His brow wrinkled up almost immediately.
“What’s the matter?” demanded Mike. “Something wrong?”
Uncle Jim wiped his hands and changed positions slightly before answering. “Either something is drastically wrong with the instrument or . . .” His voice trailed off. He strode back and forth along the trail for a few moments, then paced downhill and back. At last he removed his gear and noticed us again. “We must be practically on top of it,” he whispered hoarsely.
“Well, what do we do about it?” asked Mr. Johnson.
Dad spoke up quickly. “Winston, you go that way and look for signs of digging or old waste dumps. Mike, you scout uphill. Uncle Jim, I’ll go upstream while you poke around over toward the creekbed.” Putting action to words, Dad pushed through the thick brush and disappeared with hardly a sound. He was the only quiet one, however.
All the commotion brought Snipe loping to us, and with him sniffing excitedly by my side I headed west. I had seen plenty of old diggings and knew a waste dump at a glance. Anything out of harmony with nature would have shouted at me right off, but 15 minutes of brush tramping revealed nothing.
Not so for Uncle Jim. “Hey, fellas! Here it is!”
Snipe and I dashed in the direction of Uncle Jim’s voice. The sound of footsteps breaking brush from Mr. Johnson’s direction showed he had heard too. “Over here,” our guide called again. “By the big pine!”
Excitement almost choked me as I stumbled along. Dad’s shout of appreciation when he arrived set off Snipe’s barking, and the general tumult would have been amusing to an onlooker.
I was the last to arrive, expecting to see shimmering bars of gold barely hidden in a shallow mine entrance. My disappointment must have been obvious.
“Look there, boys,” gloated Uncle Jim, unmindful of my letdown. “All we have to do is measure it off and dig ‘er up.” He was posed dramatically by the old pine, pointing to that ancient yellow-gray scar that I had spotted earlier from the slope. Mike beamed from ear to ear like a politician who had just been elected for life.
Dad chortled as he rubbed his hand up and down the old scar. “Yes, sir, we’re in luck. A couple of weeks should put us on easy street.” I failed to see the reason for all this glee, and spoke up. “What’s so important about an old lightning burn?”
This time it was Mr. Johnson who had the answer. “Winston, that’s not a lightning scar. Move back up to where you can see it better. That’s a descending snake carved in the tree. See the thin tail at the top? And this notch at the bottom represents the head. Up close you can still make out the old ax marks.”
Realization dawned quickly. Somehow I had expected the wood to be carved away, leaving a raised image. Instead, the snake was carved into the tree. It was my turn to rejoice. We’d found a treasure-hunting symbol!
My enthusiasm proved to be too much for Dad. “Save your breath and energy, son. We’ve got work to do. Uncle Jim, Mike, let’s build our monument right here and fill out the claim papers we brought.”
A monument is a stone pillar about four feet high erected near the center of a mining claim. A waterproof container left in the monument contains the claim paper. This legal document describes the claim, tells where the corner markers can be found, and lists the people making the claim. A copy of this paper must be filed in the county courthouse. This done, the persons staking the claim secure full legal right to develop any mineral wealth found. We were making our claim to this spot.
A couple hours of climbing, tramping, and measuring laid out the approximate boundaries. Then we rested a bit and quietly discussed the day’s happenings and future plans. We little realized that events less than an hour away would change these plans drastically.