It was now the middle of December. I swung my ax again and again, lopping limbs off a tree that the men had cut down and then chopping them into wood-stove lengths. Suddenly I felt a hard, numbing blow on my foot.
“Yeeoow! Oh, no!” I said out loud. The ax had glanced from the stub of a broken limb and hit my foot. I could see a deep gash through part of my boot, and my foot hurt. There was no blood, however, so I limped back to camp, feeling worse with each step.
“What’s the matter, son?” Dad demanded anxiously. He’d seen my limp, then noticed my slashed boot. “Winston! Are you hurt?”
“The ax bounced off a stub, but I’m not cut.”
Dad looked relieved. He told me that we’d be making a two-day trip to El Paso for a compressor part.
“You can come along, Winston,” Dad told me. He didn’t have to invite me twice.
After purchasing the part in El Paso, we returned to Las Cruces. I got a book at the library while the men bought supplies, and then we checked the mail.
“Whatcha got?” Dad asked as he saw Uncle Jim’s brow wrinkle up over a letter. “Nothing wrong, I hope?”
“No, just curious. On our last town trip I mailed a letter to Juan Pablo Garcia. Do you remember him?”
“Isn’t he the fortuneteller and spirit doctor in Pecos, Texas? The one who uses his beautiful daughter to help him consult the spirits?” asked Dad.
“Yeah, that’s the one. Well, I asked him to see whether the spirits could help us here on our project.”
There was a moment of shocked silence before Mike broke in almost angrily. “Wait a minute, Jim. Do you mean to tell me you’ve consulted a spirit medium? I won’t have it! I’m a Christian, and I don’t believe in such things. We’re not going to start turning to evil spirits for help now!” His voice was rising.
“Calm down, Mike,” my father interrupted quietly. “Let’s get all the facts.”
Uncle Jim looked back at Mike. “We’re equal partners in this, and you’ll not tell me what I can or can’t do!”
I’d known about our uncle’s visits to Mr. Garcia and that Dad didn’t approve, but he wasn’t so loud in his disapproval as Mr. Johnson. I think it was the embarrassing stares of passersby that finally calmed the two men, as much as what Dad was trying to say. Anyhow, my great-uncle went on to explain that the letter suggested a visit to a local medium whose spirits were more familiar with neighborhood matters. Mr. Johnson continued to protest, but he knew it was useless. After agreeing on a meeting place for later in the day, Mike turned away.
The letter directed us to an address across town. It was a small adobe-brick house in a run-down neighborhood. A fat, greasy-faced woman answered our knock. She wore a faded, soiled dress, and her black, waist-length hair was uncombed and stringy-looking. She was a complete contrast to Mr. Garcia’s lovely daughter, Lucia.
I wondered whether this was how Lucia would someday look after years of serving the spirits.
The woman and Uncle Jim talked a few moments and then went inside, while Dad and I sat in the truck.
I looked over at my father. “Mr. Johnson was sure mad, wasn’t he, Dad?”
“I don’t really blame him, Winston. I’m not too pleased with it myself. After being around my uncle as long as I have, though, I’ve learned that arguing does no good. Only conversion to Christ will ever change him.”
“It gives me the creeps, sitting here knowing that in that little mud house they’re talking with spirits.”
“Yes, and always remember, son, spiritism is of the devil, and those are his imps in there.”
“Dad, before they went inside, I heard that woman tell Uncle Jim that our mine had a powerful patrón. What was she talking about?”
“Son, patrón is a Spanish word meaning “protector” or “sponsor.” In the superstitions surrounding buried treasure, it’s often said that some powerful spirit becomes the guardian of the treasure until the right searchers come along. Some even claim to have seen these patrones in the form of a white animal or a person in dressed in white.”
Later Uncle Jim came out full of new enthusiasm. During the trip back to camp everyone else felt tense and depressed. I pondered Dad’s words and decided I would never dabble in the spirit world.
My foot felt much better the next day, but since the men had to finish the repair work on our air compressor, I was allowed to laze around camp and read my new book. At noon Uncle Jim sent me across the canyon to fetch Dad and Mike for lunch. It was the warmest day we’d had for weeks, though still a bit chilly.
With only a slight limp, I worked my way down the first incline of the trail to the mine. Suddenly a movement in the brush drew my attention to the canyon bed ahead of me. There on the trail stood a beautiful white sheep! I had never seen any sheep in these hills. As I approached cautiously, the animal bolted across the trail and down the canyon.
Then I noticed something else. Dragging from its neck was a heavy logging chain almost 20 feet long.
In a matter of seconds I reached the spot where the sheep had crossed the trail, but there was no sign of it. A chill pierced my bones and ran down my back. The animal seemed to have completely disappeared! No hoofprints, no chain marks, no broken or disturbed brush—nothing! Then I realized that I hadn’t heard any sound, either.
I called out, and the men came running. We thrashed around in the canyon for a while, searching for the white sheep. Finally we found a single hoofprint a little way off the trail.
Uncle Jim’s first comment was “A white animal? The patrón! Winston, you’ve seen the patrón of this mine!” He became strangely quiet for a while.
After lunch he broke his silence. “I’m worried now, fellows. When someone sees the patrón, it could be a good omen, but most often it’s a warning. If we don’t heed the warning, we can expect three incidents, each worse than the previous one.”
“What kind of incidents, Jim?” Dad asked, more curious than believing.
“Accidents. Someone hurt or nearly hurt.”
“Nonsense,” Mike snorted. “Winston, don’t let such superstitious talk fool you.” He had noticed my slack-jawed stare and wrinkled brow.
“What do you mean, superstitious talk?” challenged Uncle Jim. “I remember once near Sanderson, Texas, we were looking for the outcropping of a gold vein. Gold had been found washed down a sandy creek, and Bill, Winston, and I were trying to find where it came from. I took a sample of quartz to Mr. Garcia, and the spirits told me right where to look. Unfortunately, it was off the property we had permission to search on, and the owner didn’t believe our story, but—”
“Come off it, Jim,” Mr. Johnson interrupted. “But, but, but. There’s always a ‘but’ in these stories. You consult the spirits and get all fired up over a few details that happen to turn out right, but have they ever really benefited you? Well, have they?”
Uncle Jim opened and closed his mouth a few times, then sputtered, “Just you wait. Three incidents, I tell you. You’ll see!”