by Frank Thayer ©2003
"There are many properties that remain after death. . . that which is immortal in them will work some wonderful things"
The Grimoire of Albertus Magnus
* * *
"I suppose you came to hear about the treasure." A pair of faded, blue, rheumy eyes peered at the younger man standing at the door of the room. The eyes were set in sockets creased like bellows; the face was bleached leather, and the stubbled beard was white.
"Yessir, I'm doing some research for an article I'm writing, and I've heard you knew something about a treasure in southwestern New Mexico. I saw that article in the Silver City Daily Press. . . " The younger man, perhaps 28, held the notepad a little too tightly. It was true that several of the staff at the State Hospital in Las Vegas, New Mexico, had suggested J.W. Shelley as the only man who claimed to know about this particular hidden trove, but they told him nothing else about the man. Now, standing at the foot of the man's bed, he felt a sense of anticlimax. Shelley was just an aged desert rat in a hospital bed.
"That article? Those newspaper hacks are in the back pocket of goons at the Phipps-Dodd Copper Company. They sure roughed me up when they caught me, I'll tell you that much. That's why the newspaper article talks about trespassin'. C'mon, c'mon and sit down. I told about it before and I don't mind talkin'. I don't think anybody believed me though. Guess that's what happens when a fella puts on the years. Oh, before I start, pull those blinds. For some reason I can't stand too much sun any more." The early afternoon sun was just starting to come through the west-facing windows.
As he drew the blinds, Whitcombe glanced at the man's face. He was old, true, but his teeth were even and strong, and the face, though aged, was still full.
In the semi-darkness, Shelley grunted approval and began his well-practiced tale in a strong, even voice. The only other sound in the room was the whisper of Whitcombe's ballpoint pen.
"Back when I was younger I lived down near Silver City, and explorin' old mines was a hobby of mine. By the time I was 21, I had visited just about every hole in the ground that wasn't still bein' dug. That friend of mine, Herb McGrath, and I used to go out on weekends, sometimes followin' treasure descriptions in hopes of findin' some of the Spanish loot that was left there between 1800 and 1873.
"Guess it was McGrath who came up with the information on Emilio Soliz Verdez." Shelley mentioned a book, and Whitcombe scribbled down the title.1
"The book only had one paragraph on Verdez, but who the hell would care about one of Carrasco's irresponsible lieutenants. Anyhow, as I rememberand it seems like a good time backthe book hints that Verdez didn't think no more of Indians than he thought about grasshoppers, unless they were women. Verdez wasn't too orthodox in his religion neither, accordin' to the stuff McGrath found in that book.2
"Anyway, Verdez really piled the loot up, gettin' ready to move the whole pile back to Chihuahua and over to Spain when the time was right, but Carrasco did him in and left the treasure where it was. Naw, I didn't believe it at first either, but McGrath, he persuaded me to set out lookin' for it. From the only survivin' documents from Carrasco, we know that he disliked Verdez and nicknamed him 'the Moor' because he was darker than many of the Spaniards, and he had some Moorish blood to go along with what Carrasco described as a 'mutinous disposition'.
"Now, you have to understand that there's a lot of public land under the Bureau of Land Management in New Mexico, but those Phipps-Dodd people who bought the mines in the 1980s never cared about the people of New Mexico, and they kept people from crossin' their land, even by force when their goons had the chance. Still, McGrath and me had lived in the area most of our lives and we knew ways to avoid the armed patrols. We started by lookin' for the traces of where the Spanish used to haul their copper south from Santa Rita and then we spent weeks walkin' up and down every cussed canyon for 20 square miles.
"What started us was a reproduced document in one of those books on lost mines and buried fortunes. Why not? Ol' Doc Noss found the treasure of Victorio Peak in '37 didn't hefor all the good it did him." Shelley's laugh was a cackle. "Noss got himself shot, then came the war, and the government finally took out the treasure in '69 in a top secret operation. Why not? Noss never figured on the government turnin' New Mexico into a missile range. Anyhow, I remember the translation of that Verdez letter word for word, even after all this time:
"The book labeled the description as a phony, but McGrath and me, we figured it was a little too strange to be false, and very few people had ever heard the name Verdez. We figured the map position of the original hill of copper, even though it's now a giant open pit mine, and we positioned ourselves in the hills south of the mine. We figured, what if Carrasco wiped out Verdez and his band before the retrieval crew could come in with their burros and take out the goods?
"I remember that Sunday. It was damned hot, and we'd just sat down on the heaped talus in the shade of a cliff face. It was almost like bein' at the gumline of a giant tooth, and I was runnin' my hand along the smooth rock, when I felt an man-made notch. We moved some small rocks and some of the fill down about 18 inches, and there was an definite faint cross cut into the rock. With my back to the rock face I was lookin' at the mesa where the treasure cave was supposed to be.
"Yeah, you can bet we were excited, but when we got to the promised mesa, we couldn't find anything like a cave or a cave opening. So, we came back for three weeks runnin'folks thought our brains were baked, and we ran the risk of gettin' caught crossin' company property to get back into the hills. We were bone-tired and losin' confidence, but then we found the opening at last.
"It's been said that when the Apache hides somethin', the white man will not be able to find it, but the Spaniards were also a lot more clever than you might think."
Whitcombe scribbled furiously, certain that this man was just as insane as the doctors suggested, but that Silver City newspaper had missed a feature angle that was a sure reader magnet. He thought if he could find Shelley's partner McGrath, he could tie up some loose ends and end up with a fascinating magazine article. Whitcombe interjected, asking Shelley about McGrath, but the man in the bed just waved impatiently in the semi-darkness.
"Like I was sayin', 180 years had covered all traces of the opening, but we finally saw a crevice between two closely wedged rocks buried in the ground, an opening that seemed to go down at an almost vertical angle. Now we could see that a pile of boulders had been arranged to close what must have been a larger opening at one time.
"Anyhow, next day we brought us electric lanterns, rope, picks, and shovels, all the gear we could carry, and all we'd need to make us both rich. God, it seems so long ago now, but we dug in the hot sunlight for hours, sweatin' and achin', palms blisterin', until we cleared enough dirt and wedged rock from between those two boulders. There was a hole big enough to let a man down and leave some breathin' space. I mean, if you saw McGrath's waistline, you'd know we needed that extra space.
"I'd say it was a little before noon when McGrath took the lantern and I held the rope as he eased down into the blackness; it wasn't a minute before he called up to me, and I went skinnin' down after him, my heart poundin'.
"There we were inside the hill. We'd gone from noon brightness to total blackness except for that bright oblong that we entered by. It looked to us like we was in a small chamber. We had to push past a dirt pile that was probably the original entrance that had been blocked up. We didn't care, and I guess we had a ragin' case of the gold fever. We didn't care about anything so long as we got out of there with a fortune. Now, as I remember, we went down the slope to the rightno, it was the left-I remember because we wanted to make sure we didn't get lost."
Shelley's voice was almost hypnotic for Whitcombe, and the young writer knew that Shelley's story was about somethin' that really happened. Perhaps there could be a treasure after all.
"What with it bein' 90 degrees outside, it felt cold inside this cave. Ya know, if you're in a cave where the air is colder than the outside, you know there's bound to be some underground water runnin' through it. Anyhow, we started pussyfootin' in the dark passage when we saw the first signs.
"We musta been the first ones down there since Carrasco dealt with those heretics and sealed the cave. The passageway was about 50 inches wide, and the ceiling receded into the blackness, formed by rock that seemed to form prayin' hands under the earth. In the middle of this hard floor were the scattered bones of a skeleton, and a rusted breastplate punctured by the remains of a lance.
"Now I was gettin' kinda jittery, what with seein' the body of a man dead since the time of Napoleon. The solid rock walls of the cavern were black in places where they had been scorched by torches once set into chiseled crevices in the livin' rock, but moss and lichens crusted heavily over most everything else. The air smelled of mould and a faint noxious odor.
"We walked downward into the hill another 25 feet or more when we came to an open place and, even in the orange light of the electric lanterns, we could see enough to make any man sick. I'm tellin' you, Son, it was like a tornado in a graveyard, with bones and pieces of axes, helmets and the like, mixed up and standin' in heaps.
"There was about an inch of slimy green water on the rock floor, and I can still see the way a sickly white fungus covered most of the bones protrudin' upward, mixin' with the foul water to form yellow-green mounds where bodies had fallen. I could almost hear the cursin' as Spaniard fought Spaniard in religious frenzy; I can almost hear the screams of the dying even now."
Whitcombe kept writing, but he fidgeted in his chair, seemingly torn between the desire to finish the story, and the urge to leave this room that he began to imagine as having an unwholesome smell.
Shelley never stopped talking. "We walked careful-like, and still we could feel things beneath our boots crumblin' like sodden chalk. Beyond that open placewe couldn't even see the ceiling nowwere two doors, or what was left of doors anyway. Those doors probably led to the minin' tunnels. I picked the left hand openin', and McGrath chose the right. I pushed aside the collapsin' rotten wood and stepped inside the left-hand passageway. All I found was more skeletons. . . or scattered bones that used to be skeletons; they was piled against walls along with rusted chains and manacles. It looked like a damned torture chamber. No wonder this Verdez wasn't liked so good!
"When I walked back out into the main chamber, the only noise I could hear was the soft crunchin' of what was under my wet boots. I didn't know whether McGrath had found anything because I couldn't see his lantern in the other shaft. I stood there listenin' for what seemed a very long time. I started thinkin' ugly things, and. . . que no. . . the other room. . . I won't go in there! Not me!" The sudden, booming voice filled the hospital room, dominating, demanding.
Whitcombe had stopped scribbling in his notepad. From the beginning he was almost lulled by the tendrils of Shelley's voice. But now he snapped to attention. The voice had changed pitch and intensity; Shelley was obviously no longer aware of the darkened hospital room but was living again in the darkness of the cavern of Emilio Soliz Verdez. Shelley's slip into Spanish seemed alien, perhaps even the voice of another man.
After a few moments of wheezing and shuddering, Shelley seemed to gain control again, his voice dropping back to normal volume. "I listened for a coupla secondsdidn't hear nothin'so I took a deep breath and went through the second door. The door had been rough pine planks strapped together with copper, but the whole thing was rotten and crumblin'. The wood was just about gone, and the strapping was twisted and wiltin', droopin' where I touched it. There was a greenish-black copper plate nailed to one of the fallen door planks with some Spanish words inscribed on it, but my Spanish was never too good and, besides, the corrosion would make it impossible to figure out."
Shelley's voice was changing again, getting more cracked and urgent. Occasionally it would break into a deep, almost bass, then wind up to a febrile tenor. "That room. . . that shaft. . . so big that a man couldn't see the end of it, nor either side. I was alone in that circle of my lantern light and, Son, I didn't like it too good. I yelled once for McGrath, but I couldn't stand hearin' the echoes go bouncin' from wherever that cave ended. I stood there, wonderin' whether I should go down into the blackness lookin' for McGrath or just stay there close to the door. I made up my mind to stay, but then I heard the echo of somethin' bumpin' against a rock far from the circle of my light. It musta been McGrath, so I took off walkin' in a straight line toward the noise. The dark dissolved the light from my lantern like water dissolves sugar, but I kept goin'."
The man in the bed breathed with terrified excitement. "But wait,
I did find the treasure of Verdez! I was there, and I saw the plunder
piled up, waitin' to be taken out. . . and I. . . I. . . " Even the
bed was shaking now.
Shelley was in another world, though. "I saw a form aheadit was McGrath. His lantern was dead in his hand, and he turned around to look at me. 'Emilio?' He said it in my direction and, in the light of my lantern, I could see his eyes was empty, his face slack and vacant.
"McGrath!" I shout, but he slings the lantern at me and begins to run deeper into the cave, moanin' like a crazy man. I followed quick as I could until I heard somethin' else. It was like a whisper, gettin' louder, and I could hear some of the words now."
Whitcombe had backed against the wall now, unable to believe the distended tale of the old man in the bed, but it did not stop the younger man's breath from being ragged, nor his heart from thudding.
Shelley was speaking to the darkness now, and Whitcombe no longer existed for him, if indeed he ever had. "I don't care what the hell you're sayin'. . . Madre de Dios. . . I can see the gold. No, don't say that. . . I couldn't kill my friend, not for all the Escudos in . . .
"Si! Muerte por. . . only those who believe with us can live forever. Wait. Your voice is fadin'! The gold! What about the gold? It drips with ancient blood. Yes, I hear you now. General Carrasco was a fool. In the end he ran and left us here with our goddess. Astarte nostro.
"Astarte? What the hell is this? I'm not listenin' to you no more. You deserve to be dead. Ah, but I have known the joy of seeing blood running from the sword! Muy Excellente!
"I've held a bar a that gold in my hand, blackened with old impurities, twisted at the end like a piece of taffy. . . musta weighed 60 pounds or more. Time I was leavin', but Verdez is just out of sight, talkin', and his compadres are mumblin' in the background. He's right about this swordit has a good heft to it, but I wouldn't. . . still, Maldonado is not a true believer. Those who don't believe must die. I must find him, I will find him even in the darkness. I know this shaft so well, and Astarte will surely be pleased.
"Verdez, you Moor bastard! You're not getting my mind or my soul.
. . But time is a river in my veins, and the old joys of rape and murder
are like a blazing fire before my eyes. There is nothing to compare with
that glory of the past. Dios, but the power is in me! The things I have
seen would wither and blast an ordinary man. The blood sacrifice. We must
take Maldonado to the altar. Magna Astarte, may it be pleasing to you."
"Did I got ta sleep on you?" Shelley's head was slumped down, chin on chest, but Whitcombe just wanted to get out of the room, and he was paying little attention to the figure on the bed.
"Sorry, but an old man does things like that, I s'pose. Anyhow, nobody ever saw McGrath again. They questioned me, but I swear I never saw him again. I don't even know how I climbed the rope to get out of that cave. I'll tell you one thing: I know the treasure is still down there, even to this day.
"I was told at the time that they found me wanderin' around one of them canyons below Santa Rita. It was the company patrol that grabbed me and called the Grant County Sheriff's office. They took me into Silver City, first to jail, and then to the hospital. I guess they didn't believe my story 'bout the hill, and the cave size. They say there isn't any such place out there. Those company goons sure did question me, I'll tell you that. I had bruises to prove it. My bet is that they went after the treasure just like the military went after the treasure ol' Doc Noss found in Victorio Peak. They'll get more than they bargained for if they go down there. I can promise you that." The sentence ended with an obscene tittering sound.
"Think I'd best sleep a bit now. The older you get, the more rest you need. I'll sketch you a map of the place if you want iteven split with you 50-50 if you want to go down there."
Whitcombe declined nervously, and began his farewells to the man hunched
in the gray of the room.
Whitcombe nervously pulled the cord on the vertical blinds and suddenly swallowed his breath, almost gasping. The man he was looking at now was a caricature of the J.W. Shelley he had introduced himself to an hour before. Dry skin was pulled tight in a scabrous brown mask across the man's skull, and the bones were clearly outlined in the shrinking flesh of thin, skeletal hands. The mouth was a nest of discolored, misshapen teeth, and one incisor, black with decay, clung obscenely to the front of the man's hospital gown where it had just fallen.
Later, when Peter Whitcombe sought to make sense of what he had seen, he only found in books that the Pagan worship of Astarte also used the infernal name of Ashtaroth. It explained nothing, and he never even contemplated further research, for that day of the interview put an end to the story he would never write. For it was the eyes that sent Whitcombe edging from that hospital room without a further word. In the afternoon sunlight, Shelley's piercing eyes of angry brown-black showed no temper of pity or humanity as they followed him hungrily to the door.
When Whitcombe left the State Hospital in Las Vegas, New Mexico, he remembered asking at the main nursing station about the patient's illness, and against policy, they showed him the chart:
1 Vaskov, Samuel P. The Conquistadors
and the Settling of New Spain. Southwestern State University Press, Las
". . . Verdez and several of his men split off from Carrasco in May 1803. He and 22 followers went south from Loma del Cobre that was to become the Santa Rita mine. They pillaged more than one Indian village and established their own feudal autocracy that stood for two years before Carrasco's troops suddenly descended upon them and all were ruthlessly extirpated by Carrasco's men. This battle seemed to have been bloody and wearing on the Spaniards and, while their records mention the contact, they sedulously avoid any descriptions of what they found.
"Some historians claim that the story of Verdez and the battle that resulted in the deaths of every Verdez man must be an imposture because Carrasco was not one to spill Spanish blood unless it was a threat to his existence. The Verdez colony and mine was not such a danger and could have easily been ignored by Carrasco. Most accounts gloss over the general's stay in Santa Rita, mentioning that he went back to Chihuahua; however, this punitive expedition of three days was certainly possible, and facts support the account as given here.
'A cryptic account of Carrasco's letters to Spain also mentions the 'richest treasure of all, the location of which died with Verdez'.
"All the foregoing contributes to the opinion of many historians that Carrasco's aversion to Verdez' peculiar form of worship explains the thoroughness of the massacre as well as the neglect of Carrasco to take back the treasure that Verdez had amassed. One surviving letter, however, addressed to his business partner Elguea contained a description of the location of such a treasure. It was never explained why Elguea did not send his mine managers to look for the treasure supposedly so close to Santa Rita."