The Troopers Lost Gold

It was in the early 1870s when a weary ox-team halted at Maricopa Well and a tired teamster released the beasts from their yoke. Meanwhile, the emigrant’s family tumbled from the wagon to prepare the evening meal, thankful that this was not another dry camp.

The mother and eldest daughter prepared the meal while the two younger children helped the father make camp and gather firewood. Recently the warlike Apaches had been confined to a reservation and it was no longer considered hazardous for cross country caravans to build night campfires. The travelers did not know that a few days previously a band of Indians had escaped from the reservation, and had headed toward the Mexican border. Military scouts, on their trail, reported that the band had swung wide around the new settlement of Phoenix, and were headed southwest, toward the famous old Indian watering place, on the bank of Gila River, known as Maricopa Well.

Next morning, when the trailing scouts reached the well, they found the looted wagon still smoldering, the man, his wife and the two small children slain, but no sign of the elder daughter, which indicated that she was held captive. The Indian trail crossed the river and turned south, straight for the border. Apparently, the incident at the well was only a minor diversion for the savages, who were headed for Mexican lands, where U. S. troopers could not touch them.

One scout remained close on the trail of the renegades, while the other carried the news of the massacre to Fort Tucson. The commanding officer of the fort ordered a company of mounted troopers, in command of a captain, to intercept the raiders before they reached safety in Mexico, and bring them and their captive back to Tucson.

The captain led his troop, at forced draft, southwest from the fort. They would ride an hour and rest ten minutes. The fast pace, in the broiling heat, soon took its toll on men and horses alike. The water holes were uncertain in this part of the desert. The captain instructed the troopers to note carefully the actions of their thirsty horses. If any animal acted as though it scented water, they would investigate.

Suddenly, the lead horse threw up its head, sniffed the breeze and whirled off at a tangent, to be followed by the rest of the animals in the company. Into a shallow arroyo galloped the horses, where a pool of rain water had been caught in a depression, at the foot of a low, rocky ledge that ran along the wash for several hundred yards.

The first served withdrew up the wash to make room for the others. Another pool, similar to the first, was found at the upper end of the ledge. Now, there was ample water for all. Parched throats were soothed, canteens filled, and the thirsty horses were led up to drink. One observing trooper, gazing into the pool while watering his horse, thought to himself: “Those shiny pebbles in the pool sure look pretty.” Idly, he scooped up a handful of the bright stones and his shout brought troopers from all directions. The soldier displayed a handful of gold nuggets to his amazed companions.

Each man scrambled for a share of the gold. The nuggets soon gave out in the upper hole so some of the troopers returned to the lower one. Many more of the glittering nuggets were clawed from the mud that marked the site of the first water. Some of the men searched along the rocky ledge, in the wash, and excited gasps were heard on all sides as prize nuggets were found. Some of the troopers wanted to abandon the pursuit of the Apaches and start mining this bonanza.

The captain was adamant in his refusal to listen to such pleas. Further, he collected all the nuggets and distributed them, so that every man had two or three of the shining gold pebbles. Immediately after the distribution of the nuggets, the order was given and the troop rode away. The hills that were visible had no distinguishing peaks or other marks and the nearby desert was unrelieved sand, greasewood, palo verde and cactus.

Not long afterward, the trail of the Apaches was cut. Soon the captain and the scouts had planned their strategy and the band of marauders were surrounded and captured. The Indians were taken back to Tucson to await their trial and the white girl was returned to relatives in the east.

The returned troopers were in a frenzy of gold fever. Many of them offered their resignations from the army but as their enlistments did not expire for periods of from one to three years, they had to remain on duty. The troopers were well aware that shifting desert sands would soon obliterate the trail to the fabulous ledge. Time was of the essence. To wait a year, to the end of their enlistment, was too long, when one desert downpour or a sandstorm might forever erase the trail to the nugget laden outcrop. Two of the troopers deserted, stole horses, food and water, mounted and galloped over their old trail to the shining pebbles.

The trail was still plain and they reached the outcrop in good condition, but thirsty. The gods that had smiled so benevolently, now frowned. The water holes were dry. Paying scant heed to thirst, they loaded each horse with as much gold as it could carry, mounted and began the ride back. Soon, it became evident that the horses were loaded far beyond their capacity, so the grub was flung away. Next went the oats and nosebags, then the pistols and ammunition.

The parched, swollen tongues of the men did not permit conversation but the staggering gait of the horses was more eloquent than speech. Finally the men dismounted, still refusing to part with the golden cargo. The men, as well as the horses now staggered on the trail. Handful after handful of nuggets was thrown into the brush, as men and horses staggered on. Finally one man went down and was unable to rise. His partner, with a superhuman effort, got the body on the horse’s back and steadied it as he staggered along.

That is how they found them. One dead, the other dying. Twice, they had gazed upon the golden ledge. Both had paid the supreme price for the second look. The remainder of the troopers looked upon the bodies of their two dead comrades and gave silent thanks that they had not deserted and gone along on the ill-fated expedition.

Phoenix was a town without paving or sidewalks, when this story was told to a contractor, by an old man he had hired as a carpenter’s helper. The story came out a bit at a time, over several years, while he worked at the trade. Little notice was paid then to a story of a mine on the desert. It seemed that every other man on the street knew of a mine. Prospectors were considered a little loco. However, the old man was different. He worked steadily and well, saved his money and quietly went about his work. Each spring he would take several weeks off and go looking for the lost ledge. The only time he talked much was just before he would start on his yearly search.

The contractor last saw the old man in the spring of 1915, when he quit work to go on his annual trek. On this occasion, the old man pulled two gold nuggets from his pocket and said, “I was a trooper in that company sent after the Apaches, when we found the gold.” Without, saying anything more the old man donned his hat, and was gone.

Certainly, many men have searched for the lost ledge. Without a doubt, every one of the troopers present when the gold was found has had a try for it. It is reasonable to suppose, however, that the outcrop has never been found, because a rich strike like that could not be kept secret for long. Tracing the possible routes of the troopers might place the lost gold in the Quijotoa or Baboquivari Mountains. Both locations have been the scene of small strikes of rich gold ore, so either range would fit the description. But just where is the ledge?

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