Adam Stark was three months out of Tucson when he found his first color. It appeared as a few scattered flakes of gold dry-panned from the base of an alluvial fan, but the gold was rough under the magnifying glass.
Gold that has washed any distance from its source becomes worn and polished by the abrasive action of the accompanying rocks and gravel, so this gold could not be far from its point of origin.
With caution born of hard experience, he seated himself and lighted his pipe. A contemplative man by nature, experience had taught him how Man may be deluded by hope, and so he smoked his pipe through, considering all aspects of the problem.
He was in the red heart of Apache country, some miles from the nearest white man and beyond any possibility of help if attacked. He was forty-four years old, with a Mexican wife and an unmarried sister, and both were in camp close by.
In Tucson they thought him insane for taking women away from town with Apache trouble always imminent, but he had neither a place to leave them nor means of supporting them during his absence. Nor did he wish to leave his wife behind. Miriam was another story, for she had a mind of her own. That was one of the reasons she was still unmarried, although she’d had more chances than most.
Adam was not sure why Miriam had joined them, but no doubt she had her reasons. During the years since their childhood he had come to possess a considerable respect for the quality of her judgment . . . yet she often startled him with her sudden decisions. There was between them more than the natural affection resulting from relationship. They were good friends also, each appreciating the qualities of the other.
The gold he panned had been taken from a spot on that alluvial fan which left small doubt that the source lay higher up the mountain, for there was no other way the gold could have reached the place where he had discovered it.
Two further pans taken from higher up the fan confirmed his belief, convincing him that if he could not find the lode from which this gold had flaked off, he could make a stake placering the debris from the fan itself.
Yet every moment they were in danger, and if discovered by Apaches they would surely be killed. Nonetheless, the quest for gold had brought him here, and he meant to have what he had found. The women were in even worse danger than he, but they had elected to come along. . . . Moreover, Adam Stark was a man who knew his own strength, his own capabilities, and he felt that with reasonable care he could keep his presence here unknown.
His reasons for wanting the gold were two. He wanted the gold to buy and stock a ranch for himself and his wife, and he wanted the gold so that he might take Consuelo to San Francisco and give her the taste of luxury and easy living she seemed so much to want.
For himself the desert was enough, the desert and that ranch and the freedom it offered. But he enjoyed the giving of pleasure to others, and to Consuelo whom he loved, he could not give too much. Adam Stark knew himself thoroughly, and he knew that his wife did not know him. Despite the fact that she now insisted she no longer loved him, he was sure she was mistaken, and he did love her. She had wanted a more obviously strong man, one with flash and demonstration. He suspected that Consuelo accepted the appearance of strength for its reality . . . and there was considerable difference. Adam had been in love with her from their first meeting, but he had been amazed when she accepted him.
Miriam . . . he was never sure what it was Miriam wanted of life, but he was sure Miriam knew and that was all that mattered. A man was part of it, but a man for Miriam must be stronger than she, and she was a strong woman. He would have to be a lot of things, and Miriam was not one to accept less than her desires.
Adam Stark turned his thoughts to the immediate problem. Their supplies, if augmented by game and what herbs they could gather, would last them, at most, two months. Connie knew the plants the Indians used for food, and whatever faults she might have, she was not lazy. She was, as old Fritz at Tucson had said, “a lot of woman.”
The first requirement was shelter, a place of concealment, relatively close to water; and the second thing was to eradicate, so far as possible, the tracks left by their wagon and horses and mules. And then he must establish a pattern of operation.
Adam Stark was a man of method, and half of his success here would result from proper habits of work and movement. He must plan for their protection and their food, and for getting out the gold itself. It was too easy to become careless, and to become careless in the desert, in Apache country, meant one would die suddenly.
The desert can be a friendly place, but the rules of life in the desert are harsh, calling for understanding of certain fundamentals. Without that understanding, death could come quickly from heat, from thirst, from exhaustion, from rattlesnakes or Apaches. The rule of desert survival was to live with the desert and not against it, for all desert life is an accommodation to conditions that exist.
Rising from the place where he sat, Adam Stark climbed Rockinstraw Mountain.
It was the highest point in many miles. To the west the great mesas of Redmond Mountain and Squaw Peak dominated the landscape, but neither was as high as the mountain upon which he took up his position.
To the northwest and just beyond the Salt River was the ominous-seeming bulk of Black Mesa. To the north, and less than three miles away, the Salt River took a deep horseshoe bend into which several dry washes opened.
The western approaches to his position were walled off by the mesas except for two gaps, through one of which the Salt River flowed. To the east the country was broken by many canyons, most of them small, but from the top of Rockinstraw an observer could study most of the country in that direction. He started to turn away when his eye caught an odd shape among the canyons to the east, and not far off.
Getting out his field glasses, over the end of which Stark had arranged a hood of stiff leather to prevent the sun from reflecting off the glass, he directed them at the canyon where he had seen that odd, straight-edged rock.
The canyon itself was narrow, scarcely more than a wide crack in the earth, and nondescript in appearance, but from his place on top of the mountain he could see what appeared to be not a rock but the edge of a roof, and beyond it something that might be a church tower.
He was suddenly excited. It was absurd, but there were stories of the Lost Mine of the Padres supposedly somewhere in this area. The Southwest was filled with stories of lost mines, and most of them pure myth, yet there was gold here, and this was supposed to be the proper area . . . although it might be anywhere in a vast region several hundred miles square, some of the roughest country in the world.
It was typical of Adam Stark that he remained where he was until he had carefully checked the country around for any movement, any smoke, any sign of Indians. The more he studied the terrain from this vantage point, the more he realized that this must be the lookout they would continue to use.
Few would suspect a lookout on top of Rockinstraw, and from here almost the entire country could be searched. If either white men or Apaches were seen approaching, all activity at the camp or the mine workings would cease until the strangers were gone from the vicinity.
There were springs below the mountain. He located Sycamore Spring, of which an Apache friendly to white men had told him several years before, and he found what must be Mud Springs, of which he had also heard.
Taking careful sightings and establishing landmarks from the top of the mountain, he went down, mounted his horse, and began his search. Yet even after locating the canyon from the top of the mountain, it took him more than an hour to find it, so hidden was it.
It required another hour to find a way to descend into the canyon, but by that time he had decided. This was to be their home.
There was a tiny chapel, only large enough to seat ten or twelve persons, and there was a long building constructed of stone slabs and roofed with cedar timbers. There was also an adobe stable, partly in ruins. Nearby was an arrastra where the ore had been broken up to extract the gold.
Ghostly silence gripped the canyon. No sound could be heard but the soft footfalls of his horse as he rode along the canyon in the sandy bottom.
He dismounted and went into the long house. Pack rats had nested here, an owl slept on a low beam. The house was still dry, compact, perfect.