I had just left an Apache Reservation in Arizona after having spent a night there. I was hitching west and had been picked up by a guy named Jimmy. I never did learn his last name. He was a full-blooded Apache and he invited me to crash on his couch. I didn’t get much sleep because we stayed up most of the night and talked … well … he did most of the talking. He told me of the Denéé—The People—as he referred to the Apache. I learned of their history, their medicine, or religion, as we would call it. I even did some peyote with him and spoke with God. But that’s another story. Today, I want to tell you about Hank.
Jimmy was still asleep when I left. I didn’t have it in me to wake him and ask for a ride back to the highway. The sun was just over the horizon, it was still cool out even though it was the desert and it was summertime. I had been brought onto the reservation in the back of a pickup truck and had not followed our progress as we drove the back road onto the reservation; after all, I was facing backwards, looking at where we’d been, not where we were going.
As I started my walk, I saw the mountain I had been looking at as we drove onto the Apache homeland. It seemed as though it had taken us about half an hour to get from Highway 90 to Jimmy’s house. So, I reckoned that if I just kept the mountain in front of me and walked in a relatively straight line, it would not take me more than a few hours to make my way back to the highway. Boy, was I mistaken.
I started my trek across the desert full of vim and vigor. After all, I was nineteen years old; I was immortal, as are all young people. Of course, I had no water with me; ha … who needs water! Well, as it turned out, I needed water, and I needed a lot more than just water. I needed a sense of distance, and maybe even a sense of direction.
Allow me to explain. I set out at sunrise, headed towards a particular mountain, and after four hours treading the desert floor, that damn mountain seemed no closer than when I started. I had no watch with me, so I did not know the exact time, but judging by the sun, it must have been mid-morning—about ten o’clock—when I realized I had made a colossal mistake. When I first set out, I thought the walk to the highway would take two, maybe three hours at the most. But here I was four hours later with not a car—hell, with not even another human being—in sight. I was not even smart enough to follow the winding road we came in on. No, I had to play it cool, thinking I could shave off some time by cutting across the desert and walking in a straight line. Well, once I left the road, I never found it again. I pressed on, keeping the mountain in my sights.
Now, I’ll tell you folks something I didn’t know at the time. A mountain is a pretty big item. I was heading south, so I could wander a few miles either east or west and still have the same perspective of my destination, the mountain. And without a compass that is just what I did. I was zig-zagging all over the place, but I thought I was walking in a straight line.
By noon, or when the sun was directly overhead, the desert had started to heat up. And so did I. At that point, I would have killed for a glass of cool water. Maybe even with some ice in it. Those were my thoughts as I walked towards that goddamn mountain that kept retreating from me.
So as not to bore you all to tears, I will not tell you about that afternoon. Suffice it to say the afternoon consisted of walking and thoughts of water. The sun was on a slow descent to the other side of the world, and I had been walking for about ten hours when I saw it. There up ahead, unless it was a mirage, was a shack. I thanked God I saw it when I did. Complete darkness was less than an hour away, and I might have walked right past it in the night.
I was too tired to run, but I did pick up my pace a bit. When I got to within twenty yards of the place I saw my salvation—an old fashioned water pump, long handle and all. I ran right to the pump and without asking anyone’s permission, pumped that handle up and down like there was no tomorrow. And from my point of view, if I didn’t get some water in me, there would be no tomorrow, at least not for me. For all my effort, only a few dust swirls and a few grains of sand emanated from the spout. Then I remembered something, a pump has to be primed, and you need water to prime a pump. It’s kind of like—you need money to make money, and I needed water to get water. A catch-22.
Now that I was not going to have my fondest wish granted—a few measly drops of water—I turned my attention to the shack. I could tell right away that the place was abandoned; the fauna, or sagebrush, or whatever the hell grows in a desert, was three feet tall and blocking the door. The shack was about thirty feet wide, and after circumnavigating it, I discerned it was also thirty feet deep. There were no windows, so my ingress would have to be through the door.
As the night was fast approaching, I returned from my excursion of circling the shack and proceeded to the door, expecting to do battle with it to affect entry. However, to my everlasting surprise, the door flew open upon my touch. How inviting. With no windows, the only light entering said shack came from behind me and from the spaces between the boards that made up the walls of the shack. They were more like the walls of an old barn; there was about an eighth of an inch of open space between most of the boards. Some did join together, but they were of the minority. The wood was warped and old. This place has been here for a while.
The gloom within the shack made it hard to see what, if anything, was inside. As my eyes adjusted to the low light, I saw a table in the middle of the room. I started for it, and then saw a single chair about five feet to the right. I had not noticed it sooner because it was in the shadows. The only light, as I’ve said, came mostly from the door. And that light was only as wide as the door, about three feet. It did not reach the corners or the far side of the room. Upon the back of the chair were draped some clothes.
For the time being, the chair and its accouterments held no interest for me. My attention was focused on the table. For upon the table stood a clear bottle about twelve inches high with a candle stuck into its mouth. It looked almost new, only an inch of its ten-inch length had been used. Maybe I would not have to spend the night in darkness after all.
I did not (and still do not) smoke. But I always carried a book of matches with me. One never knew when one might want to start a small fire and heat up a can of beans or a can of soup to get one through the night.
I went right for the candle, pulled out my trusty matches, and lit it. The light it gave off did not reach very far, maybe a couple feet past the table’s edge. By the way, the table was only about four foot square, and there was nothing else on it but the candle in the clear bottle.
Once I had a little light, I figured I could relax. I was still dying of thirst, but there was nothing I could do about that. I was thankful that the sun had retreated, giving me a respite from the heat for a few hours.
I pulled the chair over to the table and sat down. As I leaned back, I felt something bulky and hard. I stood and removed the clothing, which consisted of a “duster,” and two flannel shirts. You folks know what a duster is, don’t you? I am sure most of you have seen them in Westerns. But for those who are unfamiliar with the term, I will describe one. They were white, made of cotton, and looked something like a modern-day raincoat, except they were full length, falling to almost the ankle. And as the name implies, they were worn over one’s regular attire to keep the dust from soiling one’s clothes.
However, it was not the duster that caught my attention; it was the old-time six-shooter, lying in its holster, which hung from the back of the chair. Cool. Then I saw what was also hanging on the back of the chair, a canteen. I placed the candle on the table and with fear and trepidation, the fear and trepidation coming from the fact that the bloody thing might be empty, I lifted the strap attached to the canteen. I could tell by the weight that it was full. But even if there was water, chances of it being any good after sitting there in the desert for God knows how long were not good.
After returning the duster and shirts to where I had found them, I pulled the chair up to the table, sat down, and turned my attention once again to the canteen. I quickly pulled the cork from the opening and sniffed the contents. It didn’t smell bad, so I dribbled a few drops onto my tongue. It didn’t taste great, but I was thirsty enough to chance being sick, because at that point I was very dehydrated and would die in the desert the next day if I didn’t get some moisture in me.
Just as I was tilting my head back and raising the canteen to my mouth, a thought struck me. I did not have to chance anything. I could use half of the canteen’s contents to prime the pump, and if the well was dry, I would still have the other half for tonight and tomorrow. One way or the other, I was going to drink water that night even if it killed me. At least I would not die with my tongue hanging out, swollen from thirst.
I grabbed the candle, for it had gotten dark by then, and went out to the pump. I’m a city boy, there was only one other time I have had the pleasure of meeting a hand pump that pumped water up from a well. On that occasion, the pump needed priming and I watched my associate as he repeatedly primed and pumped, primed and pumped. So I felt pretty confident I wouldn’t screw things up by putting the water in the wrong place, like the spout, which is probably what I would have done if not for my previous experience with a pump.
I placed the candle on the ground so I could uncork the canteen; the candle gave just enough light so I could see what I was doing. With one hand, I poured water into the pump, and with the other, I took hold of the long handle at its end and started to pump. Up and down, faster and faster. The water seemed to be going in at an alarming rate, but I still poured and pumped. I had gone through more than half of that precious liquid and was about to halt my endeavor when the first few drops came out of the spout. And with every downward motion of the handle, more water came pouring out onto the ground until it was a raging torrent … a small raging torrent granted, but I had no complaints.
Then I could stand it no longer. I put my head under the spout, face up and mouth open, as I continued to pump. I have never tasted water so sweet in my entire life. And that would include any bottled water you may wish to proffer. After I had drunk my fill, I poured the contents of the canteen onto the ground and pumped a small quantity of water into it. I sloshed it around for a moment and emptied that also onto the ground. Then I filled the canteen, recorked it, and went back into the shack. Now that the water situation was taken care of, I could have gone for a light dinner, but hey … ya cain’t have everything.
I know most of you are asking: “Where the hell is Hank in all of this?”
Well, just hold on to your pantaloons. He’s on his way.
When I got back into the shack, I closed the door. As I’ve said, I’m a city boy. I didn’t want any desert critters coming in during the night, looking to start up a friendship with Yours Truly. In all likelihood, if any of the denizens of the desert did enter during the night, it would have been for the warmth of my body rather than my friendship. I allude to Crotalus Oreganu, better known as the western rattlesnake. I’ve heard that they like to snuggle up with human beings at night for our body heat. So the door would remain closed until morning.
Speaking of rattlesnakes, I said to myself, maybe a few are already squatting in this shack. I better take the candle to look around the perimeter, and into the far shadows to see if there are any ensconced hereabouts.
I saw nothing in the first three corners. But in the fourth, leaning against the wall, was a shovel and pickaxe, and on the floor lay a saddle and reins. There were no Crotalus Oreganu present, thank God, but there was a presence of another kind. Of course, I am speaking of Hank.
A bed stood against the back wall. I had not noticed it earlier because of my preoccupation with the canteen and the darkness of the room vis-à-vis the limited light of the candle. Upon the bed lay Hank. Now Hank wasn’t the most talkative hombre I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. But that might have been because he was dead.
Holding the candle over the bed, I saw a human skeleton completely intact, probably because it was a bit mummified. The dry desert air will do that to a corpse. The skin was drawn tight and shrunken. For some reason, the eyeballs were missing.
The skull was still attached to the neck. The hair of the cadaver was jet black and full. If the hair had been all that I could see, I’d have sworn it belonged to a young man who was still among the living. The eye sockets, as I’ve said, were empty and dark. The missing eyeballs were a mystery I was in no hurry to solve. Years later when I mentioned it to someone, I was told that insects had probably eaten them.
Keeping the candle high over the bed, I saw that his hands were clasped together and resting on his belly. Hank—and I’ll tell you in a moment how I came to know that Hank was his name—was fully dressed.
Starting from the top and working down, he had a red bandana tied around his neck, and a faded cotton shirt (because of the light I could not tell what the original color was). He had on a pair of Levi’s, held up—well, not at the moment, but in life—by a belt with a square buckle that looked to be tarnished silver, with the name “Hank” engraved onto it. And on the belt was a knife in a sheath. His feet were covered by beige-colored socks. It seems his boots were off when he died. I don’t know if it’s more advantageous to die with your boots on or off, I’ll leave that up to the individual. I then moved the candle a little lower still, and perceived on the wooden floor, next to the bed, a pair of scuffed boots, black in color, one lying on its side. Oh yeah … I forgot to tell you. Everything—Hank, the table, the floor, the bed … I mean everything—in that shack was covered with a thick layer of dust.
There we were, Hank and me, staring at one another—me with eyes, him without. I needed to sit down after that.
I sat at the table, purposely not looking over to where Hank lay in repose. I was staring at the table, the top of it to be precise, when I noticed what looked like a small depression on the edge closest to me. It looked like someone had carved something into the wood. I took a deep breath and blew the dust from that area. It allowed me to read clearly what had been carved. The message was a simple one: “Hank Wiley 1889.”
I reckon ol’ Hank had been hangin’ out here waiting for me, or someone like me, to come along for eighty years. The year was 1969. However, more surprising than finding Hank, and almost as spiritually uplifting as getting the pump to work, was what I was about to stumble upon next.
When I first saw the shack, I was so tired from the day’s march that I envisioned being asleep almost before the sun went down. However, “The best laid plans …” Finding the canteen and then finding Hank kinda got my juices flowing if ya know what I mean. So here I am, sittin’ in a one-room, thirty-by-thirty-foot, broken-down shack in the middle of the Arizona desert with an eighty-year old skeleton and I’m wide-awake with nothing to do. So, like any good ex-Boy Scout, I went exploring.
I took the candle and retraced my steps back to the bed and Hank. I knelt down next to the bed and placed the candle so the bottle that held it rested against Hank’s neck and chin. I first felt the two pockets of his shirt. Nothing. I rummaged in the left front pocket of his jeans, then the right. Nothing. I picked up the candle from its resting place and placed it on the floor. I wanted to check his back pockets. I put a hand on his shoulder and a hand on his hip, and I turned Hank onto his side. It was easy, I could have done it one handed he was so light. I held him in that position while I felt in the Levi’s rear pockets. The left pocket held nothing, but in the right, I felt something that might have been a wallet. I extracted it and lowered Hank back onto the bed. As I did so, his head became detached from the rest of his body and rolled onto its side, facing me. Those empty eye sockets seemed to say, “Why have you defiled me?”
I did not want to touch that withered skin, so I left Hank’s head where it was.
I picked up the candle and returned to the table. It was not a wallet, but a piece of leather cut into a rectangle, about eight inches long and folded in half. Lying between the folds were an envelope, a piece of folded paper, and an old, faded photograph. It showed who I believed to be Hank (the man had the same thick, black mane) and a woman with hair as light as Hank’s was dark, standing at the tailgate of a wagon. And on the wagon was a banner of sorts. Because Hank and the woman were standing in front of it, there were only eight letters visible, two to the right of Hank (“JU”) and six to the left of the woman (“ARRIED”). The banner obviously read “JUST MARRIED.”
I looked at the picture for a long time. I thought of the unnamed woman and wondered whatever had become of her. She was quite pretty, and now as I write these words and I see once again that picture in my mind, I recall they were also very young, although, at the time, that did not enter into my thinking. Being nineteen and believing myself fully grown, I considered anyone else my age to also be an adult. But as I think of that picture today, at the tender age of sixty-seven, I know they were just kids; they couldn’t have been more than nineteen themselves.
I next removed the letter from its envelope. It had a return address of Boston, Massachusetts, and it was addressed to Mr. Henry Wiley c/o Forrester’s Hotel, Tucson, Arizona. Surprisingly, the paper was not brittle; it was old and brown, but did not fall apart in my hands. The handwriting was feminine and it was addressed to “My dearest husband.” I did not read the letter just then. I put it to one side and opened the piece of folded paper. It also was a letter, but written in a different hand. This handwriting was masculine, and it started with “Dearest Andy.”
Before I go on, I would like to digress, or jump ahead, whichever term is proper. All this happened forty-eight years ago, and for forty-eight years I’ve held on to those two letters, never knowing the reason why. Through many incarnations—business man, criminal, fugitive, junkie, and now writer—I have kept these letters. While my mother was alive, they were kept safely at her home, and then in a bank safety deposit box. They sit before me as I write these words and I now know the reason I’ve kept them all these years. It was so that one day I might share them with you.
I will present them in the order they were written. The first one is dated 9 July 1888, and it is from an Andrea Wiley to her dearest husband Hank Wiley. Without comment, this is the text of the letter.
My Dearest Husband,
I hope this letter finds you well and happy. I am sending it to the address you gave me in Tucson.
Do you know it has been twenty months since you went away? I write you every week. Some of my letters are returned with the notation that you are not known at that locale. I pray that this letter gets to you, my love. This November will mark the second year of your absence. I miss you so very much.
I am fine. I am making dresses for the ladies of society. My work is very well thought of, and I am kept quite busy. I do miss Kansas, but you were right, it is better that I stay with my mother while you are gone. Mother sends her love.
I know you are seldom where you can post a letter, but please try to write more often. Only three letters in all this time makes me miss you all the more.
Henry, I know we discussed this before you left, however, can you not come home now? Yes, our farm in Kansas was doing poorly, and we both worked very hard. But you never heard me complain because I had no complaints. I loved you, and I loved our farm. I know you wanted things better for me. You did not want me to work so hard, you wanted to buy me fancy clothes and nice things. Henry, I never wanted any of that, I only wanted you. And by going away you have taken away the only thing I truly desired.
Will you please come home? There is a reason I ask this of you now. I know how stubborn you can be. Until you find your fortune in gold you will stay away. You will think that you have failed me. Henry, the only time you have failed me is when you went away.
I have not wanted you to worry so I have refrained from telling you this before, but Henry, you have a son. He was born eight months after you left. His name is Henry Addison Wiley, Jr. and he looks just like you. His eyes are the same, and so is his smile. However, his hair is fair like mine. He needs a father. All the riches in all the world cannot take your place. Henry, you are not a failure, not with a son like Henry Jr. Please come home.
I am starting to drop tears onto the paper and they will make the ink run. So I will close for now. Henry, know that I love you with all my heart and that I need you with me; you are my treasure, you are my riches. Henry Jr. and I need you, please come home.
Your adoring wife,
P.S. I miss being called Andy. You are the only person who has ever addressed me as such.
The other letter was from Hank to his wife.
I have just received your letter. I see by the date that you wrote it seven months ago. I don’t get down here that often, but my friend who works in the hotel kept the letter for me. The reason some of your letters have come back is if the owner of the hotel sees them before my friend, he sends them back. He and I do not get along.
So I have a boy? I cannot wait to see him and you too. I will be coming home shortly. I stumbled upon an abandoned shack and decided to use it as my headquarters. And what do you know, not two miles to the west I found my fortune. It is in a small outcropping of rock. It comes out of the ground and gradually slants upwards to about the height of three feet. The rock is about four feet thick, and right in the middle of it, running the whole length of the outcrop is a vein of pure gold nine inches thick. I shoveled the dirt away from where she comes out of the ground and the vein continues. It could go on for miles. But I have no plans to find out. I too miss you.
I broke my pickaxe trying to break the rock away. I came down to Tucson to buy another one and to buy some chisels and a sledgehammer. If I had not found what I was desperately searching for these last two years, I would be leaving for home today. I just need to go back for one or two weeks. I am not greedy. I will only mine as much as I can carry on my horse. With it we can go back to Kansas and buy us a really good farm and hire us some help. You will not have to work so hard.
I will mail this when I come back to Tucson so you will know that I am om my way. I want to write more, but will do so at night in the shack. Until then, kiss Henry Jr. for me.
Hello, I am back in the shack. I have been here ten days and have all the gold I can carry. Tomorrow I start for Tucson, then for home. I cannot wait to see you and Henry Jr. As you know I am not much of a letter writer, so I’ll save my words until I see you.
All my love,
There was more to Hank’s letter, but it was written in a different hand, a hand that seemed to shake as it wrote. It is hard to read, but after all these years, I know what it says. The script is in one continuous sentence without punctuation. For ease of reading, I have added the correct punctuation and separated the words into sentences and the sentences into paragraphs. Here are the last words of Henry Addison Wiley, Sr.
Wouldn’t you know it? The night before leaving for home and you, I have to go and get myself bit by a rattlesnake. I lanced the punctures and sucked out the venom, but I don’t think it was enough, or I wasn’t fast enough. I am feeling light headed.
I was getting packed up so I could get an early start in the morning, and I reached under the bed to pull out the box I keep the gold in, and a rattler bit me. I made short work of him with the shovel. But that doesn’t help me. I was going to transfer the gold from the box to canvas bags for the trip to Tucson.
I don’t think I have much time so I better get down to what I want to say. You were right, Andy; we were rich back in Kansas. I am so sorry I did not know it at the time. I guess staring Death in the face changes a man’s way of looking at things.
I know of your love of animals. Before I got too weak I took the saddle and reins off my horse and set her free. You taught me of the dignity of animals.
You were my shining light. I must have been crazy to have ever left you, now I will never know my son, and he will never know his father. Tell him of his father’s folly so he will know what is important in this life. Tell him that is something his father learned far too late. I have botched things up good. I write these words in the hope that someday someone will find them and forward them on to you. I want you to know that my last thoughts were of you. In the end, I have failed you … I am so sorry. Not for me, but for leaving you and Henry Jr. to the mercy of this world while I am in another. If possible, I will look after you from my new world as I have never looked after you in this one. All my love …
The last few words were almost impossible to decipher because the writing had deteriorated to such an extent that they ran together, but I think I got it right.
After reading the two letters, I sat in the chair and just watched the candle burn. My thoughts were of Andrea and Hank, of their life on the farm in Kansas. I thought of Hank Jr. and wondered what kind of man he grew up to be. I think … no, I am pretty damn sure that reading those two letters is the reason I have had a life-long aversion to acquiring material wealth.
By now it was getting light out, but I kept the candle burning because I wanted to see something. I went over to the bed and knelt down. I used the candle to see if there were any snakes under the bed. When I didn’t see any, I grabbed the box that was under there by one hand and pulled. It did not move. I put the candle down, and using both hands, I dragged the box from under the bed. It was very heavy. When I slid it far enough out so I could see the contents, I lifted the candle and held it over the box. What I saw were two canvas bags lying on top of something. With my right hand, I removed the bags to expose rocks that reflected the light of the candle as a prism would. The light bounced off those rocks and reflected on the wall like one of those disco ball things that hang over dance floors in night clubs.
The rocks, of course, were pure gold. I call them rocks because that is what they were. They were not puny, little nuggets of gold; no, they were substantial rocks of gold. I looked on in amazement for a few minutes before replacing the canvas bags and sliding the box back under the bed. I can see how some can easily come down with gold fever. I must admit, for one half a second, I too had the fever. But the memory of what I had just read was all I needed to cure me.
I got up off my knees and walked over to the table. I folded the two letters, putting Andrea’s back in its envelope. I put them both in the back pocket of my jeans. Leaving the piece of leather on the table, I picked up the picture of Hank and Andrea. I walked over and unclasped Hank’s hands, now I had no qualms about touching him. I placed the picture between his hands and laid his hands back on his belly. Then I gently put his head back into the position it was when I found him.
I stood over him for a moment or two before saying out loud: “Hank old buddy, if you don’t mind, I’m goin’ borrow your canteen. I am sorry for disturbing you last night, but you and your lovely wife have been very good company. The rocks that you gave up so much for are where you left them. I have no need for them any more than you have. I know Andrea and your son are with you now, and I am glad for all of you. Thank you for your hospitality, and I’ll be seein’ you someday up yonder.”
I left the shack, closing the door behind me. Three hours later, I could hear the highway’s whine. An hour after that, I was standing on the side of US Highway 90, hitchin’ my way to California.