Butcherknife Ike and the Lost Ship
by Adelaide Arnold, November 1953 – Calico Print
From before World War One into the early Twenties, Butcherknife Ike often stopped at our ranch, Morningside, when starting on or coming from prospecting expeditions in the southern desert. Morningside lay near the mouth of San Juan Bautista Canyon, southeast of Hemet, and the canyon eventually led up to Cahuilla. From there the prospectors crossed over to Coyote Canyon and went down into the Borrego Desert.
Butcherknife Ike – I do not know how he came by the name – was very irregular in his appearances and he very rarely had any greeting when he arrived. He just appeared in the drive, with his burros tagging after him. He would take their leads off and they would immediately begin to get their meal off the lawn – and also off some of Mother’s roses. He would camp down in the eucalyptus grove.
Generally we had tea, late afternoons about five, on the lawn by the house. And if he was camped below, Butcherknife Ike would wander in and join us. Mother would get out a big cup and fill it with tea, hot and strong, the way he liked it. She would give him the cup and he would hold it and she would put one lump of sugar in. The cup was still stationary, so she would put in another lump. Finally there would be five or six lumps, and then he would take it over to the little flume which ran across the lawn, and sit down and hunch himself along until he could feel the flume against his back. There he would sit, perfectly silent, drinking his tea. He’d gulp down the tea and come back and have another cup – sometimes four or five cups.
In between cups, he’d sit and think a little, and then he’d put the cup up against his face – almost make a suction cup of it – and a long, sucking sound came as he got out the sugar in the bottom. When his cup was returned, it was just as clean as a whistle, though he never used a spoon.
I remember, mostly, the way he gestured with his long hands when he talked, and his faded blonde hair and the way it had a ripple down it and was quite long, falling on his neck. Of course he started on his trips with it clipped – almost what now we would call a crew cut. But when he appeared in summer, it was a page bob, almost. His eyes were very, very blue.
He was a strange man. He never talked to the other prospectors if they were there, and they said he always went out alone. When he first came, he rarely looked at us. He always looked at something on the horizon when he talked. If he talked. And he always looked at you sideways when you asked where he was going. He was so secretive always. If there was another prospector around you couldn’t drag out of him the exact place he was going.
The day that he told us about the ship, Father had asked him where he had been. For Father occasionally he would give some details. But as always, it was quite disconnected. All his talk was that way. He’d remove you suddenly to Death Valley, or into Arizona. Just jerk out a few adventures – and then he didn’t want to talk about it if you began to pin him down about the exact locations.
And he had apparently been thinking of the strangeness of this adventure. I fancy he wouldn’t have talked to us at all, if it hadn’t been on his mind.
He had been down by Laguna Salada, in Baja California, he said. He was returning from Laguna Salada. And he was going through by Split Mountain Canyon to look for some mineral he thought he had seen there before. It was about the Fourth of July, I believe – and hot. And he came in the dark to a place where there was a big sand dune. In telling it, he said over and over again, that it was no place for a big sand due to be. It was flat there. The arroyo was flat.
There was a bad wind blowing and he went over and took shelter in the lee of the big dune. On that big dune he discovered there was a sort of shelf of sand, below the highest point. That seemed to be the best place to camp, so he climbed up. There wasn’t much around there to make a fire, but he made one of quail brush. He explained that, so we would know how little the fire was and how quickly it would have burned out. He cooked his beans and made his coffee.
Sometime in the night he waked. There, where he had made his little fire, he saw a tongue of flame coming up through the sand. He had an expression he used when he was talking about anything unusual. He would drop his voice and say: “I was kinda curious.”
He was kind of curious about that flame where no flame should be. So he lighted his lantern and brought it over and he scooped and dug down through the sand. And presently – about two feet down, he said – he came to a heavy piece of wood. By the light of his lantern, he could see that it was worked wood.
In the morning, he dug some more, and he uncovered the beam and under it was another curved beam, attached to it. And on the beam underneath were barnacles. Old barnacles that crumbled.
“I scrabbled around a little bit,” he went on, “and I saw it was a ship. I walked down the dune and I saw where the sand had covered it. It was a big ship. An old ship from the Gulf.”
“Did you tell anyone about it?” Father asked. And Butcherknife Ike looked suddenly frightened, glancing sideways.
“No! No!” he said. “I’ll go back there.”
And when he learned that we had been as far down as Split Mountain Canyon and knew some of the country he had talked about, he seemed dismayed, as if afraid he had talked too much.
I last saw Butcherknife Ike about 1923. He had gone up San Juan Bautista Canyon, apparently heading for the desert. It was August and bitterly hot.
For some reason Father was a little worried about him, and suggested we take a lunch and go up the canyon. We found Butcherknife Ike at what used to be called Reed’s Meadow, about eleven miles up from Morningside, on the bench before you climb into the high mountains. And he said that he was going through Cahuilla and down Coyote Canyon and through Borrego Valley into the badlands. Someone had given him a book which told about the badlands being an unmined reservoir of rich minerals. So that’s where he set his mind on going – and he picked the hottest week of the year. I took a picture of him and his burros. He went on. He never came back.
In spite of his queerness, the other prospectors that came and went had a great kindness for him. They went down and searched for him and asked about him. He had been seen at Borrego. He had gone into the badlands from there. But that was the end of the trail.