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Lost Ship of the Desert (Niehuis)

by Charles C. Niehuis

The legend of the lost ship of the Colorado desert persists. Here is a new version from an unexpected source. When this manuscript reached the office of the Desert Magazine a note of inquiry was sent to Mr. Niehuis, the author, to learn whether the story was pure fiction, based on the old legend of the lost pearl ship, or an authentic report from living characters. He replied that while Jim Tucker recently passed away, his wife Petra was still living at the time this story was written and would vouch for its truth.

Jim Tucker has gone now. He went on his last “prospecting trip” over on the other side of the Great Divide. He left here his wife Petra, a Mexican woman who had been his companion on trips into the mountains and over the desert for nearly 40 years.

I can still see Jim as he sat on the edge of his bed at the Arizona Pioneers’ Home near Prescott and told me the strange story which I am going to repeat as accurately as memory will permit.

A grizzled beard of a week’s growth was on his face. He sat erect – broad shoulders and straight back that the weight of 79 years could not bend. Blue eyes twinkled under shaggy eyebrows. His voice boomed and rumbled in his massive chest like the distant blast of dynamite in a prospector’s hole.

“Charlie, I’ll tell you a good one. You won’t believe it, but it’s the truth anyway.” Then he hesitated.

“Shall I tell him about the ship, Petra?” he asked the small dark woman with snow white hair, who rocked steadily in the corner.

“Si, no le hace,” she murmured, then turned to flash, “But, don’t tell him where, Jim!”

I sat silent, neither urging nor discouraging them.

“I’m Petra’s second husband,” Jim continued, after he had shifted his chew into his cheek.

“Her first husband was Santiago Socia, a high class Mexican from Los Angeles. He killed a man there, and had to leave in a hurry – afraid they’d lynch him, because it was an American he shot. He hid in the hills, and finally worked his way down into Mexico. Petra followed him as soon as she found out where he was hiding. So they lived in Tecate, Baja California, and Santiago was working in a field, harvesting grain. One day a peon came up to him, looking for work.” Jim’s rumbling voice ceased a moment as the old man shifted his suspenders off his shoulders, dropping them to his waist.

“Santiago had almost finished, and told the beggar – what was his name?” Jim asked, turning to Petra.

The dark woman ceased her rocking, put down a bit of embroidery, pressed finger tips to the bridge of her nose, thinking, searching that age-dimmed page of memory.

“Yo pienso – Leonardo, Jim. Si, it was Leonardo.”

“Well, Charlie, you know how Mexicans are – they rolled ‘cigareets’, and sat on their heels in the shade of a mesquite tree and talked it over.”

The mention of cigarettes started a chain of reflexes in Jim, and he fished in his breast pocket for papers and his sack of “smoking”. The brown paper ‘cigareet’ was soon rolled, and Jim lit it without removing the chew of tobacco he already had in his mouth.

Petra laughed when she saw my look of astonishment.

“Jim, he likes the tobacco, no?”

Then with cigarette between thumb and finger, Jim leaned forward and put his elbow on his knee.

Signal Mountain courtesy of Dezertmagazine.com

Signal Mountain courtesy of Dezertmagazine.com

Santiago Makes a Journey

“Well, the beggar told Santiago he had a map from a padre in California that showed where Indians had hid some ollas filled with gold dust when the Spanish stampeded them. The ollas was supposed to be hidden in the mountains just across the line north from Tecate.”

“Santiago was like Jim,” Petra interrupted, “you say, ‘Come, Santiago, I know where there is gold,’ and he go, right now.”

“The peon, he tell Santiago he have to take two other men along, who he live with.”

She paused, and finger tips went to her forehead again.

“Ah, I remember, the peon, he was Leonardo, and the two men who go along, was Loreto Alvarez, who had the horses, and Juan Morales and his little boy, about 12, I think – and his name was Juan, too.”

I was astounded at the old lady’s memory, and prodded further, “How long ago was all this?”

She turned to Jim, and they spoke in Spanish, and I caught only words that meant years, towns, people; then at length:

“It was 1892,” Jim boomed through a cloud of smoke.

“Santiago, he furnish the money,” she continued, “and one day they go, and I not see Santiago for almost two months. It was late one night when he come back and come into the tent. He say nothing to me, but go to sleep right away.”

“I get up early and was making tortillas on a comal; what you call ‘comal’ in English, Jim?”

Tucker paused in the rolling of his third cigarette, and turned to me.

“A ‘comal’ is an iron, or a flat stone that Mexicans bake tortillas on. It is flat and big around.” Jim circled his arms to illustrate.

Petra continued, not looking at Jim or me, as she spoke of Santiago, her first husband.

“Santiago he finally get up, and come outside the tent. I have a fire under a cottonwood tree, and was baking the tortillas on the comal.”

“He not say anything at first, then he say, ‘Petra, if I had a chisel on our trip, I could get a nice comal for you – better one than that one.’”

“I laugh, and say to him, ‘Ah Santiago, where you find iron for comal in the mountains?’”

“He say, ‘I tell you something strange. You will say I am crazy, that I lose my water and get thirsty, and see dreams, but it is the truth.’

We was looking for the ollas of gold in every canyon where the map show, but we could not find them. Then – one day – in one canyon, we find – a ship! A big boat, in the sand!’”

“Then I say, ‘Santiago, you tease me!’” He say, ‘No Petra, it is the truth of God. I find a ship and stand on the front. It is ten feet high, and the back it is buried in the sand!’”


Viking Shields courtesy of vikingrune.com

“But, the comal,” I say.

“The comals was big round iron things on the sides. Bright and not rusted; not like any metal I have seen before.”

Petra paused, then extended her arm. Her other hand measured it at the shoulder, and she said, “Santiago, he do this, and say, ‘This big, Petra.’”

She again described the sight as Santiago saw it. A narrow box canyon with high sheer walls, and a sandy bottom; and, partially buried there, a boat of ancient appearance – an open boat but big, with round metal disks on its sides.

I was bursting with questions, and Jim laughed when he saw me jerk forward with eagerness.

“It’s a good story, eh?” he roared with a grin.

“You bet it is! But why didn’t they report it, or claim the ship?”

“Well, Charlie, Petra’s told me the story many times, and I asked all those questions, too. Santiago was the only one of the men who realized he had found something. The others were only interested in the gold in the ollas, which they didn’t find. Santiago couldn’t go back to claim the find, because the ship was in the United States, and he’d have had to file in Los Angeles – and he was still steering clear of that place.”

“Didn’t any of them ever go back?”

“Petra claims they all died, of one thing or another, and none of them ever got back.”

Here Petra began speaking swiftly in Spanish. Jim started translating, for my benefit, so Petra changed to English again.

“One time, my husband, Santiago was riding in the mountains in the Estados, and I was with him. We was up high, and could see more mountains, 15, maybe 20 miles away, and he stop and say, “Petra, I am a poor man, now, and maybe some time I die before you, and leave you nothing. You get a good man, and come back here. You go to those mountains,’ and he point, ‘the ship, it is there. It is worth more than the gold in the ollas!’”

“The sand is blowing in there, Petra, and will cover the ship soon, in few years. So, look for writing on the wall of the canyon – high up. Too high to reach from the ground, and too far down to reach from the top! It is not Indian writing, nor English, but some strange writing which must be made by the man of the strange ship. Look for it.”

“So, when Santiago is gone, after some time I do get a good man,” here she turned and looked at Jim a moment, with her hands folded in her lap.

“But, he don’t believe my story for long time. Now it is too late, we are too old.”

I, too, looked at Jim. He lit his brown paper cigarette, and drew deeply. Words came out with the pale smoke.

“We went to San Diego once, Charlie, and I stopped in a station to get gas, and got to talking. I asked the fellow if he knew if there was much placer gold in the hills. He said, I don’t know if there is any gold up there, but there’s supposed to be a ship up there in some canyon.’”

“We were in the right place too. Just north of Tecate.”

“Did anyone else ever find it?” I asked.

“A fellow in Phoenix told me he saw a newspaper account in a coast paper, where a prospector, who had been in the hills had come to town. The first place he hit was a bootleggin’ joint, and he got drunk. He told a story about finding a ship in the mountains, and of course got laughed at. Then as he was on his way to the courthouse to file a claim he got hit by a street car, and killed instantly. They always get killed, or die some way, don’t they, Charlie? Kinda queer, in a way, ain’t it?”

I could feel a spell of mental indigestion coming on, and I must have shown it.

Don’t believe it, do you, eh?” Jim queried, leaning toward me. “Well, neither do I sometimes! Then, again – but, say, Charlie, I told this story to a prospector once. Was trying to get him interested enough to go with me to look for it. And, you know what he told me? He said, ‘Jim, if you ever tell that story to a burro, he’ll kick your brains out!’”


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Comments (2)

  1. […] Niehuis recalled the events: “Charlie, I’ll tell you a good one. You won’t believe it, but it’s the truth anyway,” said Tucker. […]

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