Chapter I TUMBLEWEED

Jack Van Ryder drawing - ranch with giant saguaro in front

OLDTIMERS call him Tumbleweed.

And Tumbleweed he is, drifting here and there on the deserts of southern Arizona and northern Mexico, tossed about by every vagrant wind, lodging for a moment in one place only to be blown hither before a changing breeze.

Tumbleweed, truly a desert nomad, but in his past there is a story asserted by many to be the figment of a sun-touched mind. He is old now, a stooped, slow-moving figure as he follows his burro along the dusty trails. Faded, oft-washed clothing with many patched and unpatched rents covers the wrinkled figure, topped by a battered old hat under the rim of which appear straggly white locks falling unkempt about his shoulders. His face, where not covered by his snowy beard, is tanned to a nut brown and wrinkled into a thousand little crevices by many a desert summer. How many years have passed since Tumbleweed took to the desert trails no one knows. Neither is it known from whence he came. But undaunted either by the advancing years or the laughter of the unbelieving, Tumbleweed and his burro plod on, searching for his lost treasure.

It was at San Miguel, a little adobe town below the border, that Tumbleweed in a friendly moment built about the divided water of a canteen and a pack of Durham tobacco told me the yarn of what set him adrift on the desert that reaches from the Bacatetes in the south to the rugged malpai stretches of the Hualapais in the north.

It is the story of a lost bonanza, the oft-repeated tragedy of the desert rat who after years of seeking made his strike only to lose it.

"Aye, youngster," said Tumbleweed, "I once made my strike and some day I'll find it again. Folks don't believe it when I tell 'em, but it was there -- free gold at the grass roots, rock so rich that you could highgrade it with a hammer. Lord knows what she would assay. And I'm sure I'll find it again. Then they won't laugh at old Tumbleweed."

Tumbleweed had been young then, young and seeking his fortune in the rocky hills. His outfit lashed to the backs of two burros, he took to the desert, poking here and there for the lead that would tell him that hidden beneath the surface was the wealth of Midas.

He had penetrated far into the hills, crossed a range which he remembers as being high and rugged, and sought water on the far slope. A small valley with a tiny stream down its center offered haven, and there he camped. His burros grew fat along the stream while Tumbleweed pecked away at the rock on the slopes of the valley. Game was plentiful and his grubstake was holding out well. He was unworried by economic cares. What more could a prospector ask? Color showed in the creek; small nuggets appeared in his pan as the swishing water cleared away the sand and gravel. Tumbleweed sought the mother lode.

Then came the find after months of prospecting and with supplies shrinking. He broke a bit of quartz from a ledge above the creek and after one look shouted aloud in his joy. It was gold -- no doubt about it. Gold in rich clear veins ran through the ore which he held in his hands. He tore into the earth with his pick and more ore ap­peared. It was the treasure he had long sought.

Days passed as Tumbleweed scratched and dug away at the side of the hill, days in which the already small store of supplies dwindled to nothingness. Tumbleweed was forced to start for the outside.

It had been early summer when he came into the hills and found his little valley. It was now in the midst of the hottest season of this sun­baked land. But Tumbleweed was unafraid. He had found his own El Dorado. He was rich beyond dreams.

Leading his burros, one with some of the ore and dust he washed from the creek, the other with his scanty store of food and a supply of water, he started his long hike back to civilization. Mere miles meant less than nothing to Tumbleweed, for jiggling along in the saddle pack on his burro were riches and promise of still greater riches when he reached journey's end.

He was clear of the hills and on the desert when the winds came, hard driving winds rolling ahead of them the sand storm, dread enemy of desert wanderers. Tumbleweed holed up with his burros, too desert wise to attempt travel in the storm. Seeking the lee of a dune he curled up to wait with what patience he could muster until the storm blew itself out. Hours passed and still the dust-clouds swept over the desert, blinding man and beast, shutting out the light and the sky.

When the storm lifted Tumbleweed was alone. His burros were gone, and through some queer twist of fate he had committed a fatal error -- his canteens swung from the sawbuck saddle of one of the missing burros.

For hours Tumbleweed searched for the little pack animals. Gone now were thoughts of gold; water was more precious. But the wind and sand had destroyed all signs and he was alone and without water. Finally realizing the task that faced him, Tumbleweed tossed away everything he could to lighten his load, even his pistol and ammuni­tion, and struck out for the north, taking his direction from the sun. It was the beginning of an odyssey of torture, a long, long trek filled with the pangs of thirst. Mirages danced before his eyes and led him astray time after time, while blue and purple hills in the distance seemed to move farther and farther away as he plodded on toward them.

And then, says Tumbleweed, he remembers no more.

It was days later when he awakened in Yuma. He had been found, he was told, almost dead from thirst and exhaustion by some Mexican cowmen near the border. They had done the best they could for him and then had sent him on with a freighter, who in turn brought him to the town on the banks of the Colorado. There under medical aid his life had been saved. Weeks followed before he regained his strength, weeks in which he lay staring at the walls apparently caring nothing about what went on about him and saying nothing about where he had been. But desert toughened sinews are strong, and he was once more on his feet ready to return to the desert and the wealth he had left in the hidden valley.

It was then that the blow fell. Tumbleweed's body was strong again but the piercing rays of the sun had closed the doors of memory, and the past, except for a few details, was wiped out. He re­called his find, the little valley and his start for the outside. He recalled the sweep of the storm and the loss of his burros, but there memory ceased. He could not recall where the mine was nor in which mountains lay the little valley. Even his own name was missing from his mental files.

Such was the origin of Tumbleweed. For more than forty years since he recovered his health in Yuma he has roamed the desert and the hills seeking the hidden valley with its wealth of gold. Listeners have long since laughed him to silence. No more does he tell folks of the mine which he seeks; they do not believe what he knows to be true.

"But they don't know everything, youngster," he says. "I know she's thar. Why dang it, I held that rock in my two hands, crumpled it with a tap of my hammer and watched the gold flake off.

"Some day I'll just pop into that valley like I did before and then they'll stop laughing at old Tumbleweed. Well, so long, youngster, thanks for the Durham. I've been a little short and a smoke tastes good when a feller's a bit lonely. It's good to talk to folks when they don't laugh and call you crazy. But they'll change their tune when I find that valley. Get along Chico, we got to be on our way. Adíos,youngster."

Once more the Tumbleweed was drifting.

Continue with Chapter II Arizona Charlie