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Drawing of San Fernando

San Fernando

The Buried Treasure of Simí

The idea of finding buried treasure has always exercised what seems to me an unreasonable charm over people's minds: unreasonable, not, of course, that there would not be charm in finding it, but because of the disparity between the amount of attention that has been spent on the quest and the real prospect, usually, of success. Treasure islands, treasure ships, treasure graves, and many other such possibilities have been many times exploited, both in fact and in story; so it is not surprising that the California Missions should also have had their vogue as a supposed Tom Tiddler's ground. And as a matter of fact, a good many of the buildings show plain traces of the ravages of pick and shovel, sometimes wielded boldly by parties of declared prospectors, but more often in secret by knights of the dark lantern.

Why it should be supposed that riches were buried in these places is not clear; but somehow the idea seems to arise automatically in connection with old or ruined buildings. A recent writer remarks that "The foolish notion that the Fathers had unlimited wealth, nay, gold or silver mines, which they concealed, was common among the Mexicans of that day, and it exists among their descendants to the present time." So far as can be known, the seekers have never found anything of value. It seems, indeed, unlikely that the Fathers at any of the Missions ever could have amassed any sum of money that would be much worth secreting. Saving anything out of their meager stipend of four hundred dollars per year would have been out of the question, even if the sum had been paid in money, in full, and regularly, none of which desirable conditions seems to have been met; while as to hoarding from the proceeds of the industries carried on at the Missions, although the returns must have been large, the expense of caring for a family of a thousand or so Indians must have been proportionately heavy. And in addition there are to be reckoned the exactions of the provincial Government, which seems to have looked upon the Missions generally as a sort of providential and inexhaustible milch cow. So that the latest defender of the Padres, the learned Father Zephyrin Engelhardt, is probably justified in holding that their riches were all of unworldly metal, and consisted only in "their conscientiousness, industry, economy, and abstemiousness." Such intangible valuables, it may be remarked, if they could be recovered by delving, would certainly not have proved, in the estimation of the delvers, a satisfactory reward.

The Mission of San Fernando, some twenty miles northwest of Los Angeles, has more than once been the scene of these unhopeful quests. The visitor, who might be curious concerning sundry excavations noticed in the foundations of the massive adobe walls, would be told by the old Mexican who acted as custodian of the ruin - it is hardly more than that - that they were made by "malos hombres, ladrones, que buscaban dinero"; and, with a shrug, "Tontos! no cogieron no mas que polvo, mucho polvo, mucho trabajo" (bad men, thieves, who were looking for money. Fools! they got nothing but dust, plenty of dust and plenty of work). And with a chuckle: old Tomás would lead the way up the next rickety stairway.

Yet, one cannot tell. There may have been instances of treasure being buried about the Missions, on some emergency arising, since, in the times we are thinking of, the only means of safekeeping sums of money that were too large to be carried on the person was the secreting of them in the walls of buildings or in the ground. Be that as it may, perhaps the reader will have a better explanation of the facts of the following narrative than the one with which I conclude it.

On the afternoon of a warm day of June, some twenty summers since, I was making my way from Los Angeles to the coast by way of the San Fernando Valley and the road that runs through the Simi Hills. It was yet the dawn of the automobile era, and direction signs did not then, as now, give the traveler on California roads the certainty of his route that he now enjoys; and I found myself, at late afternoon, in considerable doubt whether I had not mistaken my way, with the probability, if that were the case, of having to camp for the night in the open. My horse would not suffer, for there was forage in abundance, and water was not hard to find thus early in the summer; but it was annoying for myself, for I had but a scrap of food and no blankets. The road, well traveled at first, that I had been following for two hours past, had for some distance been showing signs of degenerating into a trail (in that inexplicable way that roads sometimes have), and now it seemed about to "peter out" finally on a hillside of yellowing grass. Yet I knew I had been making in the right direction, even if off my road, so I was loath to turn back. The road, or trail, probably led somewhere, and I decided to keep on as long as any track could be seen leading westerly.

Two miles or so farther brought me to the end of all tokens of travel. The track had dwindled to less and less, and now had dropped to the bouldery bed of a cañon stream, from which no woodcraft of mine, nor of my good trail-wise horse, could perceive that it made an exit. If the trail continued, it must follow the bed of the stream. At any rate, here was water, the first requisite for a camp; I decided to go on for a while, but to stick to the creek, for safety. Dismounting, I led Pancho forward by the bridle among the slippery boulders. The sun was well out of sight, and the chirping of crickets among the herbage announced that soon the evening shades would prevail. Evidently, camping was to be my portion, so I kept my eyes open for a good spot for the purpose. The cañon appeared to widen out a little way ahead: there I should probably find good grazing for the horse (though not, I ruefully reflected, for myself). Arriving at the opening, I found, as I expected, grassy slopes rising from the creek, and resolved to make here my bivouac.

Taking off saddle and bridle I turned Pancho loose to graze, while I gathered wood for afire. The dusk was soon enlivened by a crackling blaze, beside which I sat to eat a sandwich and a scrap of chocolate, reserving an equivalent banquet for the morning. Pancho munched away cheerfully, the stream tinkled and purred; the first star telegraphed its friendly signal down through the ether: to be lost in the Simi was not half bad.

My supper (since it must be so called) over, and Pancho picketed for the night, I walked a short way up the cañon in the gloaming. Some two hundred yards from camp, at a point where the stream made a turn, I stopped in sudden surprise at the sight of a light shining among a clump of small live-oaks near by to my right. "Well," I said to myself, "so I am on a trail, after all. Can there be a house here, too?" A few steps, and my question was answered, for I saw that the light shone through the open window of a little house of adobe. What should I do? My appearance at this lonely spot at night would cause so much surprise that I hesitated. But I was quite conscious that I had made an unduly light supper, and, moreover, that I was in the way of making no better a breakfast. Probably I could buy here a little food, and at any rate, I could get information as to my road: so I approached the house. There was an attempt at a garden, I saw, and growing against the window was a bush of the red-flowered sage which I have noted as being a general favorite with Mexicans. As I came up to the door I heard voices, and caught a glimpse through the window of a woman sitting at a rough table, eating. At the same moment a dog within the room started up and barked loudly. It seemed to be my cue to speak as well as knock, so, acting on a vague assumption that the people were Mexicans, I called, "Buenas noches!"

The talking ceased abruptly, and with it the music of knife and fork on crockery. I knocked and called again, "Buenas noches!" A chair moved, and a man's voice said, "Abajo, perro!" whereupon the bark was exchanged for an equally uncomfortable growling. Then the door was thrown open, and a man, standing in the doorway, asked in Spanish, "Who is there?" In a few words I explained my presence, adding that I was short of food and should be glad to purchase a little. "Enter, señor," he invited, and, as I did so, "Carlota," he said to one of two well-grown girls who sat by the woman, "Carlota, give your seat to the caballero." The woman had risen already, and in a matter-of-fact way was putting a plate and cup, evidently for me. My first impulse was to explain that I had had my supper; but I have always found frank acceptance to be the best reply to the frank hospitality of these courteous people, and with an expression of thanks I took the offered place and was ready to share their meal.

I now had an opportunity to notice my entertainers. The man was a strongly built, good-looking, middle-aged Mexican; the wife (as I took her to be) placid-looking, kindly-featured, and of the national middle-aged stoutness. The two children were slender, attractive girls, verging on the early womanhood of their race. I think they were twins. This, I supposed, comprised the household, until, my glance following the wife as she went to the stove, I saw another person. A man, apparently deformed, sat by the fire, bent forward, his hands resting on a stick. But doubled over as he was, his eyes, black and piercing, followed every movement made by any of us. My host, by whom I sat, said in a low voice, "He is my brother, señor: he is very ill." I was on the point of making some remark of condolence when he added, "He cannot speak, señor: he is dumb." Feeling that it would be best not to refer to the matter, and to turn the conversation, I inquired as to the road I had missed, and whether I could get through to the coast without returning. This I learned I could do, my host promising to put me in the way in the morning.

Just as supper, which proved to be a cheerful meal, was over, the invalid in the corner, rapping with his cane on the floor, gave notice that he needed attention. Carlota went quickly to him and helped him to rise, and then led him, slowly and with no little trouble, into an adjoining room. As he shuffled past where I sat, my eye caught the glitter of some object of metal that swung by a cord from his neck, in the fashion of a medal. This I later decided it to be, when I noticed what seemed to be an exactly similar object on a little shelf or bracket, fixed to the wall, on which stood a small figure of the Virgin. The woman now rising to clear the table, I rose also, and, thanking my kind entertainers for their hospitality, asked what I owed them, saying also that I should be glad to buy a little food of them before leaving in the morning. They would accept no money for the meal, however, and I forbore to press them. As I took my hat to go, my host asked, "Will you not sit a while by the fire? It is yet early, and it is cold outside." I gladly assented, and, offering him my pouch, a friendly smoke began.

The seats at the table were heavy benches, not easily moved, but in the corner by the stove, where the sick man had sat, I saw a dark, box-like object which would serve for a chair. I was about to seat myself on this when my host (whose name, I learned, was Leandro Rojas) hastily interfered. "Not on that, señor," be said: "it would be bad fortune, very bad fortune," at the same time pulling one of the benches forward. On this we both sat, and chatted, somewhat haltingly on my part, for my Spanish was no more fluent than his English. I was curious about that bad-omened seat in the corner, especially as I felt pretty, sure it was on that that the invalid had been sitting: but, not wishing to violate my friend's superstitions, I refrained from alluding to the matter. My gaze, however, often reverted to the puzzling object, which in the dim light appeared to be a small but solid chest of some dark wood, heavily clamped with iron bands, and, I thought, having something carved on the lid. I suppose Señor Rojas noticed me looking at the chest with interest, and when, in the course of conversation, I asked whether his brother had long been ill, he replied, "Yes, señor, many years; but my wife does not like it talked of: it is ill fortune to talk of bad luck, she says. And the box is bad fortune, that is certain. I wish it were not here. But I will tell you about it when we go out of the house."

I spent with them a pleasant hour, finding topics of mutual interest - among them the perennial one of rattlesnakes, of which I had found the region unduly prolific, and the need of schooling for the children, who, though attractive and well-mannered, had never made the acquaintance of even slate and pencil. On bidding them good-night, I asked whether I might breakfast with them (on the strict understanding of payment for the meal), and was glad when they willingly agreed.

When I left the house, Leandro said he would walk with me to my camp, and I took the opportunity of asking about the chest. "I will tell you, señor," he said, "though it is bad fortune, and I wish I had never seen it. See what it has done to my brother!" "Was it the box that hurt your brother?" I asked. "How? did it fall on him?" "Oh, no, señor, nothing like that," he replied. "It was his horse that hurt him; but all the same it was the box that did it. My wife says so, and I say so, too. Pedro, I do not know what he thinks, but then, he is as you see. This is how it happened, señor.

"It was many years ago, yes, nearly twenty years. We were both young then, and we worked on the Escorpión, for Don Guillermo. My father used to work for him too: he was a foreman on the ranch: and when Pedro and I were old enough to ride after the cattle he made us vaqueros. Pedro was strong in those days, yes, stronger than I am now, and quite tall. There was no one who could ride like Pedro on the Escorpión. To see him now! ay de mi! Well, señor, one day some steers were missing, twelve or fifteen or more, and my father sent us, Pedro and me, to find them and bring them in. We hunted for them one day, two days, and could not find them. The range was getting poor on the Escorpión, but it was still good in the hills, and my father said the cattle must have gone up to the Simí. So the next morning we started toward the Simí, and it was not long before we found their tracks, coming toward the hills. We followed them all that day, and nearly at night we found them. It was in a little valley that is quite near here: you will go through it to-morrow, señor.

"We had brought food with us, for we knew we might be more than one day out, and when we had found the cattle we looked for a place to camp. We headed the steers down the creek, and came out into this cañon. And here we saw the house, the same house, señor: so you see it is quite old, but it was old then, too. We were surprised, for we did not know there was a house there at all, and we had been born at San Fernando, and we thought we knew everybody that lived this way as far as Ventura. It was nearly dark, and there was no light in the house nor anybody about, though the house did not look quite as if no one lived there. We should have liked to use it to sleep in, but we thought some one must live there, and might come in, so we made a camp on the creek. Just about here, where your camp is, is where we slept.

"In the morning, after we had eaten, Pedro said he was going to look inside the house. I was saddling the horses and did not go with him. In a few minutes I heard him call, so I went to the house. Pedro was standing at the door, and he looked white and frightened. 'There are dead people here,' he said: 'they are all dead.' He went in and I went in after him. In the back room there was a bad sight, a very bad sight, señor: a lot of bones lying all about the room, and there were three skulls among them. In the middle of the room was that box you saw, with the lid open. There was a big bone, like a leg bone, lying right across it, I remember. Zape! a bad sight that was.

"It must have been a long time since they had died, months, perhaps years, two or three, from the look of the place and the bones. The coyotes had been in, and nothing but the bones and some bits of clothing was left. They had all been men, at least I think so, because there were no women's clothes. In the box there were pieces of money, twenty or thirty, or perhaps more. I did not like to touch it, with the dead men all about there: but Pedro, he was always one who cared for nothing. He said it was lucky to find them: the money wasn't dead, he said, and he laughed at me. He picked up one of the coins: it was a silver peso of Spain, very old. Was it not strange, señor? All the money was the same, all pesos and all old. I. have never seen any more like them."

"Well, Pedro said we ought to take the money. The dead men could not spend it, he said, so it was foolish to leave it. But I would not touch it, not one piece. I wanted to burn the bones, and at last Pedro helped me. We picked them all up, the skulls and all. Diantre! it was bad work! I wanted to put them in the box, and burn all together, and bury the money. But Pedro would not: he wanted the money, and he said he would have the box too. So instead of burning them, we buried them, that is, the bones. We found an old spade, and dug a place behind the house, among the sycamores on the hill - you will see to-morrow - and buried them.

"Then we had to go to take the cattle back to the ranch. Pedro would take the money: he put it in his clothes. It was quite heavy, and you could hear it, so he put some in his shoes and in other places. I asked him what he would do with the box, because he would not burn it. He said he wanted it because it had been good luck to find it: he would get it someday and keep it. Then we went away with the cattle. Pedro said we should not tell anybody about what we had found, nor about the dead people; and there was no one to tell, I mean the officers, unless we went to Los Angeles. So I did not say anything, and Pedro did not, because he had taken the money."

"It was not long before he had used it up. I don't know where he spent it, for there was no money like it, and people would ask where he got it: but somehow he spent it, all but two pesos. Then one day he asked me to come with him to the place again: he wanted to see if the box was there, and if anybody lived in the house. I did not want to see the box, but I wanted to know if any one lived there, so I came with him. It was about a year after we had found the dead men and the money. It was a Sunday, and we got to the place about noon, for we started early. Everything was like we had left it, and it did not look as if any one had been to the house. The box was there, and it was open; and then I noticed that there was some writing on a piece of paper inside the lid. It must have been there when we saw the box before, but we had not noticed it. It was very old and yellow, and torn, too, and we could not read it. They did not seem like Spanish words. We stayed an hour, maybe, and then I said we should go, so as to get back before night. Then Pedro said to me, why shouldn't we come and live here in the house. We each had a few head of cattle of our own by that time, nearly twenty all together, and the range here was very good. He was tired of working on the Escorpión, he said. The place didn't belong to anybody, as far as we could tell, and we could make a good home here and do well with our cattle.

"I forgot to say that I had got married a little time before, and I said my wife would not come so far away from her people. They lived at Calabasas. I didn't like the idea of living in that house, though I liked the land and wanted to have a place of my own, now that I was married. So we were talking about it when we got on our horses to ride back. We rode past the sycamore trees, where we had buried the bones of the dead men. Just when we passed the place, my brother's horse jumped at something, and threw him off. He fell against a sharp rock that hurt him in the back. He was quite still, and I thought he was dead. For a long time he did not move, but I could see he was breathing. I got water and threw it on him many times, and at last he opened his eyes. But he could not move, señor, nor speak either: the rock had hurt his backbone, and his legs were like dead. He was a paralítico, and he has never been able to move, any more than you saw him move, nor talk either.

"I did not know what to do. It was many miles to the ranch, and there was no one that lived anywhere nearer. My brother was in much pain, so I could not put him on his horse: I was afraid of hurting him more. He could not talk, but he pointed at the house, for me to take him there. There was nothing else to do, and at last I got him there. Then I said I must go and get help to take him away, but he shook his head and would not let me go. I think he thought he might as well die there as anywhere, and he was half dead anyway. But I had to go to get food, and I thought I could bring a doctor also. I left him some water, and got on my horse and rode - cielo, how I rode! - for I thought he might be dead when I got back. It was dark most of the way, and it was midnight when I got to the ranch. I got help, and sent for a doctor to come from Los Angeles. My wife - she is a good woman, my wife, Elena, señor - she said she would come with me to nurse Pedro if he could not be brought away. We were back at the house the next day early, two cousins of mine and my wife and myself. Pedro was lying where I had left him, but he was out of his head. Whenever he saw the box he would try to get up and go to it, so I put it where he could not see it. I had never told my wife about the box and the money: I thought it would only do harm to talk about it.

"The doctor came the next day. He said Pedro would never be able to walk; he might be able to speak after a while; but he never has. The doctor told us he ought not to be moved for a long while. And so we stayed, señor, and we have never gone away. Don Guillermo was very good: I think God makes people good to one when one is in trouble, is it not so, señor? He gave me ten more cattle; two of them were good milch cows. That made thirty head we had all together. And he sent us a lot of flour, and coffee and frijoles; and then he found who owned the land the house was on: it was an American, who lived in San Francisco and never came here at all; and Don Guillermo told him about my brother getting hurt, and he promised that we could have the house and the grazing for nothing for three years, and then pay a little when we could. After about ten years I bought the place, about fifty acres, and now it is my own."

"So it was bad fortune the box brought us, as I said, señor, but good fortune, too. Did you see what my brother has round his neck, señor? It is one of the pesos. He had two of them left when he was hurt: he had always said he would keep those two for more luck, as he called it. One day, after he was hurt, I saw him making a hole in one of them, and he hung it round his neck. He gave me the other. I did not want to take it, so I put it on the shelf for Our Lady. You can see it in the morning, and you can see the box, too. My wife would like to burn it, and so would I, but Pedro will not let us, and he always sits on it. There is carving on it, an 'F' and a 'Y,' I think, and there is the writing inside, though much of it is gone now. Perhaps you can tell what the writing says: I should like to know, if there is enough left to tell by."

"Well, it is late, and Elena will be going to bed. I am sorry that we have no room for you to sleep in, señor, but the house is small, and we are so many women and sick. Buenas noches, señor."

I was much interested in the strange story I had heard, and lay for some time awake, trying to fit a working theory to the black chest and the Spanish dollars, but with no success. It was a puzzle that was worth a good deal of trouble to unlock if it could be done, and I was eager for daylight, to get a good view of the box. Probably the invalid would not be up so early as the rest of the family, who had breakfast, I had learned, at six o'clock. I was prompt upon the hour, and while waiting a few minutes before the meal was ready, I examined the silver piece and the chest. The coin was a large one, Spanish, as my host had said, and bore the inscription of Carlos III, with the date 1787, and the arms of Castile and León. The box I examined with special attention. It was exceedingly heavy for its size, which was about thirty inches long by fourteen wide and ten deep, and was made of the dark, hard wood of some tropical tree that had withstood decay wonderfully. On the upper side of the lid were cut the letters "F Y" in plain, deep carving, encircled with an elaborate scroll, this somewhat defaced and broken in outline. Three heavy strips of iron were fastened round the shorter circumference, one near each end of the box and one at the middle. At the ends were strong wrought-iron handles, and there was a curious lock, also of wrought-iron. I opened the lid, and there, as Leandro had said, were the remains of a sheet of parchment, vellum, or heavy hand-made paper, which had been glued to the wood, but the greater part of which was torn or worn away. It was evident that the writing was too much defaced to allow of more than a mere guess at its purport, but by the not very good light I copied what I could decipher of the inscription. This is what I made out: -

hac ar osit unt num tria mi et qu enti qui
pert anc Mi Sanc in cujus fini
utelam ob lat hoc lito atis com
arca absco a est.

Oc 1824

I had hardly finished my transcription when my hostess entered saying that breakfast was ready in the kitchen: so no attempt at working out the puzzle could be made at the time. Pedro's food was taken to him by Carlota, and he did not appear before I left. During the pleasant meal, I looked with added respect at the woman whose goodness of heart had led her willingly to undertake, and to carry day by day for many years, the burden of a hopeless, and I fear an ungrateful, invalid (though, indeed, from my experience of the kindliness, and especially the strength of the family bond among the Mexican people, I might well have been prepared for such magnanimity).

Soon after breakfast I bade them farewell, Leandro accompanying me a short distance to show me my road. When we came to part, no further word had been said regarding Pedro or the mysterious chest. I said nothing, for I had no theory to offer. When we shook hands, after thanking him heartily I remarked that I hoped we might meet again, adding, as an afterthought, "and in a luckier house." "Yes, señor," he said, "but it is not the house that is unlucky: Our Lady attends to that. It was the money, and, you see," with a smile - "I gave her the half of what was left. Do you know, señor, sometimes I think the money was stolen from the Church. That would account for all, is it not so? They say the churches had much money once. Quien sabe? Adios señor."

As I turned Pancho into the trail that would bring me to the Ventura road, my mind was busy at a clue that Leandro's parting words had started. "F Y," the letters carved on the chest - somehow they seemed to link up with something in my memory. Who was that Padre of whom Robinson, in his "Life in California," spoke with a good deal of disparagement? The surname initial was surely a "Y," and it seemed to me that San Fernando was the Mission where the depreciated Father dwelt. Yorba, Ybarronda, Ybañez, Ybarra - yes, that was it: Ybarra, sure enough, and the first name was Francisco, it seemed to me; and I felt sure now that it was at San Fernando that Robinson encountered him. All circumstantial evidence, no doubt, but highly interesting. To try another link - did the scraps of writing give any support to my idea? I took out my notebook: unmistakably there were the letters "rra" remaining where naturally the signature would be written. All the rest of the name was gone except a fragment of rubric, but that embellishment again made it plain that the letters were part of a name.

With that I had to be satisfied, both then and now. Matters of more personal importance soon pushed the problem into the back of my mind. Once, indeed, chancing on a copy of the torn inscription, I spent an idle hour in trying to fashion the oddments into a possible connected whole. In case the reader should be interested in such exercises, I will give my tentative solution.

I take the writing, as far as the signature, to have been in Latin, and this is my guesswork rendering: the reader may perhaps improve upon it: -

In hac arca depositi sunt nummi tria millia et quingenti qui pertinent ad hanc Missionem de Sancto Fernando, in cujus finibus ad cautelam ob latrocinia hoc litore a piratis commissa haec arca abscondita est.

Francisco Ybarra.

Oct. 1824.

My chain of guesses, then, is that the old chest that I saw in that house in the Simí Hills may have once been the personal property of Fray Francisco Ybarra, sometime priest in charge of the Mission of San Fernando. That he, on the approach of some marauders, buried the chest, with the stated sum of money in silver pesos of Carlos III, in some hiding-place about the Mission precincts. That for some unguessable reason the chest was never taken up by the priest or his successors; but that long years afterwards, probably not less than fifty, some party of treasure-seekers (of whom there are evidences of there having been many at that Mission) came upon the buried chest. That it was transported by them to the lonely house in the mountains, some twenty miles distant. That there, a quarrel occurred over the booty, and that the survivor or survivors of the fatal affray, if any there were, did not, for some reason, carry off in their flight all the treasure. The rest of my theory is embodied in the foregoing narrative.

But after all, as to the whole matter, probably there is little to be said that is more to the point than the all-embracing phrase of Leandro, and of Spain and Mexico in general - Quien sabe? Who knows?

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