Here and There in Yucatan/Gems Buried in the Sand
Connected with almost all the small islands in the neighborhood of the Mexican Gulf and the Caribbean Sea there is some "treasure story," but perhaps none so well authenticated as that of Mugeres Island. This lovely little isle is in latitude north 21° 18′, and longitude west 86° 42′, Greenwich meridian, and about a hundred and twenty miles from British Honduras.
Pirates' exploits and their buried piles of gold and gems are the inexhaustible source of all the romantic stories that the fishermen love to tell on moonlight nights, seated on the bottom of some boat turned up on the beach. They suspect that others dream of treasures as much as they do, for strangers are closely watched. Whichever way we strolled, some one kept us in view. When we mentioned this to Don Pedro Pobedano, one of the oldest inhabitants, he said, "They think you have come for the treasure, which they would never allow to be taken by a stranger." So we invited Don Pedro to tell us about it, and he gave us the story as follows:
"Nearly all of us are from Yalahau, on the opposite coast (Yucatan), but we always came here to fish. I was a little shaver when my uncle first brought me, yet I remember everything. One morning a schooner hove in sight; it soon cast anchor in this bay. There were armed men on board. They came ashore, but seemed not to notice us; we watched and saw them look all around. One evening when we returned to our camp we missed some tortillas (Mexican bread), and could not find out who had taken them. Next day the same thing happened, and so the next; then a boy was set to watch. He hid himself, saw an old man steal from the bush, snatch some bread, and quickly retreat.
"My uncle resolved to capture the thief. Next day we started in our boats, as usual, but soon anchored in a small cove near by, and walked to the camp, where we hid ourselves. We let the old man enter the hut; then we surrounded him, and learned that he had come on board the schooner to show the others where a treasure was, he having seen it buried. Overhearing a conversation in which it was agreed to kill him when the treasure was unearthed, so that he might not demand his share, he ran away and hid in the woods, watching for our absence, to procure food. He seemed greatly afraid of the companions he had left; so my uncle told him he was welcome to share with us, but had better keep out of sight till the schooner was gone. Very soon the treasure-seekers went off in their ship, no richer than they came, probably believing the old man dead; but he was hale and hearty, with all his wits about him, though seventy years of age. Concerning himself, he said: 'When quite young I was kidnapped and taken on board a pirate ship, where I was made cabin-boy. One day the crew entered a city on the coast and sacked it, taking lots of gold coin, precious things from the churches, and the bishop's jewels. What a glittering pile it was! They put it all in boxes covered with lead, and brought them here, landing them on the north end of this island, where they dug a trench in the sand sixty steps from the water's edge. In the trench they laid the treasure, and covered it with a piece of tarpaulin and a light coating of sand. Then the captain asked for volunteers to guard it.
"'Two negroes stepped forward, and were instantly shot by the captain, who ordered their bodies to be thrown on the boxes, saying that they would take better care of them dead than alive, because anyone finding bones would look no further. The trench Was then refilled, and on it three stones were placed to form a triangle, a crowbar being buried ten steps from them. Our ship was soon afterwards captured, and every one on board put to death except me, because I was young and had been kidnapped.'
"After much persuasion," continued Don Pedro, he pretended to look for the treasure, but I think he feared to indicate the spot lest we should kill him, as the others had proposed to do, though we would not have hurt the old man. We took him to our village, and he went to Campeche, where he died. Nothing was heard about the treasure for several years, during which time we formed this village, when one day men arrived from Campeche, bringing a government permit to dig for it. All the trenches back of the old church were made by their order. They did not look at the north point of the island, but they were so sure of finding the money that they paid the people here who worked for them double their usual wages, and spent many dollars, going away so much poorer, for they found nothing. They had lost a map, they said, that indicated the existence of a high stone having the form of a cachucha, and the boxes were buried in front of that. (Cachucha is a flat cap, also a small boat.) Another party came to search on the south side of the village, with no better success, and the last comers looked in vain at the north point. In 1847, when the first settlers came, a youth, looking for fire-wood, let fall his machete (long knife), and it struck something sounding like metal, which proved to be a crowbar. The youth took it away without marking the spot, for he had heard nothing about the treasure; and yet he was within ten steps of it. It can only be found by the one it is intended for. Once I thought I had it. Digging to make the foundation of a house, we came upon human bones; then I had an immense trench opened, but found nothing more."
We thanked Don Pedro for the story, and decided not to look for the bishop's jewels, though we had no difficulty in finding the stone like a cachucha at the north point of the island, and, sixty steps from it, the three stones forming a triangle. In fact an old negro in the city of Tizimin had given us the proper directions, but we never had a chance to dig; there were too many eyes watching us, and it might have cost us our life.
- Published in "Harpers' Bazar."