A search for hidden Spanish gold, plus love and murder on the banks of North Florida’s Santa Fe River
Set in the turbulent 1960s, Miranda’s Gold follows a young man named Charlie who as a boy is riveted by his uncle Joe’s story of Spanish gold hidden near one of the springs along Florida’s Santa Fe River.
His quest for the gold will take Charlie from his Uncle, a Florida Game Warden’s, story of a murder on the river in the 1930s, to meeting a beautiful, mysterious Spanish girl in high school, through the despair of Vietnam, a visit to the Archives in Seville, Spain and finally back to where it all began—with another murder in his uncle’s stilt house on the Santa Fe. How many more people must die in the search for Miranda’s Gold.
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Summer of 1962 Uncle Joe’s house on the River
The first summer that his Uncle Joe had spent in his new river house, he had invited Charlie and his cousin Tommy to come and visit, maybe even stay a few days. The boys, nine and ten years old at the time, loved to hunt and fish, and both adored their Uncle, so when he extended the invitation, they did not need to be asked twice.
After a minimal amount of time spent convincing their parents to allow the adventure, they packed a small suitcase, their fishing gear, a couple of twenty-gauge shotguns, a box of shells, and a bottle of 6-12 mosquito repellent. Thus equipped, on June 15, 1962, they were waiting excitedly by the dirt road that ran in front of Charlie’s house when their Uncle picked them up in his pea-green sedan with the “Florida Wildlife Officer” insignia on the door.
Joe was wearing his tan “Florida Freshwater Fish and Game Commission” uniform, complete with badge and gun when he pulled to a stop. He got out, opened the trunk, and watched as the excited boys loaded their gear.
“Looks like you boys expect to stay a spell!” the old man laughed as the boys made a couple of trips to bring their gear.
“Plan to stay as long as you’ll let us!” replied Charlie.
As he watched the boys load their gear, Joe lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply before pinching the match-head between his thumb and forefinger to make sure it was cool before tossing it on the ground. It was an old habit he had learned through the years to avoid accidentally igniting a forest fire. Fire safety was one of the first lessons he had learned as a game warden. Through the years he had witnessed far too much senseless loss of animals and habitat due to man’s carelessness.
The car was filled with the excited chatter of the boys as they headed north toward High Springs. They rode with the windows down and the front window vents turned in to channel the heavy summer air across their faces. They had been to Uncle Joe’s river house before but had never considered spending the night there. They knew that he owned a boat that he kept tied up to the little floating dock below the uncovered deck on what they considered the front of the house facing the river. He had already told them that they could use his boat all they wanted while he was at work during the day.
After arriving at his place on the river, the boys spent several hours catching and cleaning speckled perch from the back porch of their uncle’s home. They enjoyed fresh fried fish, grits and hush-puppies for supper that night. Soon they settled into a routine. They would spend the day on the river fishing and when their uncle returned from work, they would take out the old cast iron frying pan and while Uncle Joe made grits and hush puppies, they would filet the fish, dip the boneless strips in meal and carefully slid the pieces into the hot grease in the frying pan. It was the same feast every night and it was wonderful!
Before they realized it, the boys had been there several weeks and were nearing the end of their first summer adventure. The last night of their visit, after supper, they cleaned the dishes and were sitting in wooden chairs on the porch, watching the dark water of the river flow past.
Feeling a little melancholy at nearing the end of their summer visit, the little group had lapsed into a comfortable quiet in the descending darkness until their Uncle broke the silence.
“Boys, I have a story to tell you. I ain’t never told it to a soul except to your Aunt Ella, but I’m getting kind of long in the tooth and I feel like it’s time to pass something along to you boys. I have been thinking about it since your Aunt passed and I figure ya’ll ought to be old enough now to hear it.”
Anticipating a new story, the boy’s moods lifted as they shifted in their chairs to face him. As he struck a match to light a cigarette, the old man’s weathered face was briefly illuminated by the flame in the gathering darkness. He took a deep drag and blew a spinning smoke ring into the cooling night air before he continued.
“I reckon by now y’all have heard the story from somebody in the family that I once got into a shootout along this river. Three men died. One of them was my best friend.”
The boys had indeed heard the story but had been told to never bring it up with their Uncle. With a quick glance at each other, they nodded the affirmative and scooted their chairs closer so they could hear.
He shrugged his shoulders; stared off into the darkness for a minute before he sighed and continued.
“I was twenty years old and a rookie wildlife officer. I remember it was a summer night just like this.”
He waved his glowing cigarette at the gathering darkness and continued.
“I had been training for six months with Taylor Hodges. He was only twenty-five, but he had already been a game warden for four or five years. Him and his wife Sarah had become good friends with me and Ella.”
“Along ‘about midnight we put our boat in right up yonder at the 441 bridge and were using the current to drift down the river. We were just kind of easing along, looking for night hunters and trot liners and such when we saw what looked like torches through the woods up toward one of the springs. Not sure what it was we were seeing, we pulled the boat up on the bank and eased through the woods to check out what was going on. When we came to the edge of the clearing around the spring, we could make out two men using some lighter-knot torches for light while they were digging a hole.”
He took another pull on his cigarette and paused for a moment, as he seemed to travel back in time. Continuing to stare off down the river, he wiped the back of his hand across his lips and continued.
“Well, we watched them for a while and it didn’t look to us like they were breaking any game laws. But by then we were curious as to what they were up to. Taylor suggested that since we were already there, we might as well go and ask them.”
Uncle Joe pursed his lips, blew a cloud of swirling smoke through his nose, wiped the edge of each eye with the knuckle of his right hand. He took an extra moment before he continued.
“Now I have told you boys before that what makes being a Game Warden’s job different and, in many ways, more dangerous than any other law-man is that while a policeman knows that a suspect they approach MIGHT be armed, a game warden KNOWS that EVERY suspect we approach IS armed.”
“This particular night though, as far as we could see, these two boys just had shovels in their hands, not shotguns, so we left our pistols holstered and I was carrying my shotgun broke down over my shoulder as we stepped out of the woods. The fellers were so busy digging they didn’t even notice us coming up. We didn’t want to scare them, so when we got up on ‘em pretty close, Taylor hollered out that we were game wardens and just coming to see what they were doing. That’s when the shit hit the fan”
“Before either one of us knew what was happening, one of the fellers dove to one side and came up with a shotgun. Before we could react to what was happening, he shot Taylor right in the chest.”
The old man paused a long moment before continuing.
“I managed to get my scattergun down and closed as he was swinging the shotgun toward me. I reckon I beat him to the trigger and caught him square in the chest with a load of buckshot.”
“By then the other feller had come up with a pistol he must have had on him somewhere, and he shot twice at me. I heard one round go by my ear and the other one hit my shoulder about the same time I squeezed the back trigger and got him in the chest with my other barrel. It all happened so fast that I guess I was in shock. My ears were ringing and it took me what seemed like a minute to realize what had just happened.”
“I remember breaking down my double barrel and when the empty shells ejected, I could smell the burned gunpowder. Ain’t it funny how you remember things like that.”
“Anyhow, I went to feel around in my pocket for two more shells so I could reload, but for some reason, my fingers were so slippery that I couldn’t pick them up. It was only later that I realized that it was the blood running down my arm and across my hand that was making the shells so slick.”
“Then all of a sudden, I remembered Taylor. I ran to him and dropped on my knees in the sand. In the flickering torchlight, I could see that he was dead. I remember thinking, ‘God help me! What am I gonna tell Sarah?”
The boys held their breath for what seemed like five minutes before he continued.
“Well, back in those days, we didn’t have a radio or nothin’ to call for help, so somehow or another I got back to the boat. I remember pulling the rope to crank the kicker with my left hand because I didn’t have any strength in my right arm. I hauled ass up the river to where there were some boys fishing off the 441 bridge. I hollered up and told them to get some law down to Poe Springs cause a game warden had been shot. They dropped their poles and ran toward where their truck was parked, and I turned the boat around and headed back down the river to the spring. I couldn’t stand the thought of Taylor laying there by himself.”
He lit another cigarette as the boys sat in wide-eyed silence. They remained silent as he took two or three long drags, composed himself, and continued.
“I reckon that maybe it was the adrenalin, or something kicked in because I had forgotten all about my shoulder. I turned up the spring run and used the motor to run the boat up on the bank. I jumped out and ran to check Taylor again, hoping I had been wrong before, but he was still dead. Then I went over to the two bastards that had killed him to be sure they were dead too. They were. I started going through their pockets to see who the hell they were. The only thing I could find was that they both had something that looked like driver’s licenses printed in Spanish, and one of them had an old sheet of paper that looked like waxed cloth or parchment.”
“I put the licenses on the chests of the men I took them from and folded the old sheet of paper and stuck it in my shirt pocket. About that time, I could hear sirens coming down the dirt road toward the spring, so I stood up to walk out and meet them. I took two or three steps, and everything started spinning and I felt like I was falling in slow motion into a black hole. The next thing I knew I was waking up in a bed at Alachua General Hospital with your Aunt Ella holding my hand.”
The boys were stunned. They had never heard the details of that night.
“Wow, Uncle Joe, you could have been killed too!” Charlie finally said.
Joe just sat and stared into the darkness. They sat there for a while not talking as they listened to the night sounds of the river. The frogs chirped and the whipper-wills called, and the owls talked back and forth across the water. They listened to Uncle Joe’s ragged breathing as he smoked. Somewhere down the river a dog was barking, and they heard an outboard crank up. They thought they heard a soft sob in Uncle Joe’s breathing.
Finally, their uncle regained his composure and continued, “It took me a long time to get over it boys. Fact of the matter, I don’t reckon I ever will.”
“One thing they found out during the investigation was that there must have been another bastard there that night. They knew that them boys didn’t walk in there that night, so they went looking for their source of transportation. They never found a car or boat, but they did find some tire tracks leaving the site. Whoever was driving must have left in a big hurry because they kicked sand all over the place and sideswiped a couple of oak trees on the way out. They matched the paint on the trees to a damaged car they found parked at the Jacksonville train station. They never did find the third man though.”
“Anyhow, I had lost quite a bit of blood and was in the hospital for a month. I couldn’t even go to Taylor’s funeral.” He caught a ragged breath and continued, They had me on home rest for a couple more months after that while my shoulder healed. They finally cleared me to go back to work on Christmas Eve 1942.”
“I had plum forgot about the piece of paper that I had found on one of the murderers until the day after Christmas when I was due to go back to work. I put on my uniform and opened the desk drawer looking for my badge. When I picked it up, I saw the paper laying there. When I opened it up and seen what it was, it all came rushing back to me. My head started spinning, and I had to sit down on the edge of the bed for a while. To tell you the truth, right then, I thought about burning the damn thing.”
“Your Aunt Ella found me sitting there and asked what was wrong? When I held up the paper, she told me that she had found it in my shirt pocket when she was getting ready to try and wash the blood out of my uniform. Since she didn’t know what it was, she put it in my desk drawer with my loose change, badge and billfold.”
“Well, I put the paper back in the drawer and left it there for a week or two before I had the nerve to look at it again. Then one Sunday after church, I got to thinking about it, so I took it out of the drawer and stepped out onto the porch to look at it in the daylight. That is when I realized that it was old, very old. It was parchment or oilcloth or something and had ink writing and drawing on one side. The words were written in something that looked like Spanish. I didn’t recognize the words, but what I did notice was that the drawing was a hand-drawn map.”
“I knew the Police had investigated the two men and found out that they were from Spain. One of them was a member of a well-known crime family from the Madrid area. What they never could figure out was what they were doing digging a hole on the bank of a spring along the Santa Fe River at 2:00 in the morning. They thought they might have been trying to bury a body, but none was ever found. With both of them dead, they figured no one would ever know. But now, while I looked at this map that Sunday afternoon, I began to form a theory.”
“Somehow, that old map looked familiar. I looked around for a Game Commission map I had of the Santa Fe and Suwannee River basin. When I found it, I laid it down beside the old map. The old map was crude and had several mistakes, but it seemed to me to be a fairly accurate representation of the Suwannee River all the way from the gulf coast to the mouth of the Santa Fe, and then up the Santa Fe to the River Rise.
“Right there at what looked like one of the springs, a tiny x seemed to mark the spot where we found the men digging. They were looking for whatever was marked on the map.
The boys could contain their excitement no longer.
“What was it, Uncle Joe? What was buried there?” They both yelled at once.
He held up a hand to silence them.
“I didn’t know for sure for a long time, but I had come up with a pretty good idea. I talked it over with your Aunt Ella, and you remember enough about her to recall that once she got into something, she never let it rest. She went to the University of Florida’s library in Gainesville every day, reading and researching everything she could find on the Spanish treasure fleet.”
“On one of her visits there she ran into a man who was also doing research on the 1600’s Spanish fleet for a group of treasure hunters from South Florida who were looking for galleons that had been lost along the east coast of Florida during a hurricane. He told her that his research often took him to Seville, Spain where he did research at a place called The Archives of the Indies.”
“It seems that back in those days, the Spanish kept very detailed records on every ship that sailed back and forth from the New World. As each ship was loaded in Havana in preparation to sail back to Spain, a government accountant would prepare a manifest that detailed every item that was loaded aboard. This manifest would be made into three copies. One would be given the ship’s Captain, one would be sent back to Spain on another ship, and one would remain in the archives in Cuba.”
“Now there weren’t any reliable weather forecasts back then, so several times the fleet ran into an unexpected hurricane and as a result many ships were lost along the coast of Florida. The surviving manifest that had been left in Cuba allowed the Spanish Government to have a written record of cargo contained on any of their ships that were lost. They would use that manifest, along with eyewitness accounts of any ship that was lost, to try and locate the wreck and salvage the cargo.”
“Of course, the record books contained in the old building that housed The Archives were very old, yellowed with age, brittle to the touch, water-stained, and written in old-style Spanish script that only a very few scholars could read. He was one of the few.”
“Ella asked him if he had run across any records of Spanish ships that might have been lost in the Gulf of Mexico. He told her that he had come across a couple of descriptions of ships that were driven north up the West coast of Florida by storms, but since he was being paid to look for wrecks on the east coast, he discontinued his research on that ship as soon as he realized that it did not fit his job description.”
“Now, me and Ella had managed to save up a little money for my retirement. So after we kind of exchanged glances, she asked him what he would charge us to look a little closer the next time he found the trail of a ship that went down in the upper part of the Gulf of Mexico near the Suwannee River. He said that it would depend on how much time it took him to decipher the manuscript. Then he told us that with the South Florida treasure hunters, if he saw it was going to run over two thousand dollars, he would let them know what he was chasing before he spent more. We talked about it and ended up giving him five hundred dollars for a binder with his agreement to help us look.”
“In the meantime, we kept on using my vacations to go to museums and bigger cities library’s looking for clues. We found a few, but mostly dry runs. We got a note from the fellow in Seville once in a while, but it had been almost two years and we had started to figure that we had wasted our time and money. Then one day we got a phone call. The fellow was back in Gainesville, and he had something to show us.”
“We were pretty excited, but hardly knew what to expect. We invited him out to our house that night for supper and to look at what he had. He showed up with a stack of copies of what he had found. We ended up staying up all night listening to his story. After he had left, we sat at the table drinking coffee. Then we just looked at each other and laughed. Now we knew.”
“What did he show you Uncle Joe?” the boys cried out in unison.
Joe chuckled. “It’s a long story.”
Tommy replied, “Well we aren’t going anywhere!”
Joe nodded his head and got up from his chair. “OK. There is a little background you need to know”
He went into the house and came back out with a cardboard box. He opened the folded flaps on the box and took out some faded papers. Then he put on his reading glasses.
“Some of this your Aunt Ella found in the libraries, and some of it came from what the fellow found in Seville.”
For the next several hours Joe held them spellbound as he told them the story of lost Spanish Gold.