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Back Trackin' - A Story of Black Jacks Gold

Updated: Jan 26, 2022

Authored by Late Great Town of Payson Historian: Jinx Pyle

Black Jack had a difficulty. He had left a dead man behind him, a posse was hot on his trail, and the gold made a heavy and awkward load. Black Jack was a big man and even a good horse would soon tire under that weight. He would like to have stashed the gold, but pursuit was close upon him. He climbed east out of the Verde Valley into the Mogollon country just one jump ahead of the hunt, only because he knew where he was going and the posse had to work out his trail.

Black Jack had just robbed the Wingfield Store in Camp Verde. The store vault doubled as the community bank, and Black Jack Ketchum rode out of the Verde Valley with over four thousand dollars in paper money, gold coin and notes. Four thousand dollars was a lot of money then. Joe Hale had just sold the VM ranch on Blue River for ten dollars.

It was some sixty years later when Walter Haught came up to visit the Gene Pyle family at the Myrtle Ranch. Walter had a metal detector, the first that I had ever seen, and said that he would like to scout around some and see if he could locate Black Jack Ketchum’s gold.

Walter was born below the Myrtle Ranch on Ellison Creek back in 1900, in what Colonel Ellison called Apple Valley. He was born while Black Jack was in custody for robbing a train in New Mexico. Walter listened to his father’s tales of Black Jack Ketchum and his stay at the ranch. There was much speculation about the gold from the robbery of the Camp Verde Store. Black Jack would have taken the currency, but the gold was heavy and Walter had the impression that he had hidden it and intended to return for it.

I first heard the story of Black Jack Ketchum and the Wingfield Store robbery while listening to Granddad Floyd Pyle and my dad, Gene, yarn about it. Now Mom, Dorothy Lovelady Pyle, and I listened once more while Dad and Walter talked of the event. Walter added a few particulars that I hadn’t before heard.

Somewhere around Battle Ground Ridge, with his horse played out, Black Jack stood up in the saddle and threw his rope over a limb of the biggest pine tree he could find. The busy end dropped back down within reach and in it he secured the loot from the holdup, then with the aid of the doubled rope over the limb, he climbed up to stand on said limb and pulled the loot up behind him. He used this method to climb the tree until the limbs were close enough together that he could reach one while standing on another. Thus, he climbed to the top of what was probably one of the largest ponderosa pines in the world.

The Posse arrived and found his horse, but there was no sign of Black Jack Ketchum. Neither was there a boot track or any sign to show that he had left the area on foot. For four days the posse searched the surrounding country and tried to work out the trail of Black Jack to no avail. There was no trail leading away from the area, neither was Black Jack anywhere to be found.

For the biggest part of four days and all of four nights, Black Jack perched on his roost in a ponderosa pine. He stood some sixty feet above the ground, often listening to the words and sounds of his seekers.

The lower limbs partially obscured him from their view, but God help him if someone thought to look in the treetops, and God probably was not real happy with Black Jack about then. Black Jack must have known that if that posse found him, there would likely be a rope thrown over the lowest limb on that same pine - for quite a different purpose. Once again he used the rope, securing himself to the tree so that if he dozed or slept, he would not fall. At last they were gone. Black Jack made his way down the tree, drank at General Springs, then dropped off the Mogollon Rim at Myrtle Point and down into Apple Valley - this before the Myrtle Trail was built.

Pete Haught (Walter’s father) and his family lived on the place then. Black Jack stayed in Apple Valley for several days, then pulled out for New Mexico on a fresh horse. He took an old trail by the Bridge Water, Oak Springs and out through Gilliland Gap on the Diamond.

My dad told me that Granddad Floyd always suspected that the gold was hidden somewhere between the Myrtle Ranch and Gilliland Gap. I doubt anyone has been over that trail in the last twenty years. It is all grown over now with fire prevention policy-induced undergrowth, while elk trails intersect and crisscross it to further confuse the original route. The only two people I know still living who would know how to find and follow the trail Black Jack Ketchum took from Apple Valley out through Gilliland Gap would be my cousin, Jack Warter, and myself.

Many is the time I rode along that trail hoping to find some sign of Black Jack’s gold stash. I even peered into a few hollowed out oak limbs and rolled over some big rocks along where the Gilliland Gap Trail breaks off the Diamond. I was not really searching in earnest. My searching was as much for fun as for gold. Black Jack expected to be back for that gold soon, so he would have hidden it well, but would not have needed to look for a permanent landmark. It was near sixty years later when my horses made tracks over this same route.

You have probably guessed by now that Black Jack never returned to Arizona. He was in the act of robbing a train in New Mexico when the train’s conductor, Frank Harrington, poked a shotgun through a door and sent a charge into Black Jack’s right elbow. The blast nearly tore his arm off and Black Jack was soon in custody. He was taken to the San Rafael Hospital in Trinidad, Colorado where his arm was amputated and was later tried and convicted in Clayton, New Mexico.

The gold from the Wingfield Store was not found, and while waiting to be hanged, Black Jack sent word to Pete Haught to come to New Mexico. He had important information for him.

Pete didn’t go. He said that everyone would think that Ketchum wanted to tell him where the gold was. What if he didn’t, or what if he did and Pete was not able to find the rock it was hidden under? Pete was no fool. There were people in Camp Verde still looking for someone to hang! Black Jack Ketchum took the mystery of the Camp Verde gold with him to his grave. He was hanged on April 26, 1901 and buried in the Cemetery at Clayton, New Mexico the same day.

I went with Walter Haught up to Johnny Gray’s cabin above the ranch, figuring it wouldn’t hurt to poke around there some. Johnny Gray had been dead for seven or eight years (killed when he stepped in front of a Payson Fourth of July horse race in 1892) when Black Jack arrived at the ranch, but it is logical to figure Black Jack might have visited, or even stayed in the cabin. We turned up stove lids and a considerable amount of metal memorabilia from under a heavy carpet of pine needles in and around the old log ruins and rock fireplace, but found no gold.

Walter stayed on to look around the ranch for a couple of days, but his treasure hunt yielded nothing of value and he returned empty-handed to his home in Starr Valley.

And the gold? Well, they say gold is where you find it.

Truly was the Wild, Wild West.

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Bill Kidd
Bill Kidd
Jan 16

Is the cabin still standing?

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