STILL LOOKING FOR BILL HILL

There is no gold. The treasure's in the story

“Predator Drone,” my hiking partner proclaimed looking skyward. 

Startled, I turned my gaze up into the spotless blue. In the desert silence I heard something like a putt-putt of an engine. I thought of Snoopy in his Sopwith Camel. Nervously I glanced at the tumbled-down fence we’d just crossed. When I first started coming back to what we call In-Ko-Pah, named after the off ramp, south side of Interstate 8, the fence still stood, barbed wire wrapped around pieces of dried mesquite and boulders, stained with rust. Over the years the elements have had their way and it lays down now, mostly south, into Mexico.

We were also now south of the border, so far out in the wilderness only a drone overhead could know of our crossing. 

“There it is,” he pointed skyward. I didn’t see a thing, but he added, “The BP knows right where we are.”

We were looking for Bill Hill, or rather, his cave. 

Thanks to Barbara Cater at the Alpine Historical Society, I can tell you when and where Bill was born, where he lived before he moved into his cave a mile south of the border near Valle de Luna, Valley of the Moon. I can tell you where he went after he left it. I can tell you where he’s buried, there in El Centro. What I can’t tell you with any kind of authority is the legend of Bill Hill. 

I’ve come close. There’s a book by Fred Rynerson, ‘Exploring & Mining for Gems & Gold in the West’ that mentions Bill Hill without telling you much about him, but infers everyone knew him and considered him a friend. Rynerson’s book is all about the semi-precious stones mining that occurred in San Diego and Imperial County between the first of the twentieth century up to about 1914. I had the book on my desk, and a co-worker recognized the name. 

“There’s a guy at church named Rynerson,” Russell offered. And sure enough, it was one of Fred Rynerson’s descendants. This Rynerson volunteered that he possessed an unpublished manuscript his ancestor wrote that averred at length about, well, everything mining in this region. My coworker told him about my search for Bill Hill, and the Rynserson answered, “Looking for the gold is he?” At this point, this Rynerson assured my coworker that no one would ever see this manuscript, ever, and when he died the manuscript would be buried with him.

What gold?

My hiking partner and I roughed it through stone and patches of Juniper in this rough desert country, of boulders as big as houses stacked to the sky. No trails where we were trying to get to. Flat stone took the place of sand and dirt.

I’m telling you, you step across that line, and everything just gets sepia old. I know it has to be in my head, but still, Old West is where you are. Now if you go east any further, you plunge off the side of the earth three thousand feet, descending from Jacumba to the desert floor. This up here is different. Valle de Luna is aptly named. It looks like what the surface of the moon might have been imagined, and if you ever find yourself out there on a moonless clear night, you’ll have the earie experience of the monuments around you throbbing with the light cast by the Milky Way. 

We were in a tight gorge, Pinyon Pine, Laurel Sumac and cactus growing out from between boulders, and my guide was having doubts. 
“Altitude?” I suggested pointing to a craggy spot above us that would let us look around. He grimaced. 

“It’s gotta be up this wash.” And we continued along the gorge, until suddenly we burst out. 

“This is it,” my hiking partner proclaimed.

There was a shallow stream of water coming down that gorge we’d come out of, the land flattening, with stretches of sand mixed in with all those boulders forming a fairly large bowl. At the south end was a wall of stone, and three burnt pine trees rising straight and tall on top. Wild flowers were everywhere.
It was an old Indian site, something my hiking partner never even mentioned. Potsherds under foot, rocks neatly stacked up against boulders, making a shelter protected from the wind, other stacks not readily understandable; a neat square of rocks built like a wall. Many fire rings seemed strategically placed around the bowl.
“This way somewhere. It’s been a while.”

Up the sandy wash we went, to the left, past a trash dump that reminded me of dozens of other sites I’ve come across where miners, prospectors, settlers and homesteaders had lived, loved and trashed. They’re archives now. You can tell when a spot was occupied by the style of cans or design of broken bottles discarded near a desert residence, always downhill, like the outhouse, from the dwelling. You have to be smart about it, though. The junk on top is the most recent stuff. Down below will tell you when Western man first arrived, settled in, and too often it’s rusted away. You have to be gentle, show some respect, even to trash. 
We stopped at a sandy rise with a single house-sized boulder to our left. My partner leapt at something on the ground, a metal section of smoke stack for a stove. We worked around the boulder.

There was a gap at the base of the boulder, not six inches tall, and I wouldn’t have looked twice at it if it weren’t for what was clearly inscribed above it at eye level: William T. Hills. 

Hills Valley, where the Hills family settled back in the 1860’s, is east of Campo between highways 94 and 80, a couple miles before the two roads merge. Cyrus Hills was the patriarch of the family, a much older brother of Bill’s. If you come across watercress anywhere in San Diego County’s back country streams, it probably is descended from the watercress the Hills brought down from San Bernardino. Ella McCain in her book ‘Memories of the Early Settlements; Dulzura, Potrero and Campo’, mentions Bill twice, calling him William, once when other boys pulled a prank on him in grade school, and another time, 1894, when Bill was the ‘Deputy Constable’ of Campo, what the county’s Sheriff called his lawmen at the time. 

In 1900, Bill lists his occupation in the Federal census as ‘laborer’. He is unmarried, apparently living at home with his immediate family. In March of 1901, though, he filed his first claim. “William T. Hills, et al” it reads in the San Diego county Recorders Office, and with three other Hills that only identify themselves by their initials, Bill Hill entered into the calling he would practice the rest of his life; prospecting. 

There was a revolution going on in San Diego in the 1900’s. Semi-precious stones, tourmaline mostly, were found at Casa Granda, not too far from Santa Ysabel. The hills rang with prospectors, looking for the new source of wealth. To push it over the edge, the Dowager Empress of far-off China had become enamored with a stone only found in San Diego County. Kunzite, named after Doctor Kuntz, gemologist of Tiffany’s of New York, is a creamy pink stone of moderate hardness that the Empress and her court had carved into everything, jewelry, combs, chop sticks, frog buttons, you name it, they tried to make it out of Kunzite. Tons of this stone was shipped from San Diego to China, and millions were being made with Kunzite and a lot of other semi-precious stones. 

Fred Rynerson wrote about Bill Hill and Bill Trenchard crawling across the east side of the Lagunas from Banner Grade to the Mexican border looking for any kind of mineral. Apparently beyond the line as well.

We took turns falling to our knees and staring into the cave with our flashlights. There appeared to be a bit of widening further in, but it was full of dried Cholla balls and thorny remnants of the nasty cactus. 

“So, right off the bat, what’s wrong with this picture?” my partner asked. “Bill Hill was supposed to be a Mountain of a Man. This is not the entrance of a big guy. Like I said, I think the cave has filled in with sand.”

“Who called him a ‘Mountain of a Man’?” 

My partner looked as if he might kick himself. You could tell, reluctantly he continued. 

“I spoke to some octogenarians, back in the 80’s. They used to ride their horses out to visit Bill Hill.”

“When he lived here? Not much of a hermit.” 

“They said it was all forest back then.”

I blinked. While there is a wonderful mix of plants in this region, juniper and Pinyon Pine, desert mahogany, Laurel Sumac, this is desert. High up in the mountains, stone as much as sand, but it’s desert. 

“They said there was a forest fire back in the ‘30s that swept through here, and the forest never grew back.”

I had never heard this before, and I wondered why I hadn’t heard all these particulars previously. 

This is the way of the True Desert Rat. It’s like seeing Big Horn Sheep. It happens, but not often, and the Sheep aren’t happy about it. Half the time you have to wonder if the Desert Rat isn’t lying to you, like Peg Leg Smith, spinning a yarn, prevaricating. 

Still, what was just south of the bowl we were in? Three burned Pine trees that weren’t Pinyon, too straight. I can’t imagine those dead trees being there for the last eighty years, but they could have been descendants, like the last of the dinosaurs. There is water here, and I have been told that once there was more water than there is now. You look at a topography map from the 1930’s, and there’s springs marked in places that are bone dry today.

Out came the soft-tined rake that we’d carried. My partner reached in with it and swept back as far as he could. After a time he crawled in, and I followed.
It opened up a whole lot inside, two hundred square feet of cave. The south wall had rocks, stacked, filling in the holes, making the cave underneath the huge boulder snug and secure. There was an opening at one spot that looked like the stones had been washed inward.

On our knees now, we aimed our flashlights around, looking out for creepy crawly things and potential angry critters. If they’d been there, we’d scared them off. Then our lights went up to the roof a scant four feet above our heads, and it was jack pot time. 

“William T. Hills,” the most prominent marking started. Next to the name; “1905”, and then below that “1906”, and so on through “1915”, although there were other dates faded out below.

“He lived and worked out of this cave for as much as fourteen years,” I proclaimed. “Why?”

“Gold,” my partner answered incredulously. “Every couple of months he’d roll into Campo with his string of burros, buy supplies and pay his bill with gold dust. He kept the location of his mine a secret from everyone.”

“So he had a placer mine,” I continued. “Couldn’t place a claim on it because it’s in Mexico, so he worked it himself until it played out.”
My partner looked irritated. 

“Well, no, no. Everyone says it was a placer, but I don’t know.”

Placer gold is where nature has done all the heavy mining. Washed down from a gold vein over eons, separated from the other elements of the vein, the heavy metal, reduced to nuggets or dust, settles in dips and spots where the water slows. The prospector need only separate the gold from the lighter materials it’s mixed with, with a pan or a sluice. Hard rock mining is when you find the vein, and you hack and blow your way down until the vein plays out. More gold maybe, more work. You still need to mill the gold out of the quartz or stone that it’s married to, labor and capital intense.

“Gold dust is placer,” I pointed out. “You’re saying Bill paid his Campo supplies with gold dust. Where did you hear he showed up at Campo?” 

And who was ‘Everyone’ discussing the legend I knew nothing about.

“Oh, I don’t know – I think I saw a picture of him with his burros.”

“There’s pictures? Where’d you see pictures?” 

Hiking Partner grimaced some more. 

“I don’t remember. And what makes you think the mine was played out?”

“He left,” I answered. 

My partner scowled some more. 

An article in the Los Angeles Times, June 19th, 1904, has ‘Will Hill’ opining on the quality of the ‘zircon or hyacinth’ in the Campo region. The same article mentions ‘Doc’ Wilson, the ubiquitous character of Borrego Springs fame, prospecting in the desert ‘East of Campo’.

Phil Bailey’s ‘Golden Mirages’ hints at Bill Hill’s treasure mine without mentioning him by name, maybe because Bill was still alive when Phil wrote his tome. 
I’m sure every spot on earth has stories of hidden treasures and lost mines. For San Diego and Imperial County though, ‘Golden Mirages’ pretty much codifies the whole thing. It is The Bible, with a rather fine disclaimer that any story told in it will never have the ugly shadow of facts or the truth cast over it.  No qualifiers, or details, for San Diego legends will be tolerated.

Much to my disappointment, Bill is only mentioned once, in all the years of publishing, in the iconic Desert Magazine, in an unrelated story by Ted Haney, hunting a lost cache of Winchester rifles and Colt revolvers hidden in a cave in the region.

Another job, another co-worker, who came across an article I'd written for In-The-Desert.com about a hike I did along Carrizo Wash to the old Graves Ranch. Excitedly she told me how her father had taken her camping many, many times in the very area I was writing about, and I had answered undiplomatically, "I hope you will allow me to consider you a primary source for information."  She never would speak about it to me again. Another employee who was close to her would tell me after she had moved on, that this woman had confided to this mutual acquaintance, that her father was convinced he knew where a cache of stolen gold from a stagecoach robbery was out there in Carrizo Wash, had regaled the daughter how they were going to be rich when they finally found it, and she, a little girl, and her hero father crept along the craggy reaches of Carrizo, looking for the lost treasure that had to be there. His conviction that he knew where the treasure was helped end the father's marriage to the woman’s mother, and perhaps even traumatized her as she looked back at the faded image of her childhood.

Bill Hill did not exist solely in the cave. He was out working the north side of the border, placing claims from Myer Valley, around Indian Hill and out to Banner, mostly for semi-precious stones, but also such mundane things as gravel. This is all documented by the mining claim records. It’s not Legend, though, not the Ballad of Bill Hill, who lived in a cave and had a hidden, now lost, gold mine. 

There was a neat hole in the stone stacked on the south side of the cave boulder, and this worked out great. We’d brought a bucket and a tri-fold shovel, and now my partner pushed the bucket through the opening to me that he had filled with the sand of the cave. I had a piece of aviary wire screen that I unrolled, dumped the contents of the bucket onto it and shook it through.

“If you come across any gold or silver coin, you’ll let me know, won’t you?” my partner called out through the hole. 
“If I come across anything like a coin, the drone’s gonna have a record of me singing out,” I assured him. 
It was hot, early June, and I was out in the sun. Dirt and sweat was pouring off me as I worked the heavy sand and gravel. Soon, there were treasures coming up, but not gold.

Rusty buckles, the kind old knapsacks and rifle slings had, two, then three of them. Bits and pieces of material that I thought might be leather, shreds of cloth, and a piece of thin glass that I realized had to be the remnants of an oil or kerosene lantern’s chimney. 

“Probably don’t want to go any deeper,” I called in through the hole. “There’s potsherds now. I’m thinking you’re below where Bill would have been here.”
“Maybe a good time to break for lunch.”

“Then we’ll switch off,” I answered, relishing the thought of being in the shaded cave. 

Fourteen years is a long time. When Bill set up residence in the cave, the gem market was booming all across the county. Tiffany’s of New York was buying up claims and running the local jewelers to ground. 

Then Empress Cixi of China died. 1908. It would take years for the locals to grasp that the bottom of the market had dropped out, but Tiffany’s left almost instantly. By 1914, if it wasn’t gold, silver or something like commercial grade marble in large accessible amounts, there simply wasn’t a market. Prospecting turned into more of a hobby than a profession.

Still, Bill stayed on in his cave. 

In 1911, the Mexican Revolution came to Baja California, and it was a bloody stupid mess. The local incarnation of the revolution, the Liberal Army of Frederico Magon, the Magonistas, got their clock cleaned in 1912 at the Battle of Tijuana. The vast majority of this army surrendered to American authorities to avoid summary execution at the hands of the Federalis, most of the Magonistas being American Wobblies and anarchists anyway. Like a lot of defeated causes, though, the remnants of die-hards stuck it out, and Tirzo de la Toba, the bandit general, led a small army of revoltos for a time along the border between Campo and Jacumba. He’d been a smuggler before the Revolution. Smuggler’s Cave, less than three miles as the crow flies from Bill Hill’s Cave, is supposedly named that because Toba had used it in his trafficking route. The very same territory that Bill was living and working in was Toba’s stomping grounds as well, and Toba was playing a game of cat and mouse, the newspapers’ words of the time, not mine, jumping back and forth across the border. He’d run into the Federalis and high-tail it across the border into the U.S., come across American forces, down south again. The San Diego Union reported that two American prospectors complained to the authorities that Toba had robbed them of their gold. Who else could it possibly be but Bill? Considering Toba was killing Mexican ranchers for being wealthy at the time, the Gringos might have considered themselves lucky. 

If Bill was one of the victims, who was the other guy? Bill Trenchard, maybe? Fred Rynerson and Trenchard were close, Fred makes that clear in his book, and I just can’t help but think Rynerson would have written that up. 

Maybe it’s in the manuscript that’s going to the grave.

Who were you, Bill? WhoWhatWhereWhenHow, and the big one, Why.

Toba and his Magonistas would suffer a major defeat at the hands of the Federalis just east and south of Jacumba, although the exact location isn’t known. I remember a desert rat telling me about wandering along this very area, back in the ‘70’s, and finding a holstered Colt Single Action Army revolver, ruined with the years, the leather, moldy tatters, further on the remnants of a canteen, then even further south, spurs. At the time I knew nothing about Toba and the battle that would have been fought somewhere around here, and we both agreed that some poor wanderer had lost his way, his final resting place nearby, his remains long gone. I wish I could find that old-timer again, because this could possibly be where that forgotten battle was fought. Which side of the border did it happen on? Did the Mexican forces lose patience and pursue the revoltos across the line? 

Tirzo de la Toba escaped that time, wouldn’t be caught until 1915, by American authorities, asleep under a tree on land he had leased in Imperial Valley, where he was growing a fine crop of corn. 

There’s supposed to be a cache of gold and plunder somewhere near Smuggler’s Cave, hidden amongst the boulders to fund the Revolution, Toba’s Lost Treasure.

Still, Bill didn’t move. He stayed on in his cave.

My hiking partner appeared pointedly underwhelmed at the treasures we had dug up and sifted out of the sand that I had placed on a flat stone next to the hole in Bill Hill’s Cave. We got back into the shade of the cave boulder and had lunch. As we sat eating, drinking a little water, in the incredible silence, the only other thing you could hear was a Sopwith Camel overhead. We both looked up into the cloudless scrubbed clean sky, but said nothing.

There are more than Bill’s marks on the outside of the cave. With initials there are dates like 1955 and 1971. We hunted around a bit after lunch, found a rusty metal bed frame to the east. I went through the dump, and was surprised to see trash dating from the 1940’s, even maybe the ‘50’s. 

We went inside to see what my partner’s efforts had revealed. It was impressive, the flat rock platform where the stove had been now exposed against the south wall, the exit hole in the stack of stone for the chimney that we had found a piece of, still held another piece. We could stand in the cave now. Roughly a quarter of the floor was exposed. I looked at the roof some more. It seemed much brighter, although we hadn’t moved any of the rocks that filled the southern side, only the sand. 

“You realize we’re the first people to stand in Bill Hill’s Cave like he did, in a long, long time,” my partner waved a hand at all the markings on the roof around Bill’s; “Explors, 1963”, “HLM”, no date. “All these people crawled in here to make these marks, but didn’t realize they were resting above the cave floor.”

“Not this guy.” I squinted a bit at the markings below Bill’s. “I.A. Langland”, the dates “1913, 1914, 1917, 1921”. 

‘Hey, Langland was here when Bill was here, here even after Bill left.” I turned to my hiking partner. “Who is I. A. Langland?”

My partner shrugged. I pressed, trying to make my point.

“Langland and Bill shared the cave. It’s as much Langland’s Cave as it is Bill Hill’s.”

My partner leaned against the sand wall his efforts had created.

“What would be your ultimate find, do you think, digging like this.”

“The Ultimate Find?” I straightened up a bit, “Well, a strong box.” His smile went from ear to ear as he bobbed his head. “The closest thing to an ammo box they had in 1905,” I continued. “I picture it in a corner,” I pointed to the east where the cave floor was still hidden by sand. “Under his bed.” My partner was nodding and grinning as I fantasized out loud. “And I’m thinking there’d be like Mason jars.” His smile became plastic, confused. “But they’d have to be big, so it’s a pretty big strong box. To last this long, it would have to be sealed pretty tight.” I made eye contact with my companion. “And inside would be Bill Hill’s diary.” I nodded, and my partner’s smile faded to pure muddle. I was talking with my hands now. “Like, all the years he lived here, day-to-day. All his thoughts, where he went, what he did, how he did it, with who and why. Maps, maybe. Bills of Sale from the Campo Store.”

I’ve contemplated the look on my companion’s face from that day for quite some time now, and I’ve concluded that while we might have been the first people to actually stand together in Bill Hill’s Cave in decades, maybe we really weren’t in the same place.

This isn’t the only lost mine story in this immediate area, and I’m surprised no one references them together when the stories have so much in common. 
A cowboy, after an especially bad drinking bout in El Centro, got thrown in the City’s holding tank with an Italian. The Italian was being deported, no papers, illegally here. He confided to the cowboy of a fabulously wealthy placer mine he had discovered. He’d sent back a fortune to Italy already, so he didn’t mind being deported, and someone else might as well reap the gold still there at the west end of the Yuha Desert. The cowboy knew the area well, Pinto Gorge, that slashes up into the mountains, smack against the border. He recognized the landmarks the Italian gave him, put them to memory. When the cowboy got out, he went to his employer, a rancher, told him about the Italian and his mine, and asked for a grub stake. The rancher negotiated a deal, and the cowboy took off with a few burros and enough supplies to last several weeks. 

He never returned. After a month the burros came back on their own, and that’s when the rancher sent out a party, up Pinto Gorge. They found the cowboy’s camp, at a well-known spring, and even explored out from there, but never found the cowboy, or the Fabulous Lost Italian Placer Mine. 
There’s a south-favoring branch off of Pinto Gorge that if you were to follow it roughly three miles, you’d be at Bill Hill’s Cave. Not only is it in the same geographical area, but the story of the Lost Italian was about 1915. Placer gold.

My imagination runs wild. Was the Italian’s placer Bill Hill’s as well? Was the cowboy I.A. Langland? Or did Langland or Bill kill the cowboy to keep the placer mine to themselves? 

All this is pure speculation, based totally on my mental whims, which is what happens when you don’t have enough facts. I also imagine, quite vividly, Ed Bailey would be proud of me. 

“See this?” my companion pointed to a spot in the stone roof of the cave. I took a closer look, it was a man-made hole drilled into the stone, a cavity about four inches deep. “I’m thinking Bill put a wood dowel in there and he could hang a lantern or a coat, something like that.” He wagged a finger at it. “That’s a mining drill hole, for placing dynamite. That’s not placer, that’s hard rock mining.”

There is no William T. Hills in the U.S. census of 1910, he would have still been in his cave, but the 1920 census lists him living with the Donohoe’s in Dulzura. 
In 1908 gold was discovered in Dulzura, and the papers were screaming that it was going to be bigger than the California Gold Rush of 1849. It wasn’t. Once the hysteria had died down, the Donohoe family, Alonzo, Steve and Mary, started working their claim like successful miners do, like a business. Bill Hill was probably a part of that operation. He was listed as a boarder, his occupation Gold Miner, not prospector. If he didn’t know how to drill a dynamite hole before, he would have learned here. He was 48 years old, unmarried. 

From here on out, Bill’s life is fairly uneventful. He moved to Niland in Imperial Valley, his profession once again listed as Prospector in the 1930 census. 
His brother Cyrus died in 1937, and his obituary was prominent in the San Diego Union. He died of ‘Old Age’, and when they listed his survivors, it included all of his children, still living brothers and sisters, but it didn’t list Bill. I started thinking even as I read the obituary that maybe I this essential fact wrong, that the William T. Hills in the cave wasn’t related to the Hills family. Then the last line of the obituary read: “Cyrus also has a brother, William, of Imperial Valley.”

Why wouldn’t Bill be listed with the rest of the surviving family?

In the course of creeping through Desert Magazine, looking for any other mention of Bill Hill, I came across an article in the 1948 June issue, “He Lived Alone On A Mountain”, written by Lois Roy, about a hermit named William Ellison, who made his home for thirty-two years on Harqua Hala Peak near Aguila Arizona. He had a small gold mine that he worked, an arrasta where he crushed and processed his own ore. Writing with the pretentious style of the times, Roy gushed over the charm of the man, lean and handsome at 79, shaved face, neatly trimmed hair. For a hermit, he loved visitors, he loved people. She asked him finally why such a engaging man chose to live alone.

“Well, you see,” he replied, watching my face with an amused twinkle in his eyes, “I’m queer … and if I had someone living with me, they might be queer, too!” 

I have as yet to find anything at all on I.A. Langland. Rynerson makes no mention of him, and the name is proving to be rare. A search in Chronicling America comes up with only a few pages for Langland, if limited to California and Arizona, between 1910 and 1922, and I.A. Langland gets a blank page.  

I stabbed at the dirt in front of me with the shovel, and it just didn’t happen. What looked like sand was more like hard-packed gravel with sand filling in the gaps. How my companion could move so much dirt so quickly humbled me. I didn’t fill one bucket before he leaned in and said, “Oh, that’s okay. We have to be getting back anyway.”

We hid the rake and bucket in another smaller cave nearby, cleaned ourselves up as best we could, and headed North. 

We could hear the drone overhead all the way. 

I was relieved to see there weren’t green BP cars parked around my companion’s vehicle, but as we crested over the top of the last peak to start descending to the highway, there was the Border Patrol down below.

Good news, there was only one of them, a Jeep CJ7. Bad news, he was parked sideways across the road, blocking the only way out to Highway 80. 
“Let me do the talking,” my companion said as we closed the gap on the green Jeep, and he smiled gaily, like he was looking forward to it. 

There was a lone Border Patrolman, standing behind the driver-side front fender, engine block between him and the potential threat rolling toward him, hand back, obviously on his weapon. My companion leaned out his window.

“Hi there.”

Pointedly the Patrolman looked out behind him, seemed to resign himself, and stepped around the front of his vehicle. 

He looked like a Boy Scout in the wrong uniform. I have long johns older than that kid, who seemed to inherit my partner’s buck-tooth smile.

“Good afternoon!” the Patrolman started. “Headed out?”

“Yeah. Great day, though. Can’t get enough of this place.”

“I thought I’d get sick of it, but not yet,” the patrolman answered. “Little on the warm side, though.”

“Meant to get out here a month ago, when it was cooler. Just didn’t happen.”

“What all did you see?” The Patrolman’s smile developed a bit more on one side than the other, a crooked grin.

“Wildflowers everywhere. Must have rained in the last two weeks.”

“It did,” the Patrolman nodded as he looked in the back of our vehicle. 

“Petroglyphs and pictographs,” I volunteered. “Indian caves and miners caves.”

“Get back very far?”

“Yeah, we hiked a fair piece.” 

The Patrolman brought his eyes back to my companion’s.

“How far back did you go?”

My companion’s smile doubled and he answered pointedly.

“All the way.” 

He bobbed his head and grinned. And the Patrolman bobbed and grinned. Hell, I was grinning and bobbing. We were all just grinning and smiling and bobbing our heads at each other.

The Patrolman sighed, then looked back at his Jeep.

“Can you get past me? Let me back it up.”

And we rolled on out of there with a wave and a smile, grinning and bobbing. 

William T. Hills died June 13th, 1947. He was 76 years old, never married, buried at Evergreen Cemetery in El Centro. No headstone, just a marker and a metal tab that’s corroding away. There was no obituary in San Diego County newspapers that I could ever find. I have to this date been unable to find anything that talks specifically about Bill Hill. He is mentioned often and everywhere, but no story that fleshes him out.  To my utter dismay, the story is as elusive as the gold. I search and I prod, I dig where no one else has dug, dig where others have, and there’s just nothing. I see conspiracies of ‘gate keepers’ denying me entrance to the legend, burying books and hiding the real treasure, the story, from me. They’ve heard my name, you see, and they know what to say and what not to. At least that’s what I think, sometimes.

I obsess. I know that. But I find myself thinking there's something Bill Hill is trying to say to me. He’s a forgotten soul that haunts the outskirts. He haunts me, and he’s haunted, too. Maybe something that was too painful to say out loud when he lived, and I can't help but think I need to find that thing. It may be ugly, but not shameful. Not anymore. After all, everyone he knew is dead, just like him, just like me soon enough. Choices he made, didn't make, didn't think were choices at all, but shaped him into the person he was. Forgotten by time now, but not by me. He still jumps out at me; folklore, yellowed pages of newspapers and chronicles that are a hundred years old or more. And maybe he’s not interested in me knowing, but I'm reaching out, back through time, asking him to answer my questions, to delve into his unspoken, unknown thoughts, that I want to know the answers to. 
 
You're worried about me. I know, I can sense it. I worry about me, too, but I'm still Searching For Bill Hill.

by David John Taylor ​