The Battle of Picacho Pass
Chapter One: Friday, April 10th — Mischief on the Mind
“Hey, Meg! What’re you doing for Spring Break?” Mikey’s voice cut through the middle-school-corridor chaos.
“Mikey? I can hear you but I can’t see you!” Meg yelled back over her schoolmates’ heads.
“I’m right here!” came a shout behind her left ear, making her jump.
“Why do you have to do that?” she asked her grinning friend.
“Do what?” he replied, feigning innocence. They walked away from the noisy crowd of students pouring out of the classrooms at Barry Goldwater Middle School.
“Mikey, you know what I’m doing: the same thing you’re doing! We’re going to camp!” Meg tried to act exasperated with her oldest friend, but he looked at her with such a goofy face, she couldn’t help laughing.
“I know. I just like to bug you,” he admitted.
“Meg! Mikey! Wait up!” A delicate redhead was running toward them across the courtyard with a wiry, darkhaired boy close on her heels.
“Are you going home to swim?” Taryn asked.
“And if you are, can we come?” asked Alex.
“Yeppers,” Meg answered.
“Then let’s go!” Mikey shouted. “Last one in is the last one in!” All four friends took off down the sidewalk.
After demonstrating several variations of every known dive and many that are better left unknown, the friends sat poolside, drying in the warm Arizona sun.
“When do we leave for Tucson?” Mikey asked.
“Day after tomorrow,” Alex answered.
“And it’s not Tucson,” Meg said.
“It’s Picacho, halfway to Tucson,” Alex added.
Mikey obviously hadn’t read the program brochure. “What do you do at a nature camp, anyway?”
“You mean besides camp?” Meg teased.
Taryn repeated what she’d read. “You go on hikes and learn to identify desert plants and animals.”
“I heard 100 kids are going; most from Phoenix but a lot from other parts of the state,” Alex said.
Mikey added, “With that many kids, there’s no way to keep an eye on all of us, all the time.”
Meg raised her eyebrows and gave her friends a mischievous look.
Chapter Two: Saturday, April 11th — Gifts from an Old Friend
The first day of Spring Break was perfect: sunny and warm. The sky was as blue as the water in the pool. Taryn had spent the night with Meg, and the girls called Mikey around ten in the morning. Alex was still there.
“Want to go over to the Robert's?” Meg asked.
“Yeah! He’s always doing something cool,” Mikey replied.
“Meet you guys out front in five minutes.”
As the friends walked across the street, Meg and Mikey tried to explain their neighbor, Mr. Roberts.
“He’s brilliant; like an engineer or scientist or something.”
“He can fix or make almost anything, and he’s always experimenting and inventing stuff.”
By the time they reached the front door of the Roberts' old adobe house, Alex and Taryn expected Albert Einstein to answer, but it was Mrs. Roberts who greeted them.
“Good morning and happy spring! My husband is expecting you. Please come in.”
The four friends followed the lively, grayhaired woman into the great room. Hopi kachinas, intricately carved from cottonwood root and painted with natural dyes, stood watch over groupings of pots and baskets handmade by other Arizona and New Mexico tribes. Navajo rugs with traditional black, red, and white designs covered the floor and the walls.
“It’s good to see you, Mrs. Roberts,” Meg said. “You know me and Mikey, but these are our friends, Alex and Taryn.”
“Any friend of Meghan or Mikey is a friend of ours,” Mrs. Milton said and smiled warmly. “Come on now, let’s not keep Mr. Roberts waiting.”
They followed her along a narrow hallway that seemed to slope gradually downward until they arrived in a cool, cavernous workshop. They could hear Mr. Roberts tinkering, but they couldn’t see him.
“Milton, do show yourself. The young people are here.”
A tall, thin man with sparkly eyes walked out from behind a large wooden bookcase. His work clothes, shoes, and hands were speckled with oil and paint. “Ah! My favorite apprentices! Thank you, Althea,” he called after his wife who had already vanished. To Mikey and Meg he said, “I see you’ve brought reinforcements.”
“Hi, Mr. Roberts,” Mikey said. “This is Alex, and this is …”
“Miss Taryn, I presume,” Mr. Roberts said, bowing slightly.
“Y...Yes! H...Hello!” she stammered.
“I understand you’re all off to the southern part of our fair state—tomorrow, isn’t it?”
“That’s right, Mr. Roberts,” Meg said. “How did you know?”
“Oh, Miss Meg, when you get to be as old as I am, you know all sorts of things. But this particular thing I learned by reading our neighborhood newsletter—a very informative publication.”
“But how did you know we were coming over?” Alex asked. He seemed to have forgotten how to blink.
“Now that I didn’t know, but I suspected or, as my lovely wife said, I expected that you would. You see, Alex, these two…” and he gestured toward Meg and Mikey, “have been coming over during every vacation since they were in kindergarten. So naturally …”
“But how did you know who I am?” Taryn asked.
“Good ears, my dear. This hallway has a remarkable echo. … Now, what would you like to see first? My latest project or my gift for your camping trip?”
“Your latest project,” replied Meg and Mikey, remembering their manners.
“Come with me then,” and he led them past a cluttered work table, an enormous milling machine, and behind a tall, antique bookcase. There, on a long, low table, was …
“What the heck is it?” all four friends asked at once.
“It’s a prototype of my latest invention,” Mr. Gaston announced proudly. “It will be my thirtieth patent … or is it thirty-fifth?” He looked up and rubbed his chin as though that would help him remember, but it didn’t.
“But what is it?” Taryn asked quietly.
“What does it do?” asked Alex.
“It looks like you’ve got a lawnmower engine in there,” Mikey said.
“And a metal detector,” Meg added.
“And a shop vac,” said Mikey.
“And a lot of duct tape,” Meg said.
“It looks like a robot,” said Taryn.
“You’re on the right track!” Mr. Roberts said.
“Is it a ... a mechanical prospector?” Alex asked.
“Correct!” Mr. Roberts said. “You four are my best assistants yet.”
“But we haven’t helped you with anything,” said Alex.
“Oh, but you will,” Mr. Roberts said, “I promise you that.”
After a thorough demonstration of his new invention (in which the robot powered itself around the workshop, avoiding obstacles and sucking up nails, screws, and a set of small L-wrenches its creator had dropped and forgotten on the floor), Mr. Roberts asked, “Now then, how about that gift I mentioned?”
“Yes, please!” Meg said. She couldn’t hide her curiosity any longer.
“Let’s see,” Mr. Roberts muttered and began rummaging through the bookcase. “Not here … Not there … Ah! Here it is!” He pulled a folded piece of heavy, yellowed paper from between two worn, leatherbound volumes. “This is just the thing for your week at camp.” He cleared a space on the table, unfolded the paper, and laid it flat. It was a map.
At the top in brown ink was handwritten ‘Picacho, Arizona 1862’. A tall stone peak was clearly indicated along with a desert pass. Pen-and-ink drawings of cacti, brush, birds, snakes, and lizards decorated the border.
“Is it a treasure map?” Mikey asked. He was always looking for ways to get rich.
“Not exactly,” said Mr. Roberts.
“It smells like my great-grandmother’s house in Globe,” Meg said. “Kind of like rain.”
“Desert rain does have a certain perfume,” Mr. Gaston said dreamily, “shared by old Arizona homes. But that is another story, one of dust, creosote, and ozone.” His voice drifted off. … “But back to your map. As you can see, it covers a precise area including Picacho Peak and Pass.”
“Who made it?” Meg wondered aloud, examining the hand-drawn contours.
“I can’t be 100% sure, but my guess is a doctor, educated on the East Coast, tranplanted to California. He most certainly took the Pledge of Allegiance and the Hippocratic Oath very seriously.”
“What’s the Hippocratic Oath?” Mikey asked.
“It is an ancient and noble statement of purpose. It’s the promise every medical doctor makes to teach, to heal, and to do no harm.” Mr. Roberts said.
“How can you be so sure about what he believed in?” Taryn asked.
“Well, if he was who I think he was, that is, the personal physician to Brigadier General James H. Carleton, then he was loyal to the Union and dedicated to providing medical care for soldiers marching across the Sonoran desert.”
“But how do you know this doctor is the mapmaker?” Alex asked.
“I don’t know for sure, but I do know that educated people at that time almost always came from well-to-do families, which meant they had the money and the time to study art, literature, and music. And most of them did so because those were their primary forms of entertainment.”
“So he would know how to draw,” Meg said.
“Yes, but regardless, it’s a lovely old map of an area you’ll be exploring. I hope I’m correct in thinking that you’d enjoy following some of the old trails in your free time?”
“Absolutely correct, Mr. Roberts!” Mikey replied. “But where are the old trails? I don’t see them.”
“Look more closely.”
All four friends leaned over the table and peered intently at the map.
“There!” Alex pointed to a faint line running along a dry arroyo or desert creek.
“And there!” said Taryn, pointing to a dotted line a bit further away.
“A few words of advice, my young adventurers,” Mr. Roberts said, looking amused but sounding serious. “When you are exploring, always keep the map with you, stay together, remain calm, and carry plenty of water.”