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The Sword in the Tree

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Way too high for anyone to reach, the hilt of a rusty sword protruded from the tree trunk near Walnut Creek in northern Travis County.

“I saw it when I was in the 7th or 8th grade,” says an Austin man now in his 70s who used to play along the creek in the late 1940s. “It looked like an old Spanish sword.”

Obviously many years before, someone had left the weapon in the tree. Whether with a powerful slice the owner had wedged it into the side of the tree or thrust it through the whole tree when it was only a sapling, the tree had long since grown around the blade. And as the tree grew taller, the sword climbed higher.
The man who told me about seeing that mysterious sword – he doesn’t want his real name used – related a tale of lost Spanish gold somehow overlooked by previous collectors of treasure stories. J. Frank Dobie, whose book “Coronado’s Children” was the first of many collections by other writers, missed the story and so, apparently, has everyone else until now.

“I don’t know why it was never written up,” he says.
Born in 1937 in a tent at a worker’s camp during the construction of Lake Buchanan dam, the teller of this tale (we’ll call him Todd) later lived with his parents on 10 acres off Middle Fiskville Road between Braker and Rundberg lanes back when Austin’s Lamar Boulevard also was the highway to Dallas. He and his friends played along Walnut Creek and its shorter tributary, Little Walnut Creek. They fished for bream, trapped raccoons for 50 cents a pelt and peppered anything that moved with their slingshots.

Todd’s grandparents owned a business on East Avenue, which is where he met his friend Malcolm, who lived in the neighborhood. Malcolm had recently achieved some degree of local celebrity by winning a Schwin bike in a yo-yo contest.

Malcolm’s uncle was Walter Stark, an Austin grocer who owned a place on Big Walnut Creek just to the east of the old Dallas highway only about four miles as the crow flies from where Todd lived. Though back then Stark’s land lay well out in the country, the highway bridge over Lamar could be seen from his property.

That crossing is historic. For a short time, the Spanish operated a mission on the San Gabriel River, and future Lamar Boulevard would have been an old trail even then, likely blazed by buffalo and further worn by Indians. Spaniards operating out of San Antonio de Bexar well could have used that route, which connected low-water crossings from the Colorado River northward. Later, the government of the Republic of Texas called the trace the National Highway, and in the 1870s, it was a segment of the legendary Chisholm Trail.

The story Todd heard as a kid is classic folklore: A Spanish mule train laden with gold coins from Mexico is shadowed by Indians. Desperate to lighten their load and escape attack, the teamsters bury all the gold on the bank of a stream that would come to be called Walnut Creek. How the men had time to hide gold while trying to get away from hostile Indians is never explained. Of course, logic seldom gets in the way of a good story.

To mark the spot, the tale continues, someone placed a sword in the tree, its blade pointing to the creekside bluff into which a hole had been dug for the gold. And there the gold remained, or so the story goes.

Eventually Stark acquired the property and at some point bought in Mexico a map that purported to give the location of the loot from long ago. Based on this document, the landowner began an extensive excavation project.

“He was sensitive about anyone being on his land, but his nephew and I sneaked on the place,” Todd said. “Later we were able to get on it legimately. Malcolm showed me the sword in the tree and some gold coins he said had been found along the creek. I also saw the tunnel that Stark had dug into the bluff. It was like a mine, on different levels. He even had tracks, electric lights and ore cars.”

Todd finished the 6th grade at Fiskville School, went on to University Junior High in Austin, and graduated from Austin High in 1954. He soon began a 20-year Air Force career.

Not long after he joined the military, his family sold their place on Middle Fiskville Road after learning it was about to be cut in half by a new highway to be called Interstate 35.

“If Stark ever found that gold on his place, I never heard about it,” Todd says. “All I know is that I saw that old sword in the tree when I was a kid.”


© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
January 27, 2011 column
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