The stagecoach, bound for Salt Lake City, wheeled up a slight rise between two shelving outcroppings of rock. The four bandits concealed beside the road did not order the stage to stop. They simply blasted it in a wild shower of bullets and shotgun pellets.
The team leaders went down under the first volley, squealing in their dying throes. The other two teams and the stage piled up around them and against the west wall of rocks. A splintering of timbers echoed behind the second crash of guns, while the stage rocked and fell over on one side. The horses piled into a heap although, the wheelers soon managed to scramble up again.
Two unmasked bandits appeared out of the rocks on each side of the road. Weapons ready to fire again, they moved in. But there was no need for caution. The disaster they had wrought was complete.
Four passengers lay dead in the mess. Two were badly dazed. The shotgun guard was dead. The driver, although only slightly wounded, appeared to be semi-conscious and out of his mind.
After surveying the scene, the burly, black-whiskered bandit leader ordered the gangs mounts brought in. With the help of another bandit, he took over $100,000 in gold from the dead and living passengers. The green painted express box, when broken open, gave up another $80,000 in coin, raw gold and several bars of bullion.
Apparently the bandits made a far larger haul than they had counted on, for no extra horses or mules had been brought along to pack the loot away. The swag was divided into sacks, and whatever canvas they were able to find on the stage, and loaded on the saddle horses. The weight was going to wear down the bandits mounts. The leader swore repeatedly about it, for there would be no fast getaway. Briefly, they argued about packing it on two of the stage horses, but the proposal was abandoned because the animals would be recognized. After about half an hour, the gang rode off toward the north.
The holdup occurred a scant four miles above McCammon, Idaho, on the Portneuf River. Thereafter, the scene of the bloody robbery became known as Robbers Roostamong a dozen other spots so called in that state.
No sooner were the bandits out of sight and sound than the driver miraculously recovered. Making sure that not one of the five prone bodies breathed, he got out the dazed passengers.
The boss of the gang was Tom Updike, he told them. One other was Lafe Guinness. I never saw the other two before. After inspecting the horses for wounds, he cut out three they were able to ride. They set out for McCammon, only a stage station in 1865. A large number of prospectors, bullwhackers and freighters were present when they arrived at sundown.
Intense excitement prevailed at once. The gory deed stirred those present. Preparations were made to pursue the outlaw band to final conclusion. Updyke and Guinness were known as bloodthirsty bandits, so no real surprise ensued over their sudden, vicious attack on the stage.
But this is going to be their last murdering job! a posse member vowed.
Going up the road that night, the posse of 20 heavily armed men camped at the scene of the holdup. The driver, returning with them, was assisted in righting the stage. It was repaired sufficiently by firelight to drive on to the station. The five bodies were taken somewhere else and buried, and today the exact location is in doubt.
With the coming of daylight, the posse picked up the bandits trail, following it rapidly. The gang quit the stage road at what is now Inkom, continuing straight north through the mountains. Passing some miles east of Fort Hall, the bandits stopped for a brief period that night, resting stock that no longer moved very fast.
Sunset found the posse at this campsite, but they tracked on until dark gave way to night. With the first faint light the following morning, they resumed tracking the bandits. They soon discovered that the gang was making increasingly slower progress and was only a few hours ahead. Exultant, certain they would soon overhaul the outlaws, the posse rushed on.
After crossing Snake River below Idaho Falls, the trail led the posse west of Market Lake (Roberts). Yet despite their nearness to their quarry, the posse was forced to camp a second night without catching them, halting a little above Goddins Station, now Tarreton.
The posse put out scouts, but they discovered nothing until near daylight. Then faint smoke was seen over the edge of Mud Lake, a very short distance on north. Mounting quickly, the posse raced toward the smoke before the sun began cutting the eastern mountains.
Condition of the bandits horses had by then slowed them to a walk. But they had covered a considerable distance since the robbery and, apparently, believed themselves safe. The sudden arrival of the posse took them by surprise. Their horses already saddled, the bandits hastily mounted and abandoned the camp on the run. But bullets whistling about their ears made escape doubtful.
As they came in shooting, posse members saw the bandits throwing sacks or some kind of parcels into the lake. While stringing out in flight, the bandits rode close to the waters edge and tossed additional objects in. With their saddles thus lightened by the abandoned weight, they took off west in a spurring run.
The posse, on fresher horses, gained on the bandits. Two of the gang rolled out of their saddles, dead before striking the ground. Updyke and Guinness, in the lead, got into the lava badlands and made good their desperate flight. The posse spent some time trying to find them, but there were no ground signs to go by and pursuit was finally abandoned as useless.
The disappointed posse returned to the bandit camp after mid-day. Now an argument occurred among them as to whether the sacks were thrown into the lake off a projecting point, or somewhere slightly beyond it. None of the sacks could be located. They were so heavy as to sink instantly, and must surely have contained the stage loot.
But after the shallow water along the shoreline was carefully inspected, with negative results, a few of the posse asserted the loot must have been buried en route to Mud Lake or somewhere near the final camp. Their theory was that the weight of the gold made it impossible for the greatly overburdened horses to travel that far. It was so reported and, in some instances, it is still believed in Idaho that this is what occurred.
But the majority of opinion among the posse members was that the loot went into the lake. What else would the bandits have thrown into the water except the gold, which they hoped to return and recover later?
At any rate, from that day in 1865 on, many accounts have persisted about the loot vanishing into Mud Lake. The surviving bandits most certainly never returned for it. Updyke was caught in another robbery in Boise Basin and hanged less than three months later. Guinness met his deserved fate in a shooting brawl in Virginia City, Montana.
The facts of the robbery and the pursuit are well established. There is no doubt of the details. But the final action scene is in an unbelievable nightmare of natural wonders; it lies in the edge of a vast and mysterious volcanic field into which big rivers and creeks disappear, where there are many caves, and where high masses of basalt dominate the region for many miles in every direction. It is an area peculiarly designed by nature to guard any lost treasure into eternity.
In Idaho Falls, at Roberts, and finally in the dying little town of Terreton, a host of tales can be heard of the vanished gold hoard. Also, Mud Lake itself is a curiosity. It contains several cracks through which its waters disappear, and has gradually diminished in size through the years. Into the lake vanishes no less than the considerable annual outpourings of Camas Creek.
In the years immediately following the robbery, several men tried to find the treasure. But these were very cursory attempts, at best. Then, in 1885, appeared a first searcher of recorda man who was to spend at least 20 years systematically seeking the treasure. His name was B. C. Nettleson.
When asked what his initials stood for, he always replied, very earnestly, Before Christ. He claimed to have been in Idaho that long.
After poking around in the lake mud for several months, Nettleson was able to eliminate a number of spots where it was alleged the outlaws might have thrown the loot. Thereafter, he concentrated his attention on a low point crowded on the sides with stands of cattails. The growth proved a hindrance, yet he felt confident that was where he would find the loot.
Going to Terreton for supplies, Nettleson had a few drinks in a saloon. During the course of sociability, he unwisely made the mistake of talking too much, bragging that he could not fail to find the stagecoach loot very shortly. A few days later, as he was poking around in the cattails with a heavy pole hoping to locate some of the gold bars, he looked up startled, as he heard a noise on shore.
Sitting their saddles, two flint-eyed men dressed mostly in black watched him. Nettleson came out, wiping mud from old clothing and the gumboots he wore in the water. One of the men asked, What do you think youre doing? Instantly angered by their nosiness, Nettleson retorted, I dont see that its any of your damned business! How come you sneak in on a man like this?
The speaker produced a pistol from under his coat, leveling it at Nettleson. What youre after is our business. The gold belongs to the express company.
The hell it does!
The man gave him some more jawlittle of it the 60-odd-year-old Nettleson bothered to remember. He knew their kind. They were dangerous men who would rob him had he been fortunate enough to find the gold. Unarmed, having left his rifle in camp, he didnt consider himself in any particular danger, because he hadnt found anything yet.
Later, when he made his way back to his outfit under a low ridge near the lake, he was surprised to discover the pair had boldly pitched camp 100 yards away under the same ridge. Two hobbled pack mules grazed nearby.
The men returned to their camp and settled down. Nettleson did not think for a minute they were express company men. He had them pegged as hardcasesoutlaws intent on robbing him if he found anything. The fact that they were attired in tailored suits and finery bothered him a mite.
The next morning he went to the point before daybreak, hiding his rifle in shore vegetation near where he planned to work. Along after sunup, the pair arrived afoot, sitting on a pile of rocks to regard him interestedly.
Around mid-morning, the pole Nettleson was handling contacted something. By the feel below, he determined that it wasnt a rounded boulder or a fragment of lava. He stilled the sudden excitement that might give him away, knowing better than to try getting it out. Withdrawing from the mud casually, he picked up the rifle and carried it with the pole into camp.
Since he did not return to work, the two men strolled up in the late afternoon.
Whats the matter? asked the man who had done all of the talking before. His companion remained frozen faced and tight lipped, saying nothing.
No use wastin more time around here, Nettleson told him crustily. That lying posse must have got the stuff. Divided it up and kept their mouths shut. Reckon Ill go up into the mountains for a spell.
Early the following morning, Nettleson got in his two jacks from the grazing ground. Loading, he struck off west, carrying his rice in the crook of his arm. The hard case pair watched him depart moodily. He kept plodding on until distant landscape covered his movements.
Circling, Nettleson came back towards his old camp from the south, leaving his burros a mile away. Sneaking in afoot, he hid on the lower slope of the ridge where he could see over the crest; now he could see the two hard cases. Having shifted into old clothing and hip boots, they were busily poking in the bottom mud among the cattails.
Nettleson spied on them for the next three days while they searched a few hours each day. He was afraid they would encounter and bring up the object he had found, which he believed to be one of the larger gold bars. But obviously they didnt find it, for they packed up the fourth morning and rode out.
Nettleson followed them into Terreton to make certain they had left the country. Thereafter, while at the lake, he kept a short gun or a rifle handy and was always on the alert.
Returning to seek the object he had encountered with his pole, Nettleson was dismayed when he could not find it again. Frustrated, he poked harder with the pole. But his efforts only created a loblolly into which he sank deeper.
As fall came on, ducks and geese blackened the lake surface. Killing a large number, Nettleson dried the meat for winter use while prospecting in Boise Basin. Although he did not hit a rich placer or lode, he did pan enough to continue looking for the Mud Lake treasure for the next several years.
In 1892, he encountered a young man named Orba Duncan in Idaho Falls. Just above medium height and dark of complexion, Duncan was a strong, indefatigable worker to whom Nettleson took a liking. Giving up a good job as night hostler in a livery stable, Duncan went out with him in the spring.
Having worked out the point he pinned so much hope on, Nettleson turned to another farther west. He and Duncan both prodded and labored in the black mud. At night around the campfire, Nettleson regaled Duncan with all of the lore of the stagecoach robbery and pursuit of the bandits that he had collected over the years. His interest in recovering the lost loot had been fired by talks with three members of the citizens' posse.
When Nettlesons gold ran out, Duncan grubstaked them with his savings as an equal partner. The two men became well known in Terreton, Roberts and in Idaho Falls. Others were cognizant of their quest. They were supposedly friends to whom the pair talked in confidence. But $180,000 in gold is a powerful lure, and this resulted in others making periodic trips to Mud Lake to hunt the bandit loot. Very few of these improptu searchers lasted long, however.
One year the two men went into the Boise Basin prospecting. They managed enough gold panning a creek for one more try at Mud Lake. Afterwards, Duncan returned to work in Idaho Falls, slightly crippled with age by then. Nettleson went up on the Salmon River and died that winter.
Duncan did not return to the lake until the summer of 1896. When he got there, he found a small group of men camped in tents. With pick and shovel, they were uncovering a large area about 40 feet back from the point where Nettleson had always believed the loot had been thrown into the water.
Since Duncan appeared to be only a wanderer, these men talked readily of what they were about. They pointed out that the lake waters had been steadily receding for years. Where the bandits had thrown the gold would surely be on high, dry land by now. Although never explaining how they knew, they indicated that the spot being uncovered was surely where the gold lay under layers of mud deposited there since 1865.
Well aware the lake was growing smaller as the years passed, Duncan also knew that only the shallow mud flats had passed out of existence. Some years there occurred an especially heavy run off from Camas and other creeks. Even if former mud flats were partially flooded again, a series of dry seasons left them permanently exposed as so much former lake bottom. However, the point Nettleson believed in hovered over one of the deeper holes and never dried up. Duncan considered this new project a waste of time.
His judgment was vindicated when the hunters got down to bedrock. The old lake bottom black dirt gave way to an entirely different composition, mostly volcanic deposit. The hunters departed, very much chagrined.
In turn, a different type of gold hunter replaced them every fall. Supposedly after ducks and geese, they arrived in wagons loaded with grub and equipment.
Tent camps were pitched and they did bang away at a few ducks. They also poked around in shallow water in the inlets and off some of the many small points. After a few weeks' stay, their business became obvious. Any two days of shooting would have provided their families with wild duck and geese for the entire winter, for some days it seemed like a million water fowl floated on the lake surface.
The cattails provided concealment for predatory animals. The most vicious was the lynx cat, in large numbers; they grew so bold as to invade Duncans camp. Periodically he took day off to shoot a number in order to thin them out as a safety precaution. Unless his supplies were in tins or secured in a box, they ate and destroyed everything.
When other treasure hunters were about, especially the duck hunters, Duncan usually remained out of sight. Arriving early in the spring behind the ice thaw, he had those weeks and all summer to work without being watched. And work he did, for the lure of vanished gold had burrowed too deep in his blood to be ignored. Some years he could not work long at trying to locate the treasure, but had to take a job somewhere to earn a grubstake. He had several offers of a grubstake, but he turned them all down.
For about the fiftieth time, in June of 1901, Duncan again searched off Nettlesons old point. The water was then hardly more than six inches deep until out beyond five feet. There it pitched at a sharp angle into the deeper hole.
Duncan was probing with a steel rod. Hitting some obstruction, he considered the object just another of the countless stones he had probed and pulled out of the mud. Rather incuriously, he got a shovel, removed the packed mud, and grabbed what he had found into view.
Instead of a shapeless rock or piece of volcanic lava, he held in his hands an oblong, heavy object four inches wide and covered with black mud. His blood began to pound and suddenly leaped when he washed the object, for it was a bar of solid gold!
First making sure that he wasnt watched, Duncan took the bar into camp and buried it under the ashes of his campfire. That afternoon he found a second and a third bar. Both ingots were smaller than his first discovery.
During the next several days of eager searching, he found nothing. The gold coins and raw gold should be in the same spot or near it. By making a small circular dike of several yards, he could dip out the water and pan the mud.
Working like a beaver, he panned during all daylight hours, yet failed to come up with anything valuable. Completing one small area, he shifted to another. But before doing so, he carefully obliterated evidence of what had been done.
The cleared of water vegetation left a blank space of increasing size. To avoid a sure lead to his method of search, he replanted each area with cattails.
When bothersome pseudo hunters showed up that fall, he packed out to Roberts, riding one burro and armed with a booted rifle, as he always was when prospecting. This time he moved on to Idaho Falls without delay. The Union Pacific Railroad had come through a few years before. Riding a day coach to Boise, he sold the three bars for just under $25,000.
Duncan was then 38-years-old and, as he said, getting no younger. He had quite a wrestle with himself, deciding whether to invest the money or use it to continue hunting the Mud Lake gold. In the end he bought a farm in the Snake River Valley. From it he could continue hunting. If he found more treasure, well and good. If not, hed have the farm to fall back on.
That year, unable to resist returning to Mud Lake, he worked out all the bottom around the point. Wondering if the shore side might not be a lucky spot, he shoveled and panned the ground there. That fall, with no crops on his farm to harvest, Duncan came out a very disappointed man.
Having to cultivate the farm or sell it, he took a three-year leave of absence from treasure hunting to stock it and get it into productive shape. He also acquired a wife, a comely widow with two boys and two girls. She was an industrious, good natured person. With the childrenespecially as they grew up she managed the farm efficiently. This afforded Duncan the opportunity to return to his old dream of golden treasure.
While he had been away from Mud Lake, others had begun to search extensively, for word had leaked of his find. He had tried to keep it secret by traveling to Boise to sell his gold bars. But when his finances had suddenly improved, allowing him to buy the farm and improve it, it was suspected that he had struck something. Someone took it upon himself to inquire, and it was then definitely established that he had sold gold in the capitol city.
Several enterprising men made propositions to join Duncan in future searches, using his knowledge as to where to look. All were turned down with the bland statement that he actually doubted the rest of the treasure was still in the lake. He said he thought it was a waste of time to keep hunting it. Then, belying his own statement, he pulled out for Mud Lake.
On the first return trip, he took along his 12-year-old stepson, Hal. After gaining north of Roberts, the boy discovered they were being followed. For a while Duncan wasnt so sure. But they found a place of concealment and within half an hour, five men driving pack mules appeared following their trail.
Slipping away, Duncan and Hal continued on, but went around the lake to the north side where Camas Creek flows into it. Pitching camp before sundown, the burros were turned loose on grass. The next dawn, Duncan and his stepson made a pretense of digging and probing with steel rods along the shoreline.
Not once did they spot anyone watching them, but Duncan knew they were being spied on, and a nervous tension built up. After four days, they loaded up, passing around the eastern end of the lake. That afternoon, while heading slowly away, they spotted dust between the regular Terreton trail and the lake. Out of it evolved a dozen riders driving stock packed with equipment and supplies.
Near sundown, Duncan and Hal returned. Darkness lay over the lake, the night silence disturbed by thousands of squawking waterfowl. On the shore where they had been camped, a dozen other campfires now burned brightly. Dawn revealed men digging all along the side of the lake near the mouth of Camas Creek.
It amused Duncan that they had assumed he would go directly to where the treasure should be. But their presence aggravated him, for the situation put an end to his hunting that year.
Along with those eager to follow Duncan and dig where he had found his treasure, there were others who wanted the treasure, but had no intention of getting blisters on their hands. Thinking that Duncan and his stepson had pulled out because they had recovered more gold, they lay in wait for the pair near Roberts.
As Duncan and Hal moved up a wash, two men appeared above them, faces masked and pistols leveled. All their intended victims could do was stand still with their hands in the air. A third man scrambled down into the draw. Unloading the burros, he threw equipment and supplies on the ground. Finally, he searched the saddles and then Duncan and Hal.
The three hard cases couldnt believe the man and boy had come away empty handed. As the man who had searched them climbed back out of the wash, cursing, the leader demanded to know what had been done with the gold.
What gold ? asked Duncan. There isnt any up there that I know about.
Just went to the lake to fool around, eh ? the man sneered.
Just showing the boy the lake and the ducks.
For that, Duncan received a harsh cursing. But the threeat least that many were seenfinally departed. Repacking their outfit, Duncan and Hal went on home. A week later, those who had followed them also deserted the lake.
A number of toughs believed that Duncan knew where the bandit loot was, and that he only took a little of it out at a time. Threats were made that he had better come clean or else. But Duncan always maintained that he didnt know where the loot wasand this was the exact truth, although few believed him. As the years passed, and other searches were made, always ending in failure, the story of the golden treasure in Mud Lake gradually died down.
In time, few men even bothered to give the lake a brief inspection. But Duncan himself never fully gave up trying to solve the intriguing secret. Even though spies had quit watching his movements, he now slipped away from home during the night. He always made a roundabout trip to throw off would be trackers.
Frequently, Hal accompanied himespecially as Duncan grew older and his physical strength faded. Some years they could spend only two or three weeks away from the farm. Gradually, Duncan's intensity became less feverish and compelling. Yet at no time did he ever doubt that the treasure was there. Years before he had uncovered undeniable proof of that fact.
When Hall was 20, they found a dozen large nuggets off the southwest shore. They were recovered by panning a gravel bed that was once inundated. But Duncan did not believe they were a part of the bandit loot.
In another part of the former lakebed, they found the fragments of a rotted leather bag. In a bottom corner remained a pinch of gold dust, but the location was half a mile from where Duncan believed the loot had been thrown into the lake. He theorized that the bag had been washed there by high water some years after decaying.
World War II came and Hal entered the army. After the war, mine detectors became available. Duncan conceived the idea that the sacks of loot were in very ddep water off the point where he had found the gold bars. That would explain his inability to locate the gold elsewhere.
Hal, who was then married, acquired one of the detectors. He and Duncan hauled the detector and a rowboat to the lake in a light truck. They rowed to the center of the lake where Hal used the detector both above and below the surface, but at no time did he get an indication of metal below.
Duncan had one last trick up his sleeve. He wanted to drag the deeper area of the lake with a magnet. Hal had a dragline made and bought a sweeper-type long bar maget. It was a power rig they carried in a 26-foot boat.
Two other men helped them try it over the lake with an outboard motor. The first sweeps were in shallow water nearest the shore. An unbelievable number of brass cartride hulls, tin cans and other metallic refuse continually clogged the bar. But this hindrance gradually lessened as they moved out toward the center of the lake.
They now found from the dragline that a number of narrow crevices pitched straight down into the earth. Undoubtedly it was through these that the water seeped. Two of these cracks were less than 20 feet apart. It was in the mud between them that the magnet brought up a length of chain attached to a lard pail. In the mud that long years before had packed into the rusted bucket were three gold nuggets totaling five ounces (troy) and 10 grains. It may or may not have been from the stagecoach loot. Further tries over the same course revealed nothing else.
In the very center of the western quarter of the lake, the magnet and rig dropped into a crevice. The dragline, haning up fast, almost brought the boat to disaster before it was quickly freed. Into the depths it went with the expensive magnet.
Orba Duncan knew more about vanished gold than anyone else. Hunting extensively during his lifetime, he undoubtably covered the area minutely. Where others gave up easily, or scoffed that it never was cached there, he remained convinced the treasure was in or about the lake until the day he died in 1928.
In the summer of 1942, a man who had hunted the gold occasionally announced in Roberts that at long last he had located it. He intimated possession of secret information that no one else had. Making quite a to-do of the project, he hired men, leased equipment, and spent several thousand dollars excavating on a large scale.
According to him, Terreton had not been established on the old emigrant road. Goddin's station of the 1860's, he said, stood farther west near the lower end of the lake. It was there, on the dry lake bed, that he sought the treasure. But for all the excitement he created, the project ended as all others had down through the years, and he went away empty-handed.
There is no doubt this man fully believed he was about to recover the stagecoach loot. He turned down many offers of big money from men trying to buy into the deal. But he failed and his was the last big attempt to solve the 100-year-old secret.
Not only old-timers, but newcomers to that region of Idaho, will tell you about the bandit loot that vanished into Mud Lake. Such stories concerning the treasure are common in Idaho Falls and Roberts. In the dying ghost town of Terreton on State Highway 88, west from Interstate 15 and two miles south of Mud Lake, the same stories are repeated. For the inhabitants seem thoroughly convinced that the treasure is either still in the lake, or back on the shore in old lake fill. Most of them have, at one time or another, taken a look-see to try and turn up some of the gold.
But it is still there, waiting, if you want to try. Orba Duncan is the only one who ever recovered any part of the treasure - and he found only a small portion of it.