The Army will send one last high altitude Aerobee missile whistling across this desolate test site tonight and then clear the decks for what military authorities here have somewhat optimistically dubbed "Operation Goldfinder."
Despite its name, not many of the 100 or more reporters, treasure hunters or scientists assembled here for the 10-day expedition appear to hold out hope of finding much in the way of buried treasure.
The stories of a fabulous treasure cache, rumored at times to be as much as $200 billion, supposedly buried under 1,500-foot Victorio Peak in the heart of the top secret missile range, arouse almost universal skepticism here.
"If they do find something out there," Maj. Kenneth Abel told a briefing here today for members of Operation Goldfinger, "I assure you we will be as surprised as anyone."
Nevertheless, shortly after dawn Saturday the Army plans to escort 25 truckloads of searchers and observers into the rugged San Andres Mountains here in an effort to as Abel put it, "lay to rest once and for all the legend of Victoria Peak."
The hunt will center on the alleged gold discovery of Milton Ernest (Doc) Noss, a part Cheyenne Indian and self-taught foot doctor who wandered the desert here and back in 1937 and claimed the stumbled onto a treasure buried deep in the mountain.
Noss never left a written account of his find. But his wife, Ova. now 81 years old, still can recall his description of the discovery. Mrs. Noss tells those who are interested that her husband lugged a metalbar out of a mountain tunnel four decades ago. "If that's gold we can make John D. Rockfeller look like a tramp," she says he yelled.
Noss claimed he found a room deep in the mountain stacked high with thousands of gold bars and treasure that was guarded by 27 kneeling human skeletons.
Noss was shot to death in 1949 by an angry associate who claimed he was swindled. The tunnel into the mountain was demolished by an over-eager effort by Noss and an engineer to widen it with dynamite. It's location has not been revealed to this day.
Whether or not the story is true, the tale of the gold in Victorio Peak has taken on a life of its own. No less than six groups of claimants have appeared and Norman Scott, a professional treasure hunter who will lead Operation Goldfinder, estimated today that 50 to 75 groups had laid unofficial claim to the gold.
"If we find anything I'd say that number will go to 10,000," Scott said.
The expedition gathered here today was top-heavy with more than 80 reporters. But among those who will also accompany Scott and Mrs. Noss, an associate of attorney F. Lee Bailey who claims to represent 50 claimants, and Joe Newman, an El Paso treasure hunter representing the Apache Nation.
Newman said today he sneaked into the mountain in 1972 and discovered stacks of gold bars inside. But he was vague on the details of the find. "There must have been 1,800 bars of gold in there," he said. "I saw them and when this gets under way I'm gonna lead the expedition to them.