In the treasure-hunting business it is axiomatic that old tales of buried gold do not die, they just go back on the shelf to await another believer.
New Mexico's Victorio Peak treasure hunt, perhaps the largest of its kind and surely the best publicized, is scheduled to end Tuesday. So far, the small army of searchers that has swarmed over the 5,900-foot peak with heavy earth-moving equipment and sophiscated electronic detection devices has located no buried treasure. What they have found is:
Several empty tin cans, five sticks of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and highly volatile dynamite and dirty, red corduroy trousers.
A maze of small passageways - natural and manmade - lead nowhere but out the other side of the little mountain.
A small vein of glittering metal that, when assayed by experts rushed to the site last week, proved to be one-tenth of 1 per cent gold and the rest iron pyrite, better known as "fool's gold."
Nevertheless, neither the Army which operates the White Sands Missile Range on which Victorio Peak is located, nor Norman Scott, a professional treasure hunter from Pompano Beach, Fla., who organized and ran the expedition, expect "the legend of billions of dollars in buried gold bars and treasure to fade.
"If they don't find anything we would expect things to quiet down considerably for the next couple of years and then someone will be right back at us again wanting to take another look," said James Lovelady, spokesman for the missile testing site.
"Gold legends," he said, "do not die easily."
The Army approved the Scott's treasure hunt in order to squelch rumors of the hidden treasure trove that have been circulating since an itincrant, self-taught, footdoctor, Milton E. (Doc) Noss, said he discovered a fortune in hidden gold bars under the mountain in 1937. Noss died in 1949 after he and an engineer tried to widen the tunnel into the mountain with dynamite. Since then others have said they, too, saw the gold and rumors have accused military officials of secretly looting the treasure while the Army kept Victorio Peak closed to outsiders. Takes of the hidden gold even reached Washington when former presidential counsel John W. Dean III told the Senate Watergate committee of a request from attorney F. Lee Bailey to the Nixon administration to gain approval to search at the site.
Last year the Army gave Scott approval after he gathered six major claimants to the gold as part of his treasure hunt. Among them were a former Air Force officer who said he went into the mountain in 1958 and saw piles of stacked metal bars inside; a treasure hunter from El Paso, Tex., who said he saw the gold and now represents the Apache nation in his claim to it, and Noss' 31-year-old widow, Ova, who insists the Army looted the peak after she and her husband explored it.
Scott, 47, an energetic man who has found hidden artifacts for the Mexican government, said in a telephone interview today he was still optimistic that one last try this week will enable his search party to punch through the mountain into a room containing the treasure.
Scott had been directing the hunt inside and outside the mountain until he wrenched his shoulder scrambling out of a cave last week.
His luck did not improve over the weekend when the hunt had to be postponed because of a downpour. Lovelady and other area residents said rain on the 5,000-square-mile military reservation is virtually unheard of this time of year.
The search began March 19 and the Army extended Scott's 10-day permit until Tuesday. Lovelady said an additional day was being considered because of the rain.
Scott has spent about $75,000 on the hunt and said he expected to make it up from books, articles and other accounts of the expedition. "It could be difficult," he said. "I don't think there's much of a market for a legend that's con.
Dozens of people have contacted Scott at his temporary camp at Radium Springs, N.M., just off the missile base, to tell him they know where the treasure is. Others, such as R. G. Chenowth, 83, who said he worked with Noss on the mountain in 1939, told the searchers last week: "It was just a fake from the beginning."
More than 80 reporters showed up to cover the hunt, but the number dwindled to 20 by this weekend.