"Kindly leave me a half stake and my short gun. ifen I don't raturn by end of fifty. I wont never come. Lord Be precious to your soul, William."
The words were scrawled on a heavy, yellowed piece of paper that Jerry Freeman says he found in a dusty wooden chest secreted in the remote high country of Death Valley National Park.
The afternoon light was fading last November when Freeman, a substitute teacher who has been retracing the steps of the ill-fated Death Valley forty-niners, stumbled across something that would be most remarkable if proved authentic: a small trunk that he believes has been sitting undisturbed in a rocky recess for a century and a half.
It was stowed there, Freeman said this week, by one William Robinson, a would-be gold miner who made it out of the valley only to die after he gulped down too much cold spring water.
The chest and its contents, soon to be examined by a National Park Service expert, are a poignant reminder of the personal cost of the forty-niners' lust for gold. The letter, in which Robinson instructed a friend to tell his beloved his heart "beets with hers," was tucked into a hymnbook next to the verses for "Thirsting After God."
Alongside the hymnal were a number of other items, Freeman said, including about $50 in gold and silver coins, a blue-eyed child's doll, jewelry, a flintlock pistol, ceramic bowls and two tintypes--all in mint condition, apparently preserved by the bone-dry desert climate.
"I was just like a kid. I couldn't speak," Freeman, 56, said of his discovery. "The letter just blew me away. I felt I was in his presence."
Death Valley park staffers aren't quite sure what they have in museum storage at Furnace Creek headquarters--a fabulous find that would greatly expand the park's tiny collection of artifacts from the forty-niners, who gave the valley its grim appellation--or something else.
"It's a little premature to say how authentic it is," said park information officer Tim Stone. "It appears on the surface to be a very interesting find."
A Park Service conservator from Tucson is scheduled to arrive Thursday to examine the materials, which may be tested to determine if they match known artifacts of the Gold Rush period.
"I'm neutral" about whether the find is real, said Blair Davenport, curator of the Death Valley Museum, which now possesses only two forty-niner artifacts: a map and a rifle. Only a few artifacts definitively linked to the Death Valley forty-niner trek are known to exist, she said.
Freeman, a 56-year-old Pearblossom resident who has been visiting Death Valley since childhood and has long been fascinated with the forty-niners' experience there, has no such qualms. "This was so overwhelming," he said.
He said he found the chest Nov. 22 while preparing for a Christmas hike retracing the forty-niners' path out of the valley. He was scouting a route in the Panamint Mountains at about 6,500 feet--he has agreed not to reveal precisely where--when he found an old oxen shoe and part of an old knife. Not far away were a couple of rock openings. Peering inside one, he saw what he assumed was an old box of miner's tools, he said.
"It was much more wonderful than that," said Freeman, who has an undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology and considers himself an archeologist.
After prying open the dusty lid, he said, he spent the next 90 minutes examining its contents. Then as darkness fell, he left it, taking the letter and a $10 gold piece. He had no flashlight, and often crawling on his hands and knees, spent the next five hours traversing the rugged three miles back to his car.
When he arrived home at 2 a.m., he woke his wife and read her the letter. He did not get much sleep and had a teaching assignment the next day, so it was not until the next weekend that he returned to the chest with his brother, Doyle.
They took photographs, and Freeman put the letter back in the hymnal. He was concerned about its fragility, and in hindsight admits, "I shouldn't have taken it anyway."
Again Freeman left the chest in the rocks. He had told only a few people of its existence--but had not informed the Park Service.
"It had laid there for 150 years," he said. "Who's going to find it?"
It wasn't until Christmas Eve, when he was on his memorial forty-niner hike with his two grown daughters and two cameramen he brought to document the trek, that he decided to retrieve the chest.
After padding the contents, the team took turns hauling the 40-pound trunk across the craggy terrain, down 20-foot drops, to the road.
There they deposited it in a Winnebago and ferried it home to Pearblossom, in the Antelope Valley, where they put it in Doyle Freeman's attic. After Christmas, Jerry Freeman and the others finished the hike.
The Park Service found out about the trunk after Jerry Freeman told his story to an Antelope Valley newspaper, which published the account Jan. 1. Park officials contacted Freeman, who gave them the chest and its contents a few days later.