How did the secret of Padre Island work its way into my novel?

What secrets remain hidden in the sands of Padre Island? Photograph: J Gerald Crawford.
What secrets remain hidden in the sands of Padre Island? Photograph: J Gerald Crawford.

I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FASCINATED with Padre Island, a strip of sand that lies off the Texas gulf coast and stretches for 624 miles to the tip of Mexico.

So many beaches are crammed with people, all of them smelling of suntan lotion.

Padre is different.

Drive ten or fifteen miles south from Corpus Christi or north from Port Isbell, and you will find yourself alone with the sand and the surf and the shells.

The only things more impressive than the isle’s isolated beauty are the legends tucked back among the dunes.

When I wrote Place of Skulls, I dusted off one of the legends, and it became the core of the novel itself.

Here is what I wrote about a newspaperman and a secret he uncovers about Padre.

The secret is real. I know. I have seen the gold pieces from the wreckage that beachcombers found upon the sands.

Ambrose Lincoln turned his attention back to the translation of an aged letter and the message that lay hidden somewhere within its disturbing words about men and ships, gold and death. There was nothing special nor different about the act of dying, only the time, the place, the circumstances.

The circumstances recorded in the letter, if anyone believed the rumors, myths and sacred writings secreted away, then passed down for five centuries, were that an angry, unforgiving sea had claimed them all but two. The story was an old one, usually made better each time it was told. Ambrose Lincoln had told it himself two years earlier in a column about the haunted and misplaced sands of Padre Island.

Fragments of the story had remained lodged in the far recesses of his brain, possessing little importance to anyone but those obsessed with the intrigue of lost bullion scattered amidst the restless dunes of an island that reached with a saber-like finger of sand toward the ragged shoreline of Mexico.

He had written: The Isle of Padre has become a graveyard with no tombs to mark the dead, nobody at all to mourn the passing of those poor, unfortunate souls who passed its way and never left. In 1553, a fleet of twenty Spanish galleons, laden with stolen Aztec gold and silver, sailed from Veracruz, Mexico, and into the growling throat of a Gulf-fueled hurricane. Only insanity could have persuaded them to head into a raging churn of sound and fury that ripped the fragile boats apart and spilled eight hundred people, as well as some fifty million dollars in misbegotten treasure, across the frenzied surfs of Padre. Only two survived. One, a priest, trekked the demon sands back to Mexico and the refuge of the church that awaited him.

            The other hid for months among the solace of the dunes and prayed without ceasing for someone to come and carry him away from a land that had no shade, no shelter, only water and none of it fit to drink. A band of noblemen, along with a few old reprobates and a derelict or two, all sailing beneath the unwashed flag of the church, did sail to Padre, but they did not come for him.

            Their sole intention was to rescue the gold and silver stolen by the storm. Indeed, some of it was recovered. No one ever knew just how much. Records in Spain only revealed that an ill-tempered King was “bitterly disappointed” with the amount of riches that was finally carted into the sanctity of his throne room.

            As the centuries passed, hunters kept digging the sands and baptizing themselves with salty gulf waters, seeking in quiet desperation for wealth that the army of Cortes had taken from the Aztecs and given to the sea. The taking and the giving had been paid for with the sacrifice of so many lives.

            The frantic search for the missing gold and silver had never fascinated nor tempted the inquisitive nature of Ambrose Lincoln. He had simply stumbled across the tale in a various assortment of historical documents, not all of them scholarly, and heard about it again from an old beachcomber digging for Spanish coins and finding sea urchins on the northern tip of Padre Island, not far from Corpus Christi. An angry sea had claimed its treasure. The sea could keep it as far as he was concerned.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    I try to add a few facts into every fiction I write. They give the story a touch of authenticity.

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