James McKenna and the Mysterious Cave of Flashing Lights

The Black Range is a rugged and remote area of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest that contains deep forest covering mountains ranging to 10,000 feet. It is filled with mysterious spires of reddish colored stone, dark twisting canyons, and high passes.

James McKenna was one of the early travelers through this area. As a young man, he had come out to prospect for silver and gold. It wasn’t far from here, around 1884, he nearly met his end at the hands of Apaches. He was out fishing the streams one day, which he described as full of trout. Afterwards, he returned to his campsite near a cabin owned by the McKenzie brothers and unwittingly walked into the middle of an Apache raid.

He discovered his friend and prospecting partner, Baxter, had been shot and killed by Apache Indians. His face and limbs had been mutilated by knives. McKenna himself was surrounded by 30 to 40 Indians, and two of them forced him back up against a tree and held him there. The others resumed their ransacking of the McKenzie cabin, ripping open the mattresses, throwing clothing about, and scattering the flour and other food all about.

The Indian women were gathering a large pile of brush, which McKenna took to mean he was intended to be burned alive. The squaws spit at him and one of them ran a mesquite thorn into his leg.  Fortunately for McKenna, the Indians’ stock of horses was stampeded by what McKenna believed was a grizzly, and in the resulting chaos he was able to run away.

He made his way to safety eventually, but only by saving himself once more by acting crazy when he ran into more Indians. The Indians, according to McKenna, were superstitious about lunatics and usually left them alone. McKenna rejoined other prospectors and ranchers who had taken refuge, and learned the Apaches had attacked cabins and killed settlers all through the area. Although a loose group of 25 men formed a posse, called a Territorial Militia, to track down the Indians, none was ever caught.

McKenna traveled 100 miles southeast to near Kingston, but there were still sporadic attacks all through the area. Within six months, he lost another partner to Indians. McKenna claimed that for two years after that period of his life he had become so nerve-wracked he couldn’t sleep more than three hours a night, and every sound had him up with a hand around a gun. His hair fell out, and what grew back was white, though, as he said, he was still a young man.

McKenna eventually wrote a book about his prospecting years and therein related one of the strangest tales of the southwest. His travels had taken him to just south of the New Mexico border with Mexico. In a canyon he discovered an Indian cave that had been cleverly concealed with a large rock. The rock was so carefully shaped and placed it easily swung open at a push. Inside the cave was a well twenty feet across that erupted in spray coinciding with flashes of light. These flashes, McKenna said, were so bright inside the dark cave that he could clearly see the bones under his skin. Hundreds of feet into the cave he discovered a dozen skeletons. The air inside the cave was heavy with the odor of sulfur, and he could go no farther.

Years later, he revisited the area and found large boulders had filled in the canyon and the whole mountain landscape covered with volcanic ash. He never found the cave again, and the mystery of the flashing lights and water spray remained unsolved.

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