“Been ridin’ rescue searches in the Superstitions over twenty years,” the senior posseman mused, shaking his gray head in reverent awe, “and only once, about eight years ago, did we find anyone alive; a young family of four, barely alive after three days without food or water.”
Before I moved to Arizona, I pooh-poohed television documentaries that claimed that even people experienced in desert lore disappear in the Superstition Mountains, often never to be found or heard of again. Publicity hype, pure hooey, I thought. This is the twenty-first century, after all! But first-hand experience made a believer of me when, as a new member of the mounted sheriff’s posse, I rode in from the base camp at First Water Trailhead for the first time. Within minutes I became so turned around that I couldn’t have found my way out if I had to. Thankfully there were four other posse members on my search team, all experienced and equipped with GPS devices.
The Superstitions exude mystery. It is a wild, brooding, deadly place. For over a hundred years up to the present, prospectors have penetrated its vastnesses for gold. Today the region is riddled with abandoned hand-dug mine shafts over a hundred years old. Its trails meander, twist and turn among steep red-rock cliffs and mountains so that the further in one traverses, the more everything looks the same. Within a short time, one’s sense of direction is lost, and panic follows confusion like a cat toying with a mouse before killing it. Worse, cell phones and sometimes even police radios don’t work there except at the outer edges.
The categories of those who get lost and perish there are three. Some venture from milder, cooler climes out of desire to experience a legend, but out of ignorance they underestimate the deadliness of the Arizona desert, even in winter. For others the prospect of becoming rich by finding the gold veins of the Lost Dutchman Mine is worth the risk of exploration. After them are the diehard risk-takers, in whom accumulated wilderness skills and conquests have cultivated a false assumption of their own invincibility.
It was in regard to the latter that Friday April 19, 2013 was for me a long, demanding day. The previous night a call from my posse captain directed me to be at one of the Lost Dutchman Trailhead at 6 AM to join the search for a lost hiker. I scrambled to pack the special orange search and rescue saddlebags we are required to use on searches so that helicopters can see us on the ground. I filled two canteens and set out my boots, hat and clothes so I could slip into them in the morning. It was 11 PM when I finally laid down.
I was up and getting dressed by 2:30, having barely slept. On my way to the stables, it occurred to me to bring both of my horses. The hiker reportedly had been missing for 5 days and went without equipment, even a shirt. If my team found him, an extra horse would be needed to bring the body out, dead or alive; the latter being more likely.
Upon arrival I grain-fed both horses so they would have sustenance and energy to draw upon through the demanding day ahead. While they ate I hooked up the trailer and loaded saddles, bridles, additional grain, water, and horse first aid supplies. Taylor, my big sorrel gelding, and my primary search and rescue horse, I loaded first. He stepped right in. Next I turned to load Red, my chestnut mare. A young mare with an excellent memory, she literally ran back into her pasture turnout, dragging her lead rope behind. She knew from past experience what was ahead and wanted no part of it. In the predawn darkness I ran after her, flashlight in hand, walked her back and loaded her into the trailer.
Maricopa is a geographically large county. It was still dark at 4:30 when I headed out from the Rio Verde area of Scottsdale for the Superstitions, and daybreak when I arrived at 6 AM; a distance of over eighty miles. The sheriff’s command post was a large white trailer bearing sheriff’s office markings. A ground search posse and another mounted posse from Queen Creek were also at the briefing. Deputies in charge handed us maps showing our assigned search area and told us the missing man’s family described him as an experienced wilderness hiker who was familiar with the Superstitions, a daredevil type sometimes referred to as a “bush-whacker,” defined as one who shunned using trails, preferring to go in off-trail with a minimum of equipment.
Ground search posses are the infantry of the posse network. Sometimes called “ground-pounders” by mounted possemen, they had previously searched close-in caves and canyons for two days with no results. Because horses can cover more ground in less time and afford riders an above-ground view, mounted teams were needed now to expand the search. Our team was assigned to search the southeast approach to the mountain range, up to a large cave known as Broadway Cave, located halfway up the face of a vertical rock cliff.
We trailered from the command post more than a mile to reach our assigned search area where we unloaded our horses. After checking our maps, we saddled up and rode through a ‘cowboy gate’ (a mere opening in a barbwire fence) to begin our work. I rode Taylor, using my custom rough-out Wade-style saddle with high cantle, ideal for mountain riding, and ponied Red alongside on a halter and lead rope.
From our starting point the ground appeared to gradually slope upward to the base of the cliffs. From here to the upper slope it didn’t look especially difficult, and I expected an easy time of it until the upper slope. But appearances can be deceiving. I noted that the upper slope became especially steep toward the base of the cliffs in which the cave was situated.
Vegetation there was more sparsely scattered than below and the surface was loose gravel and rocks. I decided I wouldn’t risk my horses up there; the ground would be too steep and unstable.
To my surprise, once we had ridden just a few yards past the gate, even there the ground was steeper and rockier than it first appeared. The brush too was much heavier; low-growing cactus and deciduous plants made straight-line searching impossible and the open ground was strewn with large, jagged, loose rocks that caused frequent loss of footing and minor injuries for the horses.
We rode a slow line-search as best as the terrain would allow, keeping twenty-five yards between the five of us, looking carefully under every low-lying brush for discarded items or other clues of the missing man. It seemed it took an hour just to cover fifty yards or so. Among us we commented that if we were the hiker, we’d be tempted to get to the shelter of the cave high above us. It was reachable for even a moderately experienced climber. Hopefully the ground-pounders had checked it, because the final approach was too steep for horse travel.
Diligently we looked for clues: particularly clothing, water bottles, head gear, or backpacks. Discarding items necessary to survival is a common symptom of delirium brought on by dehydration and heat stroke. Often they provide a trail that searchers follow to the victim’s final location. Several times we stopped to mark with red surveyor tape items we found that we reasonably believed could have been discarded by the missing man within the past few days. These included partially full water bottles, food containers, and clothing items. The precise locations of possible clues were noted on paper, then GPS coordinates were determined and radioed in to the command post, which decided if the item should be taken for later examination or left where it was found.
The going was grueling for the horses. Carefully picking their way keeping their balance through jagged rocks and uneven ground was slow, strenuous work that, in the interests of safety, demanded the constant attention of horses and riders. As much as I tried to skirt around the heaviest brush and cacti, it was but a short time before Taylor and Red’s legs were riddled with sharp cactus needles, and abraded by jagged rocks, often bleeding slightly and requiring frequent removal of burrs and cactus needles with pliers and pocket combs, standard equipment of the desert horseman as much as a water supply.
Two saving graces we were grateful for were agreeable weather – a cool 81 degrees, with breezes. And, although we were searching in typical rattlesnake terrain and reports abounded of rattlesnakes being plentiful and aggressive after a long cold winter, we encountered none.
At 11 AM, after nearly five hours of slow, strenuous searching we returned to our trailers to water and rest our horses. Taylor and Red were dehydrated; each drank two five gallon buckets of water. To keep their blood sugar balanced during the remainder of the search, I gave each an apple and some oats mixed with beet pulp.
We resumed our work to cover the areas we did not search in the morning. Our careful plodding led us to almost right below the Broadway Cave. As I had surmised when we began, the last stretch of ground between us and the cliffs was too steep to ride safely. We dismounted, allowing the horses to graze while we spent a long half-hour scanning the ridges and crevices with binoculars, seeing a few feet into the cave above, and methodically scanning bush by bush, large rock by large rock. As we did, a county helicopter hovered over the tops of the mesas and arroyos above us. We mounted up again and rode north to complete searching the last leg of our assigned search area.
At 1:30, our mission was interrupted by a radio report from the command post that the missing hiker's body had been found by another team about 6 miles from our assigned search area. We were ordered to return to base and report. Deputies informed us at the briefing that the victim had fallen to the bottom of a canyon while climbing a cliff with no equipment, not even proper footwear; true to his daredevil nature, apparently. Arrangements were being made to extricate the body as we made ready to secure.
Like previous searches in the Superstitions this was a tough ride; shorter than most, but still hard on the horses. By 4 PM we were home. I bathed Taylor and Red with shampoo and cool water, removed more cactus needles from their legs, staunched the bleeding, cleaned their hooves, returned them to their turnouts and supplied them generously with fresh water, rolled oats and hay. They had worked willingly and were entitled to a few days’ rest and plenty of good feed. By the time I cleaned and unhooked my trailer, unpacked gear, swept and tidied up the tack room and drove home it was 6 PM. It had been a fifteen hour day on three hours' sleep. I wanted to visit with my family, but I thought it would be nice to just lie down for a few minutes after dinner. When I awoke it was 8 AM. I had slept over 12 hours straight, and my legs and back were stiff when I got up. And now Patricia, my wife, enters, bringing me coffee and reminds me that I had promised to take her hiking today....
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Fierce wind gusts whipped my shirt sleeves and tugged at my hat as I settled into the saddle. I gathered my reins and squeezed the sides of Taylor, my tall copper-colored gelding with my legs. Beside us as we left the ranch I had Red, my chestnut mare, on halter and lead-rope. Gus, my red-and-white Border Collie, led the way at a happy trot down the road shoulder. People in passing cars smiled and waved at the sight of us - a horseman in Old West attire, hat brim turned up, silk kerchief fluttering around my neck, with two horses and a dog, headed for the desert.
Ten minutes later we cleared a metal motorcycle barrier to enter a vast desert wilderness. Cactus, mesquite and greasewood trees, sage and grasses still purple and green from the spring rains as far as the eye could see. We headed due east for a quarter mile over rough ground and turned north when we reached a wide sandy wash, lined on both sides by brush and scrub oaks.
The sound of wind whooshing the trees, rustling the brush and the ssh-ssh-ssh of horse hooves in the soft sand took me back to past rides in the desert. Some were eventful as in broken bones from falls, surprise encounters with rattlesnakes and being stalked by packs of coyotes. Many times my companions and I came across bands of wild horses and herds of wild cattle in the wilderness inside the Scottsdale city limits, a fact that still amazes me. I rode at least three times a week back then in what became a subculture of desert adventurers.
Today I rode alone in an area where a year earlier I shot from the saddle one of two coyotes who were closing in on Gus. It was a close call. For that reason, I carried my .44 holstered on my side. A lone coyote won’t hesitate to make short work of a small domestic dog, but in the case of larger dogs like Gus, the one who spots him will call in the pack to ensure a quick, gruesome kill. I believe in live-and-let-live. They like to hunt in weather like this, but if they leave us alone, I leave them alone. Somebody’s got to eat all those rats and mice.
Coyotes weren’t the only threat on my mind as we moved at a shuffling walk up the wash. The weather was cool and cloudy, but with humidity between five and ten percent and Gus’ heavy coat and constant running to keep up with the horses, he faced the risk of dehydration. Three times along the half-mile wash he stopped under some brush and sat, panting heavily. I dismounted each time to pour him water from my saddle canteen into the collapsible rubber bowl I carry in my pommel bags, and waited for him to recover before pushing on.
We moved at a slower pace. It was quiet except for the rushing bursts of wind. Gus trotted ahead of us and I watched for coyotes lurking in either side of the wall of trees, brush and tumbleweeds that enclosed the sandy boulevard. At the end of the wash we turned right and broke into a hard gallop uphill over hard, rutted ground to our reward at the crest.
The long series of soaking rains this winter yielded a brilliant collage of cactus, sage, creosote sported blossoms in rich hues of red, yellow, purple and every shade in between. The open spaces were carpeted with thin, lawn-like patches of bright green grass, soon to wither in the coming heat. Savory sweet and pungent fragrances crisscrossed each other in the changing currents.
We stopped to rest. Gazing east from my saddle, I contemplated the timeless, dramatic environment of Arizona to which I had become addicted; open desert wilderness, only hushing winds for sound; peaceful yet full of uncertainty and danger. Miles to the east, the mystical Mazatzal Mountains, home of the famous Four Peaks, appeared dark red behind a bluish haze. Between us and the Mazatzals, the miles of wild desert were broken by the Rio Verde river, not visible from where we were. Only once had I ridden across it, and yearned to return to explore the mountains beyond. Local cowboys said a year ago the government moved most of the wild horses and cattle out of the 120,000 acre McDowell Mountain preserve, where I used to ride. Desert guides and adventurous horsemen tell of mountain lions and bears living in the wilds east of the Rio Verde.
From here we went exploring, picking our way due east across untraveled ground. Except for deep-cut rivulets caused by heavy summer rains, the terrain gently sloped downhill to the east, to the Rio Verde. “Stadium land,” it is called. We rode over patches of short green grass that could match any manicured putting green. Scattered about were desert greenery able to survive the coming heat and lack of rain: mesquite, greasewood and palo verde trees, ocotillo, cholla and barrel cactus, creosote bushes and the mighty saguaro.
We stopped for a short rest when we reached a second north-south trail of hard-packed sand, covered with tracks of many horses of outfitters leading tourists on guided rides for a safe desert adventure. I dismounted. The horses nibbled on succulent green grass, getting at least some moisture. I poured more water for Gus a took a few sips from my canteen. I kept my eyes peeled for coyotes or javalina, but all I saw were long-eared jackrabbits jetting about; coyote food, they are, spooked from their hiding places by our intrusion.
We continued east across trackless terrain. The third north-south trail we came to had almost no signs of travel. We were really in deep; how far we had come from the road I couldn’t guess. We turned south, to begin angling our way back. A half-hour later we took a split in the trail that angled to the southwest, which would eventually take us back to the road.
After another half hour, the trail we were on turned to the east. I had not expected that. I checked the sun’s position; it was getting low in the west. We had maybe two hours of daylight left and we were deeper in from the road than we had ever been before. There were no trails heading west; we would have to pick our own route back. At the next sight of open ground that offered solid footing we rode down into a barren gully. From there the best footing appeared to be an uphill opening between two tall creosote bushes.
A few yards up, the slope became steeper and there was a deep gash, a rivulet in the red soil. Heavy creosote brush was on both sides, so we could neither back out or turn around. The brush on the right was closer to the open gash in the ground, allowing no room around it on the right, so I swerved Taylor, with Red on my left, to the left. A few steps up Taylor stepped to the right, his right front hoof sank up to his knee into the gash. He struggled to push himself out with his left front leg. With Red close on my left and the creosote bush on my right I couldn’t dismount. Taylor went down onto his right side, falling on my right leg as I landed hard on my back onto the ground, I slipped my leg out from under him as he struggled to get up.
I scrambled to my feet to assess. Taylor was stuck in the crevice, on his belly, both knees bent and inside the crevice, his left hind leg laid flat on the ground at a ninety-degree angle from his body, his right hind leg was trapped in the crevice.
“Up! Up, boy! You can make it!” I urged him. He strained powerfully to get his feet under himself and push up and out of the crevice for well over a minute. He was stuck. He rested a minute or so, gathering his strength, then struggled with mighty groans, to no avail. I tried loosening the dirt with my boots but the red earth was like clay; it gave but little and I didn’t have my folding shovel with me. After a third try Taylor laid his head on the ground, his eyes glazed over and I worried that he might be giving up. His eyes widened when I bent down, stroked his head, saying, “You’ve got to get up! You can do it! You must do it!” He rallied his strength once more and pushed with all his might to get up, but no. He tried again in a few seconds but it was no good.
I felt with my hand, what I could of his legs, hoping against hope that none of them was broken, for I had not heard a snap. I could feel a little of each leg except his right hind leg. There was nothing to indicate a broken bone, but there was blood on my hand when I felt his right knee. I looked around me; desert and nothing else as far as I could see. We were far from the last main trail, and the trail we left to get here had no tracks on it. The only sign of civilization was the power lines far to the south, a good mile or so away. We were in an isolated place, seldom, if ever used by humans. Unlike other times, I had no cell phone or GPS with me. If I left to get help I had serious doubts I would able to find Taylor again. The thought of Taylor, a prince of a horse with whom I enjoyed a special bond, lying helpless through the night while coyotes or mountain lions ate him alive, made me shudder. No, I would not leave him, even for a minute.
I stood facing Taylor, fighting a sense of doom. If I could ride out of there right now it would be dark by the time we reached the ranch. Taylor was stuck. Nightfall was coming. The right side of Taylor’s head was on the ground. He seemed half-conscious, motionless, eyes half-closed, like he was giving up. Fierce gusts of wind sucked water out of my body like a sponge being wrung out. Red was grazing a few feet away, Gus sat nearby, watching me. Without thinking about it, I suddenly bent over, picked up the reins and shouted “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up! Get out of that ditch now!” I stood back, watching Taylor. My jaw fell open when in less than thirty seconds’ time, he began scrambling, both front legs churning mightily in the crevice, he tucked his left hind leg under him and began a slow belly-crawl forward out of the crevice.
Barely out of the crevice now, Taylor tried to stand, but the saddle on his back caught in the thick branches of the creosote bush, preventing him from rising. He laid on his right side again, trapped by the saddle horn and pommel entangled in heavy branches. The words of Harry Bennett when he gave me the Bowie knife he made for me came to mind: “With a blade this long and heavy you can chop wood as well as cut, slice or thrust. It’s what frontiersmen carried after the Civil War.”
I leaned across Taylor, taking the closest branch in hand. Harry was right: even the thickest branches fell quickly to this heavy nine-and-a-half -inch blade as I easily and carefully chopped them away with mere flicks of my wrist. I removed the pommel bags as I worked, to reduce the chance of them catching on brush when Taylor got up.
A wave of relief swept over me when Taylor got to his feet and shook himself. I checked him over. He had many abrasions and cuts on his right side, the bleeding on his front legs was minor and had begun crusting over in the dry wind. Another wave of relief came when I saw Taylor walking normally and acting alert, as if nothing had happened. As good as the situation seemed now, I decided not to ride him back. With him beside me I gathered Red’s lead rope and began walking west in the direction of the road.
We had walked maybe a hundred yards when I remembered I had left my pommel bags on the ground. I spent nearly an hour trying to find where the accident happened, but the ground all looked the same, I hadn’t visually marked our position and now the sun was getting lower in the sky. I was almost out of time. As they are trained to do, the horses stood still as I put Taylor’s saddle and bridle on Red, put Red’s halter on Taylor and rode back to the ranch, arriving at dark.
I cleaned Taylor’s wounds with soap, water, and hydrogen peroxide disinfectant to keep flies off his minor scrapes. I applied ointment and sterile bandages for the four places of torn flesh on his front legs. To his food I added a scoop of powdered phenylbutazone, a mild drug for the pain he would feel later. My jeans, linen vest and shirt sleeves all had so many thorns and stickers in them they pricked my skin on the drive home. Patricia was waiting up when Gus and I walked through the door.
“Look at you! What happened out there today?” Patricia asked with alarm in her voice. I told her.
“Taylor fell on you and your leg isn’t hurt? What about your back? You shouldn’t be doing this so soon after your back surgery!”
I felt myself grinning a boyish grin. I couldn’t help it. “My pommel bags are still out there. After I change Taylor’s bandages tomorrow I’m going back to get them,” I said. Rather than eat, Gus drank much water and crashed at the foot of our bed. Almost too tired to undress, I fell into a deep sleep.
I awakened from a night of bad dreams of Taylor stuck in a desert crevice, in pain and helpless and being attacked by mountain lions. My abdominal muscles, neck and back were stiff and sore. Just getting out of bed hurt, but after some stretching and breakfast, I took Gus with me when I returned to the ranch. Taylor was laying down. I was relieved to see how easily he got to his feet when he saw me.
The weather was in the high 70s – cool for Arizona, and again the wind strong and gusty as I rode Red along the road from the ranch to the preserve. I decided I could save time and easily find the location of yesterday’s trouble by riding the powerline straight east to a certain point, then turn left to another certain point. pick up the pommel bags and go home.
For almost two hours I crisscrossed the hillside where I believed the crisis occurred. The terrain all looked the same. Several times I saw familiar-looking ground and went there, thinking “this is it,” only to find I was wrong. As I stopped to give Gus water again, I decided it made more sense to re-ride yesterday’s route from the beginning. So we returned to the sandy wash, rode its length, went up the hill at the end of it, rode east to the third north-south trail and headed south. It wasn’t hot but the wind seemed to suck us dry. Gus was slowing down. Several times I had to wait for him to catch up even though Red was only walking. I found the fork in the trail and the tracks of two horses and a dog. A few minutes more I’ll have my pommel bags and we can go home, I thought.
I turned in my saddle to encourage Gus, but he was gone!
I stopped, turned around and called for Gus over and over. After several minutes I saw him in the brush about twenty yards east of me, panting, his tongue hanging out. I waited, keeping my eye on him. I called again; he got to his feet and followed me as I resumed following yesterday’s tracks. In a few minutes I turned around – Gus was gone again!
I was irritated with him at first, but knew he was exhausted. It was time to take him home. But where was he? I rode back to where I saw him minutes before and called repeatedly. No Gus. I rode east a few more yards and called some more. No Gus. Minutes passed. Foolish me! I was angry at myself for bringing him, and at him for wandering off as he is prone to do. I was tempted to leave, find the pommel bags and come back for him. Maybe he would follow my scent. But no! That would be his death sentence. Coyotes literally abound out here. They kill every day to survive; Gus wouldn’t stand a chance. I kept calling, and looking.
The wind blew harder as the daylight weakened, whipping the loose ends of the silk wildrag around my neck. I tightened the leather chin string to keep my hat from blowing off. This was hunting time for coyotes, javalinas and rattlesnakes, and Gus was nowhere to be seen. My only comfort was that I had not heard the mass growling and yodeling coyotes make when they make a fresh kill and call in the pack to join the feast, a sound I have heard many times. I looked for his tracks but the ground was covered with a thin blanket of short, green grass, like a crude lawn. He couldn’t have gone far. I was at a loss as to what to do, so I prayed again, “Father in Heaven, yesterday You freed my horse from a trap. Today I ask You to please keep my dog safe and help me find him.”
I backtracked north a little farther up the trail, then veered east. I called again. Gus finally appeared from out of the brush, about thirty yards away. I called his name but he laid down without looking at me. He was inattentive and panting, his tongue hung out and I suspected delirium. A large coyote, gray and mangy, looking like it was sick, appeared out of the brush the same distance away to my right, walking intently toward Gus. If it reached Gus and bit him, Gus was done. I began shouting but the coyote barely glanced in my direction. It wasn’t afraid of me at all. Its gaunt, motley appearance and behavior was consistent with rabies. It was concentrating on Gus, who was laying down, panting, unaware of the approaching threat.
The coyote raised its head and began calling other members of its pack to come. It was a hellish sound, between a big cat’s screech and a dog’s bark, like claws scraping a chalkboard. If the pack arrived, they would ignore me and surround Gus and tear him to pieces in seconds. The coyote had stalked to maybe forty feet from Gus when its head turned toward me, yowling. It moved again toward Gus, who started to stand to meet it. I yelled and spurred Red straight at it.
With no time to waste, I spurred Red into a full gallop straight at the coyote. I drew my revolver. We were closing the distance, but so was the coyote. I waited as long as I could to get a close shot. By now the coyote was ten feet from Gus. We were about sixty feet away, still at full gallop. I aimed and fired.
I could tell the bullet missed by an inch or even less because from my raised position in the saddle I saw where it hit the ground on the other side of the coyote. The shot stunned the coyote and sent Red into a panic. She reared straight up so her neck drove my glasses into my forehead and my hat onto my back, hanging from the stampede string. She bucked violently as I tried to holster my gun so I threw it on the ground. She reared again and I felt the saddle shifting so I stepped off as she bucked again, slamming the ground with my back. Still holding onto the halter rope. I jumped to my feet, ran over to my gun, crammed it into my holster, reset the saddle and swung aboard, spurring Red into a full gallop, yelling and whipping my reins.
Gus turned away from the coyote, which backed away from me as I dashed between it and Gus. I was close enough for an easy shot, but my saddle was so loose I risked being dragged if a second shot caused Red to buck and rear again. I left my gun holstered and herded Gus like a stray steer in the direction of the road. The coyote followed us for maybe seventy-five yards, its fiendish yowls tempting me to put it out of its miserable existence, but I couldn’t risk Red panicking again or losing sight of Gus again. We arrived at the ranch well after dark. I checked Gus all over and found no sign that he had been bitten. Patricia was waiting up when we got home.
“Honey! Your face is bloody! What happened this time?”
I checked myself in the mirror. I had dried blood on my forehead and the bridge of my nose from my glasses being ground into my face when Red reared up. I washed, poured a cup of coffee, and related the day’s events as Gus ate and drank water and fell asleep. Patricia’s normally bright Spanish eyes looked at me gravely as I told her the day’s story.
“I want you to stop all this wild stuff,” she said in her thick Mexican accent. “You could get crippled or killed like this.”
Telling her I was going back would start an argument, so I said nothing.
My body protested with numerous aches and pains when I dressed and pulled on my boots again the next morning. I had to recover my pommel bags. Gus expressed no interest in going with me this time.
I changed Taylor’s bandages, saddled Red, slurped the last swig of black coffee I had with me and rode from the ranch, hoping this would be a short ride. By re-riding yesterday’s route, I easily found the point where I left off to look for Gus. No one else had been on the trail since we left. I followed it in a southeasterly direction. The wind was soft, from the west, the heat in the low 80s, and there was no one else in sight. Then the tracks I was following became obscure due to the hardness of the trail surface. The terrain began looking familiar but unless I found our tracks, finding the spot would be a matter of guesswork and luck.
I remembered the spot was slightly uphill, an opening of reddish soil between large creosote bushes on either side, cut branches would be lying on one side. The sameness of the terrain frustrated me; three times I rode off the trail, thinking I had found it, only to return disappointed and continue scouting. Maybe I rode farther off the trail when we got into trouble. I left the trail again and rode farther up the slope, making wide loops where I found areas of reddish dirt and creosote brush. No luck, and Red was tiring from all the climbing up and down. We were in the right area but with the sameness of terrain and landmarks, the only clue would be discernible tracks, but in windswept grass over hard ground, no way.
After I thoroughly crisscrossed the slope without finding the place I was looking for, I did what I should have done at the start. Sitting in my saddle, I prayed “Oh Lord, twice in two days You helped me when I was in trouble out here, just because I asked. My horse and my dog are safe because of You. I am asking once more, please lead me to where my pommel bags are, I can’t find them on my own. In Jesus’ Name, thank You.”
For several minutes I rode around on the grassy slopes, finding nothing. Then I stopped, thinking how impossible it would have been to find Taylor if I had left him to get help. I had done right in staying with him, and asking God for help. I had done right the second day by not leaving Gus in the desert. Gus had appeared seconds after I prayed. But now? Pommel bags were hunks of inanimate leather, not living beings, so does God care?
At that moment Red moved downhill at an angle of her own accord. Something prevented me from stopping her. She picked her way downhill beyond where we had just been to another place I had missed. When she stopped, there it was: the crevice, the creosote bush with cut branches lying on the ground. In a state of amazement, I dismounted and walked around, finding my pommel bags lying in the grass. Gus’ collapsible rubber water bowl was in one bag, but the other was empty. I looked, and where Taylor initially fell were my compass, multipurpose tool in a sheath, and pocket comb for removing cactus needles from my horses’ legs. Taylor’s fall had been so violent that these fell out when he and I hit the ground.
I slung the pommel bags over the saddle horn and headed back. At the ranch, I rewarded Red with a large scoop of sweet grain, a check of Taylor’s bandages verified he was doing better than I expected. I went home, exhausted but relieved that it had all ended so well; Taylor and Gus were on the mend, what was lost had been found, my new revolver and knife had been field-tested, and oh - my good glasses were still out there – as if I needed another reason to go back out, after I rest.
And yet, as tired as I was, thoughts racing through my mind made sleep impossible. It seemed significant and somehow mysterious that I had been through an action-packed three days. I had been in a crisis each day, and each time I didn’t get out of it until I prayed. Each of my prayers were made after my own efforts failed twice. Except on the last day, I had three animals with me, and each of them shared in the action. It dawned on me that God is a triune Being: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days. Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. Even in American culture, three is significant. We say “Three strikes and you’re out” in baseball, “third time’s a charm,” and “two is company but three is a crowd” as timeless folk sayings. Studies of worker productiveness has shown that beyond three members, team output tends to decline. So there is power and significance to three, but who can fathom it?
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