Short Stories and True Stories

Riding The Superstitions

“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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