The day after my encounter with the disappearing white sheep, Mrs. Brently strolled along the path, looking for the spot where I’d seen it. She was hoping to find something we’d missed, but found more than she bargained for.
Feeling a light blow on the calf of her leg, she looked back and saw a large rattlesnake slip off a sunny rock.
Back at the work site Mr. Johnson shouted down to me in the tunnel. “Winston! Something’s happened. I just heard Mrs. Brently scream. Get your uncle and your dad quick. It seemed to come from where you saw that sheep!”
Moments later Uncle Jim and I were climbing the ladder, with Dad somewhere behind us, rushing to catch up. By the time we got to Mrs. Brently, Mike and her husband were with her. Oddly enough, there were no signs of the encounter. Of course, snakes leave few prints on the ground, but even on her leg we found nothing. There was no bruise, no red mark, no fang puncture marks. The men exchanged glances, and I could tell that Uncle Jim was chalking it all up to the patrón.
“I expected something like this,” he muttered so quietly that only I heard him.
“Come on, dear. Let’s get you up to the tent,” suggested Mr. Brently.
“I’m all right,” she said in a quavery voice. “I can make it on my own.”
But she didn’t resist when John and Mike helped her up the trail. The rest of us ran a repeat performance of our previous fruitless search for the sheep. That snake just was nowhere to be found. It was Uncle Jim who raised further questions in our minds.
“Ya know, fellows, it’s sure late in the year for snakes to be out.” With that we all returned to work.
By lunchtime we had almost forgotten the incident. That is, until Mr. Brently came to our tent as we were finishing our meal.
“Men, I’m worried about my wife,” he began. “She feels sick, and her leg is beginning to swell. I think she really did see a snake and that it struck her. Now that her leg is swollen I can see one puncture mark.”
“We’ve got to get her to town,” urged Uncle Jim. “Where are the burros? She can’t walk out of here!” As usual, the animals would be needed to get to the truck.
I guess it took my uncle’s decisive words to galvanize us into action, for no sooner had he spoken than everyone had a suggestion.
“Let’s get some of that thin ice from the edges of the small water pools in the canyon and make ice packs for her leg!” suggested somebody.
“Someone had better start hunting for the donkeys,” interjected another.
“How is she going to ride?” I wanted to know.
Somehow in the confusion we got organized, and I soon found myself with Dad, John, and Mike, heading up the canyon to hunt for our pack animals. The men carried guns to use as signaling devices, since we were intending to split up into the various canyons that branched off the main creekbed.
“Keep your eyes open and make a business of looking,” ordered John as he took the first branch, and we pressed on.
Next Mike left us to search a side canyon. Thirty minutes later I was beginning to worry about Mrs. Brently, since almost an hour had passed since we’d left camp.
Bang! Someone was signaling with a gunshot. The donkeys had been found, but by now time was critical for the sick woman. It had been nearly four hours since she’d been struck, and another three hours stretched ahead before she could possibly be at the hospital in Las Cruces.
Dad and I prayed earnestly.
John, Mike, and Mrs. Brently were just leaving on the three most reliable animals when Dad and I arrived back at camp. Uncle Jim had remained behind while the rest of us searched, and he had everything ready to go when the donkeys were brought in.
With the emergency caravan out of sight, Dad suggested, “Let’s pray.” And even our unreligious uncle knelt with us as we pleaded with the Great Physician for Mrs. Brently’s life.
A knot of apprehension filled the void where my stomach should have been. No one ate much for supper. No one worked much the next day as we awaited news. It was nearly noon when the dogs’ barking alerted us that someone was coming up the trail. It was Mr. Johnson, riding the big donkey. We all crowded around, eager for the news.
“How is she?” Dad asked anxiously.
“Is she going to be all right?” I almost sobbed.
Mike smiled reassuringly, but he was sober as he announced, “She’s going to be fine, but she’s pretty ill. They plan to keep her in the hospital a day or two, and she’ll probably spend a week or so with their daughter in Texas.”
Relieved, we all cheered and then trooped in to eat the lunch that Uncle Jim had already prepared.
Two days later John Brently returned, but he left the same day to be gone about a week. The news on Mrs. Brently was good, so we settled back into the routine.
The only sour note came from Uncle Jim. “Like I said before, fellows, you can count on three mishaps when someone encounters a patrón,” he insisted. “First there was Winston’s foot, now Mrs. Brently, and who knows what next.”
I tried to point out that my foot injury was kind of insignificant. Besides that, it had happened before the sheep incident. But he would have none of my objections. It was with an I-told-you-so look that he greeted the news of our next drama, just a few days after the Brentlys’ return.
“Someone must be coming,” observed Mike as he noticed Snipe perk up his ears and then head for the tent door, growling. We had just finished with lunch and were relaxing a bit before returning to our digging.
The visitor was Señor Espinosa. We had not confronted him about his role in leading the mysterious night visitor to our mine, and he was his usual charming and happy self. “Buenos días, compadres,” he called as we went to meet him.
As was usual when visitors came, John took over. “Step down from that fancy horse of yours, my friend, and have a bite to eat.” Dad said nothing. He hadn’t forgotten the broken rung or the other mysterious happenings.
“I’m sorry I cannot stay, Señor Brently,” Espinosa replied courteously. “I have already satisfied my hunger and must return home without undue delay.”
“What brings you here, then? Is something wrong?” John prodded.
“Whether something is amiss I cannot say,” the rancher replied in a bland voice. “My trip is for Mr. Johnson.” Then turning to the surprised Mike, he continued: “The sheriff called me about two hours ago to ask my assistance. The Western Union contacted him with a request for help. You have a telegram waiting in town, and they had no way to notify you. So here I am. Just like the old Pony Express, no? The message is from your business manager, I think.”
“Señor, I appreciate your coming all this way for my sake. At least stay for some hot drink,” urged Mike.
“Who can refuse such gracious gentlemen?” the horseman replied, dismounting. “It has been a long time since I was up this canyon so far,” he added, smiling around the circle to each man as if to challenge us to refute him.
For a moment my father stared thoughtfully into the distance. Then he glanced briefly at our visitor’s back and quietly slipped over to the standing horse. He stopped quickly to examine the hoofs. If anyone else noticed they gave no sign. A low muttered “Humph!” came lightly to my ear, and then Dad strode quietly toward the diggings with a fierce flint-like look in his eye.
In a few minutes Señor Espinosa was gone, and John was hiking up the canyon to find a mount for Mike, who was changing into clean clothes for his trip to town.
“I’ll just get the message and return,” he said. “If it requires that I return to the shop, I’ll still come back up here before I go.”
John was lucky this time and found the animals near camp. In a half hour Mike was off. He would ride the big donkey to our parking area and take the truck to town. We expected him back by dark, so we weren’t surprised when the dogs began to bark just before sundown. But to our astonishment and concern, the donkey showed up in camp with the saddle empty!