After we climbed another few hundred feet on the steep switchbacks of the canyonside, we topped out onto a plateau-like ridge covered with brush, cacti, and boulders. Over the centuries the creekbed had changed course many times, and the crisscross cuttings of that stream had left the entire area wild and broken.
“Would you look at that!” said Mr. Johnson with a whistle. “How can we cross this sort of mess? There must be a million places where wildcats and rattlesnakes could hide.” “Maybe even two million,” added Dad tongue-in-cheek.
“Luckily, there’s a trail to follow,” Uncle Jim pointed out in a mocking tone.
But, oh, what a trail it turned out to be! We must have hiked two miles around and back and over and through before we reached a point a half-mile up the canyon and perhaps 200 feet higher than where we started. From that point on, the trail crossed the creekbed several times without going far astray.
We noticed several places in the mostly dry canyon where water stood in shallow rock-bottomed pools. The farther we went, the more water we saw, until we suddenly realized that the creek was actually running. It never got deeper than six or eight inches, or wider than a couple of feet, but in the dry hills of New Mexico this was a small miracle. At times the stream sank out of sight in the sand. Snipe put in an appearance now and then, but mostly he just chased around on dog business.
“Look at those trees!” I shouted as we rounded a jutting embankment. Further down the canyon we had seen a few mesquites about six feet high. We also noticed a couple of cottonwoods. But this new sight was totally unexpected. At least it was for me.
“Oak trees, I believe,” suggested Mr. Johnson.
“Yup,” confirmed Dad. “You often see small groves of oak in canyons like this, particularly where there’s plenty of water. If you’ll look up there you’ll notice cedars. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find a few pines showing up soon.”
“Let’s keep the record straight,” suggested Uncle Jim. “Those aren’t cedars. Oh, I know lots of people call them that in this country, but actually they’re junipers, not cedars.”
There were maybe 50 trees in the oak grove, and I was eager to look for a treasure-hunting symbol such as we’d seen in the book–a carved snake or something. I noticed Mike and Uncle Jim were also craning their necks. Dad noticed it too.
“We must be near the springs that the hunter spoke of,” Dad observed. “Let’s eat our lunch there and then look for some of the treasure signs the old story calls for.”
I don’t know whether the others first agreed about the lunch, the stop, or the search. Personally, I was suddenly more interested in the food than in anything else.
We found the springs near the upper end of the oak grove. We were surprised to see that someone had driven a two-inch pipe deep into the left bank of the canyon, between two huge boulders, and plastered the entire area with cement. A steady stream of water poured from this pipe into a bathtub-sized concrete-and-fieldstone tank. The canyon widened and leveled out into a lovely glen about 50 feet wide and about 200 feet long. Water seeped from many places in the bank around the pipe, forming a muddy spot into which had been thrown flat stones for stepping. Hundreds of animal tracks of several different kinds had churned much of the area into a shallow morass. A stone bench had been constructed near the tank, and there we sat eating our lunch.
Without warning a gunshot sounded, and I leaped to my feet, startled. Mike’s head jerked around, and he froze with his eyes focused up the canyon. Dad and Uncle Jim glanced upstream and then at each other, yet neither seemed especially disturbed.
“Wh-what’s that?” stammered the city-raised Mr. Johnson.
Two more shots in quick succession cut off whatever else he wanted to add.
“That sounded like a .22-caliber rifle,” ventured Dad. “Maybe a mile up the canyon. Hard to tell with all those echoes, though.”
Uncle Jim swallowed and nodded agreement at the same time. He fixed his eyes on a point far up the canyon. “I see smoke,” he drawled, spacing each word carefully.
We all strained our eyes to confirm this new proof that all was not as we had expected to find it in this wilderness. Dad located it right off, of course, but Mike spoke for both himself and me. “Where?”
“Look just to the left of that big pine,” directed Dad, pointing with his mostly eaten sandwich. “Farther up,” he continued when he realized I was looking too close at hand.
My scanning had stopped at a majestic pine tree a few hundred yards away on the south bank of the creekbed. With new directions from my father, both Mr. Johnson and I finally made out a light finger of smoke pointing skyward. Somehow those few wisps seemed more ominous to me than the gunshots. I felt suddenly chilled in the shade of the old oak trees, although I’m sure the air temperature was more than 80 degrees.
I guess my thoughts wandered for a while after that as I wolfed down the remainder of my lunch and joined the others in pressing on up the trail. Still, I could tell that the events at Isaac Springs had brought new thoughts to the mens’ minds, and I was upset by the current mood. Things were just not going as I had expected.