Searching in the Dark

“Uh-oh,” said Dad. “Mike could be hurt somewhere.”

“Maybe the animal just broke loose and came back,” countered Uncle Jim. “At any rate, we’d better go see.”

John had ambled out by this time. “I’m inclined to think Jim’s right. I doubt if Mike’s hurt. At least we can hope he’s all right.”

“Winston and I will take the burro back down and find out,” Dad said. “The other donkeys are close by, so we can ride two of them.”

It took only a few minutes for us to get started. “If we’re not back by midnight, you’ll know something is wrong,” Dad called back as we rode away. “If we have to go on to town, we’ll leave a note in that tree by the old campfire pit.”

It was dark by the time we reached the first turn in the trail. There was no moon, and the canyon wall loomed above us as black as black can get. About the only way we could tell where the skyline met the sky was by the presence or absence of stars. Only our flashlights and our knowledge of the trail kept us out of the brush and pits around us. We traveled slowly and listened intently. After all, we had no idea where our friend might be or in what condition.

“Mike!” Dad shouted periodically. “Mike, can you hear me? Mike!”

We watched the edges of the trail closely for some sign of our friend or of an accident. Nothing. Past Isaac Springs. Nothing. Through the oak grove. Nothing. Around the bend to the broken land. There!

“Dad, look!” I pointed in the dark. “Down at the parking area. A campfire!”

“Mike!” Dad shouted. “Are you there?”

A faint response.

“We’re coming! Hold on!”

Ten more minutes of switchback trails, and then the campfire came into view. By its glow we could see Mr. Johnson sitting on a rock, hunched over, with head bowed. We quickened our pace. He didn’t look up when we dismounted. It was then I noticed a makeshift bandage on his head.

“Mike, what’s wrong with you?” Dad put his hand on the man’s shoulder and bent over to look.

Mr. Johnson raised his head, and it was then that I saw the blood. It covered his clothes, the bandage, the ground under his feet, and even his shoes.

“Oh, Mike!” Dad said gently. “What on earth happened?” I was too shocked to say anything.

“Bill, it’s a long story. Can I tell you on our way to town? I’ll need some stitches, I’m sure.”

“Yeah, Mike. Let’s get started, but let me add my handkerchief to that bandage, and let’s get that shirt off.” Dad took over, and Mr. Johnson slowly nodded his head in agreement.

“Winston,” Dad said, turning to me, “you write a quick note in case the others come looking tomorrow. Put it in the fork of that tree over there. Then tie the animals securely and slip their saddles off.”

In five minutes we were in the truck and heading for town. Mr. Johnson leaned back against the seat between my father and me. He seemed to sag like a partly filled grain sack. Sitting next to him, I could smell his sweat and blood and the smoke from the campfire he’d built for company and for a beacon.

“I knew you two would come. I just figured it would be you two. Sure appreciate it.” He was weak from shock and blood loss, and his words were slurred as he told his tale.

“When I returned from town I noticed that the donkey was nervous. I calmed him as much as I could and resaddled him. A bobcat screamed down-canyon, and I could tell it was the cause of the animal’s nervousness. Just as I was mounting, a paper blew in front of us, and the donkey reared. I lost my grip on the saddlehorn and toppled off, with my foot still in the stirrup.

“When I hit the ground, that spooked the poor old fellow still more, and he broke and ran, dragging me behind.”

“You’re lucky you weren’t killed, Mike,” interrupted Dad.

“I know that, Bill. I’ve heard of men being dragged to death, but I recalled someone saying that if you could turn facedown, your foot would slip out of the stirrup. I tried to turn, but the donkey kicked me in the head. That’s why all the blood. It’s also how I got loose. He knocked me loose. I don’t know how long I was unconscious, but when I came to, it was near dark, and my mount was nowhere in sight. I could hear him, though, trotting up the trail above me somewhere.”

“He got to camp just before sundown,” I commented.

“Well, it wasn’t his fault,” continued the injured man. “I found an old rag in the truck for a bandage and added my handkerchief. It was quite a task getting a fire started, but I knew it was necessary. I thought once of trying to walk to the Espinosa ranch, but a few wobbly steps soon put an end to that idea. I blacked out a time or two, and I found myself lying on the ground without any memory of how I got there. Then I heard you two calling from up the canyon. I knew you couldn’t hear me, so I waited until you got closer before I answered.” His voice was trailing off by now, so Dad encouraged him to rest awhile and talk later.

It was nearing midnight when we finally got Mr. Johnson to the emergency room at the hospital in Las Cruces. Only then, as the nurse and intern were cleaning the wound in the well-lighted room, did I realize how bad it was. The kick had caught Mr. Johnson just above his eye. A hoof-shaped patch of scalp was hanging by a small flap. The edge of the cut ran through the eyebrow. I shuddered and turned away. He also had a concussion, plus cuts and bruises on his back and arms.

One of the nurses recognized Mr. Johnson. “Weren’t you with the woman who was brought in a couple of weeks ago with a snakebite?”

“Yes,” he confessed.

“Boy, something in those mountains must not like you people,” she mused. “Two near deaths in as many weeks!”

That got me thinking. Could there be something to this patrón business after all? I don’t recall where Dad and I slept that night, but I do remember part of a conversation that took place shortly after Mr. Johnson’s accident.

“Three in a row or 10 in a row—what difference does it make, son?” Dad was reasoning with me. “The devil is always after anyone who’s trying to follow the Lord. If he can get us to fall for superstition or spiritualism, he’ll do it any way he can.

“A superstitious person such as Uncle Jim will always see events in some sort of pattern. To get three he’ll count any little thing, such as the accident with your foot. If a fourth incident occurs, he’ll discount one of them to keep the count at three. Or possibly he’ll see it as the start of the “double-three” pattern. The only way to beat superstition is to recognize it for what it is: part of the devil’s system of lies.”

Well, Uncle Jim did just as Dad predicted. He counted my foot as part of the pattern of three—until a falling air drill grazed my dad’s thigh. Then my foot injury was ignored. The whole thing became humorous to me after a while, and my fears gradually faded.

As for the sheep, I never solved the mystery. A spirit manifestation? Perhaps. One thing is certain: I never saw it again or anything to compare with it.

We didn’t quit. We ignored the so-called warnings and worked on. We had no other serious injuries. And the only real problems came from natural causes such as carelessness, lack of foresight, suspicion—and greed.

That last cause would soon bring plenty of trouble.

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Searching in the Dark

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