Trail Signs

The next morning we set out for Isaac Springs. The walk from our campsite up the canyon took longer than we expected. The trail sloped steeply for the first few hundred feet and seemed to be all churned up.

“Be careful here!” Uncle Jim exclaimed to no one in particular. He was a large man in his 60s, his skin well tanned from a lifetime spent outdoors. Blue eyes twinkled from an open face shaded by a typical cowboy hat. Constant squinting in bright sunlight had etched wrinkles, called crow’s-feet, beside his eyes.

I looked up to where he climbed ahead of me and momentarily took my eyes off the trail in front of my own feet. “Whoops!” I grunted as my foot slipped on some loose rock. “How come this trail is so torn up?” I grumbled over my shoulder to Dad.

“Let me get ahead,” Dad answered, “and I’ll see whether I can figure it out. It seems rougher than it looked from below.”

I was glad for an excuse to stop for a moment as Dad went by effortlessly. The other men also waited for him to scout ahead. They both knew or had heard of his ability to read signs.

Any boy would have been proud of a dad like mine. Men listened when he talked, and his opinions were usually well thought out and reasonable. He practiced a practical brand of Christianity that was positive without offending others.

Dad’s wiry body was now bent over, with his face almost at knee level. A red bandanna stuck from his hip pocket like the tail of some brightly colored bird. His sky-blue eyes were intent upon the path, and his Stetson hat seemed in danger of tumbling off at any moment.

“Hey, Bill!” shouted my uncle. “Whatcha doing? Looking for chicken feed?” We all laughed.

Uncle Jim could get by with kidding Dad because he was my dad’s uncle (that made him my great-uncle). We all liked his cowboy ways and interesting stories, but most of all, I liked his cooking. He could be rather hard to get along with at times, however.

Dad didn’t seem to notice our guffaws. He seemed lost in thought and just peered more intently at the trail. After he had gone about 30 or 40 yards, Dad straightened up and strode purposefully back toward us, humming a little ditty.

“Well?” demanded Mike Johnson. “What tore up the trail?”

Dad maintained his serious, thoughtful face long enough to assure himself that we were listening. Then with his right hand knifing the air, he said, “Seven burros went up this trail about 12 hours ago. One of them has a loose shoe on his right rear foot and is carrying a heavy man. Five of the burros are heavily loaded and rope led. One of them is either quite old and stiff-legged or else sick. It wasn’t tied with the others and may have been carrying a rider. Another of the animals is rather new with the group. All of the animals are range fed and well watered. And besides all that, this is a regular run. They probably make it about once a month.”

Uncle Jim was grinning as Mike Johnson’s eyes got bigger and bigger. The look of disbelief on Mike’s face was almost as funny as Dad’s stance had been earlier. I laughed, but nobody seemed to notice.

When Dad finished, Mike exploded. “You’re pulling my leg! You can’t possibly know all that just by looking at the ground like a magpie for a few minutes!” “Don’t bet on it,” interrupted Uncle Jim.

Mike grew red in the face, then burst into action. He whipped off his Stetson and threw it to the ground. “I’ll eat that hat if you’re right on half of what you say!” he blurted.
It was Dad’s turn to laugh. He threw back his head, crossed his hands over his midsection, and fairly shouted with mirth. Snipe cocked his head to one side in puzzlement at these antics. I laughed too, without really knowing why. Uncle Jim’s grin just got bigger, and even Mike relaxed a bit. It was humorous to see grown men on the verge of acting like a bunch of kids; however, everyone in our group was used to good-natured nonsense.

“It’s true, some of what I said is guesswork,” Dad said grinning. “But I’ll tell you what. If I’m totally wrong, I’ll treat you to a good dinner in town–”

“You’re on!” interrupted Mike quickly, before Dad could change his mind. “And I’ll pay if you’re right!”

“Mike,” Uncle Jim said in a sympathetic voice, “don’t say I didn’t warn you. Bill’s spent too much of his life outdoors and around animals not to have a good reason for everything he’s said.”

“Well, if he can see all that in the dirt of this trail, maybe he can just point it out so we can see it too,” countered the man with a touch of sarcasm.

“Oh, Dad, please do,” I begged. “I can’t see anything but a bunch of tracks made by riding stock.”

“Humph,” grunted Uncle Jim before Dad could answer. “Let’s walk up the trail; we’ll see if I agree with my nephew. After all, I know a little about such things myself, ya know.”

Uncle and nephew led the way, bantering with each other about men they had known who could “read trail.” Soon they stopped. Snipe went on sniffing and strutting as if he had just become the new king of the mountain.

“Look here, Winston. You too, Mike,” instructed Uncle Jim. There on the ground were some animal droppings. He broke one apart with a stick. “Definitely burro,” he stated with authority. “Please notice there is no sign of partly digested grain. Also, the fiber is too fine to be commercial hay or straw. Here’s a bit of mesquite bean and its pod. Bill’s right about them being range fed.”

“What about them getting plenty of water?” Mike asked, softening a bit.

Dad’s eyes danced merrily as Uncle Jim’s sun-tanned brow furrowed up and his grin dropped to a frown. “That may have been part of the guesswork,” replied the older man with a bit of hesitation. “That so, Bill?”

“Nope,” responded my leathery-skinned father. “Look at these droppings again.” “I wouldn’t know what to look for,” admitted Mike.

Uncle Jim didn’t say anything for a while, but finally spoke. “I give up. What’s to be seen?”

“Those droppings are still quite moist in the middle despite the fact that they’ve been in the dry air for close to 12 hours,” Dad explained patiently. “If the burros weren’t getting enough water, their systems would have absorbed most of the moisture during digestion.”

Uncle Jim nodded his head in appreciation. Mike groaned in mock annoyance, and I said, “Wow!” I figured right then that my father knew just about everything. Of course, I knew he could be wrong too, but this was one of those moments that made me extremely proud.

Mr. Johnson wasn’t through yet. “What makes you so sure they were by here 12 hours ago? Why not 10 . . . or 14?”

Dad chuckled before he answered. “Mike, if you’ll think back, you’ll remember that it was just a little more than 10 hours ago that we set up camp, and you walked up the trail yourself. I didn’t see anything then, and I don’t think you did either, or you would have said something.

“Let me explain why it couldn’t have been more than 12 or so hours ago,” interrupted Uncle Jim. “The afternoon wind dies down just a few hours before sundown. These burro tracks are still rather clear, with only a small amount of dust and trash blown into them. That means they were made as the winds were dying down, and that was a couple of hours before we set up camp. If they’d been made just two hours sooner, the wind would have damaged them quite a lot.”

“I’ll not argue with you about how many of each kind of animal there may have been or about the loose shoe,” Mr. Johnson conceded reluctantly. “We can even assume you’re right about them being rope led or whatever, but please explain about the old stiff-legged burro and the one new to the string.”

“And how about this being a regular monthly trip?” I added.

“The old or sick one is easy,” broke in my great-uncle. “He’s last in line, and his tracks give him away. Most of the tracks were made by animals that put their hooves straight down and picked them up the same way. The last one in line sort of drags his hooves as he picks them up. This shows he’s either stiff in the knees, and thus rather old, or that he’s not well. I personally think it’s an old burro.”

“That’s my first choice too,” agreed Dad. “However, I’d like to know why you made that choice rather than thinking it may be ill.”

“Can’t we walk and talk at the same time?” Mike queried. “Yeah, come on. Let’s go,” agreed Dad.

About that time I noticed a hawk circling high above and didn’t catch everything that was said for a while. It was something about a wise man not using a sick animal to work or something. I even forgot to listen for somebody to answer my question about the monthly trip. I was sure my father was right. What bothered me later was that I never even thought to be curious about who might be living in a canyon we all thought was deserted.

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Trail Signs

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