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"I was in Ash Canyon in summer," Will said. "We hadn't had any rain in months and it was so dry you could hear the centipedes rustling in the manzanita leaves. Suddenly there was a terrible commotion going on up above me, and when I got there I found this roadrunner flopping around in the middle of a patch of beaten-down weeds. Both its wings were broke and probably other things. The sorriest coyote you ever saw was just lying there a few feet away. Its eyes were gone, and he had blood all over him from a lot of gashes. I shot both of the poor things, but that bird had put up some kind of fight. If it had been a man we would've pinned a medal on him and made him champion of the world."
We forded a stream and for the rest of the day climbed along it. Because of this watercourse, Copper Glance is one of the places in the Huachucas where there are small, wet meadows. On one of them, in September after a rainy spell, I had an experience that would be a good one to remember on the day I die. My son Ky and I had spent the morning working slowly up Copper Glance. We stopped to eat lunch in a meadow that lay in the full sun. The meadow was carpeted with wild flowers, and the flowers, the grass, the bushes and everything else were coated with butterflies: swallowtails, sulphurs, skippers, satyrs and others that were exotic to us. Ky and I wondered how many butterflies there might have been in that meadow—thousands certainly and probably tens of thousands. For them, we were simply two additional perches. As we ate we gently brushed them away so as not to crunch up any wings, but when we were finished we lay back and let them alight. For 15 minutes we lay under spangled blankets, brushed and delicately massaged by the butterflies.
There were no butterflies in Copper Glance on this January morning, but the esthetics were almost as remarkable. In the tight canyon it was windless. The snow lay much as it had fallen the previous day, in puffy carpets and mounds on the ground and in free-form patterns on the needles of the pines and firs and leaves of the live oaks. We came into the canyon about the same time the sun did, and it backlit the woods and the ice formations along the creek, making them glimmer like crystal chandeliers. We came upon six white-tailed deer, which stood motionless for an instant under a huge, shining alligator juniper, as if posing for a Christmas card or a Disney producer.
Will is a backslapper or, more accurately, given his size and exuberance, a back-smasher. He beat on mine and said, "A man could have a million dollars and not have what we've got right this minute."
After the storm had passed, most of the inhabitants of the canyon had come out frisky and hungry from whatever shelter they had taken. Fresh tracks were everywhere, almost too numerous for our purposes. Deer, squirrel and rabbits were so active that their sign tended to obliterate everything else. A ring-tailed cat, the smallest and shyest of the native raccoons, had been working in a pine grove through which we walked, but we wouldn't have known had we not noticed a faint trail diverging from a hodgepodge of cottontail signs and heading toward a cliff where rabbits would have no legitimate business. We followed far enough to find tail-drag marks and a decent set of prints made by the darting, light-footed animal.
In a shallow draw a number of deer had churned up the snow, but they had missed a patch on the lee of a boulder that held the impression of a single, roundish paw. There had to be others, and we cast around, circling the deer mess until we picked up more of these prints. We stopped to have a smoke and figure out what we had found. In theory and fiction, trailers immediately recognize every sign they see, but my experience has been that this is not the case in practice. Sheer ignorance aside (nobody is apt to know all the signs he comes across), the evidence is often obscure and the possibilities various. The general procedure is to apply Ockham's Razor: test the simplest possibility first, and if that does not prove out move on to others. Our deliberations and conclusions were more or less as follows.
In these parts the most commonly found, largish four-toe-and-pad tracks are likely to have been made by one of the canines. However, the first clear impression we found eliminated this possibility. There were no claw marks at the end of the toes, as there would have been had a canine left the sign. This was a cat of some sort; cats usually retract their claws while traveling. There were two reasonable feline possibilities: a mountain lion or a bobcat. The lion is a much larger animal, but in this case the impression had spread and softened in the dry snow and size alone could not settle the matter. Either a small lion or a large bobcat could have made the track. We began to speculate about behavior. The trail led upward onto the canyon wall and disappeared in a jumble of boulders and bare ledges. Either of the cats could have gone that way, but lions are a bit more inclined to follow open established trails. Also, we found no tail marks, which a lion can—but does not always—leave and a bobcat cannot. Will made another point: "If it was a lion that small, it probably would be this year's. But mostly when they're that young they're still traveling with their mamas, and we only have one here."
The circumstantial evidence suggested bobcat, but there remained one other remote possibility. It was impossible to absolutely eliminate the ocelot. There had been no record of one in the mountains in years, but they had been there in the past and one could still stray in—though if one did, it was very likely nobody would know about it. The strong probability was that a bobcat had crossed Copper Glance canyon during the previous evening; the ghost of a chance that it had been something else is why the Huachucas are such an interesting place to trail.
"Did you ever see one?" Will asked about bobcats.
"Not here, but twice in the East, just for a second or so," I said.