One night, not long before our freeze-frame summer was to close I had an attack of conscience. We got back late from some excursion and Michael and Kevin were putting Billy and Burlap into their small corral. I unilaterally decided that our favorite burro and goat deserved to make their own decisions about nighttime confinement. I positioned them near the corral, left the gate open and Burlaps rope lying in the dust, unsecured on the other end. We watched them from time to time during the early evening and eventually we went to bed.
There were a few strange noises in the night, but there always were. The next morning the goat and burro were nowhere to be found. We called to them with no response. By around seven we were seriously worried. What had I done?
"I'll go look for them. They couldn't've gone far."
"I'll go, I'll go!" shouted Michael.
"Me too!!" echoed Kevin.
"It's too hot, boys." I said "You stay hear and guard the camp."
By seven thirty I was hiking into the desert behind the hut. My plan was to follow their tracks and the trail in the dust left by the rope from Burlap's neck. This was easy at first because they walked in the loose dust up the narrow gully on the road leading to and beyond Barsam's Corner, with the steep lava walls to keep them on the road. But once they had risen to the level of the plateau there was no restricting their wandering interests. The rope trail leapt from one grassy knob to the next, helter-skelter across the plain, invisible in the spaces of hardened earth. Where I could, I followed their hoof prints. They always stayed together, pals forever, grown more friendly by three months living in the same untamed environment.
I managed to track them for miles, into several small valleys and out again. After about two hours of slowly following their track, they seemed to turn back in the direction of home. Another half hour back in that direction I lost them. The trail just ended. I circled around the place in an outward spiral, working from their trails end. I couldn't see another track anywhere.
I looked up into the hills around me. I called to them. I whistled. Nothing. I climbed into the nearest hill to get another perspective on the plains below. Still nothing.
I had been in the direct sun on foot for three hours. I was dehydrated and tired and hot. I decided to go back to the hut, get a drink, rest a bit and try again. I started back, staying to clear areas so I could see a track if one was present, but saw no sign of them. I looked up into the desert hills for movement; I wouldn't see them if they were standing still because their colors were that same as the terrain.
I was about a half mile from camp when I did see a small movement on a hillside to my north. I thought it was a bird, it was just some small movement that caught my eye as I scanned the hills from a distance. I stopped to examine the spot, but I couldn't see anything. I was tired and wanted an icy drink, but hope pulled me toward the hills where I had seen something I couldn't identify. I worked closer but still too far to see the place clearly. The waves of heat poured off the land, upward into the air. My vision was not clear.
Finally, I was too tired to go on. I tried one last-ditch call to them: "Baahaaa, bhaaahha." Expecting nothing in return.
Immediately, Billy echoed my call. I couldn't see him, but I headed in the direction of the bleat. Within a minute or two I called again and this time I could see Billy look up at me, with Burlap standing well below him on the hillside. I guess I was close enough for him to recognize me because he wanted to come down the hill. But Burlap was not so anxious. The hillside presented more luxurious dining than the plateau. Burlap was in burro heaven and not interested in me. If Burlap wasn't leaving, neither was Billy.
So I climbed the hillside, which took fifteen minutes. I halfway expected stubborn Burlap to balk when I neared his rope, but he didn't.
They were no worse for wear after being away from camp all night, in spite of my worrying that they had been attacked by a band of coyotes or a lion. I was the dad, in my own mind anyway, whose children had not reported in after curfew. I led them back to camp to the happy cheers of Michael and Kevin. Lassie ran to Burlap, licking his muzzle. She had missed her morning routine.
"Here, Daddy! Take this." Kevin handed me the gallon of Kool-Aid, dripping icy water from the chest. I tipped it up and drew what felt like a half gallon.
"Don't drink it all, Dad! I want some too!"
"So do I!"
So we had learned one more desert lesson: domestic fowl like to roost in the same place every night if a place is provided to their liking. We really don't know too much about goats because Billy just echoed Burlap. But we could certainly question what goes on in the mind of burros. Burlap always had a mind of his own. He would take our arguments and pleadings under consideration, but he always wanted to make the ultimate decision. The night before he had. They were no worse for the experience. Maybe we should have left them out from the beginning.
"Pass me that cool-aid young man. Now you're drinking it all."