One day a friend of mine called and told me to read an essay on tracking that had incongruously appeared on the op-ed page of a newspaper. It was a very short essay, but its author had fit in many of the elements that make tracking wondrous. I saw that the craft was ancient and sophisticated and beautiful; I also recognized the possibility that its tiny mechanics could be shown in action: as smugglers ran south, shooting over their shoulders; as trails led to corpses; as trackers, racing after guides, repeatedly overcame improvised subterfuges.
The facts I learned in Brackettville were dispiriting. Chasing live trails usually involved a mute guy hurrying randomly through the middle of nowhere. He would be, understandably, very hard-pressed to explain what he was doing. He would also be very unlikely to catch anybody himself, because many widely dispersed agents collaborated on apprehensions. Apprehensions tended to be sedate and perfunctory. Real-time chases between smugglers and trackers almost never occurred. The chance of discovering a dead body in terrain with shade and seasonal streams and windmill wells was basically zero.
I went out with Border Patrol agents for probably ten full shifts, asking questions all the time. I learned a lot about strategy and logistics, but systematic instruction in sign cutting is a foreign idea in the Border Patrol, and incompatible with chasing people. I took my besides-the-point notes home and began working hard to make myself believe in them.
After a few weeks of extracting staged action and pretend insights from my notebooks, I was forced to admit that I hadn't actually seen anything. I needed to go back and get lessons. Ten days, however, was right at the limit of bureaucratic tolerance. It also seemed improbable that the Border Patrol would pull its best trackers off live trails and/or give away many hours of senior-agent manpower in order to provide me with intensive training. The only thing I could think of was to try and get permission to go out with McCarson again, perhaps by claiming that I needed just a few more facts for my story, and then pester him for special instruction on slow days. It worked, and before long came the moment when, for no knowable reason, multiple pieces of sign appeared to me as a single constellation.