Far from our own country, Holmes and I had already finished our traversal of the rim trail alongside one of those beautiful gorges that surprise the traveler amidst a seemingly barren country. The steep red rock cliffs dropped into the hollows below, though there resounded in our ears the sounds of laughter and play by fellow visitors swimming in the gorge pools.
Holmes, as was his wont, traveled lightly. Yet we had packed for all conditions, as was advised by the local villagers, with bathing costumes, towels and gumboot-like covers, or Neos, to protect our hiking shoes in the event of deeper water crossings. For want of space within our rucksacks, Holmes had secured the four boot covers at the rear below mine, where they drummed a rhythmic beat during the steep descent.
Once at the bottom but feeling rather in need of greater solitude, we passed by the cavorting crowd at Fortescue Falls and the terraced rock ledges overlooking them, like the seating at a vast ancient arena. Ten minutes further on, we savored instead the quiet of Fern Pool, a charming glen seemingly undiscovered by the throng. Holmes would naturally have stripped off his garments completely to enjoy the bathing here, but yielded to the modesty of local custom by donning his bathing costume, as did I. We swam like children in the cool waters, diving below the gentle waterfalls of the far side and resting on the ledge behind. We departed forthwith, however, as many others noisily arrived to disport here.
Returned to the terraced falls, we prepared to don our Neos covers, as we observed that the streamside trail might prove a challenge to follow without dousing our feet. We were shocked, alas, shocked to discover that but two of the four boots were yet attached to the pack I carried. Worse yet, they were not even a matched set, and no use could be made of these due to our notably different foot size.
“Where could they have got to, Holmes?” I spluttered. He looked at me in that way he does when I have been unable to pick up the scent during our many adventures. Yet, after some debate, we agreed that I would return to the Fern Pool, where perchance the boots had inadvertently fallen. For his part, he calmly declared, as he lit up his pipe, he would look for clues in the vicinity.
I zealously pursued my assignment, hurrying back to the Fern Pool, but taking care lest in my haste I would make matters worse by an incautious tumble. Alas, no boots could be seen nor any sign of their presence, though I carefully searched the spot and inquired extensively of those people who stood dripping water before me, shivering in the cool air. Disconsolate, I made my way back to Holmes at the terraces.
He had not been idle. As is his custom, he had struck up conversations with several passing visitors. Piercing to the heart of the matter, he had related our predicament. From one such couple, remarkably, he had found the clue we needed: they had in fact seen just such a boot half way up the steep trail we had descended.
What with my fruitless trek to the other pool, I had to acknowledge the ingenuity of Holmes’ approach to the matter. “Perhaps the other boot had worked loose in its vicinity,” I opined. “An excellent thought, Watson,” he agreed, “and one that should again be pursued without delay.” So, I hastened to ascend the vertiginous trail lest the boot be removed. Holmes resumed his investigations below.
After climbing nearly to the top, taking care to search left and right along the way, I rounded a twist in the trail and, there it sat, upright and evident as if placed there with fellow feeling, the matching one of Holmes’ boot. A wave of relief cooled my fevered brow. “Continue on,” I reasoned with myself, “and you will surely find the other.”
I pressed on to the top, following our tracks to the public lavatories where we had discreetly stopped. But no boot could be found. Learning from Holmes’ method, I inquired of several fellow walkers if they had seen any sign of such a boot as I now carried, but those conversations yielded nothing helpful.
So I returned down the steep trail, boot in hand, again scanning the route like a combat surgeon probing for metal fragments in a wound. Back once more at the bottom of the canyon, I found Holmes in animated converse with another couple.
“Good news, Watson,” he exclaimed with some fervor, “we have found a likely witness.” It transpired that this couple had chanced upon that same missing boot of Holmes I had just recovered. While noting it, another couple passed by them and remarked how odd to see the second such boot in one day. Better yet, Holmes noted encouragingly, those who had seen the second boot were even now visiting the Fern Pool.
“But, but…Holmes,” I pleaded with a measure of weariness. Yet even I grasped the wisdom of what I must do. So, in the company of the wife he had questioned, I quick marched yet again to the Fern Pool. There my companion quickly found the other woman who had observed our second boot. Her memory proved as clear as the waters themselves. She had spied the second boot, she affirmed, along the rim trail near the tree clearly marked as a haven for local bees. I recalled that landmark immediately, one quite close both to the starting point and the intended conclusion of our journey. So, after volubly thanking both women for their sharp-eyed observations and assistance, I rapidly returned once again to Holmes, still pondering at the terraced ledge.
Holmes and I conferred about this new discovery and agreed to continue our journey along the gorge while the light still allowed picturesque passage, then re-trace our trail for the short distance required to secure the missing boot.
You may read elsewhere about the remainder of our journey. Suffice it to say, though Holmes blithely tramped through the waters in his boots, that I contrived to stay dry of foot even with but one boot for protection. Not surprisingly, my unconventional appearance occasioned much additional converse along the trail. Remarkably, several of those we passed confirmed the sightings and locations of the now apparently famous missing boots. Holmes appeared unsurprised by the number of these revelations.
The final information we needed came near the close of day at the Circular Pool, a then chilly, sunless lake within a precipitous cylinder of red rock – not unlike that cliff where Holmes and Moriarty had their falling out. After our brief swim, we began to gather our gear in preparation for our final push to the top. Another of the swimmers there noted our boots and related how they too had seen the yet unrecovered one, not by the bee-harboring tree as we had been told, but adorning the signage at the top of the climb from Circular Pool.
Holmes gave a hearty laugh. “Watson,” he chortled, “we yet appear to have helpers in our quest, far beyond those who offered evidence on the boots in question. How wonderful a land where even the casual traveler, willing to converse with such strangers as we, can help us unknot such a case. How more wondrous still that these travelers divine how best to help us recover what we have lost!”
I had but to admit how Holmes had hit the mark again. With hopeful mood but somewhat bated breath, we together climbed the 300-foot ascent out of the Circular Pool, looking back fondly, like Orpheus, at the darkening deep red cliffs, the great lengths we and our boots had travelled, and the gleam of ebbing sunlight on the rim of the chasm.
And there, at the top, upon that aforementioned trail marker, hung my missing boot – returned at last to its owner, who humbly and gratefully recounts this tale.
(Appearing in the role of Holmes was Nancy Corley, with Barry Schneider as Dr. Watson.)