THE HORSE THAT WOULDN’T DIE
The ugly little cayuse from Sugarloaf fought man and nature till a cowhand won his heart
RICHMOND P. HOBSON
NIMPO is a little black range horse with a noticeably dished face. The irregular splash of white that spreads from his wide nostrils almost to his foretop could possibly be called a blaze. His narrow pinched-up body is just as ugly as his face. A good horseman might notice that his eyes have a strange glint in them, unlike those of other horses, but he would never guess that this nondescript 20-year-old black cayuse is a famous, almost legendary, figure on this Canadian frontier.
Along the trails and around the campfires of northern British Columbia’s last cattle range, wherever ranchers and cowhands meet and the inevitable horse talk begins, someone is sure to tell a new one about Nimpo—the cayuse with the indomitable will and the heart that couldn’t be broken, the cayuse whose feats of endurance in the face of great odds have earned for him the title of “The Horse That Wouldn’t Die.”
In the fierce winter of 1929 most of the wild horses west of the Chilcotin district of B. C. were wiped out. That was one of those rare winters when deep snows were melted by chinook winds, and in turn frozen by terrific cold.
Out on lonely icebound meadows and along glassy slopes of shimmering mountains wild horses made their last desperate attempt to survive.
The strongest mares and stallions worked close together in semicircles in front of the bands. They used their front feet like sledge hammers, and cracked at the great ice blocks. When they uncovered a little grass they would nibble a mouthful or two, then carry on with their terrific work, leaving
what remained for the colts and the weak and dying horses behind them.
The stronger animals, their feet and ankles cut to ribbons by the sharp ice, died first, and it was only a matter of time before the weaker ones followed.
On the lower slopes of a mountain called Sugarloaf, more than 200 bush miles beyond Williams Lake, B.C., Nimpo, then a tiny, mouse-colored sucking colt, staggered dejectedly beside the withered body of a black mare. He had survived only because of his mother’s rich milk which she had produced for him almost to the moment of her death. He lowered his head and with his ice-caked nostrils touched her frozen body.
A few paces away, his little half-brother, a bay yearling with white-stockinged legs, pawed feebly at a patch of frozen ground.
In the distance lakes expanding with the frost thundered and roared, and the cannonlike reports of bursting trees echoed and re-echoed aôross the frozen land. Slowly the terrible cold crept into the gaunted bodies of the two colts.
The Colt Had a Fighting Eye
THOMAS SQUINAS, son of the chief of the Anahim Lake Indians, was camped with a group of relations at his trap-line cabin on a wild hay meadow a few miles west of Sugarloaf. He was examining a trap on an open knoll at the base of the main mountain when his well-trained eyes picked up an unnatural blur on the distant snow. Long after dark that night his sleigh pulled into camp with the two little colts.
Thomas Squinas was a good horseman. He
watched the gradual development of the two colts with unusual interest. He was certain that their sire had been a well-bred Arabian stallion which had broken from a ranch in the Chilcotin district and had run for two years with the Sugarloaf wild band, for each of them was short one vertebra, an Arabian characteristic.
The two colts formed a strong attachment for each other as they grew up. Unlike other horses of their age they were businesslike and sol>er. Even as two-year-olds they did little prancing or playing.
They were turned loose with the Squinas remuda when the black was a coming three-year-old, and for two years their whereabouts remained a mystery. Early in the winter of 1934 riders picked up fresh horse tracks near a hidden and seldomvisited lake called Nimpo. Later they found the two horses feeding in the high slough grass along the shore line of the lake. The wary animals were harder to corral than wild horses.
It was in December of that year that I first heard about them. My partner, Panhandle Phillips, and I were up from Wyoming in search of a cattle range, and we had made our headquarters 225 miles beyond the nearest town on an opening known as the Behind Meadows.
Sitting before our cook stove, Thomas Squinas described the trouble he and his friends had encountered corralling the two colts. His dark, square-cut face twisted into a crooked grin when he told us about the black.
“That cayuse he don’t like any kind of man. Can’t get close to him. I feed him lots but he won’t make friends. Now I break him to lead. He fight all the time— ('ontinued on next page
The Horse That Wouldn't Die
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won’t give in. He got funny look in the eye, not a mean eye—but he look at you hard and cold.”
The following day I decided to drop in on the Squinas village and take a look at the black. He was tied by an inch halter rope to a corral post.
I could see what Thomas had meant by the horse’s cold eyes. They glinted with a strange unfathomable hardness, and seemed to say—“I expect no favors from man, and J will give none.”
Thomas pointed a finger at the black. “Gonna be lots of work to break that Nimpo Lake cayuse, but I don’t think he’s gonna buck.”
I studied the shape of the horse’s head, his deep girth, the weird look in his eyes, and knew he had something. I pulled out. my pocketbook, stripped off three $10 bills, and shoved them at Thomas who quickly relieved me of them.
“That includes the halter he’s wearing,” I said.
Thomas grinned happily and nodded his head. I had the feeling that one of the $10 bills would have swung the deul, and noticed too late that the black had one crooked front foot.
Nimpo was my first British Columbia horse. He was hard to break all right. Each morning I had to throw him down, or squeeze him in between gates lo get my saddle on him.
Strangely enough the next hors«» I added to my string was Nimpo’s bay half-brother. I called him Stuyve. He bucked a bit at first, but soon settled down to a fast-moving and reliable saddle horse.
As the spring of 1935 approached our string of horses grew rapidly. Pan traded for an old, broke-down, slabsided cayuse called Scabby White. Nimpo and Stuyve ignored Scabby. They would walk past him without glancing in his direction.
Next came Old Joe, a dirty, browncolored, sway-backed wasp of a horse who was said to be 25 years old.
Old Joe and Scabby acted as if they had known each other before. They deliberately turned their backs on Nimpo and Stuyve and formed their own Tittle club.
By the first of May, 18 head of broke and unbroke cayuses bucked and played about our pasture. And Nimpo had taken charge. He was a terrific fighter. No group of horses was too large, and no horse too big for him to handle.
Hobbles Couldn’t Hold Him
After watching his short but rough encounter with a big, supposedly mean, 1,900-pound half-Clyde stallion, I was convinced that Nimpo was the quickest, shiftiest, and most vicious 1,000 pounds of fighting horse I had ever seen. The clumsy Clyde lasted about 10 unhappy seconds.
All the while Stuyve lived the life of Riley. Nimpo would find a new twoinch growth of lush redtop, drive the other horses away, and he and Stuyve would move happily onto it.
And then hot winds blew in from the west, the frost went out of the ground, and it was time for Pan and me to push our pack train north into the unknown regions beyond the Itcha and Algak Mountains.
That was a hard summer on horses. We plunged the pack train through snowdrifts on high mountain passes; pushed them hundreds of miles over rocks and mud and windfalls; mosquitoes, black flies and bulldogs de-
scended on the trail-weary horses in grey buzzing clouds.
Nimpo was our biggest problem.
In mosquito country it is cruel to picket or stake horses for they need freedom of movement to roll, twist and wiggle off the insects. Consequently we hobbled them. The average horse is so tired when his pack is removed at night that he is content to feed through the few hours of darkness close to camp. But not Nimpo. No matter how tough the day had been, or how heavy the pack he had toted, Nimpo would hop, jump and lope off down the back trail with his hobbles on.
We cursed him, sweated over him, got bitten and mauled in return, and every other day we swore we’d shoot him dead. He didn’t give us any rest, and certainly got none himself. Long before the summer was spent he was a rack of shrunken skin and bones.
Squatting in front of the campfire, on lonely rock-bound mountains, with a million glittering stars and a cold white moon pressing down on top of us, I’d listen to the sad tinkle of Nimpo’s special horse bell and a twang of sadness would reach through me.
“It’s not fair,” I’d think. “That poor suffering cayuse will keep on fighting until he’s dead. We ought to turn him
But then I’d think of the job that lay before us—packing in more than 12 tons of machinery and grub to the new range we had discovered on the headwaters of the Blackwater River, and I’d realize that if we turned Nimpo loose Sutyve would have to go too.
Despite the trouble, worry and loss of sleep that Nimpo caused us, he was a hard and efficient worker. When finally saddled and bridled he put everything he had into the work assigned to him. Nimpo became a good rope horse, nothing on the end of a lariat was too big or fought too hard for him. He was fast on the getaway, learned to turn on a dime, and I could see that some day, if he lived that long, he’d make a top cutting horse.
Once Stuyve and I fell off a beaver dam into a muskeg. Pan and our hand, Tommy Holt, snaked me safely out onto the bank, but Stuyve, with my saddle on his back, sank slowly and agonizingly down into the ooze.
Nimpo whinnied from the bank. His eyes held to the spot where Stuyve’s head was slowly disappearing.
“Let’s get that pack off Nimpo,” Pan yelled, “and throw a saddle on him. If he can’t yank Stuyve out there’s no other cayuse will.”
Pan tied a bowline knot around Stuyve’s neck and we shoved small trees and poles down into the mud under him. With the rope stretching from Stuyve’s neck to Nimpo’s saddle horn Pan spoke in a commanding voice.
“Git Nimpo! Hit her boy!”
The thin little black leaned hard into the rope.
Nothing came—nothing gave an inch.
He backed up. The rope slacked. Pan, holding him by the halter shank, said low and harsh.
“Ready Nimpo—now hit her hard, boy.”
Nimpo plunged and dug ahead hard against the rope. I saw Stuyve’s head come twisting up a foot above the muck. Again Nimpo fell back. This time to his haunches. He was breathing hard. Pan slacked up on the halter shank.
“Too much for any one horse!” Tommy exclaimed. “Much too much. A big team is all that could get that bay out of the suction.”
“We can’t let Stuyve die that kind of a death,” I said.
The Stallion of Sugarloaf
Nimpo had swung around while we talked. I saw him stare down at Stuyve. And then his eyes changed. He snorted, shook himself, then wheeled suddenly and fiercely into the rope.
“Look out!” yelled Pan. “Here he comes.”
That blazed-faced, crooked-footed black plunged madly, wildly ahead. A red fiery light flashed out of his eyes.
The superstrength that lies dormant in horse as well as in man had come suddenly to life in that little black, and we saw his partner come struggling up out of the depths of the stinking mud and a nightmarish death. We all yelled.
It was late that summer when Pan and Alfred Bryant, a young Anahim rancher, drove the pack train over the Itcha Mountains on a 300-mile round trip to Bella Coola on the coast. There, after the boys had assembled the mountainous pile of machinery into separate pack-horse loads, they were confronted with one awkward and extremely heavy mowing-machine part.
Old-timers said to Pan, “There’s only one thing to do. Pick out your toughest, meanest, orneriest cayuse to tote that cast-iron chunk, because you’ll have to shoot him when it’s over.” That load was hoisted onto Nimpo.
He made the long terrible journey back all right — 150 miles of bush, timber, rock, mud, torturous passes and mountain summits—with his backbreaking load.
He landed his pack—and then he laid down. We thought he was going to die. He contracted a fever, the flies descended on his emaciated body in swarms. For days only a vague fluttering of his eyelids and the faint pounding of his heart told us that he still lived.
We doctored him, fed him horse medicine, tried to tempt him with oats, and close to him kept a smoke smudge burning day and night. He lived, and late in the fall he was fat and just as ornery as ever.
One night, after the first heavy snow of that 1935 winter, we turned Nimpo loose with the other horses who were out rustling. That was the last we saw of him.
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We knew only too well that he had struck south toward his old home, and as great drifts of snow blocker! the high canyons and passes of the Itcha Mountains we concluded that this time Nimpo had gone bullheadedly to his death.
At Anahim Lake the following spring Alfred Bryant and I rode 80 miles through the ghost country of Sugarloaf Mountain on the tracks of a lone wild stallion. He had joined some mares and colts and herded them east across the range.
When we finally caught up with the band grazing on an open meadow they threw up their heads and tails and started milling about in a circle. Alfred pulled up his horse alongside of mine and we stared unbelievingly at the “wild stallion.”
There—gliding stallionlike back and forth around the flanks of the mares and colts, his tail in the air and his coat shining like glass—was a snuffy little black horse with a blazed face and a crooked foot.
We took Nimpo back into our cavy and when in 1937 we drove our first herd of cattle over the Itcha Mountains he was worth two ordinary saddle horses. In November that year he survived a starvation drive when Charlie Forrester and I fought 75 head of cattle and 18 horses through to Batnuni Lake.
But his crooked leg went lame the following fall and he was turned loose with Shorty, Buck, Old Joe, Big George and old Scabby White on a patch of slough grass near a recently frozen lake.
When Panhandle Phillips rode out to bring in the bunch he found Big George grazing alone and restless along the shore. A few feet out from its rubbery edge, in a tangled, frozen-in mass, were the bloated bodies of other horses. They had broken through the thin ice while feeding on a watery type of goose grass which grew out of the mud a few feet from shore.
Pan assumed Nimpo was among the mass of frost and snow-covered horses protruding above the ice. But acting true to form Nimpo had outwitted both the horse wrangler and the pothole lake. At that time he was working south through windfalls and jack pines toward Sugarloaf Mountain.
Nimpo’s Fight for Life
High in the Itcha Mountains, while feeling his way through a blinding snowstorm, he made a bad mistake. He turned into a dark narrow canyon. It was a blind draw and a trap—cliffs and towering granite walls reached skyward on three sides of him.
Nimpo turned and at the narrow mouth of the valley he found that his tracks made on entering were smothered beneath an eight-foot snowdrift. He was trapped. Ahead of him stretched three-and-a-half months of high mountain winter in country near the 53rd parallel.
Nimpo stubbornly pitched into the greatest battle of his career. He worked in almost perpetual darkness that 1938 winter on a three-acre patch of grass. The monotonous clacking of his hoofs cracking through the crusted snow rang across the valley floor.
January and February passed with shrieking winds and fierce, unrelenting cold. Great drifts of snow shifted and threatened to fill the canyon from wall to wall.
Early in May two Indians rode into the Home Ranch and told Pan about seeing a lone horse in the Itcha peaks.
“That eayuse just bone,” said one of the Indians, “pretty soon 1 think he die so I don’t bring him in.”
Pan backtracked the Indians to the canyon. He was shocked at what he saw. Nimpo’s big unblinking eyes stared out of hollow sockets; his hair was long, caked and shaggy. When Pan finally got him home he dosed him with Bell’s Medical Wonder and fed him his only sack of oats. And the incredible eayuse recovered.
That fall Nimpo suddenly changed his ways. He had slipped into a muskeg and as he was too weak to plow his way out of it I had to snake him out with another horse. While I was working at it I noticed him looking strangely at me from the mud. He seemed to be studying me, trying to make up his mind about something. When, dripping with mud, he stood safely on the bank he whinnied softly and touched me with a quivering nostril.
Nimpo never again tried to pull out on us, and even a child could handle him after that.
Pan and I sold out to a cattle company, and were made cow bosses of our respective units. We needed lots of horses for our work, and for years Nimpo was one of my top cutting and rope horses.
Black Cayuse Comes Home
The year before the company sold out Nimpo went permanently lame. He had cut out his last steer. I was instructed to sell him along with the other cripples and old horses to a mink farm for $15 apiece.
Something must have happened to Nimpo on the drive to the mink farm. He never got there. I guess some guy with a hungry loop must have stolen him. That was in 1944.
Strange tilings still happen up here in the north country. Not so long ago northern British Columbia was under the guns of a northeast blizzard, and things didn’t look too good out at my new ranch under the rimrock.
I knew that a bunch of cattle were huddled together in a grove of spruce against a drift fence several miles from the barn. If I wanted to save them I had to crack into the storm with a saddle horse and drive them through to the feed yard. I picked the aged but experienced Stuyve for the job, and he got me through to the cattle.
It was while I was riding home behind them that the strange thing happened.
Stuyve suddenly threw his head in the air, struggled against his hackamore bit, swung completely around and pranced sideways into the blinding snow and the wind.
He plunged and bucked through several drifts, whinnied, then came up sharp against the gate that leads out onto our open range.
Then through the shrieking wind I thought I heard a faint whinny. I tensed in the saddle and tried to see beyond the gate into the swirling greyish-white sheet.
A sudden shift in the wind swept a hole in the blowing snow, and for an instant I saw a frosted, emaciated little black horse standing on three legs with his back to the wind and his glazed eyes fastened upon the gate.
Smart old Nimpo, realizing that his blizzard-fighting days were over, had quit the range horses and struggled miles to the only spot that held any chance of getting him through to hay and shelter. His luck had held. No other horse but his lifelong friend Stuyve would have faced into that storm to reach him.
A few days ago a visitor to the ranch asked me why I had built the special horse pasture and fenced off an extra stack of hay for “those two old plugs.” Maybe if he reads this story he can figure out the answer, if