This is the story of the resourcefulness, stamina and courage displayed by a handful of men and women and a string of cow ponies on British Columbia’s remote cattle frontier in September 1935.
The flip of a coin with my ranching partner, Panhandle Phillips, gave me a chance to ride from our horse camp on the remote headwaters of the Blackwater River 50 miles to our nearest neighbors at Anahim Lake for our mail and a packhorse-load of grub.
Anahim Lake is 225 bush miles beyond railroad and town. That’s farther from civilization than any other ranching district in Canada or the United States. The nearest town is Williams Lake at the head of the Cariboo. Vancouver is 500 miles to the south. Ninety-six tortuous miles of twisting trail through the mountains separates Anahim from the tiny coastal settlement of Bella Coola.
Just at daylight, riding my half-Arabian saddle horse Stuyve and leading a packhorse, I splashed across the creek in the back of our bunkhouse at Blackwater and headed due south through the jack pines During the next 48 hours I was to be a witness to one of the most grueling ordeals a human being can undergo.
Panhandle Phillips had recently pushed the first pack train over the unexplored Itcha Mountains from Anahim, and the tracks of his 18 horses were easy to follow.
Late in the afternoon, climbing through a narrow pass high in the summits of the Itchas, I looked down into the vast lonely Anahim country. The yellow meadows crept octopus-like into the silver of spruce and the brown sweeps of willow bottoms.
It was growing dark when Stuyve threaded his way down through a narrow timbered gulch. Soon it was too dark to see where we were going, and we were completely rimrocked by windfall piled five and six feet high around us. I did the only thing I could do—let the horses stand between the piled-up timber while I took off my chaps, huddled into my moosehide jacket, and sat down under a windfall.
The hours passed slowly. Clouds lifted and shifting stars blinked coldly down. A faint breeze out of the east made a strange hushed noise in the high tops of the jack pines and far in the distance the mournful call of a loon was broken by the spooky high-to-low chant of a rutting bull moose.
At last a faint light lit the cold land around us, and, after some difficulty, I got the horses through the sticks and carried on to the south.
It was broad daylight when we crossed fresh blazes, horse tracks, and here and there the stump of a recently cut tree.
We were on Pan’s pack trail. Two hours later I was happy to see old and familiar landmarks about me and to know that I was about two miles from the Christenson ranch on a well-worn trail.
It was at this instant on the trail that a strange and still unexplained phenomenon occurred.
The forests seemed to be deathly still. I could feel the silence. A heavy growth of thorny bushes and jack pines stretched west of me some four and a half miles to the Behind Meadows. Now—from that direction—a strange human cry floated up. It was kind of a low moaning wail.
Stuyve pricked up his ears and shied off the trail.
The noise came again—I swung around and tried to crash the horses through the bush in that direction, but we couldn’t get through. I glanced up at the sun —about 8 o’clock I thought—too early for any of the Christenson kids to have left the house and be caught in a trap or hung up in a windfall; and it hadn’t sounded like a cry for help.
Again the forests seemed to drip with quiet. The noise had not been made by a cougar, wolf, a coyote or a lynx. I knew those sounds well. No—that wail was human.
I didn’t have to touch Stuyve—he eased into a long lope. A few minutes later we slid into the Christenson yard. I jumped off, tied the horses to the corral and strode hurriedly to the house.
Fair-haired, blue-eyed Andy Christenson, pioneer owner of Anahim’s biggest cattle ranch, greeted me at the door, “You must have spent the night in the bush. Rich. It’s not 8.30 yet. Come on in.”
Dorothy, his wife, came forward. “Glad to see you —it’s been a long time.”
I said quickly, “Are all the kids home? ls everybody around here accounted for?”
“Why, yes,” answered Dorothy. "Why?”
“I heard a strange noise back there in the woods," I said weakly.
Andy started to laugh. “Rich has been in the bush too long. He’s hearing things. Look at him —he’s red as a beet and just as shy and scared as a yearlin’ deer.”
We sat down to bacon, eggs, hot cakes, fresh milk and coffee on a gingham cloth. Shiny brass vases filled with many colored wild flowers centred the long table.
“How’s your haying going?” I asked Andy.
“All the hay is up here on the home place,” he replied. “Dorothy’s brother, Vinney Clayton, is up for a vacation. He loves to run a mowing machine so he’s over at Behind Meadows now running the hay crew.”
Suddenly a sick feeling crept up over me.
“We can’t keep Vinney still,” said Dorothy.
“Andy has been trying to get him to take it easy, but no, he’s going to keep on haying right up to the last few days. Then he wants to go after grizzlies in the Itchas and goats in the Rainbows.”
At this moment two things happened. The three Christenson children came laughing into the room from their bedrooms, and through the window I saw a white-lathered horse, streaked with mud, fall heavily to his knees. From his back a wild-eyed Indian jumped and ran for the house. We all jumped up from the table.
Dorothy rushed the children into an adjoining room.
The Indian plunged through the door. Outside I saw his horse stagger back to his feet and sway jerkily from side to side. I recognized the man at once. He was Louis Squinas, oldest son of Chie Squinas.
“Vinney!” he gasped through his breath. “Vinney—he’s die!”
I expected to hear Dorothy scream, or see her faint. Not Dorothy.
“Easy Louis,” she said. Her face was grey. Andy steadied himself on the back of a chair. Dorothy added, “Now Louis—tell us—what has happened?”
“Mowing machines he run away Vinney catch in mower knife, cut em off both legs. Lots blood . Now he dying can’t live. Thomas he see him, ride for me, I ride like hell.”
I didn’t want to eat but I quickly stuffed fried eggs into my mouth. There would be need for energy this day.
Andy spoke fast: “Quick Dorothy, get the disinfectant. I’ll saddle up.” He ran for the door.
Louis flopped panting into a chair and held his head between his hands. “Poor Vinney,” he moaned, “Poor Vinney.”
Dorothy ran out of a back room with a quart bottle of mercurochrome and several clean pillowcases. I stood at the door.
“I’ll take those things, Dorothy. There’s no horse in Anahim that can step on that bay’s heels I’m riding.”
She thrust the stuff into my hands. I said, “Get me a couple of pounds white flour.”
She was almost instantly back with the flour and a small ball of heavy braided cord. “Tourniquets,” she said.
I whirled around to Louis who was now back on his feet. “I get fresh horse,” he said. “I come behind.”
“Yes Louis,” said Dorothy. “Pick out a fresh horse, but ride like the wind for Jane Bryant. She’s home now. Been training for a nurse. You know where the horses are, Louis.”
“I go like hell. I kill one more horse!” he snapped.
Dorothy turned to me. “Tell Vinney I’m going to try and get through to Ashcroft on the phone. They may be able to connect me up with Vancouver and send a plane and a doctor.”
Dorothy was as calm as a precision machíne. I moved out of the door as she lifted the receiver and rang for the operator in distant Kleena Kleene. Louis Squinas followed me through the door.
“Where is Vinney?” I asked him.
“Two miles other side Behind cabin. Two meadows he come together.”
I knew the spot. I tied the bundle in back of my saddle, untied Stuyve, and swung aboard as Andy came riding out of the corral on a buckskin mare.
“I’m packing the stuff,” I called to him as Stuyve shot out of the yard.
“Take it away,” he yelled back.
A hard-packed, well-traveled hay road reached ahead of me. Stuyve was a typical Arabian. He was a horse ready to stretch into a run any time you gave him his head and he could feel the excitement or the tension of his rider. Now he sprung into his bit and I held him down to an ordinary run.
I figured out the distance to the connecting meadows from Christenson’s—more than six miles. No horse can go at race-track pace that far over rough country. We swung through a gate at the edge of a long lane and I reined Stuyve into a heavy timbered stretch.
I looked back. Andy was only a few lengths behind me. but I could see his buckskin was running at her limit.
We shot out of the timber and across a meadow. Now Stuyve was heated up. He ground his mouth into his bit, fighting to get his head. The meadow disappeared behind us.
Fresh clear wind swept past my face; now and then a fleck of horse sweat spattered back. A patch of black mud loomed up ahead and I sawed Stuyve down as quick as I could. He slugged with short running steps through the mud and came up fast on the other side.
He was breathing hard—another quarter faded behind—more timber ahead. A half mile through the timber and I pulled the bay back into a lope. He was heaving. Three and a half miles lay behind us, three and a half miles and not many minutes. I eased Stuyve back into a trot, but he fought for his head. His chest heaved and his sweat turned to lather.
Ahead of us meadows and occasional clumps of jack pines dotted the landscape. Stuyve’s breath was evening up. I let him into his ground-reaching run again.
I looked back across the opening—no sign of the buckskin. The Behind cabin came into view as we veered around the horse pasture. Stuyve fought for more bit.
Now I let him reach out farther and faster. His neck strained ahead. Far up ahead twin jack-pine islands jutted out of a sea of green meadow. “We’re nearly there,” I told Stuyve. The islands were coming closer. Meadow stubble flashed by like light, and we shot into the neck between.
Three men were packing a coat-made stretcher; on it more coats covered a huddled figure. Snatching off my bundle I ran toward the group. Stuyve stood foam-covered in his tracks.
I thought of Vinney as I ran forward. I had met him in Bella Coola. He was the kind you wouldn’t easily forget: a tall, clean-cut, brownish-blond man in his late 40’s, a mountain climber, big-game hunter, sportsman. He came through the thickest of the fighting in World War I unscathed. What irony, I thought.
I steeled myself. “Hello Vinney. Squinas got through to us. I’ve got some junk to put on your wounds.”
Vinney’s face was green. A strange light shone from his eyes. He looked steadily at me and spoke slowly and weakly.
“Hello there, Rich. Never expected to see you here.”
The Christenson cowhands, Billy Dagg, Stanley Dowling and Mac MacEwen, set the stretcher down. None of them had spoken.
I bent down over Vinney and carefully withdrew the boys’ bloody coats and shirts.
Brown-haired, square-jawed Stanley Dowling stepped up and I handed him the bundle.
“Dorothy has already got through to Ashcroft,” I lied to Vinney. “There’ll be a plane in with a doctor before the sun sets.”
Vinney was staring up into the sky.
“I’m going to make it anyway,” he grunted. “I only did two things right. After my team ran away and I fell in front of the cutter bar I never let go the lines or my whip. I stopped the team and then used the whip for tourniquets.”
I was looking at the whip tight in the flesh above the knee. The leg was gone just below the knee. The whole other leg was lacerated and looked to be beyond repair.
“How long since you loosened up the tourniquets?” I asked him.
“It’s 15 minutes,” spoke up Dowling, looking at his watch. “Time to loosen up again. He hasn’t lost much blood —he was too fast with his whip.”
Stanley and I loosened up the bull hide whip; blood squirted in a long thin line. Quickly Stanley tightened the second tourniquet, the blood flow eased off, then back with the first tourniquet.
“I’m going to clean this up a bit,”
I opened my jackknife, stuck it into the bottle of mercurochrome to sterilize it, then carefully slashed off dragging grass-covered flesh.
Vinney gritted, “Go to it. I can’t feel a thing, just empty space down there.”
Stanley turned grey and stepped quickly behind a tree. My head started to swim.
“Damn it,” I said to myself, “haven’t I got any guts? Look at this guy lying here—he’s got more nerve and guts than I’ll ever have.”
“Bottle” I said.
Stanley was back; he quickly handed me the quart of mercurochrome.
“Here she comes, Vinney,” I said.
I carefully poured the entire bottle over his one mangled leg and the stub of the other one.
I heard a thumping of hoofs across the meadow stubble. Andy Christenson leaped off the foamed buckskin before she came to a stop. He had called at Behind Meadows cabin and gathered up an armful of blankets. He stepped into our circle. Sweat ran down the lens of his glasses. Vinney didn’t look away from the sky.
Andy came straight to the point. “Vinney,” he said, “we’re going to rig up a comfortable stretcher with these blankets and you’ll be home before you know it.”
Andy was already moving for several old fence rails close by. The boys followed him.
I reached for the sack of flour and poured it all over the lacerated flesh. This would help clot the blood in the many arteries and tiny veins that were exposed. Andy called over from his work.
“You’ve got to have two tourniquets on each leg. You know that do you?” “Vinney and Stanley have already done that,” I answered.
The stretcher was made. Vinney was moved carefully onto it. Clean pillowcases torn into wide strips now were wrapped about the wounds. We were ready to start on the long trek toward Christenson’s.
Andy remounted his horse. He caught Stuyve by the hackamore shank. “I’ve got some errands and I’ll bring back more help.” He trotted off leading Stuyve behind him.
We picked up the stretcher, a man on each corner, and started forward. We made a mile, and then rested.
“Roll me a smoke,” said Vinney. “I don’t smoke much, but I could use one now.”
Stanley produced a tailormade, lit it, and stuck it in Vinney’s mouth. I looked at Stanley. He was dripping sweat; it ran down his face on his shirt front.
“I’m soft,” he said. “Been down in Vancouver too long.”
He touched me on the arm, and I stepped off to the side with him. He whispered, “I don’t think he can make it for long, his eyes are glassing up.”
“I noticed that too,” I whispered. “He’s putting up a terrific fight.” Hoofs rattled across the opening. “Jane Bryant,” said Stanley. “Now there’s a fighting chance for him.”
A tall, willowy, intent girl snapped off a lathered horse like a man; she carried a small battered suitcase in one hand. I could hear her gasping through her teeth as she ran past us.
“It’s Jane, Vinney,” I heard her say. “I’m going to do everything I can for you. A plane is expected in by nightfall, but in the meantime you'll have to take doctor's orders—no breaking the rules like a bad boy.”
I saw Vinney smile faintly. I thought, This is the first time light has come to Vinney’s face.
“First order is that you do absolutely no talking. We’re going to do all of that.”
She spoke softly to Dowling, “Stanley, give me a hand for a moment.”
She had been taking Vinney’s pulse. Now she and Stanley loosened and tightened tourniquets. Then she gave Dowling the wink and they walked off to one side. She nodded her head at Billy Dagg and pointed to Vinney. Billy and Mac stepped over to him and began to bilk. I followed Jane and Stanley.
“Boys,” she said, “I guess you both know Vinney may not live until the plane arrives.”
“The terrific pain of the cuts hasn’t started yet, but he has lived through the shock of the amputation. In another hour the pain he will have to endure will be unbelievable. And there’s no way we can ease it till a doctor arrives with morphine.
“I’ll have to tie up the main cords and arteries immediately and I’ve only got a pair of wire pliers to hold them with, but I can’t wait until later when the terrible pain hits him. I want you boys to line up behind each other, and when you feel sick, step back and let the next man take your place. I don’t want any of you crashing down on top of Vinney. Don’t study what I’m doing—just do what I say.”
Silently we followed Jane back to the stretcher.
“Vinney, I must do a little work on you now.” I saw her look for a moment into Vinney’s eyes and then swing her glance away from his to look into the blue of the sky.
She took a deep breath and strong lines came into her face; her jaw set in a straight line. She opened her suitcase.
Here, on this lonely meadow hundreds of miles from civilization and scientific aids, this young and only slightly experienced woman performed a most difficult surgical operation.
She must have worked for nearly 40 minutes, using the crudest of instruments—razor blades, a jackknife, a set of small pliers, scissors, silk thread, two bottles of some kind of disinfectant, several rolls of gauze, and finally pillowcases.
Occasionally she talked to Vinney —of music, of books, and of faraway places. I marvelled at her quiet efficiency and great courage.
It was late in the evening when we lugged the stretcher into the Christenson house. Dorothy had turned a back room into a ward. Vinney’s bed in the centre, a big oak table, trays, flowers, a chair and another bed across from it.
Andy had arrived with a bottle of rum during our long trek with the stretcher. But although Vinney was ordinarily as much of a drinking man as the rest of us, he steadfastly refused to take even a sip of the stuff. Through tightly clenched teeth, Vinney said:
“No, I don’t dare take even a small taste. I’ve got too big a fight ahead of me. I can’t take a chance—it might weaken my will.”
Andy asked Jane what should be done. “The plane won’t get here till tomorrow,” he said. “The prolonged pain Vinney’s enduring is enough of a shock in itself to kill him. If he could get even momentary relief with the aid of the rum it stands to reason it would be some help to his system. What do you think, Jane?”
Jane answered immediately, “I’ve been thinking about that, Andy. Vinney’s chances of living look so slim that he should not be deprived of any hunch or any clear thought or decision he has made. It will be a miracle if he doesn’t get blood poisoning, or tetanus, or die of the shock and the pain.”
“Jane is right,” Dorothy spoke up. “Vinney is a straight thinker. He knows now that his only chance of living through the ordeal rests on his will, his faith in God, and his clear mind."
Every few minutes now the jangle of two long rings and one short sounded in the house. A telephone-telegraph line stretched 320 miles from Williams Lake through Anahim to the fishing village of Bella Coola on the coast. Only a few phones were installed along its long course, but the Christensons had one of these.
Adolph Christenson, Andy’s active and dynamic father, a well-known frontier character, had called up three times from Bella Coola which is 96 miles away on the other side of the mountains.
We were just finishing our supper when the phone rang again. Geraldine Christenson lifted the receiver, listened a moment, then turned and said, “Dad, it’s Grandpa for you again. He says he’s in a big hurry and for you to get to the phone quickly.”
Andy hopped up. “Why yes, Adolph, Vinney’s still fighting. What did you say? Oh—you can’t do that! You’re off your ticker! That plane should be in here by 10 o’clock in the morning.
“What’s that? You can beat an airplane with saddle horses! Now listen Adolph, don’t try one of your wild stunts at this stage of the game. For God’s sake don’t take the doctor out of Bella Coola before the plane gets there; he’ll never make it horseback.”
Andy returned to the table and, pulling back his chair, said, “Boys, we all might as well realize that we’ve now got another problem on our hands."
Billy cut in. “And that problem is 'Emergency Adolph Christenson.'”
“Correct,” replied Andy. “Adolph and his brilliant ideas will be a threat right up to the time the plane gets in here. He’s prancing around Bella Coola like a caged-in wild horse; says there’s only one thing that counts and that’s action. Lord knows what he’ll think up next!”
Vinney was still fighting desperately for life when an orange-red sun rose.
“It’s an absolute miracle,” Jane said to me. “God grant him the few more hours needed until the plane lands on Anahim Lake.”
Billy Dagg was Andy’s ranch foreman. He and the new hired man, blond Dick Higgenson, left early to keep the hay crew clicking. Stanley, Thomas Squinas and I rode three miles over to the shore of Anahim Lake to build huge bonfires to act as beacons for the plane—it would be the second plane ever to wing into the country. We led extra horses for the doctor and the pilot.
While we trotted toward the lake, Thomas told us about the accident.
“We both drive mowing machines,” said Thomas. “I come behind in that little neck. My team he run away. I try to throw machine out of gear. I slip. I fall. I won’t let go my lines he drag me fast like the wind...my mower knife he gonna cut Vinney in two. Vinney jump fast, but he slip and fall in front of his knife,”
We cut and snaked in roots and trees, lit the fires, and staked our horses on good feed. Soon the smokes puffed skyward.
The day dragged slowly on. Ten o’clock passed—no plane. Our eyes were held like magnets to the western sky. At 2 o’clock there was still no plane. At 5 o’clock Stanley said, “In two more hours it will be too dark for a plane to fly in and land blind in a strange country.”
Thomas grunted and cleared his throat. “I think about it,” he said, “that white man’s bird he can’t make it. Saddle horse he more better; that cayuse he can get there.”
A horse whinnied from the trail to Christenson’s. Hoofs thudded across the ground. Andy rode to the fire. His face was drawn and his eyes were bleak.
We all called at once, “How’s Vinney?”
Andy got dejectedly down from his buckskin. He shook his head. “Vinney still lives. Why, I don’t know.”
“The plane,” said Stanley. “Where the hell’s that plane?”
“The plane landed in Bella Coola at 12 o’clock,” Andy answered. “The pilot had to pick up the doctor and he flew around for an hour before he could land. The water was very choppy. Now he can’t take off, waves are pounding on the dock. They say it’s absolutely impossible to get off the water tonight and weather reports are not favorable for tomorrow.
“Jane says she’s afraid Vinney will go by sun-up tomorrow without morphine. Come on men, there’s no use waiting here now.”
Thomas grunted loudly, “I think about it long time. This country too tough for any white-man machine. More better somebody he shoot ’em that bird now, then he can’t fool nobody again.”
We rode silently back to Christenson.
As we arrived, Billy Dagg, Mac and Dick were getting down off their horses. Thomas, usually stoical and self-contained, had worked himself into a mad rage during our ride home and now burst forth to the boys. The last thing I heard was, “We go to Bella Coola...saddle horse...96 mile there and 96 mile back...bring ’em back medicine."
When they came into the house Andy snapped into action. “How many shod horses have you got in, Billy?”
The Christenson foreman thought a moment. “I’ve got shoes on string 1, all but Betsy. There’s 22 head in that bunch.”
“Good,” said Andy. “The plane deal hasn’t worked. Now we’re going to back Adolph to the limit.
“I want you, Billy, with Mac and Dick, to pick out six of the fastest shod horses from string 1. Drive the bunch west, dropping off and picketing two horses on the meadow this side of Pelican Lake, two on top of Precipice; Mac, you stay with the horses at Precipice and be ready to relieve Adolph and the doctor there. Billy, you and Dick lead the other two loose horses down the precipice and keep going till you meet Adolph.
“In the meantime you fellows will need two changes of horses yourselves. So that means you’ll be starting off with six loose horses for the rescue party and six for yourselves. Twelve of the fastest shod horses, Billy.” “Okay,” said Billy, “twelve loose horses—six for the party, two staked at Pelican and two at Precipice. We keep going until we meet them. If we don’t meet ’em you can count on us being in Bella Coola soon after sun-up.”
Mac, Billy and Dick shoved out through the door.
Andy moved like a cat to the phone, made several rings and snatched off the receiver. Someone answered.
Andy snapped, “Get Adolph on the phone at once, this is Andy Christenson.”
A short pause, then a thin voice, “Adolph and the doctor are outside trying to start up Adolph’s car.” Andy snapped back, “Tell Adolph I want to speak to him at once.” Another pause over the line, then the voice came back, “Adolph wouldn’t listen to me. He said there was too much talk and not enough action. He and the doctor drove away.”
Andy set the receiver down. “Well, Adolph is off,” he said. “He and the doc got away in that old Model A of his. The tires are shot and if it runs 10 miles they’re lucky. I guess he’s planning to leave the wreck and pick up horses somewhere along the road.” “Andy,” Dorothy said, “those boys should have a hot meal before they start. It won’t take me 20 minutes to get it ready.”
“No, my dear,” said Andy. “Those boys won’t take time out for that— every minute counts from here on in.”
The riders ran single file through the door, their tanned faces set with the tension of the night ride ahead of them. Dorothy and Geraldine shoved large cups of coffee into their hands.
The men paused. Their eyes glinted. They drank slowly.
Billy looked at Andy. “We’ve got the cayuses in the corral. I put halters on all of ’em. Won’t lose no time anyplace catching and staking ’em out.”
The boys started for the door. Billy turned halfway around. His dark eyes twinkled. “Twenty-five dollars says that the horses beat the plane.” “Taken,” said Andy. “Go to it boys. Good luck, and good riding.”
Andy stared for a moment at the closed door. He took a deep breath and turned around to us.
“I’d like to see a moving picture of this night’s ride. It will be terrific —the fastest ever made across to the coast, the whole distance in the pitch dark. Billy will crowd those loose horses through the jungle and the windfall just as fast as they can run.
“Those boys are going to take some awful chances, but it was the only thing we could do, the only hope now for Vinney.
“I still want to get hold of Adolph and tell him about the relay horses.” Andy stepped briskly to the phone and rang for the Hagensborg trading post. He asked the trader to flag Adolph when he came through.
The phone rang. “Hello,” Andy answered. “Hello there. What’s that? Speak up loud man. I can’t hear you.”
After several minutes, “Well, can you beat that!” Andy said. “Thanks.”
He replaced the receiver and turned.
“Picture this,” he said. “Adolph and his passenger just chugged past the Hagensborg store. The trader tried to flag them, but Adolph was looking straight ahead and paid no attention to the man—nearly ran him down. He said the tires were flat and the car was running on the rims, and the motor was sputtering.
“The trader said he could still hear the old car banging and crashing up the valley.”
Dorothy and Jane hadn’t slept for more than 40 hours. Now Andy insisted they get some sleep. We took turns reading to Vinney, who lay motionless, his dull eyes partially open, his face a long grey shadow.
Looking down at him I noticed his eyes were closed. I had a spooky feeling. I looked at my watch. It was 3 o’clock. Someplace beyond the walls of the room I heard the faint tinkle of an alarm clock. A few moments later Jane moved quietly into the room, her slacks making a rustling sound as they brushed against Vinney’s bed.
Jane looked down at Vinney. She held his pulse for a long time, then with her fingers pushed back his eyelids. Her face was white. She picked up Vinney’s wrist again and stared at the black curtain of night in the window. Finally she laid his hand gently under the covers. We walked quietly out of the room.
The tall nurse turned and looked for a moment at Vinney’s sister.
“Dorothy,” she said, “there is still a faint flicker of life, but he hangs by only a thread. I don’t think he can hold out much after daylight without relief from the pain.”
Stanley and I saddled up, shivering, and rode abreast through the dark toward Anahim Lake to start the beacon fires going.
Water along the lakeshore glowed brown and muddy, a vague wind rustled the tall marsh grass, and from somewhere out in the weeds came the weird bubbling gurgle of a northern bittern.
Stanley and I worked in silence. The big fires finally cracked and blazed up in the dark. We sat down and waited. I held my watch up to the firelight. The hands pointed to 5 o’clock. A fresh light out of the sky was beginning to light the dull watery land around us.
Stanley looked toward the west. “There’s a pile of horses that’s running like crazy across that country over there."
“Yes,” I said. “There’s some great runs and some great rides being made tonight.”
We lapsed into silence again.
Shadows and strange shapes were fading into the realistic light of day. Far out across the lake floated the mournful call of a loon.
My mind traveled down the long trail to Bella Coola 96 miles away, to the precipice chasm, to the towering mass of broken rock across the cliffs.
I could see a relentless old man and a tired younger one urging sweat-streaked ponies on and on through the night and the silence; I could see many horses, dark masses of them, thundering west across the land. Darkness flashing by, snags and sticks and fallen tree limbs lashing out of the night at the tense faces and the moosehide-covered bodies of hard-riding men.
And with these thoughts I felt always the constant pounding of horses’ hoofs. I thought to myself, “The undertone of a new frontier—the music of horses’ hoofs cracking across the silent lands.”
I looked unconsciously at my watch —6 o’clock.
Stanley sat suddenly erect. “Do you hear anything?”
“I can’t get the thudding of horses’ hoofs out of my head,” I told him. “It kind of keeps on humming in my ears.”
Stanley sprawled flat on his side, his ear to the ground.
“Put your head to the ground,” he said excitedly. “I’m sure I can feel a vibration.”
I fell flat beside Stanley. I listened, then jumped up.
“There’s no question about it,” I said. “Horses coming in fast from the west."
We got to our feet and stared across the wide meadow along the Bella Coola trail.
Out of the jack pines a quarter of a mile to the west of us a horse shot into view, and then another one.
“Good God!” said Stanley. “It’s unbelievable! Someone’s broken through already.”
We strained our eyes across the flats.
The horses were running stiff-legged, reaching out low to the ground. The lead rider, his hand waving in a wide arc, was swinging a whip down on one side of his horse and then on the other. He leaned low over the horn of the saddle.
The horses came racing across the flats; their loud hollow breathing sounded above the thud of hoofs.
Stanley let out a whoop. “I can’t believe it—it’s Adolph!”
We cheered and jumped up and down.
“Change of horses here,” I called at Adolph’s dust-covered sweat-streaked face as his horse came pounding in close with the doctor’s satchel tied over the horn of the saddle.
Adolph’s glinting eyes didn’t leave the trail ahead.
Like a harsh breath of wind, man and horse swept by us. Behind thudded the other horse, and on his back with both hands gripping the horn of his saddle, his eyes glazed, his tense mouth gasping for air, swayed the white-faced, dirt-covered doctor.
We kept on cheering and yelling as the riders pounded out of sight. Then we sprang for our horses.
We raced toward the ranch. Fifty yards ahead of us I saw Andy Christenson run from the house to the doctor’s horse, saw the doctor sway uncertainly in his saddle and then fall heavily to the ground.
Now Adolph staggered from his horse toward the house, carrying the precious satchel. The doctor regained his feet with Andy’s help and took the satchel from Adolph, then shoved unsteadily through the door.
I watched his thin, mud-spattered figure sway behind Jane and Dorothy into Vinney’s room.
For the following 10 minutes the doctor and Jane worked over Vinney like a well-trained team. Then the doctor walked out of the room and fainted.
Later, when he revived, he told Andy Christenson that there were four reasons why Vinney had lived through the ordeal: the accident taking place on clean, uncultivated land saved him from tetanus and blood poisoning; Vinney’s quick thinking in using his whip for a tourniquet before he lost much blood; Jane’s skill in cleaning and suturing the wound—and, above all, Vinney’s will to live.
Now Adolph walked into Vinney’s room. I heard him say. “Good going, Vinney—you’ve cut the mustard, kid!”
He returned to the living room where he let out a war whoop.
“Who says a plane can beat a horse in this country! Give me a string of quarter horses, a quart of overproof rum, and I’ll beat any relay of planes in the country!”
Down onto the sofa went Adolph with a thud. He, too, was out like a light.
And thus ended one of the fastest and most remarkable rescue rides ever made in the north country. Unbelievable night rides made by three cowhands driving loose horses ahead of them down narrow jungle trails, a man in his late 60’s, and a young doctor unused to the saddle. Rides that not only beat the traditional mercy plane, but cracked into objective in time to save the life of Vinney Clayton.
Adolph told me a few of the facts.
He and the doctor made the first 20 of the 96-mile journey in the flat-tired, broken down Model A. When it collapsed completely they dogtrotted to the nearest farm where they borrowed two work horses and battered saddles.
Despite the fact that the next 20 miles through inky-black night were covered on these clumsy animals, these miles were fast ones in accordance with the accepted standards of riding. But the terrific ground-eating speed made by the doctor and Adolph began when Billy Dagg met them below Precipice with the first of the relay horses.
At this point the doctor was tired out, blistered, and saddle sore. He told me that when Billy met them he couldn’t see how he could possibly hold out for even one of the 50-odd miles still confronting him. A five-minute rest and a cup of hot coffee laced with rum revived him.
From here on in Adolph, followed by the doctor, made incredible time. The three sets of relay horses were in turn held down to a fast trot, and then pounded into a full gallop. As Adolph switched saddles at the relay points, the doctor mixed the coffee and the rum.
The plane settled on Anahim Lake early in the afternoon and the next day carried Vinney and the doctor straight to Vancouver.
As the plane rose into the sky above Anahim and purred over the distant mountains to the south, Thomas Squinas turned to the bunch of us, grunted loudly, and said:
“I think about it. White man he’s some kind of man—I don’t know what kind!”
Not long ago when I was down in Victoria I saw Vinney Clayton again. Walking toward me on the wide avenue in front of the Kinpress Hotel—tall, straight as an arrow, immaculate in a double-breasted blue suit, his limp was barely noticeable.
His clear eyes twinkled when he told me about his fancy new leg.
“It’s as good as my old one,” he laughed, “and sometimes better. It does not hurt when I hump my shin.”