WE FOUND THE WILD WEST
RICHMOND P. HOBSON JR.
AN AND I had j'ust sixty-eight dollars between us.
“I don’t know how in the hell we’re going to finance grub, machinery and equipment purchases if we find anything behind those mountains,” I said to Pan. “We’re in so deep now that we couldn’t buy a return ticket back to Wyoming.” Pan snorted loudly. “Friend,” he said, “ya never want to worry about that long green. There ain’t no place to spend it back there behind those Itchas. When the time comes and we need a little cash we’ll figure out a way to get hold of some.”
Young Tommy Holte offered to throw in with us. He had just returned from his first trip to town, a 450-mile round trip to Williams Lake, on a saddle horse. Here, in feeling if not in fact, he had nearly drowned in a bathtub and been run over by a bicycle. When he was escorted out of a beer parlor for being under age, Tommy rode away
vowing that this was the first and last city he’d ever visit.
“Now,” said Tommy, “I want to get back in the bush as far as I can from this here civilization.”
It was on the 10th of May, the day before our pack train’s departure into the no-know land, that our horse camp broke into wild confusion. A body of moose-hided horsemen galloped toward us clear of a fast-moving buckboard onto which was lashed a barrel of “Itcha Mountain Fog.” In the custom of these backlands, the men had ridden miles from their homes to see their friends off on what they knew would be a long and hard trip.
At the saddle shed one of the men set to work mending our pack-saddle rigging and látigos, a cup of “Fog” beside him. Out at the corrals three others helped Pan finish the heavy job of shoeing and rock-packing the broncs we were going to pack. Alfred and Cyrus Lord Bryant helped me sort food and equipment into 200-pound pack units.
Before dark we were completely organized and every man had studied my grub and equipment list to be sure we had forgotten nothing. Strangely enough one terrifically important item was overlooked by everyone—mosquito dope and mosquito netting—and Pan, Tommy and myself were later to pay mightily for this omission.
How ornery can a pack horse get? In the night the whole train pulled stakes and headed for home—150 miles away. The cowboys found them and herded them back in a 70-mile drive. Then they pushed into a fantastic world of muskeg and spruce about which their map could tell them nothing
The first night we halted our pack train on the edge of a slough-grass swamp meadow, rimmed by clumps of red willows and jack pine. “A good place to camp,” explained Pan. “Lots of feed and water and we’ve made a good 10 miles. Enough for soft pack horses.”
“Get a couple of buckets and start packin’ me water,” he said. “I’m gonna pour a bucket of cold water over each cayuse’s back before we turn ’em loose. Once a cayuse gets a sore, a packer might as well figure he’s dead flesh for the time being. This cold water and a good rubbing down at the end of each day cuts down the sore back danger maybe fifty per cent and not only hardens their backs but stops any swelling.” Since then
I have noticed that Pan has less sore backs in his string than many oldtime packers.
I was awakened suddenly by Pan shaking me and shouting. “Roll out! The horses must have pulled. Not a bell ringin’!”
But all our saddle horses hadn’t gone. In the pale-yellow light of dawn Pan brewed coffee and we drank it. Then he and Tommy rode off along the edge of the meadow.
The disturbing thought crossed my mind that some of the horses might have struck out for their home range, more than 150 miles away. Later I became convinced that this was exactly what had happened. I realized only too well that horses will pull out for home range early in the spring, even if their feed is good.
All day I listened in vain for bells. My supper of dried moose meat didn’t tempt me. I crawled into bed under a spruce tree and spent an uneasy night. And then all at once the ground shook and trembled with pounding hoofs. I rolled over in
my bed and sat up half dazed. Dark plunging bodies crashed through camp.
Pan and Tommy staggered wearily to the fire and sank heavily to the ground. “We got ’em all. It was a hell of a trip. We’ve rode 70 miles for them ornery cayuses,” Pan said. His long dark face was lined and haggard and he looked 10 years older than his 26 years. Both men’s faces were scratched and cut by limbs, bushes and snags.
Pan had an annoying habit of never admitting he had made a mistake. Now I wondered how he would manage to prove to us that this near collapse of the expedition was a good thing. I winked at Tommy and said, “How about a few words of wisdom from the Top Hand? This is one crazy mistake that all three of us made, and this is also one time when Pan is stumped.”
Tommy laughed. Pan turned to him. “Rich here has got a blood clot on the head for sure. He doesn’t realize that the best damn thing that every happened to a trail outfit has just now happened to this one. Boy, we’ve learned a real big lesson and we learned it at the start of the push. You fellows can figure out what could have happened if we hadn’t had this wakin’ up now and stayed careless, and the cayuses had pulled out on us maybe a hundred miles or so back in no-man’s land. We could easily have been left afoot and never seen half of them again. What’s more, that run has taken the sharp edge off every last one of those ground eaters. They’ll be easy to handle from now on.”
“You win, Panhandle,” I grunted. “Pick up the marbles. Now you boys better rest today.”
Reaching the rope corral, Pan called over his shoulder, “Nothin’ doin’— we’re gonna make Andy Holte’s today and I’m gonna break a new horse to ride. Croppie’s had too much trail.” The exhausted Top Hand dabbed his loop on Big George, a five-year-old unbroke black horse with a blazed face. “Get me a gunny sack for a blindfold,” he said. He began talking softly to the bewildered horse as he ran his hand soothingly up and over his neck and behind his ears.
“You’re just a big tired gentle fellow, ain’t you, George? Just a sleepy tired horse. Sleepy and tired.” George’s ears went from alert to relaxed. “You’re not even scared any more, are you George?” Pan kept stroking and talking to him and the animal’s eyes began to flicker and his eyelids dropped. Then, easily and without a single quick movement, Pan edged his saddle and pad onto Big George’s back.
Tommy exclaimed to me, “The man’s hypnotized the cayuse.”
Pan’s eyes still stared straight into the half-shut eyes of the horse. He stroked him under the belly and caught the dangling cinch. “Get everything ready for the start,” said Pan quietly. “Get me my brone bridle, 1 don’t want to hurt this horse’s mouth.
Five minutes later I swung up on Stuyve and, turning, saw Pan sitting on Big George’s back. He tucked the blindfold under his belt and called, “Let her go!”
Tommy and I started the train ahead up the trail. When they had strung out single file Tommy dodged his horse into the bush and trotted into the lead position. Big George walked stoically along beside Stuyve in the drag.
We were headed for the swamp meadows of Tommy Holte’s father Andy, who lived in the shadow of the Algaks and held the unique distinction of running a cattle ranch farther back from railroad and town than any white outfit on the continent. Andy is a real frontiersman. He has an uncanny ability to sense a situation where a strong man and a fast horse are needed. But he has one failing—he hasn’t the slightest conception of time. Very seldom does he know what day or what month it is. To him winter and deep snow mean wild-horse-chasing time; summer is the season for exploring new country and any time is horse-trading time.
I had met Andy a few months before when he came riding around the bend in the trail near Jim Holte’s, a trim, angular man in his early forties. Now, as 1 rode along, I thought of that first meeting.
An English tweed golf cap sat in the exact centre of his head. He wore moose-hide chaps, a vest topped by a faded blue, satin-lapeled smoking jacket. On one foot he wore an obviously expensive, high-heeled riding boot and a silver-moui.ied spur, on the jrn congress boot with ^de, built-up heel and no .vndy said he was just on an ;iid but later Mrs. Holte told me ihe story of that trip.
It was the end of February when Andy freighted a new cookstove in to his ranch. He couldn’t find his monkey wrench to set it up. There was just one thing to do—ride 35 miles to his nearest neighbors, the Christensons. As fate would have it, Jim Holte had been down the day before and borrowed the Christenson tool kit to work on a broken runner of his hay sleigh. Andy spent the night at Christenson’s and early the next morning struck out for Jim Holte’s ranch —15 miles away. It was on this stretch of road that I had met him.
That night at Jim’s, cowpuncher Gordon Wilson rode in to say he had spotted a band of at least 20 wild horses, rimrocked by heavy snow in a high valley beyond Tatla Lake. Andy’s failing was chasing wild horses. He knew that now was the time to corral the wild band. So at daybreak he and Gordon rode east into a raging blizzard. For two days the half frozen men plunged their horses over the 60 miles of snow-choked trail to Bob Graham’s Tatla Lake ranch. They had hard luck for the horses had broken out of the valley and moved north. They followed tracks for days until finally both men realized the futility of pushing farther.
Back at Tatla Lake, Andy found Bob Graham excited over samples of quartz picked up some 30 miles to the southeast. He showed them to Andy. Andy knew a little about rock; what he saw set his blood racing and next morning he and Bob Graham rode southeast and Andy’s home grew still more distant.
At the end of March the two tired prospectors rode happily back, having staked the vein and the surrounding country. Andy struck for home at a fast trot. He hadn’t ridden far when an Indian on a black pony hailed him and explained in broken English that an elderly woman whose husband had not returned from a freighting trip was sick and out of wood and water. And so Andy on his homeward journey detoured 30 miles out of his way and for a week labored at the old woman’s homestead, hauling hay, water and timber.
On April 10 Andy rode timidly into his own ranch.
Mrs. Holte, after telling me the story, dryly commented: “It wouldn’t have mattered so much being 40 days late, but Andrew forgot the monkey wrench!”
Now Andy must have heard us yelling at the pack horses, for suddenly he came racing bareback out of a clump of jack pine on one of his daughter’s cayuses.
We lay over a day at the Holtes’ and when we left Andy insisted that he go along a short distance with us to see us safely down the trail. Catching up the brindle pony and riding bareback with only a halter, he joined Tommy in the lead.
Somewhere under the dark jungles of the unknown Algak Mountains, miles beyond the Holte meadows and on the southern edge of a fantastic world of muskeg and black stinking ooze, we passed into the big white blank space shown on the map as “Unexplored Territory.” The character of the land had changed so gradually that it wasn’t until now it suddenly dawned on me that this unexplored country resembled nothing I had ever seen or heard of.
A barren, greyish - brown muskeg spread octopus-like before us; its huge body and tentacles vanished in dull dead space north and west of us.
Andy knew muskeg country and had a strange skill in picking safe crossings around and through floating mosscovered arms of bottomless muck where bad judgment could have sent horses and men to possible death.
Pan called to me over his shoulder. “This is the biggest break this trail outfit will ever get. If you or me or Tommy’d been the lead, some of us would have swallowed mud by now.”
“What about Mrs. Holte?” I called back. “She didn’t even know Andy left the barn.”
Pan grinned. “We won’t say a word to him about it. Let’s see how long he stays with us.”
Miles up the muskeg Andy stopped the horses. Here, where a narrow slough extended back into the mountains from the muskeg edge, green, wide-bladed slough grass grew lush and rank. We made camp. Andy squatted on his heels in front of the fire and told yarns. Never once did he bring up the fact that he’d forgotten to tell his wife about going along with us.
I struck out for a quick walk up the pothole. It was just about dark when I rounded a bend and was surprised to see the pothole widen to almost a valley that seemed to wind back into the heart of the Algaks. However it was too dark to make sure of this. I hurried back to camp and told my discovery to the relaxing bog trotters.
Andy took off his golf cap. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do with ya, Pan. I’ll bet my ground-gainin’ brindle saddler against your petrified black hesitator that we find a trail startin’ into the mountains from the end of this slough. I remember a Kluskus Indian called
Alexis telling me about a swamp meadow running into the mountains from the edge of a big muskeg. He told me that years ago IJlgatcho Indians cut a trail into the mountains from the upper end of the meadow. They used to hunt the caribou herds between the Algaks and the Itchas and pack out meat in the fall. Chances are this is the route.”
Next day, as soon as it was light enough to see, Andy jumped on his horse and rode up the pothole to look for the trail. It was a lucky day. Andy found an ancient trail that wound its
way gradually up through the heavy jungle. Before sundown our horses broke out onto a parky grassland. From here on Andy picked the trail through the scattered bullpines, climbing higher and higher toward the red buttes above us. Almost before we were aware of approaching night, darkness fell.
On a high grass-covered bench Andy stopped. I was sure that had it still been daylight we could have looked north into the unknown land we had traveled so far to reach. In the morning we would look down into the
no-know country ana upon our future home. Wei.
High up on the bench, at the oat,, of the red cone-shaped buttes, dawn broke early. A thin white lacing of frost covered the ground. Sitting in front of the fire, we looked into the north and watched distant shapes and shadows gradually take form. We gazed in awe down at the panorama of a silent lonely jack pine land, so vast, so immense in scope that its monotonous green boundary faded in hazy space at the base of a high snow-capped mountain range that looked to be at least 75 miles north and east of us.
I have seen great sweeps of arid desert wastes and burning bad lands and enormous stretches of prairie, but none of these sights affected me like this view of the dull green jack pine world that stretches more than 1,000 miles north from the 52nd parallel into the Arctic.
A strange hollow loneliness seemed to reach up out of the vastness of the jack pine and caught me for the first time in its grip. An eerie empty lifeless land of monotonous sameness; uninspiring, unspectacular, colorless, exuding a sinister feeling of complete isolation from the living. A land that breathes no spirit of a past life and gives little hope for a future one.
We caught utp the horses, packed and herded the train east through the snow brush at the edge of timberline. As the day wore on Andy led us higher and higher toward the Algak summits and a great open gap in the country ahead, where a deep canyon split the range. The northern tip of the grey muskeg gradually became visible as we climbed higher. One arm swung around in front of our mountain range.
At this height we could see a scattering of small yellowish dots and lines, tiny green-rimmed pothole lakes, occasional brown splotches and a few reddish-colored areas. These were the only marks that broke the monotony of the 10,000-odd square miles of jack pine immediately visible.
As the day progressed a thin mist rose up out of the bottoms and obscured any further view of what lay beneath the Algaks. For the rest of the day as we traveled east the i minous spell of the jack pines under the mist held us in its silence and gloom.
We made camp above timberline on the edge of a glacial lake surrounded by snow brush, alpine grass and rocks. It grew dark. The fire blazed up. Echoes of the horse bells clanged hollowly. Miles away from down in the land of pines floated a low moaning animal call, long drawn out and melancholy. I shuddered.
Pan got to his feet and stepped out beyond the light of the fire. He reappeared clutching a bottle of whisky. He flourished it above his head.
“Men,” Pan said, “it’s country north—new country. A range beyond the stamping grounds of saner men. An empire where we can run stock without interference—and live our own lives.”
He stopped for a moment. I wondered what was coming next. Pan tilted the bottle to his lips. It gurgled for an instant. He continued. “We’ve found our country—a green country as big as a quarter of the United States, a place that will be all our own; nobody else will want it. Nobody can get in it and we’re lucky if we can get out of it
“Our neighbors will be the wolves, our music the call of the loon. Our beds will be the earth. Our books and movie shows will be the look on the other guy’s face. Our roads will be the muskegs, our cars the cayuses. Oui friends will be the whisky-jacks and the squirrels. And, friends, our cattle feed will be the jack pines and the snowballs.”
The Top Hand looked sadly at the three of us sitting by the fire, took another long gurgle, shuddered and resumed his eulogy. “Gentlemen of the jack pines, this is sure one proud day of our lives. It’s a moment for prayer and thanksgiving. After a year of careful exploration, my top-heavy friend Mr. R. Peterson Hobson and myself have found it. We are now noted explorers—noted for our discovery of a great jack pine cattle range.”
That evening might have been a sad and gloomy one for us all. Pan’s disappointment that our thoughts, dreams and efforts of the past year had been dashed to pieces in our first view of the unexplored country was probably greater than mine. But he had a certain way about him, and so had Andy. Neither of them would show his keen disappointment by any outward sign.
We demolished the bottle before the fire and Andy, leaning back against a :ock, told us what he knew about the Ulgatcho Indians, the only inhabitants of the country, wild and uncivilized. He told us there were supposed to be between 300 and 400 Ulgatchos wandering through the bush, nine tenths of whom had never seen a town. Then he tried to cheer us a little.
“Boys, before daylight tomorrow morning we’re gorni have coffee and then climb up that pinnacle to the highest point in the Algaks, and when daylight breaks we’ll see country no white man has looked at before; we’ll see the Itcha Mountains and what lays at its bottom. I don’t know, but I have a hunch there’s a surprise in store.”
Long before daylight he had us out of our beds. When it was just light enough to see we began climbing on to the cracked walls of the shadowy peak point of the Algak range. Ulgatcho Indian land unfolded. A few miles east of us the snow-capped Itchas dropped abruptly some 4,000 feet to a yellowish opening that stood out in bold contrast against the jack pine green. More yellow arms, necks and islands were scattered along the base of the mountains.
Andy borrowed my binoculars. “Yellow patches down there are grass,” he commented. “Highland meadow grass.” He swept the glasses in an arc to the east. Suddenly he stopped and remained motionless, staring fixedly at a vague yellowish blur on the distant horizon. He sucked in his breath and took off his golf cap and laid it down on the rocks without taking his eyes away from the glasses. Then he cleared his throat.
“I’ll tell ya what I’ll do with ya,” he drawled. “I’ll trade you boys ranches straight across—and I’ll throw in the brindle pony and, what’s more, I’ll throw in the halter he’s wearin’ and the set of number two horseshoes he’s got on.” Andy paused. “It’s a clearcut swap,” he said. “I’ll ride down onto your spread and you boys ride back to mine. How about it? Ranches straight across.”
Pan started across for Andy. “Give me them opera glasses, ya miserable hog!” He swung the glasses and stopped abruptly. I saw him swallow. Andy hissed in his ear, “Ranches! Ranches! Shake hands!”
Pan answered slowly. “Andy, if ya throw in Andy Christenson’s, Cyrus Bryant’s and Jim Holte’s ranches to boot, I might be interested—but then that layout would be too cut up. I guess we’ll have to ride down onto ours, and you backtrack to yours.” He shoved the glasses into my hands.
“Country north,” he said simply. “The gold mine—we’ve found her!”
I guess I was about as excited as an excitable person can get. At first I couldn’t even hold the glasses steady. Finally I got them adjusted. What I saw through the field glasses was a wide open sweep of grassland. This opening was many miles north of the Algaks and the Itchas, but it was a whale of a big opening. Its northeastern boundary could not be seen, even through the glasses. It just kept going into the distance.
The Granddaddy of Ranches
The main body of the opening was yellow. Andy knew that this yellow color was made by last year’s dead grass. He knew that where the dead grass was heavy enough to overshadow the new growth it was a lush grass country. It was hard for me to realize what we, the first white men, gazed upon. A cattle ranch proposition that could be the granddaddy of cattle ranches. An empire of grass just sitting there waiting for some outfit to take over; an almost tax-free chunk of grassy acres that could eventually be surveyed and bought for $1.50 to $2.50 per acre from the B. C. Government. What a proposition this was! What an opportunity lay ahead of us now!
Back at camp Andy caught his horse and then turned to Pan. “Jumping bullfrogs!” he said, “I forgot to tell the missus I wouldn’t be hack for dinner.” A sheepish grin spread slowly over his face.
“I just can’t figure it out,” explained Andy. “It seems like we just left the barn, and then again it’s like a lifetime.”
Tommy sadly shook his head at his father. “Andy,” he said, “we’ve been gone three long days and three short nights. Alice is goin’ to be worried about her brindle pony you swiped on her.”
(In the next installment Rich, Pan and Tommy battle muskeg to reach the blur on the horizon and have a memorable encounter with two angry and belligerent Ulgatcho Indians.) iy