WE FOUND THE LAST WILD WEST
RICHMOND P. HOBSON JR.
The guide’s last warning when he turned back from the wild new cattle land was: “Act friendly to the Indians; remember they’re your neighbors.” But when the drums began to beat they knew the Indians didn’t want them as friends - - or neighbors. By daring gun play and in a savage fist fight the cowboys won the right to stay on the range
WHAT HAS HAPPENED: Rich Hobson and Panhandle Phillips, two penniless cowboys, have trekked 2,000 miles from Wyoming in search of a blank space on the map of Northern B. C. where legend says a vast rich cattleland lies hidden behind a mountain barrier. With Andy Holte, a B. C. rancher and his son Tommy, they take their 16-horse packtrain through swampland, muskeg, jack pine and crag until, from a peak in the Algak Mountains, they spy through binoculars the yellow blur on the far horizon which marks the land they seek. No white man has seen it before and wide stretches of muskeg and fierce, uncivilized Ulgatcho Indians bar its way. The time: late spring, 1935.
BEFORE Andy Holte headed back to his ranch at Anahim Lake he gave us some advice which we later wished we’d followed. “You kids are pullin’ north into a country so far back . and so hard to get at that ya don’t have to make but a few of the same mistakes I made, and you won’t come out,” Andy said. “Nobody will drop into a country as big as the state of Washington to find out why you didn’t come out for your winter’s grub. Draw a map of what lays before you. Put down all the landmarks you can. Spot your yellow grass openings on your map where there’ll be feed for the cayuses. And never leave your camp without packin’ a gun.
“When you meet up with Indians yell hello at them and make them sit down and drink coffee with ya. Don’t be mean or cheap, act real happy when you’re around them, don’t ever tell one of them a lie and, I don’t have to tell ya, don’t play around with their women. Remember they’re your neighbors. Talk on the same level with them.
“All three of you empty-headed walruses has got to know that it’s mighty easy to get lost down in those jack pines. Remember, when the horse wants to go one way and you the other, ya want to let the feller have his head, and you’ll land back with the other horses at your camp. And, boys—never cross a swamp or a muskeg—even if you have to go miles around it. Take to the bush. So long, you mountain bums.”
Andy rose to his feet, hopped onto the back of his brindle horse and, without another word, trotted off down the back trail.
What a country, I thought. There goes Andy, headed for home, riding over a dangerous terrain. His wife and nobody else knows where he went in the first place, or how long he was planning to be gone. If his horse slipped into the muskeg, or stuck his foot in a hole, or got snagged in a windfall, there would be nobody out to look for him. The coyotes, wolves and grizzly bears would take charge of him so fast that after a couple of good rains Andy’s disappearance would remain a mystery for keeps. Good old Andy!
Pan and I followed his advice and made a series of maps. Then we made our plans for the expedition to the Blur. The idea was first to swing down toward the base of the mountains, then strike through the jack pines to the first series of yellow land openings. Then cut trails through the bush
to the farthest yellow spots on the horizon. We had no idea how long it would take to slug through from here to the Blur, for even with field glasses it was impossible to judge the type of country and the mileage.
We got away to an early start and by noon the trail dipped down into the foresta. Now we had to break through a long tough four miles of heavy spruce to reach the foot of the mountain. Tommy and I went ahead, slashing out a trail wide enough to get the pack horses through. By dusk we broke out onto the jack-pine flat at the base of the mountain. Windfalls lay piled up between the trees. II started to rain. Now we chopped out only the highest windfalls, and the horses jumped over the rest.
We made camp but we slept very little.
All the next day the three of us cut steadily north until black, dripping night reached down again. The following morning as we moved east herds of mosquitoes began to tear us apart. We had no mosquito dope or netting. This was one business that we hadn’t thought about.
The rain let up, and then a kind of low humming noise reverberated through the wet jungle air, the buzz from an endless cloud of mosquitoes. They got into our throats, were sucked in through our nostrils and got into our eyes. Never before had I seen Pan as gaunt, worried and beaten-up looking as he was now. Our position was becoming more critical with each hour. It was quite possible that the wet, dripping, mosquito-filled jungle that swept endlessly to the north of us had sucked us into its green void. The exhaustion, the hopelessness of our situation, the knowledge that we could easily have missed the yellow land openings—and, with spent and before long dying horses, we were plunging still deeper into the dark, horrifying tangle whose green, moss-hung immensity stretched uninterruptedly for hundreds of miles into the north—was terrifying.
For days we’d been drinking swamp water. The next day it hit us, men as well as horses: dysentery, chills and fever. Our faces and necks were swollen like boils.
At three o’clock the next morning Tommy came steaming up out of his wet blankets to shout that the horses had pulled their pegs.
“They’ve hit for home,” he yelled.
That was some day. The horses had split in two bunches. Pan and Tommy, following tracks down the back trail, got around the main bunch by afternoon. Nimpo, my own little rebel gelding, was in the lead as usual. Even with his hobbles on and his ankles raw, blood-caked and flyblown, he was hard to catch.
Rescue in the Muskeg
I sneaked up on four head, led by Old Buck. “This whole damn thing has got to come to a stop,” I said to Old Buck, “or the bunch of us, horses and men, will be standing on our heads in the mud—a bunch of raving maniacs.”
The following day we received a hard blow. The trail broke suddenly out on the edge of a muskeg arm which seemed to stretch endlessly in both directions. We were now in a critical and dangerous position.
In the late afternoon we came to a spot where the muskeg was split by
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The Last Wild West
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ridge about four feet wide. This was an old beaver dam which extended for three hundred yards to the opposite bank, where a small, green, sloughgrass pothole ran back into the jack pine and spruce. We agreed to tackle it. I took the lead, and the boys let a few pack horses follow single file behind me. It was lucky Pan held back most of the horses while he watched the progress of the first bunch.
I leaned forward in the saddle as my horse Stuyve stepped cautiously ahead. He jumped expertly across a narrow strip of muskeg but sank to his knees in the opposite bank of the dam. Pan yelled, “Jump!” but I had waited too long. Stuyve sank deeper and, as I started to get clear of him, I saw Old Buck fall sideways off the narrow dam into the muck.
I was snapped loose-jointedly into the stinking muskeg. One of Stuyve’s legs struck past my head. I fought my way free of his struggling body. There seemed to be no bottom. The sensation was like being sucked down into quicksand. The side of the beaver dam wasn’t five feet away, but I couldn’t reach it. The suction held me fast in the one spot and drew me deeper with every struggle. An arm’s length away, Stuyve’s thrashing head and horrorstricken eyes flashed by my vision.
I breathed in a mouthful of water; then something struck me hard in the chest and I saw Pan above me on the dam. I gripped the jack pine he had shoved at me, but it was shoved down below my waist between my legs. I heard Pan snap, “Quick, get my rope! We can’t get him out this way.”
He threw the loop over my head. “Heave!” Pan yelled.
I was on the beaver dam but four horses still struggled in the ooze; and only Stuyve’s head was now visible.
Pan was tearing at Nimpo’s pack. He yelled at Tommy: “Get the saddle off my horse-—I’m thro win’ it on Nimpo. If he can’t pull Stuyve out of that muck no horse can.”
In spite of the monumental trouble, worry and loss of sleep Nimpo consistently caused us, he had become our best rope horse. He was brainy and he was shifty. There was nothing on four legs that was too big for him to handle.
By the time I had pulled myself together Pan was leading Nimpo out onto the dam by the halter shank. Then, after a struggle which almost broke Stuyve’s neck, he was pulled up out of the depths of the stinking mud. Tommy led the trembling horse along the dam to shore.
“Looks like Buck’s about done,” I yelled. Pan was shoving jack-pine poles under the buckskin which now had stopped struggling.
“Nimpo can’t budge him with that pack on,” breathed Pan. “I’ve got to get it off. Here, friend; hold this rope.” He jumped hard, lit halfway up Buck’s wide pack, slashed the rope with his jackknife, pushed the packboxes out into the mud and jumped for the bank. I took several fast turns with the rope around Nimpo’s neck, the old horse threw everything he had into a series of lunges and forward splashes. When he was out he got to his feet like a cat. I’ll swear, knowing horses fairly well, that Old Buck stood on the bank and grinned at us.
And so it was that horse after horse was snaked to safety.
“Nothin’ to it at all, boys,” wheezed Pan when it was all over. “A good experience. We’ll know something about mud and beaver dams after this!”
Dusk was creeping down. It took a good deal of will power to get packed up again. The horses staggered wearily down the muskeg arm through its middle. A little farther on a creek was flowing down the arm. Then, rounding the bend, we saw through the gathering dusk an open meadow. Pan threw his hat in the air. The horses stopped with their heads buried in the grass. This was the first of the yellow land openings we’d seen from the mountains. We unpacked.
Several years later we found that this muskeg arm was the first gush of the remote headwaters of the Blackwater River which empties into the great Fraser near Quesnel, B.C. Undoubtedly we were the first white men to bog down in its muskeg. From now on we would stick closer to Andy’s advice—“Don’t cross a muskeg; go around it.”
From a Treetop—A Promise
Another day’s ride took us to a long narrow meadow, cut by a small river running east. We had seen this through oar field glasses too. We followed the river, looking for a good crossing, and came suddenly to a group of weathergreyed log shanties and a large fishsmoking rack. It was now that we saw our first Ulgatcho Indians—a group of about fifteen dark-skinned, Orientallooking squaws, children and old men.
The children charged into the fallenin hovels. The women backed shyly into the doorways. They wore either shawls or bandannas over their heads; black and brown wrinkled stockings covered their legs; and on some of them it was easy to see three or four layers of old dresses, torn, greasestained. Moose-hide outer skirts and jackets covered the bulges of cloth beneath them.
They stared blankly at us, their cruel, sharp faces pockmarked, wrinkled, expressionless.
Pan said “Howdy.” Then, seeing no signs of friendly reply, he shouted loudly and spat on the ground.
Over the whole camp hung a rancid smell of dried fish, rotten meat and old moose hide. The old men and women hadn’t moved or blinked an eye since our arrival. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the whole Indian clan gathered before the caved-in buildings silently watching our departure. Pan called back to me: “A nice friendly bunch of neighbors!”
The following day, when we had swum the river and climbed seven hundred feet above the willow bottom of the valley, Pan pulled up his horse at the base of a sharp knoll, crowned by a single jack pine. “I'm gonna climb that telephone pole,” he said. “We ought to be close to the Blur by now. Maybe I can get a look.”
We watched Pan disappear up into the heavy green growth. We could hear dead branches snapping and once in a while his breathing. I yelled up at him. I could tell from the silence at the top of the tree that Pan was looking through the field glasses, and then I heard him begin his descent. He scraped down through the branches into sight, dropped awkwardly to the ground and started for his horse. The Top Hand didn't glance in our direction. I knew he had seen something from the top of the tree and now would keep us in suspense. He got on his horse. I turned to Tommy. “Good old Pan,” I said.
Taking the lead, Pan reined his horse halfway about and headed due east along the edge of a slough-grass swamp.
By now Tommy had learned it was no use to pump the Top Hand for information, but I decided to approach
Pan a different way. As we started to climb uphill I called, “Pm glad the grass country lays over the top of this ridge.” Pan didn’t answer.
“It’s lucky you climbed that tree, Pan. We might have missed the opening.” No answer.
This went on until we rode out on a neck of open meadow. We were now above the mosquito country. The atmosphere seemed to have changed. Looking back, I could see grassy necks extending down into timber behind us. The jack pines began to thin out. The horses sniffed the air and started to trot up in a bunch behind Pan.
We surprised a herd of mule deer which ran in high graceful bounces into a grove of jack pines, turned about and stood wide-eyed with their heads held high, watching the pack train. Game trails ran in every direction. The horses shied at groups of cow moose and little, hump-backed calves that trotted awkwardly away through the tall grass in front of us.
Wild Drums in the Night
And then the last vestige of fog and cloud vanished suddenly in blue sky and we stared in amazement at a wide, greenish-yellow world that dipped in a great low curve into an empty horizon. We were on the edge of a gigantic hay meadow whose immensity struck us speechless. But we didn’t realize then the magnitude of the cattle country we had discovered.
Nobody spoke. The horses lowered their heads to smell the grass and bit hungrily into tender shoots.
“Keep the horses going,” Pan barked at me. “We’ll head for that little red butte over there, stickin’ up out of the grass. Looks like there’s a crik or lake below it, and a good place to camp.” The line of horses moved jerkily ahead, stopping to snatch up mouthfuls of • grass.
On the butte, as dusk settled down about us, we ate, talked little, and rolled into our beds, groaning with ! exhaustion but freed from the nightj mares of the previous days. Pan spoke once from his bedroll. His voice was cracked and tired: “There was nothin’ to it, boys—nothin’ to it at all.” Then he started to snore.
Next day we began to chart our position on the big blank space on the map. To the southeast a granite peak towered thousands of feet above a pale blue glacier at its base. We were almost sure this was Itcha Cairn, the triangulation point on the map. This whole vast terraced basin must be the Blackwater watershed.
About a mile west of the butte Tommy found a perfect site for ranch buildings and corrals centred around a long narrow neck of bluegrass. A halfmoon-shaped pool bordering three sides of our future homesite afforded a handy water system, a swimming pool at the front door and trout fishing from the bedside.
Here we began building our most important edifice—an octagon-shaped corral. It was while we were rolling the logs up into place that I began to sense a strange rhythmic throb in the air.
Tommy crawled down off the top log. “I hear some kind of a noise,” he said.
The Top Hand blew smoke through his nose. “Indian drums,” he said. “They been poundin’ away at ’em all afternoon.”
That night not a twig stirred and an oppressive silence hung over meadow and forest. We sat around the campfire listening. Out of the darkness floated the creepy, unrelenting beats. Tum tum tum—boom, tum tum turn-— boom went the Ulgatcho drums.
I was unconsciously swaying with the beat, Tum-tum-tum-boom—boom, getting louder. Pan got to his feet and began to chant and step and sway around the fire in time with the throb. The drums were still pounding when I fell asleep.
Pan had a strange kind of sixth sense. He had repeatedly warned Tommy and me that within two weeks of our arrival on the Blackwater we would be visited by the Ulgatchos, that we must be mentally and physically prepared to meet them. He had it figured that the Indians would have to be handled with mighty thin kid gloves.
“Let me handle those boys when they come in,” Pan said. “I’m gonna watch ’em awful close, and maybe I can figure out how they do their thinkin’. I’ll do the talkin’ and you boys follow me.”
One afternoon Tommy was away and Pan and I were in the tent when the Top Hand suddenly grabbed my arm. Horses’ hoofs were padding across the pine needles at the back. In a flash, Pan pulled out his Smith and Wesson 44 holster and swept the cartridge belt around his waist. I didn’t have time to get my gun. Pan was barking from the tent flap, “Make big noise when you stop this camp! Make big noise, you hear! Maybe next time I kill somebody!”
A Big Gun Shoots Straight
Through the open tent flap I saw a moose-hided Indian on a short-legged, shaggy-haired horse. I knew if I moved for my gun it would start something. I stepped out beside Pan in time to see a second Indian slip down off a low-set, hairy-legged pony.
Pan said to me, “Coffee.” He didn’t look away from the Indian who sat stoically on his horse, his right hand on the butt of a small, pearl-handled revolver. I scraped together a pile of pitch shavings and lit a match to it.
“Take your hand off that gun,” I heard Pan bark, “or you’re gonna get killed.” The Indians dismounted.
I set four tin cups on our homemade table. The Indians squatted down in silence. They were dark-skinned, with slanting eyes on bony faces. Jet black hair hung to the shoulders of one. The other’s hair was shaved. They were a nightmarish-looking pair. Pan sauntered slowly to the table and handed each Indian a cup of coffee. We drank in silence.
Suddenly one of the Indians looked quickly at his partner and then at Pan. He grunted harshly. “This country no good for white man.” He spat. “Maybe something happen to white man this country.”
I could feel the atmosphere tightening. The Ulgatcho’s eyes narrowed and he spat out his ultimatum: “White man, you go. This country belong Ulgatcho Indian.”
Pan said nonchalantly, “Can you ruoot good with a six a-in?”
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The long-haired Indian looked contemptuous. “We use ’em gun and we use ’em hand fight.”
“Let’s see,” said Pan. His right hand streaked to the Indian’s gun. He jerked it out of the holster, spun the small revolver around in his right hand, then grinned at the startled Indian.
“Haw, haw,” laughed the Top Hand. “Pee wee,” he said, indicating the gun. The Indian’s eyes bugged out.
“Look,” said Pan. He shifted the small pistol to his left hand and, leaning forward, snatched a milk can off the table with his right hand and flung it at the river. Pan’s draw for his beloved
and much-used gun was swift and, as the tin can hit the water, the 44 boomed, the tin can bounced, the gun cracked again, the can popped out farther in the channel. Once more the gun went off, and the can bubbled down out of sight.
“Big gun more better,” grinned Pan. He handed the man back his little revolver.
Now the shave-headed Indian rose to his feet and shook a gnarled, dirty fist at me. “Me best fight man Ulgatcho. Me show you. Then you go.”
My father, who had been both a fencing and boxing champion at An-
napolis, had roughed me around with boxing gloves from my earliest days. At home he built a gym for us kids with a regulation ring and heavy bag. Later I boxed on George Blake’s Los Angeles’ Athletic Club team, worked out under Arthur Donovan in New York and coached the San Diego Army and Navy Academy’s boxing team. My last legal workouts were with Bob Pastor as one of his sparring partners.
However the only workouts I’d had for a long time were mild sparring practices with Pan. We used my set of 12-ounce practice gloves which 1
toted around wherever I went—even here to the Blackwater. I had not only slowed down, but my timing was off.
Í looked the wide-jawed Ulgatcho over as he walked threateningly toward me. About 165 pounds, I thought. Twenty pounds lighter than me, but all bone and muscle, fast and cruel and dangerous in close. If he knocked me down, would he tear me apart with his bulldog jaws and dirty, fanglike teeth? I knew I’d have to use every bit of my boxing training. I stood up and stepped around the table. Pan flashed to a pack box and was between
us with the gloves. He talked fast out of the corner of his mouth.
“Use the mittens, boy. You cut him up with your fist and there’s trouble later. They don’t forget.”
The Indian was staring hard at Pan. “What’s a matter?” he growled. “You stop ’em fight.”
“Off with the shirts and the guns,” Pan barked. “No use get clothes dirty.” The Indian objected to the gloves. “Bed rolls, he no good. You scare,” he snarled at me.
“Try ’em with the mitts first,” said Pan, “then take ’em off and use hands.”
Both Indians grunted. Pan hurriedly tied on our gloves and stood to the side. The Indian came at me with the fury of a wild animal. I ducked, stepped back, tripped over a root and rolled fast to one side. I was up before he was and met his next rush with a light, long-distance straight left to his nose.
“Now go after him,” rasped Pan.
I stepped back and ducked two haymakers. A third glanced off my forehead. I was momentarily dazed. He was almost on me again when I landed a left shovel hook under his solar plexus. Now I felt better. As he rushed in again I hopped sideways, then stepped into his head-on charge with my whole weight behind a straight left. It landed on his forehead, too high, but his knees sagged. I measured him quickly with a light left jab and then smashed my right hand to his jaw with everything I had. He kicked in the dirt, rolled over and lay still. Sudden panic grabbed me.
“My God, Pan,” I cried, “I’ve killed him.”
Pan grabbed up a lard pail, sprinted for the creek and splashed the water over the Indian’s face. His eyes rolled. He shook his head, grunted, looked around.
Nothin’ to It at All . . .
“Wowie!” said Pan. I raked the sweat off my forehead. Later, at twilight, we watched the two Indians ride out of camp headed for distant Ulgatcho, their saddles bulging with gifts from the Blackwater outfit.
Reaching skyward from the shaved head of the swollen, bulbous-jawed Indian proudly sat my new extra trail hat. Around his neck, tucked neatly into his moose-hide collar, glared a bright scarf, while tied to his saddle was some packaged chicken noodle soup, oxo cubes and tea. I was the recipient of a moose-hide, stretchedand-braided, half-inch stake rope.
Pan had presented the long-haired Indian with a pair of socks for his squaw, some silver-plated conchoes and snaps, an old pair of silver-mounted Crocket spurs, and an old Wyoming bucking-horse car license, as well as his assurance that white man would not bother Indian’s beaver and his fur.
As they rode cheerfully away into the night, Pan turned to me and grinned. “Ya see, friend. It’s just like I told ya. There’s been a truce made. Those Ulgatcho fight men are ridin’ away from here full of coffee and happy as boys. There was nothin’ to handlin’ ’em at all. Nothin’ to it, boy. Nothin’ to it at all.”
I looked sourly at Pan through a blackened and partially closed eye.
(In the concluding installment, Pan makes an epic ride to civilization and meets a girl named Shorty.)